Commentary

Saving journalism?

oh canada

The Canadians have come up with a uniquely Canadian way to save journalism:

Let government do it.

The idea is noble. The danger inherent is best illustrated by one of the stories written about the plan.

“Finance Minister Bill Morneau said the government wants to protect the ‘vital role that independent news media play in our democracy and in our communities,'” wrote Stuart Thomson at National Post.

“Paul Godfrey, the CEO of Postmedia, which publishes the National Post and daily broadsheets in many of Canada’s largest cities, said that tax credit ‘could be looked upon as a turning point in the plight of newspapers in Canada.’

“‘I tip my hat to the prime minister and the finance minister. They deserve a lot of credit,’ said Godfrey. ‘Everyone in journalism should be doing a victory lap around their building right now.'”

The story contains nary a mention of the danger of government funding the chief watchdog on government. And the $600 million buy-in proposed in Canada is no small investment.

A free press

The National Post was founded by Conrad Black, who has a reputation as a bit of a scoundrel. His companies once controlled more than 400 newspapers in Canada and the U.S., the Chicago Sun Times and the Toronto Star among them.

Black ended up serving time in a U.S. federal prison after being convicted on charges of fraud and obstruction of justice in connection to his business dealings at Hollinger International, once head of the third largest English newspaper chain in the world. Along with the North American papers, it ran papers in the United Kingdom, Australia and Israel.

Thus it was noteworthy when Black last year suggested the current owners of the Postmedia Network are bigger scoundrels than he was.

“…The bond holders control the company and are content to bleed it dry with the complicity of management. Bankruptcy is next,” he Tweeted last year before telling iPolitics – something of a miniature, Canadian version of Politico – that the company appeared to be in a “deliberate power-dive into bankruptcy while the cash is stripped out and paid to the top-tier of debt-holders.”

The business website Macroaxis now gives Postmedia a 49 percent chance of going into bankruptcy.

Alaskans have some idea how much money media companies can lose on their way to bankruptcy. Former Alaska Dispatch News publisher Alice Rogoff claims to have poured $23 million into the Alaska Dispatch News before it went under.

Would it have been better if that had been government money? Would it have been better if government officials, having lent the money, had decided they needed to step in and take over management of the badly run business to save it?

Granted, the ADN is a worst case scenario of what could go wrong fiscally, but the possible flushing of tax dollars down the rat hole of failing media enterprises might be the least of bad possibilities.

Government dictates

The “news” is already largely directed by local, state and federal bureaucrats. Government employs a small army of “public information officers” to daily feed the media.

That these people are regularly less than fully honest seems not to matter to many in the media.

But have some sympathy for the reporters in the trenches. The lamestream media as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin used to categorize traditional print, TV and radio is often, if not predominately, led by government directed narratives because it is a hard thing to avoid.

The 24/7 news cycle of the internet is a beast demanding to be fed every minute. Government employees daily toss out the fresh meat. As result, they have a lot of control over the story.

For a perfect illustration of what can go wrong, look no farther than the Fairbanks Four who went to prison for 18 years in part because the media in that Central Alaska city followed along step-in-step with the government pitch that the police had caught the right people despite some questionable evidence.

In the wake of the release of the Fairbanks Four, there has been a sizable celebration of the journalism that freed them. University of Alaska Fairbanks journalism professor Brian O’Donoghue has been justifiably lauded for his part in helping to free the Four. 

And there has been an amazing lack of discussion of the limpid journalism that helped ensure their convictions.

One would think the latter would be equally important to the former, maybe even more so. But somehow the biggest and most important message has been lost.

Government cannot be counted on to take care of us.

Government is like nature. Day-to-day, it is what it is. When it’s sunny and warm, it’s your friend. When it’s cold and blowing sideways rain at 33 degrees, it’s your enemy.

Government can be hugely helpful or totally corrupt and usually, in most of this country, it generally operates somewhere between those two extremes. An aggressive media helps minimize the dark side. The history of world governments is that left to their own devices governments creep toward the dark side for reasons good or bad.

Many journalists don’t want to think about this. To accept the most important lesson to be learned from the Fairbanks Four requires they not only recognize the journalistic failure, but also accept the idea that journalists should do more than simply collect press releases from government and rewrite them as if handling God-given facts delivered from the mountain top.

Doing otherwise sometimes requires asking difficult questions. Asking difficult questions can upset the PIOs, a significant number of whom are former journalists, and that just wouldn’t be right in the great information family.

