- Glenn Sonnenberg
Musings from the Bunker 8/12/20
The founders were onto something when they considered the value of a free press to a democracy. As opposed to accusing them of being the “enemy of the people,” the founders realized the important position the press has in a free and functioning democracy. Thomas Jefferson noted the following in 1787:
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Washington was even more direct, saying “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
The press if far from perfect. They often make mistakes. And sometimes they blur the distinctions among news, analysis and opinion. Yet for all the challenges, for all their faults, and for all the complaints they may receive, they are essential to an informed public. And an informed public is critical to our democracy.
Yet the press is under attack, not only from those who purport to diminish their impact but also from technologies that threaten the very nature of journalism. While national papers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have the resources to compete on a national scale with the various “news” alternatives on the internet, not all are so fortunate. Local newspapers are on the ropes—they can’t hope to compete at a large scale. One such “local” paper is the newspaper of record for America’s second largest city.
THE CASE FOR THE LOS ANGELES TIMES
We all should be subscribing to the L.A. Times. Everyone who gets these mailings can afford it. I think it is our civic duty to do so.
A founding tenet of this nation is the free dispersion and debating of information. This country has boasted a startling number of newspapers and viewpoints from its founding through the turn of this century, but then things changed. I think there are five things that have led to the decline of regional and local journalism. These things contribute to our becoming less literate and less informed:
• News organizations figured out that they could generate more viewers, subscribers and advertising revenue, if they appealed to a definable segment of the population. News became “curated” by the networks. Back in the day, we knew Walter Cronkite was a left-of-center moderate, but it didn’t prevent him from reporting the news from both the left and the right. Now, catering to the center is a loser’s game. Today, one is hard-pressed to find anything that would fly against the prevailing views of Fox or MSNBC.
• News organizations learned that sensationalism sells. That’s why nearly every news story on CNN is headed “breaking news” and why every car chase, every utterance from the Supreme Leader, and every possible TMZ-worthy news story is of primal importance. And the only place to get “24 hour sensationalism” is on cable news or on-line. The only thing local news has to compete with the immediacy of the “breaking news” promised by national media is car chases.
• News became “free” and “democratized.” Now everyone can be a journalist and everyone can be a publisher. Just throw your stuff on the internet. Blog away. No fact checking, no editing, no accountability. And it’s free! How much more exciting to read the rantings of self-proclaimed opinion leaders and fringe conspiracy theorists than to read the workaday journalism in the local newspaper!
• News became nationalized. We have become obsessed with the national news, to the detriment of international and local news. The national news has been redefined to focus on the blood sport of endless elections, focused on the “horse races” more than the issues. In focusing only on big national stories, we neglect—to our detriment—what is going on near where we live and issues that will affect our communities most directly.
WHY WE SHOULD CARE ABOUT LOCAL NEWS
We currently have a vacuum of national leadership and it is pretty clear that our national legislative process is broken—bipartisanship is a thing of the past and our President just wants to keep expanding his powers. Our effect on these things is negligible, at best. But what REALLY affects us most of the time is local news, to wit:
• If you care about education, it is funded by county taxes and it is administered by local school districts. Sure the State is involved in curriculum, but it’s a local issue (and most assuredly not a national issue).
• If you care about policing or racial equality, law enforcement is by-and-large a local issue, with local law enforcement.
• If you care about homelessness, food insecurity, or poverty, these issues are primarily the purview of local government.
• If you care about infrastructure, most of our highways, power, sewers, water, and other infrastructure elements are local (or State) in scope.
• If you care about land use, mass transit, minimum wage, public safety, zoning, and on and on, these issues are most affected by what happens locally.
• If you care about local culture and the arts, their primary outlet to inform our community of goings-on, and to read thoughtful review and analysis of that culture, is through local media.
• And where else can one get quality sports reporting on local teams?!
BACK TO THE L.A. TIMES
We need to be as informed about local issues as we need to be informed about national issues. Maybe more so. We need our city councils, county supervisors, educational leadership and all who hold power and authority to be held accountable. We need a vibrant, robust local journalistic culture (which goes beyond merely the Times) that can be our interlocutors, the investigative journalists, those who do in depth analysis of the successes and failures of programs and politicians.
But we also need local news. The Times cannot merely be the news of the West Side or the government. It should cover all neighborhoods, appeal to all ethnicities. My understanding is that this is happening. We need local news not only to inform us of what is happening in our own communities, but also what is happening in other communities in Greater Los Angeles—communities that may be different from our own. Plus, we need local news for the coverage of our sports teams and our arts—theatre, symphony, popular music, and art.
A friend the other day suggested yet another reason for local journalism, particularly in these “pandemic times.” It is well documented that we’re lonely, detached, and isolated from each other. The attachment we seek is going to happen in our communities—not nationally. We need each other and we need to be engaged with each other. Local journalism promotes these connections—within our communities and hopefully with neighboring communities.
Far from being the “enemy of the people,” as our President alleges, the press is the “hero of the people.” They must be supported, protected, and actively read.
Thanks, Julie Robinson for correcting me on the name of the Philip Roth book, The Plot Against America.
Stay healthy and safe,