Media Layoffs Are Not Only Bad For Journalism -- They're Bad for Democracy
A sharp media decline amid an onslaught of disinformation and propaganda makes democracy difficult without shared set of facts.
On January 26, the U.S. government released statistics showing that GDP grew by 3.3 percent in the fourth quarter; the most recent U.S. jobs report released earlier this month showed growth of 216,000 jobs and a historically low unemployment rate of 3.7 percent. Meanwhile, the U.S. media industry has been slashing jobs. Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times cut about 20 percent of its newsroom, the Washington Post shrank its newsroom by about 10 percent at the end of 2023, and according to the State of Local News Project at Northwestern University's journalism school, in 2023, an average of 2.5 local newsrooms closed per week. In the 2008 financial crisis and in the 2020 COVID-related economic crisis, the journalism industry lost jobs, but that these cuts are happening in times of economic boom is particularly concerning. Mary Louise Kelly, host of NPR's All Things Considered, said on X: "If you care about journalism -- local news, national news, international news -- every warning light should be blinking red." But three trends accompanying this decline are not only worrying for the news business, but for the state of democracy itself.
Polarized and Centralized Media. An increasingly polarized -- and centralized -- media makes democracy more difficult. Take, for example, the main cable channels: MSNBC, CNN, and Fox. MSNBC and CNN work off of roughly the same set of facts, while MSNBC offers a more left-leaning slant to the news. However, Fox's primetime programming spins false counter-narratives, which have an air of superficial plausibility and emotionally resonate with its viewers. For example, it has countered Trump's felony charges with unproven accusations against Joe Biden, suggesting that all politicians are equally corrupt. These types of narratives turn disagreements -- which are essential in a democracy -- into disagreements about reality itself, which are far harder to bridge.
In addition, none of these channels seek to cover local news, and all are based in New York. That makes them less relevant to people living outside the East Coast. As Northwestern's project notes: "more than half of all U.S. counties now have limited access to reliable local news and information." That can cause people to be disengaged from local institutions like school boards or town councils, because politics seems far away, polarized, and not relevant to their daily lives.
Nationalization of Politics. The decline of local media has accelerated the nationalization of politics. Political scientist Daniel Hopkins has observed that, contrary to the maxim "all politics is local," Americans have shifted their attention to national politics, even though state and local governments make important decisions on issues that are often very relevant to people's daily lives, like local taxes, schools, and crime. (Correspondingly, it is generally much easier to make meaningful policy changes at a local level rather than a national level.) Hopkins observed that voter turnout in state and local elections decreased at the same time as state and local news declined. This can lead to polarization and disengagement: "Many of the voters who do show up to cast ballots for local races will likely do so with an eye toward national politics, and other citizens will sit the elections out entirely," he wrote in Five Thirty Eight in 2018.
Corruption. The case of former Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) was as much of a media scandal as it was a political scandal. Despite lying about his background to voters, Santos won election in 2022; in 2023, he was charged with theft of public funds, fraud, and money laundering by the Justice Department and expelled from Congress. However, had there been a more functioning local media, he might not have been elected in the first place. Santos represented a district that includes parts of New York City in addition to Long Island; however, because the New York Times covers races across the country, it didn't give the Santos race particular attention. Local newspapers like Newsday and the New York Daily News, meanwhile, which cover local races, have had drastic cuts. (A small local weekly Long Island newspaper, the North Shore Leader, did break the Santos scandal before the election, but none of the mid-sized papers picked it up.)
All of these trends were present in a more extreme way in Russia as it lost its fragile democracy and turned into an autocratic regime. Russia had a nascent critical local and national media sector in the 1990s, but after Vladimir Putin took power at the end of 1999, he immediately moved to put television under state control. Now, independent journalism and local journalism is all but dead and one major state-owned television channel broadcasts propaganda. Politics is extremely nationalized, with Putin running in elections every six years and his party winning legislative elections every five years. Corruption, ubiquitous in the 1990s, has devolved into large-scale theft.
The United States has much stronger institutions than the Russia of the late 1990s, and the media takeover of Russia happened with far more coercion than the decay of local media in the United States, which has happened for a variety of market reasons, including the purchasing of local newspapers by hedge funds. Western countries such as Australia and Canada have adopted measures such as legislation forcing Google and Facebook to pay for news content and competitive government grants to help fund the news. However, in a polarized pre-election environment, none of these measures seem likely to be adopted anytime soon in the U.S. In the meantime, things like crowdfunding, subscriptions, and philanthropy will have to be scaled up so there is a media to save.
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