You couldn’t say the world has been especially welcoming to the idea of a free press in the past fortnight.
The fatwa stabbing of Salman Rushdie relit the ever-present threat to freedom of expression and the open exchange of ideas from repressive regimes such as Iran’s. But there were plenty of daily challenges within the world’s democracies as well. To wit: the steady harassment of reporters (especially women, especially with physical threats), the steady barrage of special interests and politicians taking to YouTube (hello, Pierre Poilievre) to avoid the judgment of reporters, and of course non-stop sniping from the Republican Party/Freedom Convoy crowd, who accuse the Mainstream Media (whatever and whoever they are) of engaging in a conspiracy with the Deep State to stifle the free expression of unscientific balderdash about vaccines and much else. We could even throw in the recent graceless dismissal of Lisa LaFlamme, CTV’s news anchor, as a sidelong attempt to muzzle experienced and trustworthy journalism in favour of “appealing to a fresh demographic.” Pause here to clutch pearls.
Then there are the critics on the left who think the media are doing a lousy job and need to be regulated because they are too balanced and paying undeserved attention to falsehoods propagated by the other side of the political divide. An old journalism school cliché, retweeted ad infinitum recently, summed up the balance-isn’t-everything argument. “JOURNALISM 101,” it read: “If someone says it’s raining, and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out of the window and find out which is true.” (It actually depends on what your job is and how much time you have, but never mind.) Or, to quote an unnamed member of my own household who has strong views on the subject, “Goddamn Fox News shouldn’t be allowed to broadcast outright lies!”
Both sides of the ongoing assault on journalism – from the rule-breaking anti-media types and the rule-making media police – are upsetting and infuriating. This might be a good sign: As long as something or someone in the media is driving you crazy, you know some semblance of a free press still exists. It is cold comfort, but comfort nonetheless.
There, I feel a little calmer now. Perhaps I ought to let you know how I crawled down this wormhole in the first place.
I was visiting my brother in Rockport, Mass., a few weeks ago. He has a house by the sea. I love that place. I love the sea and my brother most of all, but I also like his partner’s book collection. Perusing it one evening, I came across a slim volume of E. B. White’s political writing called On Democracy – a slip of an anthology that seems to have been pulled together by the heirs to the White estate.
Most people know E. B. White as the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, or as a brilliant essayist. But White was also one of the mainstays of The New Yorker’s Notes and Comment section, and a tireless letter-writer, and often discussed politics and political issues in both these venues. His career as a writer kicked off before the Depression, stretched through the Second World War and McCarthyism, and extended well into the terrifying early decades of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation. White died in 1985, at the age of 86: He witnessed Watergate, but missed the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In other words, he lived in times that were as harrowing as our own, marked by almost as many severe threats to democracy as alert people see around them today.
Unlike a lot of contemporary political writing, which is full of sturm and plenty of drang and quite a bit of shaming to boot, White’s political writing is impeccably stylish and unflappably calm. The style seems to breed the calm and vice versa. His sentences are so clear they seem to have been freshly Windexed. He was a born skeptic, immovably fair-minded, and scrupulously honest about his own doubts and ignorance. But he believed in democracy, and the ideal of one person having one vote in a free election.
The source of his faith in democracy, its bubbling spring, was his trust in the cleansing virtues of a free press. He seems to have picked this idea up in part from John Milton, who believed every individual was capable of distinguishing right from wrong, provided he had unlimited access to the thoughts of his fellow men in (famous phrase alert) “a free and open encounter.”
This is pretty much what White believed as well. By a free press he meant a diverse media, controlled by multiple entities, full of wide-ranging and contradictory opinions, through which ordinary people could then wade and thrash – successfully or otherwise – to come up with a basis on which to make decisions and cast their vote. White has no illusions about democracy; he knows it is a blunt instrument, and imperfect. He understands that a free press is no guarantee that the subjects of a democracy won’t make a mistake and elect the wrong person – that is an unavoidable failing of self-governance – and he is fully aware of the system’s many foibles, its susceptibility to irrational hysteria and crazy enthusiasms. Hence the need for a diverse media: at least that way you might get a chance to experience multiple sides of a question, and come to your own conclusions. “The concern of a democracy is that no honest man shall feel uncomfortable,” White once wrote. “I don’t care who he is, or how nutty he is.” If the nutty can find other nuts to back up their nuttiness, so be it; their saner opponents can then mock and disprove that nuttiness, also in the public forum of a free press.
Here is a strange thing: I found White’s faith in a free press to be instantly calming. I no longer had to be right or wrong or fair or furious. I just had to make sure I listened carefully, and read as widely as I could. That was my only job. His sentences acted as a kind of beta blocker to my occasional gathering fear, when the news is especially stark, that we might be headed for a stretch of anti-enlightenment superstition and anti-intellectual darkness. (The Christian Church, after all, managed to shut down independent thought for about 1,200 years, and Islam hasn’t done much better. Why would Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s Viktor Orban and China’s Xi Jinping and the Saudi royal family and the GOP, to name just a few, settle for anything less?)
E. B. White wasn’t troubled by the slugfests he witnessed in the press of his day (such as the three-year-long screaming match over whether the U.S. should enter the Second World War): Slugfests were par for the course, and perfectly okay, as long as all sides had a chance to get their punches in. Reading On Democracy felt like someone had come up to me in the last quarter of a football game I was badly losing, only to point out that my wide receivers were breaking free on every play. All I had to do was throw the ball. Winning or losing was ultimately less important than being able to play the game. (End of metaphor.)
