Monday, February 15, 2016

UPDATED: Democracy's Lifeblood Is Slowing Draining Away

There are a number of blogs that I read on a regular basis. There is Owen with his superb synopses and wry, informed commentary. There is The Mound of Sound, whose deep research and informed commentary provide much-needed information on both domestic and international issues, helping us to better understand our troubled times. Another must-read is Dr Dawg, whose superb analyses reflect a very keen mind indeed. Then there is Montreal Simon, with his excoriating graphics and merciless pillories of the reactionary right, a.k.a, the Conservative Party of Canada. Not to be forgotten is Alison at Creekside, whose work often includes the kind of sleuthing and connecting of dots that has traditionally been the domain of the journalists. Rural has provided a real public service in his long series on the Harper years, reminding us of things that we had either forgotten or pushed out of our conscious mind. And then there is Kirby Cairo, whose original essays always provide much food for thought.

While the above are not the only blogs I read, they, as well as my own, serve to underscore a crucial point about the blogging world. Almost all of us are dependent upon the work of journalistic publications, both paper and online, for what we attempt to do. My own modest efforts, for example, often entail essentially being an aggregator or curator of material I have come across that I find interesting or noteworthy and want to share. Without those resources, I could probably still write a blog, but I doubt very many would care to read it.

Which brings me to the point of this post - as people well-know, traditional journalism is under dire threat thanks to declining revenues. Stories abound of journals being shut down or becoming strictly online presences, the latest being The Independent, which will cease publishing paper editions next month. It, and the larger implications of today's contracting world of news gathering, is the topic of an interesting column by Rosie DiManno in today's Star which you may want to check out.

More immediately relevant, however, is a piece that John Honderich had in The Star the other day. In an edited version of a speech given recently to students at the Queen’s Model Parliament in Ottawa, the chair of Torstar Corporation writes of the crucial relationship between democracy and a well-informed citizenry; it is a relationship in which newspapers play a crucial role:
To my mind, the quality of public debate, if not the very quality of life in any community, is a direct function of the information people have on which to make informed decisions.

Indeed, I go further. The functioning of a healthy democracy is predicated on a well-informed population. You can’t have one without the other.

The great French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote the historic book Democracy in America, put it this way: “The power of the press is second only to that of the people.”

He understood that governmental power flows up from our local towns and cities. That is where true democracy begins.
One of the things we must not forget is that while the online world of 'free' information seems almost utopian, it really doesn't come free. Consider what the traditional press does:
... in my view, newspapers — both in print and online — have always played a unique and leading role in this informing process.

They have traditionally done this through groundbreaking investigative projects, searing features, sharp commentaries, insightful columns and hard-hitting editorials.

Indeed, I still believe it is newspapers that set the agenda for public discussion. When well done, great serious reporting provides the means for a society to examine itself, to ferret out lies, abuse and corruption, and — very importantly — provide a voice to those whose voices are not often heard.

And where does this serious journalism take place?

The answer is still in newspapers, where most reporters are employed.
He goes on to cite the crucial role of investigative journalism in uncovering the truth about former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, as well as the racial profiling conducted by the Toronto police that has been the source of much contention.
Will newspapers in the future be able to do this kind of story? And if not, who will? And what will that mean to Canadians being appropriately informed?

More and more young people have already switched to the web, where blogs and websites flood the space with up-to-the minute news and commentary. And it is done for free.

There are some who rhapsodize this trend as a democratization of information — allowing one and all to participate in news gathering and commentary. They hail this as the welcome disarming of journalists as the gatekeepers of news and information.

I do not share this view.

These same bloggers and instant commentators rarely do the hard reporting work. They don’t dig deep or launch in-depth investigations. You know only too well that speed and instantaneous reaction are the bywords of the net. And in the process accuracy is often lost.

Meanwhile, as newsrooms shrink, both the resources and reporters required to do serious journalism are in shorter and shorter supply.

Who today has those millions to investigate a Rob Ford or examine racial profiling? Precious few.
While Honderich is certain that the future will include traditional journalism, he does worry about what its capacities will be:
... it is the fate of serious journalism that I worry about — and its impact on our democracy.

The last time I checked neither Google nor Facebook had any fact-checking staff.

How about Twitter? One hundred and forty characters to do an inquiry into racial profiling? I think not. Instagram? Give me a break.
His advice to his youthful audience is equally applicable to the rest of us:
So be demanding in what you expect from your media. Remember you always have a vested interest in being well informed and making sure quality journalism survives.

