Local journalism as antidote to echo chambers and fake news
Have you noticed all the journalistic tourism to “Trump country” in the aftermath of election 2016? A very recent example is here, and I have collected numerous stories in posts over at my own blog, Legal Ruralism, here and here. Of course, some of these intrepid journalists were in places like southern Ohio before the day of doom (as here), and many of those have since returned to what I shall call the scene of the crime. See more examples here and here.
My personal favorite for shoe leather effort and extraordinary insights is this piece by Alec MacGillis of ProPublica, “Revenge of the Forgotten Class,” published just a few days after the election. It’s based on the author’s various 2016 visits to Ohio and Pennsylvania, right up to Election Day. For what it’s worth, I see the best recent journalistic offerings about the working class–with the most compassionate reporting–coming from MacGillis, author of The Cynic, a biography of Mitch McConnell and brilliant commentaries (including here and here), and from former bond trader Chris Arnade, who brought us this last summer. Follow them for the real deal–if you have the stomach for it.
But what I want to focus on today is not so much this national reporting about poor and working class whites (who, incidentally, often overlap considerably with the rural folks I’ve been writing about for more than a decade). While this reporting can be excellent, it often features a voyeuristic slant, an outsider-looking-in style that is framed in a “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” tone. I want to focus on local journalism, especially in small town America, to consider the role of local and regional media in an era when we have become alarmed (justifiably) about the rise of fake news–as well as about the fiscal sustainability of smaller media outlets.
Having set the stage, let me remind you of some good news. Eric Eyre of the West Virginia Gazette Mail just won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. The Pulitzer jury recognized Eyre for a three-part series revealing how pharmaceutical companies flooded rural West Virginia with opioids; one eye-popping fact: “780 million pills, 1,728 deaths.” Here’s an annotated excerpt:
“Follow the pills and you’ll find the overdose deaths,” it begins. It details what happens in places like Kermit, W.Va., where the population is only 392.
“There, out-of-state drug companies shipped nearly 9 million highly addictive — and potentially lethal — hydrocodone pills over two years to a single pharmacy in the Mingo County town. Rural and poor, Mingo County has the fourth-highest prescription opioid death rate of any county in the United States.”
The series was a fabulous illustration of the paper’s motto, “sustained outrage.” It was exciting to see a reporter in a “flyover state” gain such high-profile recognition. It would be easy for the Pulitzer jury to overlook or dismiss such reporting, simply because of its provenance and its subjects. That is, Eyre is not only writing about West Virginia–the butt of innumerable jokes as a state–he is revealing abuse of the downtrodden Trump voter, folks we coastal elites have little sympathy for or ability to empathize with (see my recent posts about Hillbilly Elegy for substantiation of the latter point). Maybe when these Appalachians are presented as the victims of Big Pharma, we can muster some sympathy for them?
Plus, as Margaret Sullivan pointed out in her mid-April piece in the Washington Post, “Great local reporting stands between you and wrongdoing. And it needs saving.” Sullivan quotes Kelly McBride, vice president of the Poynter Institute, regarding Eyre:
I so admire his dedication to the people of Appalachia, which he has approached not only as an excellent reporter but as a member of the community.
Speaking of journalists and publishers being members of a community, even more exciting to me than Eyre’s win was the recognition given Art Cullen of Iowa’s Storm Lake Times, winner of the 2017 Pulitzer for Editorial Writing. The paper, published twice weekly, is based in Storm Lake, population 10,076, the county seat of Buena Vista County, in the northwest part of Iowa. NPR’s “On the Media” did this podcast on the Pulitzer win. I delighted in reading this “take no prisoners” series of editorials, most of which boldly took on BigAg and Governor Terry Branstad in one way or another. Among the issues raised were diversion of tax dollars that had been earmarked for school infrastructure improvements, used instead to clean up pollution attributable to the agri-industrial complex, as well as the fact that the Farm Bureau had stepped in to cover the county’s legal fees in relation to that pollution, thus creating a conflict of interest. Cullen also took up the problem of school funding schemes giving rural schools short shrift. The Storm Lake Times is a family affair (Art is the editor, his brother the publisher, his wife the photographer and his son a reporter), and one clearly adept at the use of FOIA requests. This is the sort of advocacy every community–rural or urban–needs. It is advocacy that asks hard questions of politicians, corporations, and other moneyed interests, journalism that looks out for the underdog.
