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Watts: Enemy Of The People

Richard Watts
Local news coverage matters: Students hold a press conference at the University of Vermont to raise awareness of cell phone use by drivers on Burlington's Main Street, calling for tougher penalties under Vermont's distracted driving law.

Picture this: a group of news reporters assigned to cover a large rally. Roped off from the event at the back of the room, they type away, writing their news stories until the speaker draws the crowd’s attention to them. Then the crowd turns hostile, chanting, pointing and yelling.

The unfortunate notion that the media is the enemy of the people comes from authoritarian regimes around the world. It’s not a new invention, but the phrase has been recently revived, and there’s widespread concern that it threatens to undercut the most essential part of our democracy - a free and unfettered press.

One reason it has current traction is the recent hollowing out of news coverage. Tens of thousands of layo?s, cutbacks, and closures have sharply reduced news rooms, especially in rural areas and in the middle of the country – while the remaining journalistic outlets are under assault from many directions, including the White House, “fake news”, ?lter bubbles and social media outlets. And this has contributed to a decline in trust in news outlets and reporters. Less news coverage means less attention paid to those in power. And less attention to local issues and debates.

In his book, The Road to Unfreedom, Tim Snyder writes that attacking the press is the hallmark of authoritarian leaders. They can’t tolerate a free press because it shines light on their misdeeds, and uncovers the daily fictions they promote.

Snyder writes that in Russia, for example, there is no local press or local coverage. Instead there are state run TV stations and newspapers that promote Putin’s perspective and a huge industry focused around news as entertainment. Lack of local coverage creates an external other - “the media” - that can be disrespected and blamed. Facts lose their meaning, news is attacked as fake.
Here in Vermont, we’re lucky here to have a well-known, trustworthy network of local media outlets with journalists who cover things we care about.

But even here we’ve seen news room cutbacks, and a decline in news coverage.
So as newspapers around the country print their editorials on the current assault on the media, each of us should consider how to support our local press outlets.

A free press exists to serve the people – and without it, democracy cannot survive.

Richard Watts teaches communications and public policy in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Vermont and directs the Center for Research on Vermont. He is also the co-founder of a blog on sustainable transportation.
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