Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
Post-Truth PossibilitiesPost-Truth Possibilities

Post-Truth Possibilities

Reflecting on a paper he wrote almost 10 years ago ago as a Senior Fellow for Cardus, veteran Canadian journalist Peter Menzies concludes that trust is adrift on a sea of lies but, hey, it’s still better to light a candle than curse the dark.  

Peter Menzies
6 minute read

A hint of new life was spotted this year within the list of nominees for this year’s National Newspaper Awards (NNA).

Toronto’s The Athletic, an online subscription-based service, received its first nomination, for Sunaya Sapurji in the Sports category. Sapurji’s elevation into the once elite club of the nation’s most self-impressed provided a welcome whiff of digital perfume to cover the stench of death that lingers, persistently, over Canada’s print industry and with it, some say, journalism and the defence of truth.

Leading the pack, of course, was the Toronto Globe and Mail with its 18 nominations, followed by the Toronto (notice a trend here?) Star with 12. The aptly named Postmedia, whose nearly 200 titles lurch these days like so many of Dr. Frankenstein’s tortured monsters across the nation’s towns and cities, could muster but 12 between them. Their flagship National Post, which has unashamedly sucked the marrow from the bones of once-proud mastheads from coast-to-coast for two decades now, got one.

Ten years ago, writing a Senior Fellows paper for Cardus that forecast the dissolution of trust, common ground and, unstated but inferred, the intelligence media would require for their survival, I quoted Orville Schell, dean of the University of California at Berkeley’s journalism school, from an article in Business Week magazine. Schell said: “The Roman Empire that was mass media is breaking up, and we are entering an almost-feudal period where there will be many more centres of power and influence.”

Which, of course, crossed my mind when, during a recent workplace presentation, I was told that Facebook, next to TV, is now the second most common source of breaking news. One - that’s right, the number 1, percent of people first learn of events that matter to them in the print edition of a newspaper.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau of Canada’s 2017 Media Mapping report indicates that 99 per cent of Canadians in the combined 25 to 54 age group access the Internet in a given week. Roughly half of them touch upon a newspaper (assumedly on any platform) at least once a week while roughly 96 per cent of them watch broadcast TV.

This, in a handful of years, is an astounding transformation. “Roman Empire” centres of power and influence have crumbled, the feudal period has come and almost gone and new centres such as Facebook (despite missteps such as this week’s revelations about data selling that helped elect Donald Trump) and Google have established, after a very brief period of fragmentation, new imperial reigns. 

As I suggested in 2009: “Traditional media built their power base on their ability to access and control the flow of information to the public (and were) the sole suppliers of the information that was required to meet public demand.”

But, as was already obvious, “audiences once “captive” are running freely in the streets“ and “Rome is burning at their fingertips. The need for a renewed social architecture is evident.”

It turns out that we do have a considerably new social architecture, but it’s not exactly the one I had in mind. Remember that at the time I was writing, Facebook was only five years old, Twitter was a toddler at three and Netflix was still a year away from introducing online streaming to Canada.

The CRTC was two years shy of setting an, at the time, ambitious but now laughable 5 mbps download speed target for Internet providers. Blackberry was awesome, and CanWest Global - owner of the nation’s most prestigious newspapers chain - was just about to declare bankruptcy.

Since then, the Postmedia creature born from CanWest’s black lagoon has merged with the nation’s other large newspaper chain, Sun Media consolidated, then laid off hundreds if not thousands of journalists. It has been reduced to a grubby swap of closures with Torstar, and is begging a reluctant federal government for money. Said government, which otherwise shows little reticence when it comes to spending, responded with a kiss blown to the wind.

Here are a few more things that happened since information began to flow unfiltered: Donald Trump, running in part on a “fake news,” anti-media campaign, is President of the United States, and an emergent left funded by a Hungarian billionaire is campaigning ever more effectively for restrictions on freedom of speech.

“Social” media is an increasingly acrimonious cacophony that, while draped in faux-academic language and disguised as intellectual discourse, amounts to little more than pubescent name-calling.

You can’t have a conscience different from the current Prime Minister’s if you want federal funding. Gender is an out dated construct. And the once culturally instructive institutions of Christianity are under constant assault. Meanwhile, people spend more time worrying about whether 12-year-olds with male paraphernalia can shower with 12-year-olds with female paraphernalia (what is it about paraphernalia, anyway?) than they do about the homeless.

Finally, while most sensible people would recognize that at no time in human history has there been less active discrimination in our society based on race, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or almost anything else, there are many of us more than willing to suggest that the common ground - the public square if you will - we share is not as big as it used to be. We just have more public squares. With fences. And angry faces behind all those fences.

Obviously, not all of these have a proven cause and effect relationship anymore than my original thesis did. But Donald Trump did not create mistrust in the media. He exploited it. As any former newspaper editor can attest, mistrust caused by shabby journalism existed long before the Internet was even a thing. It was, however, manageable.

But the barbarians whom institutional media once held at bay not only got past the gates, they breached the castle’s keep and, after years of effectively exposing media bias, large swaths of what once comprised North America’s journalism landscape now stands before the gallows, naked and convicted.

Some will argue that’s a good thing, that those who abandoned the pursuit of truth have long deserved what’s coming to them. Others among us may shudder at the loss of order this represents. Either way, most of us are now left wondering whom, if anyone, to believe. Trust is adrift on a sea of lies.

This, too, was foreshadowed. 

As traditional religions - excepting the anachronistic instance of Islam - and other intellectual institutions slip beyond the realm of western social fashion, they are replaced in terms of moral order by nothing and, in terms of dogmatism, by, well, pick one. Once shared foundational truths now slide through our fingers like so many greased piglets.

As I referenced from a column by the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente in the wake of the 2008 Global Economic Crisis, this shift in our beliefs has consequences far beyond the need for metaphysicians to tug at their forelocks.

“Paul Volcker was in Toronto the other night … Everyone looks up to the former U.S. central banker (who) genially admitted that the old system is finished. . . .

“All the trust and confidence are gone (he said). The smartest people in the world thought that financial markets obeyed mathematical laws. They believed that people, in the aggregate, acted rationally. It turns out that they don’t. The markets are only human after all. And so are people.”

Which leaves me with the whiff of perfume I smelled from Sapurji’s nomination. It may have no meaning other than that it signalled something new, independent and perhaps sensible, may be emerging from the chaos of an industry that once represented my life’s work and an incessant search for truth.

But it just as easily could be just the flame of a single match lit in the encroaching darkness. Civilizations are fragile things, more flimsy than most of us imagine. Societies stumble on in a delicate balance between liberty and order and are sustained by shared truths and loyalties. In the absence of liberty, people rebel. And, just so, in the absence of order, those capable of imposing it emerge swiftly from the shadows. In the absence of truth, anything is possible.

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