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Shallow News Is Bad News

by S. B. Julian
(Victoria, BC, Canada)

Journalist Ian Gill in his recent book No News Is Bad News (Greystone, 2016) asks "would it be bad news if there were no newspapers?" I would say "yes", but Mr. Gill suggests that "disruptive narratives" delivered through digital storytelling funded by left-leaning foundations should take their place. National newspapers (like other media) have been weakened, he points out, by concentration of ownership, shrinking readership and plunging revenues due to advertisers migrating to the Internet. Newspapers have become "moribund and flaccid" and suffer from a "trust deficit". Maybe -- but it seems unlikely that the public has more trust in blogs and social media than in the printed dailies.

The main problem with newspapers is that thousands of writing jobs have been lost to lay-offs, and we free-lancers who take up the slack are paid a quarter of what we once were. No one's making money in print journalism. This is due not to who owns the papers but to the fact that both advertisers and readers are going online.

There's a general trend away from long-form reading and toward an a-literate delivery of information through factoids, info-graphics, You-tube images, and tweets. We live in an a-literate age in that we no longer value sustained reading, and schools no longer teach it. Books and printed periodicals are now scarce in school libraries. Literature has been replaced by "media studies" and students spend their days in front of screens, usually interacting not with an author's thoughts but with flickering images and data-graphs. This is a profound loss, because as a medium enjoyed privately, print nurtures the inner life while digital does the opposite, encouraging instant sharing and constant unthinking torrents of response. Educators and commentators seem content to encourage this, having themselves come through the school system which invented "media studies". Most even think that "media" is a singular noun. How then could printed newspapers survive, if the public becomes illiterate?

To Mr. Gill, the problem with corporate ownership of newspapers is that corporations in his view are by nature right-wing. He cites Postmedia, Black Press in the west and the Irving holdings in the Maritimes as conglomerates stifling a rights-oriented, identity-politics-based "national narrative". Yet newspapers have never been values-free. Their founders have aimed to promote a point of view as surely as do those who oppose them, and we cannot say that labour-funded organs like Rabble and The Tyee are any freer of bias than are the "legacy media".

Mr. Gill would like to replace corporate owners of newspapers, radio and television stations with "disruptors" financed by progressive nonprofits that compete to control the "national narrative". He'd like to see the press employ high-level coders rather than authors and service-providers rather than ideas-providers -- the service being a re-shaping of society. It's hard to see the difference between this and old-fashioned propaganda. There is no one national narrative, and attempts to create one should ring alarm bells. Likewise the notion of "curating" the news. "Curate" comes from the Latin word "cure", which suggests that if you disagree with the new national narrative, you're ill. Gill's idea of "solutions journalism" (which tries to solve problems rather than just talk about them) is appealing, but do we all agree on what the problems are?

It's not as if disruptive narratives haven't been part of traditional writing. What else were Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, Tom Paine's The Rights of Man, Mary Wolstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman, James Lovelock's Ages of Gaia? "Smart data" and high level coders weren't needed for these volcanoes of new thinking. Deep learning and good prose were -- and an educated audience. Likewise, there's nothing new in muckraking. Consider the work of Ida Tarbell who back in the 1890s was challenging the monopolistic dirty tricks of Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company in the pages of McClure's Magazine. Deep research and the space to analyze it were her tools: long-form journalism and readers with the attention span it requires.

An educated audience resists ideology, whoever owns the physical presses or the computers. Nor is the "disruptive leader" who uses media to re-shape the national narrative always a good thing: Hitler was that for the people of Germany, while Churchill strengthened the British by re-awakening the traditional national narrative. It all depends on context.

In our own historical moment we have social media operating in a marketplace of ideas where readers speak back to writers in intemperate, nasty and tribal language, where they seek "friends" but make enemies, and lure "followers" but attract stalkers. Enter the hate speech laws as a way to deal with the haters and stalkers. The problem is they aren't dealing with them, yet do have a chilling effect on open discussion, because hate speech laws tend to be tools of political correctness.

It's hard to know where the line is between fair comment and hate. If Mr. Gill used the language about an ethnic group which he uses about journalists (they're soft-minded and spineless, The Walrus is "flaccid and self-satisfied, a poor man's New Yorker"), he'd be facing a Human Rights Tribunal. Can you imagine calling another race "the poor man's white person"? Yet paradoxically, insulting a professional group is fair comment (just ask politicians and lawyers).

Free speech then is a moving target, but freedom of thought means questioning every party line and prejudice out there in print, broadcasting or cyber-space. Once free speech goes the way of grammar (into the garbage bin), we won't be able to sustain a newspaper industry because it depends on people writing and reading freely expressed, well-crafted language. Coders and curators cannot replace writers and editors.

The online pay-per-article model of selling journalism is problematic because if people make micro-payments to download particular articles instead of buying a whole newspaper, they miss the serendipitous discovery of whatever topics and writers appear in today's features or comments pages. Dedicated readers like to be surprised, in the same way they like to cruise along the shelves in a library rather than go to the catalogue. You don't know what you would have missed until you haven't missed it.

Newspapers have traditionally had split personalities, trying to be objective on one hand but championing particular world views on the other. In England this isn't considered a problem: if you want to reinforce your liberal views you read The Guardian; if you want to confirm a conservative bias, read The Telegraph. It's comforting to have one's values confirmed, but it's also edifying to try to get our minds around the thinking of others. Presently we hear a lot about fake news, but often fake means whatever doesn't fit my world view -- which of course represents genuine news. But as long as we preserve an environment where people can disagree not only with officialdom but also with the alternative thinking du jour, people can make their own assessments of bias.

It's hard to disagree with Gill's parting conclusion: "the best story wins". Absolutely -- but let's not expect everyone to agree on which one is best, or on where to find it. I find the niche journals Hortus and The Advocate (about gardening and the legal profession, respectively) the most informative, entertaining and literary organs around, the test being that they delight the non-gardener and non-lawyer as much as their target audiences. No one could deny that we need online periodicals as well, but I'm glad that Mr. Gill's thought-provoking No News Is Bad News came out in book form, for had it existed only online I would never have read it.

Sandra Julian, April 6, 2017

Editor's note: This essay will appear in the Summer print edition of Dialogue magazine (June 2017)

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