Editing the soul out of Steubenville, Ohio

When a feature story dominates the Sunday front page of The Washington Post, you know that editors there have given the subject quite a bit of thought — to say the least. In our management-intensive era of newspapering, this means that the concept of the story survived several high-level planning meetings and, thus, the editors almost certainly considered its content more than significant — it’s symbolic.

So I was interested when I saw the recent Post news feature about an Ohio community that, in recent years, I have visited several times. We are talking about Steubenville, Ohio, which conservative Catholics will know as the home of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, a campus that once was fading away and is now a hub for new priests, nuns, brothers, etc., etc., etc. It’s the rare Christian campus that, after choosing the road toward modernism and progressive doctrine, reversed course back into orthodox doctrine and practice.

This story focuses on the deep divisions within the largely blue-collar Steubenville community when it comes to politics. The region has been hit hard by post-industrial trends and many people are struggling. There are other factors at play, as the story makes clear. Thus, readers are given this summary:

This historic city is highly contested territory in what may be the most important swing state in the presidential race. Four years ago, voters in Jefferson County, which includes Steubenville, cast nearly 36,000 ballots for president, and Obama squeaked past John McCain by 76 votes. No Ohio county was so evenly split.

Although it’s not big enough to be a major target for campaign strategists, Jefferson County is a good place to plumb the divisions in American political life. Walk down the street, and you’ll hear strong opinions about the direction of the country and the proper role of government — and the opinions will be all over the ideological map.

Of course, people were talking in recent days about Romney’s “inelegant” (his word) description of Democratic voters as slackers who don’t pay taxes and expect the government to care for them. Such words can sting in a place where, despite some recent economic improvement, the jobs are still scarce, the steel mills are hollowed out and many of the smokestacks spew nothing into a clean and clear post-industrial sky.

This place on the bank of the Ohio River is a vintage working-class community. Longtime residents have a memory of the steel mill’s whistle, of crowds on downtown sidewalks and plenty of jobs that could let a person with only a high school diploma raise a family and own a home. People here don’t think of themselves as moochers.

But interviews with several dozen county residents last week suggest that Romney’s comments haven’t altered the political calculus. Ohio may be the most iconic swing state, but it’s hard to find genuinely undecided voters who are teetering between Obama and Romney.

So what are the issues at the heart of this stark divide? Apparently, it’s all about personalities and, of course, mere politics.

It’s hard to top these quotes:

A lot of voters are lukewarm about the guy they support, but they are white hot about the guy they loathe.

“If they had Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein and Barack Obama running, Barack Obama would be my last pick,” says Ray Morrison, 70, a retired steelworker and truck driver who lives on a country road west of the city. “If you want to know the true story about Obama, you have to watch Fox a little bit. I hate him.”

Here’s Cheryl Doran, 50, a waitress at the family restaurant Naples, speaking of Romney: “I think he’s the devil. I have no use for him.”

So which party dominates this area?

Jefferson County used to be a Democratic bastion, thanks to the strong union presence, but the unions have been in decline along with the steel industry. The county is socially conservative and, like many blue-collar communities in this part of the world, has a lot of Reagan Democrats.

OK, so what issues matter the most to these people hit so hard by the recession? What, for example, might motivate that whole “socially conservative” way of thinking? Why are there people who say they will be voting for Romney, when everything about the harsh conditions in their lives would seem to point toward voting Democratic?

Are the region’s economic woes at the heart of the bitter divides in this community, in this particular electorate? What about that recent battle to take the Franciscan University cross out of the city logo? What about that 2008 dispute when about 100 voter registration forms from the campus went missing, preventing some students (there was a pro-life voter registration drive) and others from being able to vote in that tense election?

In other words, this region is known as an area in which intense religious beliefs have been known to clash with trends in the political marketplace. It’s an area in which old-fashioned Democrats — Catholic union families — now struggle to vote for their party’s social agenda.

In other words, is this A1 feature haunted? Why did the Post team decide to focus on the cracks in the political foundations of this symbolic city without mentioning the region’s unique religious make-up?

Just asking.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    This is not the only time the secular press have ignored the school. Remember that New York Times piece (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/04/us/politics/4-years-later-race-is-still-issue-for-some-voters.html?pagewanted=all&_moc.semityn.www) not too long ago about Steubenville that (I think) was profiled on these pages? (I cannot find through the search engine — sorry.) It’s really interesting that so many of the stories in the national press that I read about the city comment on the economically depressed state of the region and the mostly defunct steel mills, but never say anything about the school being the largest employer in the city, how the school brings thousands of people to the campus and the city every summer for the conferences (which brings in a ton of money), and how the school is interacting with the city on economic issues. Is it because they want to keep a myth going that conservatives don’t care about the people around them just as long as they’re comfortable? Is it because they don’t want to show that the school has a hugely positive impact on the city? (In fact, if the school had not been there in its renewed form when the steel mills shut down, the city would have been deserted.) Is it because they can’t believe that an orthodox Catholic school really can bring a benefit to a city? Or is it because they don’t want to believe that it can happen to the point that they don’t even want to explore the possibility? Is this like the NPR story on the homosexual Facebook group and the “deviant behavior” course only in reverse — ignore it rather than directly slam it? Why do I think that asking these questions is to answer them?

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    Perhaps WaPo finds the area mysteriously endowed……which is their initial reason for the article. To paraphrase W. Churchill in 1939:
    It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, but perhaps there is a key. That key is Franciscan University.”

  • Chris Bolinger

    “Why did the Post team decide to focus on the cracks in the political foundations of this symbolic city without mentioning the region’s unique religious make-up?” Is that a rhetorical question?

    From the WaPost bio on the article’s author: A 1982 graduate of Princeton University, he has taught journalism at Princeton and Georgetown University. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Mary Stapp, and three daughters.

    Definitely an expert on Steubenville and not someone who parachuted into Flyover Country in an election year. Another of the joys of living in a Swing State. That and the endless political ads that started in June. Yes, June.

  • Julia

    Isn’t Steubenville also famous for being Dean Martin’s home town?

  • RWC

    The WP story and your blog post do not mention the most important and obvious political feature of Jefferson County Ohio–welfare dependency–which has dominated the politics of the region for a generation. The welfare dependence in the West Virginia counties on the east side of the Ohio river is MUCH lower, and the politics lean conservative. The University has some political influence, but only in Steubenville, and not on the county as a whole.

  • Pingback: WaPo Piece on Steubenville Haunted by Religion? « Campus Notes


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