Making local matter again

Why tending to that backyard garden is more important than ever.

Subscribe and get independent journalism and an honest perspective about our political moment.

At Untold Story, I’m looking to work through and diagnose what ails political media coverage and deliver journalism that clarifies our American political moment. It’ll be a process. I’m Jeremy Borden, independent journalist, reluctant political junkie, with a sense that more of us need to tilt at windmills if the mess that has been made of the American Experiment is going to continue.

Recently, I did something I've never done before: I weighed in with my own thoughts and remedies on a local government issue. It’s just one of many things in this world spiral we’re in that has had me thinking about an old and constant flame: local issues and local journalism.

There’s a lot of diagnosis of these issues in my home state of North Carolina alone. I dove in last year with a report about the decline of rural media here, also covered well in this New Yorker piece. UNC’s Expanding News Desert study puts numbers nationally on a piece of this crisis.

But I think we tend to think of these issues as somehow disconnected from the national issues and politics that has become all-consuming. There is no one fix and certainly no easy one to what ails a fractured and broken American political system. But paying attention to all things local is a start, and it’s an issue that extends well beyond journalism.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

Local is unappreciated and undervalued. That should change.

One of my first gigs as a young journalist was covering high school football games for the Durham Herald-Sun while I was a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill.

On Thursday and Friday nights, I’d drive out to some far flung place and watch two teams I’d never heard of battle it out. In the god-I'm-old, how-did-we-get-here section of this memory, online was a thing but bare bones compared to what it is now. That meant I couldn't Google my way to understanding much about the teams I was charged with covering. I’d try to do a little research and call a coach or two beforehand but a lot of trying to get a handle on what the hell was happening on the field came from looking at clips of previous games and trying to keep nuggets of context in my head as I watched the action — if there was even enough time for that by the time I got my assignment. And, frankly, I was too young and inexperienced to prepare adequately.

Not only that, but each game I had to keep detailed statistics that would be reprinted in the newspaper. This task gave me absolute heart attacks, a dream-fever of walking into your final exam naked kind of anxiety. If there's anything that matters to kids and coaches, it's that stat box — and I knew it. Keeping a running tally of major offensive football game stats is a skill unto itself and a job unto itself … and an absolute chore. A few times, my stats were so messed up by the end of the game, I'd beg an assistant coach to at least give me a copy of theirs so I'd have something to look at to compare.

After that was done, I had to run onto the field to do a couple of interviews and either drive back to the office or file by laptop in my car to file a story by deadline. I often had less than an hour to write something resembling a narrative of the game. I can't remember how I put in the stats, but I'm sure I was sweating by the time I was calling in numbers to the Herald-Sun office before the world ended and I missed a deadline.

While I hope I've got better examples of actual journalism in my career than this, the difficult nature of this process actually serves as a good example of how hard local journalism is and should be. It means showing up in person, doing your research and connecting with the right people quickly on a tight deadline. For $75, I'd say the Herald-Sun and its readers got a good deal.

When I covered college and some pro sports later, I marveled at the stat sheets, team guidebooks, and deep personal and statistical histories immediately available that allowed for journalists to get caught up quickly. Then there were the press releases dished up constantly from press operations standing at the ready to answer your every question and book your interviews. There are former coaches and players that are relatively easy to find and look up if you want to go deeper. The point is, the nuts and bolts of covering a college or pro game at that level, is, well, far easier — by a magnitude — than the far less coveted and prestigious high school trenches, where few now venture regularly because of the death of local newspapers.

It's not a perfect analogy, but in the journalism world — and the broader world in so many fields — it definitely describes what it's like to cover politics at the local versus the national level. Reporting on Congress or the president, there is no shortage of organizations, advocacy groups and resources dedicated to any given issue, let alone a massive cadre of press and trade magazines that cover them and a bevy of knives-out sources willing to dish the goods on this or that for their own reasons. When it's done well, using those resources means smarter, more accurate coverage of issues for reporters who take the time to dig. One small recent example was a ProPublica story that did its own analysis of the CARES Act to show the plutocracy at work. The article put a point on showing how the ultra-rich benefited from the so-called middle class bailout, to wit:

But when I began looking at details of the legislation, I realized that several of its provisions quietly provided benefits that were worth much more than $1,200 to some upper-middle-class people who didn’t qualify for stimulus payments. Some other provisions provided vastly bigger benefits to the rich, to corporations and to a relative handful of ultra-rich folks.

