The burning of Rome: Detail from the cover of E.T. Paull's The Burning of Rome sheet music. Wikicommons

Must journalists fiddle while democracy burns?

By Robert Sutton The broad mandate of the Public Policy Forum’s report, The Shattered Mirror, was not ultimately to defend any particular mode of news delivery, but to evaluate the risks to Canadian democracy if the delivery of news continues its current decline. Sadly, within days of the report’s Jan. 26 release, discussion has devolved to one…

By Robert Sutton

The broad mandate of the Public Policy Forum’s report, The Shattered Mirror, was not ultimately to defend any particular mode of news delivery, but to evaluate the risks to Canadian democracy if the delivery of news continues its current decline.

Sadly, within days of the report’s Jan. 26 release, discussion has devolved to one of dollars alone, and even to an apparent disdain for the essence of democracy itself.

A rather shallow and cynical observation by Paul Wells tells citizens, “What’s at stake is not your right to be informed, but my right to earn a buck informing you”

And when it comes to the key issue of reporting on issues related to democracy, Thomas Walkom, in his summary of the report, calls reporting that outlines political process and related public matters, “civic-function (read boring)”.

Little wonder that Edward Greenspon notes the 20-year existential crisis of journalism is on the precipice and picking up speed.

I want to step away from the much-discussed dollar dilemma briefly to talk first about the actual state of democracy.

Can it be sustained?

To me, this question deserves genuine consideration because unless the answer is yes, then journalism’s existence, and its symbiotic relation to democracy, is a moot point.

Democracy may be in more jeopardy than journalism itself. As one form of political governance, it’s existed in only the last one per cent of the time we humans have lived on the earth. It’s in relative infancy: fragile, trying to define itself, but already taken for granted, and already in decline.

Noam Chomsky’s outlook is bleak. He writes, “In this possibly final phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are more than ideals to be valued—they may be essential to survival”.

So what’s to be done by whom?

Globally, organizations like Freedom House, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, and The Economist’s Democracy Index, track democracy’s status around the world.

Because it’s both concise and fulsome, I will summarise from this latter report, which outlines that in 2013, 11.5 per cent of the world’s population in 24 countries were living in “full” democracies; in 2015 it was 8.9 per cent in 20 countries; in 2016 it was only 4.5 per cent of the world’s population in 19 countries, with the U.S. slipping out of the “full” category into the domain of “flawed” democracies.

In the current context of a Trump presidency, can we expect this to improve? Highly doubtful.

The overarching assessment is that all Western democracies are showing real distress owing to extreme political polarization, security-related curbs on civil liberties, and precipitous declines in citizen participation rates.

Samara, a non-partisan charity dedicated to improving the civic life and engagement of Canadians, wrote a report called “Democracy 360” , in which it assesses the health of our political state on over 20 specific criteria.

Even in a country that ranks sixth among 19 full democracies, only 40 per cent of Canadians trust their MP’s to “do the right thing”, and they give failing grades both to MPs and to political parties on the six core roles each is supposed to play in our political process. 62 per cent believe that parties want only the votes of citizens, not their interaction.

I would also note we do not educate our kids about democracy—what it is, what’s at stake if we ignore its health, and how best to take an active role in maintaining it.

Only one-sixtieth of the courses required to graduate from an Ontario secondary school compels any focus on political process. In 2008, the director of the Catholic school board in my local community said that he preferred parents to engage their children in the political process, and that he did not want to infuse any partisan politics into a regular school day.

In the current neo-liberal context, our education system is being driven to provide an economic foothold for youth, rather than any kind of readiness to care about their democracy.

In October of 2016, I spoke with 140 third-year students in Western University’s Information and the Public Sphere class, a part of the faculty of information and media studies.

I asked if they felt they’d been well-educated to participate in their own democracy.

There was an array of chuckles, smirks, embarrassed looks, and no affirmative answers. They even said that if they wanted to become engaged in public life, or a public discussion, they wouldn’t really know how to start.

And financial support to sustain democracy?

The Shattered Mirror points out that less than 1 in 5 homes now has newspaper delivery, and it will likely decline to two homes out of 100 by 2030.

It also points out that only about nine per cent of Canadians pay for on-line news and, while they seem to feel badly about that, they see the culture of the free marketplace as one where they do not want to pay.

And what about supporting the existence of political parties, which form the basis of our democratic system itself, and are the locale from which all our representatives are chosen?

A Canada-wide survey by Samara in 2014 as part of its Democracy 360 report found that only 19 per cent of Canadians donated to a political party or campaign. Add to this that far fewer than 10 per cent of Canadians even belong to any political party.

While we certainly do not appear to be great civic participators there is no doubting we are voracious consumers. Martin Lindstrom, in his book Brandwashed, notes that in an average life span we spend over 25,000 hours shopping.

Will it be fruitless to try to market quality news when it competes with all else the marketplace extols?

In essence, journalism’s role as a public trust and its watchdog function of holding governments to account to maintain democracy are not enough if we do not educate citizens to participate in public life itself.

So what’s a journalist to do in the face of democracy’s fragility, and The Shattered Mirror’s findings that 225 weeklies and 27 dailies have closed since 2010, and that one-third of journalism jobs have been lost in the last six years?

First, believe in and promote the essential idea that real journalism is, as Romayne Smith Fullerton argued in J-Source last year, more than big business. It’s a sacred trust. She emphasizes that our society must not design policy that simply compels the sanctity of democracy and journalism’s unique imperative to function and survive as wholly capitalist enterprises.

Second, consider word choice. “Media” is a sweepingly broad term that’s come to mean just about anything that might make a buck. Lumping “journalism” under the umbrella of “media” is self- defeating. Define and defend your craft, and educate others about its intrinsic relation to democracy.

Third, don’t relax at the first signs of “making it” to electronic platforms; they can be a quagmire. Canadian academic Mike Ananny at USC cautions that these platforms can set the conditions and rules under which news disseminates, as well as advertising, and anything else Facebook or its like might choose.

Robert Reich, senior fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, observed that in 2014, Amazon, which already accounts for half the book sales in the U.S., delayed or stopped delivering books published by Hachette, the nation’s fourth largest publisher, because it wanted better terms from the publisher (purportedly 50 per cent rather than 30 per cent).

Considered in this context, quality journalism may not have unqualified access to the people it purports to serve even if it gets to various platforms.

Fourth, actively pursue Recommendation 9 in The Shattered Mirror, which suggests the establishment of a research institute dedicated to the study of news and democracy.

Part of this might entail becoming an engaged participant in what will be a challenging but necessary project to rejuvenate the world’s second-oldest profession.

For journalism to succeed, it must reawaken the public’s respect for both the job and its institutions, and it must remind Canadians of the value of democracy and their participation in it.

Journalists who care about the health of our publicly organized life and their own profession can no longer just shrug off its 20-year existential crisis, and the stark reality of its picking up speed towards the precipice.

Such a manifestation of Aldous Huxley’s view that human beings have an almost infinite capacity to take things for granted will simply mean more fiddling and, ultimately, going down in flames.

[[{“fid”:”7237″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:”David Sutton”,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:”David Sutton “},”type”:”media”,”field_deltas”:{“1”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:”David Sutton”,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:”David Sutton “}},”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“alt”:”David Sutton”,”title”:”David Sutton “,”height”:240,”width”:320,”style”:”width: 150px; height: 113px; margin: 3px; float: left;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”,”data-delta”:”1″}}]]Robert Sutton is a retired educator who has devoted the last 10 years to encouraging dialogue amongst community members through Democracy Talks, developed by Samara Canada. As well he serves as the coordinator of democratic renewal with a local federal party association.