Journalism One More Time

Timothy Snyder is one of the many pundits who issue Substack letters; I was unfamiliar with him when I came across his letter titled “Life as a Lie.”

The essay is lengthy, and focuses primarily upon the political effects of what we’ve come to call “Big Lies.” It is well worth reading, and pondering just where we are politically in the wake of Trump’s lies, both big and small, but I was particularly struck by his description of one of  the consequences of the current disarray in–and arguably, inadequacies of– contemporary journalism.

The essay was essentially about the social  importance of truth, and as Snyder writes,

…Perhaps most fundamentally, truth needs everyday champions. In every case I have mentioned — Putin’s war in Ukraine beginning in 2014, Trump’s 2016 campaign, Santos’s 2022 campaign — we simply lacked the foreign correspondents or investigative journalists. The only pre-election coverage of Santos’s lies was in a local newspaper, which contradicted his claims to great wealth. No larger medium picked it up in time. If we had more newspapers, and if we had more reporters, this story would likely have developed, and Santos would likely not have been elected.

This is the underlying sadness in the media brouhaha about Santos. Once a few facts were revealed (in a New York Times story on December 19), the television talk shows and social media could unleash a firestorm of indignation. But that was too late. The point of journalism is not to be outraged afterwards, but to prevent outrages from happening. It is not our role as citizens to be angry after an election. It is our role to vote calmly on the basis of what we should know. And we just don’t know what we should.

The problem is not that media are not alert. The problem is that the correct media are ceasing to exist. Talk shows can only talk about what someone else investigates. The internet can repeat, but it cannot report. We speak about the news all day, but pay almost no one to get out and report it. This rewards people who lie as a way of life. Every political career demands investigation at its beginnings, and most American counties lack a daily newspaper. That is where we are, and it has to change.

That last paragraph says it all. 

We are awash in commentary and in “news” sites that simply aggregate reports generated by others. The electronic media–radio and television news–take many of their cues from those same newspaper stories. What we have lost, with the closure of more than 2000 newspapers over the past few years, is the actual investigative coverage that makes commentary and aggregation possible. That loss is especially acute at the local level, but as Snyder writes, it is also visible in the shrinking number of foreign correspondents and overseas bureaus.

My husband and I generally watch the national evening news on NBC, and we used to joke that whenever the anchor introduced a story from another country, we would next see Richard Engel. We concluded that he was the only foreign correspondent NBC had, since he popped up in country after country, and we speculated about the number of frequent flyer miles he must have amassed.

Back in 2015, The Columbia Journalism Review reported that

Between 1998 and 2011, at least 20 US newspapers and other media outlets eliminated all their foreign bureaus, according to American Journalism Review (ajr). Elsewhere, the number and size of those bureaus of have shrunk dramatically.

Democracy depends upon an informed citizenry. Today, due to the continued shrinkage in what used to be called the “journalism of verification,” citizens face two confounding problems: much of what we need to know is not being reported, and–thanks to the exponential growth of purveyors of spin, propaganda and conspiracies–we aren’t sure what portion of what we are reading is credible or true.

The uncertainty this breeds is, in my opinion, one of the reasons for our current political tribalism. In the absence of thoughtful, adequate and credible reporting, Americans have chosen to trust the party they consider most likely to be trustworthy (or at least, committed to the same general goals and values they hold).

This may all shake out in the end, as various entities experiment with innovative business models. I certainly hope so.

But in the interim–and we can only hope it is just an interim–local news deserts and inadequate coverage of matters beyond our borders impoverish democratic deliberation and impede sound decision-making.

We can’t have democratic governance without adequate, reliable information.

20 thoughts on “Journalism One More Time

  1. A very sad trend in our only decent local paper, The Raleigh News & Observer, alongside the shrinkage in local and investigative reporting, is the proportional increase in “newsertainment” coverage. Of course, there is extensive sports coverage. But now added to that are more imported stories about travel, cooking, media celebrities, etc.. And the newest thing is a series of pop lotteries/voting among readers, not expert reviewers, on which food establishments (I hesitate to call them restaurants) serve the best: tacos, hot dogs, burgers, craft beer, barbeque, biscuits (this is the South), etc..It is clear what age “readers” they are trying to attract with this – competing with Yelp? I doubt many, if any, get their paper on their driveway.

