How Diminished Institutional Knowledge in the Press Coarsens Political Discourse and Diminishes Understanding

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Sometimes, it can be difficult to see just how devastating the loss of institutional knowledge at our newspapers has been. Sure, the casual reader notices that the paper is thinner than it used to be and that local reporters don’t seem to understand the distinction between its and it’s, but there is still news every day and it usually offers multiple perspectives on issues. What’s often missing, though, is the context and historical background that would give readers a fuller sense of the story and even vital information

As some of you know, one of my summer jobs involves debate research. Every summer, I put together hundreds of pages of issue briefs on the high school national debate topic. For the past few days, that research has been about the issue of TSA airport security. My task is to find all the best evidence on both sides, but as I researched this issue, I initially found very little useful recent evidence about  the value of TSA searches.

Do a search for TSA privatization and you’ll see what I mean. It’s a collection of anecdotal horror stories about TSA searches gone bad, statistics about undercover agents getting through security with weapons, and calls to privatize the agency, usually led by House Republican John Mica. If the story bothers to articulate the other side, it will usually include a quote from a union official, but little more context about what privatization would mean for airport security.

These kinds of TSA stories are easy to write: no one enjoys the experience of security; it’s easy to interview someone for man on the street color; you can even make a cool slideshow for the hip, multimedia audience. Writing a story about how unpleasant security is is an incredibly easy task that probably entertains a few readers while reinforcing their bias that we’d be better off as a nation with corporations in charge of private security.

But that’s where the lack of institutional knowledge comes into play. It turns out that there is a great deal of evidence about the dangers of privatized security at our nation’s airports. You just have to look back to 2000 and 2001, a lifetime of buyouts and forced resignations at newspapers ago, to find out just how bad privatization was.

Writing about the 9/11 attacks, James Salzer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote:

The terrorists exploited a problem experts have long raised about airport security: that private firms and near-minimum wage workers are responsible for keeping guns and knives off U.S. airplanes.It also provides passenger screening at the airport in Newark, N.J., where a fourth hijacked plane originated.

The Miami Herald then described how poorly-trained these workers were and the threat that posed:

The result: Passenger checkpoints around the U.S. are staffed by an army of minimum-wage workers, probably the lowest-paid security workers in the nation, experts say.  “Basically, we are entrusting our front-line security to to an employee that is being paid the same as an employee that is making a hamburger at McDonald’s,” said Charlie LeBlanc, managing director of Air Security International, a Houston firm that advises travelers.

You’d think contemporary coverage of the calls to privatize the TSA would bring these details up, or mention that the largest private contractor before 9/11 was caught hiring felons, or that Attorney General John Ashcroft condemned them for endangering national security, but that story takes time to research and institutional knowledge about transportation and security issues. So we get “news” stories that perpetuate lazy stereotypes about government workers, not full coverage that might help readers understand that turning over airport security back to corporations who paid less than McDonalds might not be the best idea. But most of the coverage seems written from the point of view that anything that happened before 2014 just didn’t happen.

Think about what the loss of that kind of institutional knowledge means for coverage here in Montana.  The political discourse cheapens, public knowledge decays, and the power of pseudo-certainty from the least informed grows.

When, instead of paying for a crime reporter, the Independent Record just prints charging documents, how is the community to be informed about the causes of crime and the response of the criminal justice system? Running prurient or scandalous details from police charging documents might generate a ton of clicks, but it does little to lead a community discussion about the issues that exacerbate crime rates and offers little respect for the people charged, some of whom will never be convicted, nor mentioned in the paper again.

How, when the Lee papers and the Great Falls Tribune, “encourage” experienced reporters to leave to be replaced with low-cost and low-experience replacements, are readers supposed to get context about political decisions? Breathless stories about  $10,000 in SNAP overpayments might excite conservative critics of government, but do little to explain the plight of Montana’s poor or expose the policies that help keep them in poverty.

Knowing that our major papers are unlikely to change course in the near future, what do we do?

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we\'d certainly appreciate it.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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