The Trump Effect on Rural Communities and Newspapers

This is a chapter in The Future of the Presidency, Journalism and Democracy (Routledge, 2022).

By Al Cross
Director and Professor, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

               The presidency of Donald Trump increased the divisions between rural and urban America. That you may have heard; in his inaugural address, President Biden said the United States “must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal.”

               What you probably have not heard is that Trump also increased divisions among people living in rural communities; and that in combination with social media, it accelerated the decline of non-metropolitan newspapers, the most important source of local news and information for 60 million rural Americans.

               Those are some of the conclusions I have reached after closely watching Trump and discussing his impact with journalists and their paymasters over most of the United States, in my role as Director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. This essay will explore what I have found and what the future may hold. It is not encouraging. 

Rural Disaffection: From 2016 to Today

            Rural voters were a big reason Trump became president. They turned out in numbers that even his own campaign did not expect (Todd, et al., 2016), and Trump won in 2016 a larger share of the rural vote than any presidential candidate since exit polls have been measuring it: 62 percent to Hillary Clinton’s 34 percent (Huang, et al., 2016). Perhaps the best measure of Trump’s rural support in 2016 was that the exit poll found the smaller a place’s population – grouped in nine types from the largest cities to thoroughly rural areas – the stronger was its vote for Trump, with one very small exception that was within the margin of error (Kurtzleben, 2016).

               Rural voters had been trending more Republican since 1980, but Trump tapped into a broad rural disaffection – driven by economic, social and cultural concerns – that didn’t become apparent to most journalists and other observers until after the election.

               The most apparent driver of the trend in 2016 was economics. In mid-2016, employment in metropolitan areas was 4.8 percent higher than in the first quarter of 2008, the official start of the recession, but non-metro employment was 2.4 percent less (Hertz, 2017). Each year from 2012 through 2016, the Census Bureau estimated that rural counties as a whole lost population, the first time that had been recorded (Marema & Bishop, 2017). A poll in April 2017 found that 21 percent of rural respondents said lack of employment was the biggest problem facing their community, triple the percentage of urban and suburban residents saying that. Asked if they would encourage young people in their community to stay in the area or leave for more opportunity elsewhere, 59 percent of rural residents said the latter, and 32 percent said the former (Hamel, et al., 2017).

               The loss of jobs and opportunity in rural areas was exacerbated by the loss of businesses, which provide not only employment but civic capital that helps communities make the most of their limited assets. During the recovery from the Great Recession, counties of fewer than 100,000 people accounted for 19 percent of net new business establishments, and 9 percent of net job creation; in the two previous recoveries, such counties accounted for 20 and 27 percent of new jobs (Economic Innovation Group, 2016). As local merchants have been replaced by big-box stores on online shopping, there are fewer businesspeople to provide local leadership and innovation, and communities stagnate or decline.

               Some academics and journalists saw a “rural crisis” in what amounted to “a new inner city” (Adamy & Overberg, 2017), reflected by rising mortality rates among non-college-educated, middle-aged white people, often from opioid overdoses, alcohol and suicide (Case & Deaton, 2017). Others documented a resentment among rural voters of urban elites that developed before 2016 (Cramer, 2015) and was displayed in the election results (Cramer, 2016). Since then, polling has further established anti-elite feeling as a strong political factor among rural voters (Lewis, 2018). One survey suggested that the rural-urban divide is driven by suspicion (more so in rural areas) that people in other types of communities look down on them (Knight, 2020), and an earlier survey found that most rural Americans, and probably most urban Americans, “perceive an urban-rural divide over values” (Bialik, June 2018).

Social and Cultural Factors Prevail: The Run-up to 2016

               As researchers delved deeper into the 2016 election results and demographic trends, they concluded that the Trump vote was driven more by social and cultural concerns than by economics. Rural areas had more economic stress, but they also are highly reflective of those social and cultural concerns. And the three concerns are related, especially when it comes to immigration.

