Lose Newspapers and You Lose Your Democracy

Lose Newspapers and You Lose Your Democracy

Lose Newspapers and You Lose Your Democracy

Without independent journalism, Trump and other charlatans will thrive.


I had a different column when I woke up on deadline day, but I wrote this one, not because any major news had broken—yes, the FBI raided the office of President Trump’s personal lawyer—but because our country and our democracy are in the midst of an ongoing emergency, and our embattled media is unable or unwilling to explain it.

What inspired my switch was Politico’s publication of the results of a study that demonstrateda clear correlation between low [newspaper] subscription rates and Trump’s success in the 2016 election, both against Hillary Clinton and when compared to Romney in 2012. Those links were statistically significant even when accounting for other factors that likely influenced voter choices, such as college education and employment, suggesting that the decline of local media sources by itself may have played a role in the election results.” It’s an enormously detailed study, and the data confirm what newspaper reporters and editors have been trying to tell a complacent public for years: “Lose us and you lose your democracy.” Walter Lippmann explained the problem in The Atlantic Monthly back in 1919: “The quack, the charlatan, the jingo, and the terrorist, can flourish only where the audience is deprived of independent access to information.”  

However flawed our most important media institutions may be, this deprivation is something your columnist has been shouting about as long as he has been a columnist. Today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we have lost more than half of the newspaper jobs we had just 15 years ago. What is less well known is how much worse the problem is in the middle of the country, where Trump has been so successful in suckering voters into voting against their own interests. According to a 2017 Politico report, 73 percent of all Internet-publishing jobs are concentrated in coastal cities like New York City; Washington, DC; and Los Angeles.

These numbers, together with the Politico study, bring the extraordinary battle currently being waged by the remaining staff numbers at The Denver Post into sharper (and more alarming) focus. The newspaper, which serves a city of 700,000, has been systematically decimated by its greedy owner, the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, which is in the process of laying off roughly two-thirds of its newsroom. The remaining staff have embarked on a campaign to find a savior. They have made a public demand for Alden to cease its raid on the public’s right (and need) to know what is going on inside its community and country. As one of its reporters tweeted, “The @denverpost is being murdered by its owners.… We need a new owner, or we are going to get shut down (and soon).” 

What will replace it? Well, there’s Sinclair, whose Pravda-style of robotic reporting is specially designed to mislead its viewers and turn them into willing victims of Trump-friendly disinformation. Thanks to Deadspin, we can all see its purposeful attempt to undermine Americans’ ability to get the truth about their country from the media. Then there are the naked plays by right-wing billionaires like the Koch brothers, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, and Robert and Rebekah Mercer to publish hateful propaganda under the guise of “news.” These oligarchs feed bile and bullshit to the people they oppress, and convince them to blame immigrants, African Americans, Arabs, (some) Jews, and uppity women for their plight. Robert Mercer, we learned recently from the Center for Responsive Politics, funds not only the hate site Breitbart News and the secret spy company Cambridge Analytica but also something called Secure America Now, which is dedicated to ginning up fear of imminent “Muslim takeovers of France, Germany and the United States,” as The Washington Post put it.

We don’t know how much money these people invested in these potentially proto-fascist enterprises, because so-called dark-money organizations are not required to release the names of their funders. And to be honest, I don’t think the source of the these apparently endless funds are what is most important here when you consider the fact that Rupert Murdoch’s empire, particularly Fox News, does the same thing openly and with virtually no public sanction or personal embarrassment for its owners or executives. It’s hard to imagine a scarier nightmare than allowing this country to be guided by a person who takes his cues from nefarious know-nothings like Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson, and Sean Hannity. But, lo and behold, we’re living that terrifying waking dream. The lunatic imaginings of the jerks on Fox & Friends now guide the most powerful person on earth. As The Guardian reports, “The show manages to serve as a court sycophant, whispering in the ear of the king, criticizing his perceived enemies and fluffing his feathers.” Close examinations of Trump’s tweets demonstrate a near perfect relationship between the show’s hosts’ malevolent musings and the nonsense that emanates from Trump’s Twitter feed. On average, according to PunditFact, commentators on Fox, Fox News, and Fox Business tell at least most of the truth 22 percent of the time, and lie 60 percent of the time; much of it racist and sexist, and 100 percent of it stupid. (That last statistic was my own calculation.)

Our political system has clearly fallen victim to “the quack, the charlatan, the jingo, and the terrorist,” and too many of our most powerful and influential individuals are letting it happen with a barely audible whimper of protest. It’s not just Trump’s buildings (or his “pants” as PunditFact would have it) that are on fire; it’s the Constitution and potentially, the country itself. I’d say we are long past the moment for shouting.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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