NYT's Adam Nagourney Rides to Defense of Harry Reid's 'Cowboy Poets'

April 12th, 2011 12:52 PM

The New York Times continues to argue against spending cuts, no matter how silly or trivial the program may be. Reporter Adam Nagourney rode to the defense of Sen. Harry Reid’s beleaguered cowboy poets on Monday: “For Cowboy Poets, Unwelcome Spotlight In Battle Over Spending.” Reporting from the small Nevada town of Elko, Nagourney’s tone suggested critics who consider funding cowboy poetry a waste of tax money simply don’t know enough about the program.

This isolated town in the northeast Nevada mountains is known for gold mines, ranches, casinos, bordellos and J. M. Capriola, a destination store with two floors of saddles, boots, spurs and chaps. It is also the birthplace of the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering, a celebration of range song and poetry that draws thousands of cowboys and their fans every January and receives some money from the federal government.

That once-obscure gathering became a target in the budget battle a world away in Washington last week, employed by conservatives as a symbol of fiscal waste. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, a Democrat and the majority leader, invoked the event in arguing against Republican cuts in arts financing in the budget debate, setting off a conflagration of conservative scorn.
It put cowboy poetry and Elko, a heavily Republican town with a population of 17,000 about 230 miles east of Reno, very much on the ideological map, like it or not.

By every account, Mr. Reid is an admirer of what takes place here. He grew up in small-town Nevada, is a fan of cowboy culture and has boasted in news releases of getting money for the Western Folklife Center, which sponsors the event. His mention of the gathering, as an example of what he views as valuable projects financed by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, appears to be an innocent -- if unfortunate -- political misstep by a leader who is known for occasional political missteps.

Nagourney’s first defense – the relative paucity of the amount – could be used to defend any federal program, and is part of the reason the budget is so big in the first place.

In fact, the amount of taxpayer money going to the Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which has met since 1985, is someplace between small and minuscule.

In most years, the government provided about $45,000 to the Western Folklife Center; the conference costs about $650,000 to $700,000, with two-thirds of the money coming from ticket sales. The N.E.A. provided seed money in the early 1980s that allowed researchers to gather oral histories from aging practitioners of what was than seen as a dying art, and to finance what turned out to be the first cowboy poetry gathering.

Yet no matter. The Cowboy Poetry Gathering has been mocked by Sarah Palin on Twitter, most recently on Friday, and on Rush Limbaugh’s show.

Nagourney slipped a countervailing point deep into the story:

The poetry gathering will no doubt survive if the final budget cuts end a subsidy for the center, as most of the revenues come from ticket sales. But [Charlie] Seemann said winning grant approval from federal agencies gave the organization legitimacy that made it easier to compete for private grants.

Nagourney blamed bad messaging on the part of Sen. Reid:

Part of the complication for Mr. Reid was that he did not phrase his argument particularly well.

“The National Endowment of the Humanities is the reason we have in northern Nevada every January a cowboy poetry festival,” he said. “Had that program not been around, the tens of thousands of people who come there every year would not exist.”

Mr. Seemann said Mr. Reid was not entirely wrong. “The real connection to the N.E.A. for us is that they helped seed the gathering. In that sense, Senator Reid is correct that we wouldn’t have existed in the first place.”