By Donald Morrison
The George Floyd verdict has given us plenty to ponder. Not just police killings and racial justice, but how we think generally. It ain’t pretty.
A new survey by the University of Massachusetts-Amherst found that most Americans believe Derek Chauvin’s conviction for murdering Floyd was correct. That’s fine, but if you dig down a bit, you’ll see that 92 percent of Democrats feel that way, while only 47 percent of Republicans do.
Our partisan pandemic is raging out of control. Fortunately, there’s a potential cure. And it’s right here on our doorstep.
But first, the news. According to Pew Research, large numbers of Republicans and Democrats think the other side is “closed-minded,” “unintelligent” and “evil.” Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, faith in science has declined among Republicans, risen among Democrats.
More than 80 percent of Dems have chosen to get vaccinated, but only half of Republicans. Whatever the subject — taxes, climate change, voting access, LGBTQ rights — America is a house divided against itself.
That’s partly because our two major parties have found it more efficient, more emotionally satisfying, to focus on their core constituencies than to attract voters from the middle. Nearly every issue nowadays gets politicized. Cable news outlets evidently think it’s better for ratings if they choose between those two versions of reality, rather than trying to bridge them.
Cable news has also learned that opinion is cheaper than reporting. Thus, much of what passes for “news” these days is actually a few talking heads commenting on the news. Social media, meanwhile, has become an echo chamber for partisan ranting and conspiratorial exoticism.
There is another, less obvious reason for our growing divide: the decline of local news coverage. Since 2000, the U.S. has lost nearly 10 percent of its daily newspapers and one-quarter of its weeklies. Total circulation has fallen by almost half. Many of the 1,250 or so dailies that survive are being bought up by hedge funds whose business models involve cutting the news staff.
The decline of newspapers has much to do with the migration of advertisers and readers to the internet. But news-themed internet sites are not taking up the slack, especially when it comes to local coverage. A new Harvard Nieman Lab study of local news that’s available online found that 60 percent of it was produced by newspapers, even though they accounted for only a quarter of the outlets.
Local broadcast news is also hurting. The Reagan administration ended the Federal Communications Commission’s so-called Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to cover matters of “public interest,” i.e. news, and to make sure that differing views are heard. In 1996, the FCC also dropped its rules limiting corporations from owning large numbers of local stations. One result of those moves was the explosion of hyperpartisan “talk radio,” freed from the surly bonds of fairness. Another consequence was the takeover of locally owned stations by large chains.
These behemoths, like iHeartMedia and Sinclair Broadcasting, have replaced much of their local coverage with centrally produced programming. A 2019 study in the American Political Science Review found that “stations bought by Sinclair reduce coverage of local politics, increase national coverage and move the ideological tone of coverage in a conservative direction.”
Public radio and television have tried to fill the local news gap, and they do a fine job. But listener-supported radio outlets in the U.S. are outnumbered 15-to-1 by commercial stations. Likewise, only 385 of the country’s top 1,800 TV stations are members of the Public Broadcasting System.
The U.S. is becoming a nation of “news deserts,” areas whose residents must turn to national media for their information. And those outfits, as I noted, are perceived to be increasingly partisan. They’re also oblivious to poll findings that Americans these days want more consensus and civility in public discourse.
National media give them pretty much the opposite. Pew Research found that Americans with the most extreme views tend to get their news largely from cable TV.
How do we break this fever? As I hinted earlier, one possible palliative is right here at home: local news media. They are closer to their audiences and sponsors, and thus less likely to indulge in confrontation and partisanship. They also cover state and local government more closely, keeping politicians honest.
A 2019 study by the Knight Foundation found that Americans trust local news organizations far more than national ones and consider hometown journalists more “caring,” “trustworthy” and “unbiased” than their big-time counterparts. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Research has long shown that we tend to consider our neighbors to be kinder and more reliable than we do strangers.
So, if you want to help heal America’s partisan divide, subscribe to your local newspaper, give to your local public broadcasting station. They need us. And right now, we really need them.