Starbucks, censorship, and diversity in the heartland

Yesterday, I learned that my longtime friend Mike Marlett, who publishes an alternative newspaper called F5, has had his publication banned from the newsracks of Starbucks coffeeshops in Wichita, Kansas.

Since Kansas has a reputation for being one of the more conservative states in the nation, one might assume that the decidedly left-leaning F5 newspaper was kicked out of Starbucks by some sort of local uprising. But that assumption would be wrong, since local Starbucks managers in Wichita actively asked Mike to stock F5 in their shops, and Starbucks customers avidly read the paper each week.

Indeed, the decision to ban F5 from Wichita Starbucks came not from the local level, but a far-off regional manager. His reason for this pre-emptive censorship? Essentially, his rationale was (on the basis of a single complaint) that Starbucks wants to reflect “local values”, and he had determined, without actually reading the newspaper that F5 was not appropriate for a conservative place like Kansas.

Does anyone else see the ridiculous irony here? I think it’s symptomatic of lingering election-year hysteria, wherein the media obsessively divided the country into the Democrat-leaning “Blue states” of the coasts and the Republican-leaning “Red states” of the heartland. Hence, a Starbucks regional manager, nervous about his job as he stares at the big sea of Red around Kansas, might be inclined to think that Kansans can’t handle liberal opinions.

Unfortunately, this kind of ignorance is not limited to corporate middle-management types. It also applies to many left-leaning people I’ve met in Blue states like California and New York — otherwise intelligent folks who have convinced themselves (purely on the basis of political demographics) that Kansans are ultra-religious, pig-shagging fascists. Since when did “Blue versus Red” turn into “Us versus Them”?

In reality, “Red” places like Kansas are doing just fine by themselves — and my friend Mike is a great example of this. A few years ago, Mike was working at the Wichita Eagle, the corporately owned local paper. Mike enjoyed the design work he did there, but became increasingly annoyed that the paper’s editorial direction was being influenced not by the people who lived and worked in Wichita, but by Blue-state corporate market-watchers who were convinced that readers in the conservative heartland wanted inoffensive news that reflected their existing prejudices. Disgusted, Mike quit the Eagle two years ago, and has been helming an upstart independent newspaper ever since.

“I’d gotten tired of out-of-town corporate middle managers trying to tell the people of this city what they should be thinking,” Mike wrote in an editorial about the Starbucks decision. “By ‘reflecting local values’ they’d turned on a feedback loop that breeds fear, ignorance and paranoia.”

I suppose my reason for bringing this up is to remind both corporate paper-pushers and Blue-state liberals of a simple point: Don’t judge what you don’t know. Despite election demographics, political diversity thrives (and is tolerated) in the heartland. Hundreds of thousands of Kansans may have voted for Bush, but hundreds of thousands of Kansans voted for Kerry as well. To assume Kansans (or anyone else) can’t tolerate a minority opinion is idiotic.

The next time I’m in Kansas, I think I’m going to give Starbucks a miss.

Posted by | Comments (8)  | November 17, 2004
Category: Travel News

8 Responses to “Starbucks, censorship, and diversity in the heartland”

  1. Rolf Says:

    I know I compulsively tie everything back to travel, but there is a travel lesson here as well. After all, viewing the world through a TV set might cause one to think there is no political diversity in the Islamic world either. Or Europe, for that matter. Or China. But to travel to these places in a mindful and deliberate way is to realize that they all possess a depth and diversity that no TV could capture. American Red states are no exception.

  2. jason Says:

    I live in Utah, possibly the reddest of the red states (even moreso than Texas, if you go by the popular vote count), and we have plenty of liberals here, including myself. We’re definitely in the minority, but we’re here. And even though this state is known as the Land of the Mormons, we also have thriving Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, and even Hindu communities in and around Salt Lake. As you say, no place is monolithic in its composition, no matter what its reputation.

  3. justin Says:

    “Starbucks” is practically a curse word here in Columbia. In fact, some folks say Go to Starbucks! when mad at someone, instead of Go to Hell!

    Okay, so maybe not, but still. Columbia loves its local owned coffee shops.

  4. Tom Says:

    How about just making the point without inflated rhetoric and name calling? You don’t even know the person who made the bad decision not to carry the paper– maybe he’s not idiotic or a corporate lackey, and maybe he just made a mistake or has a different view. I agree with your point, but a little tolerance, calm and restraint in making the point is more likely to speak to those who may not be sure where they stand on the issue. From your book, I’m certain that’s the attitude you carry in your travels.

  5. Larry from TX Says:

    The Starbucks CEO gave one million dollars to the Israeli IDF Sniper School last year.

    Now you know where your money is going.

  6. Larry from TX Says:

    The Starbucks CEO gave one million dollars to the Israeli IDF Sniper School last year.

    Now you know where your money is going.

  7. Larry from TX Says:

    The Starbucks CEO gave one million dollars to the Israeli IDF Sniper School last year.

    Now you know where your money is going.

  8. Israel Palestine watcher Says:

    This article claims that it does not

    I’d be very interested in finding out an official source which can back up this claim.