A Tale of Two Men-on-the-street Pieces

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The Los Angeles Times reports today that the majority of people in Florence, Colorado, do not mind terrorist suspects being moved from Guantánamo to the nearby federal “supermax” prison:

The Senate last week overwhelmingly rejected providing funds to close the U.S. military prison in Cuba, saying that no community in America would want terrorism suspects in its backyard.

Maybe they haven’t been to Florence. Starved for jobs 17 years ago, the town of 3,600 residents bought a chunk of land outside its borders and gave it to the federal government to build a maximum-security prison to house the worst of the worst.

Most locals don’t blink at the idea of taking Guantanamo detainees — and even the ones who object acknowledge that the issue has yet to replace cows, horses and the high school football team as a leading topic of conversation.

“People here don’t care about it,” said Bob Wood, editor and publisher of the community newspaper, the Florence Citizen. “We pretty much feel that if they ship them here, these guys [the federal prison guards] will take care of them.”

I don’t think local feelings should matter much on this issue, but I bring up this article, because it contradicts a similar New York Times piece published on May 22 that claimed local feelings were “split,” “strong,” and “volatile.” The story, written by Kirk Johnson, included several silly “man on the street” quotes. Take, for example, the local coffee-shop owner:

“People here are good Christian conservatives,” said Tom Baron, who described himself as a struggling small-business man, co-owner with his wife, Marie, of Donuts and Dogs, a coffee shop. Mr. Baron said he thought that large numbers of Muslims — the family members and friends of inmates — would move into town if the transfer occurred. Property values would fall, he said, and some family members of terrorists might be terrorists, too.

“That would destroy this community,” Mr. Baron said.

What exactly is the point of quoting people like Mr. Baron? As the Los Angeles Times article demonstrates, he doesn’t reflect the community at large, though Johnson made it seem as if he did. And even if all of Florence were like Mr. Baron, what difference would that make to the debate about whether to close Guantánamo?

Something went wrong with Johnson’s New York Times piece, but it’s not entirely clear what. Did he go to Florence to “confirm” the established narrative after the Senate vote—that Americans in the Heartland vehemently opposed introducing terrorist suspects to their neighborhoods? Did he play up bitter divisions to dramatize an otherwise non-story about ambivalent communal attitudes? Did he simply interview too few people?

However Johnson erred, he illustrated why we should always be skeptical of “man on the street” stories.

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