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March 19, 2013 11:58 AM Covering Government

By Ed Kilgore

There is no subject nearer and dearer to the abiding mission of the Washington Monthly than how news media cover the operations of government. So the ongoing crisis in U.S. media—driven by corporate consolidation, the rapid decline in print media readership, the struggle to find financially viable ways to offer content online, the entertainment-driven race-to-the-bottom of electronic media outlets, and the downward spiral of public interest in “hard news”—is a big deal to us. And while here at PA we mostly focus on national politics and government, the media crisis is obviously most acute at the state and local levels, where newsrooms are vanishing and venerable newspapers folding or becoming sad, undernourished parodies of themselves at a rapid pace, even as local broadcast offerings are dominated by entertainment with a sprinkling of national news feeds, right-wing talk, and last night’s wrecks and shootings.

I say all this by way of mentioning the latest “State of the News Media” report from Pew, which focuses on TV coverage. Pew’s survey of national TV news outlets is interesting if somewhat depressing, noting the steady drift of cable “public affairs” content from news to gabfests and interviews (MSNBC, for example, devotes fully 85% of its airtime to commentary these days).

But it’s the data on local TV that’s really alarming. According to Pew, coverage of politics and government now accounts for an average of 3 percent of the airtime on local television “newscasts,” less than half the proportion registered in 2005. By comparison, 71% of newscast airtime is absorbed by crimes (or trials), traffic and weather, sports, and accidents/”bizarre events”/disasters. When combined with the cutbacks and disappearances afflicting print media, and the relatively small proportion of online content devoted to state and local government developments, you’ve got a host of governments operating virtually in the dark.

Kevin Drum notes the overall trend:

The Boston Phoenix closed up shop last week, part of a trend of community alt-weeklies shutting down. Local radio is mostly just chattering gasbags and syndicated blowhards. Metro dailies have all but abandoned local political coverage of the towns and suburbs that surround their urban core. Here in my neck of the woods, we discovered in 2010 that the city of Bell was enmeshed in a widespread corruption scandal, but since there were literally almost no reporters covering Bell, it went unnoticed for more than a decade.

Kevin goes on to note that a lot of the now-vanishing local political coverage was pretty bad, but argues it’s better than nothing, and I’d agree. But we do need to recognize that the rapid decline in the quality of local news coverage that preceded and then accompanied the collapse in quantity exacted its own peculiar civic price. For decades, the state and local bureaus of major newspapers, and the “investigative” units of local TV stations, focused their limited resources almost exclusively on the Pulitzer-bait of scandal coverage. I recall a period in the 1980s when a “crusading” editor took over my hometown paper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and concentrated almost all state government coverage on efforts to find and then publicize irregularities in the state’s child welfare system, which is the journalistic equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. Meanwhile, big developments at the state level (including those affecting the child welfare system) went almost entirely unnoticed.

“Corruption” investigations and scandal-mongering obviously serve a valuable public purpose as sort of a last-resort deterrent to the worst abuses. But absent broader and deeper coverage they do not necessarily improve real public understanding of politics and government, and instead encourage the easy cynicism of “they’re all crooks” attitudes that in turn feed not only apathy but the “false equivalency” memes that so afflict national political coverage today.

So even if there was a way to kick up local TV coverage of politics and government a bit, or replace dying print coverage with more robust online reporting, there’s just no substitute for the boring, in-depth coverage of state and local governments that’s been gone for decades in most parts of the country. And the downward quality trend is now well advanced at the national level. To cite just one example: one of the more sinister national political developments of recent vintage was the “K Street Project” of the Bush/Delay years, which was nothing less than an effort to forge an exclusive iron bond between the influence-peddling business and the Republican Party. Here at the Monthly, we’re very proud that we published the best and most thorough dissection of the Project, Nick Confessore’s “Welcome to the Machine,” back in 2003.

But the K Street Project didn’t get true media-wide attention until it became part of the Jack Abramoff “scandal” that involved gross and blatantly illegal influence-peddling. That scandal ended when Casino Jack went off to the hoosegow. Meanwhile, Abramoff’s frequent collaborator Ralph Reed was able to quietly resume his power-politics career, and the overall director of the K Street Project, Rick Santorum, came within a few thousand votes in the Michigan Primary of 2012 of having a solid chance at the Republican presidential nomination.

