“All politics is local,” former House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill famously declared. It has to be, really, because, at the end of the day, all votes are local. Each is cast, one at a time, by a voter with unique beliefs and concerns shaped by that voter’s own life and experiences in his or her community. So while certain issues may have an impact on voters across the nation – the war in Iraq comes to mind – the public can only express its mind on such issues through local votes.
In other words, so-called “national” issues, in O’Neill’s view, resonate with the public only to the extent they have some real connection with individuals on a local level. Thus, while the war in Iraq is undeniably a national, even international issue, it captures the minds, and hearts, of American voters only because American soldiers, from towns large and small, are being torn from their families and placed in harm’s way as a direct consequence of the war.
Other “national” issues are more esoteric – the level of United States support for the United Nations is one such example – and do not resonate nearly so well with the public precisely because they do not reach down to voters on an individual level. Such issues remain cold and abstract, failing to capture the public’s imagination, and are ultimately ignored by the political process.
In short, O’Neill was saying that politics – an art he mastered at the local and national level for over sixty years – is really the process by which the problems and concerns of people in towns and cities across the country percolate up, first from the local level, then to the states, and finally to the national arena, affecting the actions of representatives, senators and even presidents ensconced in their marble towers in Washington, D.C.
You say Politics, I say News
If O’Neill was right, and all politics is local, then so too is the news. Because what is “news,” really, but an expression of the events and issues -- socio-economic, cultural, international, or otherwise – that provide fodder for resolution in the political arena? And what does “local” mean, but an issue or event that strikes the voter/viewer close to the heart? Local can mean close to the viewer in terms of geographic proximity, but it can also mean close to the viewer in terms of subject matter, individuals or institutions involved, and even the people presenting the news.
As a result, every news story – no matter how abstract and removed from the local grass roots base – ultimately strikes home, and is thus “local,” or personal, to somebody. And a story can be “local” to an individual for more than one reason. Take, for instance, the example of the chemical fire that hit the town of Apex, North Carolina this past October. Although the story received national coverage, it was “local” for me because it occurred less than 40 miles from my new home. But there was another reason the story felt “local.” When I was a partner at Hogan & Hartson, one of my clients was the Chemical Safety Board, a small federal agency tasked with investigating chemical accidents. The CSB figured prominently in the news coverage of the Apex accident, and I personally knew a number of the individuals interviewed on behalf of the CSB. As a result, I would have felt close, or “local,” to the story, even if I had not lived near the accident site. Similar examples include:
- When Apple recently adopted the name “Everything2” for its new dual core processor, the story could hardly be called “local” in terms of location. The decision was presumably made at Apple’s headquarters, the chips manufactured somewhere else, with the product to be sold in many different locations, as well as over the Internet. But the story is clearly fundamental and important, and thus “local,” to the geographically diverse E2 community. < /li>
When I was uncertain of my sexuality, and living with my partner, Michael, I read the Advocate religiously. And even though the articles and stories were often telling of events and people far from my place of residence, they still gave me a sense of kinship and community that I could only describe as “home.”< /li>
And when my son was born 16 months ago, I was ushered into the community of new parents, a society defined not by location, occupation, or nationality, but by the indelible experiences that come from taking full responsibility for another human being. Since then, I can tell you that every news story I hear about children – particularly those about the harm often inflicted on them by unfit parents – causes me to stand up and take notice just as surely as if the story had happened in my own backyard. Why, just yesterday I was listening to NPR and heard a story about a woman who was being held without bond for killing her one-month old infant by frying her in a microwave. This took place in New York or Pennsylvania, I’m fairly certain, but the point is that the geographic location was ultimately irrelevant. The story hit me in the gut because I was that child’s metaphorical neighbor, and the thought of the atrocity inflicted on her affected me more deeply than it ever would have had I not had a child of my own.
A story can become “local” for more personal reasons, as well. When I was in college, I dated a woman who was not only a distant relative of Jesse James, but was the sister of Sarah James, who went on to become a national correspondent for NBC news. Although Sarah, or “Sally” as she called herself then, didn’t care too much for me at the time, her presence on screen later in life connected me to her stories as if she had been my hometown anchor.
At other times in my professional career, I had the opportunity to work personally with both John Roberts, the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and Robert Gates, the current Secretary of Defense. I would take the time to discuss these men in more detail, but I was taught that if I didn’t have something nice to say about anyone, I shouldn’t say anything at all. But regardless of my feelings for either Roberts or Gates, the fact of the matter is that I can’t go a week listening to the news without hearing about one or both of them. So once again, I feel a personal connection to each story in which they are involved, not necessarily because of the subject matter of the story, but simply because I know the individuals.
The Big Picture
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 43 years, it’s that I’m not as special as I think I am. In the immortal words of Tyler Durden, “I am not a unique snowflake,” and anything I’ve felt or experienced has probably been felt or experienced by many, many others. So if I can trace my own personal connections to news and events that are far removed from me geographically, it seems reasonable to expect that thousands, if not millions, of others can probably do the same.
One very concrete manifestation of this is the Internet community MySpace. Even the most casual examination of MySpace member profiles demonstrates the breadth and scope of interests represented on the site, and this virtual community renders what might have been a distant, unconnected story into a story that is plainly “local” to that community and its members.
So what, if anything, does this mean? Is it just a cute observation, or is there a lesson to be learned? Well, one thought to take away from this is that, if all news is “local” to some segment of the audience, maybe a greater effort should be put into tailoring the stories for that “local” audience. Forget the homogenized, USA Today approach. Go the extra mile and put in the resources necessary to make the story connect with those who care about it.
Just a thought.