I can’t even say that of the statewide newspaper in my home state, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. If its Twitter feed is any indication, the paper covers little more than automobile accidents and shootings. In tandem with its publication last year of my op-ed about the risk of an industrial hog farm polluting the Buffalo National River (which runs through my home county) and sickening local residents, the Democrat-Gazette published an obnoxious editorial that suggested it was tired of the “he said, she said” nature of the “boring” debate over the industrial hog farm (which, I might add, was the first of its kind in the state, permitted without notice even to the National Park Service). The editorial suggested–apparently tongue in cheek–that the concentrated animal feeding operation might “enhance” the river. Geez. Contrast that irresponsible stance with the Storm Lake Times concerns about agricultural ground water and river pollution and who will pay for its clean up. No comparison. The media really can make a difference, not least in our understandings of right and wrong–and, for that matter, science.
All of this reminds me of a change I’ve seen in my own hometown newspaper in the era of Trump. I only noticed a few months ago that the Newton County Times was carrying the syndicated editorials of Dick Polman, a frequent critic of Trump, but apparently it was picking these up for its online edition as early as late 2015. Previously, editorials were always written by the local editor, and they were virtually always about (very!) local issues, typically skirting controversies (like the industrial hog farm). Letters to the editor were the forum where the county’s old-timers (typically conservative) duked it out with the newcomers (often more liberal/progressive), including the back-to-the land crowd that began showing up in that corner of the Ozarks in the 1960s and 1970s.
More recently, though, by publishing syndicated op-eds like “Moscow on the Potomac,” (by Polman) the Newton County Times is sharing (promoting?) views that are highly critical of Trump, even though a vast majority of the county’s voters chose Trump in November. On the other hand, I’m also seeing the paper pick up op-ed columns like this one by Michael Reagan, President Reagan’s son. Maybe the paper is playing both ends against the middle, but balance is better than blind loyalty to conservativism, especially when Trump is (apparently) the new standard bearer for it.
I’ll be interested to see if this newfound editorial balance in my hometown weekly (owned by Phillips Media Group, a regional chain) alienates long-time subscribers. I’m reminded of this story last December about the high price a small-town Oklahoma newspaper is paying for endorsing Hillary Clinton for President.
In this era of liberal and conservative media echo chambers, I can’t help wonder what role local and regional papers might play in bridging the divide. If they can help small-town folks appreciate the need for checks and balances on government–like the Storm Lake Times–that could be a good thing. Ditto if they can be a voice for the needs and concerns of the common person, reflecting balance, telling both sides of the story, engaging empathically on tough issues. Trump has given populism a bad name of late, but a little populism from local media outlets could be a good thing, especially if they can leverage their trusted stance within a community to help explain complicated issues such as corporate greed that’s fueling the opioid epidemic (like Eric Eyre demonstrated), or the economics of free trade, the mid-to-long-term pros and cons of which are rarely self-evident.
If you don’t already do so, I recommend following some smallish, local or regional news outlets on Twitter or Facebook. I have been following the Grand Forks (North Dakota) Herald for several months (see resulting blog posts here and here), along with the WV Gazette Mail, and it’s interesting to see not only the local news they report, but also what national headlines they pick up, including the political ones. I also recommend the Daily Yonder, associated with the Center for Rural Strategies. It’s been around a bit longer than my Legal Ruralism blog (we’re talking the decade plus mark) and has far more writers, readers, and a broader subject matter reach than I do. If you don’t believe my admonition to take this forum folks seriously, see this recent feature on Nieman Lab.
In this highly polarized era, we need to look for common ground, and one way to do that is to educate ourselves about what concerns folks in rural America. And if your instinct is to laugh at those things, try to keep the mocking and ridiculing to yourself. I used to think that rural and working class folks weren’t paying attention to what coastal elites said about them. Now, it’s clear they are… with the help of uber conservative outlets (and perhaps some Russian bots). One thing should be abundantly clear to us at this point: making rural and conservative folks the butt of our jokes isn’t going to get us out of our current political crisis.