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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner your host on The Open Mind. The disproportionate political influence of the rural electorate in the United States is real. It’s a minoritarian rule, plain and simple. Americans concentrated in the reliably red states and a handful of swing state bellwethers. They’re universally dictating policy today and their purported will is carried out most directly by Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Today, my guest will explore the politics of the south and specifically the importance of newspapers and literacy to ensuring that voters are educated, informed, and active citizens. Editor of The Rural Blog, a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas, and journalism from Ann about rural America, Al Cross is Director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. He served for more than 26 years as a reporter at the Courier Journal, the last 15 as the Louisville newspaper’s chief political writer. A pleasure to meet you, Sir. Thank you for being here, Al.
CROSS: Happy to do it here in the shadow of the Empire State Building and talk about rural America.
HEFFNER: So let’s, let’s talk about that. Do you view the decline of newspapers as being correlated with a dumbing down, let’s just be blunt of America, of rural communities, of urban communities. Do you see that correlation?
CROSS: I do think it’s a factor. You know, newspapers have always been the major finders of fact in our democracy, the major arbiters of fact, you know they separate wheat from chaff and today because of the proliferation of media, people gravitate to sources of information, not always news media, that confirm what believe. They’re out for confirmation, not information. And that creates a polarized society. And social media make that even worse because it creates these information bubbles where people have friends that they follow and likewise they all, or most of them subscribe to the same set of beliefs.
HEFFNER: What has been the trend at weekly and daily rural newspapers compared to national papers that have seen a resurgence of interest in subscribers since Trump’s election?
CROSS: Well, you can count on the fingers of one hand the newspapers that have seen a resurgence since Trump’s election. Those would be the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and probably USA Today. And those are only real national newspapers. The papers in between those and the small ones are the ones that are in the worst trouble because they have always tried to be everything to everybody. And they face competition from television stations, from networks, from social media, from some competing outlets. Down at the bottom of the totem pole where you had the largest number of news outlets, the community newspapers, they are the healthiest part of the traditional news business because they generally don’t have any competition for their local needs franchise, not from television or radio. They have an audience that is slightly older, more traditional, more inclined to stick with print, so they’ve been fairly healthy. They had been losing circulation and household penetration, but by low single digits, not the double digits that the major papers have, however, they now face what I consider to be the most existential threat they’ve ever had, and that is the tariffs imposed on Canadian newsprint, which is hitting them in the neck. You know, they’ve lived by print and now they have to have fewer pages or smaller staffs or in some cases with really small papers, they’ll probably go out of business if these tariffs stick.
HEFFNER: Wow. And that is affecting how many local papers in Kentucky and how many local papers nationally?
CROSS: Well, there are about 6,200 weekly newspapers, paid circulation weeklies around the country and about 1200 dailies. And most of those dailies are really community newspapers because they have circulations of less than 25,000 or so. I talk about rural journalism a lot. And the defining line is metropolitan or not metropolitan. A few years ago, the Census Bureau came up with a handy term called micropolitan to describe counties that had cities of 10,000 to 50,000. Most of those places still count, in rural America and our account as being served by community newspapers, newspapers that are locally oriented and really don’t put a primary focus on the news outside of the community.
HEFFNER: And that’s the case of these papers that they are primarily focused on neighborhood…
CROSS: Not neighborhood so much as counties or a small group of counties. The largest rural newspaper in the United States is the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo, Mississippi. And it has a circulation of about 30,000 daily and about 60,000 Sunday. And it’s owned by a foundation. And the foundation was created by the guy who started the paper and it serves the 17 county area that he decided the newspaper was going to serve. And that’s a rarity. Most rural newspapers will serve one county or maybe two or three.
HEFFNER: When we hosted Secretary of State Alison Grimes of your native Kentucky. I asked her this question. I’m going to ask you the same question now, about what is dictating the pulse of Kentucky voters right now? They have a senior senator who looms large on the national stage and who really dictated the course of our last election, both by his refusal to acknowledge Russian interference in the election and his obstruction of Merrick Garland, and now his nomination in support of what will appear to be a second Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. How does Mitch McConnell play in rural America?
