David Frum had a patented prescient precaution for his fellow panellists at the Canada 2020 conference in Ottawa last week.
“Do not,” Frum said in his always measured way, “let a political problem be seen as a technological problem.”
Canadians should hope and pray his warning is heeded by federal Liberal politicos whom the nation’s newspaper publishers beseeched, the very next day, to pony up $350 million to save print journalism.
Frum, it must be noted, wasn’t speaking directly to the publishers’ plea for a massive expenditure of public dollars to save their private bacon when he spoke during Canada 2020’s panel on Journalism and the Future of News.
Still, his words could not have been more timely or better placed, given that Canada 2020 is essentially the Liberal Party’s think tank. Its annual gathering serves a similar function for the Grits as the Manning Conference does for the Conservatives and the Broadbent Institute conference does for the NDP.
If there are ears to hear Frum’s vital message, it could reach them through no better medium than the Liberals own pointy-headed gabfest. And few are better positioned than Frum to dissuade the Trudeau government from the disastrous mistake of pumping hundreds of millions, predictably to become billions soon enough, into printed publications that readers, subscribers, and the market generally have all wildly abandoned in a few short years.
Frum, after all, has an impeccable journalistic pedigree as the son of the late Barbara Frum. Far more importantly, he has proven his bona fides through stellar work at leading media vehicles around the continent, including his current role as a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine.
Having been a speechwriter for George W. Bush, he also knows the intricate practicalities of politics, and the way in which power both shapes and shifts. Finally, he has made a studied, intellectually credible political shift himself being a quintessential neo-con early in his career to an honest-broker critic of his former conservative compatriots.
At Canada 2020, he warned firmly against finding immediate scapegoats in Google, Facebook, Twitter and the overall “platform transformation” that has brought low the media companies now seeking government handouts to survive. He also rejected the notions that democratic politics are well protected by the old-line information disseminators, and that web-based media platforms are responsible for the rise of our intensely polarized politics.
In England, he pointed out, the BBC remains a hugely powerful and highly traditional source of newsgathering. Yet the United Kingdom is one of the most politically fractured democratic countries on earth, arguably even more so than the United States. To blame technology for the chasms that have opened up in the electorate requires ignoring the tectonic shifts that began a generation or more ago. The political ground was already shaking when the great print empires were at their apex, and daily newspaper reading was second nature for most of the populations of democratic countries.
The power to unleash such massive dislocation, Frum argued, was deployed through the behaviour of elites, not by the transformation of technology at their fingertips. Political discord is, in large measure, a function of the distance between a populace and its elites, most of whom have far more in common even with their ideological opponents than they do with ordinary voters. Power flows horizontally between those elites, and implacably downward to the citizenry until it meets resistance.
In Frum’s brief talk before the panel discussion started, he offered a concrete example of how such power flows operate. Candidate Donald Trump famously vowed to rip up the North American Free Trade Agreement. President Donald Trump has somewhat ambiguously backed off that initial pronouncement. But the people who populate the vast trade bureaucracies of the United States got the message, and they didn’t need Google, much less the New York Times, to parse it.
There will be manufactured impediments to trade with Canada and Mexico. There will be “petty border harassments” by the score. There will foot dragging to give at least the appearance that President Trump’s anxiety over perceived loss of American jobs to NAFTA is being assuaged.
Why? Because Donald Trump is the Twitter King of U.S. politics? Or because the Wall Street Journal has editorialized on the topic? No. Neither. Because bureaucratic survival depends on knowing how to intuit what is wanted from the political class, in other words responding ineluctably to the flow of power without any direct orders having to be given.
“Bureaucracies are always ready to go slow,” Frum said.
His NAFTA parallel rebuts the whole idea that print publishing companies so weakened they need public money to continue functioning will withstand the long, slow death of bureaucratic, and ultimately political, control. The nature of political power simply won’t allow it, which is why it’s a mistake to let a political problem be seen as a technological problem.
In fact, to insist that what now afflicts newsgathering and distribution has been caused by technology, inverts cause and effect. The reality is that the business models of the very companies now wheedling for bailouts were primed for collapse years, even decades ago.
They were teetering and wobbling in large measure precisely because of the failure of journalism itself. It was a failure that, in its essence, was a political failure. Somewhere in the past generation or so, journalists lost the understanding their role, as well their self-interest, was providing a fair, full and vigorous depiction of the elite-populist power dynamic. While preening and mouthing clichés about being democratic guardians of ordinary people, journalists became fervent apologists for social novelty, and then die-hard apostles of neo-orthodoxy evangelizing in behalf of elite desire for how the world should change. They forgot, in the course of it, to ask why. Why must we jettison our traditions? Why must we accept the new simply because it’s not old? Why must we accept a given change when we don’t know its effect, especially on those who will suffer from having to endure it?
It was change wrought by the prideful desire to join the elite, to move up from working class craft to the power of profession. As David Frum warned, we must see the resulting destruction of print journalism as arising from a political cause, not a technological one. Indeed, it is not just a political problem, but was a political problem that none of us should have a nickel’s worth of interest in paying $350 million to resolve.
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