When the Voters Look Away, the State and Local Politicians Will Play (Politics)

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There is a lack of state and local media across this country. This gap in coverage across the country, and particularly with coverage of state and local politics, is undeniable. Forbes.com’s Erik Sherman and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow agree on relatively little, but they both think that 

  1. State and local politics matter

  2. State and local newspapers and other media are essential for keeping state and local governments honest

  3. State and local media – especially newspapers – are in decline

  4. There are negative effects for state and local politics because of that decline

Think about that for a moment. Whether you are conservative or liberal, these are four basic facts that most people in the know acknowledge and which I will attest are true. I teach state and local politics at my local community college, and I can tell you that state and local politics absolutely matter. Most criminal laws and prosecutions in this country are based upon state law rather than federal law and are carried out through state and local institutions. In my home state of New Jersey, many important issues relevant to criminal law, such as the legalization of assisted suicide and the use and dealing of marijuana, are being dealt with right now. In Illinois, the charges being dropped against Jussie Smollett by the elected state attorney’s office after the elected state attorney recused herself is big deal in state and local politics right now.

However, state and local politics matter in realms outside of criminal law too. New Jersey has a discriminatory Medicaid eligibility standard which means if you are a pregnant woman, you can benefit from Medicaid at a higher level of income than if you are a man or an adult woman who is not pregnant.  This discriminatory standard was added by the Governor and legislature to increase abortion funding. It actually violates a State Supreme Court ruling in 1982 that interpreted the New Jersey Constitution’s equal protection clause as mandating equal funding for all classes of Medicaid recipient. In fact, that decision first mandated Medicaid abortion funding but, by expanding it, the Governor and legislature violated that ruling very quietly. Abortion funding is not about criminal law, but it is important.

Clearly, state and local politics matter. 

Are state and local newspapers and other media essential for keeping state and local governments honest? Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois was convicted of corruption largely because of the excellent political coverage from the Chicago Tribune. The Birmingham News, now associated with Alabama.com and the Alabama Media Group, was among the newspapers who nicknamed and helped bring down “the luv gov” Robert Bentley, an adulterous governor whose affair involved corruption-related charges and his eventual resignation under the threat of impeachment and removal from office. More commonly local newspapers in Chicago routinely report on corruption in City Hall as well as in other state and local institutions in Illinois.

State and local newspapers certainly keep state and local politicians honest, but are they declining? 

Yes, though not as fast as some think. PBS, about as objective and fair a news source as any, did a report about the decline of newspapers as a whole and also highlighted state and local newspapers’ particular decline. Additionally, they mentioned the creation of “news deserts,” places where news (particularly state and local news) is not reported. The national news is available all over the internet, but state and local politics coverage is not as readily available.

It gets worse. The problem is not that state and local newspapers are disappearing, or, more accurately, declining. The problem is that state and local political coverage declining in volume and with less diversity of coverage and opinion. A study in 2008 found that large media groups owning local and state-wide newspapers cover state and local events less. Due to deregulation, the ability to create large media super-groups who specialize in state and local media control but not in covering state and local issues has become a reality. 

Gannett is one of these big state and local media conglomerates, owning the biggest national newspaper in America: USA Today. According to a report from Alliance for Audited Media, in the third quarter of 2015, Gannett had twelve of the top 100 newspapers by circulation at that time. It owns ten state and local newspapers in my home state of New Jersey alone, including two of the top three newspapers in New Jersey, the Record and the Asbury Park Press.

Gannett’s main competition is another super state and local media-conglomerate, Advance Publications. It owns Alabama.com and the Alabama Media Group. Advance Publications owns three of the top four newspapers in Alabama, with the fourth being part of the USA Today network (owned by Gannett).

In New Jersey, by far the largest and most prestigious state-wide paper is the Star-Ledger, based in Newark. It is owned by Advance Publications. It owns NJ.com, a website which aggregates its holdings in New Jersey and about 16 different newspapers.

Between the two of them, Gannett and Advance Publications own pretty much every state and local newspaper in New Jersey, and our state is not that far from the national norm. While both companies try to keep the editorial boards’ opinions and the interests of the company separate, this is often not the case despite their best efforts. The Star Ledger and most of the Advance Publications-owned papers in New Jersey tend towards the left, while Gannett-owned papers in the state like The Record and the Asbury Park Press are either centrist or lean slightly to the right. That said, both companies do not consciously force political polarization on their papers; it kind of just happens.

Newspapers are in decline, both in number but also in ownership and the number of independent voices within the media. In my research on this subject, I found that others have indicated political polarization is partly being driven by the reduction in the number of owners and newspapers themselves. It also may be the versus a little bit as well, that political polarization is making people focus on national rather than state and local issues. Both sides seem to want to impose their vision of the country on everyone.

In terms of the negative effects of this phenomenon, it can be seen in progressive, conservative, and even centrist states. New Jersey has gone from being what I consider a liberal state to a progressive one, which is very different to me. Recently, our governor and the state Senate did a bait and switch, putting up an unpopular and well-publicized bill – a marijuana bill – at the same time as an equally unpopular but not-well publicized bill – the assisted suicide bill – for votes on the same day. While the limited state and local media focused on the marijuana bill, the assisted suicide bill was able to pass due to a lack of public attention and resulting pressure.

In conservative states, a somewhat different dynamic occurs. On abortion bills, the progressive national media will attack conservative anti-abortion bills while being silent on pro-abortion bills like the one that snuck through recently in New York. However, the progressive national media does not cover most other kinds of conservative bills until it is too late, so a lot of pro-gun laws pass without much comment by the national media. The lack of state and local media in conservative states means that conservative governors and legislatures tend to be unchallenged when they try to force unpopular radically conservative bills, such as anti-gay or pro-gun laws.

Centrist states like Colorado are not immune to the lack of state and local media pressure. Colorado, without much fanfare and in a very sneaky way, passed an anti-gun bill in its state Senate by one vote. I do not care that it is anti-gun (I am pro-gun control), but the bill discriminates against disabled people. In the Colorado bill, any person who knows a person well could ask a judge to order – without a hearing – that a person lose their gun for “odd behavior,” which is dog-whistle for cognitively or emotionally disabled behavior. The standard would be preponderance of the evidence, which is a civil rather than a criminal standard and thus probably violates the Fourth Amendment. However, disabled people are much less likely to be able to successfully defend themselves in court.

Being mentally disabled in a cognitive or emotional way is not the same thing as being mentally ill. I hate having to pigeonhole myself as the disabled-guy advocate, but as someone who is not mentally ill but mentally disabled, this bill frightens me. If there was more robust state and local media, disabled people’s rights in this situation and in the assisted suicide bill in the New Jersey situation, would have been more easily vindicated.

In sum, our politically-polarized country is probably both driving and being driven in part by the decline of state and local media. It is our job to support state and local media however we can and be vigilant for state-wide political hijinks like those in New Jersey and Colorado.