               Trump voters in 2016 were much more likely to agree that “Whites can’t find jobs because employers are hiring people of color” (McElwee, 2017) and that immigration may be the issue that most divides rural and urban Americans (DelReal & Clement, 2017). In the 2016 Republican primaries, Trump did best in counties that had recently seen an influx of immigrants, especially Latinx (Adamy & Overberg, 2016). Aside from identification with the Republican Party, “fears about immigrants and cultural displacement were more powerful factors than economic concerns in predicting support for Trump among white working-class voters.” Rural counties are disproportionately populated by non-college-educated whites, who also were the strongest supporters of Trump’s trade policies (Cox, et al., 2016).

               Non-college-educated whites belong disproportionately to evangelical religious denominations, another key part of Trump’s base. “Their conservative reaction to demographic change is at the heart of their political agenda and perhaps a response to increasing racial diversity within their own religious community,” Janelle Wong wrote, based on her research (Won, 2018a). She predicted in her 2018 scholarship that “[t]he racial fears and anxieties that underlie their support for the president will probably remain the driver in their political views long after he leaves office” (Wong, 2018b).

               Trump’s presidency “revealed the complete fusion of evangelical Christianity and conservative politics,” New York Times religion reporter Elisabeth Dias wrote in 2020. The core of her analysis was this (emphasis added): “Evangelicals did not support Mr. Trump in spite of who he is. They supported him because of who he is, and because of who they are. He is their protector, the bully who is on their side, the one who offered safety amid their fears that their country as they know it, and their place in it, is changing, and changing quickly.”

               Dias also cites a speech Trump made before the 2016 Iowa caucuses, in which he vowed “Christianity will have power” if he made it into the White House.

               Trump’s authoritarian streak appeals to some evangelicals. The most authoritarian-inclined Americans tend to be over age 45, live in rural areas and don’t have a college degree, and they score much higher on the authoritarian scale than residents of Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, a Morning Consult poll found (Easley, 2021). Furthermore, a multi-state poll among likely Republican primary voters before the 2016 elections found that the strongest predictor of a vote for Trump was “authoritarian inclinations” (MacWilliams, 2016).

               “Cultural/religious values are the real divide,” Cheryl Wormley, publisher of The Woodstock Independent in Illinois, wrote in an email reply to my informal survey of small-town newspapers. Her town of 25,000 is one of Chicago’s outermost suburbs, 67 miles from the Loop. “What we call urban dwellers today live and work in a very diversified economy,” she wrote, and continued: “They are more accepting of federal government involvement in jobs, justice, and other issues. Rural dwellers live closer to the land. They see themselves not as dependent on governmental bodies for services and value their sense of independence. For them, there is no rush to develop new ideas, and Trump reinforced them.” (Personal communication, 2021)

               One revealing glimpse of Trump supporters’ attitudes about him and the news media appeared as a letter to the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune in Massachusetts on Election Day 2020, signed by Bob Scimone of the adjoining Boston exurb of Methuen. It was copied and shared on Facebook by rural residents and reflects many other comments on the social-media platform by rural residents. It read:

I still love my Democrat friends and family, but see it your way and I’ll see it mine.
You see President Donald Trump’s arrogance, I see his confidence.
You see Trump’s nationalism, I see his patriotism.
You see Trump as a dictator, I see him as a leader.
You see him as an authoritarian, I see him as the only one willing to fight for our freedoms.
You see Trump’s racism, I see his words being misconstrued and twisted by the media to fit their narrative.
You see him as childish, I see him as a fighter who’s unwilling to cave into the lies.
You see him as an unpolished politician, I see him as a breath of fresh air.
You think Trump hates immigrants, I know he is married to an immigrant.
You see him putting an end to immigration in America, I see him welcoming immigrants to America legally.
You see Trump’s cages at the border, I see Obama’s cages at the border.
You see Trump with a struggling economy, I see him with an amazing economy, until the pandemic shut it down.
You see the violence in the streets and call it “Trump’s America.” I see violence in the streets of Democratic-run cities refusing his help and call it “liberal America.”
You want someone more presidential, I am happy we have someone who finally doesn’t just talk the talk but actually walks the walk.
You and I? We see things very differently. Agree or disagree, we owe the position of president of the United States our respect. (Scimone, 2020)

               This post is a window into the thinking of many Trump followers. They often have robust ripostes to criticism of him, likely informed by social media and news media outlets that support him. Trump critics may see in such posts simplistic thinking and attempts to change the subject, but this post is based on fundamental values and beliefs, and faith in a man Trump followers see as a strong leader – and they have little faith in the news media.