CROSS: Well, yeah, he’s the most unpopular politician on the national stage if you look at polls. When you’re the leader, you have a target painted on your back. And people on the far right don’t like him because they think he’s too moderate. The Democrats don’t like him because he beats them all the time. People in Kentucky don’t like him all that much either, but he has succeeded in the case of beating Alison Grimes in 2014, making his opponent, Barack Obama rather than her, and she unfortunately wouldn’t even say who she voted for in the 2012 presidential election. So he was able to turn what looked like a competitive race into a fairly easy reelection.
HEFFNER: How are the Trump Administration’s policies informing or maybe misinforming rural voters as to the issues that he’s championing. Are they helping the livelihood of rural voters? Are there documented instances of rural voters who have abandoned this administration because they recognize now that representing their interests was a farce?
CROSS: There’s anecdotal evidence that some rural voters are souring on Trump partly because of tariffs, which hurt agriculture. What you have to remember about rural voters is only a small number of them are involved in agriculture. Only about one percent of the American population gets its primary income from agriculture. And while agriculture is still a big player in the economies of rural places, and it’s important to them, rural and small town America are much like the rest of America in living off manufacturing, retail, trade, government and so on. I think Trump succeeded in rural America primarily because he ran a campaign against the elites and there is a documented feeling in much of rural America that urban America is leaving it behind and looking down on it.
HEFFNER: Well, that’s what Kathy Cramer documents in “The Politics of Resentment,” the perception of rural Wisconsin voters, that there’s damage being done in Wisconsin and it’s not serving their interests. Madison is in control by people who don’t represent their interests. And part of that is a tribalistic racial and cultural allegiance.
CROSS: I wouldn’t say that’s so much true in Wisconsin. I think that increasingly in lots of this country, we have urban areas that are becoming much more diverse culturally and the good new jobs are going primarily to urban areas. And in lots of small towns you see closed storefronts and you may see some big box stores, but they’re not the kind that advertise in the local newspapers. I think there’s a sense out there that folks are being left behind. Now there is documented evidence through some research on polling that the areas where this is most profoundly felt are areas where there has been an influx of people of color. So there is a racial and ethnic element to this, but I think in many cases that’s overplayed. I think that the fundamental thing is economic. I think that racial and ethnic feelings are sort of like a trickle charge coming from a battery that helps, you know, keep that feeling going.
HEFFNER: Well that’s right. I think they are interconnected. What Kathy found was that rural Wisconsin voters were saying that the government in Madison was designed to do affirmative action to help people who don’t look like me and that’s how they’re intersecting because that is basically saying the government doesn’t care about my economic wellbeing, but it cares about someone else’s…
CROSS: I wouldn’t define what she found a primarily by race and ethnicity. I think that that was one element that she found, but I think it was much broader than that and racism, the big issue that…
HEFFNER: Speak to that collectively though; speak to that in terms of rural communities that you study across this country.
CROSS: Well, rural communities tend to be less diverse, they tend to be older, they tend to be lower income and lower education. That’s all on the margins. That’s not a really significant difference, but it’s enough to make a difference. And there is no doubt that people in rural America feel like that urban America has a leg up on them.
HEFFNER: I wonder if they still feel that way since Trump was elected or do they really feel like their constituency is dictating the policy?
CROSS: What I see is people waiting to see, you know, there are some real reservations about Trump, I think best found by Dan Balz and the series of stories he did for the Washington Post and those Mississippi River, upper Midwest counties that went for Obama twice, but then for Trump, that really is the pivot point in American politics today. You can go through 15 or 20 of those counties and get a pretty good read of what the rest of the country is going to do, I think.
HEFFNER: And what are the pivot points in terms of policy on the ground and conditions on the ground, whether that be poverty, whether that be broadband and the fact that a Louisiana senator, conservative senator recognized in voting against the abolition of net neutrality, that that might actually hurt his voters. What about those core issues? You said one percent of the US is intensely agriculture based, but if you look at those rural communities, it’s more than one percent, right? It’s probably a significant part of the pie. Majority of the pie…
CROSS: Well, there’s only about 500 counties in the country out of 3,200 that are primarily dependent on agriculture.
HEFFNER: So what are the other salient issues to rural communities?