So let me show you five provisions of the legislation that benefited the upper middle class (including yours truly); the families of Donald Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner; high-income people who make large charitable donations; and Boeing and other corporations that are showing losses; as well as indirectly benefited people who have substantial investments in U.S. stocks.

The story relies heavily on a report from the Joint Committee on Taxation, a non-partisan body that analyzes legislation and serves as the official scorekeeper for the financial impact of federal legislation. While city and county staffs often provide some numbers and analysis for their own budget issues, there is rarely anything resembling the Joint Committee at the local level. 

Making the job of a local journalist even tougher, the advocacy groups that often provide analysis and fodder for important legislation often barely exist locally as well. To sum it up, there are fewer and fewer watchdogs for which journalists or anyone else can rely to catch bad or corrupt governance,  or even to "score" a bill or give some analysis about what budgets or new ordinances actually mean.

There is much to be said about why that kind of infrastructure barely exists anymore at the state and local level and what we should do about it. But we all suffer for it, and I can only imagine that the shadows in statehouses and city councils around the country have become cesspools of corruption where a light rarely, if ever, shines. I’m not the first person to point it out, but this is a great time in history to be a corrupt state or local politician whose backroom skulking and self-dealing is known only to the co-conspirators.

When I started to write this piece, I wanted to write that we are far too obsessed with the day-to-day partisan warfare that pretends to be substantive debate in Congress or the president. And that is true. What plagues national-level coverage isn't a dearth of coverage but a constant tsunami of it, where the coverage I prize most is what cuts through the BS and tells us what's really happening, not what politicians and their closely-aligned spin machines on both sides say is happening — which means getting beyond reportage of what happened to why with a deeper understanding of what they didn’t tell us. It has become increasingly difficult and maybe impossible for the average person, let alone the journalists who make a mission of it, to cut through the noise machine that President Trump has mastered and rode to a presidential victory, through an impeachment trial and which many appear poised to let him skate on his in-your-face bungling of the pandemic response.

But I won’t argue those national debates are not worthy of our attention — of course they are. And it’s increasingly up to consumers to become more like journalists in consuming multiple sources of information, being curious, and challenging themselves to find out the truth.

It is not and should not be a matter of pitting local versus national in terms of what should get our attention. 

But I would propose leveling the playing field. In journalism, it’s “moving up” when a reporter goes from a local newspaper or outlet to one in Washington, D.C. or New York. I’m not knocking those achievements for those who go in that direction — I spent some seven years in and around Washington, D.C. But to say that their work is more important or better than the journalist rummaging through court documents at some far-flung courthouse is a fallacy as well. Those journalists make far less money for less job security in a job that is equally as hard — if not harder when it’s done well — than a reporter in New York or D.C. aggregating news or running after Trump or members of Congress.  

This also shouldn’t just be a debate about how to reinvigorate local news. This is an issue that strikes at the heart of whether the world we live in is fair and just or continues to be a fractured mess where our government at all levels is on a runaway downward spiral. It’s about people locally getting involved, pushing government to represent the people they’re supposed to serve instead of corporations or an entrenched bureaucracy and often racist and unjust status quo. I expect and hope for reasonable debates on issues of substance — taxes, police, healthcare or others. But our political debate has become a vicious cycle of whataboutism. We don’t pay attention to any given person or judge an issue on its merits because we’re paying more attention to spin than substance.

A lack of recognition and care for the details at the local level is at the heart of this problem. It’s how a so-called progressive City Council in one of the South’s so-called most progressive cities increases its police budget as local and national protests rage for a new way to police communities in the wake of George Floyd’s murder — and gets away with it.

These are foundational problems that have no easy solutions.

But if those of us who care about politics — and it should be all of us — spent a fraction of that energy on local issues and politics, ignoring the voters would be far less of an option. And I’d also note that congressional, U.S. Senate and, yes, even races for the presidency shouldn’t be decided by super PACs in D.C. but by those who know our state and communities back home and can decide how national policy is getting translated on the ground.

