A major change in the communications system, Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan opined long ago, “is bound to cause a great readjustment of all the social patterns, the educational patterns, the sources and conditions of political power, [and] public opinion patterns.”
Given the vast changes that have marked the digital age, McLuhan can hardly be accused of overstatement. The online world is corrosively altering social and political “patterns,” to use the McLuhan term, and destabilizing democracies.
In using internet platforms, fringe groups and hate generators have multiplied exponentially and contributed to an erosion of trust in public institutions. They’ve prompted violent threats against public officials, driven the United States into two warring silos, and cast a pall of negativity over the public square seldom seen.
The contamination of the dialogue is such that even agreement on what constitutes basic truths has come to be tenuous. Talk of a post-truth America is no joke. Canada isn’t there yet, but give the disinformation amplifiers more scope and we soon might be.
Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist, James Carville, may have had it right back in the 1990s when he famously declared why voters had soured on then-president George H.W. Bush: “It’s the economy, stupid.” But not today. Now it’s the media, stupid. It’s the upheaval in the communications system. A media landscape gone rogue.
Economic woes get regulated. Not so the convulsions in our information ecosphere. We have no idea how to harness the hailstorm. Few efforts are being made. Calls for regulation are greeted by a great hue and cry over potential freedom-of-speech transgressions.
So broadly has media influence and power expanded that a cable network has become the avatar of the Republican Party. Donald Trump has maintained support from the GOP because he has what Richard Nixon didn’t. A kowtowing TV network and a Twitter following, until he was blocked, of 90 million users.
Social media platforms, like an upstart rival sports league, have served to delegitimize, if not disenfranchise, traditional media, magnifying public distrust. There is still a lot of high-quality journalism around, including at this awards-dominating newspaper. But traditional media no longer set the tenor of the national discussion and help shape a national consensus as in times past. Enfeeble a society’s credible news and information anchors, replace them with flotsam and you get, as per the United States, a country increasingly adrift.
The trajectory of media decline is worth recalling. From having just two or three television networks in Canada and the U.S. that aired news only for an hour or so a day, we have expanded to around-the-clock cable networks. News couldn’t fill that much airtime so opinion did – heaps of it. Hours of tirades filled the airwaves from reactionaries like Rush Limbaugh. Then the internet took hold, along with the invasion of unfiltered social media, awash in vitriol.
And so the chaff now overwhelms the wheat.
Mainstream media got in on the act, lowering their standards, contributing to the debasement of the dialogue by running ad hominem insults on comment boards from readers who hide behind pseudonyms. As I’ve noted before, that’s not freedom of speech. That’s fraud speech.
The crisis in our information complex is glaring, but it isn’t being addressed. Mainstream media, while demanding transparency everywhere else, rarely applies this standard to itself. Despite its exponential growth in importance, the media industry gets only a small fraction of the scrutiny that other powerful institutions do.
Big issues go largely unexamined in Canadian media. We rarely take a critical look at the unfettered rise of advocacy journalism, the impact of the disappearance of local newspapers or media ownership monopolies. There are precious few media columnists in this country. There is no overarching media institute to address the problems.
Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre’s big idea is to deprive us of one of our longest-standing national institutions. He would gut the CBC, defund it practically out of existence. At his rallies, he’s cheered on lustily for the promise, an indication of the low regard held by many in the population toward the mainstream media.
Any kind of media-reform drive always runs up against the freedom of speech barrier. The Trudeau government has passed Bill C-10, but it was diluted and will have little regulatory impact. A Commission on Democratic Expression, whose membership included former Supreme Court Justice Beverley McLachlin, has recommended regulatory reforms to curb social media’s impact. But it didn’t receive anywhere near the attention it deserved.
There’s a vacuum. Ways to regulate the destabilizing forces in the new communications paradigm must be found; ways that leave no possibility of control by political partisans. Such ways are possible and, given the ravages of the new media age, imperative.
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