The Widening Rural-urban Political Divide: 2020 in Retrospect

               The economic, social and cultural factors that were key to Trump’s 2016 victory have created a larger rural-urban political divide, to which Biden referred in his inaugural address.

               Since 1992, nonmetropolitan counties that are not adjacent to a metro area (and to a slightly greater degree, major-metro counties where most of the population lives in rural census tracts) have given increasing percentages of their votes to Republican presidential candidates, with two exceptions: 2008, when Barack Obama did better in rural areas than many expected, and 2020, when Trump’s share of their vote was slightly less than in 2016 (Cushing, 2021). A larger-than-usual rural vote in Georgia, much of it Black, got credit for Biden’s narrow win in that state (Marema, et al., 2020)

               But the 2020 election also provided evidence that the rural-urban divide is growing. Voters in the counties in the bottom 20 percent of population density gave Trump a 35-percentage-point margin in 2020, up from 32 points in 2016; in the most urbanized 20 percent, Biden’s margin was 29 points, four better than Clinton’s, and the greater the population density is, the larger the Democratic shift was. In reporting these data, The Economist (2020) noted that Biden “gained most ground in counties that swung hardest toward Democrats between Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012 and Hillary Clinton’s failed bid for the White House in 2016. One possible explanation for this trend is the tendency for Democrats and Republicans to live among their own kind. Americans are increasingly sorting themselves into politically like-minded communities.”

               Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing documented that phenomenon down to the neighborhood level more than a decade ago in a book with a wonderfully descriptive title: The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart (2008). It was exhaustively reported but didn’t delve deeply into the issues that cause the divide. My explanation, as someone who grew up in one of the most rural parts of America and has been an issues-oriented journalist for more than 40 years, is that when too many political issues (abortion and gender rights being the leading examples) cut to the depths of personal beliefs and values, and leave little or no room for compromise, we avoid discussing them – to the extent of keeping that in mind when we change addresses. We move where we find common ground. For Americans who are satisfied with their lives in small towns and don’t want or need to move, that can be a problem – especially if they’re in the business of dealing with public issues, as rural journalists are.

Rural Communities and Their Newspapers: Into 2020

               To gather facts and opinions on the deepening rural-urban divide and its effect on rural journalism, on June 20, 2020, I sent an email to the listserv I co-manage for the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors (ISWNE), which has about 250 U.S. members and is oriented more toward editorial interests than the business concerns that tend to be the main focus of other community-newspaper associations. The subject line of the email was “The effects of Donald Trump on rural places and their newspapers,” and I advanced two propositions:

•             My take is that Trump makes you be for or against him, and you get defined that way, creating divisions in families, churches, businesses and other organizations. It’s community-corrosive, not community-building.

•             People are less interested in local news because Trump has made national news more compelling, and local news media are losing out in the “attention economy” created by the tsunami of online information and their reliance on social media.

               I received 11 email replies and one telephone call. The range of responses was broadly representative of the U.S. membership of ISWNE, of which I have been an active member since 2004, attending most of its conferences. They revealed specific examples of trends I had noticed or feared in rural communities and their newspapers, and none of them disputed either of the two propositions.

               Editors confirmed that Trump has been a divisive force in their communities. Bill Tubbs, publisher of the North Scott Press in Eldridge, Iowa, near Davenport, told me people in his community are increasingly identified as pro- or anti-Trump, and that “[t]he Trump effect has permeated many things in community life, except in Rotary, where we leave our differences at the door” by the members’ explicit understanding (, 2021).

