observations and opinion
A free press and professional journalism are as important to democratic life as free elections or an independent judiciary. It is past time that we recognize the free press as a public good and pay for it accordingly.
The one constant of every single non-democratic regime on earth, ever, has been intolerance of dissent. That is true in countries, in towns and in companies too. Dissent being impossible without knowledge and without the means of disseminating news, we see in non-democratic societies the relentless crushing of free speech.
That is not new, nor is it news. It is an everyday affair and in truth, to the degree democratic governments can get away with it, they do it too. Technological change is making that easier, and not just because the government can turn off the internet or shut down unwelcome websites. The technology in our own hands is the key, albeit unintended tool, slowly smothering the free press.
Technological change has been altering our world for centuries. The better the steel, the better the sword, the better the battle – Vikings knew that and every soldier since has learned the same lesson, often at the losing end of the blade. How unlucky then that the modern democracies have invented and refined a new weapon and is cutting its own throat.
That weapon is in your hands this instant. It’s the cell phone, the laptop, the tablet, the desktop. It’s the thing that has inhaled the eyeballs of the western world and with it, the revenue once deposited on the desks of newspapers and magazines. You can get almost anything for free on the Internet and it turns out, you’re taking it. In the process you are helping to starve the fountain of liberty from which you drink.
Imperfect as it has been, the free press has been highly successful in its imperfection. Americans can date their present situation pretty precisely back to when people like Ben Franklin starting cranking paper through a printing press, and with him, scores of pamphleteers – the bloggers of the 18th century. And not just Americans.
The circulation of opinion, ideas and news – wonderful, often twisted, often inaccurate yet timely news – has been the blood to the brainstem of liberty in every country where people can read and write. Which is everywhere. There can be no serious debate about the necessity of free speech to personal and political liberty, and there can be no serious debate about the importance of a free press to the promotion of speech. If you want proof, measure the efforts of governments and companies and organizations to crush it. You’d think China would be big enough to take a few licks in the press, but no, they keep arresting people for it. Talk may be cheap but it’s also dangerous.
Dangerous to power, that is. And that being the case – free speech and a free press being so integral to liberty – it is surprising how slovenly we are with sustaining this fundamental feature of freedom. We have entrusted speech, in particular the profession of journalism which is so necessary to examining and challenging vested interests, to the vagaries of the free market. Basically, a community’s capacity to investigate and report on what’s going on, has been hostage to the success of its local mattress store. If sales were good, the store bought ad space in the paper, and the paper had to print more pages – which they then had to fill with copy.
All of which worked reasonably well, until about 15 years ago. While we all girded ourselves for the collapse of our computers at the end of 1999, what Y2K really marked was start the steady collapse of our printed paper institutions of journalism. One by one they have faltered, shrank, hived off staff or shut down, all the while trying to figure out how to squeeze some revenue from the Internet.
Mostly this has inspired indifferent shrugs (from people who think they’re getting the same news from their little glass devices) or at the other extreme, mourning (from people who were part of, or who loved, the traditional 20th century newspaper business). Alas, the collapse of printed media is not just another ordinary casualty of technological change – it is a potentially fatal affliction in our democracy.
To hold a government or a private entity accountable, we must be able to punish it. To do that, means knowing what it is doing. And it also means, the ability to communicate what we know and think to an audience capable of applying pressure (or punishment). All of that requires a free press.
But a free press, like every other form of freedom, is not “free” – we have to pay for it. We used to pay for it by casting our eyeballs on advertising or subscribing to the paper. The peculiar confluence of commerce and the press created the machinery for collecting and reporting information about what was going on – in the government, in organizations, in communities. The material wasn’t always pure and the reporting wasn’t always impeccable (and it certainly came under constant pressure) but there existed in society a set of institutions, newspapers, radio and television too, where there was a journalistic ethic, professional standards and funding.
Advertising still fuels the new media, but the practice of journalism as we knew it, is imperiled because not enough money flows into reporting. For every news outlet trying to survive, there are news outlets that are dying, and they are all outnumbered by the info-mushrooms sprouting up under every rock on the Internet. There are some emerging Internet news outlets (such as Huffpost) but mostly we get amateur, raw unmediated information produced for virtually nothing and with little or no discipline. Or we get blogs like this, bloviating on in some degree of informed or uninformed bliss.
There is no question that the Internet has democratized the dissemination and the availability of news: more people have a voice and instead of a standardized set of messages, we drown in a cacophony of opinion and information. On some levels we are far better informed but on another, more elevated and focused plain, the resources committed to mining, refining and delivering facts and critical analysis are beginning to wither. And for even those outlets which continue, the historical commercial pressure to maintain audience share (eyeballs) is a crack-like incentive to publish junk. Preferably in 30 second snippets.