I have no particular answers to this quandary (other than a subscription to the Washington Monthly). But it’s helpful to remember as we watch the lights go out all over American journalism that some were bright, some were flickering, and some cast little more than distorted shadows on the landscape of politics and government.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • c u n d gulag on March 19, 2013 12:26 PM:

    Watergate, and the fine reporting done there, instead of creating new generations of great reporters (Disclosure: I took Journalism for a year in College, from '77-'78, but figured out that while I was a good writer, and so said my Professor, investigative reporting was not my strong suit, since I couldn't believe people could look you in the eye and lie to you - oh, in innocence of youth...), created a generation of reporters who wanted to get "The Big Story," and become media stars, instead!

    And CNN was a great channel when it first started.

    But then, somehow or other, more and more entertainment and celebrity segments started creeping in.

    It was cheaper to do that, then run national and international news desks, I guess.

    The height of the absurdity of this was reached with the Anna Nicole Smith case, and how that was on CNN 24 X 7 for a full week, while at the same time, the Senate had voted TO SUSPEND HABEUS CORPUS!!!
    So, the coverage of some minor reality-tv celebrities death, trumped the abbrogation of a law that stretched in Western civilization from 1215 until the Congress had the cover to bury it.

    Oh, and don't get me started on Michael Jackson's death!

    We need to seriously look at how to break-up the MSM monopolies.
    AND DO IT! QUICKLY!!!
    They are responsible only to more profits for their shareholders, and not any responsibility to inform "We the People."
    And "We the People," need to stay informed.

    IF we break them apart, and redistribute some of that money locally for journalistic start-ups, we might still be able to save this nation from being a bunch of uninformed, uninterested, couch-potato's!

    And, yeah, I know - THAT, AIN'T GONNA HAPPEN!!!

  • PTate in MN on March 19, 2013 12:46 PM:

    We cancelled our subscription to the local paper (the Star Tribune) when they became too conservative--allowing opinions by dribbling morons and emphasizing human interest stories over actual news coverage. Watching coverage of the 35W bridge collapse was instructive, in a disturbing way. Governor Tim Pawlenty had spent years cutting transportation funding in the face of warnings that bridges could collapse, and yet the coverage was entirely focused on 1) talking to individuals with some connection to the disaster, ("my apartment overlooks the bridge"), and 2) finding an engineer to blame. The idea that this was systematic, a predictable outcome of Pawlenty's conservative policies was not explored.

    I suppose, ultimately, it has been a vicious cycle. Conservatives set out to take over the media, which resulted in worse coverage. So people who actually read and learn from experience started cancelling their subscriptions because the coverage was pointless drivel. This led the conservative owners to cut local coverage to save money, and that drove even more thinking people to the internet. We've watched with dismay as the Star Tribune laid off most of their best reporters.

    Now, the emergence of "sponsored content" on formerly useful internet publications is going to queer traditional media online, too.

    And, ultimately, I suppose, the loss of good local coverage has exacerbated the trend to confirmation bubbles. The low information voters has no source of useful information, a state the misinformation/propaganda machine finds very useful. The oligarchy's strategy for success is to keep Americans stupid.

  • martin on March 19, 2013 12:51 PM:

    I don't know if this is happening in other small markets, but here in Montgomery, AL one TV station produces the news for 3 different channels. The CBS affiliate does an 9:00pm broadcast for the Fox affiliate, and then it simulcasts a 10:00pm broadcast on CBS and ABC. Not that any of it is watchable, but it is an additional sad commentary on the state of news, and a good reason for the FCC to bring back rules about local ownership.

  • ajw93 (@ajw93) on March 19, 2013 1:07 PM:

    Of course the OTHER 15% of msnbc airtime is taken up with Prison. I keep paying Time Warner because at least they give me the BBCWorldNews channel.
    The local paper keeps trying to "reinvent" itself in varying ways.
    The local tv channels just do "confront state lawmakers in the legislative building hallway with their gas receipts" instead of actual coverage of what they're...you know...legislating in there.
    I don't know what to do either, except lobby against corporate consolidation, and keep financially supporting the local public radio station.

