June 6, 2023

Grant County Herald

Community news from the prairie to the lakes

The Consequences Of An Uninformed Electorate

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Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives. 

President James Madison

Republican voters duped into casting their ballots for a congressional candidate whose entire resume was a lie are outraged. How could someone make it through a whole campaign season without the falsehoods being revealed? It was too late for them to take back their votes, and George Santos now serves as the U.S. Representative from New York’s 3rd District for the next two years.

Santos had claimed Jewish heritage, running a pet charity, working for finance giant Goldman Sachs, and attending an exclusive New York prep school. His claims were all false.

He went from earning an income of $50,000 on a venture capital fund that federal prosecutors called a Ponzi scheme in 2020 to claiming assets totaling nearly $11 million in 2022, the local newspaper the North Shore Leader reported. The newspaper editorialized on a candidate who it saw as a complete fraud. No one listened. No one followed up.

“This would all have been exposed before the election if local newspapers were not running on fumes,” former Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill tweeted. Across the country, those fumes consist of decimated reporting staff – if a newspaper still exists.

Before you feel comfortable in that this deception took place in a faraway East Coast big city, consider the following story.

As the two-person mayoral race we were reporting on a decade ago got underway, we talked with a citizen questioning the background of one of the candidates. The candidate had posted campaign flyers around the community claiming to have a doctorate in substance abuse and a master’s degree in psychology from St. Cloud State University. He claimed to have a Bachelor of Arts degree in education.

A call to St. Cloud State University found it did not offer doctoral or master’s degrees in psychology. When questioned about his degrees, he insisted they were real. Further, he said he was working on master’s degrees in K-12 education and special education at St. Cloud. “I wanted to teach in college, but that didn’t pan out,” he told us.

His story became more convoluted as we pointed out the facts didn’t support his claims. He said he first attended Ridgewater College in Willmar and then studied at St. Cloud State University. But now he claimed his doctoral and master’s degrees were later earned at the University of Minnesota, Morris.

A call to the U of M in Morris established it didn’t offer either doctoral or master’s degree programs in any subject. We again met with the candidate. He finally admitted not having a Ph.D. but continued to claim he possessed a master’s degree. 

In the end, it was established he hadn’t even graduated from high school. The county attorney charged him with violations of the state’s Fair Campaign Practices law with our reporting cited in the complaint.

If the community newspaper didn’t exist, who would do this research to inform citizens and report to them the facts about candidates?

Is a candidate or public official a resident of the district in which he or she is running for office? Has the candidate moved since winning the election? Without the community newspaper to dig into these claims, a dishonest official can deceive constituents, and a good representative is maligned.

When state District 12 Republican state Sen. Torrey Westrom was accused of not being a district resident last summer, the Grant County Herald, The Stevens County Times, and the Swift County Monitor-News dug into the story.

Before last November’s election, a panel of the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled while Westrom’s proof of residency was less than “overwhelming,” he had met the requirements of the law. The short time between the creation of the new state legislative districts based on the 2020 U.S. Census and the very tight housing market were two reasons cited for the challenge faced in establishing his new residency. 

Again, the community newspapers educated the public on the claims and findings.

Some say that Santos’ election is a failure in opposition research by the New York Democratic Party. But political parties also rely on community newspapers to provide leads on which they build. Big city media rely on us, but their outstate news coverage has been gutted. At the Associated Press, the staff has been thinned, narrowing its coverage of rural Minnesota.

“One consequence of this hollowing out is that voters have little to no information on which to base their choices in local elections,” Steve Waldman, who runs Report for America, writes. “This would seem to be a fairly significant problem for, you know, democracy. And ironically, the more local the election, the worse the coverage is likely to be.”

It isn’t only the backgrounds of political candidates that are important to citizens, but also the histories of people we hire as our superintendents, county administrators, and city managers. There are many other positions of trust and responsibility in our communities where the local press informs and educates the public on the quality of those who serve us.

Drinking water quality, a shortage of school bus drivers, the health of the environment in which we live and play, whether to pursue an expensive public building project, and the safety of our roads are all subjects on which we report – news that will disappear if we do.

When local newspapers close or are so weakened by staff cuts, they no longer report the stories citizens need to make important decisions, protect their finances, or keep their families safe, we all suffer. When the newspaper is gone, the void is filled by internet sites with local-sounding names but content that is deceptive, outright false, and believable to too many people. Twisted information misshapes our beliefs and motivates us to act for misguided causes.

Newspapers are a public good and demand support to protect citizens and the information essential to them in our representative democracy.

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