The greatest threat to democracy in the United States today isn’t delusive Donald Trump, the sitting president of the United States who either can’t tell fact from fiction or doesn’t care.
The greatest threat to democracy in the United States today is an urban, elite media undermining the belief in the value of a free and independent press. At a time when the media should be emphasizing the importance of facts and underlining the reality that Americans can hold differing views on public policy without being wholly good or wholly bad, it is instead caught up in the self-important belief that it knows what is right, and anyone who disagrees is an idiot.
Case in point?
The big Politico story out today asserting that Trump thrives “in counties with the lowest numbers of news subscribers.”
Or, in simpler terms, the only reason we have to put up with this guy as President is because the stupid, country bumpkins listened to his bull and liked him.
Politico claims its analysis of “subscription data and election results” shows” a clear correlation between low 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.
“That gives new force to the widely voiced concerns of news-industry professionals and academicians about Trump’s ability to make bold assertions about crime rates, unemployment and other verifiable facts without any independent checks,” write Matthew Nussbaum, a product of Yale University, and Shawn Musgrave out of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. ‘Those concerns, which initially were raised during the campaign, were largely based on anecdotes and observations. POLITICO’s analysis suggests that Trump did, indeed, do worse overall in places where independent media could check his claims.”
Where to begin in disassembling this assumption filled mess of conclusions.
Maybe first with the clarification that the references to Yale and Columbia are not a knock on two very fine educational institutions but an observation on journalism. There was a time not all that long ago when the business wasn’t wholly dominated by those with college pedigrees.
And even among those who happened to have university diplomas, there were many who’d done their time in blue-collar jobs. It is there you learn that degrees are not always a good measure of intelligence. College degrees are a good measure of one’s ability to pass tests and play along with a college bureaucracy.
As a result, this country is full of people sometimes described as “educated idiots.” They have degrees to demonstrate they were taught things, but they don’t really know how to think.
Thinking people would see one thing immediately wrong with Politico’s analysis in this case: “subscription data.”
Is there any reason to believe subscription data has any correlation to how much news people consume today?
Only two in 10 people in the country get their news from newspapers, which is still the main subscription entity, the Pew Research Center for Journalism & Media reported in 2016. And for those under age 49, 10 percent or less are getting their news from newspapers.
Yes, digital subscriptions are growing, but they remain a tiny part of the news picture in a world where Pew reported that 57 percent of people still get their news from TV, which is free. Thirty-eight percent got their news digitally, according to Pew, which did not break out how many of those news websites are tied to TV stations with no reason to sell subscriptions.
Smart TV stations are trying to use online news as something of a loss leader to push people back toward watching the TV news where there is still a lot of money to be made on advertising.
And, of course, a lot of news – including that from Politico – remains free in the tubes.
In this environment, basing any analysis on “subscription data” is shaky.
But wait, there’s more.
Let’s go back to the claim of Nussbaum and Musgrave that Trump did bettter where “independent media” were checking his claims. Why would local, independent media waste time and resources doing that when the national media was all over it?
Small and medium-size papers across the country picked up wire service stories from national outlets fact-checking Trump. There were plenty of those stories. It’s doubtful there is anyone in the U.S. unaware of the president’s problem with facts.
The Americans of flyover country aren’t stoopid. They might not be the best spellers, but they aren’t stupid.
The issue isn’t whether people were aware or not. The issue is whether it mattered to them. And this might have as much to do with media credibility as with Trump’s credibility.
You don’t have to read much in the media these days to find simple, factual errors. And simple, day-in and day-out factual errors do more than anything to undermine media credibility.
Add in the nonsense that sometimes comes from reporters writing on subject matter about which they are clueless, season with a little liberal bias (yes, it exists though it isn’t as bad as some conservatives believe), and what do you get?
You get the 86 percent of Republicans who believe the media can’t get the facts straight, according to a Gallup poll last August.
The president can’t get the facts straight. The media can’t get the facts straight. Why even worry about facts? Let’s just go with our feelings. And there are a lot of people in this country today going with their feelings.
The same Gallup poll that found 86 percent of Republicans and about three-quarters of Independents believing the media can’t get it right found 62 percent of Democrats actually believing what they read. A significant part of this has to be due to their feelings aligning with the feelings of the reporters writing the stories because the reality is there is a lot of bad reporting these days, which brings this back to where it began.
“That Politico article on ‘news deserts’ doesn’t really show what it claims to show,” headlined NeimanLab this afternoon. A product of the Neiman Foundation at Harvard, NeimanLab is in the business of serious analysis of the news, though it does wander into the touchy-feely trough at times.
“(Politico’s) heart is in the right place, and the decline of local news really is a big threat to democratic governance. But the dataset it uses is far, far too sloppy,” the subhead on the story said, as if having your heart in the right place somehow makes up for sloppy work.
