Half Past the Month
A DIGITAL ECONOMICS EXPERT at the University of North Carolina estimates that for every newspaper that has closed in recent years, 10 have been so hollowed out that they exist in name only.
She calls them “ghost papers,” newspapers that pretend to report the news but lack the resources to do so. There could be as many as 2,000 of them. I subscribe to one.
Picking up this weekend’s edition, for example, there is an article on the front page — above the fold, a place once reserved for assassinations, declarations of war and such. The headline reads, “Contention on Council Was Limited During 2018.”
With that, a year’s worth of venality and maneuver went under the journalistic rug, not to mention millions and millions of dollars in questionable bonding and taxation. But we are to believe that everything went swimmingly, bipartisanship and wise leadership having ruled. The council president graciously suggested that few controversial issues are raised in the congenial civic garden that he tends.
That would only be true if you depended on council presidents for your news. Here are some of the items that went unreported or were rendered incomprehensible in council discussion:
- A multi-million dollar public-private downtown development was approved without a critical look at the link between a hidden owner and the city’s economic-development agency. Nor was it generally known that one of the development firms had failed in every similar project it had launched.
- It was not made clear that bonding and a concomitant water rate increase could have been avoided had the council been willing to suspend the city’s PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes).
- The council, abetted by the media, generally squelched an honest discussion of repealing the business personal property tax, an action approved by the Legislature a few sessions ago. It would have leveled the playing field for businesses and encouraged a wider range of investment. Moreover, it would have eliminated the high cost of maintaining an economic-development bureaucracy of dubious effectiveness. As it was, the council continued to approve dozens of valuable tax abatements for favored business hiring the right law firms.
Look, this democracy thing doesn’t work if no one — not in the media, not in the opposition party or not in the council leadership — will ask hard questions and then throw the answers, all of them, into the public square for consensus. The process is not meant to be copasetic, it is meant to be contentious. As George Carlin famously observed, “Bipartisan usually means that a larger-than-usual deception is being carried out.”
The occasional dissenting councilmen and his constituency are marginalized in editorials and news reports and on talk radio as well as in council chambers. For an informed electorate is only an abstract if the local media see their role as civic boosters, merely enforcing the rationale of a town or party elite. Indeed, why would a free citizen trust that? Why would he pay for that?
Ah, we may have solved the mystery of declining subscriptions.
— Craig Ladwig