  • boatboy_srq on March 19, 2013 1:42 PM:

    last night’s wrecks and shootings

    If the GOTea has its way, before too much longer that will describe the local political coverage as well as the local criminal coverage.

  • MuddyLee on March 19, 2013 1:42 PM:

    Support independent public radio stations like WFAE in Charlotte.
    The small town newspapers are crazy conservative now - I refuse to buy them or read them. Yes, MSNBC is mostly commentary, but it's necessary to provide an alternative to the "fair and balanced" Fox News - and what in the hell happened to CNN? Also be aware that you can hear BBC radio in the middle of the night on some public radio stations - their reporting 10 years ago on the Iraq invasion was good and right (and I don't mean right wing).

  • brainchild on March 19, 2013 1:45 PM:

    News is a necessary public service, and it needs to be independent of the whims of profit-seeking and other corporate agendas. I'd propose that we send a generous chunk of tax dollars to PBS/NPR for the creation of local bureaus in (at minimum) every state capital, which would share content in their region locally similar to how the AP spreads content nationally/internationally. We could at once employ all the out-of-work journalists stranded by this crisis, and significantly serve the public good.

  • PTate in MN on March 19, 2013 6:09 PM:

    boatboy_srq: If the GOTea has its way, before too much longer [last night's wrecks and shootings] will describe the local political coverage as well as the local criminal coverage.

    This is, of course, their fantasy America, the reason they need to hang on to the AK-47s. Mad Max, baby!!!

    martin: "...and a good reason for the FCC to bring back rules about local ownership."

    That's an excellent point! Any way we can help make this happen?

  • emjayay on March 19, 2013 6:17 PM:

    All local 11 o'clock TV news, whether in NYC or podunk, is the same. Women with improbably big shiny hair, wearing tons of makeup and often some outfit that is appropriate for a cocktail party. Blandly good looking men in suits. All lit by a million candlepower from every possible angle. Everything reported in a strident tone of voice not heard ever in normal life as if it's emergency life or death information. Fake superficial comraderie among the newsreaders.

    All the stories are either totally superficial or about whatever house burnt down or whoever was shot that day by drug dealing gangs or whatever local controversy has people shouting in front of cameras. Like PTate related, half the time is spent with locals on any issue stating the obvious or some uninformed opinion on whatever is being covered. It's pretty much the NY Post on TV. The existence of the NY Post, actually paid for by large numbers of NYers is of course something of an indictment of the intellectual level of many NYers, and that's the ones that actually read.

    In any news item reported on TV in NYC that I happen to have personal information about half of what they say is wrong, because the reporters mostly report based on whatever uninformed personal knowledge they already have plus superficial reporting done in the least possible time.

    It's an absurd situation that does not serve the public. PBS has its excessively boring national news. As brainchild suggests and I think I have in the past, local PBS stations should have a half hour of actually in depth reported local and state news. I guess they don't have the money. They should find it.

    Good journalism is of course an important part of democracy and the modern media landscape is failing spectacularly, particulary the "news" seen or read by most people.

  • Sean Scallon on March 19, 2013 8:54 PM:

    "And the downward quality trend is now well advanced at the national level."

    So advanced that led to a war which killed thousands and bankrupted the U.S. treasury whose anniversary we currently regretting

  • 4jkb4ia on March 20, 2013 1:02 AM:

    I am one of the lucky ones. I can benefit from the St. Louis Beacon and Columbia Daily Tribune online and the local NPR station reports on what is happening in Jefferson City pretty steadily. But I wouldn't say I pay enough attention to any of these things to be called an informed citizen and every two years I tear my hair because I know I didn't know what was going on. In fact yesterday the NYT deigned to have one paragraph on a federal judge striking down the legislature allowing employers not to cover birth control in Missouri and this was the first I heard of any of it. Last year there were clear and obvious reasons to vote against all the Republican candidates for state office though.

    People being trained whether it is through media or party organizations or other civil society to participate in state/local government is really important. They are more likely to see some effect and they will be more impatient with reducing national politics to sport or gossip.