Without knowing it, NeimanLab might actually have outlined another big media problem right there. Reporters who make mistakes because their “hearts are in the right place” are all too often excused their errors which just encourages them to go on making mistakes.
In this context, it is worth noting NeimanLab reporter Joshua Benton never mentions Nussbaum or Musgrave by name while dissecting their “far, far too sloppy” reporting. That would probably be wrong in today’s Society of Polite Journalists. Friends do let friends write junk.
“This study doesn’t really show what people are claiming it does,” Benton does observe. “The underlying argument might be true, but the data the authors are using doesn’t prove their case.”
You don’t exactly have to be a Harvard scholar to figure that out.
Benton observes, as is observed above, that there are near infinite sources for news today.
“The study also seems to arbitrarily decide that the bottom 10 percent of American counties in newspaper circ are by definition ‘news deserts,'” he writes. “There’s no particular defense offered of that cutoff. And again, there’s no evidence offered that these places are really ‘deserts.'”
Actually, if you think about it, it would be hard to find a news desert in the U.S. these days. Even small villages in remote Alaska have cell-phone service, and you can call up news, like Politico, on your smartphone in those places.
And Benton makes important observation about some things that are factually known about the last election:
“What about during the 2016 election — maybe tons of people were getting their Trump and Clinton news from the local daily? Nope — when asked what was their main source of news about the 2016 election, only 3 percent said it was a local newspaper.”
Benton (who uses way too many explanation points in his writing) goes on to make some other good points:
“It is just ahistorical to say Trump’s campaign ‘succeeded in avoiding mainstream outlets.’ Candidate Trump gave tons of interviews throughout the primaries! And when he scaled those back in the general, one of his strategic shifts was shifting from national to local media! Whatever perfectly legitimate criticisms you want to make about how the media covered Trump, to say Trump ‘avoided’ coverage in mainstream outlets is just…wrong.
“They’re rediscovering the rural/urban divide. Cities and suburbs have more people, higher subscription rates, and more Hillary Clinton voters. Rural areas have fewer people, lower subscription rates, and more Donald Trump voters. Given those facts, it’s not that surprising that Politico would find that the counties with fewer newspaper subscribers were also more pro-Trump. (Correlation is not causation, etc.)”
The rural/urban divide in this country is big and growing. One sees it woven through the latest debate about gun control, wherein urban people who have lesser chances of getting shot want more gun control and rural people who have greater chances of getting shot don’t.
Benton’s critique of the Politico story goes on at length. It is well documented and reasoned, and seriously worth a read for all news junkies. He doesn’t, however, get into what the Politico story says about the media by its very existence, although this is part of the story.
Because of observations Benton makes at the very end of his analysis:
“I am absolutely willing to believe (and think there is at least pretty convincing evidence) that the decline of local newspapers has reduced engagement in the political process,” he writes. “I’d be very open to the idea that there is a statistical connection between the decline of local news sources and voting for Trump. (There’s plenty of evidence that Trump did extremely well among what political scientists call “low-information voters,” and there is a clear connection between low-information status and media consumption patterns.) The decline of local media is arguably the largest problem journalism faces today.”
It is impossible to disagree with that very last conclusion.
Local media is in trouble all across the country. It has lost both value and importance. Some of this is the fault of media itself. It isn’t very good. It tends toward shallow, boring, unaggressive and trendy. The “in-depth” reporting it does do usually piggybacks on what is being done nationally because it is always safest to follow the herd.
Local media in this country was at one time fiercely independent and pushed back at the media elitism of the voices of the nation’s city-states. Maybe if that sort of media still existed, Politico, the Washington Post, the New York Times and others would have a better idea of why they ended up with Trump in the White House.
They still want to believe the Russians elected him. They’re fixated on the idea the Russians did it. But there were no Russians in the voting booths of America. And there is no evidence the Russians tampered with electronic polling data.
Americans in parts of the country that feel forgotten voted for Trump out of anger and frustration. They voted against the system. They voted, dare one say, against what former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who lit the fire under the Trump uprising, called the “lamestream media.”
Crazy as it seems, the national media’s fact checking might have done more to help get Trump elected than the Russians did. They made it look like they were out to get him, which was for some people just another reason to vote for Trump.
Now he’s president, and Politico is trying to explain it by blaming the folks in the Heartland.
Maybe Politico should get some reporters off their asses and put some boots on the ground in rural areas. Maybe they should stop pontificating on what Middle Americans aren’t reading and go find out what they are reading, and more importantly why.
Maybe they’d get some idea as to why the poor, unwashed, ignorant masses don’t spend their meager but hard-earned money on news subscriptions. And maybe that would actually help local media, because this doesn’t.
All this does is make the people in the Heartland dislike the reporter who lives on down Main Street or across the pasture because this kind of Politico claptrap is associated with what journalism has become.