On Thursday the Public Policy Forum (PPF) released its government-commissioned report, “The Shattered Mirror”, which depicted today’s world as a “post-truth” dystopian nightmare. According to the report’s ominous introduction, “Established news organizations have been left gasping” and “native digital alternatives have failed to develop journalistic mass.”
Then the report–GASP!–asks the reader to “imagine a world without news: how atomized and dysfunctional it would be.”
Of course the premise is absurd in the information age, where information is more accessible than ever before, which Toronto Star columnist Paul Wells pointed out so well in his scathing “Politicians guiding journalism? No, thanks.”But this report–given $200,000 from the Liberal government–cites the supposed rise of fake news “outperforming” real news in Facebook engagement as a main reason the government needs to bail out the legacy media.
However, BuzzFeed‘s coverage of fake news–which Shattered Mirror heavily relies on–didn’t account for the fact that the supposed rise in fake news corresponded with the firing of the human curators of the social media giant’s trending news module, which then allowed fake news to break into the Facebook trending list because the algorithm didn’t discriminate fake from real. The report does take this into account, but dismisses the scandal of Facebook’s human curators removing legitimate conservative news as “conservatives complaining” and welcomes wholeheartedly Facebook’s and Google’s renewed efforts to target fake news sites. The report shows no real reservations towards the tech giants’ censorship, even though Facebook’s partisan censorship scandal was a major revelation last year.
Even more egregious, the report claims a poll from Buzzfeed and Ipsos supposedly “found that large majorities had believed such stories as Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump.” However, as I pointed out in my Loonie Politics piece “Hype over rise in fake news is fake news“, Buzzfeed‘s data shows only an average of 16.8 per cent of respondents had heard of the fake news stories, and 75 percent within that group believed it, or only 12.5 per cent of respondents on average.
Shattered Mirror’s implied conclusion that the vast majority of American’s were duped is flat out wrong, although to be fair to the creators of the report, a cursory glance at the misleading click-bait article–“Most Americans who see fake news believe it, survey shows” probably duped most readers. The data shows only a small minority of the American population, probably about the same portion of the population that believe The Onion or National Enquirer are real, actually fell for these stories. The report’s omission of the total number of respondents (1,809), insults the intelligence of average Americans–especially smearing Trump supporters as largely gullible and stupid, when in fact largely they hadn’t been duped by fake news. On top of this, Shattered Mirror notes how closed “bubbles” of like-minded users form on Facebook, so it is very likely that only 16.8 percent of Americans had ever heard of the fake news, and 75 percent of that low-information group were susceptible to believing in it, because the fake stories were circulated within bubbles of made up largely of uneducated people.
The report uses this fake premise of fake news influencing large majorities of the populace as a major reason why the government should step in to fund the legacy media. The report repeatedly cites Trump’s populist victory, supposedly largely fueled by fake news, as a failure of a weakened and private news industry in America. The report implicitly reasons, if the people don’t listen to the legacy media ordering them to vote for one candidate the media as a whole must be broken, so the Canadian government should come in and prevent this from happening here. Ultimately the report seems to conclude that the government should restore the legacy media’s power over the news narrative: “The 20th-century news media are less and less prominent, except to provide grist for a public conversation they no longer control.” (Civil discourse, yuck.) And then this government-indebted media–according to the report–will be healthy enough again to bite the hand that now feeds them, keeping government institutions’ accountable and politicians’ feet to the fire. Let’s be honest, we all know wild animals become docile when repeatedly fed by humans; the press is no different when fed by the government. To many Canadians, our legacy media have already become far too tame, compromised, and ingratiating with those in power.
Sadly, Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly says she is “very proud” that her government is at the forefront of wanting to combat fake news internationally and believes in the reports premise that fake news is a sudden phenomenon that the government needs to play a role in quashing.
The report also tries to downplay the successes of digital-only news startups, highlighting how most have failed thus far to be financially successful and haven’t reached as large an audience as the legacy media. But PPF’s report fails to recognize the elephant in the room. Legacy media are giving away their content for free and already have an unfair financial advantage of government subsidization in the forms of government advertising, government subscriptions, tax breaks to their advertisers, the Canada Periodical Fund (hundreds of millions of dollars), postal discounts (tens of millions), the Canada Media Fund ($371.2 million in 2016-17), the $1.2 billion annual subsidy given to the CBC, etc. The report also notes only 9 percent of Canadians pay for their news (have hunch a large portion of this group are disgruntled conservatives funding Rebel Media because the government-funded media doesn’t speak for them).
