Author’s note: The following is expanded from remarks made as part of a panel discussion on "The Media and Politics" held Wednesday as part of the Constitution Day celebration at Arkansas State University. The event was sponsored by the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
The late speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Thomas P. "Tip" O’Neill of Massachusetts, coined the phrase, "All politics is local," meaning that a politician’s success depends on the ability to assess and handle the concerns of those who elect him or her to office.
The same thing can be said of those who cover politics and government. We in the news media should never forget that all politics, even presidential campaigns, starts at the grassroots level.
My career as a reporter, editor and columnist has primarily consisted of covering local politics. That may not seem very exciting, but it is no less important. One of the first politicians I ever covered, a guy named Billy Clinton who lost the race for vice president of the Student Council at Hot Springs Junior High School, went on to become the leader of the Free World. I also covered Clinton as Arkansas’ attorney general and then governor, never thinking that he’d become president until he decided to run for the office.
The first political efforts of almost every public official are on the local level. Those who forget their roots usually don’t stay in office.
That’s one reason I suggest that covering local politics is critical. The candidate running for city council could one day be governor or a congressman, and we in the press need to be sure that candidate gets full public inspection. The "fishbowl" nature of American politics works.
We should also pay close attention to the political campaigns for city council, the quorum court, the local school board and the state Legislature because the people who fill those positions are more likely to influence our lives directly than those in Congress and the White House. Those are the people who propose sales tax increases and higher property tax rates, who pass zoning regulations that determine whether we can build a fence, who set parking and traffic regulations and who hire the people we deal with at city hall and the courthouse.
In covering politics the most important thing we in the news media can do is to help voters decide who should fill our public offices. That doesn’t mean we should tell them who to vote for. It means we should provide the voters with information about what the candidates stand for, how they’re qualified for the offices they seek and what they say they would do if elected. That’s not as easy as it sounds.
Covering politics and government requires reporters and editors who can be fair, tough and thorough. Reporters particularly can’t show favoritism to one side or another. If they do, their ability to report is compromised. Reporters certainly can have their own opinions, but they’ve got to keep them out of their work. Besides, newspapers learned long ago that we can sell news; people won’t pay for opinions.
We must cover campaign events, speeches and conduct in-depth interviews in races of importance, to sponsor or at least participate in forums for the candidates. You’d be surprised how few events there are that allow candidates for even the state Legislature to connect with voters and to answer questions.
There are two trends in the coverage of politics and government that I’ve seen over the past 20-25 years, and together they cause great concern.
One is that the broadcast media, which cover politics and government superficially below the presidential level, are devolving into an advocacy role. They’ve never really separated news and opinion, as most newspapers do — instead offering commentary. But now we are seeing more and more political operatives, often losing candidates, being hired to provide their commentary, rather than journalists. Advocacy on the national level has become so pronounced that if you watch a report about the same event on two networks, you might not recognize it was the same event.
Magazines and Internet-based social media are following the same model. But all must have unvarnished news reports for the basis of their commentaries.
The other issue of concern is the state of the newspaper business. Many newspapers are in trouble financially, in part because of a bad economy, in part because of the multiplication of media. Those financial problems are forcing many newspapers to cut back on their reporting and editing staffs. No matter how you slice it, reducing news staffs equals less news coverage.
Further, newspapers historically have been the financial base for The Associated Press, the most prolific news-gathering operation in the world. The AP provides newspapers like this one with, among other things, broad, objective coverage of our national politics and government. But AP services have been squeezed, too, and some dailies have even dropped AP membership.
If newspaper reporters don’t cover the local city council meeting, who will? If they don’t interview the candidates for the Legislature, who will? If they don’t regularly examine the public records at city hall and the courthouse, who will?
A democracy thrives on an informed electorate. What happens if there is only spin?
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.