Today, the will of a minority, through our elected officials, is used like a blunt instrument to subvert the will of the majority. That gets tougher when more people are paying attention. For journalists, it means shedding our hypocritical “objective” status and rolling up our sleeves and figuring out what it means to fight for our communities. As individuals, it also means contributing and engaging in ways that make us uncomfortable.

If "all politics is local," as former House Speaker Tip O’Neill once famously said, we can't expect that not voting and not paying attention to the high school football game equivalent of decision-making will yield different results. That statement is often misapplied, and I hope I get this right, but here's what I think he meant: even national issues and those who represent us in Congress can change when the ground has been tilled in communities. Once an issue gets to Congress it's frankly too late to expect decision-making to reflect our wishes.

Is there power in attention being paid? Not always, but it’s a damn good start. I think we'd discover that while Donald Trump or Nancy Pelosi has contributed to all sorts of ills, the story of why things are the way they are is much more tangible and knowable than we think on our block and in our states. As LorettaVanPelt, a Minneapolis activist, told Vice (no link available) in the wake of George Floyd’s death, people are finally paying attention to who the District Attorney is there and are ready to make changes fundamentally in what happens locally.

“Now they’re watching and now they know,” she said. 

It shouldn’t take the horrific murder of a guy in police custody and massive protests for folks to figure out who they’ve elected as their prosecutor. So this isn’t just about secrecy. It’s also about decisions being made in half-empty City Council chambers where the problems are bared for all to see — if only someone were there to listen, react and do something about it.

Good Reads

Boy, am I behind. But here are a few pieces from the last month or so that you might have missed…

Here’s how to do it at the federal level. Fellow Substack-er David Sirota, formerly of the Bernie Sanders campaign and someone who has X-ray vision into understanding state and federal government decisions and data most mainstream reporters ignore, wrote about Jay Clayton, the nominee to be the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and his cozy relationship with the private equity industry. Private equity has become synonymous with an industry predicated on compliant regulators and law enforcement ensuring that they’re allowed to stack the deck in favor of rich investors and gouge pension plans and charities. As Sirota previously wrote, “Those are the Gordon Gekko-run outlets that have become famous for fleecing investors, laying off workers, gutting local economies, strip-mining media outlets and creating public health and environmental disasters -- all while minting Wall Street billionaires.”

Sirota’s piece lays out how the Trump administration is quietly paving the way for the quasi-legal fleecing of investors, and you should read it. But here’s the upshot:

If Trump now successfully installs Clayton as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Clayton would be able to make sure there is no investigation or prosecution of the private equity industry that he worked with as a Wall Street attorney, that he personally invested in and that is helping bankroll Trump’s reelection.

It would be the culmination of the private equity industry’s takeover of the federal law enforcement system -- at precisely the moment regulators are desperately trying to warn America about the industry’s crimes.

The case for reparations isn’t just about historical harm in law and practice, it’s also about the lawful stripping of wealth from descendants of slaves, Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times argues

She writes:

While unchecked discrimination still plays a significant role in shunting opportunities for black Americans, it is white Americans’ centuries-long economic head start that most effectively maintains racial caste today. As soon as laws began to ban racial discrimination against black Americans, white Americans created so-called race-neutral means of maintaining political and economic power. For example, soon after the 15th Amendment granted black men the right to vote, white politicians in many states, understanding that recently freed black Americans were impoverished, implemented poll taxes. In other words, white Americans have long known that in a country where black people have been kept disproportionately poor and prevented from building wealth, rules and policies involving money can be nearly as effective for maintaining the color line as legal segregation. You do not have to have laws forcing segregated housing and schools if white Americans, using their generational wealth and higher incomes, can simply buy their way into expensive enclaves with exclusive public schools that are out of the price range of most black Americans.