Even if the Internet had not come along like a hurricane to blow down the town, the rot and fragility in our traditional newsocracy has long been evident. For every Edward R. Murrow there is at least one Katie Couric (Dan Rather and Peter Jennings were giants in comparison to their successors). When the comedian Lewis Black this week said that Jon Stewart was the “Walter Cronkite of his generation” he was absolutely right – there are precious few figures in modern news who command trust on such a level. Nobody, actually, now that Stewart has retired.
The problem has existed for a long time, at every level. Ten years ago or more, in advance of a short series of seminars I was presenting, I sent out a press release to the newspaper in the biggest town I would be visiting. The release was written like a news story and, lo and behold, the paper printed it – verbatim – as a news story. It was a surprising – and disturbing – look into the reality of how our free press sometimes works.
So whether it was about to fall over before the storm came or not, traditional journalism as practiced in newspapers and other media, was fragile and flawed. And it is my belief that weak journalism – a stuttering free press – is the gravest problem in any society, democratic or otherwise.
To be truly free, the press must be independent. To be independent, it must be endowed with sufficient financial resources to support the rather modestly-paid talent which chooses to report and write, rather than do other things. The question is, where can the free press find the money to fulfill its mandate and, in the process, protect and improve our democracy and way of life?
In a perfect world, a free press would be voluntarily funded by those who benefit from it – all of us. Problem is, we tried that approach with the old media and got mixed results. With the new media and the dwindling value of advertising in our hyper-fragmented market, it is not obvious that serious journalists can attract the sums of money necessary to do their essential work.
When I say journalists do “essential work” that is precisely what I mean. Without them, our way of life will actually die. If you look out the window at the social infrastructure around you – sidewalks, roads, telephone poles, power lines, streetlights – you see the physical essentials of civilization. You could readily imagine a list of other “essentials”, such as hospitals, fire houses, police officers, physicians, nurses, hospitals, soldiers, without which a free and decent society could not function. Just as essential is honest and excellent journalism.
In a society of increasingly large, complex institutions – private and public – we need a journalistic capacity that is also large, bold, independent and good at what it does. To be blunt, in an age when everyone is trying to sell something to someone else, we need more people who aren’t selling anything. We need more telling.
The press is no less a pillar of democracy than the legislative, executive or judicial branches of government; it therefore needs and deserves the capacity to fund itself without commercial or state pressure. Already protected constitutionally, the press must have the practical means of support necessary to fulfill that constitutional function. And that means money – tax money – and plenty of it.
You will blanch at the idea of government funding the press (they do that in lots of places, you will say, few of them “free”). I agree, we cannot make the press dependent on the state for funding. What the press needs is an independent source of revenue, drawn from the public whose interest it manifestly serves, insulated from any external pressure or gift. We need a “press tax”, collected by the usual revenue authorities but allocated to a separate treasury designed to fund independent, non-profit journalism.
That treasury, the “Press Fund” call it, would require administration and that would need to be shaped like a non-profit corporation or perhaps even the judiciary. That authority would have absolute autonomy from state influence, or private power, to support with short and long term grants the activities of professional journalists and their organizations (on the Internet or in any medium that works).
In some ways, what I propose here is not unlike the manner in which we fund universities – supporting institutions which have a social purpose and doing so with little or no immediate expectation of concrete deliverables or marketable products (or even people). Again though, the press being especially important and especially vulnerable, needs greater autonomy and separation from the normal government budgetary process. It needs its own source of money.
The Press Fund would not be the exclusive place to fund news: any private organization that chose to do so for profit, could opt to do so. They would have all the benefits and limitations of the marketplace they currently experience and, because Press Fund-supported journalism would not need or take advertising, private outlets would have no complaint of unfair competition from publicly supported enterprises.
It is key to understand that the Press Fund proposed here, would not be a government program or a budget item. It would be, in a true sense, a new branch of government – akin to the judiciary in terms of its independence and professionalism, performing a crucial public service: reporting the news.
In my view, there is a fair argument today that if market conditions and technological change imperil the free press, our constitutional right of free speech will become an increasingly hollow thing. The Canadian courts have recognized that civil liberties are more than “freedom from” oppression but also include the right to the legal and other means necessary to utilize that freedom. We need the means to be free, not just the right.
Our politicians, public institutions, academics and citizens generally, must wake up to the terrible hazard ahead as our societal capacity for journalism declines. We need a robust, fierce and brave free press – and it shouldn’t need to be all that brave. The technological revolution has, like a strong storm, shattered part of the journalistic economy and laid bare the frailties of what’s still standing. There must be a quiet revolution – now – before the forces of money and power and technology blind the eyes and silence the voices we need to survive as free people.