               “The Trump effect,” as others have also called it, can have ramifications. Sarah Kessinger, editor of The Marysville Advocate in Kansas, wrote to me that the Willa Cather Foundation’s proposal for a Kansas-Nebraska National Heritage Area was scuttled due to mistaken beliefs that it was a “land grab” by the federal government (Fischler, 2021; Freedom’s Frontier, 2021). “It was the most disheartening thing I’ve witnessed and fodder for several weekly newspapers' passionate editorials and reporting pointing to the facts,” Kessinger wrote. She expanded by writing: 

"There was no doubt in my mind that this was the Trump effect, even though Trump always supported National Heritage Areas. It was his reliance on lies and misinformation as a routine practice that gave the organization behind this particular negative movement the fuel and permission to lie and disseminate a misinformation campaign through social media. Hundreds of people turned out at the organization's public meetings in tiny Kansas towns, which were then broadcast on Facebook. I found the hysteria alarming – these were like mini-Trump rallies. But ultimately I'm saddened by the loss of a collaborative effort by many counties to work together on tourism – one of our last-ditch hopes to keep rural America appealing as a place to live and visit." (personal correspondence, 2021)

               So, in contrast to the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s maxim that “All politics is local,” national politics are invading local politics, in ways that surprise and dismay experienced observers of the latter: rural newspaper editors and publishers.

Papers Become More Cautious: Entering “After Trump”

               Beginning early in Trump’s presidency, local editors and publishers voiced concern that his attacks on the national news media were rubbing off on them. That seems to be true only of local newspapers that cover or comment on national issues; it is not the usual case for most weekly newspapers, but ISWNE is focused on editorial concerns, and national commentary in members’ papers is more common. But the Trump phenomenon is making weeklies more cautious.

               Reed Anfinson, publisher of the Swift County Monitor-News in Benson, Minnesota, told me this story about today’s new tales of caution:

A couple months ago, a person walked into a local tavern in which I was talking with a friend. The Monitor-News was sitting on the bar. He picked it up, looked at the front page, and tossed it down saying, “Who left this rag in here?”
In a quieter voice, he told the person next to him, “That newspaper guy is a Communist. Someone should do something about him.” The person he was talking to was the wife of the friend I was with at the time. She told me about the conversation.
We’ve lost subscribers and advertising because of the intolerance pervading society today. In these fragile financial times, it has me weighing the political cartoons I will publish. As I write, it has me being more thoughtful in how I word my columns. That is not all bad, but it makes me wonder sometimes if I am pulling my punches. I still write about national topics because they are talked about by my readers. However, I try to ensure the vast majority of what I publish focuses on local issues. (personal communication, 2021)

               National issues became so fraught for Kris O’Leary, publisher of four weekly newspapers in central Wisconsin, that she ordered her editors to stop covering and commenting on national issues after the January 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. She told me in an email:

After the election and all the claims of election fraud and “Trump won” stuff, I got tired of the paper being part of the problem with people treating each other with a lack of respect. I realized we weren’t going to change anyone’s mind and it wasn’t worth my mental health and the staff’s to be caught in the middle of this thing. I have been around a long time and hadn’t seen it get this bad between family members who were squaring off in letters to the editor. Our sales people were facing backlash, and it wasn’t fun running a paper and explaining every week why freedom of speech didn’t give them freedom to say whatever they wanted in the paper I still operate under libel and defamation rules. (personal correspondence, 2021)

               O’Leary posted her reply to the ISWNE list-serve, and Tubbs, the Iowa publisher, brought it up in an interview with me that he initiated. “You can’t escape national politics in the community if you have your core values and principles,” he said, adding that it can be hard to define what’s a national issue. “Agriculture is foundational in Iowa,” he said, so newspapers there have an obligation to cover issues such as international trade and farm subsidies. To that, I would add energy (such as ethanol subsidies) and environmental regulations (such as water pollution from farms, commentary on which earned Iowa weekly editor Art Cullen a Pulitzer Prize in 2017).

