Familiar strange reporting on the Northwestern Arkansas 9: What the heck do we the people think of Obamacare?
The New York Times decided to take a national survey. This morning, Martin and Kopicki report the results.
We balked at one of their findings:
MARTIN AND KOPICKI (9/26/13): [T]here is little doubt that the president is being hurt by questions over his health overhaul. Only one in five Americans say they expect to be positively affected by the law.Frankly, we were puzzled. How many Americans should expect to be positively affected by the law?
Thirty million people may get insurance, but that is less than ten percent of the population. Others may be positively affected in other ways—parents with kids in their twenties, let’s say. But how many people is that?
All in all, we weren’t sure why Martin and Kopicki reacted that way to that result. But we were really struck when the pair set out to talk to the rube in the street.
As we continued reading, they spoke to one fellow about a possible government shutdown. We were struck by the newspaper's skill at finding the average American:
MARTIN AND KOPICKI: A plurality say they would blame Congressional Republicans if a shutdown occurred.Gerald Muller, 86, is the average man in the street. So was the next interviewee, another independent:
“It’s bad on both sides,” said Gerald Muller, 86, an independent from Austin, Tex. “President Obama is not checking with experts. He’s a man who has been working alone and he’s isolated himself and now he has no one to turn to, or he won’t turn to them. He has a lot of learning to do, in my opinion. And the Republicans have their own agenda. They are kind of stubborn and don’t seem willing to compromise.”
MARTIN AND KOPICKI: A particularly worrisome sign for Republicans seeking election next year: Even those Americans who live in Republican-held Congressional districts are split about whether the health care law should be upheld and improved, or defunded.Burns, a 78-year-old Houstonian, balanced off Muller, an 86-year-old from Austin. By now, we were wondering how the Times had managed to find this many average people. Rapidly scanning back up the page, we completed the rule of three:
“I feel that once the law is passed it should not be revisited unless there is a major uproar by the entire population,” said Jack Burns, 78, an independent who lives in a Republican district in Houston. “I did not see that. Disagreement seemed localized to specific political views and to individual groups that were affected, such as the A.M.A.”
MARTIN AND KOPICKI: While Mr. Obama’s ratings sag, he can take some solace in the standing of the Republican opposition in Congress. Nearly three-quarters of Americans disapprove of Congressional Republicans. More of the public supports Mr. Obama than Republicans to make the right decisions on the deficit, health care and the economy.At 70, Nemeth was the kid in the group. Presumably, she was in Florida because that’s where the boys are.
“I would blame the Republicans for a shutdown,” said Barbara Nemeth, 70, an independent in Port Richey, Fla. “It’s not their job to stalemate the government. It’s their job to work cooperatively and compromise. That has been traditionally the American democratic way. They are acting like a bunch of overgrown, spoiled brats.”
We were struck by the advanced ages of this particular focus group. But then, the classic interview with the rube in the street is a somewhat peculiar reporting convention, no matter who gets stopped and asked.
Yesterday morning, the Times went whole hog on the practice. For its lead story in the National section, the paper journeyed to “northwestern Arkansas” to discover what average people thought about a possible government shutdown.
“In this heavily Republican corner of the state, whether in the town square a mile from Walmart’s headquarters or in nearby blue-collar or middle-class towns like Decatur, Gravette or Siloam Springs,” Manny Fernandez recorded the views of these average people:
Average people interviewed for yesterday's New York TimesThe whole top half of page A17 was consumed by four large photographs which showed six of these people. Not included: the gray-haired man who sat at the edge of the square!
Johnny Alfrey, 67, who spoke with a shrug as he stood next to his motorcycle in Decatur
Debbie Casto, 53, a junior high school teacher and coach who lives near Bentonville in Rogers
Steve Cook, 46, a conservative who is not necessarily a Republican but not necessarily a Democrat
Mr. Cook’s friend sitting next to him on the bench
Jerry Hunnicutt, 67, a retired supervisor at a snack-food plant who lives near Bentonville in Bella Vista with his wife, Carolyn, 71
Robert Walker, 66, a friend of Alfrey
Donna Carrell, 47, an emergency services dispatcher
A gray-haired man sitting at a restaurant’s sidewalk table at the edge of the square
This is a very familiar type of reporting. That said, what are we supposed to learn from this type of feature? At the start of his report, Fernandez shared his first set of findings:
FERNANDEZ (9/25/13): The apocalypse may or may not be looming in Washington in the form of a possible government shutdown or debt default.Are Republican legislators overplaying their hand by pushing their case against Obamacare to the outer limits?
But 1,200 miles away in northwestern Arkansas, people seem to have their doubts that something momentous is at hand...
“Wolf’s been called so much,” Johnny Alfrey, 67, said with a shrug as he stood next to his motorcycle in Decatur, just west of here. “I don’t think they’ll shut it down. But they won’t get anything solved, that’s what I think.”
People do have strong feelings about some of the issues, most significantly an almost universal suspicion of the Affordable Care Act. But in a conservative district that has sent Republicans to Congress every year since 1967, people seem to see the current turmoil as the new normal of Washington rather than a seminal political moment likely to affect their own lives. And if Republican legislators could be overplaying their hand by pushing their case against Obamacare to the outer limits, there is not much sign of that in the reactions here.
“There is not much sign of that in the reactions here,” Fernandez reported, referring to things he’d been told by nine people, two of whom he couldn’t seem to name.
Who knows? With Kitty Bennett “contributing research,” it may be that more than nine people were consulted for this report. But we're always a little bit puzzled. What are we supposed to learn from this familiar type of reporting?
Yesterday’s photo-festooned report from Arkansas topped the New York Times National section. What were we supposed to learn from the things nine people said?