Ryan Soderlin

No, Slate Didn’t Fall Into a Coastal Media Trap in Reporting on Middle America

There are real reasons to be (slightly) less pessimistic about immigration in the heartland.

Journalism is fast-paced work. When you have the chance to work on a story for a long time, as I did with my piece, “Who Gets to Live in Fremont, Nebraska?” that Slate published on Dec. 6, you begin to dread that someone else might be talking to exactly the same people, and that they might beat you to the punch. I felt I had survived a close call when, shortly after my story appeared, the New Republic published an article, dated Jan. 9, 2018 (since changed to Dec. 6), on exactly the same rather obscure subject: the construction of a chicken plant in a heartland town of 26,000 people.

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My sense of relief was quickly followed by trepidation: The writer, Ted Genoways, was sure that I had gotten it wrong. “A case study in the perils of parachute journalism,” he wrote of my story, as part of a series of tweets that introduced his own. My story lacked history, context, access, insights, and a sense of true motive, he wrote. Two days later, he refined that thesis in a second piece for the New Republic, “The Problem of Coastal Media Bias in Covering Middle America.”

This felt particularly damning since I had nearly called Genoways as a source. His book The Chain, which I read during my reporting, is a disturbing history of the pork business. Fremont’s Hormel pork plant played a central role in bringing on the notorious housing ordinance that gave the town its reputation as a hub of anti-Latino racism, a story that figures prominently in Genoways’ book. He’s the expert. I don’t feel his story contradicts mine, or mine his. But his subsequent assertions about my story show his blind spot, not mine.

Genoways accuses me of writing a 5,000-word press release for the chicken plant. “The situation in Fremont, as Grabar sees it,” he writes, “is that Costco represents progress, in the form of cultural diversity and economic growth, while the townspeople resist out of a mix of racism and dislike of change.” This Chamber-of-Commerce characterization ignores much of what I wrote. An entire section of my reporting is devoted to the risks of industrial agriculture for both workers and the environment. I also make clear the anti-immigrant racism that fueled both the Costco debate and the ordinance passage. And the conclusion of the piece quite plainly conveys my skepticism about the potential of the Costco plant to usher in a new and prosperous future in Fremont.

Two things can be true at once: Fremont, like other Midwestern towns, would be in decline without its Latino population and the meat plants that drew them there. But that doesn’t mean the meat business is an unalloyed good, even as the money it brings fills storefronts and apartments and pays for roads and schools. If anything, this complexity shows the difficult choices that small towns face in trying to maintain an economic reason for existing.

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Genoways’ overarching complaint is that I have taken a dangerously optimistic view of demographic change in Nebraska. Genoways sees a town of white Nebraskans whose long-standing prejudices have been stoked into a furor by Fox News, Breitbart, and co. To think that more immigrant workers can ease the way toward a multicultural society in towns like Fremont, Genoways writes, is “not only naïve but irresponsible.” It’s a view that aligns with his choice to center his story on Fremont’s most notorious xenophobe.

Genoways thinks I got it wrong because, as a New Yorker, I wanted to see Fremont as an urban-style melting pot. The truth is I was drawn to Fremont because of its racist reputation. But when I went, I discovered not only that the Guatemalan food was pretty good, but that not every resident was bigoted. With respect to life in Fremont for the Latino minority, I can only tell you what Latinos in Fremont told me: that living there is no worse than living anywhere else, and in many ways it is better. That Latinos who left during the ordinance debate had returned. That the police are respectful. That the ordinance itself goes unenforced, that you could just as well write your name as Mickey Mouse on the city form you need to rent an apartment.

But Genoways may be on to something when he attempts to explain our different outlooks. If my reporting suffered from seeing a place for the first time, it was not for lack of learning about its checkered past. Genoways may have the opposite problem: He has been covering the most outspoken racists in Fremont for so long that he hasn’t asked what’s new. The kids who started high school this year are barely old enough to remember when the ordinance was first introduced. Assimilation is a tricky subject, but I didn’t invent the idea that immigrants might feel comfortable in rural America. What is happening now in Nebraska is a break from the state’s demographic history. One-third of Nebraskan children under 5 were minorities in 2010, nearly triple the 1990 rate. Demographers at the University of Nebraska project that in just 13 years, more than one-third of Nebraskans under 50 will be minorities (mostly Latinos).

In his response to my story, Genoways lists some of the many horrifying racist incidents that have accompanied this demographic wave thus far. I would never downplay those stories, nor do I think they could be weighed tit-for-tat against reassuring symbols of multiculturalism. But I also don’t think they are categorically different than the hate crimes that immigrants and minorities also face in big cities. Places change slowly, and then all at once. It was only two decades ago that California, under Gov. Pete Wilson, was the poster child for anti-Latino racism as policy. Look at Sacramento now.

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The point is not that a chicken plant is going to have brown and white workers singing Kumbaya, or that Costco is going to be Fremont’s River Rouge, but that today’s immigrants are carving out a place for themselves in rural America. Genoways cites the Storm Lake Times critical reporting on hog waste in Iowa rivers as evidence of my shortsightedness—but he stops short of mentioning the town’s demographics, which the paper’s editor, Art Cullen, sees expressed in its football team. “How about those Tornadoes!” he wrote last year. “The roster had all the colors of the rainbow, all races and creeds pulling together for the good of the team.”