Not to mention that some of them might be inclined to complain to your boss and who knows what problems that would bring. That is where we are today.

It’s hard to believe that any of this would get better if government was paying the bills for both the PIOs and the journalists.

But wait, there’s more

Sadly the problem doesn’t end with the narrative because there is an even bigger problem: The story untold.

Those unfamiliar with how journalism actually works love to fret over biases, real or imagined, in almost everything that gets reported. But where the real bias rests is in what doesn’t get reported.

Let’s go back to the now dead but still in-the-news Alaska Dispatch News, which stopped paying its bills in early 2017. Some journalists knew the company – which was so important it would later declare itself “vital to all of Alaska” in a plea to the federal Bankruptcy Court – was bleeding money.

Things got so bad that in June of 2017, the newspaper was sued by Catalyst Paper, one of its paper and ink suppliers, because it wasn’t paying its bills. The story was reported here, but the ADN put out a statement saying this was just the normal sort of litigation in which businesses regularly engage and most of the media ignored the story.

The ADN statement was quite simply a lie, but ADN editors who knew better – some of whom are still at the newspaper – went along with it. And that was enough to ensure the story got almost no coverage elsewhere.

KTUU.com – an ADN competitor – finally mentioned the ADN’s problems deep into a July 12 story about a hearing on a $1 million lawsuit former ADN editor Tony Hopfinger had filed against publisher Alice Rogoff after she defaulted on a napkin contract that promised to pay him for the his remaining interest in Alaska Dispatch, the online news business he co-founded that eventually became the millionaire Rogoff’s entre into the Alaska journalism business.

“ADN did not send a reporter to cover the oral arguments on Monday,” Austin Baird reported, “and Rogoff’s attorney asked that media not be allowed to cover the hearing at all because details of her personal finances could come up, something of heightened public interest as the paper faces two other lawsuits related to alleged nonpayment of bills.

“One was filed by M&M Wiring Service, Inc., which claims that ADN did not pay for nearly half a million dollars of electrical work, and the other is from Catalyst Paper Company which alleges that payment for roughly $50,000 worth of paper is past due.

“It is unclear at this point if the mounting legal challenges are simply routine business disputes, or instead signal trouble ahead for the only large print media organization in Anchorage, which also commands the largest online audience in the state.”

It didn’t take a lot of legwork to determine that the suits were more than routine business disputes, but no reporters bothered to look.

What was really happening at the ADN didn’t burst onto the front pages of mainstream media websites until Aug. 11 when GCI, the cable and telecom company which owned the building housing the ADN’s printing presses, sued for almost $1.4 million in back rent and unpaid utility bills.

The GCI suit was filed on a Friday. The ADN filed for bankruptcy the next day.

The ADN that day filed a self-serving story that said a new publisher for the newspaper had been lined up to purchase it out of bankruptcy. The second paragraph was given over to the publisher:

“In a prepared statement Saturday, Alaska Dispatch News LLC owner Alice Rogoff, who also has served as publisher, said it was a ‘truly bittersweet’ moment for her, though she is relieved the newspaper will live on under new ownership.”

It would be three more days before the state’s largest media organization revealed the financial mess Rogoff had made of the newspaper and by then the story would be spilling out in all media.

That was a good thing.

Nothing to see here

Some stories can’t be avoided. They go viral, and all media is all but forced to cover them to avoid looking part of a coverup.

Other stories, not so.

Alaska Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott tried to proposition a teenager, according to multiple sources, in October and subsequently resigned his post under pressure from Gov. Bill Walker.

What exactly Mallott said to set in motion this chain of events, which eventually led to Walker, the incumbent governor, withdrawing from the gubernatorial race and Republican Mike Dunleavy then trouncing Democrat Mark Begich to become the governor-elect remains unknown.

The last that was heard of that story was on Nov. 2 when Walker told KTUU reporter Richard Mauer that Mallott’s mistake was an “inappropriate” comment to “‘an adult female’ and was cleared as “‘non-criminal’ by Alaska’s Department of Law.”

Walker also labeled as “misstatements” and “lies” the reports of some “bloggers” that Mallott’s statement was made to a teenager, Mauer reported. Walker’s statement, however, did not categorically deny the possibility a teenager was involved.

A once respected Alaska Native leader, Mallott has been publicly invisible since his resignation, and the mainstream Alaska media – what little is left of it – has shown little interest in getting to the bottom of what happened to take down a sitting governor.

So much for these #metoo times.