At issue is nothing less than the vibrancy and health of our democracy.
As I indicated at the start of this post, my own life is enriched by the blogging world. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that democracy's lifeblood is under assault and is slowing draining away.

UPDATE: Thanks to Montreal Simon for this link
to a Press Progress article with some quite disturbing implications:
They say democracy relies on an informed citizenry.

So what does it say when an increasing number of Canadians don't even follow the news?

New data released by Statistics Canada shines a light on changing patterns in how Canadians follow the news and current affairs – and maybe the biggest change is a growing number aren't paying any attention to the news.

According to Statscan, the number of Canadians who follow the news on a daily basis dropped from 68% in 2003 to 60% in 2013.
You may be surprised by some parts of the report, especially information pertaining to the demographics and educational levels of those who are and aren't keeping up with daily news.


  1. An excellent post, Lorne. Honderich reminds us that newspapers are too important to fail.

    1. They are crucial to our democratic well-being, Owen. One often hears discussion about funding models, including some form of government support; I don;t know the solution, but clearly a number of options need to be explored. Otherwise, ultimately power will be unchecked.

    2. They're not too important to fail, Owen. They've been failing us for decades. We saw during the Harper years how the corporate media went from being the watchdog of government into its lap dog. Did they hold Harper in check? Hardly. He co-opted them and they willingly went along with it. Even when he shut off their access to our public service they capitulated, the lot of them. That was their moment of truth, their opportunity to show whose side they were on and, when the dust settled, it wasn't ours. They didn't rise up as a Fourth Estate to fight Harper's undemocratic, authoritarian ways. They went along to get along. There'll be no crocodile tears from me for them.

  2. Ah Lorne, stealing my thunder again! After seeing the segment on this weeks 'The West Block' ( on this subject I was working up to write about it for my weekly 'Sunday Sermon' but now it seems you have done that for me. LOL.
    But seriously the loss of print media and the journalists that do the hard work of digging below the surface is indeed very troubling for without such 'investigative' reporting government can tell us anything in their 'press releases' and we would have no means of telling what is and is not true. Lets face it this is exactly what the Harper regime tried to do ...... disseminate bullshit that is!
    The thing it is is not only upper levels of government that will be free to spin the message but even now the days of reporters attending and reporting upon municipal council meetings is all but a thing of the past, particularly in smaller municipalities. And that my friend leaves them wide open for abuse of process and those with a 'hidden agenda taking over. Media reporting and democracy are indeed closely linked.
    Thanks for this and I am honored to be included in your list of excellent bloggers of choice.

    1. Hi Rural. By all means I hope you will continue with your planned 'sermon,' as I have just scratched the surface in this post. I will definitely check out your link to the West Block as well.

      I take your point about abuse at the local level very seriously. It is indeed troubling, even when there are fairly strong local media presences, that municipal councilors often still engage in contemptuous arrogance and abuse of process. Think of how they might carry on with no media oversight!


  3. Good points, Lorne. I want to see Canada's media rehabilitated but that begins by dismembering the corporate media cartel. We had the Kent and Davey commissions. A reasonable summary can be found here: And Paul Martin's government sought to revisit the problem in 2006 but that died when Harper came to power.

    The levels of concentration of ownership and media cross ownership have reached the point where these news outlets have become an obstacle to overdue democratic reform.

    There's a reason I don't watch Canadian television news and only rarely check out a Canadian newspaper online. I find them less than worth my while. Even TorStar offers up mediocrity. Perhaps the Hollinger/CanWest/PostMedia/Sun debacle has so lowered the bar that the Star is the best we can expect.

    I find far more worthwhile and insightful information in online sources such as The Tyee, the Vancouver Observer and the National Observer.

    If we don't break up the corporate media cartel through forced divestiture the plight of the mainstream media chains is the natural alternative. I'm convinced that as PostMedia begins its death rattle others will come up to acquire its papers. Trudeau could make that viable by preventing another predator from snapping up the lot but he's shown no interest in that problem.

    I'm not deeply moved by Honderich's lament. Rob Ford, really? Then again I live in the media cartel heartland where all but one (Victoria Times Columnist) of our dailies is PostMedia and all of the weekly community papers are owned by one chain. Trust me, I don't rely on newspapers for information. I've seen what happens to those who do.

    Trudeau needs to dust off the Davey and Kent reports, rekindle the public debate and then use his majority to reform Canada's mass media and break the cartel. This is the time to do it, his window of opportunity. I'll bet it will slip right through Junior's fingers.

