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Study shows isolation may lead to corrupt state capitals

May 23, 2012|By David Lauter
  • Jim Mcknight, Associated Press
Jim Mcknight, Associated Press (jxjfsfnc/600 )

What makes some state capitals so much more corrupt than others? New research provides a partial answer to that long-standing question: isolated capitals breed more corruption and lack of news coverage is a major reason why.
 
State capitals have long been known for corrupt practices. While every state has its roster of legendary local miscreants, some have a much more consistent record of corruption than others. Researchers have studied that variation for years, looking for factors that might explain the patterns.
 
The overall level of education in a state appears to play a role – less educated states tend toward more corrupt governments – but most other variables that researchers have examined have not turned out to have a consistent effect.
 
Filipe R. Campante of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Quoc-Anh Do of Singapore Management University looked at a different factor – isolation.
 
At the nation’s founding, James Madison argued that capital cities should be located “in that spot which will be least removed from every part of the empire.” That way, Madison asserted, government would be insulated from powerful economic interests. But perhaps Madison erred. Or maybe his prescription is just wrong for our times.
 
Campante and Do used a sophisticated statistical model to determine which capitals are the most isolated from their states’ population centers. They compared that measure of isolation with a database of convictions on federal corruption charges between 1976 and 2002. (Using federal convictions avoids the problem that some states may have more corruption convictions simply because local prosecutors are more aggressive. In addition, a long time period minimizes possible partisan bias).
 
The results showed an impressive effect, they wrote: “more isolated capital cities are associated with more corruption.”

The most corrupt state capitals – Jackson, Miss., Baton Rouge, La., Nashville, Tenn., Pierre, S.D., Springfield, Ill., and Albany, N.Y., for example – are all more isolated than average. Nashville is the least so, being a major city in its own right although distant from other population centers in the state. Springfield and Pierre rank as the two most isolated on the list. The less isolated the capital, the more likely it is to rank low on corruption.

Isolation doesn’t explain everything, of course. Some states, such as Oregon, Washington and Vermont, have unusually low levels of corruption. But the impact of isolation appears strong.
 
What might cause the relationship between isolation and corruption, the researchers asked. One possibility was that newspapers, which provide most coverage of state governments, may be less likely to cover the capital when it is further from their circulation areas. So they examined the content of 436 U.S. newspapers, searching for references to state government. Sure enough, “in states where the population is more concentrated around the capital,” the study found “more intense media coverage of state politics, and therefore greater accountability.”
 
For example, they noted, newspapers in Massachusetts, where Boston, is the capital and by far the state’s largest city, cover state government more than do newspapers in New York, where Albany is a relative backwater.
 
“It stands to reason that when citizens are better able to monitor the performance of public officials and punish those who do misbehave, there will be less scope for the latter to misuse their office for private gain,” the researchers wrote.
 
The relationship between newspaper coverage and corruption has another troubling implication. In the past decade, the number of reporters covering state capitals has dropped sharply – a reduction of  more than 30% between 2003 and 2009, according to a census by the American Journalism Review. If less coverage leads to more corruption, those staff cutbacks should provide plenty of work for prosecutors in years to come.

david.lauter@latimes.com

Original source: Study shows isolation may lead to corrupt state capitals

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