A fearful press

Recent weeks have seen a rash of stories about the long dark night of the news business in Canada, with layoffs announced by Rogers Media and Postmedia as well as the closing of my own hometown daily, the Guelph Mercury, which began publishing in 1867.

The crisis in journalism has been a slow train wreck coming. If you’ve been inside a newsroom at any time in the past fifteen years you’ve been able to smell the despair and rock-bottom morale following on endless rounds of buyouts and layoffs. It’s also no secret what’s behind it all. People want all the news they want, and only the news they want, when they want it, and they want it for free. The Internet has been happy to oblige, even though “free” doesn’t mean that it comes with no strings attached. A decent overview of what’s been happening is provided by Brian Gorman’s Crash to Paywall: Canadian Newspapers and the Great Disruption.

Being a confirmed cyberpessimist, I’m not thrilled by these developments. In order to understand what it all means, and where we’re headed, I think it’s worth considering why it’s happening. What trends are driving these changes?

With that question in mind, I want to quote from Marty Baron, former editor of The Boston Globe and currently editor of the Washington Post, when he recently spoke to Neil Macdonald of the CBC:

“The greatest danger to a vigorous press today,” [Baron tells Macdonald], “comes from ourselves.

“The press is routinely belittled, badgered, harassed, disparaged, demonized, and subjected to acts of intimidation from all corners — including boycotts, threats of cancellations (or defunding, in the case of public broadcasting) …

“Our independence — simply posing legitimate questions — is seen as an obstacle to what our critics consider a righteous moral, ideological, political, or business agenda.

“In this environment, too many news organizations are holding back, out of fear — fear that we will be saddled with an uncomfortable political label, fear that we will be accused of bias, fear that we will be portrayed as negative, fear that we will lose customers, fear that advertisers will run from us, fear that we will be assailed as anti-this or anti-that, fear that we will offend someone, anyone.

“Fear, in short, that our weakened financial condition will be made weaker because we did something strong and right, because we simply told the truth and told it straight.”

To this Macdonald adds the following:

Any reporter who has, for example, ever been based in the Middle East, or has tried to bring some sensible context to a domestic audience whipped into fear about terror, terror, terror, has often seen the mettle of his or her managers tested to the limit.

When Baron’s Washington Post, along with The Guardian, revealed U.S. government lying and law-breaking, courtesy of whistleblower Edward Snowden, public outrage was mostly directed against the newspapers and Snowden himself.

This culture of fearfulness and timidity is depressing. I mentioned in a previous post the decision that had been made by major media outlets to close online commenting on any news story with a whiff of controversy about it (which is to say, mainly those involving a criminal trial or, as Macdonald notes, Middle East politics). Why? I guess fear of liability plays some part. But if Big Media can’t protect themselves from libel chill, who can? It seems as though those nasty trolls have ruined it for everyone. They’re so negative.

But in shutting down commenting we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater and reinforced the idea that criticism is to be shunned. As I noted above, on the Internet we only want the news we want. We don’t want to have any of our prejudices or preconceived notions questioned, or have to face a range of different opinions. Carried by these currents, the media, even the news media, turn into nothing but propaganda and advertising.

This past week there was a local example of how this works. The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario’s local chapter said that because Waterloo Region Record columnist Luisa D’Amato allegedly pushes “anti-teacher rhetoric” in her columns for the paper they were calling on their membership to boycott the paper as well as to boycott the Newspaper in Education (NIE) program for the 2016-2017 school year, or to encourage school administrators not to renew the program. The NIE program uses newspapers in class to teach reading, writing, spelling and critical thinking.

No critical thinking allowed! No whistleblowers! No snark! Newspapers as a “safe space”! No news but the news we want to read! This is the not-so-brave world the Internet has brought us, the world of no “dislike” icons and no commenting on stories where opinions may upset anyone. While we’re at it, we might also ban negative book reviews (this is a pet peeve issue of mine). Only for “negative” we might read “critical,” as it comes to the same thing. But, as Baron says, the media is paralyzed with “the fear that [they] will be portrayed as negative.”

Hell, we can also get strict about not allowing heckling in parliament. Wouldn’t government work so much better if everybody just agreed to get along? And during political campaigns, let’s make sure none of the candidates “go negative”! Town halls and debates should be a safe space too!

And people are surprised at the popularity of figures like Donald Trump?

It’s embarrassing that we’ve come to this. The classic defence of freedom of speech is that it is a political right, involving the free flow and expression of ideas in a democracy. It was a right that was essential to the spirit of the Enlightenment, that spirit that asked us to question everything: every authority, every traditional belief, every party line. Instead the press are afraid that they will be “assailed as anti-this or anti-that,” afraid “that we will offend someone, anyone.”

Being an active, engaged citizen means you have to be anti-something, otherwise you’re not really for anything. The press is supposed to always be on the offensive. And the kinds of speech I’m talking about here are precisely the kind — that is, political — that need to be encouraged more. I’m not invoking “freedom of expression” to defend gangbang videos. But the ineluctable current of digital media seems to be toward hive-mind consensus and automatically liking things, a rot that has now spread throughout our political discourse at the highest level. At this rate, when the last newspaper shuts its doors will there be anyone left who cares?

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