    1. All very good points, Mound. Like you, I consult a variety of alternate sources, including the Tyee and The National Observer, both of which are quite impressive. In fact, yesterday I made a small donation to The National Observer, but therein lies the problem. If such publications do not have stable and reliable sources of income, I do wonder how long they can sustain the often excellent work that they do. As well, of course, for a certain generation of Canadians (i.e. the older crowd), the online sources of information are likely frequently unknown to them, whereas with an actual physical paper, one cannot help but glean important information even if not specifically searching for it.

      The online world can be a tremendous source, but one does require a certain motivation to access it; if that exists, it is likely because the seeker is already an engaged and informed citizen.

  4. Good post Lorne. Thanks for the nod. I wrote a sort of companion piece to this post that I just posted.

    1. You're welcome, Kirby. I shall check out your post.

  5. I don't really agree with you Lorne. We've watched for 9+ the MSM giving Harper a pass. The MSM watched him operate in secrecy,implement Neoliberal policies, dismantle our democracy. All of this with his goal of setting up a Neoliberal Fascist state! What did the Canadian people hear about this from the MSM? 0, nada! There were a few journalists who wrote about the political truth at times, but for the most part the majority stayed silent. When they did speak about Harper and his regime, for the most part they wrote as if walking on egg shells or some out and out supported him.Any domestic or international political information I get is from blogs like ipolitics, ICH,, Axis of Logic, Mound of Sound, Montreal Simon, Northern Reflections and your own, Politics and its Discontents. I read these and many more blogs daily, because this is where the political knowledge is. I see the MSM is still supporting the reform/alliance/cons. simply by not criticize them. The fact that if Harper had gotten 4 more yrs we would be living in a police state, tells me how close we came to being ruled by an authoritarian tyrant. The MSM's guilt in this, is that while they so easily abandoned the truth, in doing so they abandoned Canadians and Canadian democracy and freedom.It was Canadians by their votes that got Harper out. This while the MSM for the most part was supporting him. We still have the powerful Neoliberal/Military infrastructure that is the real power, that may turn out to control Trudeau and the Liberals, but you'll never hear that from the MSM. The value of the MSM informing Canadians of the political truth is not there. Without this value, the MSM has no purpose. If people like myself have to go elsewhere like the internet to find the political truth, then it is the internet that becomes the go to place to find political truth and knowledge, not the MSM.

    1. You make some excellent points here, Pamela. I think the failure of the MSM to hold Harper to account is at least in part due to the kind of media concentration we have seen occurring in recent years. Many papers with long and proud independent traditions were bought out by Post Media, and we see where that has led. Bell Media has been doing the same thing. With the range of diverse voices growing smaller, we are of course getting a much more corporate view of reality than formerly.

      However, I have been a consistent reader of the Toronto Star for several years now, and their national columnists were, over the course of Harper's tenure, fierce voices of criticism of his agenda. I still believe there is some quality print journalism, but I completely agree with the value of the other sources you cited, such as iPolitics, etc.

      The challenge, I think, is for Canadians to acquaint themselves with these diverse sources so they can benefit from them.

  6. .. excellent essay .. and interesting to have read Kirby's related & excellent article first. Both intrigue and challenge me with their perspectives & analysis.. or diagnosis. I have some ideas & lateral solutions.. but initially I have observations.. and will leave at that for now.. & that observation is - be sure to include literacy.. or reading level and comprehension or alternative such as an oral tradition or history! Without some capability or support in any of those.. concepts such as democracy, fairness, responsibility etc, probably cannot resonate or really matter..

    1. Excellent point, Salamander. History, it seems, is especially important. Without context, each act or event is judged in isolation.

  7. hi Lorne...Good post and thank for mentioning my humble blog in such distinguished company. You raise many troubling questions, and it's hard to know where we are going. The problem is also compounded by the fact that so many people are tuning out the news altogether. As this article in Press Progress shows.
    But I hope that what we are seeing is merely a transition point from one era to another, and where once we had a few big chains, now we will have many more smaller ones, that could band together into cooperatives and sell themselves that way. They would have less overhead, and a smaller stable of journalists, but all together they could still produce good stories . And you could pick and choose what you want without paying for example for a business section which people like me don't bother to read. Another way to go is for governments to subsidize papers like they do in Sweden and some other places. But I am told that while that might keep the papers viable, it does create a tendency for papers to pander to certain parties so I don't see that as a solution. Maybe as Mound suggests we need another Davey Commission to take stock of the situation now and try to come up with a way to keep what you correctly call the lifeblood of democracy going...

    1. You raise some interesting possibilities here Simon; I think we certainly need to explore all options before it is too late, Thanks for the link, which I just read. It was disturbing, and I shall post it as an update to this post.