November 3, 2004

The election is history. The best journalism lies ahead.

For months, newsrooms have focused their efforts on the candidates and their factions — red states, blue states, working mothers, unemployed fathers, Latinos, blacks, city girls, small-town boys, the born-again and the undecided.

Now that that’s over, we have to tell the rest of the story. We have to introduce one half of the country to the other half. And the best way to do that is one story at a time.

Those stories won’t be found in concession speeches and victory parties. They won’t be found in exit surveys and telephone polls. Instead, journalists have to flood the newspaper and the airwaves with the details of real Americans living out their American ideals.

Citing exit polls, many media critics are suggesting that some journalists missed the boat leading up to the election. Collin Hansen, a blogger for Christianity Today, wrote:

In what will surely come as a shock to mainstream media, more voters cited moral values than either the economy/jobs (20 percent), terrorism (19 percent), or Iraq (17 percent). Across the nation, and particularly in key battleground states, Bush’s stance on moral values stanched his staggering losses among voters who cared primarily about Iraq and the economy/jobs.

The experts and the pundits will be marginally helpful in this endeavor. They can provide a line or two of context, a bit of history. They might even suggest a certain direction. But the stories will be unique to every community.

In 1998 Alan Wolfe wrote a book called “One Nation After All.” In it, he argues that the culture wars have been hijacked by politicians and social critics, leaving everyday Americans out of the conversation. If we drop in on his musings, which were written before Sept. 11, before the Iraq War, we find a unique perspective on American disunity:

On moral matters, there is no unanimity in America. Who could doubt that some Americans believe in God and the absoluteness of His commands, uphold the nuclear family as an ideal, are worried about a declining sense of patriotism, and find the cultural relativism implicit in such notions as bilingualism abhorrent? Nor is it wrong to suggest that others believe a loosening of the moral rules by which society conducts its business is a healthy development, especially for women, minorities, gays, and young people, and are pleased with open borders, gay rights, free speech and a strict separation of church and state.

Should we conclude that America is experiencing a culture war? My answer is yes — but it is one that is being fought by intellectuals, not by most Americans themselves. Polling not only measures the level of anger in the country, it also contributes to what is being measured, giving the impression that there is more disagreement than there may actually be.

We’ve just lived through the mother of all polls — a presidential election. As a nation we are like a married couple on the cusp of divorce. We’ve endured a long period of estrangement and a knock-down drag out fight and now we’ve got to figure out how or if we want to bother saying “good morning” to each other.

There is a sense of alienation on both sides. “Who are you people?” Kerry supporters are asking of elated Bush supporters. “Where did you come from and how did you get this way?” Bush supporters are asking of dejected Kerry supporters.

As journalists we can feed the hostility or foster a conversation. It’s not enough to say who voted for whom and why. By necessity, the reporting on cultural issues leading up to the election has been a mile wide and an inch deep.

Now, there is an opportunity to foster understanding and dialogue. The moment may be fleeting. The election clock is no longer ticking, but while the audience is still watching, there are stories to be told about American values.

Where will you begin?

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Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty…
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