A news desert diminishes democracy
For more than 30 summers my family has spent two or three weeks at our cottage in northern Wisconsin. The closest town is Boulder Junction. Each day starts with an eight-mile drive to town to pick up the morning newspapers from Milwaukee, Madison and New York. Sometimes it includes a stop at the bakery. We devour the news and then use the papers to start fires on cold summer days.
This summer was different. Newspaper distributors no longer deliver papers north of Route 70, a crossroad about three quarters of the way up the state. To get a paper we must drive more than 25 miles south of our summer retreat. It’s not environmentally acceptable or a good use of precious vacation time to travel that far for the news, and, because our cottage does not have reliable phone or Internet service, there is simply no way to read the news!
While this deprivation certainly falls short of being lost in the desert without water, there is something threatening about living in the woods without access to legitimate, consequential, ethical journalism. We are on vacation in a news blackout, which in many ways is a relief. Purposefully ignoring the news for two weeks, though, is quite different from not having access to the information that lets us know what is taking place in the world and how to understand and interpret what is happening. Without a newspaper, the president can tell a lie and go unchallenged. Without a newspaper, it is hard to learn how people are affected by public policies like zero-tolerance immigration or standardized tests.
Editorials provide important insights and provoke readers to be thoughtful about policies and events. When policymakers do not have to stand up to the public scrutiny that investigative reporters offer, a powerful piece of public accountability is gone. How do you make a decision about candidates if you don’t know how they conduct themselves in public or what actions they have taken? It’s hard to be an informed citizen without this kind of information, and informed citizens are the central players in a democracy.
While northern Wisconsin is suffering from a distribution problem, some major cities no longer have any newspaper. No one is reporting about what is happening in those places, some of which are quite important.
The media is under attack from many directions, which is a threat to all of us. Powerful voices like to discredit the media to protect their interests, but the loss of access to the news because of the cost of producing or distributing it is also a serious threat to our need for reliable information.
A free press is essential to the free exchange of ideas and meaningful public discourse about our communities. Without it there is less accountability, and our electoral process is weaker. Citizens have less power. Democracy is diminished.
It often takes losing something to make you aware of its value. The loss of easy access to the news on my summer vacation clarified the significance of the free press. These days, being informed is exhausting, but being uninformed is terrifying. It makes you vulnerable and powerless and disables your capacity to participate as an informed citizen.
In Cleveland Heights we are lucky to have access to a full spectrum of written reporting. We can easily find the best newspaper reporting on national and international news. We have a daily newspaper that reports on state news and metropolitan Cleveland, and we have the Observer, which covers very local concerns.
For the last five years I have had the pleasure and honor of sharing my understanding of the many forces that shape public education in our community. My bias is explicit: My priority is the common good. My writing is opinion, but I try my best to share credible information that allows readers to draw their own conclusions.
So I submit this column with renewed appreciation for journalism. I’m glad to write and to once again read the news.
Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.