June 30, 2007



Political knowledge begins at the local level

by Alan Lupo

Winthrop, my hometown, is "down the rud a piece," as upcountry folk used to say, from the upper North Shore and Merrimack Valley. But as someone who is allowed to write columns for your hometown papers, I still receive The Salem News and Eagle-Tribune on my front porch.
Some stories I scan and some I read in full; but in both cases, they remind me of why I got into this journalism racket many years ago and why I get so disgusted now with what has happened to my trade.

Now, how is that for a transition?

I'm thinking about this thanks to Tony Blair, as in the recently retired British prime minister who, to the best of my knowledge, has never set foot in, say, Salem, Lawrence or Winthrop.

Blair, according to The Economist magazine, recently contended that increased competition among media outlets, 24-hour news channels and such had led, the magazine noted, to "a failure to reflect ambiguity and to provide balanced criticism, and the elevation of sensation and controversy above straight reporting."

He was taking his shots at the British media and given that Blair knows how to play for ink space and face time with the best of them, it may have been somewhat disingenuous. But he was right on the money and he could easily have been talking about what has happened in American journalism. See: Hilton, Paris et al.

What concerns me and ought to concern anybody who chooses to read these words is that too many Americans for far too long have avoided reading stories on serious issues, be they foreign or domestic.

We want the quick take, a couple of paragraphs, a sound bite on television. We prefer to watch and listen to a panel of pundits interrupting and shouting at one another rather than pay attention to the rare, low-key discussion you get on, say, "Washington Week In Review," on PBS.

Combine our short attention span with a lust for celebrity gossip and it's little wonder that too many of us haven't got a clue, be it about the subtleties of Middle Eastern politics or even how our own government works on the local, state or national levels.

This is not a new phenomenon. Cutthroat newspaper competition from the late 1800s well into the 1960s too often produced scandal-mongering and inaccurate stories.

What is new is that we seem to be replicating that era with the aid of technologies never dreamed of back then, from 24-hour cable monsters that demand to be fed to, most recently, the denizens of the blogosphere.

What sticks in my craw is that too many people now lump us journalists all together in one big pot called, "the media." Let the record show, please, that most journalists I have known for the last half-century take their mandate seriously. They may not all take themselves that seriously, else pomposity threatens, but certainly they do not fluff off their stories, columns or editorials.

That brings me back to the papers that show up on my front porch. They have their imperfections; all newspapers do. But they remind me of what journalism is supposed to be about, namely, the coverage of democracy at its basic level - the street, the town and city halls, the school committees, the planning and zoning boards.

The point is simple and if simplistic, I apologize to all. But if we cannot understand how our democracy works at the local level, then what hope is there for us to comprehend our national politics or the role we play on the global stage?


Alan Lupo, a veteran Boston columnist, can be reached at alupo@comcast.net


(This article replicated online with permission of the Newburyport Daily News, an Eagle Tribune Newspaper.)

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