Care factor too low on McDonnell trial

Published 8:09 pm Monday, August 11, 2014

Early in my career, I worked on a weekly community newspaper in the outer suburbs of Sydney, Australia, and “man-on-the-street” interviews featured in each and every edition.

“Vox pop,” as we called it — short for vox populi, Latin for “voice of the people” — was shared around the newsroom evenly. Every five weeks a photographer and I would venture across the road to a shopping mall to take the temperature of public sentiment from five citizens.

The question-of-the-moment was usually local, like “What do you think of the city’s decision about such-and-such,” but other times national or international, like “Should Australia send more troops to Iraq?”

Email newsletter signup

Efficiency being the idea, I’d always ask the first folks we encountered once we were a safe distance from the office. Failing that, a couple of months into my four years and two months of doing this, I learned that ascending to the food court was the thing to do.

But you had to watch for people emptying their trays, getting in the way of retail-fueled hunger pangs being a health hazard. Blood redirected to a full belly, they’d generally lose their presence of mind and compliantly answer the question and look serious for the camera.

On leaving that newspaper, I can’t say I was devastated to ditch the recurring vox pop. But every now and then I grow nostalgic. When something’s happening that I think might lend itself to one, I propose a man-on-the-street to my new editor. He often agrees. Sometime he proposes one.

On Friday, I drove to Harbour View East shopping center Friday to ask folks what they thought about former Gov. Bob McDonnell being in a Richmond federal courthouse to answer for his alleged propensity to mix serving the people of Virginia and lining his family’s pockets.

I believed it would be an easy question. The daily — nay, hourly — bombshells about salacious text messages, hoarded gifts, Ferrari joyrides…. This assignment was in the bag.

But something surprising happened: I was wrong. (I mean … just keep reading.) I trudged up and down the parking lot in the hot sun for almost an hour, politely accosting a total of 27 shoppers, almost all of them Virginians. Less than half could tell me anything about Virginia’s “trial of the century,” and only three were willing to put names to their thoughts.

Also surprising, but perhaps less so, was that of the 10 who said they were following the trial, six at least hoped McDonnell would be acquitted. Only two thought he was guilty.

Of the 60 or 70 different vox pops I’ve done over the past 7 and a half years, this one stands out.

Forget low voter turnout. The general public’s cluelessness about the much-publicized trial of Bob McDonnell — the first time a Virginia governor has been up on corruption charges — is the clearest sign yet that the world would be a better place if folks cared more about what our politicians get up to.