  2. When we refer to “cultural” wars, one often overlooked aspect is the lack a reading public, and the joy of language – words – that used to exist. Yes, of course I use the Internet for research, but I sincerely miss the card catalogs that provided a directional arrow to that row of shelves where a broader knowledge of my subject could be explored. Newspapers are dying because the general public do not really read, nor do they enjoy it. Old as I am, I remember my trepidation (now there’s a fine word) at the cultural changes in the 1980s. America, as a whole, deserves the government(s) it elects; unfortunately there are some of us who do not.

  3. Timothy Snyder first came to my attention when his On Tyranny appeared on the Times best sellers list, short but on point, compelling. . . a friend recommended Bloodlands which chronicles the Stalin and Hitler genocides. It’s brilliant. I’ve also been watching his History of Ukraine class from Yale on YouTube.

  4. “social importance of truth” Does this term refer to news reports on all issues; environmental, infrastructure, technological, medical, educational, political, local, state and federal truths as a coverall reference? News this morning is seeking the “truth” behind the technological failure in the FAA computer system which delayed or cancelled thousands of flights, just days after the Southwest fiasco of leaving thousands of travelers trapped in airports for days. We were forced to “store” thousands of bodies in refrigerated trucks till they could be buried due to Trump’s lies about the Covid-19 situation and his recommended treatments of injecting bleach, getting out into the sunlight and turning thermostats up to 95 degrees. Are these “socially important” issues related to society living together communally or is TRUTH necessary to provide life-and-death answers to our survival of all humans?

    Let’s talk about George Santos; the current GOP poster boy for their party. He has followed in their society of lies regarding his lack of qualifications as a candidate and his questionable donation sources, promises and uses. The current “dog-and-pony” show of a few Republicans calling for his removal when those of us who have paid attention the past SEVEN YEARS are aware of the truth that no action will be taken against Santos. He has no qualification other than his number listed among Republican party members and his number is vital in maintaining their slim majority in the House. His protection was covered in full by McCarthy’s caving in to the Freedom Caucus who now rule him and the majority of House members. There were not even SIX Republicans strong and honest enough to come forward to vote for Rep. Jeffries to save the House from the Freedom Caucus; they cower among the shadow faction of Republican Representatives.

    TRUTH could have saved us from this current Constitutional Crisis had it been used in 2015 when Trump slithered down that escalator to announce his often repeated threat to run for president. “Democracy depends upon an informed citizenry.” Republicans ignored decades of Trump information of lies, thievery, sexual escapades and switching political parties more often than he switched wives to settle into the party which promised him the greatest profit. How many of them today qualify to “socially” interact with The Donald at Mar-A-Lago which became the Second White House once his financial situation became too uncomfortable in New York City?

    Contemporary Journalism is in its death throes and has been since before the turn of the century. I am an old, and quickly aging, high school dropout with a GED, living at grass roots level and peering through the weeds at my nation succumbing to the Big Lies and the Small Lies forced on us with Truth fading into the past. My generation will soon expire; leaving no one to remember when Americans could rely on the government, warts and all, to protect us from the enemies within who have always been there but never in control until Trump.

  5. I hope everyone read JoAnn’s last sentence!

    Sheila – your supposition seems to be that with “truth” we would make different decisions. I am not sure of that anymore. I suspect that if the truth about now “Congressman Santos” was revealed earlier, he would have lost. All that mattered was that he had the “R” after his name – I have no faith that it would have changed that outcome.

  6. Yes, information is crucial and the only team I’m blaming is the GOP of NY. They failed to vet Santos. Sure the journalists covering that district did find inaccuracies in his resume and what did they do? The GOP ran him anyway! Why? Who gave him 700k to Santos’ campaign? Smells like Russia. He bragged about his trips to Moscow several times, but sure, why believe that?