CROSS: I think broadband is a very important issue for the economic development of rural America. And in Kentucky we’re developing a first in the nation kind of statewide network that hopefully will be a great to economic development tool. Some people say it’s the greatest economic development tool ever implemented in our state, but I think that the importance of broadband is not something that many rural voters have thought that much about. They may feel an inconvenience when they can’t download video as quickly as they would like but I don’t think that the advocates of broadband have done a very good job in explaining to the general public its economic benefits.
HEFFNER: And if you were to characterize one issue as principally on the minds of rural voters right now.
CROSS: I think that health care has always been a big issue in rural America. It shows up in national polls as being by a plurality, the most important issue. And we’re talking about healthcare costs and accessibility. Those have always been issues in rural America and I have no reason to believe that they are not still the primary issue. But I think that the second major issue close behind would be the lack of good paying jobs. People have seen manufacturing plants close and move overseas. They see new jobs being created in metropolitan areas and not in the small towns, the micropolitan communities that used to have a lot of these factories. I think fundamentally it’s a pocketbook issue.
HEFFNER: And I’m sitting here thinking of that as a pocketbook issue in recognizing that the central Trump / McConnell economic plan did nothing to address those underlying circumstances of low wages in rural America.
CROSS: It gave them a tax cut. You know, there are people walking around with more money in their pockets because of the tax cut. And for a lot of people it wasn’t all that much, but at least it was something,
HEFFNER: But it doesn’t attack the wage issue.
CROSS: No. But the more complex these issues get, the harder they are to sell. And I think that, you know, some politicians argue from here, right? Some of them argue from here and some argue from here, argue from the gut, right? Donald J. Trump argues from the gut and a little bit from the heart. And right now in the guts and hearts of people in rural America, I think most of the people who voted for him, and this is borne out by national polls, still think he has their interest at heart and they don’t understand all the ins and outs of these issues. They don’t want to understand them. They want to have somebody who they think is acting in their interests. And so far he hasn’t done much to persuade them that he’s not.
HEFFNER: If they don’t want to understand those complexities or context, and I’m not willing to make that concession so blatantly or bluntly as you are. What is the bridge?
CROSS: (Laughs) Well I was painting with too broad a brush. I mean, I think that’s true of both the urban Americans as well as rural Americans.
HEFFNER: Fair enough. But that gets to that second question which you didn’t hit on yet. And that is what is the bridge from the gut to the heart, to the mind. What is the bridge that is not going to be policies that alienate us that further that chasm, but that build a policy that will improve the lives of both urban and rural. And of course, suburban voters as well.
CROSS: Well, I can, enunciate two or three broad policies like good access to healthcare and education and broadband, broadband being purely rural issue, but the means of getting there is the point on which Republicans and Democrats disagree. And I’m not prepared to offer any specific policy prescriptions…
HEFFNER: But I wanted to have you here because the means of getting there I think is literacy.
CROSS: I’m a political reporter by trade. I know a lot about the newspaper industry and some about the communications industry and political messaging and I haven’t put my mind to the thought of how you come up with a policy that could unify people along the right and left…
HEFFNER: But I would hope that what you are concerned about, which is the preservation of these community papers is integral to that literacy across those spaces.
CROSS: Well, you have to remember though, that most of these community newspapers, because they are so locally focused, don’t deal a great deal in the national issues of our day. Now, through the rural blog, we try to give them material that they can use to help them understand that there’s issues in common to rural areas that people need to understand and that there are things happening on the national stage that influence their lives. And, I’m proud anytime a local newspaper picks one of our stories up and I’m especially proud when they use it as inspiration to do their own reporting on how a national issue is affecting them. We do not have enough of that in local newspapers today, especially the small community newspapers. One of my colleagues, Jock Lauterer at North Carolina likes to say that they are relentlessly local and all I want them to do is occasionally take a look at a big issue like immigration, broadband, healthcare, that affects their people and look to us to help them do that.
HEFFNER: I want to ask you in the minutes we have left about the local and extrapolate on the national. On the national, how do Supreme Court decisions, especially this most recent session, how do they impact rural communities?
CROSS: Well, I think one overlooked aspect of Justice Kennedy’s retirement is the environment. It was a five to four decision that said that the EPA should deregulate carbon dioxide and that’s the basis for Obama’s Clean Power Plan to close down the dirty coal fire power plants. There’s a chance that, that could get re-argued. You don’t know how much this new court with Kennedy’s replacement will rely on the stare decisis – decided law.
