First do no harm: Why Melanie Joly was right to stay out of the news biz

The “Creative Canada” policy framework announced last week by Melanie Joly seems to have left no one happy, but the reaction in the news media and its interested observers has been most interesting. Despite the fact that Joly declined the invitation to empty a few wheelbarrows full of cash onto the doorstep of suffering Canadian news organizations, opinion was soon sharply split between those who saw hope that she was planning to do so by stealth, and those who feared she was planning to do so by stealth.

For the most part, these responses have been little more than occasions to grind well-worn axes, and it’s not worth going over them here. But for background reading, if you are interested:

McMaster commmuications prof Sara Bannerman arguing in The Conversation that the government is ignoring the crisis in Canadian journalism.

Communications prof, Marc Edge, arguing in Policy Options that Joly was right to do so.

Andrew Coyne in the Post remains “full of dread” that Joly is going to find a way of funding the news media, while again in Policy Options Ed Greenspon remains full of hope that she’ll do so. His piece is largely an occasion to break a lance for the recommendations in the PPF report Shattered Mirror, with a few epicycles added on.

As tempting as it to bore the heck of out everyone by trying to thread my way through all of these competing arguments, what I want to do instead is take a step back and try to give the whole debate a bit of context.

Recall the three questions that motivated the original Shattered Mirror report:

1. Is the decline of traditional news media a threat to democracy?
2. If yes, are digital outlets picking up the slack?
3. If no, what is the role for public policy here?
The report, as we all know, answered yes to the first, no to the second, and so proposed a slew of policy recommendations.

***

Is the decline of traditional news media a threat to democracy? The PPF report’s answer was yes it is, and that is an answer virtually everyone accepted, and continues to accept. Yet the report’s justification for this was almost entirely based on the threat of fake news, and while there’s no question it has been wreaking havoc south of the border, there’s little evidence it has had the same effect here.

Even if it were, it isn’t clear that the fake news problem would be fixed or countered by a strong “mainstream media.” I’m growing increasingly persuaded by the argument that the conceits of the mainstream media and its myriad failings are a large part of what drives the demand for “fake news”. That is why I think that those who think that solving the fake news problem involves “doing better journalism” don’t really understand the problem.

But to get to the core of the question. Is the decline of the mainstream news business a threat to democracy? It seems to be so obviously the case that it is usually assumed, and almost never argued for. One person who did challenge that assumption was Ken Whyte, who tweeted in response to the Shattered Mirror report

no evidence of a democratic deficit requiring fed intervention in news beyond an opinion poll, which is opinion, not evidence #cdnpoli #ppf

I sort of dismissed Ken’s take at the time, because my own conceits about journalism’s role in a democracy are pretty self-serving and high-minded. But I never saw a proper response to Whyte’s challenge in the Canadian media.

But how exactly does journalism support a democratic culture? Under what conditions does it do so? And what is the role of digital media in helping or hindering the flourishing of a democratic polity? These are questions almost everyone has an intuitive answer for, but the literature supporting it one way or another is surprisingly weak. (The finding that political polarization was largely a problem among older people seems to have dropped down our memory hole.)

Also far down the memory pit is a sense of how, not long ago, the received view of mainstream media was that it was the enemy of democracy, not its greatest ally. Because of the distortions created by its business model, ownership structure, and editorial bias, it was widely held that the news media play a key role in “manufacturing consent” for government and corporate policies.

And so what we need is a better theoretical and empirical understanding of the informational vectors influencing or biasing democratic behaviour. To put it more grandly, we need more work, beyond invoking “filter bubbles” or “information cascades”. on the question of whether some media ecosystems are more conducive to a healthy democracy than others, and why that is the case.

What we also need is a better estimation of the effects of government subsidy of news, both pro and con.

***

One of the more frustrating aspects of the debate over whether the state should help out the news biz is the polarization of the hot takes. On the one hand, there are those who see nothing but good coming of state intervention in any number of ways; on the other, there are those who see nothing but trouble. What is harder to find is a sense of balance – that state aid inevitably comes with tradeoffs, and that how those tradeoffs cash out might be an empirical question, not an ideological one.

Take, for instance, Greenspon’s plea:

How can policy ensure the survival of original reporting, which is so vital to democracy, without compromising the independence of the media? Any threat to journalistic integrity is totally unacceptable. But that does not mean there should be no policy on news organizations, which provide coverage of our democracy in its many forms. It just means that the government should not have discretion over individual editorial decisions.

This seems balanced, except: no one is suggesting that state aid will mean “the government” will get discretion over individual editorial decisions. When Paul Wells warns about “politicians guiding journalism,” what he’s suggesting is that things have a habit of getting politicized, even when there are “arms length” organizations tasked with doling out the cash.