               In the online conversation, O’Leary acknowledged that “Some things border on national issues, but we are trying to be very local in our editorials.” She said her concerns are more than editorial: “Advertising last year was horrible and this year has improved, mostly in help-wanted ads. We are a weekly paper, and we can make a difference at our local level, and maybe that will trickle up … We had a few hot heads that screamed like hell about their freedoms being taken away, but most people were relieved not to have to read the letters and editorials on national politics. I don’t know if we will go back, but at this time I am relieved to not have to deal with people who think the election isn’t over yet.” (personal correspondence, 2021)

               Another weekly publisher, who did not want to be named, said he is losing advertising because of a column he wrote contrasting Trump with a retired member of Congress whom he admired for his civility. In reaction to that, a prominent Republican “told me, rudely, that he would not run his $95 ad [in another special publication], because we are part of the ‘fake news’ media. He canceled his subscription, too.”

               In northeast Georgia, an area highly favorable to Trump, publisher Mike Buffington said he still comments editorially on national events, but knows he is operating in a changed environment. “There was a time when local newspapers were special in a community,” he told me in an email, “but after Trump the tone has changed considerably. Truth no longer matters with many people, only what they think. Facts make no difference. Reality is whatever they want it to be.”

               Other rural newspapers play it safer in the Trump era.

               “We do not report national news, unless we can tie it directly to life in our communities. That national news coverage will include local sources,” wrote Roger Harnack, publisher of seven papers in Eastern Washington, which he called “very much Trump country.” He told me in an email that his papers stopped carrying “op/ed content about what's going on in Washington, D.C.” two years ago and don’t hire journalists “to be so-called ‘fact checkers.’” He explained:

My newsroom staff are traditional “professional observers.” I tell my staff that as a journalist, your job is to the eyes and ears of our readers. I expect our journalists to make our readers feel like they are in a meeting, at the game, etc. We report the back-and-forth he said, she said. We look for both sides of an issue. We leave it to readers to sort out who/what is more credible. (personal correspondence, 2021)

               Harnack said his approach works, business-wise:

Our readers trust our publications and newsroom staff. We have grown readership during the last couple Trump years … Because of how we cover news, our readers don’t see us as the “enemy.” In fact, they welcome and look forward to our publications. That said, many of our readers do see corporate news organizations as anti-American. They see TV news and large metro newspapers as carrying water for politicians and their agendas. That won't change until larger news organizations learn to balance coverage, remove staffer opinions and report just the facts. (personal correspondence, 2021)

               A similar response came from a writer at a South Dakota newspaper who asked that she and her paper not be named:

The new, very young owners are not from here, and are based in a neighboring town. I had to tell the editor that she will lose a substantial number of subscribers if she continued to allow any hint of political bias, one way or another, slip into content. That means carefully selecting the weekly cartoon, and even not printing one if there were no politically neutral option.
It means taking all the propaganda out of our state and national congressmen’s columns, etc. I believe this is why very local, weekly newspapers have survived longer than their national-news-centered counterparts. People do not want politics disturbing their enjoyment of the local news. They can get that from their preferred source of national news. I had heard ominous rumblings about people considering cancelling subscriptions, but the editor reacted quickly, and the rumblings have died away. (personal correspondence, 2021)

               Decades of experience with rural newspapers tell me that most such papers are timid and prefer to avoid upsetting their neighbors. The loss of one major advertiser could be the difference in profit and loss, especially at a time when digital media and big-box stores have greatly eroded their advertising base.  Some offended advertisers have even been known to sponsor competing papers, driving the offenders out of business. But after the January 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol insurrection, spawned by Trump’s believed-by-millions lie that the election was stolen from him, I urged rural newspapers to confront their readers with the truth. I wrote this for The Rural Blog:

               Most rural news outlets stick to local matters and shy away from national controversies, fearing that weighing in would be bad for business or bad for personal relationships. But the readers, viewers and listeners of rural media are not only citizens of a locality; they are citizens of a state and nation, and the nation faces a fundamental threat from misinformation and disinformation. To ignore that is to ignore the responsibility of journalists and their paymasters to serve democracy and the citizens who are their neighbors … It’s a tough topic for rural journalists; one told me this week that he would fear for his personal safety if he challenged the belief that the election was stolen from Donald Trump. Each of us must decide when and how to show courage, but courage is what we need. (Cross, 2021a)

