Imagine if it wasn’t clear to people that the Nazis invaded Poland, there is a vaccine for polio, apartheid existed in South Africa or two plus two is four. Imagine dark forces convincing half the population that facts are “fake news.”
What ramparts keep idiocracy at bay? Is it education? Education affects mostly children. Politics? Politics is the problem. Culture? Culture comforts the soul but is not a source for facts. Search and social media? Their algorithms mock us. The wisdom of the crowd mutates into chaos of the mob.
Our protection from idiocracy is a viable, independent and widely trusted media.
The last part — trust — is becoming increasingly difficult. Instead, Statista found last year that even in most democratic countries most people did not trust media most of the time. In the United States the proportion of respondents who said they did was the lowest, at 26%. France was at 29%, the UK at 34%, Canada at 42%, and Taiwan 27%. In most places it is getting worse.
Though not everyone agrees, you could argue that this is happening at the worst possible time. Partisan hatreds in America are at a fever pitch as the main parties, once diverse, realign along highly combustible racial and cultural lines. The self-immolation of Twitter shows again how brittle and broken is the global town square.
There are a number of factors that are undermining trust:
POST-TRUTH: When acceptance of facts becomes a political opinion, this places most journalists on one side of the debate. They cannot “represent” those who think global warming is a hoax or that “guns don’t kill people” (as the US gun lobby argues).
COMPLEXITY: The issues have become too complicated for most non-experts to grasp. It’s actually pretty clear that the Nazis invaded Poland. It should also be clear that Earth suffers anthropogenic warming, but there’s too much science to wade through. So it is with global trade, healthcare and even the war in Ukraine.
REAL FAKE NEWS (not the Trumpian nonsense): Technology has reduced barriers to entry such that every fool with an axe can be a publisher and grind it.
SOCIAL MEDIA: When social networks (the early Facebook, for connecting to your friends) first became social media (for broadcasting everything to the world), they in effect mutated into a competing news environment. And as an environment, with cute cats and funny videos mixed in, it is more appealing to many than the news.
BRAND DECLINE: With news now being consumed mostly as snippets of content and any shiny bauble of bullshit can get attention, people lose track of the source, and it’s much less clear what’s serious.
POLARIZATION: When people care more about winning than being right, facts have a problem. In key countries, again led by the United States, that is where we are.
In this unfortunate environment, the media can be a public service. The service aims to do the following:
- Cover important things so people aren’t clueless;
- Explain clearly so they don’t choose poorly;
- Uncover truth, foiling evil plots;
- Be free of undue influence and be ethically above reproach.
Who’ll provide the funding for this civilizing mission? If it comes from the government, the media is puppets of power. If it comes from political parties, the media is serving an agenda. If it comes from other businesses, the media is enslaved to commercial interests. If it comes from philanthropy, the media seems weak and dependent.
That leaves us with the media being a business in which content is profitable.
The question had always hung in the air: What is news? Is the writing of these words news? Is the reader’s opinion of them news? Why not? Maybe because not enough people are interested. Yes: a plausible definition of news is what people find interesting (or put less charitably, entertaining). And what if nonsense was the most interesting and therefore the most profitable content?
How they printed money once, the “media”! An apocryphal tale tells of a foreign correspondent hauled back to HQ for taking a business class flight to cover some story. “We only fly first class,” he was told, to his surprise. “Don’t let it happen again.” This does not occur today; no one even jokes about it.
Classified ads are gone and only a few hardy souls subscribe to print or bother with newsstands. Advertising is worth less per reader online than in print, and most has drifted away. As revenues fell newsrooms were gutted, a predictable remedy that boasted the meagerest of visions and harmed the product in a classic vicious cycle.
Now, late in the game with their backs to the wall, publishers are turning to paywalls decisively at last. You can’t subscribe to everything, so other payment models will arrive. Some blogs, like this one, also try to get readers to pay, even a little.
Most people understand that free societies and free markets need reliable information. But we’re addicted by now to getting it for free. Resistance may not be futile; the market has the upper hand. But do we really want to resist?
Dear reader: If you have arrived this far, you are probably consuming in-depth a news product which you’re not paying for as you might pay for a burger. Does this seem normal? Do you think it will survive?
Information is like anything else in this world. It has no will; it has a value. If it’s worth having, it’s worth buying. Otherwise, I fear, there is some sort of scam.
The prophets of disruption who argued that information wants to be free were also prophets of doom. You really do get what you pay for. There is a simple trick to saving journalism, and with it civilization: Don’t want it to be free.
(A version of this article has appeared in MediaIte)