My guide in matters pertaining to journalism is A.J. Liebling who, from 1946 to 1963, wrote a column in The New Yorker called The Wayward Press. (He also wrote Between Meals, my favourite book about the pleasures of gastronomy.) He was an elegant writer—he said he could write better than anyone who could write faster, and faster than anyone who could write better—and a trenchant critic. “There are three kinds of writers of news,” he once observed. “They are: 1) The reporter who writes what he sees. 2) The interpretive reporter, who writes about what he sees and what he construes to be its meaning. 3) The expert, who writes about what he construes to be the meaning of what he hasn’t seen.” Liebling was a stalwart interpreter and skeptical observer of the press, which he famously described as “the weak slat under the bed of democracy.”
He made that judgment in 1961, two years before he died. Who knows what metaphor he’d employ today? It certainly wouldn’t be flattering. In Liebling’s day, television was still in its infancy, the Internet hadn’t yet been imagined, and reporters wrote their stories on Underwoods, not Apples. But if the tools of the trade have changed, the job itself—to ensure the public has the information it needs to make good choices—remains more or less the same. And Liebling would be quick to point out that, shiny new technologies notwithstanding, the quality of workmanship in North American newsrooms, with a few notable exceptions, is declining. The reasons are complex, and they include the ascendance of a generation of journalists who know how to tell a story and little else. But the larger issue is economic. As Liebling observed fifty years ago, the function of the press is to inform, but its role is to make money, and he would have agreed with P.T. Barnum that it’s easier to do so by aiming low.
Exhibit A: Rupert Murdoch, the Australian press baron who gave the world the shrill banality of Fox News and the ethical depravity of News of the World. Unfortunately, the phone hacking scandal that last July forced the closure of the brutish British tabloid has undermined the media’s credibility everywhere. An Ipsos Reid poll commissioned by the Canadian Journalism Foundation recently found that 40 percent of respondents believe Canadian journalists are guilty of hacking phones and paying for news tips. It doesn’t seem to matter that not a single instance of either activity has been recorded here; four in ten Canadians believe the worst—a predisposition that, left unaddressed, threatens freedom of the press, and in turn our democracy.
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects the press, but the Charter is subject to judicial interpretation and therefore malleable. (How do we even define the press in a world where anyone with a smart phone is theoretically a reporter?) The belief that the industry should regulate itself is widely held in Canada, but as respect for journalists declines this, too, may change. Storm clouds are already gathering. A provincial task force in Quebec has requested that the Fédération professionelle des journalistes du Québec formalize a process to certify journalists who agree to abide by its code of ethics. But for the moment all eyes are on the United Kingdom, where, in the wake of the phone hacking scandal, Prime Minister David Cameron appointed Lord Justice Brian Henry Leveson to conduct an inquiry into the culture, practices, and ethics of the press. Already, a growing chorus of disillusioned Britons is calling for stricter regulation.
If the press is to continue to enjoy its independence, it must be seen to be monitoring its own behaviour, vigorously and fairly. This was the idea that led to the creation of press councils in every province but Saskatchewan in the ’70s. Later, it prompted enlightened news organizations, here and elsewhere, to appoint ombudsmen or, as they are sometimes called, public editors. But the press councils are underfunded and increasingly ineffectual (Ontario’s adjudicates fewer than 100 complaints a year), and ombudsmen are being eliminated left and right as budgetary indulgences. Sun Media Corporation, which publishes forty-four daily newspapers, recently withdrew from the Quebec and Ontario councils altogether, a backward step even for a news organization not noted for its high-mindedness. In the end, the fate of the press lies in the hands of the press: either it embraces the responsibility to regulate itself, or the task will fall to others. Use it or lose it.
This appeared in the January/February 2012 issue.