Political theatrics and the tragedy of local news (Part 1)

By: Kiley Roach

A few minutes before 9:00 PM on Thursday, January 10, roughly 30 students from the Washington Center flooded into the basement in their pajamas, notebooks out and pens at the ready. The students rearranged chairs and sofas to get the best view of the television screen mounted to the wall. The channel was turned to CBS News. Lester Holt greets the audience with breaking news. President Trump was giving his first ever formal address to the nation from inside of the Oval Office at prime time. At 9:00 PM on the dot, the students’ eyes had glued themselves to the monitor. The country held its breath.

Washington Center students gather around the television to watch President Trump give his first formal address to the nation.

Twelve minutes later, the students crossed their final T’s and dotted their final I’s. Their eyes divorced from the television screen for the first time since the address began. The room exhaled. After a few brief comments and analysis from news anchors, the camera changed locations to the inside of the Capitol Building. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi stood on the viewers’ right side, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to the left. They stood stern and unemotional, mimicking the defensive posture of Grant Wood’s favorite rural couple. They each spoke for a few minutes, ensuring the public that this was the President’s shutdown, not theirs. They told the tens of millions of Americans that they had tried to negotiate with the President, and that they wanted the government open again. American flags provided a backdrop to their remarks.

The President’s briefing and the Democratic leaders’ rebuttal put on an adversarial show to the likes of Law and Order: SVU. But this wasn’t Mariska Hargitay. This wasn’t mass produced television entertainment. This was the President of the United States. These were the top Democratic elected officials in the country. These were the most powerful individuals in the country hashing out their differences over border security on a public stage. This was political theater.

The era of Donald Trump a period of extreme hostility toward news outlets and journalists seething from the teeth of the White House. Regardless of who the villain in this story really is, the journalism industry is fully capitalizing on Trump’s openness and transparency. For a man who seems to hate the media, Trump is one of the most cooperative President’s journalists have ever seen. Editor-in-Chief of The Hill, Robert Cusack, called this oxymoronic era, “The Golden Age of Journalism.” In a meeting with Drake students, Cusack confessed that Trump’s domination of the 24-hour news cycle has made political journalism an incredibly profitable industry. There is seemingly no shortage of big news stories to cover coming straight out of the Trump White House. A Jack Shafer article from Politico echos this sentiment. “It’s easy to predict that instead of negotiating with reporters as equals, [Trump’s] administration will advance its agenda by feeding more pliant reporters material the way a trainer rewards circus animals.” He noted the struggle for “beats” and “scoops” to stay alive when they are almost immediately replaced by another, bigger story.

The American public, whether approvingly or unfavorably, is fascinated with Donald Trump. On the night of his prime time address, people abandoned their regular programming preferences and tuned into news networks to hear their elected leader’s rationalization for a wall at the Mexican-American border. As the star of a popular reality television show in the early 2000s and the wonder-boy of New York news papers in the 1980s and 1990s, Donald Trump is an entertainer at heart. The American public in 2019 is quick to forget that “Chief Entertainer” or “Celebrity-in-Cheif” is not one of the many roles of the President of the United States is endowed by the Constitution.

What does it say about the state of the free press that national news outlets cover him endlessly? Is it an implicit endorsement of Trump’s grandeur? I argue that it is, but the press cannot ethically ignore the President’s comments, policy decisions, or scandals simply because they have been criticized for covering him too much, especially when you consider how much money he drives into the national news industry.

But this excessive coverage comes at a cost. Because the national attention has been shifted towards national news, local news outlets are struggling to survive. Local news papers around the country are closing. Most counties in the US only have one or two daily newspapers, and the number is shrinking every day. [Click this link to view an interactive map showing the number of daily local news papers.] The widespread coverage of Donald Trump is causing issues pertinent to small communities and state politics to fall through the cracks. With all eyes turned toward to national stage, the American public is no longer paying attention to the behavior of the smaller, more localized institutions (like schocol boards, state legislatures, etc.) that they interact with every day.

Local news is not dead. Local news is slowly withering away, always falling short of the public’s desires. Supply and demand is not an economic principle that only applies to products and services; the free press at the local level has begun to fall victim to the unwavering nature of creative destruction. If local news continues to be an endangered species, there will be immense consequences for the state of American politics.

To find out what those consequences are and how we might stop them, stay tuned for my next blog post.

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