Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Who serves the public interest?

Walter Cronkite (1916-2009):
“A democracy ceases to be a democracy if its citizens do not participate in its governance. To participate intelligently, they must know what their government has done, is doing and plans to do in their name. Whenever any hindrance, no matter what its name, is placed in the way of this information, a democracy is weakened, and its future endangered. This is the meaning of freedom of press. It is not just important to democracy, it is democracy.”
Readers interested in thorough examinations of public issues can only treat newspapers as one part of the information spectrum and not an infallibly reliable one. With the industry's steady decline, newsrooms contracted, original reporting reduced and diversity of opinions suffered. Instead of initiating news stories, papers took to rewording or printing press releases with little scrutiny. Additionally, they eliminated local experts reporting on specialty subjects such as science and education. Instead, sports, business and celebrity news became the focus.

In British Columbia, the Liberal government manages the largest "news" distribution entity in the province: the infamous Public Affairs Bureau. With an annual budget exceeding $30 million, PAB provides detailed releases and background papers routinely used by the mainstream media. The Fraser Institute has an annual budget of about $15 million to promote its quasi-libertarian pro-business agenda. Organizations such as the Business Council of BC, the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association, the BC Chamber of Commerce, Mining Association of BC, Council of Forest Industries, Coast Forest Products Assoc., Salmon Farmers Association and others pour money into supporting their particular self interests.

Whether by using commissioned reports, biased coverage or paid advertising, the mainstream media reflects the economic interests of its owners and supporters. They have a plutocratic viewpoint and little interest in the affairs of common people like Joe and Martha Sixpack.

Now, the Internet provides so many sources of knowledge. The tricky part is finding places to which one commits time without falling victim to ideological segregation. There is an almost universal tendency to read only material that reinforces the views we already hold. Through 'niche-ification', the web enables us to concentrate on comfortable viewpoints without ever being challenged to consider alternative visions, an unhealthy situation that was near impossible in days when quality journalism was typical and before Internet access became common.

Something I appreciate with web based news reporting and analysis is the opportunity to provide and read immediate feedback, unfiltered by anything more than requirements for lawful conduct and civility. The best blogs and online news sites welcome and receive intelligent contributions supporting and opposing the writer's positions. Compare that to pompous newspaper editors who restrict online comments and maintain tight control over articles with alternative views or even innocuous letters that wound their perceived interests. Vancouver Sun editors, when questioned about editorial choices, generally refuse to respond in any way. Most businesses are keen to defend their practices to customers or potential customers.

Despite the success of Northern Insights and many other excellent blogs that are enjoying steady increases in readership, I mourn the loss of excellent centrist news choices. Perhaps the reason that todays versions of radio and TV news bother me so much is that I grew up listening to radio news generated by Warren Barker's team at CKNW or watching television news generated by Cameron Bell's incredibly professional staff at BCTV. I was also an avid reader of newspapers and business press and, unlike many employed in the trade today, I can still recall what made a newspaper great for its city.

Despite endless consultants designing varieties of structures for future news operations, nothing stands out as a scalable business model. New journalistic enterprises are needed if common interests are ever to be served again. Alternatively, news gathering organizations funded publicly or by private benefactors must be developed. This poses likely problems of accountability but there are some successes in the USA. The one I am most familiar with is the independent non-profit newsroom Pro-Publica, a specialist in public interest journalism. Its beginning were funded by philanthropists Herbert and Marion Sandler.

British Columbia could have an independent organization like Pro-Publica with less than one-third the funding provided each year to the Public Affairs Bureau. Of course, the public interest would be served instead of the interests of government or big business. Perhaps that is not the Canadian way. However, something must change to protect democracy.

If you share my interest and concern for quality journalism, I suggest you spend time listening to or reading Media Matters with Bob McChesney. He is a Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois and President and co-founder of Free Press, a national media reform organization. McChesney hosts the "Media Matters" weekly radio program every Sunday afternoon on WILL-AM radio; this top-rated program is available online and by free podcast subscription.  McChesney earned his Ph.D. in communications at the University of Washington in 1989. His work concentrates on the history and political economy of communication, emphasizing the role media play in democratic and capitalist societies. McChesney has written or edited seventeen books.
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