It has worked with impressive efficiency. Today black Americans remain the most segregated group of people in America and are five times as likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods as white Americans. Not even high earnings inoculate black people against racialized disadvantage. Black families earning $75,000 or more a year live in poorer neighborhoods than white Americans earning less than $40,000 a year, research by John Logan, a Brown University sociologist, shows. According to another study, by the Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon and his colleagues, the average black family earning $100,000 a year lives in a neighborhood with an average annual income of $54,000. Black Americans with high incomes are still black: They face discrimination across American life. But it is because their families have not been able to build wealth that they are often unable to come up with a down payment to buy in more affluent neighborhoods, while white Americans with lower incomes often use familial wealth to do so.

The difference between the lived experience of black Americans and white Americans when it comes to wealth — along the entire spectrum of income from the poorest to the richest — can be described as nothing other than a chasm. According to research published this year by scholars at Duke University and Northwestern University that doesn’t even take into account the yet-unknown financial wreckage of Covid-19, the average black family with children holds just one cent of wealth for every dollar that the average white family with children holds.

I haven’t read Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Inquirer before, but boy did he nail this

Just think of all the restrictions on freedom and liberty — from the government seeing what you checked out at the library to invasive searches at the airport — to prevent another attack like 9/11 that killed 3,000 people, or less than one-tenth the toll from not wearing masks. But for millions of Americans — not a majority, mind you, but enough to cause a public health hazard in a pandemic — the idea of masks has been launched into a different orbit, where freedom talk is injected with the uniquely American viruses of free-market capitalism and media manipulation, maybe with a dollop of white supremacy…

What the radio hucksters, and the wannabe dictators they installed, won’t tell you is that freedom without any social responsibility or empathy for others is ultimately hollow.

But let’s remember that American people — even the damaged souls that you’re laughing at on Twitter today — didn’t pervert the meaning of freedom on their own. The warped modern version of liberty was sold to them, first by right-wing public intellectuals like Ayn Rand, who killed thousands of trees to wrap unbridled selfishness in her endless tomes about freedom, and later by the salesmen of Big Capitalism.

Protecting your freedom became the ideal branding for what these pitchmen really wanted, which was political cover to dramatically lower taxes on millionaires (who, thanks to that, would become billionaires), and to crush unions and their demands for higher pay, freeing up profits to now pay CEOs 350 times what the average worker makes. Talk about finding the cost of freedom

Jennifer Brandel, a builder of many things and someone those who care about building new civic infrastructure and media in communities should follow, has been a real inspiration to me as someone in journalism trying to shake things up to their core. In a recent piece, she wrote about her and her company’s next transition — and so much more.

In my case, I wasn’t compelled by the typical journalistic justice in which a news organization holds a powerful person to account. I was actually interested in holding news organizations, which are very powerful, to account. To help them see the ways in which the culture of journalism is complicit in perpetuating processes and narratives that consolidate power, uphold white supremacy and limit the democratic imagination.

… Of all the lessons these experiences have yielded, the key one is: the way to build energy and the power to effect change is not by asking people who already have power to share it or give it up, but to find colleagues, customers, investors and other leaders who are interested in similar problems and are open to collaboration in order to generate new power.

Wait, I can do whatever I want with this newsletter. So here’s my jazz section. Read this in the Paris Review about John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” or this about Jon Batiste and his participation in the George Floyd protests but definitely listen to this, “Baldwin,” by William Parker.

Let’s end on a case of local sunlight. It’s unclear whether it was intended or not but, hell, when a state legislature passes a bill past midnight, it’s never a good sign. In North Carolina, SB 168 was vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper after many raised concerns about a confusing provision that might have prevented law enforcement from being forced to release information concerning deaths in law enforcement custody. As a records and Freedom of Information Act advocate and frequent records requester on behalf of clients, I am glad to see these issues get attention, even when it’s for the wrong reasons.

If you read the bill, it’s actually unclear whether there would have been a substantive change to the way public records are handled now in law enforcement death investigations. That said, there should never have been any doubt and the legislature should be clearly strengthening public records — especially related to law enforcement — not confusingly tampering with them.

The craziest part? The bill was requested by NC’s Department of Health and Human Services — which is, of course, a part of Gov. Cooper’s administration. So the governor essentially vetoed his own bill that had passed unanimously. Luckily, News and Observer journalist Lucille Sherman caught it.

Loading more posts…