The North American media today is in a sadly weakened state. What it really needs is some young and enthusiastic entrepreneurs who believe that the goal of today is the goal of newspapers as defined by Seattle Times founder Alden Blethen in 1896:

“Raise hell and sell newspapers.”

Will government funding make editors and reporters more likely or less likley to challenge the status quo? You can answer that yourself, but as someone in this dying business, I’d have to say it seems the goal of most journalists still employed these days is to hang onto their job or find a PIO gig that pays better.

There is no reason to believe government funding would make any of them any more aggressive in pursuing the news, especially government related news, and it could well make them less so.

It’s seldom advisable to bite the hand that feeds you no matter what ethics or morality dictate.

In the old, funding model for news, sales of advertising paid for everything, and the revenue stream was diversified enough that newspapers, TV and radio stations could usually resist pressure from any single advertiser.

A big pile of government cash placed on the balance could well change that, and if the government of the moment is pushing an agenda with which reporters and editors agree, government funding could well shift the pendulum in dangerous ways for democracy.

In that regard, the increasingly partisan media of the day – with the left calling out the right and the right calling out the left – might not be, no matter how distasteful, the lesser of two evils.

Government officials speaking out in favor of an “independent news media” are to be commended. Everyone should want an “independent news media,” and better yet an independent and non-partisan news media.

But the day the government starts handing out cash to help determine which “independent media” survive and which fade away, a reasonable person has to wonder how long the independence lasts.

State-funded, independent media sounds just a bit Orwellian, or something like the old Pravda, the official news organization of the now-defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

Pravda, it’s worth noting, means “truth” in Russian.

And all governments, all politicians and all political parties have over the centuries voiced their support of “truth,” at least when the truth benefits them.

When it doesn’t? Well, as President Donald Trump likes to say, “fake news.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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6 replies »

  1. Journalism is already dead and has been dead for a long time. Americans are the most propagandized people in the world outside of N. Korea.

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  2. Justin will probably benefit from better coverage. Conrad Black being opposed is a net benefit.

    For the citizens, it’s a bad idea unless you are always aligned with the redistribution sector. We have government support of public broadcasting. Not evil, but if NPR is your only news source you suffer from low information. But it is predictable, which is nice.

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  3. Journalism as we know it today is nothing more than reactionary rhetoric to corporate governance.
    The reality is this practice of research and print died with the invention of the TV and Hollywood.
    “During the 1950s, television was the primary medium for influencing public opinion. In the mid-1960s, color broadcasting was introduced in the US and most other developed countries.”
    (Wikipedia)
    What we have today is nothing more than “Predictive Programming”…
    Just look at movies like “Running Man”…
    “Hunger Games”…
    “Geostorm”…
    The “Deep State” conditions the masses in America to accept the unthinkable attacks and natural disasters since they have been viewed for years on the screen.

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  4. Yep, China, Russia, Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela all enjoy their “State” run media. The problem is todays media is nothing more than a biased, political, leftist mouthpiece. Useful for the ignorant masses in brainwashing another generation. The most insidious form of journalism is the power to omit. All the money in the world will not save those political hacks.

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    • Those leftist mouthpieces should not be confused with Fox and Brietbart which are considered mouthpieces for right wing tools…

      I look at news sources like I look at investing $ – I don’t have the time and ability to root through every (or any) story to find the ‘Pravda’. Therefore, I invest in mutual funds so that I cover a broad spectrum of the overall market. Likewise, I find ‘news’ from multiple sources. It’s not that hard to know whether you’re going to a news site that is left leaning or right leaning – they all have biases. Read the article, just because it’s from MSNBC doesn’t mean that it’s going to infect your brain with liberalitis, glean the info that you can from it taking into account whatever bias the author has and, viola! you have some information that you can use. After reading a couple of articles on the left and right, you should have a fairly clear picture of the Pravda. Just like when your kids tell you 2 different versions of the same story – the Pravda is most likely somewhere in the middle of the stories. A good place to look for a mutual fund of news stories is RealClearPolitics.com. I also like reuters.com (a little left leaning, but not bad) for getting headline news. And, of course, Craig Medred.news for everything else!

      Fasten your tinfoil hats ladies and gentlemen, the conspiracies are going to be outrageous and wild…

      Oh yeah, bad move by our neighbors to the east… I know that the media financial viability issue is more complex than this bumper sticker solution, however, I think that if you just let capitalism decide which news organizations survive and which ones go bye-bye, things will work themselves out. Be wary of government officials that come bearing gifts…

      Cheers folks!

      Liked by 1 person

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