To Save Congress, Restore Local News

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Consider these headlines:

“Trump-Linked Firm Exploited Data on 50 million Facebook Users”

“Trump Lawyer’s Payment to Porn Star Raises New Questions”

“In Fundraising Speech, Trump Says He Made Up Trade Claim in Meeting with Justin Trudeau”

If you’ve been in a coma for the past eighteen months, these news stories might shock you to the very core. If, not, I’m guessing that nothing here surprises you: either you’re already convinced of the incompetence and corruption of the Trump administration, or you’re already convinced of the bias and corruption of the liberal media.

In her biweekly column “The Digital Voyage,” Alexandra Samuel investigates the key psychological, social, and practical challenges of migrating to an online world. Reach her on Twitter @awsamuel.

I’ll admit to being in the former camp. I spent the first year of the Trump administration devouring, disseminating, and discussing each successive scandal and horror story. On the day I yawned and flipped past a headline about Trump’s lawyer mortgaging his house to pay off a porn star, I realized that I’d passed the point of being either shocked or enlightened by any additional malfeasance on the part of Trump, his staff, or his appointees. I suspect that anyone who has any trust in the media or our legal system has concluded that we have a president who is narcissistic, delusional, ignorant, kleptocratic, or some combination thereof, and who has surrounded himself with people who share or validate those flaws.

Once you come to that conclusion, it’s hard to feel surprised by each additional news headline uncovering the latest manifestation of this administration’s insanity and incompetence. After eighteen months, I’ve even gotten over my surprise that America’s political culture and electoral system could produce a President Trump.

What does surprise me, on a week-by-week basis, is the utter failure of our national system of checks and balances. Congressional Republicans are accepting—and in most cases, actively participating in—the dismantling of America’s political institutions.

What Trump Means for America’s Informal Political Institutions

I’m not talking about formal institutions like Congress, the Supreme Court, or the electoral system (though gosh, it sure looks like Russia’s fake news campaign is throwing this last one for a loop.) Rather, I’m talking about what political scientists refer to as informal institutions: “socially shared rules, usually unwritten, that are created, communicated, and enforced outside of officially sanctioned channels,” as political science scholars Gretchen Helmke and Steven Levitsky put it in their article “Informal Institutions and Comparative Politics: A Research Agenda.”

The list of informal institutions and norms that Trump has disregarded is now too long to count. They include the norm of disclosing one’s tax records; eschewing nepotism and the appointment of family members; consulting with policy advisors before making major policy announcements; presenting a united front with one’s fellow party leaders; and last but not least, speaking in a way that reflects at least some notion of both honesty and courtesy. He is dismantling the informal institutions and norms on which American constitutional democracy depends, simply by behaving as if they do not exist.

That has a very direct impact on the sustainability of a political system, as political science scholars Julia R. Azari and Jennifer K. Smith outline in their article “Unwritten Rules: Informal Institutions in Established Democracies“:

The formal rules by which democracies resolve disagreement do not operate in a vacuum. Instead, they coexist with a framework of unwritten or informal rules that structure collective expectations about how disputes will be resolved. Violation of these expectations can lead to destabilizing conflict, as clashes over policy escalate to clashes over the political process itself. The unwritten rules of legislative procedure…manage fundamental democratic tensions, enabling majorities to rule (“lawmakers should vote on bills even when they know they are going to lose”) while granting a measure of influence to even badly outnumbered minorities (“proposals that are both novel and significant should not be enacted the day after they are announced, even if they enjoy majority support”).

Where’s Congress?

In their failure to challenge Trump’s destruction of America’s informal institutions, our congressional representatives are collaborating in the destabilization of American democracy. We already know the Presidency is in deep trouble, but the silent acquiescence of congressional Republicans has made it clear that the Congress is effectively MIA. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: to lose one branch of government may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.

The collaboration of Republican representatives, and not the endless string of Trump scandals, is what most urgently needs media and public attention at this juncture. Why are congressional Republicans participating in the Trump Administration’s erosion of our essential democratic norms and institutions? Why aren’t masses of senators, congressmen, and candidates joining with Jeff Flake and Ben Sasse to openly criticize Trump? For that matter, why aren’t they moving towards impeachment?

