The solution to Trump-Biden polarization may be easier (and cheaper) than we think

Studies show a direct correspondence between the closing of newspapers and the polarization of people formerly served by those newspapers.
IMage: Voters cast ballots in Bangor, Maine, on Election Day.
Voters cast ballots in Bangor, Maine, on Election Day.Scott Eisen / Getty Images

In this most discordant election, a lot has gone awry, but not necessarily in the ways for which we’ve braced ourselves: There was nothing close to the Election Day violence we had been warned to prepare for. There was one coordinated national telephonic misinformation campaign, but it was swiftly recognized and dealt with. For the most part, the social media platforms have handled false and misleading content with dispatch. State and local election officials — my heroes and heroines — did their jobs well in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Civil society functions; the integrity of the vote remains intact.

Our counter-disinformation army of local truth-seekers and truth-tellers has been vitiated.

Still, no matter what is being reported in the news, it seems, nothing will convince a significant number of Americans that the press is on the side of truth, and certainly not that it is on their side. Conspiracy theories and growing mistrust in establishment outlets are testament to this. Even if the social platforms are stepping up their misinformation prevention, it’s too late, because Americans have lost faith in them; and the internet is vast and uncontainable.

Nothing seems to persuade the more-than 50 percent of Americans convinced that the national press does not share their interests and concerns, and certainly nothing seems to move them to believe that the national press sees them as capable participants in our democracy.

In this void of mistrust and misinformation, a counter-majoritarian party, which the Republican Party has become, hangs together by creating enemies out of the majority. It will, on principle, reject the majority’s claim to know what’s right for them. A rejection of elites, marked by resentment, retrenchment and the creation of alternative narratives, has become a bond of will for these Americans. It’s helped carve out a place for them to belong.

And, no matter who wins the election, this trend will get worse. As it worsens, it will be harder for the national media to cover these Americans — polling will get even worse — and to hold it accountable, and to understand what might be done to reverse it. The infodemic will get worse. Conspiracy theories will become cults.

I know of one way to pierce this epistemic steel trap, even if it sounds counterintuitive: More news. Specifically, more independent, local news.

Trust will not come out of a top-down reappraisal of how the media covers people outside of cosmopolises. Remember in 2016, when liberals seized on placing correspondents in red areas as a solution to the early warning problem that led so many to misjudge President Donald Trump’s strength? Those reporters did great work. And Democrats, buoyed by the national media’s aggressive coverage of Trump, now say they trust the media more than they did then.

Stop spending money on political candidates and start spending it on civic infrastructure.

But the rest of the country has almost no point of reference to even begin to trust the media.

Since 2009, the number of reporters working in newsrooms around the U.S. has dropped by 27,000 or so. And most of those losses came from newspapers. You’re familiar with the story: Craigslist, Google and Facebook gobbled up all of the advertising revenue; newspapers collapsed because they couldn’t (and still can’t) find a viable alternative business model; native digital became a thing; people pivoted to video, then regretted it. The point is, our counter-disinformation army of local truth-seekers and truth-tellers has been vitiated.

And this matters most in times like the present, because there is a direct correspondence between the closing of newspapers and the polarization of people formerly served by those newspapers. If you live in a town with a thriving local news ecosystem, you are more likely to vote.

If we want a society where we can accurately understand the preferences and behaviors of everyone, we need more local journalism. Journalism models the pursuit of truth; we know already that Americans trust local news sources more than national ones. An energetic local news revival would create models of engagement; it would allow newspapers (in digital form) to intervene in social conversations before misinformation spreads. Local news outlets are an early warning system that benefits everyone, and over time, might increase the level of comfort that mistrustful Americans have with the reporting process.

And for the question I’m sure most people are about to ask: Where will the money come from? Well, the Lincoln Project spent $67 million to create nifty ads that had little effect and didn’t change votes. But it did turn it into a media company.

Imagine what $67 million worth of investment in, say, Sumter county, Florida, or Mahoning county, Ohio, or through Appalachia could do to seed the groundwork for nonprofit local news sources. Don’t get me started on Mike Bloomberg’s billions! Or, do, actually. Stop spending money on political candidates and start spending it on civic infrastructure.

There are successful models: The Texas Tribune, run by Evan Smith, and The Nevada Independent, run by Jon Ralston, are successful, self-sustaining digital news enterprises.

One media-doubting reader of mine summed it up well: “When you read The New York Times, you realize you are being force fed DNC propaganda 24/7 ... So, you have to go with the alternative.”

In most places, no alternative exists. And whether the national media actually does condescend to these folks by treating them as objects of study is kind of irrelevant, because the perception is that we do.

Pre-pandemic, when I traveled the country helping teach state and local election officials how to combat misinformation, I advised them to “work the refs” — to plan ahead, with their local media, to set ground rules for the types of harmful information that, if amplified, could cause real problems. Almost uniformly, they told me that, yes, that’s a good idea, but outside of a political reporter for a TV station in a major market, there was no ref to work. That means that rumors spread quickly.

On Wednesday, for example, you might have seen a post on Twitter about how 40,000 ballots in DeKalb Cunty needed to be “cured” by Friday, or else they would be thrown out. A ProPublica reporter, Jessica Huseman, intervened: There were only about 3,000 rejections across the entire state, she said, based on her reporting.

ProPublica is investing in state reporting, which is excellent. To combat misinformation, we need engaged local reporters with audiences who trust them to report in real time. We cannot cure systemic mistrust of media elites from establishment outlets, or hope to completely tame our information disorder as long as the internet exists. But we can recapitalize local news, and we need to make it a national priority.