After a 4,000-mile drive across the country and back this July, here’s what I learned about the state of news: If there is a national conversation taking place in America today, no one knows it’s happening.
The national news bubble — driven by news produced out of New York — bursts somewhere just west of Toledo, Ohio. Why that is, I don’t know. But I do know after you cross over that boundary line, you are hard-pressed to find a print edition of any one of our country’s three national newspapers — The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. Not in chain hotels, not in local taverns, not in independently-owned diners.
The standard theory would be that the internet has usurped the need for printed news, but if that is the case, then why wasn’t the talk inside these places where people gather reflective of what was in the headlines?
Those Jan. 6 committee hearings that have engulfed the time and attention of our mainstream national news outlets? It’s as if the topic happened on another planet because here in the middle of the country, no one is paying it any mind.
Moving from newspapers to television, what’s playing on TVs in eating and drinking establishments is sports and weather, not news.
No FOX News Channel.
Because here in the middle of the country, what passes for television news is relegated to game scores and tornado warnings.
That brings us to radio — last, but not least. On the contrary, if you’re in a car for days on end — which, according to Travel & Leisure, 2022 is the year of the road trip — radio becomes your connection to the world. Up and down the AM and FM dial, what fills the airwaves, overwhelmingly, is country music, religion, and conservative talk radio. In many ways, if you listen to one of these talk shows, you know what the others are saying. The talking points, and the points of view, are all the same. Sometimes, eerily so. Yet always a reminder of how radio has strayed from its purpose.
Perhaps the most pointed and direct messenger of conservative talk is Dennis Prager, who is reputedly something of an internet sensation, too. On this particular day’s show, he tells listeners not to trust education, medicine, and government. His view on guns is clear, concise, and repeated throughout the show: Believing government will take care of you makes you a “nobody.” Carrying a gun makes you a “somebody.”
Hours of conservative talk fill the radio waves in the mornings. In the afternoons, a few minutes of news briefs, usually from NPR, and sometimes from ABC News may be found. Those few minutes of news prove no match for hours of talk.
Crops, cattle, and wind farms commingle peacefully as far as the eye can see. At first, the wind turbines seem alien among the corn and sunflowers, but their symmetry in both design and movement is a graceful and peaceful reminder that the 24/7 news cycle is nothing more than a manmade debacle and, as revealed here, completely meaningless.
For decades now, America’s mainstream business media has focused on disruption as the key to entrepreneurial success. Here in Nebraska, where the horizon is all about green crops meeting up with the blue sky, the landscape remembers that the spirit of America isn’t birthed from the need to disrupt. It’s born from the need to survive.
National news has been working harder to push out more news in a shorter time. Here, in middle America, no one notices. A minute is still 60 seconds, no matter what New York has to say about it.
The tone of the national conversation playing out in mainstream news sources in an attempt to wake up and engage a nation is shrill, alarmist, and disconcerting. Note to newsrooms: It’s not working, so how about you tone it down so the rest of us — the few who are still trying to pay you some attention — can remove the earplugs?
Americans’ lack of attention to national news is the culmination of many things happening over decades to erode the quality of news, from regulatory pullbacks to corporate greed in taking over and diminishing newsrooms. We’ve now arrived at the place where the lack of quality in national news has become so transparent it can’t be unseen.
Without quality, the public can’t find any relevance in news to their lives. Without a national conversation to connect us, there’s no way for a nation to move forward.
Reach Jaci Clement at firstname.lastname@example.org