Remember Kim Davis, the world’s most famous county clerk? In 2015, she was in the national and international news for months. Although state law required it, she refused to sign the marriage license of a gay couple. She went to jail. The press hoard descended on Rowan County in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky.
How that story was covered shows a lesson in what I predict — or at least wish — will change in 2017.
An important part of the story was glossed over with images of Davis with her ankle-length denim jumpers. Same-sex marriage was now the law of the land in Kentucky, my very, very red state. And in nearly all of the state’s 120 counties — many of which still maintain Prohibition-era rules against selling alcohol — clerks did their job.
But the media, which usually only reports on my part of the country following a tornado, was soon mocking Davis and her religion, talking about her hypocrisy and divorces. That made her a martyr for the religious right. Mike Huckabee came to town. She was invited by a member of Congress to the State of the Union.
Meanwhile, in 2016, a day-long gay pride celebration was held in Rowan County. This time, no national or international coverage. The main organizers, including the gay man who had been refused his license, expressed concern for Kim Davis because she had become a worldwide symbol for bigotry and hate. They didn’t start protesting so she that would be vilified — they just wanted her to follow the law. Davis, as part of her job, helped the gay-pride group incorporate as a nonprofit. They see each other at Walmart.
The positive, affirming part of the story about a conservative place was overlooked. And the stereotype of Kentucky, and the South, was reinforced.
I’m a very liberal person living in a very conservative place. But I never believed in a media elite bias. That was before a Harvard professor told me that people who didn’t think deeply and often about cyberterrorism were “ignorant rednecks who will get what they deserve.” When talking about Appalachian culture, another academic said in all seriousness, “What culture?”
I learned that opinions outside of a certain liberal arc are dismissed and denigrated. That’s what happened to Kim Davis, who I disagree with, and Trump voters, who I also disagree with. But it also pushes people I know to seek ground in a space where they think at least part of their voice might be heard.
One of my best friends voted for Donald Trump. She is adamantly anti-abortion. I disagree with her. But I respect her and she has value to me beyond her political opinion as the funny, smart woman who babysat my daughter when I had to work more times than I could count, the friend who sat with me in the hospital in the minutes before I was getting a breast biopsy. She, and some members of my family, didn’t fit the media definition of Trump voters as idiots, lunatics, and racists.
It’s that drum beat that doesn’t fit the reality many people live in, and it’s why an increasingly large chunk of people tune us out.
The liberal bias bubble created a vacuum into which the most conservative voices were amplified as an over-correction. Republicans control 32 state legislatures and 33 governorships. All three branches of the Kentucky state government are under Republican control for the first time in 100 years.
My prediction for 2017 is more of a wish. I hope the left-leaning elements of journalism (of which I would be a card-carrying member if we actually printed cards) take a minute for reflection before moving onto blaming only fake news and Russian hacking for the rise of Trump. We can’t have a conversation, or help enact change, unless we listen and are willing to consider that something outside of our experience has validity. Looking at the South and Midwest through a different lens is part of that problem; I’ve seen changes I couldn’t have imagined in my home state growing up.
We have find a way to talk about rural poverty — not just the Rust Belt working class, but the white rural underclass. We all need to take a look at how we think about, and talk about, people who disagree with us if we ever hope to change anybody’s heart or mind. We have to meet people where they are.
And part of that is recognizing and celebrating that there are folks who love living out in the wilds of America. There are reasonable people who really do like their guns for hunting, folks who prefer venison for Thanksgiving. We are not all living out here because we can’t hack the big city life. We like it out here. There are stars.
Mary Meehan is a reporter for Ohio Valley ReSource and was a 2016 Nieman Fellow.