Thursday, December 1, 2016

Surviving In A Post-Truth World

Reading my morning paper, the Toronto Star, I came across a notice to subscribers that rates are once again increasing. As part of what is frequently referred to as their 'legacy readers," I am not happy about this, but I will continue with my subscription, despite the fact that I have full access to a complete digital version of it and hundreds of other papers through my local library via its Press Display service.

Why? First of all, I much prefer the print version of anything I read, but secondly, and more importantly, it is only through a steady income stream that newspapers can fulfill their traditional roles as safeguards of our democracy.

And lord knows that we need those safeguards, especially given the explosion of fake news sites, some of which may have influenced the U.S. election, not to mention the attacks on traditional media much in evidence these days, instigated, aided and abetted by demagogues like Donald Trump. Consider this:

The above campaign rally brought out this observation from the New York Times:
...even reporters long accustomed to the toxic fervor of Trump rallies were startled — and even frightened — at the vitriol of a Cincinnati crowd on Thursday evening as more than 15,000 supporters flashed homemade signs, flipped middle fingers and lashed out in tirades often laced with profanity as journalists made their way to a crammed, fenced-in island in the center of the floor.
Or how about this scene from another rally?

Last week, veteran journalist Christiane Amanpour was given an award honouring her for her extraordinary and sustained achievement in the cause of press freedom. Her acceptance speech, which you can see here, expressed her concerns over this kind of pillorying, a concern that the CBC's Diana Swain discussed with her:

It would not be wrong to conclude that the mainstream media, through a combination of laziness, obedience to corporate imperatives and frequent abandonment of their sacred responsibilities, deserve criticism. But it would be wrong to conclude that they no longer have a place in informing the public through deep research, factual renditions of stories and fearless resistance to the pressures from unhinged members of the public, opportunistic, manipulative politicos and feckless employers.

I shall continue to do my part in trying to realize the above ideal by paying for the paper I most trust. I leave you with the reflections of a Star letter-writer, who recognizes the challenges facing traditional media today:
Journalist Christiane Amanpour’s address last week to the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York is extremely relevant. The need for the mainstream media to re-commit to an unwavering role in delivering pure facts is more important now than ever.

Some news outlets may have been more committed to delivering facts than others. So it’s up to readers, viewers and listeners to decide where they get their information.

But too many, it seems, have relied over the past year or more on social media. Donald Trump aside, this has been a very dangerous trend. And dwindling ratings/circulation and news coverage budgets have not helped.

The media have always been under attack from one source or other, but never to the degree that we’re seeing now. And it’s not only from Trump. While re-dedicating themselves to ever-higher standards, media will now have to reinvent themselves to deal with what social media is pumping out in the form of fake news (to which Trump has been just one major contributor).

Some social media may also have learned some lessons from this and may have accepted responsibility, as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg recently acknowledged.

Amanpour asked a very good question off the top. What would Ed Murrow do? Fifty-one years after his death, the iconic CBS newsman is still regarded by a (admittedly-dwindling) number of reporters as a leading light in truthful, gutsy, advocacy journalism. He took on an earlier narcissist sociopath in the 1950s by the name of McCarthy – and won. Joe McCarthy self-destructed within months.

Nobody – doubtless including himself – knows what will happen with a Trump presidency. As we know, he’s already reversed himself on several issues, probably thanks to prevailing wisdom that has eked its way through to the Trump Tower. He may, in fact, moderate his attitude about mainstream media, as well. Who knows?

But the same media are going to have to figure out how to deal with this guy in, one hopes, some constructive way. And Trump will be forever totally unpredictable.

Amanpour’s warnings are critically important at this worrisome time. She has articulated the urgency of the message better than we’ve heard from anyone else to date.

Ian Sutton, Kingston

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