Akin to fake news at the local level are myriad conflicts of interest tolerated in struggling communities. Like fake news, they often take their toll slowly.
Conflicts of interest, in small towns as elsewhere, seldom lead to sudden fiscal or economic changes. Neither government (fiscal) nor a community (economic) is immediately touched. Local conflicts of interest, for example, don’t cause explosions; they cause a slow corrosion of quality, leading to an equally slow decline in fiscal policy and of a community’s economy.
A house fire, a flood, or a violent crime is sudden, with immediately obvious and tragic results. That’s not true for conflicts of interest – they degrade slowly, as rust relentlessly eats through even the strongest iron.
Consider the following example, from Whitewater’s local school district. The district administration wanted a referendum, and in support of that referendum, placed links on its website to local sources of information where one might learn about the proposal. One of those links was to a self-described local news site (whitewaterbanner.com) whose publisher is a very member of the school board that voted unanimously for the referendum:
The district might as well have simply linked to its own referendum materials, over which its school board member had responsibility, rather than to his publication.
There is this difference, though: had the district used its own site, it would have presented these materials honestly, at the institutional site that created them. Using additionally a school board member’s site gains nothing in original content, and offers only a false pretense of independent, conflict-free publication. (Other, nearby publications are little better, but at least their ‘correspondents’ are not simultaneously officeholders.)
I’m sometimes asked if this sort of conflict concerns me. When I am so asked, I’ll answer that it does concern me, but not in its immediacy. The damage from conflicts is like corrosion, leading to a stagnating economy, and to a relative decline.
That’s where Whitewater now is, and the acceptance of lesser standards is one reason for it.