Trump’s Pittsburgh Shoutout Reveals Media’s Rust Belt Biases

Mainstream media outlets called out President Donald Trump last week for claiming that “he was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” in his speech explaining why he was pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord.

The media’s coverage of Trump’s Pittsburgh shout-out shows a new understanding of a part of the country the industry has admitted to undercovering, but it also highlighted its tendency to report on the depressed parts of the Rust Belt more than its revitalized, vibrant cities.

The media narrative in this particular instance was three-pronged:

1.) Allegheny County, which contains Pittsburgh, was the only county in western Pennsylvania to vote for Hillary Clinton, and Pittsburgh itself also overwhelmingly gave Clinton its support.

2.) Pittsburgh has gone through an economic and cultural renaissance in recent years, making it an odd choice as Trump’s poster child for why he feels the U.S. is better served focusing on domestic affairs.

3.) Despite its best efforts, Pittsburgh still has lingering air pollution problems from years of heavy steel production. It failed its most recent American Lung Association “State of the Air” report. Ironically, the Steel City might benefit the most from sticking with the Paris agreement.

To the mainstream press’ credit, those are three objective facts with data supporting them. But despite their best intentions in highlighting how Pittsburgh has evolved, the incident served as a reminder of how underreported the positive aspects of Rust Belt cities were throughout the 2016 election and beyond.

Pittsburgh is often the butt of jokes because, despite its thriving healthcare and technology sectors, it has not been able to shake its image as a dirty, blue-collar steel and coal town.

Pop culture often uses Pittsburgh as a punchline, like Michael Bluth refusing to fly there in season 4 of “Arrested Development” purely because it is Pittsburgh. Actress Sienna Miller referred to the city as “shitsburgh” in 2006 while she was filming a movie in the area.

A few journalists used Trump’s statement as an excuse to take more shots at Pittsburgh, like Politico Magazine Editor in Chief Blake Hounshell and The Atlantic Senior Editor James Hamblin.

Others, like Washington Post Political Reporter Dave Wiegel, blasted Trump and anyone still clinging to the notion that Pittsburgh is still a “struggling ‘steel city.’”

The Post has featured plenty of coverage of the issues plaguing the Rust Belt which it felt led many to vote for Trump, rarely (if ever) mentioning the resilience of the region’s cities in the face of economic turmoil.

That changed on June 1. The Post, in an apparent mea culpa toward the entire Rust Belt, was particularly brutal in regards to Trump’s Pittsburgh name-drop last week, publishing an article with the headline, “Donald Trump valiantly rises to the defense of the Pittsburgh of 1975.”

“Pittsburgh is not a Rust Belt city anymore,” the Post’s Philip Bump declared while rattling off statistics about the city’s robust university systems and growing renewable energy sector.

The New York Times did the same thing in an article it wrote about Pittsburgh’s partnership with Uber to test self-driving cars, referring to it as a “former Rust Belt town.”

The inference that being considered a “Rust Belt city” is inherently negative would probably frustrate the likes of Columbia Journalism Review’s David Uberti, whose analysis of why the media does not understand Detroit (considered part of the Rust Belt) points out that both the region’s issues and achievements are often portrayed in black and white terms.

“The reason [Detroit] hasn’t died is that countless people who love the city have fought like hell to save it,” he wrote. “Their victories are real, but so are the massive challenges that remain. Understanding and respecting such contradictions is crucial for reporters who set out to explain what went wrong — as well as what’s going right.”

Some organizations are making genuine attempts to learn more about the Rust Belt and its residents. On May 9, Reuters announced it had hired Tim Reid as its first Rust Belt correspondent, who according to Poynter will “move from city to city, spending months-long stretches in each place to immerse himself in the community.”

Of course, that Poynter article also refers to the Rust Belt as “America’s Midwest,” an overgeneralization that  would make most born-and-raised Rust Belters cringe.

The other thing the media did in covering Trump’s Pittsburgh comments was turn the city’s Mayor Bill Peduto into a folk hero after he tweeted his plans to “follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy & future.”

Peduto was trotted out on CNN to be interviewed by Wolf Blitzer, and he used his 57 seconds of fame to distance Pittsburgh from the rest of western Pennsylvania.

“The city of Pittsburgh voted for Hillary Clinton with nearly 80 percent of the vote,” he said. “[Trump] may be talking about all of western Pennsylvania, but it’s a far cry from being Pittsburgh.”

Mainstream media members should take Peduto’s words to heart and remember that when discussing the Rust Belt, it is disingenuous to lump the region’s cities in with the downtrodden areas Trump has targeted, even if the president cannot tell the difference.

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