The Myth of "The Local" in American Journalism

Article excerpt

The myth of "the local" powerfully informs American journalism's talk about itself. The term local has received less scrutiny than other keywords of the profession, such as objectivity, public, and independence. Yet references to local news figure prominently in many contemporary discussions of newspaper readership, coverage, management, and mission. Different groups interpret the meaning of the local for their own purposes. Ultimately, however, their discourse masks the collapse of the social worlds that the term local purports to describe. The myth of the local persists because it dramatizes and articulates the dilemmas of a commercial press in a democratic society.

On 20 June 1949, the noted columnist Walter Lippmann visited Des Moines, Iowa, to help the Register and Tribune commemorate its centennial anniversary. Speaking to an audience of 400 of the state's editors and publishers, Lippmann praised American newspapers as bastions of freedom in the current Cold War. The strength of the country's press system, he said, was its local ownership: "American newspapers, large and small, and without exception, belong to a town, a city, at the most to a region." Decentralized ownership and management had made the nation's newspapers accountable not to parties or the government but to the communities "where they are written, where they are edited, and where they are read." Economically and socially rooted in their local communities, American newspapers had protected democracy against baleful, distant influences.1

Lippmann's speech invoked one of professional journalism's deepest mythologies-the belief that newspapers are most true, pure, real, and authentic when they honor their responsibility to "the local." Curiously, he himself had not always subscribed to that myth. Indeed, his 1922 book Public Opinion had mercilessly critiqued Americans' faith in local knowledge. A younger Lippmann had complained that "the democratic tradition is . . . always trying to see a world where people are exclusively concerned with affairs of which the causes and effects all operate within the region they inhabit." He thought that newspapers' fixation on the local limited their value. Citizens needed to understand distant, complex events, but the quest for circulation encouraged local items in which "enough people see their own names in the paper often enough, can read about their weddings, funerals, sociables, foreign travels, lodge meetings, school prizes, their fiftieth birthdays, their sixtieth birthdays, their silver weddings, their outings, and clambakes."2

Juxtaposed, these two sets of comments suggest something of Lippmann's own mythic transformation. Books like Drift and Mastery (1914) and Public Opinion had won him notice. His editorials for the New York World in the 1920s established his clout. By the 1930s, he had made himself into a new type of journalist-the well-educated, cosmopolitan public intellectual. Not everyone admired this new professional type, of course. Journalists committed to an older tradition of partisan crusading sometimes complained about Lippmann's effete, metaphysical style.3 Nonetheless, by the 1950s he was widely considered the dean of his profession.4 He earned that reputation not for his praise of the local, or for his defense of the virtues of community journalism, or for his service to his hometown, but for his devotion to the arts of influence. By mid-- century Lippmann had become the very model of the well-connected pundit, shuffling quietly through the corridors of power. Thus the significance of his 1949 comments. When a cosmopolitan cynic as well traveled as Lippmann praises "the local" in such fulsome terms, we should suspect that we are in the presence of myth.

We want to analyze that myth of "the local" as it informs American journalism's discourse about itself. At first glance, the local might seem a minor element in the profession's mythology. For example, the American Society of Newspaper Editors' 1922 Canons of Journalism and 1975 Statement of Principles both specify standards of independence, accuracy, impartiality, fairness, and decency, but neither mentions anything about journalists being accountable to their local communities. …