I am thousands of miles away, but I still turned to Chron.com, a website of the Houston Chronicle, to figure out what was going on in Texas this week. A widely shared video showing water pouring into the studio of KHOU, a Houston television station, was the first clue I had to the severity of the flooding. Even from afar, it was clear that local journalists were leading the effort to inform people on the ground, explaining how to get rescued, where to go and what to do. What if they hadn’t been there?
In many places, they wouldn’t be: Famously, authoritarian states dislike local news. On evening television in Russia, you can see dramatic violence in Syria or follow the saga of the Russian-American conflict, which Russian broadcasters have now restyled, for even greater drama, as a replay of World War II. (“When we face NATO we face the heirs to those of Hitler’s collaborators who survived the war,” the Russian deputy prime minister recently claimed.) But you will have a hard time figuring out what is going on in your own city. Local news is hard to find, and when it exists it has often been tailored to fit the national narrative.
You will not learn about corruption scandals in your local city hall, or abuses by your local police force. Unless you have access to the videos produced by Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most famous dissident, you won’t learn whether the Russian president has built a luxurious dacha in your district. And when disaster strikes, you won’t know what to do.
In Russia, local news was killed off deliberately. In the United States and many other democracies, it has, famously, been badly damaged by the loss of its business model. National newspapers are finding new subscribers and fresh markets, yet the advertising that used to support local papers, from the Houston Chronicle to its counterparts in France and Spain, has been drifting away. But if the reasons for its absence are different, the impact is the same.
The weakness of local news means that important decisions, whether on zoning or school boards, are made in a vacuum. The absence of local debate is, in turn, one of the factors that contribute to Americans’ sense of disconnection from politics, for their mistrust of one another, even for their alarming, well-documented declining faith in democracy. Which isn’t really surprising: If you read and hear only grand national narratives about things that don’t really affect you, and if you think “Congress” is an institution that sits in Washington rather than a body with local roots, then why would you feel responsible for it?
In recent years, the national story has been unusually ugly. But local reporting from Texas this week wasn’t. It showed ordinary Americans reaching across supposed racial and cultural divides to help one another. Mosques opened their doors to the homeless; rescuers of all backgrounds helped victims of all backgrounds. The “Cajun Navy,” a flotilla of Louisiana volunteers with small boats, headed into the storm to help. One explained that it was a “reciprocal gift of love” – a thanks to Houston for help after Hurricane Katrina. All these gestures were further reminders that our grand national narratives also understate a lot of what’s good (indeed great) about America.
National newspapers covered the flooding in Texas this week, of course; the Post, like the Houston Chronicle, lifted its online paywall so that everybody who needed to read about it could do so. But as the water recedes and the cleanup begins, national journalists will inevitably drift away. I saw that myself in New Orleans months after Katrina. Melanie Sills, a former editor at the Raleigh News & Observer, writes that the same thing happened in North Carolina after catastrophic storms: “Once the floods receded, the mold and rot, scams, bureaucratic failures, environmental catastrophes and wiped-out communities needed attention,” and only local journalists were around to provide it.
Sills argues that extra effort will have to be made to shore up local reporting in the months to come, from national-local partnerships, public-service journalism and elsewhere, and she’s right. For those who want to find charities to support in the days to come, here’s an idea: Alongside shelters and immediate rescue operations, think about finding a way to support local journalism. You never know when you might need it yourself.
Anne Applebaum writes a foreign affairs column for the Washington Post.
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