For the 400,000 readers who subscribe to The Times of London, Waco is simply a “one-horse town where the horse died.”
In portraying Waco in a Times article as a typically “bizarre” Bible Belt town that just happens to be home to cult leader Vernon Howell, British journalist Ben MacIntyre said he meant to get a few laughs.
Many in Waco aren’t laughing.
“I would say the article was extractive in that somebody comes to our town and reduces Waco to that description, especially when it’s a disparaging one,” said Barry Click, president of Waco’s Ministerial Alliance. “It’s unfortunate that our community would be described by one incident — an aberration.”
MacIntyre, U.S. bureau chief for the Times, said Wednesday that he did not mean to insult Waco in his March 6 article, written after the first week of his 28-day stay.
“It was meant to be a piece of fun. I’m sorry if people took offense,” MacIntyre said. “It’s much the same way Americans send up Brits when they come to England. I enjoyed Waco, actually — I found the people very friendly.”
When word spread in Waco of MacIntyre’s article, residents lined up to defend the targets of his humor, which ranged from religion to local tourism and cuisine.
Point by point, the following is a look at Waco culture, led by tour guide MacIntyre:
- Religion: MacIntyre wrote that Waco is “oddly tolerant” of different faiths, suggesting that the city is more religiously diverse than most other American towns.
Click said he takes pride in Waco’s tolerance and diversity, but Waco is no different in those respects than most cities its size.
“The key for me is that we have leaders in the community — religious and political — that are willing to encourage tolerance and diversity,” said Click, a pastoral counselor. “That’s encouraging.”
- Tourism: Referred to as “somewhat desperate, and almost certainly futile” in the Times article, Waco’s tourism industry is regarded by city officials as a growing enterprise.
Waco tourism growing
“We know from our standing in the Texas Auto Visitors survey that we are well thought of,” said Sarah Sheppard, tourism coordinator with Waco’s Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The Texas Ranger Museum is the fourth most visited attraction in the state for foreign visitors, and we have many happy visitors who come every year.”
Tourism-generated expenditures in McLennan County were $94.75 million in 1991, Sheppard said, ranking 21st out of more than 200 Texas counties.
“The impact is even stronger when you consider that these are dollars earned elsewhere and brought into the Waco community,” she said.
MacIntyre even admitted a fondness for Waco’s Dr Pepper Museum.
“I went there about four times,” he said.
- Retail: MacIntyre wrote that foreign journalists near Howell’s Mount Carmel compound could be identified by the Hawaiian shirts they “bought at Wal-Mart, Waco’s nearest equivalent of a clothes shop” after they ran out of clean laundry.
One of MacIntyre’s fellow journalists said he has seen nothing wrong with Waco or its stores.
More than just Wal-Mart
“To me, it’s another Texas town, nothing to knock,” said Joe Duncan, a free-lance television photographer from Houston working with NBC-TV.
Waco has more to offer than MacIntyre realizes, Sheppard said.
“I certainly think Waco has a wide variety of fine clothing shops and other retail stores,” she said.
Wal-Mart officials declined to comment.
- Entertainment: MacIntyre listed gun collecting and watching Vietnam war movies such as Full Metal Jacket and Platoon as hobbies that struck him as characteristic of Howell’s followers and Waco residents in general.
The manager of Block Buster Video, 4300 W. Waco Drive, said Full Metal Jacket and Platoon were among his most popular rentals and called the interest in Apocalypse Now, another Vietnam movie, “phenomenal.”
Not all responses to the MacIntyre article were negative, however.
Despite his objections to the article, Click said it has shown him something positive.
“It makes us look and see what we do think about our community,” he said. “In some kind of twist of irony it has helped us claim our pride, so to speak, in who we are.”