This is just one version of the much larger problem, which is that there’s a great deal of people talking past one another here. When Andrew Coyne worries that public subsidies would change the very DNA of journalism, its existential raison d’etre, his opponents scratch their head and point to the CBC or TVO or the periodicals fund or the CRTC or the tax code or the charitable sector or any of the bazillion other ways the state is implicated in the newsrooms of the nation and wonder what the big deal is with another pot of money or another tweak to the tax code.

Things aren’t helped by the fact that those who are opposed to state support for news don’t necessarily agree on why it’s a bad idea. Coyne opposes it for what can best be described as existential reasons — he’s a purist about journalism, and he’s also consistent: he thinks the CBC should be put on pay.

Wells’s opposition is rooted in a well-founded cynicism about politics: his suggestion that any politician who wants to fund the news industry should be willing to hand the running of the programme over to his or her worst political enemy strikes to the heart of the problem. There is Jesse Brown, who is busy trying to build a for-profit journalism business, and he isn’t keen on the government coming in and funding his rivals.

I’m sympathetic to all of these positions, though I don’t, yet, think that the state should never be in the news business, in any way at all. I don’t mind the CBC. My opposition to most of the specific proposals to help the news media in Canada right now takes two forms: Strategic, and empirical.

On the strategic side, I think it’s simply the wrong time for the government to get involved, setting aside the question of whether it’s ever a good idea. People who like to cite the power of creative destruction always fixate on the creative side of the equation, never the destructive. But destroying what isn’t working is a crucial part of it, and it has to be allowed to run its course. For all their troubles, Canada’s newspapers are still innovating, still searching the revenue space for a survival strategy. Until that process is complete, the government needs to stay well clear. Keeping the CBC well-funded is probably the best, and pretty much only, thing they ought to do in the meantime.

Then there is the empirical question of what the outcomes of state support to newspapers would be. Is there something special, or especially bad, about state aid, compared to support from a hedge fund, or a billionaire, or a Patron subscriber, or an advertiser, or a philanthropic foundation? Everyone answers to somebody after all.

My sense is that there is something fundamentally different about the state, and that it is no argument in favour of state intervention in news to suggest that the state manages to fund science and the humanities, both through its own agencies and indirectly through universities, without too much trouble. If you think this is a sound argument, you’ve not been paying attention to what is going on at universities.

If the current government seems to be ignoring the crisis in Canadian journalism, or if they seem not to share the urgency felt by journalists about the deterioration of their business, perhaps it’s because they feel a corresponding obligation to avoid going down a path that could very possibly make things worse.


Comments

First do no harm: Why Melanie Joly was right to stay out of the news biz — 3 Comments

  1. Obviously the public policy questions raised are important and whatever government chooses to do, or not do, may potentially have significant consequences. However, the Minister is one who does not particularly instill much confidence after the fiasco at the end of September.

    After years of going through a process to pass a bill and then raise money and plan for the physical entity, the Minister of Heritage and the Prime Minister unveiled a National Holocaust Monument just a few weeks ago in Ottawa. At the entrance to the Monument (one can actually enter the structure and walk around inside), the first plaque that one sees is a plaque explaining what the monument was and who it was dedicated to. And the wording did not contain the word “Jews”.

    Within days she faced a question in the House of Commons and rose to say the following: “Mr. Speaker, the government is committed to building a more inclusive society, and the National Holocaust Monument commemorates the six million Jews, as well as the five million other victims, who were murdered during the Holocaust. It stands as a reminder of the dangers of hatred, racism, and intolerance, while affirming respect for human rights, dignity, and resilience. The plaque has been removed and will be replaced with language that reflects the horrors experienced by the Jewish people.”

    Wikipedia suggests that over 60 million people died during WWII. While the Nazis were not hesitant to kill people in the countries that they occupied, they had different approaches in various countries depending on a number of factors (e.g., whether the people were of similar “aryan” stock or inferior such as Slavs, etc.). However, with regard to the Jews, they developed a policy that came to be known as the “Final Solution”, which involved the killing of every Jew they could get their hands on. That’s what the Holocaust (Shoah) was. Six million Jews died. At the Wannsee conference in January 1943 they estimated 11 million in all of Europe, but they did not get their hands on all of them.

    So what are these figures that Minister Joly refers to? Six million Jews and five million others who died during the Holocaust? What is she talking about? The first plaque has been the subject of international ridicule in the media. I can hardly wait to see what kind of embarrassment the next plaque will cause.

    Is she Ministerial material? Maybe, but not this Ministry.

  2. local papers seem more important than national papers, to me. I would like gov to purchase more copies of local newspapers for nursing homes, hospitals, and tertiary schools; labor market and public health ´nudge´ ads; and ads describing enacted / proposed legislation

    I learned to read via local newspaper sports pages, so I am a sort of zealot. Also bigger print for my parents, please!

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