All posts by Gary C. Woodward

New Jersey News Media are Disappearing

                                   NiemanLab.org

Americans pay a lasting price for shuttered newsrooms. Fully 40 percent of New Jersey’s voters know “very little” about their two candidates for Governor. They know even less about how the state constructs and spends its budget. What we have instead is rants from local talk radio, fueling hard-right fantasies of government that are a long way from the realities of governing.

The press has rightly been called “the fourth branch of government.”  It’s a given that any open society benefits from a free and vigorous journalism.  Reporters are our eyes and ears, especially when their reporting shines a light on questionable governmental actions. A diminished local press impairs our need to be engaged and informed citizens.

These conclusions combine to make a familiar civics lesson.  But the ideal of a “watchdog press” stands in stark contrast to the disappearance of news outlets and staffs around New Jersey.  The state is not alone in facing diminished local reporting; with some exceptions it reflects a national pattern. Where there used to be hundreds of reporters spread over newsrooms in Trenton and Newark, there are now just a few dozen. The parent company of both The Star Ledger and The Trenton Times has cut staffs to the bone and lost over half of their subscribers. Advance Media now has a staff of just 30 in Trenton, closing even their nearby State House bureau. “Beat” reporters who used to focus on crime, education, and politics must now scramble to write shorter stories on fewer topics.

It is still true that “if it bleeds it leads.” Murders, fires and traffic accidents often get some coverage. But stories about trends and long term patterns—or basic news about governmental initiatives, policy shifts, state and local funding cuts—often fall between the cracks. As a capital, Trenton is in a relative blackout compared to some capital cities like Denver, Sacramento, or Des Moines. This is more ironic because New Jersey is an affluent state with a well-educated population.  In numbers of citizens, it is about the size of Israel. But compare Trenton’s capital paper with the Jerusalem Post, where there is much more daily reporting.

The problem has been made worse by the abandonment of a New Jersey coverage at the New York Times. It’s now the case the a huge population center in the Garden State hardly exists on the Times’ news pages. That’s a bigger deal that it might seem.  Many subscribers are residents of New Jersey, but they are given more stories from Brooklyn or Queens than from Jersey City or Newark, which are easily within eyesight of Midtown.

Of course, print media everywhere are struggling.  But it is also reflected in the sparse online stories that remain. Young Americans do not have a newspaper habit.  What news they see tend to come from aggregators like Facebook or Google Play.  The only bright spots are a few websites like Politico-New Jersey or NJ Spotlight. But these are far less visible to the average citizen than a source like television’s News 12 New Jersey.  The cable channel is helpful in filling some news gaps, but it offers less prime-time policy discussion than was available before the ill-advised sale of the New Jersey Public Broadcasting Authority. There is some coverage of the state from public stations in New York and Philadelphia.  But it’s not enough.

We will pay a lasting price for shuttered newsrooms.  Fully 40 percent of the New Jersey’s voters know “very little” about the two gubernatorial candidates less than one month before heading to the polls. They know even less about how the state constructs and spends its budget. What we have instead is rants from local talk radio “jocks,” whose hard-right fears of government are a long way from the hard realities of governing.

Reporter David Chen recalls recently walking down the hallway known as “press row” in Trenton’s State House, only to find it “eerily still:” the closed doors in the corridor resembling a series of “janitorial closets.”  It’s perhaps a small sign, but nonetheless an indicator of why civic life has gone from being one of the glories of the American experiment to one of its perpetual embarrassments. The politics we get in this new atmosphere of willful darkness is perhaps the politics we deserve.

The “Tragedy” Euphemism

A rhetorical “covering” that allows us to miss important truths helps none of us, especially those who will lose their lives in the next mass shooting.

It’s an axiom of communication analysis that meaning resides in the receiver.  Words can be what communities want them to mean. Even so, when a term creates more fog than clarity, it overuse needs to be noticed.

The reporting in our national media has been calling the shooting deaths in Las Vegas “tragic,” as if the fates had some role to play in the bloody event. We are far too comfortable hearing man-made catastrophes like this massacre described with a term suggesting loss and grief, but deflecting the subject of agency.  The label is apparently meant to give an event the emotional gravity it it due. But its widespread usage lets Americans off the hook too easily.

Here’s what I mean. Americans love euphemisms. “Taking one’s own life” sounds slightly softer than “suicide.”  We ask directions to a “bathroom” when we need a toilet. These are perhaps harmless ways to moderate our language  to preserve the sensitivities of others. Yet we really must get over the kind of Victorian ‘covering’ of awful events that happens when a term effectively maintains a cultural blind spot. Regarding the event in Las Vegas, arguing direct culpability by a single innocent citizen may be too much. But no high-functioning society tolerates the kind of gun accessibility that exists in the United States. If one result is a “new normal” of deadly and routine mass shootings, then we all collectively bear some responsibility. The neutralizing euphemism of “tragedy” dims a light that needs to shine brightly into the dark corner of rampant gun violence.  Las Vegas is a less a tragedy than a  mass murder. It was domestic terrorism as a bloodbath.

To call an event “tragic” strips it of a focus on agents and means.  That’s a change from the oldest meaning of a tragedy, which was a theatrical form designed to let us witness flawed figures whose actions brought about their own demise. Think of Macbeth, Hamlet or even modern narratives of Richard Nixon. All have been rightly portrayed as participants in their own undoing. But we undo this emphasis on direct culpability by ignoring destructive and enabling social norms, giving ourselves unearned comfort in a term of compassion.

Of course the victims and families directly involved are justified in talking about their altered lives as a tragedy. But journalists have a duty to be more clear-eyed. A rhetorical “covering” that allows us to miss evidence of a culture that won’t change helps none of us, especially those who will lose their lives in the next mass shooting.