Report on struggling news business is responsible, high-minded, and profoundly wrong
NationalPost.com – Full Comment
January 27, 2017. ANDREW COYNE
“Journalists! Bunch of crazy buttinskies … peeking through keyholes, waking people up in the middle of the night to ask them what they think about Aimee Semple McPherson. Stealing pictures off old ladies of their daughters that get raped in Oak Park. And for what? So a million shop girls and motormen’s wives can get their jollies.”
– Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, The Front Page
Ben Hecht knew a thing or two about journalism. As an old reporter himself — in the early years of the twentieth century, he was what was then called a second-floor man, whose job was indeed “to steal pictures off old ladies,” if necessary by climbing in the second-floor window — he was fond of it. But he was under no illusions about it.
It has always been disreputable, it has always been partisan, and it has often been wrong, sometimes deliberately so. The case for journalism is not that it is responsible, civic-minded or devoted to the public good. It can be, but we do not depend on it being so. The case for journalism is that out of the jumble of petty vendettas, axe-grinding, spin, and self-promotion that make up the news — that daily collision between the interests and obsessions of its readers and the egos and ambitions of its writers — something close to an accurate composite portrait of the times can emerge.
The report on the news business (The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age) just released by the Public Policy Forum, written by the former Globe and Mail editor (and my friend) Edward Greenspon, is animated by a different vision of journalism. Its individual prescriptions can be debated, but they all flow from a coherent idea of what journalism is, and where the public interest in it lies. It is irreproachably responsible, admirably high-minded, and profoundly wrong.
In the Shattered Mirror’s telling, the news — or at any rate “civic-function” news — is an objectively definable thing, a quantity of information out there waiting to be collected, like apples. The public has a need to be informed; it is the journalist’s job to inform them.
In recent times, however, under the stress of new technologies, that model has been broken. The advertisers on which newspapers and other media outlets have historically relied have deserted them for eBay and Craigslist, Facebook and Google. At the same time, a multitude of online news sources have fractured audiences and clouded public understanding, notably through the proliferation of “fake news.” Legacy media companies are collapsing, while new digital competitors have yet to take up the slack. The danger this poses is not to the profits of their owners, or the salaries of their employees, but to the readers — nay, to democracy itself.
Hence the report’s proposed remedies: changes to tax rules, including the deductibility of online advertising expenses, to favour Canadian media companies over their foreign rivals; overhauling the rules governing charities, to allow them to take up more of an advocacy role; a Future of Journalism and Democracy Fund to support the worthier sorts of journalism, funded in part out of the tax changes just mentioned; a publicly-funded local news operation, to be run by the Canadian Press; more money for the CBC, to replace the money it now raises from digital advertising.
Each of these, it should be said, is a bad idea in itself. Yes, they have precedents — advertising in foreign print publications, for example, has been non-deductible for decades — but that is simply using one bad idea to justify another. There is no reason, to stick with our example, to favour the Globe and Mail over the New York Times, simply because of where their owners are domiciled (or, as in the report’s proposal, how many Canadians they employ): the content of each will either be worth Canadian readers’ time and money, or it will not.
But common to all is the same set of false assumptions, not least regarding the necessity for public intervention. The point cannot be stressed often enough: this is not a case of market failure, but of industry failure. Most of the industry’s problems are self-inflicted, a series of bad choices in response to admittedly massive changes. But even if that were not the case, there is nothing whatever to prevent readers from paying for what we produce, if they so chose. They are simply choosing not to do so.
And if that were not true, we run into the uniquely ungovernable, indefinable thing that is journalism. The comparison is sometimes made to public funding of scientific research. But the two are entirely different things. Science is contentious enough, but there is nevertheless some rough consensus within the profession on what scientists do and how they should go about it, the scientific method, on which basis peer review and other standards of accountability may be applied.
By contrast, in journalism, like politics, there is no such consensus: not only as to what is true or right on a given issue, but even as to what the issues are. In the public square everything is in contest — not least who is to govern the public square. The Future of Journalism Fund cannot give money to everyone: whoever runs it will therefore have to make choices. But it is inherent to a free press that no such choices ought to be made — not, that is, by a public agency.
My concern is not that such a fund would be partisan, or enforce a government line. I worry, rather, how it would affect our thinking, how it would inevitably incline us toward a certain vision of society, and of journalism. As, to judge by the reaction, it already has.
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