    There are companies that do background checks all over the states. My background check was probably used by the Immigration Department as we processed my spouse’s green card and subsequent citizenship. It’s stunning to realize the international company I worked for has ethics that our government doesn’t.

    I’m furious that we allow a corrupt party that is the GOP to be members in our government after they lie on their resumes or participate in a coup d’etat. We definitely need to purge liars but then we’ll probably find a couple of corrupt D’s and stop. Let’s remove them too.

  7. Anita Kirchen – I would always hesitate to fall back “kids these days don’t…” arguments. I suspect people read more now then ever. It may be in 142 character chunks and short posts and blogs and etc., but I think the total volume of reading is up. People not reading isn’t the cause of widespread issues with (reliable) news availability. News is no longer seen as a loss leader that is worth investing in to bring in readers. When you fire all the real journalists because they negatively affect your stock prices with their insistence on being able to buy food, you should probably expect people to stop buying your information. How many “new hot bars!” articles can one possibly need? And, obviously, newspapers themselves rested far too easily on their long held news domination and never fixed their funding models post internet arrival. The closest most newspapers got to getting on board with the internet was firing all their editors – after all, why pay to have it right the first time when you can fix the mistake later in real-time?

    I wouldn’t blame “kids these days” for any of the basic problems.

  8. Today’s NY Times has an article relevant to Sheila’s post. The paper went back to a dozen Republican voters they had discussed Trump’s record with a couple of years ago. They were asked if they had changed their minds about Trump, based on the hearings about the January 6 Insurrection.

    Not a single one said their opinions had changed. That is ominous. As someone else mentioned today, Jo Ann’s last sentence is important.

  9. NPR had the right model for telling truthful stories, but the government also cut its budget. Why would our government, most interested in being held accountable and earning the trust of its constituents and citizenry, do such a dumb thing?

    Because their billionaire donors told them to because the TRUTH is we aren’t the model of democracy; we are an oligarchy where the wealth is concentrated in .01% of the population. These wealthy few own the media companies and the politicians.

    I didn’t watch the 1/6 Committee, so did anybody see Charles Koch testify about his funding of the insurrection? What about Robert Mercer? The Publix heiress?

    I read the Executive Summary, and it was a complete whitewash.

    Also, for those loving to take shots at Twitter’s 140-character limit. This is enough to communicate your idea and then attach a link. All the truth-seeking journalists were fired from their media companies because they offended advertisers and owners.

    Little did these journalists know until recently the government intelligentsia was working with top executives at Twitter and Facebook to censor the truth-tellers in favor of mainstream media. Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg have already admitted that the CIA, FBI, DHS, and state police met with them frequently to shadow-ban the journalist’s work.

    The recent #TwitterFiles handed over by Elon Musk to Matt Taibbi, and Bari Weiss show the collusion of censorship. With the algorithms in place, they could ensure nobody could find you.

    Those journalists have now moved to Substack or set up their own websites to avoid being censored.

    #Fascism

  10. Before you jump on the doom and gloom bandwagon, read Sheila’s link about innovative business models. Problems have solutions.

  11. With the demise of local journalism, media outlets rely more and more on wire services like the AP and Reuters both of whom are overly sensitive to the security of their Mideast reporters who offer the Palestinian victimhood narrative to stay alive. So when for example the terrorist gangs enlist kids to carry out terrorist acts and the kids are killed by Israeli soldiers, the wire services report that israel is killing kids.

  12. I depend on most of my national and international news from BBC both on radio and internet. Local news is dominated by blood and sports, a few entertainment articles and food. I used to laugh when I saw gardening articles that touted plants from the southwest and south. Now I am insulted by the clear ignorance of those editors who thought that the information was of interest to the midwestern audience. (But,who knows, global climate change could make that information relevant soon.)

    I used to attend committee hearings and rallies at the statehouse until I realized that our collective voices meant nothing to those in power. The only voice they heard was that of those who bought their services one way or another.

    Townhalls have become an old strategy. Politicians could not control all access and public interactions. Now they use mostly photo ops and speaking engagements in front of friendly audiences (Young and Couch do this incessantly). Never interact with constituents, it might look bad if they have to admit to mistakes or ignorance.

