The printing press at The Progress-Index in Petersburg, Virginia. (Sarah Vogelsong)
My eye was drawn to a short story in the Virginia Mercury last week about the commonwealth’s senior U.S. senator, Mark Warner, supporting a resolution that endorses the need for robust, independent local news organizations.
The 338-word piece by Meghan McIntyre was rich with alarming statistics about brutal declines local news organizations have suffered from interconnected societal, technological and financial challenges.
In the second paragraph was Warner’s money quote: that local news outlets “keep our citizens informed, combat disinformation, and serve as a crucial check on our government institutions.”
Never been truer.
Seeing newspapers and broadcast outlets that once stood as titans of journalism now nearly enfeebled to the industry equivalent of hospice care is wrenching, as is the human toll paid by excellent journalists I have known who were discarded as collateral damage. In rural areas particularly, there are “news deserts” where access to original, local, independent public affairs reporting has essentially vanished.
But there is an overdue urgency now about the task of combating disinformation and holding the government to account that I’ve never seen and that I could not have dreamed possible just 10 years ago.
Across the globe, including the United States, cynical disregard for democratic norms and naked appeals to authoritarianism are on the rise and gaining momentum. Emboldened by an atrophied news media’s inability to adequately sound the alarm, antidemocratic movements and the aspiring despots who lead them are undermining other institutions vital to the preservation of democracy, especially the courts, law enforcement and those who count the votes — electoral boards.
Democracy is not a birthright. It has to be earned, over and over, generation by generation. At a minimum, it is inextricably tied to a civil society’s willingness to engage in the duty of informed self-governance, work made more difficult by the demise of local newsgathering and the concurrent rise of malignant, deliberate and choreographed disinformation.
Warner is not a casual observer of these trends. As chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, he has arguably the nation’s best perspective from which to judge the origins, intent and effect of these hostile efforts, both foreign and domestic, to mislead and manipulate Americans.
Without reputable, accountable local news sources, Warner said, people turn to web-based services, most of which provide no local or regional coverage, and there is “a huge opportunity for disinformation.”
“The Russians the other day were bragging about the fact that the Americans had discovered only about 1% of their bots that are either creating fake content or amplifying fake content,” he said Thursday. “Oftentimes what you see is some crazy story with no relationship to the truth that then moves to the top of your news feed because there may be fake entities promoting it.”
I had a good working rapport with Warner as governor, though our roles — his as governor, mine as a reporter — sometimes put us at odds. New to elective office, he would prowl news websites late into the night, aides would later confide, sometimes waking press office staffers with instructions to call a reporter over a story he felt got it wrong. Yet he afforded me and other journalists extraordinary access during his time on Capitol Square. I respected that about him then and I still do.
Warner called me from the campaign trail one night in 2001 to voice displeasure over a profile I had written of his Republican gubernatorial election opponent, saying I’d been too charitable. He used blue language to make his point, none of it off the record. His campaign press secretary, Mo Elleithee, found out and called me to attempt damage control. I told him that I didn’t consider chewing out a reporter newsworthy. I suggested that Mo — now the founding director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service — tell Warner to expect a damaging story, let him twist in the wind overnight fearing the worst, then inform his sleepless boss the next morning what we had done. I never had that problem again.
Warner’s longtime former media maestro, Kevin Hall, recalled that when Warner took his Senate seat in January 2009, three Virginia newspapers had full time correspondents who “birddogged” Warner and the rest of the state’s congressional delegation daily. By the end of that year, Hall said, those papers — the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Virginian-Pilot and the Daily Press — had shuttered their Washington bureaus and laid off their esteemed reporters.
The governor-turned-senator is on the record in support of a vigorous, free and independent press, and the motivations are more serious than good relations with his home-state media. I appreciate his support, though I harbor no delusion that it can reverse losses in Virginians’ access to local public affairs reporting.
There are things no senator, no president, no legislative body can do. Those things — like preserving government of, by and for the people — reside with the people themselves.
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