AP story focusing on Aberdeen failed to tell the whole truth

Several weeks ago, a number of newspapers around the country ran an Associated Press article that most published with the suggested headline: “Trump won places drowning in despair. Can he save them?”

The story focused on Aberdeen and, to a lesser extent, all of Grays Harbor County. It was a classic hatchet job, designed to portray this area in the worst possible light and to suggest that any place that voted for Donald Trump in the last presidential election must be hopeless and pathetic.

The story was packaged to newspapers with an AP-supplied photograph of a 20-something Aberdeen resident injecting himself with what was presumably heroin, under the “Kurt Cobain bridge” where Young Street crosses the muddy banks of the Wishkah.

I don’t believe the story was intended to explain to people from other parts of the country why this part of the country voted for Trump last November. I believe it was intended to portray us in a buffoonish, pathetic manner to make self-styled sophisticates feel morally superior.

Why do I think this? Because, several weeks before the story ran, I got a call from one of the Associated Press reporters working on it.

The phone conversation was short. The reporter — who sounded to be a young woman, possibly in her 20s or 30s — asked me a series of loaded questions about “what kind of people” would “look for salvation” in a man like Trump. I told her that I didn’t think anyone around here was looking for salvation from any politician. And that the people that I’d talked to weren’t buying anyone’s promises. They were sick and tired of empty rhetoric and were looking for someone who would shake up a cynical, failing political system in Washington, D.C.

We’ve been wounded economically by bad public policy. The spotted owl, now the marbled murrelet, and fisheries management that’s incoherent and destructive. The Affordable Care Act hasn’t helped us much, since its main benefit is Medicaid expansion and we were already heavily dependent on that program. So, to local voters, Trump — vulgar as he may be — seemed like an agent of change to a broken status quo.

The reporter wasn’t interested in my analysis. Sounding a little impatient, she asked me whether I knew of anyone “on Obamacare” who’d voted for Trump. And whether they were “frustrated.” I said I knew of quite a few. She asked whether I could connect her with some of them. I said that I’d have to think about it, that Grays Harbor voters are proud people who wouldn’t want to be held up for ridicule.

She assured me she wasn’t going to hold anyone up to ridicule. She said she’d call me back in a day or two to follow up. I got the feeling that she wasn’t going to. And she didn’t.

I don’t believe she was interested in knowing what’s actually going on in this place, where the political landscape is changing. (That would have made a much more interesting story.) She wasn’t a journalist searching for the truth; she was more like a Hollywood casting agent looking for colorful characters she could add to a script that had already been written. And she eventually found what she was looking for.

I do believe the Associated Press held that young man, injecting himself, up to ridicule. I wish he hadn’t let the AP photographer take that picture. We hear a lot these days about how dangerous it is to “normalize” bad behavior. Well, what else is publishing a color photograph of a young person injecting illegal drugs — other than normalizing that hopeless, self-destructive behavior?

Anyone who lives in this place knows that it’s suffered. You know that we have problems delivering mental health services to damaged people. You know that cheap drugs like heroin and methamphetamines remain a problem.

But you also know that we’re beginning to see some signs of economic recovery here. Our unemployment rate — though still high, overall — is coming down gradually. We have some glimmers of small business development in downtown Aberdeen’s storefronts. And the Port is continuing to grow. At the state level, we’ve added more money to K-12 education in accordance with the McCleary decision — and funded that primarily through a property tax levy reform that will give local homeowners a tax break starting in 2019. And will make this area more competitive, in terms of attracting business and industry.

One commenter, responding to The Washington Post’s version of the Associated Press story, wrote: “This is a thoroughly distorted and contrived view of Aberdeen. Thousands of people who pass through each week on their way to Washington’s beaches know, as your reporter should have known, that while we are stressed, we’re hardly the backwater drug den she depicted. What editor let this lazy crap get into print?”

I agree!

Let the AP’s targeted readers have their sanctimony, their unearned airs of superiority. They’re not important. We know that Trump isn’t going to save us. He was never going to. Just like Obama or Bush or Clinton didn’t. No president can.

We’re going to save ourselves.

Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, represents the 19th District in the state House of Representatives.