    The fact that Santos got as far as he did should surprise no one. Morales is the Indiana version of that same story. Local reporting failed to reach outside of the urban areas where a news organization might still have a presence. If a candidate has an R after their name on the ballot, that was good enough for the willfully ignorant. I wonder how many other local and national candidates have been vetted thoroughly? Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference in the outcomes, but at least the facts were there to see if that beam in the eye didn’t obscure them.

  13. An “infornmed citizenry” is certainly the issue, and Todd’s mention of the N.Y.Times going back
    to those folks, and their response, does not bode well for the country. i have read of some people
    regretting their voting for TFG, but they might be the exception to that rule. People tend to stick
    with their first impressions, but it can be unhealthy to put on blinders in regard to information. Gee,
    how many examples of the consequences, often fatal, could one come up with about that?!
    Of course, if one is a Trump fan because he (supposedly) hates the same people you hate, that
    may be all the information that is relevant to you.

  14. I noticed some years ago that many broadcast outlets (including, but not limited to partisan operations like FoxNews and MSNBC) were offering mostly commentary, instead of shoeleather-on-the-pavement factual reporting. I found this dismaying even when I agreed with the commentary. I suppose it’s cheaper to hire a bunch of airbrushed spokesmodels to pose in front of a TV set and offer a non-stop stream of predictably partisan opinions than to pay for actual reporters, who tend to be cranky and cynical and expensive, and frequently unearth information that is not convenient for anyone’s partisan narrative.

    I suspect the main problem is a variation on Gresham’s Law, the well known adage that “the bad drives out the good”. In this case, the cheap and easy model of providing a steady stream of partisan spin from a comfortable studio is driving out the relatively expensive, slow, and difficult practice of paying experienced, knowledgable, dedicated professional reporters to dig out truths that the professional purveyors of propaganda would rather bury.

    Meanwhile, viewers have been bamboozled into thinking that seeing a familiar, handsome talking head voicing opinions they like to hear is “the news” (it’s not) and that since the steady stream of spin is free, there’s no need to pay for any other “news” service. Since facts uncovered by reporters cannot be copyrighted (for good reason), the parasitical talking-heads-in-a-studio model can freely profit from the work of reporters they haven’t paid for. The perfect end result of this tendency would be to have nothing but talking-heads-in-studios endlessly regurgitating and spinning nothing but what public-relations agents feed them, and no one actually digging for information that does not fit a “narrative” being pushed by insiders.

    Unfortunately I don’t have a ready answer. Facts cannot be copyrighted, for good reason (otherwise bad actors could simply suppress inconvenient information by copyrighting it). So we’re apparently stuck in a prisoners-dilemma situation, where freeloaders profit from the work of any reporters still working, and whoever pays for their work is out the expense with only a trivial benefit to show for it, the momentary advantage of “the scoop”, which in the modern world only lasts a few seconds before the talking-heads-in-a-studio repeat the story for free (if it fits their narrative.)

  15. … and now that I’ve looked up and read Snyder’s essay that SK linked, his final paragraph neatly summarizes what I was thinking in the preceding comment, just more concisely and elegantly.

  16. News requires digesting, entertainment doesn’t. It’s pre-chewed and swallowed for us. The busier we pretend the less time we have for reflection and the more dependent we become on letting our “downstairs people” tell us about all of life.

  17. There are publications that try to find the truth. They are news magazines, not daily papers, and they eschew ads from big donors. Some accept no ads at all. I won’t name them here, but will leave it to the ingenuity of readers to track them down. I am a subscriber to four.

  18. So tRy searching for good internet reporting.
    Subjects for YouTube:
    First Amendment Auditor, etc.
    The algorithm also notices you want harder news.
    Tune your algorithm.
    Y’all are moaning about the empty ground when the fruit is in the trees.

  19. Kudos to my local newspaper, The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. I continue to subscribe and have read it since I was young. Bless them for their excellent reporting, holding NE Indiana’s officials to account for their deeds and misdeeds!

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