In numerous polls, large numbers of Americans say “the media” regularly present “fake news,” ranging from skewing to downright lying.
But they really are talking about the national “media,” a club that’s difficult to define and whose view is insular, to say the least.
A few dozen outlets, from TV networks to national newspapers to online entities, cover Washington. Their standards for accuracy and fairness, and their journalism credentials in general, run the gamut.
Across the country, thousands of other “media” operations operate. Those are local newspapers.
Local papers don’t lie, or spin, about the president, the Congress, the GOP, the rigged election, Bill Barr, Mitt Romney, or Lafayette Square. Why? Because they do not cover them.
They cover the Allentown City Council. The Cook County Commission. Taos Town Hall. The Raleigh Rescue Mission homeless shelter. The Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks minor league baseball team.
They cover car wrecks and murders and parades and turkey dinners. They give the latest updates on the chance of rain this weekend, or the tornado threat, or the winter storm warning, or the path of the hurricane. They write obituaries and restaurant reviews. They profile high school valedictorians.
I spent nearly a half-century as a reporter, my dad before me. Between us, we put in more than seven decades in the newspaper business in South Florida. We almost never wrote about Washington. Most of our colleagues didn’t, either.
And we didn’t speak off the tops of our heads on live TV. We researched and double-checked and edited and proofread and “lawyered” before we published anything. We didn’t do fake news, whether it was about Pennsylvania Avenue or Atlantic Avenue.
And yet local newspapers regularly are attacked for lying about things in Washington about which they don’t write. Trust me. I got those calls.
Or they’re just told that they lie in general, because, after all, Joe Scarborough and Sean Hannity lie, and aren’t media folks all the same? I got those calls as well.
I’d ask, “When we wrote that a driver was charged with running a stop sign, or the vote for the new park was 3 to 2, or the fireworks show starts at sundown, or a tree fell on a car down by the riverfront, where did we lie?” The caller said, “I don’t read your newspaper. But you just do.”
No one fears MSNBC or The Wall Street Journal or the Huffington Post will shut down. But across America, it seems a local newspaper closes almost every day. Changing patterns have a lot to do with that terrifying trend. But a good deal stems from public attitudes toward national outlets, for which local newspapers are unfairly tarred, even though they are different animals.
Someone always will be around to cover the president’s summit. Who will cover the city council meeting?
The integrity of the Washington “media” is an important topic for discussion. It would be nice to hear a conversation about local news, and how that critical tool of democracy can survive.