“The press in our free country is reliable and useful not because of its good character but because of its great diversity,” White writes in his essay “The Xerox Letters.” The Xerox Corporation had paid the writer Harrison Salisbury and Esquire Magazine US$155,000 to write about America – an early instance of “magazines [deciding] to farm out their writers to advertisers,” or what today is known as sponsored content – and White thought that boded bad for a free press.
“As long as there are many owners, each pursuing his own brand of truth, we the people have the opportunity to arrive at the truth and to dwell in the light. The multiplicity of ownership is crucial. It’s only when there are few owners, or, as in a government-controlled press, one owner, that the truth becomes elusive and the light fails,” White writes. A free-for-all of independent sources of information is one of the huge privileges of a free society, he contends, and the competing publications then call out each others’ foibles and mistakes and biases. “The reader is free to range around in the whole editorial bouillabaisse and explore it for the one clam that matters – the truth.”
Needless to say, given how hot and sweaty and furious political writing can get these days, coming across the cool and patient reasoning of E. B. White felt like an unexpected day off. He has a way of relegating politics to its naturally-occurring level of importance in life – above restaurants and socializing, perhaps, but definitely below one’s relationship with the dog. (White’s dogs make frequent appearances in his political essays, often getting as much ink as the politicians.) He told the truth in its narrative entirety, often including in his essays the wandering and frequently distracted path he had taken to arrive at a conclusion on an issue. He never pretended his answer was the only answer, and never implied that his choice was the only moral one. He seems to follow his own nose, which is why his political essays are so reassuring: He makes you think that any one of us, with a little attention and a willingness to make mistakes, can blunder our way through the most complex issues.
In other words, if you are feeling a little overwhelmed by the steady assault not just on the truth but on the people whose job it is to find out where it’s hiding, I suggest you give Elwyn Brooks White a try. He is a tonic.
Alas, my vacation from my gathering alarm and confusion was short-lived. A few days later, trying to find some proof as to how free the press actually is, my White-induced calm evaporated.
If you look at the numbers, there is some good news. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center, 73 per cent of Canadians (and 80 per cent of Americans) consider freedom of the press to be important. Those numbers jumped 8 per cent and 13 per cent, respectively, between 2015 and 2019, when Donald Trump and his acolytes were systematically undermining established “mainstream media,” such as the New York Times. And while we hear incessantly from the tiny rump of Trumpish Canadians who denigrate reporters and the “MSM,” 82 per cent of us actually believe the news media are doing a good job reporting the important stuff. Reporters Without Borders, an organization that measures such things, ranks Canada as having the second freest press in the G20, after Germany.
But Canada is one player in a large, increasingly authoritarian world. More than three-quarters of the world’s nations face serious impediments to a free press, Reporters Without Borders claims. There have never before been as many threats to the lives of reporters as there are today. People with more education think freedom of the press is more important than do people with less education. None of these data are reassuring as far as democracy’s global health is concerned.
Still, I thought: If it is true, as E. B. White writes, that the media are valuable not because of their character but because of their diversity, then we should feel reassured that so many of us get so much of our information from the internet – because what is the internet if not diverse? A society that is addicted to as vast and varied a swamp as the world wide web ought to be the most democratic in history.
But it isn’t true. For starters, people experiencing poverty still don’t have access to the teeming internet. In a survey conducted just a year ago, Pew found that a quarter of U.S. households making less than US$30,000 a year don’t own a smartphone, and that 41 per cent don’t own a computer.
But even if you have access to those gadgets, as nearly 90 per cent of Canadians do, you still aren’t experiencing anything close to a “free press” online.
Why? Because a majority of Canadians under the age of 50 get their daily news off Facebook, Twitter and other social media. And as Frances Haugen, the undersung Facebook whistle-blower, revealed to the U.S. Congress last spring, a social-media site is the opposite of a free press.
“Facebook and other social media platforms use engagement-based ranking to determine which content they believe is most relevant to users’ interests,” Ms. Haugen told the politicians. That’s not the smorgasbord of contradictory periodicals E. B. White was ploughing through. The algorithms that decide what you can and cannot see and read in your Twitter and Facebook feeds – so that Facebook can promote sharing and thus maximize its advertising revenue – survey all the posts that you have liked and shared and commented on in the past. Then it prioritizes similar material in all the new posts you see. “Facebook should not get a pass on choices it makes to prioritize virality and growth and reactiveness over public safety,” Ms. Haugen testified.
At some level, of course, we have long known this to be true, which is why social media never feels as democratic – as rich and various – as it claims to be. You can only hear what you already know so often before it becomes dispiriting and exhausting.
Then again, social media is a newcomer to the concept of a free and independent press engaging in the free and independent exchange of ideas, which first came into being (at least in the English language) back in, oh, 1695 or so when Britain abandoned the practice of licensing printers and their presses. Social media has a lot of catching up to do, freedom-of-the-press-wise. The trick in the meantime is to stay calm, listen carefully, state your case and remember what actually matters – that if someone says something in the public space that you find egregious and stupid and dangerous and wrong, we’re probably in better shape than you fear.
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