Covering Government

There is no subject nearer and dearer to the abiding mission of the Washington Monthly than how news media cover the operations of government. So the ongoing crisis in U.S. media–driven by corporate consolidation, the rapid decline in print media readership, the struggle to find financially viable ways to offer content online, the entertainment-driven race-to-the-bottom of electronic media outlets, and the downward spiral of public interest in “hard news”–is a big deal to us. And while here at PA we mostly focus on national politics and government, the media crisis is obviously most acute at the state and local levels, where newsrooms are vanishing and venerable newspapers folding or becoming sad, undernourished parodies of themselves at a rapid pace, even as local broadcast offerings are dominated by entertainment with a sprinkling of national news feeds, right-wing talk, and last night’s wrecks and shootings.

I say all this by way of mentioning the latest “State of the News Media” report from Pew, which focuses on TV coverage. Pew’s survey of national TV news outlets is interesting if somewhat depressing, noting the steady drift of cable “public affairs” content from news to gabfests and interviews (MSNBC, for example, devotes fully 85% of its airtime to commentary these days).

But it’s the data on local TV that’s really alarming. According to Pew, coverage of politics and government now accounts for an average of 3 percent of the airtime on local television “newscasts,” less than half the proportion registered in 2005. By comparison, 71% of newscast airtime is absorbed by crimes (or trials), traffic and weather, sports, and accidents/”bizarre events”/disasters. When combined with the cutbacks and disappearances afflicting print media, and the relatively small proportion of online content devoted to state and local government developments, you’ve got a host of governments operating virtually in the dark.

Kevin Drum notes the overall trend:

The Boston Phoenix closed up shop last week, part of a trend of community alt-weeklies shutting down. Local radio is mostly just chattering gasbags and syndicated blowhards. Metro dailies have all but abandoned local political coverage of the towns and suburbs that surround their urban core. Here in my neck of the woods, we discovered in 2010 that the city of Bell was enmeshed in a widespread corruption scandal, but since there were literally almost no reporters covering Bell, it went unnoticed for more than a decade.

Kevin goes on to note that a lot of the now-vanishing local political coverage was pretty bad, but argues it’s better than nothing, and I’d agree. But we do need to recognize that the rapid decline in the quality of local news coverage that preceded and then accompanied the collapse in quantity exacted its own peculiar civic price. For decades, the state and local bureaus of major newspapers, and the “investigative” units of local TV stations, focused their limited resources almost exclusively on the Pulitzer-bait of scandal coverage. I recall a period in the 1980s when a “crusading” editor took over my hometown paper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and concentrated almost all state government coverage on efforts to find and then publicize irregularities in the state’s child welfare system, which is the journalistic equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. Meanwhile, big developments at the state level (including those affecting the child welfare system) went almost entirely unnoticed.

“Corruption” investigations and scandal-mongering obviously serve a valuable public purpose as sort of a last-resort deterrent to the worst abuses. But absent broader and deeper coverage they do not necessarily improve real public understanding of politics and government, and instead encourage the easy cynicism of “they’re all crooks” attitudes that in turn feed not only apathy but the “false equivalency” memes that so afflict national political coverage today.

So even if there was a way to kick up local TV coverage of politics and government a bit, or replace dying print coverage with more robust online reporting, there’s just no substitute for the boring, in-depth coverage of state and local governments that’s been gone for decades in most parts of the country. And the downward quality trend is now well advanced at the national level. To cite just one example: one of the more sinister national political developments of recent vintage was the “K Street Project” of the Bush/Delay years, which was nothing less than an effort to forge an exclusive iron bond between the influence-peddling business and the Republican Party. Here at the Monthly, we’re very proud that we published the best and most thorough dissection of the Project, Nick Confessore’s “Welcome to the Machine,” back in 2003.

But the K Street Project didn’t get true media-wide attention until it became part of the Jack Abramoff “scandal” that involved gross and blatantly illegal influence-peddling. That scandal ended when Casino Jack went off to the hoosegow. Meanwhile, Abramoff’s frequent collaborator Ralph Reed was able to quietly resume his power-politics career, and the overall director of the K Street Project, Rick Santorum, came within a few thousand votes in the Michigan Primary of 2012 of having a solid chance at the Republican presidential nomination.

I have no particular answers to this quandary (other than a subscription to the Washington Monthly). But it’s helpful to remember as we watch the lights go out all over American journalism that some were bright, some were flickering, and some cast little more than distorted shadows on the landscape of politics and government.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.