Speak Your Piece: In a Desert, Any Oasis Will Do

Rural “news deserts” are anything but arid. But the steady stream of information that flows into rural America isn’t the kind that waters the roots of democracy.

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Back in the analog era I had two newspaper boxes at the end of my driveway, a blue one for the Lexington paper, and a white one for the Louisville paper. Maybe that was showing off, but that was a time when I believed reading two sports sections made me smarter.

Then 15 years ago, the papers started shuttering their East Kentucky bureaus. Eleven years ago, the Louisville Courier-Journal quit delivering east of I-75. And in the last few years our local Lexington Herald-Leader distribution system came down to two big guys in a tiny gold Prius covering three east Kentucky counties, papers piled high enough in back to block the rear view. If the H-L wasn’t in the box by 10, you might catch the guys eating breakfast at the Dairy Queen and go pick up the paper yourself. But that was on the mornings they came to town. Some mornings what you got was two days’ papers snapped into the same rubber band. And occasionally it was three days in a row bundled together so you could read the Herald-Leader like Paradise-Lost; start in the middle, then go to the day before yesterday, and finish up vanquishing Satan with the day’s breaking news.

Where I live is now designated as a news desert. That makes it sound like the only news here is “man bites cactus.” But there’s nothing arid about our news. A lot of good journalists showed up and launched careers covering our corruption, perfidy, and feel good human interest. Former East Kentucky reporter for the Herald-Leader, Frank Langfitt, is now NPR’s London correspondent. Former East Kentucky reporter for the Courier-Journal, Gardiner Harris, covers international diplomacy for the New York Times. Even the Mountain Eagle, our weekly paper in Whitesburg, can point to its own legacy of covering local news and to reporters who went from covering these coalfields to grand destinies as authors, media executives, and, in Bill Bishop, to co-founding of the Daily Yonder.

The different definitions of “news desert” go from the simple, 1) places with no papers, to the gilded, 2) communities with limited access to credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots. The news desert’s closest living linguistic relative is the “food desert,” meaning a place where you can’t purchase fresh fruit or vegetables. I don’t know who can’t buy a banana, but my heart goes out.

Why this news desertification happened hardly matters. Maybe it was because media conglomerates, like Gannett and McClatchy in my case, wanted to maximize profits and take away the information country people need to feed democracy. Maybe it was because digital technology created a more efficient paperboy. But what matters more is that this change in the news ecosystem has occurred all over rural America in the last twenty years, and as our news delivery changed, so did our politics.

The change helped get Donald Trump elected. It helped conservative evangelicals establish themselves as news providers across rural America. And it helps explain why rural people’s understanding of their own self-interest may seem out of sync with what people who get their news in metro media hubs think it should be.

Or maybe the news didn’t dry up as much as it got diverted. At the end of the Bill Clinton administration there was a small fight in Congress and in the FCC about how to expand the public media spectrum on the FM dial. The fight was about whether to allow religious broadcasters in. Prior to 2000 the lower end of the FM dial had been reserved for secular education and public purpose broadcast. And that changed. In the gaps between NPR stations and nonprofit community broadcasters, new licenses opened the door for country churches and emerging evangelical networks to join forces. Incrementally the licenses begat stations and the stations begat a weaponized news and cultural programming that found local audiences. 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.

I like local radio. My favorite program is on a station in Powell County, Kentucky – “Tradio on the Radio.” People call in to sell you a garage-kept like-new ’99 Mercury Marquis with 229,000 miles or 14 electric pole glass insulators, all for $3. Once I heard a woman say, “I still have that wiener dog that showed up, blind in one eye, and answers to the name of Willow.” (How many names would you have had to try before you came up with “Willow?”)

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. 

But not that long ago I was driving through the same Powell County and I picked up another station with a preacher telling a story about a boy who had been helpful at the church. Preacher asked the boy could he come back on Saturday during the revival and help park cars. Boy told the preacher, sure he would. But then the day came, no boy. Preacher said, when he saw him out next time he asked why he didn’t come park cars like he’d promised. Boy told the preacher he was sorry, but it turned out that revival Saturday was his brother’s day to wear the shoes. “They only had the one pair,” the preacher explained, then said, “Well, we bought that boy another pair of shoes,” before going on to enumerate why your local contributions to the station were so important.

And 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.

Also under the radar is the accounting that shows these radio networks and affiliated institutions have gone glandular monetizing religious radio stations and media support services like news, sermons, and church literature. In 2011 the revenue for Focus on the Family, a service ministry, was reported to be over $95 million. According to Ministry Watch, Education Media Foundation, the network for many of the nonprofit evangelical stations, has net assets of $552 million. The commercial Salem evangelical network lists assets of $559 million on over $250 million in annual revenue. By accepted accounting principles, there should be no shoe desert anywhere Christian radio is on the dial.

Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter, and most of where you go online to express yourself have you targeted. You are the change they seek. 

Still it is not just Christian radio broadcast that has moved into the vacuum left in rural communities — after regional papers pulled back and local market TV channels refocused on the their more well-heeled suburbs. And it is not just Fox News, Sinclair Broadcasting, and syndicated AM talk radio either. They may preach to a sizeable choir, both confirming messages and synthesizing community, but they are not digital missionaries finding new converts.

Cutting edge communication technologies have brought with them the precision of seeking out the conservatively curious and the politically disinclined to push them toward common political purpose. Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter, and – most of where you go online to express yourself – have you targeted. You are the change they seek. They take what you like and what you hate and prank with you. (Sources say.)

A while back I stopped in Hazard to visit my sister. My brother-in-law had just built a zip line for my niece and nephew along the river bank. I’d never seen one. Very cool. After that visit I went down the block and coaxed my brother to fix me a drink. In the chat about University of Kentucky sports and Hazard High sports and by the way how are the kids, the zip line came up. When I showed up at work the next morning, 30 miles away, I opened my computer, and immediately Google presented me with an ad for a zip line. The trick is not figuring out how they do it, but when they are doing it to you. Is that report of the FBI coup real or a feat of news desk prestidigitation? And when should I take the story seriously about that immigrant caravan hurtling toward town on a zip line?

Before the last election many of us in my town reached out to a friend who was sure that Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine had abused his daughter. Something my friend learned from reliable sharers on Facebook, confirmed at church by others who’d seen the same report. With enough care you can explain a story like that is several years old, cut and pasted from actor Alec Baldwin’s family crisis, and that no daughter had been harmed in either case. But you can never convince that friend who believed the story the first time that a Tim Kaine is OK to leave your kid or your country with. And when you see that the same abuse news story went systematically unchecked to a million voters, you can begin to appreciate the power of emerging news platforms programmed to hunt down gullibility and sidestep candor.

Dee Davis is publisher of the Daily Yonder and president of the Center for Rural Strategies.

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