The role of local news in covering Trump’s endgame

On Saturday, Sen. Ted Cruz led eleven Republican senators and senators-elect declaring their intention to vote against certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory. On the same day, President Trump pressed Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger to help overturn election results in his favor; on Sunday afternoon, the Washington Post broke the story, along with audio from the phone call.

The Post’s news-breaking was laudable, and the story’s content was appalling, if not surprising (a theme of the Trump presidency to the bitter end). Trump’s willingness to undermine the electoral process is dangerous and consequential, though whether he himself will face consequences this close to the end of his term is very much in question.

The country has cast its vote. For all of his lies and machinations, Trump lost, and, in a few weeks, he will leave office. But Republican senators willing to vote against a legitimate election result will remain. In a splintered and hobbling media system in which valuable reporting is devastatingly unlikely to change many minds about the president, how will the press cover those leaders who will hold office beyond Trump’s tenure? And how will Republican officials—who will hold office beyond Trump’s tenure—respond to the Post’s damning scoop?

The answer could come down, in part, to the nation’s increasingly ailing local-news ecosystem. There are many reasons local news matters, one being the democratic function of local political reporting, with its hyper-specific attention to the ways in which elected officials represent their constituents. While national outlets cover political figures for a national audience, local outlets cover political figures for the specific audience with the most investment in—and potential influence over—their behavior. Millions of Americans might applaud Ted Cruz’s actions; millions more might decry them. But only Texans can vote for him. 

Of the largest newspapers covering states represented by senators who will vote against certifying Biden’s win, some succeeded in providing crucial context; others failed. On the plus side, the Baton Rouge Advocate wrote on Saturday that “Louisiana Republican U.S. Sen. John Kennedy said Saturday he would join an effort to refuse certifying electors from six states, in hopes of denying the presidency to the election’s winner, Joe Biden.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel led with a similar note about Sen. Ron Johnson’s participation in the effort “despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud.” But as of Sunday night, the Knoxville News Sentinel, the largest paper in Tennessee, had published nothing online about Marsha Blackburn’s or Bill Hagerty’s decision to vote against certification of Biden’s win. The Indianapolis Star, writing about Sen. Mike Braun, called claims of voter fraud “false or unverified,” but not until the fifth paragraph of the story. The Oklahoman (home to Sen. James Lankford) dipped its toe into both-sides-ism, including Lankford’s own statements before quoting an opponent who called them “gibberish.” The editorial boards of the Billings Gazette (Steve Daines) and the Kansas City Star (Josh Hawley) convened to condemn the motions of their state senators as “extreme, unjustified,” and “desperate—and dangerous,” respectively. 

As we spend the coming days watching how Republicans respond to the Post’s reporting, best to keep one eye on local outlets and consider their role in maintaining an ever-tenuous democracy. 

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Below, more on Trump and the future of political reporting:

 

  • The whole call: In addition to its reporting on the January 2 phone call between President Trump and Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger, the Washington Post published the full recording of the hour-long conversation (which also included White House chief of staff Mark Meadows).
  • Political reporting, post-Trump: For the New York Times, Ben Smith reported on a new political journalism startup called Punchbowl, which will publish three daily newsletters. It was founded by three former Politico reporters, who, Smith writes, “are betting that there’s a large, paying audience of readers more interested in how power works in America than in journalists’ views on how it ought to work.” And for The Atlantic, McKay Coppins considered the media in a post-Trump world. “Tragedy and disaster have always been the stuff that journalism careers are made of,” Coppins writes. “As the story draws to an end, the reporters who got famous fighting with Trump are facing a question: What do we do now?” Yamiche Alcindor from PBS told Coppins that though White House coverage might get more “wonky,” the Biden administration will still have plenty of important questions to address on topics like pandemic aid, climate change, and family separation at the border. 

 

Other notable stories you might have missed:

 

  • A British judge ruled that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange could not be extradited to the US, citing concerns for Assange’s mental health, the BBC reported this morning. “Assange is a self-made lightning rod, and the journalism world is divided about his case, but his prosecution is about much more than him,” Bruce D. Brown wrote for CJR in December. “The US is uniquely committed to the idea that popular government requires popular information about government, particularly in cases involving war, intelligence gathering, and foreign affairs—where government secrecy reaches its zenith. The primary conduit of that information to the public is an independent and adversarial press, a role that the founders enshrined in the First Amendment.”
  • Last week, the New York Times reported that hedge fund Alden Global Capital had made further strides in acquiring Tribune Publishing, owner of the New York Daily News and the Chicago Tribune, among others. Many Tribune Publishing reporters have denounced Alden’s growing presence, citing its practice of slashing newsroom costs,” Michael J. de la Merced and Marc Tracy wrote. “Media observers note that they make cuts almost from day one,” CJR’s Savannah Jacobson wrote in a profile of Alden manager Randall D. Smith last June. “Pens and notebooks disappear from newsrooms. One newsroom was missing hot water. Then newspaper buildings are sold, and staff is consolidated and cut.”
  • More than five hundred journalists and media staffers have died from covid-19, Kristen Hare reported last week for Poynter. “Many of them—I don’t have a number—got sick while informing their communities about the pandemic,” Hare writes. “As an obituary reporter, I know every death is a story. What you’ll find in these obits are the stories of the storytellers.”
  • At the end of 2020, NiemanLab collected media leaders’ predictions for journalism in 2021. “When local media has the opportunity and resources to collaborate and work toward a common goal—that’s when strong journalism oriented around public service happens,” Shaydanay Urbani and Nancy Watzman wrote. “While many of the country’s largest print and digital outlets have made headway in diversifying their entry-level hires and executive promotions, the same can’t be said for all the newsrooms outside New York City and Washington,” Aaron Foley said. Zizi Papacharissi wrote about rebuilding the infrastructure of truth. Alicia Bell and Simon Galperin wrote about media reparations. Sumi Aggarwal wrote about the complexity of news literacy programs.
  • For Foreign Policy, Meera Selva wrote about press freedom crackdowns in 2020. The International Press Institute reported seventeen countries passing laws against fake news in the past year. The covid-19 pandemic gave repressive governments more opportunities to restrict journalism and, in many cases, more excuses to do so. Some officials sought to suppress information about their handling of the virus (CJR reported many such cases from all over the world this fall). Others used lockdowns implemented for public health reasons to minimize transparency and limit journalist access.

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Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites