Manufacturing Content

Making money or making meaning with the freedom of speech

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On November 19, 2003, President George W. Bush visited England to spell out his world vision, sup with Queen Elizabeth II and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and, apparently, champion the cause of independent thought and free speech. In an address to 150 military experts and salesmen, he intoned, “I’ve been here only a short time, but I’ve noticed the tradition of free speech, exercised with enthusiasm [sustained, polite laughter], is alive and well here in London. We have that at home, too. They now have that right in Baghdad as well. [Sustained, polite applause.]”

It was one of President Bush’s more lucid moments – no befuddling neologisms and, arguably, no grievous over-statement – and it left me feeling some-what more sanguine about the future.

Back home, a few days earlier, Can-West Global ceo Leonard Asper had addressed the Economic Club of Toronto on the not unrelated topic of a free press, and how it can best serve his own corporate interests: “All of this is about gaining market share. . . . We want to own and create content that is prepurposed and designed for multiple revenue streams.”

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary is a generous text. It calls itself “the foremost authority on current Canadian English” and its most recent edition boasts a “New Words supplement.” In my experience it’s a reliable source. The cod lists “prepublication, prepuce, prequalify,” while the New Words supplement offers “predatory, prenup prk, public key.” No “prepurposed” or “prepurpose” is identified. Other dictionaries, perhaps more generous still, yield nothing. The search for “repurpose” (in case there was a recording error) results in similar lacunae.

In such situations the last resorts are: break the word into its component parts and hope for the best; if that fails, parse the sentence in which it appears and hope for the best; finally, if still unclear, attempt to glean meaning through the broader context. “Pre,” meaning before, and “purpose,” meaning something to be attained or a thing intended, are clear enough, but when combined? Befuddlement. So, on to the sentence. At first and second glance, this can only mean owning and creating content that is both prepared in advance and capable of generating lots of money. Nothing startling here; this is the job of all ceos. Parsing complete, I remain at a loss.

The key to unlocking the mystery of “preintention” must lie, therefore, in the broader context. As the largest owner of Canadian newspapers and the country’s second-largest private broadcaster, CanWest favours bringing newspapers, radio, television, and the Internet under one roof, and reusing the same content to create “multiple revenue streams” from a single source. It is not so much Asper’s idea of broadcasting policy – that, as he told his Toronto audience, “culture should just get out of the way and let industry handle it” – that I find baffling, but rather his implication that the press can do something other than report during or after the fact. Moreover, the vital functioning of an independent press requires that stories be subject to balanced criticism from other members of the fourth and fifth estates. “Prepurposed” content diminishes that functioning.

In fairness to CanWest, new technologies such as digital cable are putting real pressure on more traditional forms of content dissemination, and media companies must certainly adjust. Presumably, however, even converged media companies aspire to break stories such as the one recently reported by The Toledo Blade regarding the atrocities committed by Tiger Force in Vietnam thirty-six years ago, rather than be up-staged by more enterprising journals. But their preoccupation with “prepurposing” and the bottom line virtually rules out this possibility.

All of this leaves me feeling rather less sanguine about President Bush’s clarity. Often it’s the elisions, the things slurred over or not said, that are the most revealing. As of this writing, the war in Iraq is still going on. In most cases, war means a suspension of civil liberties; in all cases, invoking “rights” means having them enshrined in law. Both are a long way off for Iraqis. Bush’s rhetoric is in part meant to obscure or diminish the complexity of Iraq today. But equally, Asper’s emphasis on content designed for “multiple revenue streams” means that our chances of ever learning those complex truths are sadly diminished.

Ken Alexander