Nevada caucuses provide lazy national media a stage for cliché-ridden coverage

Nevadans were amused or angered by rampant mispronunciation of the state’s name during recent news coverage of the presidential caucuses. But that’s a minor issue compared with the national media’s shocking ignorance about the Silver State.

Reporters invaded Nevada before the Jan. 19 party caucuses, many flying in from easterly points such as New York City and Washington, D.C. Surely most of these red-blooded folks had spent a little time in Las Vegas before.

But a three-day bender on the Strip and knowing anything about the nation’s fastest-growing state are two entirely different things.

First of all, television and press coverage of the caucuses focused almost entirely on Las Vegas. And on the day of the caucuses, reporters flocked to the at-large precinct meetings on the Strip. Meanwhile, the remainder of one of the geographically largest states in the union was ignored.

I don’t recall the national media covering the Iowa caucus or New Hampshire primary from such a narrow perspective.

This laser-sighted reporting strategy failed in at least two ways:

1. Television crews hoping to capture provocative video of sparsely attired cocktail waitresses and showgirls attending the Strip caucuses were disappointed to find that most of the participants were portly dishwashers and modestly dressed maids. Reality bites!

2. The intense focus on the Strip created a dilemma for commentators on the afternoon of the caucus when it became clear that Democratic candidate Barack Obama had won most of the rural and northern precincts — and therefore garnered a higher delegate total than Hillary Clinton. The pundits had almost no clue how this could have happened.

Meanwhile, in the Republican caucus, Mitt Romney won a decisive victory, in large part because of support from his fellow Mormons. Some members of the national media were stumped: There are Mormons in Nevada?

“They wondered why Mitt Romney was doing so well here,” said David Damore, an associate professor of political science at UNLV who fielded numerous caucus-related calls from national and international reporters. “Obviously they didn’t know much about the history of the West, let alone the history of Las Vegas.”

Damore said many reporters simply were not familiar with Nevada. “Maybe they knew Harry Reid and the Las Vegas Strip, but that’s about it,” he said.

Another Nevada result that befuddled the national media: Ron Paul’s second-place finish in the GOP caucus, bettering presumed front-runner John McCain. Paul appears to have struck a chord in Nevada with his near-libertarian platform. (He even had a couple of supporters at the Democratic caucus I attended.) Yet this interesting development yielded a collective yawn from the campaign press corps.

What’s interesting, I think, is that Nevada remains largely a mystery to much of the nation.

Obviously many strange and fascinating things have happened here in recent decades — news events and trends that have drawn widespread media attention — yet Nevada is still routinely reduced to a handful of clichés.

Take, for instance. Reporter Hans Nichols apparently thought he was being clever when he decided to cover the Nevada caucus by interviewing employees in a strip club. A stripper named Tori told Nichols that the most important issue for her is opposition to Yucca Mountain. But Suzanne, a waitress in the club, said she supports Yucca Mountain because the use of nuclear power reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

Now, let me note that Tori and Suzanne sound like well-informed citizens of our city. I’m a little surprised at their intense interest in the disposal of nuclear fuel rods, but perhaps Hans helpfully steered them in this general direction. In any case, it’s refreshing to know that employees in the adult entertainment industry are keeping up on the issues.

But c’mon. How lame can you get, Hans? Strip clubs are a staple of most big American cities. If you believe they’re the place to find thoughtful and relevant political commentary, then I expect you to venture into similar venues in Atlanta, Dallas and other cities as the caucus and primary races heat up there.

Of course, the national media’s ignorance of Nevada is almost forgivable compared with its chronic laziness. How many years now have we complained about the horse-race mentality of presidential campaign coverage? And how many times have media executives promised to reform their ways? Yet this mind-set continues to dominate the major news organizations.

Matt Taibbi, the very angry presidential campaign reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, has a degree of sympathy for the reporters who fall victim to the horse-race approach. He writes:

“You tell me how you can spend nearly two years watching the dullest speeches known to man and not spend most of your time wondering about the one surefire interesting moment the whole thing has to offer: the ending. … If you could train a chimpanzee to sit still through a Joe Biden speech, it could probably do the job. The only thing that elevates this work above monkey level is that we get to guess who wins.”

I could find just one example of a journalist for a large news outlet who made an attempt at some meaningful reporting during the Nevada caucus. Andrew Chung of the Toronto Star ventured off the Strip and found some folks who aren’t living the “Las Vegas dream,” as promoted by the Culinary union.

“In Las Vegas, life is good for the tourists along the 6-kilometer Strip, with its giant hotel-casinos, circus acts and showgirls,” Chung wrote. “And it’s good for those who profit from all the fun. But there’s another side to Vegas. And that’s something no one is talking about in this presidential nomination race.”

Chung interviewed some people who are struggling to survive in this cash-rich town, including Gonzalo Terraza, who holds a perpetual yard sale offering items salvaged from the garbage of rich neighborhoods. “You gotta buy food,” Terraza said. “I got three kids.”

The rest of the national coverage was disposable noise: poll results, second- or third-hand pundit wisdom and worn-out clichés.

Mormons? In Nevada?

Geoff Schumacher ( is Stephens Media’s director of community publications. He is the author of “Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas” and, coming Feb. 5, “Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue.” His column appears Sunday.

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