As government becomes less responsive to the Fourth Estate, it’s the governed who suffer most
I could tell something was bugging Bill when we sat down for lunch not long ago, and it didn’t take long to find out what it was.
Bill Fitzgerald and I have been friends for years. He’s the evening and night anchor for the newscasts of WTVR-TV in Richmond, the CBS affiliate in Virginia’s capital city. A lot of its coverage is of state and local government and politics.
A thoughtful, seasoned and soft-spoken journalist not given to rants, Bill was frustrated by the same trend that chafes reporters and editors nationally. Why, he asked, won’t government officials and elected officeholders respond to questions about significant issues confronting Virginians?
He didn’t have to specify what, specifically, he was referring to. I’ve watched him and WTVR end scores of stories about the serious, long-running dysfunctions of the Virginia Employment Commission with the notation that repeated calls requesting answers and interviews from VEC officials got no response.
“I would never overstate the importance of one TV affiliate in one city in Virginia, but it just seems like it does not matter,” he said (the emphasis his). “If a newsperson of a legitimate news operation says, week after week, ‘We asked to speak to the person in charge,’ and every week, they said, ‘No, they will not speak to us,’ or they just ignore us, well there was a time when that had an impact.”
I remember those times. I was part of them.
Back in the salad days of legacy journalism, when newspapers considered a 20 percent annual yield on investment as underperforming and owning a network broadcast affiliate in a city the size of Richmond amounted to a license to print money, public officials dismissed an inquiry from a bona fide outlet at their peril. Nothing raised the public’s eyebrows like the notation in a story that someone “ignored repeated requests for comment.”
How does it affect real people? Well, let’s use the example Bill offered.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin had vowed as a candidate to clean up the Dumpster fire the VEC had become under former Gov. Ralph Northam – an unresponsive bureaucracy that floundered for more than a year as hundreds of thousands of unemployment claims caused by the coronavirus pandemic accumulated and gathered dust starting in the spring of 2020.
Bill said he asked Northam face-to-face if the governor would make the former VEC director available to respond to legitimate, longstanding inquiries about thousands of people facing insolvency who spent hours on the phone and emailing the agency in vain, day after day, desperate for answers about their stagnating claims.
“He (Northam) flatly refused,” Fitzgerald said. “They were confident that they could run out the clock.”
Among his first official acts, Youngkin fired the agency’s former director, Ellen Marie Hess, replaced her with the current director, Carrie Roth, and promised swift results. Sure enough, on Feb. 21, the administration issued a press release crowing that VEC had slashed the number of claims by nearly 90 percent, from 246,273 to just 27,728.
That’s a phenomenal result! Unbelievable, you might say. So you can imagine the media calls for follow-ups and details about how an agency that couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time just weeks earlier had dispatched 225,145 claims.
“It was a 10-line press release that allowed all the powers-that-be to bloviate a little,” Fitzgerald said. “But the point was they announced this and then refused to talk about it. You cleared 200,000 cases at the VEC in five weeks? What cases were they? Were they first-time claimants? Were they appeals? Were they something else?”
“They refused, they refused, and they refused – they didn’t want to discuss it. But do the math: five weeks, 200,000-plus cases – 40,000 cases a week? That’s 6,000 cases every day, seven days a week. Did you talk to people? Did you just throw them in a Dumpster? How did that happen?” he said.
Now it’s late May. Those questions remain unanswered.
Government wasn’t always so unresponsive to the Fourth Estate. I had an advantage covering Virginia policymakers from the 1990s into the 20-teens for The Associated Press. An officeholder or agency could brush off a small town paper or radio station without much consequence. Knowing it was a correspondent whose copy could appear in minutes in newsrooms of all sizes across the state, nation or even the globe — including that small town outlet — had a sobering effect on public officials and institutions and their mouthpieces.
A lot has changed since then.
Mainstream news outlets, particularly those supported chiefly by advertising revenue, have seen their fortunes plunge, many to the point of enfeeblement or worse. Staffs have been pruned to the trunk, often starting with the most experienced and accomplished pros with the most perspective and institutional memory, leaving mostly the greenest (and least expensive) staff to find their way without mentors. Resources once devoted to covering government and public policy have been cannibalized to benefit shareholders, and nowhere is that more evident than the Virginia Capitol press corps — numerically a skeleton of itself 20 years ago, but still toiling valiantly.
Some news outlets were dealt to predatory buyers for whom providing thorough news coverage for their communities was never a primary (or secondary, or tertiary … ) interest. Some got snapped up by ideologically driven syndicates that view local outlets as platforms to disseminate, cultivate and advance a political or cultural viewpoint.
Market share — determined by audits of paid circulation or, in the case of legacy broadcast media, audience measurement services such as Nielsen — has declined over the years.
Increasingly, public figures, officials and institutions are bypassing traditional or “mainstream” media to micro-target their messages at select audiences via online channels such as social media, email, bloggers and influencers, and allied cable outlets.
It happens to some degree on both poles of the political spectrum, but it’s more prevalent on the right, said University of Mary Washington political science professor Stephen Farnsworth. That was among the findings of research conducted for “The Nightly News Nightmare,” a book Farnsworth co-authored 20 years ago with S. Robert Lichter that examines news media coverage of politics and elections.
“Ultimately, a lot of people in politics now see the political environment as a set of silos,” Farnsworth said. “Rather than the traditional idea of trying to grow your base, reaching beyond people who are automatically on your side, today’s politicians increasingly think they only need to talk to the true believers and make sure they turn out.”
So rather than broadcast the message to the public broadly and risk addressing discomfiting issues they’d sooner sidestep, they narrowcast to unquestioning, all-forgiving true believers who’ve already disciplined themselves to reject anything that challenges a favored political figure’s unsupported assertions.
“Narrowcasting can be very effective in getting to your personal supporters, particularly on the right,” Farnsworth said. Such tactics may benefit a candidate in a nomination fight but later limit a candidate who preaches only to the faithful and excludes those who might be persuadable.
“Any politician wants to be questioned as little as possible, and the social media environment makes it more possible to say what you want in an unfiltered way. But citizenship depends on context for the facts, and that’s not something you’re likely to get on Twitter or other social media venues. If you’re listening primarily to a media outlet, to the left or the right, that is primarily about promoting an ideological agenda, you might want to look for some other media outlets,” he said.
More troubling than the balkanization of the media landscape along cultural and partisan fronts, Farnsworth said, is the willingness of significant segments of the populace to reject evidence even when independent, documentary data that supports the reporting is verifiable and shared publicly. “Alternative facts” are easier to create and spread under such conditions, unaccountable to honest brokers.
Yes, Bill, traditional news media — and those, like you, who do its painstaking and earnest work every day — are disadvantaged to say the least, and probably will be for the foreseeable future. But the real losers, Farnsworth notes, are voters.
“The process depends on informed voters, and if you’re going to freeze out some of the biggest media voices in a community, you’ve made it more difficult for voters to make an informed decision,” he said.
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