“Unplugged” From Media and From Voting

By John Shea
Medill News Service

PHOENIX – “I don’t even know why I’m talking to you,” Paula Ryan told a reporter as they sat in a booth of a buffet-style restaurant on Election Day. “I normally don’t do this kind of thing. I normally don’t voice my opinion.”

But when pressed, Ryan, 42, has plenty of them. A self-described “moderate independent,” Ryan favors a woman’s right to have an abortion, thinks society isn’t ready for mixed-race marriages and fears that government intervenes in our lives too much.

She even has an opinion on President Clinton’s lips.

“He’ll talk out of the left side of his mouth when he’s lying,” she said. “I noticed that during the debates four years ago.” She taped them, saved them and played them again recently after the debates this year to see how Clinton has progressed. “He’s getting better at it, but he’s still doing it,” Ryan said.

Ryan is among a group of people that politicians and analysts struggle to understand and reach. She has not voted since 1972, and she was among a near-record 51 percent of the voting-age population to skip the polls on Tuesday.

In her case, an unfair process, biased media, poor candidates, and personal circumstances have converged to put her in a 24-year voting funk.

Ryan said she seriously thought of voting this year because she liked Republican vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp’s past working at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and because Clinton is “a liar.”

Ryan said she learned about the registration deadline while she was in bed one night. “I was watching the 10 o’clock news, and they said the cut-off time for registering was at midnight. And they didn’t even say where to go.”

She wasn’t too upset, however, because she thinks the inequity of the Electoral College process makes her vote meaningless. “It should be a person-to-person vote,” Ryan said. “Don’t lump us all together and say, ‘Here’s your eight electoral votes.’ Change the system so I know my vote counts for something.”

Ryan has valued the pragmatic all her life. She set aside thoughts of going to college when she had her first daughter, Chasidy, at 18. After selling title insurance for awhile, she bought a bar in Hawaii when she turned 30, but sold it four years later when insurance premiums became too high. Now a grandmother at 42, Ryan uses her real estate background at BancOne Mortgage, where she processes paperwork for Midwestern clients. “I got into it for the steady paycheck,” said Ryan. “I live day to day.”

Based on respondents’ answers to a nationwide poll last summer by the Medill News Service, Ryan falls into a group of Americans who are called “Unplugged.” These people, disproportionately young and skeptical, generally don’t follow current events through the media, and don’t volunteer in their communities.

Ryan doesn’t follow the media because she’s rejected them, and she prefers to get to know her neighbors through one-on-one relationships instead of broader volunteerism activities.

Ryan said she generally won’t read her local newspapers or watch TV news because she said they are biased.

“They’re all Democrats,” she said. A survey by the Freedom Forum last year, which found that nine of 10 reporters and editors voted for Clinton in the 1992 presidential elections, supported her view.

“And they all like to tell you, ‘This is what my opinion is, and this is the way you should vote,’” she said. “They say it very stern, like, ‘You better go out and do this, because I say so and I know better.’ Well, excuse me, but I’m a human being too.”

Ryan said she trusts her own judgment and wants to form her own opinions. That’s why she likes commentary-free C-Span, which she watches regularly, and relies on discussions with neighbors and co-workers to keep informed on events and issues.

Unlike most Unpluggeds, however, Ryan is not indifferent.

While Ryan may be unplugged from most media outlets, she is not out of touch. She speaks knowledgeably and at length about the Whitewater hearings (“worse than Watergate”), Vincent Foster’s death (“White House cover-up”), illegal immigration (“we’re gonna have a bigger jam than we’re prepared to handle”), welfare reform (“they should have taken it one step farther – two years and off the rolls”) and the flap over campaign contributions from Indonesia (“we are selling out our country”).

Ryan can’t think of a single instance where the government has helped her. When she was out of work several years ago, she wanted unemployment aid for two months, but was rejected.

Now, her 19-year-old daughter, Karine, can’t get federal aid to help with her $700 per semester bill at a community college. Ryan said that’s a lot of money for the family, whose combined income of $40,000 is “heavily taxed.”

“It’s going to be hard, and we’re going to have to scrape to get by. But we’ll do it.”

The Ryans have lived in the same middle-class suburb for six years. “It’s not anything luxurious,” she said of the collection of one-story ranch homes that are about $85,000 each. “But it’s nice.”

Because some gang crime exists in the area, Ryan said the neighbors have formed a watch group. “You can have crime all over the place, but if you don’t know your neighbors, you’re in real trouble,” Ryan said. “We’ve got a real friendly neighborhood.”

On election night, Ryan’s 53-year-old husband, Jim, stood on the front porch talking to Jack, his next-door neighbor. Paula was across the street talking to Pam, who was paying the pizza delivery man.

Jim, who is recovering from open-heart surgery, took a drag of his cigarette. “I heard the whole East Coast went for Clinton,” he said matter-of-factly.

When word got around that Ohio went for Clinton – and probably the election with it – Jim shrugged his shoulders.

He didn’t vote. Neither did Karine, whose boyfriend had dropped her off at home. A leader at her high school — the Ryans’ home is covered with pictures and plaques of her accomplishments — she decided not to vote because “I just didn’t feel I was informed enough.”

She said she would study the issues more during the next four years and vote in 2000.

Paula came back from across the street and shook her head. “I don’t understand it,” she said. “Everyone I know is voting for Dole. I’ve only met one person who likes Clinton.”

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