A Q&A with Ted Genoways: Journalism in a time of ‘fake news’

Last October, less than a month before Election Day, the FBI broke up a plot by three men to bomb an apartment complex in Garden City, Kansas, that was home to dozens of Somali and other refugees who worked at the nearby Tyson meatpacking plant. Fueled by anti-Muslim rhetoric from Donald Trump and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the men had decided to bomb the complex the night of the election, so that it would be too late to swing votes to Hillary Clinton. But this story, by Ted Genoways and co-produced by FERN and The New Republic, is about more than just a foiled terror plot. It unwinds the complex intersection of the meatpacking industry, immigration, the rise of fake news, and the changing face of America’s heartland. FERN’s Kristina Johnson spoke with Genoways about the story, and why it’s important.  

Why write this story now?

When a presidential candidate—now the president of the United States—is telling voters that Somali immigrants are the “greatest Trojan horse of all time,” and the secretary of state in Kansas—now considered a frontrunner for governor—is saying that refugees are voting illegally, it reveals a crisis of extreme political rhetoric. And when people at that level are making those kinds of claims, should we really expect three guys in rural Kansas to know better? We’ve made xenophobia part of the mainstream conversation, so how can we say that regular citizens are supposed to recognize it as political rhetoric? That’s what the legal team has suggested will be at the heart of the defense of Patrick Stein, one of the would-be bombers, and I’ll bet that the lawyers for the other two defendants make a similar argument.

Do you think there’s any validity in a ‘fake news’ defense?

The moment in all of this that I came to feel the fake-news defense had some weight behind it was when I saw that someone had posted a warning on the Facebook page of Patrick Stein, about six months before the attack was planned. The post said that there were UN tanks pulling into Kansas to take over the state after the presidential election. Stein’s reaction, trying to get confirmation — which roads are they on, when are they planning to move in — made me start to think: he believes all this is real. It’s ludicrous. Just imagine the size of the occupying army that you’d need to include towns of a few thousand people in southwest Kansas. But when you see his reaction, the online conversations he was engaged in after that post, it seems clear: it’s not a put on; he’s taking this claim very seriously.

As a journalist in a world of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news,’ has your role changed, or have people’s perception of your role changed? 

It’s a strange environment to report in. Everything has gone from, “I don’t trust the liberal media,” which is an expression of belief in media bias, to this easy catchphrase, “It’s fake news,” which is a suggestion that the news isn’t just slanted but actually made up. So, more than ever, it’s important to distinguish real reporting from opinion or speculation or even things that are intentionally misleading, so that we know that what we’re reading is based in reality.

As a reporter, that means there’s an even higher bar now for establishing what’s factual. You have to be careful about drawing unsupported conclusions. You have to make sure that everything that goes into a piece is not only verifiable with one source, but is supported by multiple people and multiple perspectives, because it’s bound to be challenged. Especially online, there is a growing body of people who are happy to contest observable facts. What a strange thing to argue with someone not over policy goals or opinion, but over the basic facts that in many cases the reporters have established by witnessing themselves. If you don’t trust us to accurately describe what we’ve seen with our own eyes, there’s a real problem.

This story takes place in Kansas. I know you’ve spoken before about the need to cover more stories in the heartland. Why is that important?

It’s well documented that we went through a major media contraction after the last recession. Many of those jobs were lost in print media and in the middle of the country. When they were replaced, they tended to be turned into online positions and shifted to the coasts. So now there are simply fewer reporters in the middle of the country, which means fewer people with their ear to the ground here on daily basis. And that’s a huge reason why so many reporters and experts got this election wrong. I think it makes sense for reporting to be done by people who are from here so that there is a sense for the nuance of those stories rather than people who parachute in for a few days and then move on. You don’t get the same depth. It’s not the fault of reporters; it’s just an unavoidable shortcoming of trying to report with limited knowledge of context.

You report from the Midwest. Are editors at national outlets interested in stories from that region?

When I moved back to Nebraska five years ago, my biggest concern was whether I’d be able to sell enough stories from the middle of the country to national magazines. But what I’ve found most often is that editors are blown away when they hear what’s going on here and say, “Why haven’t I heard about this?” It’s very often stuff that’s been front-page news in local papers for weeks, if not months. But editors on the coasts haven’t heard anything because there’s not the same pipeline of bureaus and local news feeding multiple wire services that there used to be. There’s just less information being gathered and transmitted from the middle of the country, so the middle of the country has less of a place in the national conversation.