               I conducted no survey to see what rural newspapers had to say after that blog post, but I doubt that many took up my challenge. One journalist who spoke out was northeast Georgia’s Buffington, who wrote a 1,350-word column headlined, “Trump’s graffiti of lies laid bare.” He wrote, "Over the last four years, Trump has purposefully polarized the nation, demonized his political opponents as 'enemies of the people,' spewed lies and unfounded conspiracies, praised white-power racists, and cultivated support from the violent fringes of the far-right. He weaponized social media as a bullhorn to inflame the passions and emotions among his followers with propaganda and lies."

               Buffington also wrote that:         

Trump lost Georgia twice, first on Nov. 3 and again on Jan. 6.
Sherman burned Georgia in 1865; Trump did it again in 2020.
That Civil War analogy isn't too far off, either. America is in another domestic conflict today, one that has a different battlefield and uses different weapons, but a civil war nonetheless.
Today, the battlefield is social media and the weapons are propaganda and conspiracies.
Trump has proven to be a master of propaganda. He tells a lie so big and so often that a lot of people start to believe it. He magnifies the lies via social media, sites that only now, when it's too late, have begun to strip him of access.

               In Minnesota, Anfinson wrote, “As partisan reality is warped by social media and conspiracy theory websites, the depth of bitterness deepens.”

               In such a political environment, combined with a bad business environment for local newspapers – caused by digital platforms that steal their advertising and a pandemic that further reduced it – it’s no wonder some editors and publishers are shying away from national coverage and commentary. If I still ran a struggling weekly, I might, too.

National Overwhelms Local: Going Ahead Without Trump (updated)

               Another “Trump effect” that worries rural editors and publishers is an increased focus on national news, driven by his controversial statements and social media. At the end of the chapter I wrote for the book that preceded this one (Cross, 2018), I quoted Tom Rosenstiel of the University of Maryland, then at the Brookings Institution and now later executive director of the American Press Institute: “The real crisis in American journalism is not technological, it’s geographic. The crisis is that local journalism is shrinking. I wouldn’t say it’s dying, but it’s the most threatened. There is so much more national and international news available to people, it has changed what people are interested in. [During the 2016 election campaign] I saw clear and distinct evidence that people were consuming more national news and less local.” (Cross, 2018)

               Human beings have only 24 hours in a day. In the last two decades they have been the targets of a daily tsunami of digital information from near and far, and as they pay more attention to the far, they pay less attention to the near. In the five years that Trump has dominated the media landscape, that phenomenon appears to have accelerated. As Buffington (2021) wrote me in an email: "During the Trump tenure, we saw a huge uptick in local interest of national news. When we’d write about local controversies, not much reaction. But when we’d write about Trump or national politics, all hell would hit. (All of our editors wrote mostly anti-Trumpism columns and editorials.) So I’d agree that interest in local news has taken a  hit with the hyper-partisan interest in national news …  First, Trump created a cult of personality around which his supporters have rallied, following him in a pseudo-religious fever. Second, social media has so distorted reality that a lot of people live more online than in their own towns." (Personal correspondence, 2021)

               Those towns, communities of geography, are the basis for local news outlets. They now compete with social media’s communities of interest. The more time people spend with them, the less time they have for their geographic communities. That drives down newspaper readership, which means fewer ads, which leaves less room for news, which further reduces readership and continues the downward spiral.

               “People had come to expect all news to be ‘free’ because of the lack of paywalls nationally,” Buffington wrote. He continued: “Then came Trump and his demonizing of the press. Then Covid hit and devastated the advertising landscape. The result has been lower readership and less revenue in an atmosphere that is caustic at best. Can newspapers survive this? Many won’t. If state legislatures continue to attack legal-notice advertising, a lot of small-town papers will fold.”

               Many newspapers have already folded, and the closures are getting more significant. Abernathy (2021) finds that the vast majority of papers closing since 2004 have been weeklies, but most were in suburbs. The next most common category were in towns that are not county seats. But in the last two years, more county seats have been losing their papers, too (Cross, 2021a).