There are many theories now in circulation. One is that Republican cooperation is due to Trump delivering on the long-held GOP dream of massive tax cuts and aggressive de-regulation; Congress is willing to support Trump in order to see these policies enacted. Another theory is that it’s driven by fear of alienating the Trump base, now seen as necessary to remain electorally viable. Yet another is that lobbyists, money, or backroom deals have sealed the lips of representatives who might otherwise challenge the President.

But all of these theories remain just that: theories. And there’s no reason to expect a one-size-fits-all explanation. Each individual representative may well be driven by a very specific mix of voter demands, lobbyist pressure, ideological commitments, and financial incentives. In order to hold senators and congressmen accountable for their support of this administration, we need to know what that specific mix is for every elected representative who is standing behind (or staying silent on) the President. We need serious investigative journalism and thoughtful analysis to uncover the “why” behind each and every representative’s support of Trump.

Yes, it’s the Internet’s Fault

Our current crisis has its roots in the way online news and social media have shifted our attention away from our congressional representatives, and instead focused us almost entirely on the national stage. (With time out for Buzzfeed quizzes and baby hedgehogs.)

The internet-driven crisis in local news is now well-established. “As the web has grown up, one area where there has been a profound change is in the provision of local news,” information scholar Matthew S. Weber writes in “The Tumultuous History of News on the Web.” “Much of the early innovation by newspapers occurred at larger newspapers; small community newspapers lagged behind in terms of the development of web content.”

Social media has caused a crisis for legitimate news by further privileging national stories over local ones.

The arrival of online news and social networking meant that people no longer need to get their news from people and publications in their immediate community. As media scholar Kathryn Bowd noted in “Social Media and News Media: Building New Publics or Fragmenting Audiences?”, “[w]hile regional newspapers have traditionally had relatively close relationships with their audiences because of their focus on local content and local interest, as the nature of the media landscape changes this relationship may not be secure.”

In his article on the crisis in local journalism, media studies scholar Christopher Ali notes:

Hundreds, if not thousands, of local newspapers have closed in the United States, a pair of small market television stations has closed in Canada, and in both countries local television newscasts have been either replaced by generic morning shows or canceled altogether. The United Kingdom has also not been immune, with the closure of daily newspapers and the near collapse of the newly launched local television system. Despite the hopes of regulators, moreover, digitally native newsgathering sites at the hyperlocal and local levels have struggled for both visibility and sustainability.

Social media has only made these problems more acute. In addition to the widely-discussed problem of fake news, social media has caused a crisis for legitimate news by further privileging national stories over local ones. In his article about the impact of the internet on global news, Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, notes that “[t]hirty-nine percent of the relationships on Twitter involve someone following the tweets of a person in the same metropolitan area.” But another way of looking at that is to say that 61% of Twitter relationships are geographically dispersed.

That means that if you share a headline related to your local representative, it’s likely to interest one out of three of your online friends. But if you share the latest salacious news about Trump, it’s relevant to everyone. This gives national and general interest news items a massive edge over local news when it comes to sharability: by definition, local stories are far less likely to get that social media boost. As social media consultant Vivian Roese puts it in a piece on media hype, “it is the user, as some sort of private gatekeeper, who decides how newsworthy and shareworthy a piece of information in their newsfeed is…. Shareability is the number one currency in social media.” And it’s a currency that is far easier to cash in when you’re telling a story with broad appeal, rather than a story relevant to a specific district or region.

The more that national news crowds out local news, the less motivation news organizations have to do time-consuming, expensive investigative work. But we need exactly that kind of journalism if we are to explain the complicity of our elected representatives in the most profound democratic crisis our country has ever faced. It’s not only essential to a voting and organizing strategy for the 2018 midterms, but to rebuilding the institutions that have been so profoundly eroded in the past year: unless we know what led our checks and balances to fall like dominos, we’ll never get them back to a position of stability.

Restoring Our Local News Ecosystems—and Our Political Institutions

The complex dynamics behind the collapse of our online news ecosystem mean that there’s no one-stop solution to getting local news back on track. We need to tackle the problem from multiple angles.

