What are the sources of information by which the people in Montgomery County must regulate their judgment of the conduct of their representatives in the state legislature? Of personal observation they can have no benefit. This is confined to the citizens on the spot. They must therefore depend on the information of intelligent men, in whom they confide; and how must these men obtain their information? Evidently from the complexion of public measures, from the public prints, from correspondences with their representatives, and with other persons who reside at the place of their deliberations. This does not apply to Montgomery County only, but to all the counties at any considerable distance from the seat of government.
“I’d be going door to door, or meeting with people at a diner or a fair, for example, and in the most isolated areas, a lot of people had no idea that their own congressman had been indicted,” McMurray told me. Orleans County, west of Rochester, he said, was “one of the toughest places.” Some people didn’t even know who Collins was, and many were incredulous when McMurray told them of the federal charges.
“People told me I was making it up,” said McMurray. That shouldn’t have been the case, given that television news stations in both Rochester and Buffalo were giving plenty of airtime to the scandal as it developed, and those stations were available throughout the district. Nevertheless, the constituents lacked access to the in-depth coverage that a newspaper would have provided. At one time, almost everyone in the district had ready access to print editions of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle or The Buffalo News, or were within easy reach of smaller newspapers in nearby Niagara Falls or Lockport.
As a result, Collins—the first member of Congress to endorse Donald Trump for president—was taking full advantage of the decline of credible news sources. He sent fundraising emails to constituents, blasting what he called “fake news” about his misdeeds—and relied heavily on TV ads to promote his supposed effectiveness in Congress. McMurray put it to me this way: “The lack of real journalism in a lot of the more remote parts of the district meant that people were relying on gossip, conservative radio, or social media. People were really deep into their echo chambers, or they just didn’t care.”
Despite some hopeful signs, such as the many nonprofit news sites that have cropped up around the country, the overall trends are troubling. As Tom Rosenstiel, the executive director of the American Press Institute, told me: “If we don’t monitor power at the local level, there will be massive abuse of power at the local level.” That’s something that Alexander Hamilton and his fellow constitutional architects could not have reconciled with what they had in mind: a society in which citizens are well-informed and active participants in how their government operates. If we in the 21st century are to remain true to their vision, we must find a way—indeed, many ways—to reinvent local journalism before it is too late.