               In some “news deserts,” the local media gap is being filled by evangelical radio stations with a political agenda, and religious stations mushroomed after they gained access to the FM spectrum in 2000, Dee Davis reported on The Daily Yonder (2019): “By 2006 those small evangelical radio outlets had become the second largest radio format in the nation. Only country music was bigger when you measured by station count and not by metro density or population served. Today there are a combined 3,000 commercial and noncommercial Christian radio stations compared with nearly 2,200 country stations and 2,000 talk stations. . . . Many of those local Christian stations are important. They reach out to people down on their luck. And in a lot of small towns facing addiction, joblessness, and dissolution of community, luck is in short supply. Part of the appeal is that these stations blend local ministries and community outreach with on-the-hour national news with a Biblical perspective. What’s under the radar is that the Christian news feed and other programs are nationalized and weaponized by conservative think tanks and by evangelical church networks. Right now, that news product is some combination of political and cultural discourse meant to push emotional buttons. Today’s topics include paying reparations for slavery, well-to-do socialists, a billion-dollar Medicare scam, an approaching immigrant caravan, and a failed coup to remove the president of the United States. The news can change from hour to hour, but the emotional button pushing remains constant.” (Davis, 2019)

Who Will Stand for Truth?

               In 2018, Darr and Hitt found that “the decline of local newspapers has contributed to the nationalization of American politics: as local newspapers close, Americans rely more heavily on available national news or partisan heuristics to make political decisions.” A few years later, in his inaugural address after being sworn in as President of the United States, Joe Biden called on Americans to stand up for truth, against “lies told for power and profit.” Millions of Americans seem to continue to believe lies of the past half-decade, creating what New York Times columnist David Brooks (2020) calls “an epistemological crisis” that is especially dangerous in rural areas:

               The information age has created a lot more people who make their living working with ideas [and] increasingly concentrated them in ever more prosperous metro areas. . . . Places where fewer people have college degrees have been spiraling down. . . . . Those without a degree are far more unhappy [than in 1972] about their lives[, creating] intense populist backlashes against the highly educated folks who have migrated to the cities and accrued significant economic, cultural and political power.

               Epistemological crises are occurring in some other countries, but the U.S. is the only country surveyed by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism where trust in the news media didn’t go up in 2020 (Reuters, 2021). What’s the difference between the U.S. and elsewhere? The United States still has Trump, who has brought criticism of the news media to an unprecedented level and changed the social fabric of communities all across the nation. Even when he leaves the stage, that will be one of his legacies, and it is likely to last.

References 

Abernathy, P., 2021. NewsDeserts.com, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Adamy, J., and Overberg, P., May 28, 2017. “Rural America is the new ‘inner city’,” The Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/rural-america-is-the-new-inner-city-1495817008 

Adamy, J., and Overberg, P., Nov. 1, 2016. “Places Most Unsettled by Rapid Demographic Change Are Drawn to Donald Trump,” The Wall Street Journal, www.wsj.com/articles/places-most-unsettled-by-rapid-demographic-change-go-for-donald-trump-1478010940 

Anfinson, R., June 25, 2021. Email in response to informal survey by author.

Bialik, K., May 22, 2018. “Key findings about American life in urban, suburban and rural areas,” Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/05/22/key-findings-about-american-life-in-urban-suburban-and-rural-areas/

Bishop, B., 2008. The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, Houghton Mifflin.

Brooks, D., Nov. 26, 2020. “The Rotting of the Republican Mind,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/26/opinion/republican-disinformation.html

Buffington, M., June 24, 2021. Email in response to informal survey by author.

Buffington, M., Jan. 14, 2021, “Trump’s graffiti of lies laid bare,” Braselton News Today (and other newspapers), https://www.mainstreetnews.com/braselton/opinion/buffington-trumpisms-graffiti-of-lies-laid-bare/article_544acf9e-d8af-59e1-b31a-a13a6e1ab93a.html

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