And then, democracy fell (Part 2)

In my previous post, I discussed the effects that Trump’s Presidency has had on the local news networks. In particular, I noted that they are a dying industry forced to compete with the ostentatious antics of national news, which the President hand-feeds to large-scale media outlets. But,
does it matter that the President’s domination of the news cycle has led to local news deserts appearing across the country?

This blog post is, in part, inspired by the title of this book that I came across (and purchased) at Politics and Prose. The book discusses how the weakening of institutions, like the free press, lead to the decline of democracy.

It matters because it has caused the public to lose faith in the institution of the free press. The President has branded news outlets that speak negatively about him as “fake news.” People are wary about granting credibility to the news outlets that report his maleficence out of fear that the media is being unfairly slanderous and biased. Trump’s antagonistic rhetoric against the media has prompted wide-spread public distrust in the free press, and ultimately, the decline in meaningful consumption of valuable, local news.

With heads turned away from municipal and state-level officials, both elected and appointed, the opportunity for corruption reveals itself. The free press is one of the most reliable ways that voters and constituents hold their elected officials accountable to their actions. News deserts with fewer and fewer local news networks — the old “watch dogs” of locally elected officials — are remaining open to report on potentially unethical behavior. Local governments are able to turn a blind eye to the public’s standards. (There are also a wide array of immediate consequences that result from news deserts. Local newspapers are experiencing layoffs as demand for printed news declines, leaving educated, qualified individuals without jobs.) To borrow a metaphor made by Tom Stites from the Poynter Institute, “Deserts not only produce nothing nutritious for people, they also attract snakes, scorpions, vultures and cactuses armed with prickles.” The effects of local news deserts and the inflating corruption bubble that surrounds state and local government are utterly predictable.

I am not simply speaking theoretically, either. Studies have shown that communities with a dying local news industry are less civically engaged, and less likely to turn out to vote in elections. For the most part, no one would argue against the idea that free and fair elections by ordinary citizens is imperative to the functioning of democratic societies. The decline of local news, in this case, means that democracy logically falls with it.

On top of that bad news, the Poynter Institute conducted a study that showed differing “success” rates of online local news sources. The study found that advertising revenue is far more fruitful in wealthier (and consequentially, white) communities. The lack of substantial ad revenue disincentivizes local news outlets from establishing territory in lower working class communities of color throughout the United States.

Whether Donald Trump knows it or not, his rhetoric and inclination to participate in political theatrics has aided in the fall of local news. Their tragic, ongoing death is a direct result of a President that dominates the 24-hour news cycle. As the demand for local news steadily continues to decline, so does the public’s faith in their ability to make credible journalism. I am not arguing that the rug of democracy as we know it will be pulled from under our feet at the hands of Donald Trump. Maybe I am just paranoid, but it seems impossible to ignore the country’s shift toward a more authoritarian-style regime.

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