Whatcom Citizen guest writes this article and is a pseudonym for a local writer whom we know and respect. The writer must remain anonymous, and is not necessarily the same person as last time.
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The biggest untold story of our political landscape over the last five years has not been the influx of coal money, or the increasingly violent rhetoric of everyone from presidential candidates to high school students, or even the shifting tide of voter demographics. All those are important factors, but they miss a key component: the apparatus for informing the voting public is broken.
Going back a mere ten years, to 2005, if a voter needed information on a local candidate, they would read the Bellingham Herald’s insightful endorsements, peruse the Cascadia Weekly’s columns, sample the good work here at Northwest Citizen, enjoy a healthy political debate either on KGMI or in person at the Bill Mize forum, or read the Voters Guide provided by the County Auditor’s office.
Now, the Herald is a shadow of its old self – unable to summon enough insight or (more likely) page space to offer endorsements on local races. They’ve surrendered their editorial page to whichever candidates want to write for them. Tim Johnson, editor of the Cascadia Weekly, was bragging on social media in September about being able to write all his Gristle columns ahead of time. As for political forums, they are left in the hands of obvious partisan hacks like KGMI’s Kris Halterman or ignored and neglected by the media.
This effect plays out on the national level as well. The Republican presidential debates, hosted by their favorite conservative cheerleaders, have become attempts to create “media moments” rather than efforts to illuminate policy differences between candidates. In the Democratic debate the candidates actually discussed details of issues like student loan debt, education standards, international relations and climate change without falling back on hackneyed slogans. The national media, such as it is, responded by mocking the “boring” debate.
This all has a damaging impact on the voting public. Without a good grounding in what the candidates plan to do and what the job entails, voters are left to choose based on trivial identity issues: “I don’t like the way that candidate introduces himself.” Or, “I’m voting for this person because they’re for farmers.”
Operating in this kind of informational vacuum is difficult, even for those trying to stay informed or make a considered decision. A case in point is the Charter Review measures. They are complicated and have very real repercussions, but the “debates” have mostly been supporters and detractors shouting at each other on social media. By the same token, the money spent on print mailers every year is nothing more than an opportunity to shout at each other through the mail. Neither mechanism is a good way to conduct an informative discussion or educate the public on the nuances of each position.
Unfortunately, there is no single solution that can solve this problem. Yes, the Herald could return to life and offer endorsements, and the Whatcom Watch could widely distribute their full-spread candidate comparisons, and, yes, KGMI could bring in experts and conduct town hall meetings to examine the repercussions of changing the County Charter, but it would not change voter behavior.
The reason newspaper endorsements used to matter, but no longer do, is that voters are changing how they consume information. Voters no longer look to newspapers as bastions of sage advice and none of the blaring 24-hour hyper-partisan news channels offer a stolid, trustworthy Walter Cronkite figure. Without access to facts they can trust, information about political debates is absorbed via tweets or casual conversations with friends. In short, information is fragmented and unreliable.
Most alarming is that national politics are racing full-tilt toward a post-policy world, where the leading Republican contenders for president can conjure specters of organ harvesting with no fear that their words will be fact-checked or contested by any trustworthy media source.
But not all is lost. Internet news ventures are allowing for better use of original source documents (Curious about the vote of a specific Senator? Here’s a video clip from 2007 of him talking about it.) And as high-speed internet access becomes a priority for rural communities, the tendrils of new media are trying to rebuild the credibility lost by our print media. But it will take time and resources.
The alternative is just too terrifying to imagine.