Believers in small-r republicanism, or what many call federalism, believe that local communities are capable of attending to their own affairs better than bureaucrats in Washington. Essential to that vision is the expectation that a local free press will cover issues better and more thoroughly than the national press can or will. Local newspapers will always do the heavy lifting on this score because newspapers are simply better than television at reporting the news. But, unfortunately, there's less and less competition among local papers. This makes local TV stations more important. And local TV news has simply dropped the ball. In Washington State, the closest governor's race ever was mentioned in only 5 percent of local news broadcasts in the month prior to the election. In Colorado, the Senate race appeared in only 12 percent of Denver-area broadcasts.
Interestingly, while coverage of local races was almost non-existent in the month prior to the election, coverage of the presidential election was considerable. More than 50 percent of broadcasts dealt with the presidential campaign. That's nice. But I can't shake the feeling that this had as much to do with the vanity of local reporters and news directors (as well as the ease of using pre-packaged segments distributed to affiliates). Citizens in Kansas City don't need their local news station to tell them what John Kerry said about George W. Bush nearly so much as they need it to explain what the race for the Senate is about. CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, MSNBC and the national newspapers have the presidential beat pretty well covered. None of those guys will tell local voters about a judge's record.
Again, I hate this sort of gitchy-goo finger-wagging. I feel like I should be on a panel at the Kennedy School stroking my chin and waxing nostalgic for Edward R. Murrow or something. But one has to assume that there are real consequences for these failures. If a free press is important, it's important at the local level, too. (Heck, California and New York alone have bigger economies than most European nations.) And that means local politicians are less accountable and government more irresponsible. That, in turn is an invitation for more federal interference. I don't necessarily agree with John McCain's remedy, but for the first time in a long time, I share his sense of outrage.