This article was originally published in QP Briefing on February 17, 2017.
Thomas Jefferson once said, “No government ought to be without censors; and where the press is free no one ever will.” History has proven this sentiment of the third president of the United States prescient. Be it Paul Y. Anderson’s reporting on the Teapot Dome scandal, or Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s coverage of the Watergate break-in and cover-up, journalists have time and again proven their ability to hold institutions to account.
Today, however, the fourth estate is under threat like never before. Authoritarian leaders worldwide have declared war on the free press. According to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ), 2016 saw 259 journalists jailed and 28 killed on the job worldwide. The bulk of these abuses occurred in dictatorial regimes and it is intellectually lazy to equate these actions with some of the recent musings of democratically elected leaders in Canada and the United States. That being said, we should all be concerned when political leaders use their bully pulpits to call journalists “dishonest” or admonish them to “shut up and listen.” Such rhetoric can serve to undermine a crucial check on political power.
Unfortunately, it appears that the de-legitimization of the free press in favour of purveyors of “fake news” or “alternative facts” is having an effect on public opinion. In October 2016, a Gallup poll found that Americans’ trust in the media had dropped to 32 percent, down 8 points from the previous year. The numbers in Canada appear to be even worse. A January 2015 poll by Ipsos Reid found that only 18 percent of Canadians expressed trust in journalists. While it’s true that the near constant barrage of abuse from some political quarters is partly to blame for this state of affairs, the actions of some bad apples within the profession cannot escape blame.
I remember accompanying Ontario’s minister of health to the fly-in Northern Ontario indigenous community of Attawapiskat while it was in the middle of a state of emergency induced by a series of youth suicide attempts. Upon our arrival, a community elder privately shared with the minister and other assembled politicians a powerful photo demonstrating the gravity of the crisis. A visiting British tabloid journalist tried to get hold of this photo to amplify his sensational coverage of the crisis. Thankfully, he was not successful. Similarly, the British phone hacking scandal, where journalists of the now-defunct News of the World were accused of engaging in phone hacking and police bribery in the pursuit of stories brought global attention to some of the more nefarious practices of rogue journalists and news organizations. Nevertheless, the vast majority of reporters I have come across in over a decade in politics are honest, underpaid, hardworking people in search of nothing more than truth and accountability. Unfortunately for society, there are fewer and fewer of them every day.
Media consolidation and the inability of news outlets to adapt to the reality of the Internet age have atrophied newsrooms across Canada and the world. Coverage of Ontario provincial politics has especially suffered. According to Cheryl N. Collier and Jonathan Malloy in The Politics of Ontario, the Queen’s Park Press Gallery numbered 52 full-time individuals in 1995. Currently, that number stands at only 24, including camera operators and subscription-only digital sources, such as this fine publication. Especially worrisome is the fact that, as of writing, neither The Globe and Mail, the National Post nor the Toronto Sun had any reporters covering Ontario politics full time. This means that three of Canada’s largest news organizations don’t have anyone focusing on a jurisdiction whose government has the country’s second largest budget, a population of 14 million, and a nominal GDP larger than Argentina’s.
Some will argue that the Internet has “democratized” news gathering, rendering traditional journalism obsolete. This is a very short-sighted view. While social media has definitely empowered citizens, it cannot be allowed to disrupt robust news gathering. It’s doubtful that many “citizen journalists” could have spent the time or money necessary to uncover the Iran Contra scandal or bring to light the abuses of Canada’s Afghan detainee affair. Those of us who value a free society cannot afford to lose the diligence, fact checking, and ability to speak truth to power that professional journalists bring to the office every day.
We must all fight back against the forces, both economic and political, that are working to disrupt this noble profession. Let’s take a vow to push back on politicians who demonize the media, and let’s commit to rewarding news organizations who still offer robust political coverage by paying for a subscription, online or otherwise. As Thomas Jefferson knew well, the health of our democracy depends on it.