‘This is pre-fascism’ says top US professor

In Washington yesterday: Immaculately-suited politicians pick their way between slumbering troops. © Getty

Is it local news that can save democracy? It might sound far-fetched. But respected academic Timothy Snyder is devastating in his diagnosis of America’s ills – and lucid in his prescription.

The sun is shining upon the rows of picket fences. Inside almost every house, families huddle around the new edition of the County Herald in deepest, rural America. Dodgy dealings in the local school; plans for a supermarket near a nature reserve; results of municipal elections.

This was 1970. Then the USA boasted 1,748 daily newspapers. No court case, council meeting or corruption scandal went unreported.

Those days are over. In the past 15 years, the US has become a local “news desert”. More than one in five papers have closed. The number of journalists has halved. Local TV has given way to broadcasting giants who fill the airwaves with political propaganda.

It is not alone in this. Between 2007 and 2019, the number of areas in Britain with a local paper nosedived from 380 to 142.

As night follows day, say the analysts, trust in the press has plummeted.

In Britain the share of people who believe the news “most of the time” is down from 50% to 28% in just five years. Today 27% of Americans have “not very much” trust in media and 33% “none at all”.

The substitute? Social media. And this, says Tim Snyder professor of history at Yale University, “…supercharges the mental habits by which we seek emotional stimulation and comfort, which means losing the distinction between what feels true and what actually is true.”

For Snyder, this has created a post-truth age which led directly to the nightmare of 6 January when a mob stormed the seat of American democracy in the name of the outgoing president.

He believes the relationship between Trump and the media mirrors Nazi Germany. Hitler and Trump both came to power in the aftermath of an economic calamity. Both hated the mainstream media.

The Nazis called it “Lügenpresse” – the lying press. Trump calls it “fake news”. Both attacked journalists as “enemies of the people”.

Looking at these patterns, Snyder says: “Post-truth is pre-fascism.”

Snyder sees local media as the key to averting an authoritarian future. “If people don’t have local news,” he writes, “they don’t believe in the media in general. If they do have local news, they might also believe other reporters.”

Many support this view. In June, Google donated $15 m to fund a Support Local News campaign. A report by research institute Brookings found that places without local newspapers are more likely to be politically divided.

So is it local news that can save democracy?

Stop press

Yes, say many. Truth and trust start at home. If there is a thriving local media system that proves its worth in towns and villages, then the craft and skill of accurate journalism is more likely to be fostered at all levels. And if people demand accurate information, the big national titles will be obliged to keep their standards up as well. In this way, local news provides a safeguard against new fascism.

Too late, say others. Social media has insinuated itself into our lives. If we want to protect democracy, we need to find a new approach which takes into account the interconnected, digitally-enhanced world we live in today.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to have more local news where you live?
  2. Is a first-hand account always more truthful than a second-hand one?

Activities

  1. Design the front page of a local newspaper, choosing its name, images and a cover story.
  2. You are a journalist preparing a report on the US Capitol occupation.You have five questions to ask one of the rioters. What will they be? Write them down.

Some People Say...

“I became a journalist because I did not want to rely on newspapers for information.”

Christopher Hitchens (1941 – 2011), English journalist, essayist and political commenter

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that there has been a dramatic collapse in the idea of a single, shared version of the truth since the arrival of social media about 20 years ago. Now, everybody has their own opinion about what is going on, almost regardless of the facts.
What do we not know?
There remains a lively debate about whether this is a good or a bad thing. After all, a single version of the truth is usually the version of a very small group of powerful overlords. Only a generation ago, a club of a few top editors decided what the “news” was. Today, everybody decides. And surely a babble of competing opinions is healthier than docile masses being spoon-fed by the authorities.

Word Watch

Propaganda
Biased information used to promote a cause.
Nosedived
Plummeted suddenly downwards. The word nosedive was first used to describe the sharp plunge of an aircraft.
Yale University
One of America’s oldest and most prestigious academic institutions, founded in 1701.
Post-truth
A term originally coined by the playwright Steve Tesich that describes a political culture framed by emotional appeal rather than truthful facts. The government of Donald Trump has often been described as post-truth.
Fascism
A type of nationalist, authoritarian far-right government, exemplified by the regimes of Benito Mussolini in Italy and Adolf Hitler in Germany.

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