ABC’s ABC World News with Charles Gibson devoted this past week to a “Great American Battleground Bus Tour” gimmick which purported to give Gibson and his viewers insight into real, live heartland voters in cities like Dayton, Bowling Green, Indianapolis, Davenport — and right here in Racine, Wisconsin. The visit to Racine has been in the planning stages since May.
Curious to see our local story showcased and our humble souls laid bare for America’s edification, Amy and I drove downtown late on the afternoon of October 9 and found several of the central blocks of Main Street closed to traffic. ABC’s promotional bus and their satellite trucks had been parked alongside the Johnson Building since early morning, with a total crew of 25 or 30 working all day to crank out the half-hour broadcast.
As this particular Thursday progressed, visits with local residents were reportedly scrapped in favor of an exclusive interview with Republican presidential nominee John McCain in Milwaukee. Meanwhile, American stock markets had gone from frighteningly bad to even worse, plunging during the last hour of trading. The Dow finally closed down 679 points, making for the worst day in Wall Street’s worst week ever.
By 5:00 local time, several hundred demonstrators had converged on the intersection of Main and 5th Streets, sporting political signs and shirts and buttons. This being downtown, the crowd was overwhelmingly in favor of Democratic nominee Barack Obama, with a strong contingent of support from the AFL-CIO. Chants were exchanged across Main Street with the few McCain backers. A large truck covered with a photo of a bloody fetus was parked opposite Monument Square to protest both abortion and Obama.
Charles Gibson was above all this, however — five floors up the north side of the Johnson Building on a balcony with cameras and lighting reflectors. His production staffers occasionally leaned over the balcony, finger pressed to lips, to shush the commoners below. In fact, according to a local Journal Times story, it was the visiting ABC crew who — worried about noise disrupting their show — summoned Racine’s police to quiet the citizens, and it was Racine Police Chief Kurt Wahlen who pointed out, “But certainly people have a right to be doing that.”
Oddly, these First Amendment creatures who drove all the way to our fair city on their folksy bus tour apparently wanted zero local political opinion leaking into their on-location coverage of the politics of one of the most historic days America has ever experienced. Racine’s only purpose was to provide our beautiful lakefront and Gaslight Pointe Marina as a backdrop for Gibson’s head. They could just as easily have stayed in New York and used a still shot behind him.
As the Racine Post put it, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Or, as Amy remarked, “You’re wastin’ a lotta gas there, Charlie!”
The interview with Sen. McCain in Milwaukee, coming one day after Sen. Obama sat on the same bus, was noteworthy in that McCain, currently emphasizing what he says are Obama’s ties to Bill Ayers, seemed completely unprepared when Gibson relayed Obama’s surprise “that John didn’t say that to my face.” It would be very strange indeed if Sen. McCain’s staff hadn’t told him about Obama’s challenge the night before. Were they simply too preoccupied with the color temperature, lighting, and camera angles inside Gibson’s dark and hushed rolling lair?
Additionally, the time spent on the exclusive interview in Milwaukee meant that ABC World News quickly glossed over the really big political story every other news outlet zeroed in on Thursday, which was the startling anger of supporters at the McCain/Palin rally in Waukesha. Busy with their own activities in Wisconsin, ABC World News seemed to miss what a crucial moment it was.
The one and only Racine-focused story of the evening came 27 minutes into the newscast. It was an 88-second piece reporting that unemployment is high here, but that laid-off workers are being retrained for new jobs at Gateway Technical College. Bad news, yet good news — exactly the sort of story TV likes to finish with in order to leave us with a vaguely satisfied impression of the daily situation novelist Tom Robbins described in 1976 as “desperate, as usual.”
Four floors below on Main Street, the crowd waited in quiet anticipation upon getting the “two minutes” sign from on high, thinking that they were about to go national. Of course, the signal really meant that there were only two minutes before Gibson was safely off the air and the crowd could make as much noise as they pleased without anyone hearing.
This is precisely what they did. Wisconsin people are too polite to go first at a four-way stop, much less inject themselves into a national news broadcast ostensibly taking the pulse of politics on the day of a gigantic stock market crash. Racinians down below waited patiently, and once Charlie was all done, they spilled into the intersection to chant “O-ba-ma!” and “Yes we can!” for their own un-televised enjoyment.
I had to laugh at the outnumbered McCain supporter who anticipated the situation well enough to bring along a bullhorn, with which which he countered, “No you can’t!”
All in all, it was an invigorating and friendly voicing of political views on a day when some less mainstream news outlets were warning of “thousands of troops deployed on U.S. streets” to enforce martial law. I chatted with a photographer and Red Sox fan from Boston, by way of Ireland, about politics here in his new home of Racine. Amy caught up with her former high school teacher who was holding a “Mom for Obama” sign. There was talk of the stunning electoral map at FiveThirtyEight.com and the inspiring atmosphere at Racine’s Obama headquarters.
ABC News didn’t air a second of any of it, and even our local newspaper decided not to show any photos.
Oh, well. I suppose one’s notion of what’s actually going on in America can look significantly different from just four floors or two blocks away.