It’s time to reallocate resources to put equal or greater attention on individual congressmen and senators.

That begins with us: the writers, journalists, and news organizations who keep on covering the ever-so-viral failings of President Trump and his administration. Of course we need to keep covering the White House, but it’s time to reallocate resources to put equal or greater attention on individual congressmen and senators. The investigation of this president can serve as a model of what we need to ask about congressional representatives: Where does their money come from? Who are they meeting with? To what extent are they informed on the issues they are considering and legislating? What are the qualifications and interests of their staff members?

But that work will only be economically sustainable if it’s met with some changes at the platform level: I’m talking about Facebook, Twitter, and Google. As part of its mea culpa for its role in spreading fake news during the 2016 election, Facebook has tweaked its algorithm to reduce the attention that goes to news media generally, but that is a lazy approach. Roese quotes a Facebook memo directing its editorial team to measure the importance of a national story “by checking if it is leading at least five of the following ten news websites: BBC News, CNN, Fox News, The Guardian, NBC News, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Yahoo News or Yahoo.”

The same approach (with a little more effort) could be used to identify reliable local sources in every district across the country, and give those sources a leg up in the algorithm, so that local news gets more visibility on the platform. Of course Facebook doesn’t want to take on the responsibility for validating each individual news source, but it’s time for the company to fulfill the social obligations that come with media dominance. After all, it’s not like this has to be a money-losing proposition: building a stronger local news ecosystem may also help Facebook build a stronger business in local advertising. But that will only happen if regulators and users demand more from the platform that gets so much of our time and attention.

Which brings me to the last piece of the puzzle. There is a significant role for each of us as news consumers and social media users, not to mention as voters. You can help to rebuild the vibrancy of local news and reporting by reading, watching, and sharing local news. Set up a Google News alert for your congressman and senators’ names, and re-share news stories about your local representatives. Set up your Facebook account and Twitter follows to prioritize friends in your own community, as well as local newspapers and news sites. Devote more of your attention to reading and amplifying local news—even if that means reading and sharing a little less about the current president. (You may find the change actually makes you happier.)

We’re not going to restore the role of local news in the next six months. But increasing the attention we pay to our congressmen and senators is the best way to ensure the mid-terms don’t become a re-enactment of the 2016 election that turned the Trump distraction into the Trump presidency. Even more important, re-invigorating local news for the social media is the single best way to ensure we get a post-Trump America that is once again a stable democracy.


JSTOR Citations

Informal Institutions and Comparative Politics: A Research Agenda

By: Gretchen Helmke and Steven Levitsky

Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Dec., 2004), pp. 725-740

American Political Science Association

Unwritten Rules: Informal Institutions in Established Democracies

By: Julia R. Azari and Jennifer K. Smith

Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 10, No. 1 (March 2012), pp. 37-55

American Political Science Association

4 The tumultuous history of news on the web

By: Matthew S. Weber

Web as History: Using Web Archives to Understand the Past and the Present, 2017

UCL Press

8 Social media and news media: Building new publics or fragmenting audiences?

By: Kathryn Bowd

Making Publics, Making Places, 2016

University of Adelaide Press

The Merits of Merit Goods: Local Journalism and Public Policy in a Time of Austerity

By: Christopher Ali

Journal of Information Policy, Vol. 6 (2016), pp. 105-128

Penn State University Press

A Small World After All?

By: ETHAN ZUCKERMAN

The Wilson Quarterly (1976-), Vol. 36, No. 2 (SPRING 2012), pp. 44-47

Wilson Quarterly

14. You won’t believe how co-dependent they are: Or: Media hype and the interaction of news media, social media, and the user

By: Vivian Roese

From Media Hype to Twitter Storm: News Explosions and Their Impact on Issues, Crises, and Public Opinion, 2018

Amsterdam University Press

Alexandra Samuel is a technology writer, researcher and speaker. She is the author of Work Smarter with Social Media (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015), and is a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review and The Wall Street Journal. Alex holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Harvard University and a B.A. from Oberlin College. You can find her on Twitter as @awsamuel and on her own site, alexandrasamuel.com.

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