But when most of the government-funded legacy media is giving their content away for free, subsidized by taxpayers, why would Canadians fork out more money from their own pockets when they are already taxed to death, and so much news is readily available free of additional charge?
If the legacy media were weened off government welfare and forced to compete in the free market, they would quickly develop a more competitive business model (like locking valuable content behind a paywall), or they would die. A drying up of free access to journalism would prompt more Canadians–ideally with extra money in their pockets from lowered taxes–to pay for the news of their own choosing (the horror!). Also, the increased free market competition would promote more hunger for organizations to get regular scoops. With the inevitable death of some of these redundant legacy media organizations, new media would have more room in the market to flourish.
This “non-partisan and independent think-tank” PPF’s Shattered Mirror–that just coincidentally has PM Justin Trudeau hosting its 30th Annual Testimonial Dinner–came up with 12 recommendations to staunch the “bloodbath” of “journalistic carnage” (and journalists thought Trump’s inaugural address was hyperbolic). I’ll only discuss the most important one here (I’ll save the rest for another piece), the report calls for the government to tax Facebook, Google and other foreign media, and then redistribute funds to domesic outlets which legacy media will undoubtedly get the lionshare. Although the government is supposed to be at double arms-length in redistribution of this $300-400 million fund, the deciding on who gets funding will undoubtedly become politicized, like the current process has.
It’s in the Liberal’s interest to have the major media organizations more dependent upon them for survival. Pesky new media like Canadaland, The Rebel, Raving Canuck, Blacklock’s Reporter, Loonie Politics, National Observer, and The Tyee are leaner and meaner organizations that give the political establishment headaches. Necessity is the mother of all invention. These startups must have interesting and original content to attract enough customers in order to survive. On the other hand, legacy media tend to regurgitate press releases and politicians talking points. The new media punch well above their weights, often beating the lethargic legacy media for scoops.
Like Canadaland‘s Jesse Brown said at a symposium: “leave me alone, so I can continue to bother you independently. When you fund my competitors, you are endangering me. Do not fund Postmedia if they are failing.”
The government isn’t likely to listen to the little guy. The Heritage Committee in the coming weeks will release its own proposals for how to proceed, and one would expect them to echo the call for a government bailout for the legacy media, if Minister Joly’s recent rhetoric is any indicator.
When the Liberals inevitably bailout the terminally-ill legacy media, expect more of this type of journalism from Globe and Mail‘s Simon Houpt:
Sure, this honour is premature: What, after all, has Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly actually achieved? Still, in initiating a wholesale review this year of the federal policies that oversee the country’s $48-billion broadcasting, media and culture sector, the rookie MP is in the promising first moments of what could be a historic performance of political plate-spinning. “Everything is on the table,” she declared in April, simultaneously enthralling and alarming the industry, aspiring creators making videos in their basements, and regular people who think it’s important to be able to watch and read and listen to Canadian stories but also want the government to keep its grubby hands off their Netflix. In a world of peak TV and shrivelling news coverage, does Joly side with those who believe the CRTC, the Broadcasting Act, the CBC, Telefilm, the NFB and other legacy instruments of government cultural policy have outlived their usefulness? Or with those who believe regulations and agencies need to be strengthened to help preserve a space for Canada amid a global flood of content? Stay tuned; it’s going to be a hell of a show. – Simon Houpt
If Shattered Mirror and it’s absurd recommendations are enacted, Canada will get more and more fake state propaganda like the drivel above. The Liberal elites of Canada are absolutely petrified by the populist movements of Brexit and Trump. Both movements shattered the idea that the mainstream media has the power to control how the majority of the populace thinks and votes (okay, maybe not quite in Trump’s case, but maybe after the voter fraud investigation). The Liberal government wants to glue the shards back together again, place the mirror back up on the wall, and be told they’re the fairest of them all. Media entrepreneurs must oppose this and reflect the government and its policies for what they truly are–warts and all.