When knowledge is deracinated

As local journalism disappears, polls replace knowledge about communities. Is this one reason why politics seems increasingly unpredictable? Also: why subscription content is making a comeback in central eastern Europe – and what that might mean for cultures of impartiality.

 The US election results have reshuffled the cards in ways that analysts are still trying to figure out. The repudiation of Trump by moderate Republicans and independents was what swung it, but that doesn’t add up to a strong mandate for Biden – particularly since Democrat support among key minority constituencies seems to be undergoing a longer-term process of decline. Acrimony over whether radical demands cost the Democrats seats suggests a rocky road ahead for the party. ‘As gentle a soul as Biden appears to be, he may not be able to heal this divide,’ comments George Blecher.

More immediately, analysts have been puzzling over why the polling failures of 2016 persisted into 2020. Some claim that the constituencies that voted for Trump in greater numbers than in 2016 had in fact shown up, and that a close race in the swing states had been anticipated. This may have been the case for some polls, but others had predicted a ‘blue wave’. So why such variance?

As Claire Potter writes in her article, the polls may have failed to pick up Republican loyalty among the apolitical swathe of the electorate; the perceived stigma of voting for Trump, particularly among women and Black voters, may have been another factor. However, there could be an even more interesting explanation for the distorted expectations: the atrophy of knowledge about communities caused by the decimation of local journalism.

Having canvassed for the Democrats, Potter talks from experience. In her Maine constituency, local loyalties played a major role in voter preferences. Polls could have picked these loyalties up, had they asked the right questions. That they didn’t may be one reason why the much-discussed tendency for mixed ballots in 2020 came as a surprise. In other words, what we are seeing – and this is certainly not just a US phenomenon – is that, as journalism becomes deracinated, polls replace local knowledge and politics seems increasingly unpredictable.

In central eastern Europe, the commercial pressures on journalism are often compounded by another obstacle: political interference. This was the subject of the first part of the 31st European Meeting of Cultural Journals – entitled ‘Watch your mouth! Journalism now and tomorrow’ – livestreamed from Budapest on 14 November.

The panel ‘Where do you see yourself in ten years?’ during 31st European Meeting of Cultural Journals.

Hungarian journalist András Földes, long-time reporter at Index.hu until the staff walk-out in July 2020, described the erosion of editorial independence at the news portal as incremental: censorship by degree. It was an observation shared by the Slovakian journalist Lukáš Fila, former deputy editor-in-chief of SME. In 2014, the point arrived at which the ownership structure at the paper came to compromise editorial independence so heavily that he and colleagues felt unable to continue.

Denník N, founded by Fila and other former editors at SME, now successfully operates a subscription model, signalling that readers are increasingly willing to pay for independent, reliable journalism, particularly where pluralist democracy is threatened. Telex.hu, co-founded this autumn by Földes and colleagues, is considering following suit after a hugely popular donation campaign. Diminishing reliance on advertising revenue can only be good for journalistic quality and commercial sustainability. But could it also cause outlets to become more partisan?

Földes stressed that the commitment at Index.hu to political impartiality had always been its best defence, and that this ethos continues at Telex.hu. But the circumstances of its birth make it an oppositional outlet by default. This is less of an issue for Denník N, in view of the political improvements in Slovakia since the murder of Ján Kuciak in 2018. However, the question remains: will people pay for content that does not simply reinforce their political predisposition?

For journalists and editors in central eastern Europe, where even basic rights can be heavily politicized, the problem is somewhat theoretical. But if political pressure lets up, as it has in Slovakia, then they may find themselves posed with similar dilemmas to those increasingly facing colleagues elsewhere.

This editorial is part of our 22/2020 newsletter. Subscribe to get the weekly updates about our latest publications and reviews of our partner journals.

Published 25 November 2020
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

© Eurozine

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