The latest edition of the Charlevoix Courier is a potpourri of small-town Americana: the retirements of several local school employees, how a library official won a state Emmy Award for involvement in a documentary of a local man, and details of a summer concert series at the bandshell along Main Street. There’s no exposé on Donald Trump, disarray at the White House, Russian ties to his campaign or his legislative travails in Congress. There’s nothing about his fake video attack on CNN, or the gratuitous and vulgar shots at cable news co-host Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough.
And, yet, there’s still reason to pause.
“I think there has been an impact” from all the Trump bashing of the press, says Lonnie Allen, managing editor of the paper. “Since the election, I see there has been more questions about our paper by some.”
The Courier prints about 2,200 copies each week, with 1,700 subscribers. It updates its website, too, but it’s about as far away as you might get from the big-city dailies and broadcast networks that Trump often targets.
Now consider how the county went decidedly Trump last November (60 percent Trump, 35 percent Clinton) and appears to remain pro-Trump now. And how Pew Research concludes that there’s been a big drop the past year in the respect Republicans possess for the press. Specifically, there’s been a plummeting in the percentage of Republicans who say the press performs a justifiable “watchdog” role. Is that a function of Trump-led bashing of the media, as well as the ongoing attacks on a rather amorphous “mainstream media” by ideologically conservative organs and pundits? For sure, if you’re an editor of at least one paper in decidedly Trump country.
No doubt, says Allen, there’s an uptick in people questioning “the integrity of the news. ‘Is it real or fake news?’ We hear that we’re just doing things to sell papers. I don’t know if it’s from Trump but it seems it’s trending that way.”
Art Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake Times in Iowa and recent Pulitzer Prize-winner for editorial writing, says, “Most people, I think, don’t care about the pissing match. They think that the talk shows and Trump are of the same cloth. But the Trump supporters here who are active on social media are cheering him on. Even Republicans who are skeptical of Trump are hesitant to abandon him, out of instinct, and because they want some more tax breaks and they really don’t like socialized insurance or socialized anything, and Trump is in their camp on all those things.”
Tom Kearney, who edits the Stowe, Vermont Reporter and two other weekly papers with a total staff of 23 in towns along route Route 100, says, “A little “fake news” attitude bleeds into our microlocal newspapers’ connections with people, but not much.”
“I think it’s easy to rip people when you’ve never met them, but our folks have met us, dealt with us, and understand what we’re doing. And, for the most part, they appreciate our work. One challenge is to overcome the image of a news organization as a monolithic, impenetrable, uncontrollable force and demonstrate that we’re neighbors, trying our hardest to deliver information local people need to have.”
Nick Hytrek, a reporter at the Sioux City, Iowa Journal who just covered a big settlement in a defamation suit against ABC, says nobody has said anything negative to his face. But he notices it “a lot in the comments on our stories on both our website and Facebook page. It seems that any story someone doesn’t agree with is labeled as ‘fake news.’ This is especially true in any story on politics or local government.”
Yes, he says, whether you’re national or very local, you’re now lumped together as part of “the media.”
Finally, there’s Jeffry Couch, editor of the Belleville News-Democrat in Southern Illinois. His paper received lots of attention when it reported comprehensively on the local man who shot at Republican congressmen and others on a Virginia baseball field.
“We’ve seen little obvious effect on how our local readers perceive our work covering Southern Illinois, though a handful complain that we run too much ‘negative’ national coverage of President Trump.”
He cites audience growth as a reflection of attempting to expand investigative and other enterprise reporting. “That’s what we do best and that’s our focus.”
“We have always had our share of local politicians who criticize the Belleville News Democrat because of our aggressive coverage, particularly when the reporting is about their area of responsibility,” he says. “That goes with the territory.”
And, for sure, “Trump’s constant media bashing takes it all to another level,” Couch says, “But I’m not too concerned about it as long as our colleagues in D.C. continue to do aggressive watchdog reporting. And they will.”
James Warren is chief media writer at Poynter.org, where this piece was originally published. It is reprinted here with permission.