What Newspapers Can Do for a Democracy

From a New York Times column by Jamelle Bouie headlined “What Newspapers Can Do for a Democracy’s Wandering Spirits”:

Next week I’m giving a talk on journalism and democracy, and I thought I would use the newsletter this weekend to think out loud about the subject.

Much of the conversation around journalism and democracy concerns the problems of misinformation, disinformation and partisan silos. How do we ensure that Americans are getting accurate information? How do we help people resist conspiracy theories? How do we encourage readers and viewers to engage with perspectives outside their own?

I think these are important questions. But to the extent that the crisis in American democracy is shaped by the modern information environment, I don’t think the problem is misinformation, disinformation or partisan silos, because we’ve always had misinformation, disinformation and partisan silos.

The information environment of the early American Republic — the first years of the Constitution, leading up to the election of 1800 — was saturated with conspiracies and misinformation. For all intents and purposes, there was no press but the partisan press well into the 19th century, to the extent that local political machines produced their own newspapers for their supporters and patrons. And conspiracies, again, were the common currency of American politics.

We tend to remember the 20th century as the age of the broad-minded and objective journalist, but until the Second World War, the information environment of American life looked much like it did in the previous century, with tabloids and broadsheets competing with partisan outlets and ideological journals.

Our world of misinformation, disinformation and partisan news is a departure from the years during which a handful of large institutions dominated national news-making, but it’s a return to the world before those years, when the information environment was fractured and often unreliable.

If our information has almost always been fractured and unreliable, then our particular information environment can’t actually explain the problems facing American democracy.

In “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville examines the role of the free press in American democracy. Newspapers both provide information for the people and are constitutive of the people themselves. “It would diminish [newspapers’] importance to believe that they serve only to guarantee freedom; they maintain civilization.”

What Tocqueville means is that by disseminating information about the community and revealing the state of the community to itself, the free press helps constitute the groups and associations that act on that community and within it. “If there were no newspapers,” he writes, “there would almost never be common action.”

It often happens in democratic countries,” he continues, that many men who have the desire or the need to associate cannot do it, because all being very small and lost in the crowd, they do not see each other and do not know where to find each other. Up comes a newspaper that exposes to their view the sentiment or the idea that had been presented to each of them simultaneously but separately. All are immediately directed toward that light, and those wandering spirits who had long sought each other in the shadows finally meet each other and unite.

A vibrant press is one of the forces that helps shape individuals into members of a community with responsibilities and obligations toward that community. It acculturates them into political life and ties them to other, like-minded people.

That’s one reason that throughout American history, whenever there is a reform movement, there are newspapers and journalists associated with that reform movement, whether it’s the temperance movement or the abolition movement or the labor movement.

One of the most striking aspects of the modern information environment, as many people have observed, is the almost total collapse of local and even regional news outlets. Where once every town or city of even minor consequence had a newspaper — with reporters who helped the community understand itself through their work — now there are large parts of the country that exist in news deserts, where there is little coverage of anything, from local government to local events.

I think that this decline has played an important role in undermining America’s democratic institutions, as well as the public’s faith in democracy. It’s not just that the collapse of local news has made it harder to hold any number of public officials accountable — contributing to general cynicism about the ability of government to do anything constructive — but that Americans increasingly lack the information they need to participate in the political process in their communities.

“As Americans have shifted away from local news, turnout in state and local elections has fallen,” notes Brookings, “and communities that have lost reporters have seen fewer candidates run for local office.”

Americans have turned to national news and national news outlets to close the gap, but these larger institutions can’t replace what has been lost. By virtue of proximity, I can respond more easily when a local official is accused of wrongdoing. The same isn’t true of a member of Congress, especially if they aren’t my own. The information we get from national outlets is valuable, but it can also leave us feeling hopeless and impotent. And it can contribute to “political hobbyism,” a tendency to treat politics not as a cause for action and an essential part of citizenship, but as a game where the only goal — the only objective — is to somehow embarrass and humiliate our enemies.

There has always been an element of entertainment in politics — it’s part of living in a mass democracy — but the total devolution of politics into entertainment may have something to do with the absence of institutions that link our political awareness to something more local, something more concrete, than national political conflict.

Jamelle Bouie is a columnist for The New York Times. He was formerly chief political correspondent for Slate.

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