In Trump’s America, the problem isn’t ‘fake news’ – it’s no news

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

By now, there is hardly a soul who hasn't been exposed to Donald Trump's war on the national media and his tirades against the "fake news" of CNN, MSNBC, the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Yet all these news outlets seem to be surviving their non-stop conflict with the presidential id, and some are actually thriving.

What’s being missed is the fact that local news coverage, not the stuff flowing out of D.C. or New York, is about to become the true journalistic victim of Trump administration policy. We’re talking small-town reporting, the low-to-the-ground type that keeps an eye on city councils and county commissioners, sheriffs and mayors.

Specifically, the newspapers and TV stations that operate in rural America – which is, by and large, Trump territory.

If you’ve been watching cable news, you’ve heard some breathless talk about the Sinclair Broadcast Group, whose 173 local TV stations make it the nation’s largest broadcaster. It intends to grow 42 stations larger, if the U.S. Justice Department approves its $3.9 billion purchase of Tribune Media.

A Tuesday Tweet from Trump in praise of Sinclair has raised expectations that the deal, announced last May, will go through.

The broadcast chain has come under recent criticism for its mandated, pro-Trump editorial content. Additional mockery has been prompted by Sinclair’s requirement that station anchors parrot an identical script decrying the “fake news” seen elsewhere.

Exposing your own news anchors as pod people in a bad sci-fi flick is questionable policy. But conservative analysis and opinion on local TV is hardly new. The late Jesse Helms jumpstarted his three decades in the U.S. Senate as a Raleigh, N.C., television commentator. And Sinclair's audience is fittingly rural. (According to the Sinclair website, its five TV stations in Georgia are in Albany, Macon and Thomasville.)

What’s novel about Sinclair’s operation is its uniform, nationalized content. The broadcasting conglomerate has defended itself as an alternative to national platforms such as Google and Facebook.

But in a draft study released this week, two Emory University researchers identified a price for that strategy. Gregory Martin, an assistant professor of political science, and Joshua McCrain, a grad student, analyzed the content of 7.5 million video segments produced by 743 local news stations across the nation in the latter half of 2017, comparing Sinclair stations to their competitors.

The researchers found that a 25 percent increase in national political coverage at Sinclair stations came “largely at the expense of coverage of local politics.” The motivation isn’t just ideological. It’s a business decision, too.

“There are very clear economics of scale for a conglomerate owner in covering national as opposed to local politics, thanks to the ability to distribute the same content in multiple markets,” the Emory study said. “Given that the ratings penalty we document is fairly small, it seems likely that these cost efficiencies dominate in Sinclair’s calculus.”

But thank goodness, we’ve got local newspapers to fill the gap, right? And there’s the catch.

President Trump last month announced worldwide tariffs on imported aluminum and steel, then quickly exempted Mexico and Canada – as long as the two countries came to heel on NAFTA renegotiations.

But the Trump administration left in place — and in fact, has increased — tariffs on Canadian newsprint, which now can run as high as 32 percent.

Newsprint was already becoming scarce in the U.S.. An industry decline has reduced demand for paper by 75 percent in the last decade. Most newspapers on the Eastern Seaboard buy from a shrinking number of Canadian suppliers. (The U.S. Department of Commerce levied the second round of tariffs last month on the strength of a complaint from a Washington state pulp mill, which alleged Canadian “dumping.”)

The tariffs will hit hardest the already struggling, small community newspapers that keep the closest watch on local governments. Newsprint was already scarce. Now, it will be scarce and expensive.

The Blackshear Times is 149 years old, one of the oldest businesses on the Georgia coast — if 45 miles from the beach can be called coastal. Robert Williams has been its editor and publisher for the last 47 years. He and his wife make up a third of the staff.

“Our costs are rising, our revenue is getting hard to find,” Williams said. The town once had three car dealerships. Now it has one. The community’s TV signal comes from Jacksonville, Fla., which means the newspaper is the only source of Georgia political news.

“Our folks are in a news desert. Locally, there’s nobody that provides it except us,” Williams said.

Scott Buffington is publisher of the Jackson Herald in Jefferson, Ga., and current president of the Georgia Press Association. He and his brother operate a total of five small newspapers in northeast Georgia. All are weeklies.

Buffington was delighted when a truck rolled in on Wednesday, bringing a load of Canadian newsprint. “We’re supposed to have a truckload come in every three weeks. Yesterday was the first load we’ve had since February,” he said.

Buffington showed me the emailed note he received from the CEO of the cooperative that supplies him with newsprint. “A warning to all,” it began. “The tightness in the newsprint market is real. In the past few weeks several members have been dangerously close to running out of paper.” The crisis is likely to come in June.

The Buffington operation employs about 200 — about the same number of jobs as that Washington state paper mill that’s being protected. Buffington said he hasn’t laid anyone off yet.

Some smaller papers, particularly in middle and south Georgia — where the retail base is already shrinking — may go under as a result of the tariffs, Buffington said.

“What’s going to happen then? Google and Facebook aren’t going to cover the Braselton city council,” he said. “I don’t know how people are going to get their information if something that dramatic happens.”

In other words, in many parts of Trump’s America, it may be time to stop obsessing over “fake news” and focus on something that’s much worse: No news.