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.
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.