My call with Rose Aguilar

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By Amanda Witherell

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Local KALW "Your Call" radio show host Rose Aguilar has written a fascinating account of her six-month road trip through four “red” states interviewing people about their lives and asking them why they vote the way they do. The book, Red Highways, details her interviews and interactions she meets and reveals Aguilar as the kind of reporter who is drawn to apparent contradictions and keeps her microphone on way past the sound byte responses. She and her boyfriend, Ryan, attend a progressive church in Dallas and dine with a pro-war vegan; interview a Republican turned Democrat because of domestic violence in Mississippi; have a close encounter at a gun show in Oklahoma City; and talk with gay, Republican environmentalists in Montana.

The book was published just before the election and I gave her a call today to get her thoughts on Barack Obama’s win, hear some stories that were left out of the book, and talk about how the media could and should be reporting from the real American perspective.

We’ll be publishing a review of Red Highways in Wednesday’s paper, but in the meantime, Aguilar is reading tonight, November 11, at 7:30 p.m. at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley, 2345 Channing Way. You can find other author events here.

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Here are some excerpts of my interview with her:

SFBG: I’m curious, were you surprised by last Tuesday’s election results?

ROSE AGUILAR: Not at all. I knew that if the votes were counted I knew that Obama would win. I actually thought the victory would be larger because based on the people that I met on my roadtrip they’re hungry for someone to talk to them and they felt like nobody was talking to them. Yes, Obama has his faults, but if McCain had aired a 30 minute infomercial and raised as much money as Obama the left would have been up in arms but they really didn’t say anything because its Obama and they wanted him to do whatever he needed to do to win.

But it wasn’t surprising to me at all. Especially when the national reporters on television would say the red states are going blue. It just proves my point that if they would get out of their bubbles and go to these places and interview people I don’t think they would have been so shocked by it.

SFBG: Why do you think the media doesn’t do that kind of storytelling?

AGUILAR: Because they’re lazy.

SFBG: It’s too much work?

AGUILAR: Yeah! I spent a week in New York doing outreach for my book and not one person actually read the book.

SFBG: What? The people interviewing you hadn’t read the book.

AGUILAR: Exactly. It’s been so fascinating to be on the other side of the microphone. I think I might write an article about it….

I think that the DC and New York reporters are in such a bubble. They’re so disconnected from reality. Even in this election I loved watching the town halls or I loved watching when Obama went to a city in the south and all these different kinds of people were behind him, all these different colors and ethnicities. I was always just waiting for those faces to be on tv and I never saw them. They don’t interview real people. It’s just about them. They have ten pundits available for the election but why not go to the south and find a 65 or 75-year-old man who for the first time in his life is voting. Or find a Republican who is voting for Obama, or find a young person who is voting for the first time.

SFBG: I feel like when the media gets criticized they say we’re doing what the people want, we’re responding to our ratings.

AGUILAR: I hear that a lot. Even on Friday we have a media roundtable where we have on an alternative, mainstream and international journalist and I always ask the reporter why does Iraq get so little coverage, why is it only getting 3 percent of the newspapers? They say because people don’t care anymore.

But when I introduced myself on the roadtrip I said I’m a journalist from San Francisco and I’m traveling around the country to interview people about issues they care about. Frankly, I’m so tired of medial coverage focusing on Britney Spears and OJ Simpson and all this entertainment.

And every single person from all walks of life, from all sides of the political spectrum said Oh yeah, I’m so sick of it. It’s insulting. They said they want substance. They said that they never see themselves, really, on television. And some people I met said I’m so tired of the media and so tired of corporate money in politics that I’m not going to vote anymore….The conversation has become so shallow and I’m hoping that with Obama – it struck me when I watched his press conference that he’s so articulate and intelligent – and I hope now that the public comes to expect nothing less from their leaders. I hope that they want more from the dialogue that we get on tv. When you think about the fact that Charlie Gibson asked Obama why he doesn’t wear a flag lapel pin at the debate. That’s when I thought we’ve reached such new lows. This is pathetic….

A lot of the poor people I met, they rely on television for their news. They don’t own computers. So many of us forget that a lot of people in this country are poor, they don’t have computers, they don’t know what a blog is. They said look, we get our news from the television or from our local paper.

And they’re very well informed. It was amazing to me. Whenever I would ask someone who was poor where they get their news they would say, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know what’s going on. I feel their policies. I haven’t had my wages raised in ten years. My kid goes to a crappy school. My partner just lost his job or her job. We don’t have healthcare. We don’t need to read to know these things. And I thought here I am in my progressive bubble, online until 2 in the morning, reading about how people are treated and these people feel these policies.