You mention in the piece that for most Somalis, working in a meat plant is a good job and that they are unlikely to unionize. Do employers take advantage of the fact that refugees likely experienced far worse working conditions in their own country?

There’s no question that refugee workers don’t make the same kinds of demands that American workers do, and part of that is not having a sense of American labor laws, but also no knowledge of a labor tradition that includes unions and collective bargaining. The meatpacking industry uses that to its advantage in many ways. Meatpacking towns used to be in big cities — Chicago, Kansas City, Omaha. But starting in the 1950s, the packing companies moved the plants to the countryside in part to separate their workers from the urban unions. So what you have are large immigrant populations that are dropped into virtually all-white communities. Any time you have a major demographic change in a short period of time, it’s a recipe for conflict. When refugees and other immigrants feel fearful in the larger community that also tends to prevent them from feeling empowered to complain about their conditions.

Why are the refugees less likely to unionize?

In the case of the Somali refugees, you’re talking about a group of people from a country that hasn’t had a functioning government since 1991. They have often faced violence against themselves or their family members at the hands of Islamic militants or gangs, poverty, and now famine in the region. So when Somalis arrive in the United States and find that they can walk into a meatpacking plant and get a job that will pay $10 to $11 an hour, that’s a kind of miracle for many of them. So they’re less apt to see working conditions as unjust, because they’re happy to have a job that allows them to pay rent, buy food, raise a family, all in a country that stands for religious freedom and where police intervene on their behalf when there is violence against them. So refugees may be reluctant to unionize, because they feel a debt of gratitude to their employers. The meatpacking industry capitalizes on, and one might even say that they exploit, that sense of gratitude.

Have you heard from Somali workers who say that tension is higher since the election?

I haven’t, although the extent to which many of them are aware of our national politics is somewhat limited. The Somalis in Garden City live in a few apartment complexes that are all clustered on the far northwest edge of town, where they can get on the highway and drive to the packing plants outside the city. The mosque, the clinic, and an English-language school are all in the apartment complex. I don’t think they have a full sense of the larger community of Garden City right now, and the extent to which Garden City is knowledgeable of the Somali community is also quite limited, apart from the occasional interactions at Target and Walmart. It seems that there’s much more suspicion than actual knowledge about the refugee community. But what I heard over and over again was that the response after the attack, when police and social services showed up to help, has made the refugees feel more connected to the larger community.

Is there an economic case for cultural diversity in a place like Garden City?

A generation ago, Garden City was dying. Like many rural communities, it was losing population. Once the town started welcoming immigrants and refugees, though, their population increased by 25 percent, and it revitalized local business. I’ve never seen a place with so many Mexican restaurants. Clearly, Latino immigrants who were working in the meatpacking plants set aside money to start these restaurants. And interspersed between them are Vietnamese, Thai, and Chinese restaurants that represent the previous wave of immigration. It’s remarkable. You get this town in a dusty, forgotten corner of Kansas where there are taco stands and Pho restaurants and, if you know where to go, there’s also the Africa Shop, which is a kind of market, eatery, and community center in one. And with the presence of immigrants, other businesses flourish there now, and services are offered that didn’t exist 20 or 30 years ago. The community benefits.

Has anyone come out in support of the men who planned this attack?

No one has really defended them, at least not publicly. Even white-nationalist groups have said the plotters were too extreme, because, of course, none of those groups wants to be investigated by the FBI. But the Southern Poverty Law Center reports that the number of anti-Muslim groups more than tripled nationwide between 2015 and 2016. It’s not a stretch to attribute that growth to Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and the policies he’s pushed. For that kind of growth to occur, there has to be a lot of tacit support and justification for xenophobia. One of the challenges in writing this kind of a piece is not demonizing anti-immigration supporters, because people in any community are susceptible to hateful thinking. At the same time, as a journalist, you don’t want to let racists off the hook. There may be factors that led to what the men in this story intended to do, but none of that justifies plotting to kill innocent people.

What do you want readers to take away from this story?

I would hope that they see how corrosive and ultimately destructive acting out of ignorance and fear can be. These would-be bombers worked themselves into an absolute lather over fears about a community that they didn’t understand. All they knew was they had been told the Somalis were dangerous, that they were terrorists, that they were stealing jobs and elections. But the men didn’t investigate any of those claims for themselves. They operated out of fear and rumor. It led them down a really dark and dangerous path. The thing that remains a question to me is how much this story is an aberration or an extreme example of the kind of nativism that Trump has given voice to versus how much it might be a bellwether.