HEFFNER: Stare decisis. And also if you think about this most recent term, you do think about how we’re further combating each other as communities, as urban and rural. I think about gerrymandering in terms of not having the opportunity to engage with folks from other communities because your district is so self-selected, segregated. I always wonder, Al, about the intimacy or the visceral feeling of these court cases on rural voters because they’re most often the allies of the Christian Right, the strict constructionists, the originalists who want to ban reproductive rights.
CROSS: I do think abortion is a more important issue in rural America than the rest of America. Of course in urban America, abortion rights are an important issue to a lot of people as has been shown by some of the recent primaries. I just don’t detect a big difference about that particular issue other than the fact that rural America is a more religious place than the rest of America and these feelings about abortion tend to be religiously driven.
HEFFNER: And in looking at the upcoming midterm elections, there are a number of states in which Democrats are attempting to hold onto those rural constituencies. How do you explain the diversity of the rural voice between, we talked about Wisconsin, but Montana, Missouri, Missouri? How do you distinguish between the way rural America is evolving today?
CROSS: Well, I think Democrats who are smart know that they have to talk about pocket book issues in rural America, and they have to be able to negotiate the social issues. In this midterm election, Trump, because he floods the zone daily with news and Tweets is probably going to be a more important factor than most presidents are in midterm elections. Then you had the Supreme Court on top of it. The cards are still being dealt on that and it’s hard to analyze at this point. We could have a much higher turnout than you usually find in these midterms. Originally, the hope of Democrats was that their people would turn out more as a reaction to Trump, much like conservatives turned out more in 2010 in a reaction to Obama. But I think Trump clearly believes that he can activate his base, to come out. And he’s a phenomenon like we’ve not seen before in American politics. And I’ll just go back to what I said, the night he was elected. Now almost anything can happen.
HEFFNER: Those Trump supporters, the loyalists who you find in the crowds at these rallies, are they, do they typify a rural voter, or is that a political partisan distinction?
CROSS: No, I don’t think so. I think in, in all communities there are people who think that they’re getting the short end of the stick, that politicians are naturally corrupt. That’s why Donald Trump talks about the swamp, that they’re not to be trusted and that someone was needed to go to Washington and break up the party.
HEFFNER: So anything can happen. But what will happen, Al, now in your estimation, I mean, you, you…
CROSS: It’s a crapshoot. Who knows?
HEFFNER: You have a lot of insight into this from reporting on McConnell. Is there a bridge too far for McConnell where it’s not about political victory anymore, it’s about the preservation of our democratic norms. Doesn’t seem like it.
CROSS: If the president were to fire Bob Mueller, I think that would be the Rubicon for McConnell and the Republicans. I would like to think that Mitch McConnell has told Donald Trump privately, you fire Mueller and I can’t keep you from getting impeached and I might not be able to keep you from getting convicted. But we don’t know what that relationship is like. That is the most important relationship in American politics today is Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell. And neither of them talk very much about it.
HEFFNER: What do we know about it?
CROSS: Well, I think that Trump has been publicly critical of McConnell the over the Obama Care repeal failure and the lack of votes to kill the filibuster. But, I think McConnell has been fairly skillful in dealing with Trump and keeping his members together. That’s the primary job of a leader is to hold your caucus together, especially with such a narrow majority as he had. And he tries to keep focus on the issues on which Republicans say they’re winning, like the tax cut and the judges.
HEFFNER: And on the issues that are most dear to your heart, in the seconds we have left, tell our viewers how they can access projects that emanate from rural journalism and really when it comes to investigating the quality of our streams, our air, our grass, agriculture, we have to look, we have to invest in those reporters on the ground in those local affiliates because otherwise we won’t, we won’t know.
CROSS: I think it’s important for Americans in every community to communicate with their news media and tell them what they want out of them. I wish more rural Americans would call up their local publisher or editor and say, why aren’t you reporting about the impacts of these tariffs or other kinds of national policies on our local communities? These things are important and we stand ready to help them do that.
HEFFNER: Thank you, Al. I appreciate you joining me today.
CROSS: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.