A day or so ago, there was a media panel on MSNBC that caught my attention as I was surfing channels. It was about Elon Musk, one of the richest individuals in the world, and his takeover bid for Twitter, that enormous microblogging and social networking conglomerate.
Astonishingly, one of the media talking heads said that Elon Musk could “actually control exactly what people think.” So far so good, he probably is. But then came the zinger when she added, “That is our job.” What an incredible statement which, as far as I could see, was not challenged by anyone around the table.
Sadly, however, that moment of perhaps unintended clarity is something we all need to think about at a time when our world is changing so rapidly, when fake news has become a household word and disinformation a pretty powerful weapon.
So, the question is, does mainstream media attempt to control the way we think? If true, are they effective at that and should (or can) anything be done about it? Have we reached the point where the fundamental democratic principal of a free press and free speech needs to be redefined? And if we have reached that point, how do we go about it?
Perhaps because of my brief moment watching the media panel on MSNBC, my antennae were up and I started to ask myself what was behind some of the stories I was reading and seeing. The ones that caught my eye were not bold-faced examples of misinformation, but more subtle, which is perhaps, more concerning.
One, not surprisingly, was in the Toronto Star, acknowledged champions of the left on the political spectrum. On Friday, the Star published a story about a Conservative backbencher being sued by an ex-lover who has alleged that she owes him $30,000. Officials of the paper itself touted it as the best-read story of the day.
Why? Because the accompanying picture was a file photo of Premier Ford with that particular MPP and his then-girlfriend. There can be only one reason to publish that picture and that is to associate Ford with an allegation not proven, and in any event that had absolutely nothing to do with the premier but nonetheless was intended to make people think negatively about him. Without the picture, the story would not have made the back page. With a provincial election looming, it was just an unwarranted “trash Ford” moment for the Toronto Star.
Today, CTV News published an online article with the headline, “Conservative leadership candidate Aitchison calls carbon tax ‘effective’ but would scrap it.” What Scott Aitchison actually said on CTV’s Question Period this morning, in response to a question by host Evan Soloman, was that while the carbon tax might be the most effective way to deal with the problem, it was fundamentally unfair to Canadians and that is why he would come up with an alternate solution. There is a huge difference in those two statements.
Many readers do not go beyond the headline and those that do are often influenced by what they first read, regardless of what follows. And so, I think it is fair to ask: what impression of Aitchison’s statement did CTV want to leave with readers to think about? Is that, as the MSNBC media commentator said, their job?
I have always been wary of censorship in any form, with the exception of those areas that are protected by law, such as libel, slander, and hate speech. I am particularly opposed to censorship by governments or by government-appointed agencies, of any political stripe, who have, by definition, partisan reasons for influencing what people are told or what they should think. At the very least it is a conflict of interest. At its worst, it can lead to a frightening abuse of power.
Given the complexity, availability, and expanse of communication venues today, it is understandable that some oversight, regulation, and control of internet sites is necessary. The great challenge, the necessary challenge in my view, will be to accomplish this without bipartisan appointments and control so that no single political entity is ever in the position of deciding what the population should know or believe.
I also believe that government has no business subsidizing newspapers or, for that matter, any news sources. The current penchant of the Trudeau government to do so is concerning as is the selection of who should benefit from such public generosity. Few organizations will bite the hand that feeds them, and no member of the media should accept financial assistance from governments for whom they believe they have oversight in the public interest. It just doesn’t wash.
That brings us inexorably to the CBC. There is a growing cry for them to be defunded, especially from some Conservative leadership candidates. I do not share that view, at least not entirely.
CBC Radio has a lot going for it and in my view is relatively balanced in its reporting and commentary. It is also an important voice for many of Canada’s cultural and historical issues. It often deals with matters and content that are important to the Canadian mosaic, but not commercially viable. They deserve public support.
CBC Television is quite another matter. They are, at times, little more than an extension of the government’s public relations machine. At the least, they know how to cheer for the home team. They should not be subsidized by the government, and it is alarming to see that the Trudeau administration is suggesting that CBC News should be relieved of the need to attract advertisers, giving the government what is, effectively, total control.
I do not advocate the demise of CBC Television news. I suppose they have the same right for political bias as other news outlets. But they should not be subsidized in any way by government. They should compete on a level playing field with every other news outlet by attracting advertisers to support their existence. To that extent, and that extent only, I support defunding.
The Globe and Mail journalist Andrew Coyne has recently said there needs to be a separation of news and state. I agree with him. I also believe we need to get rid of government subsidies for all news outlets and we need to find a way to hold mainstream media accountable for misinformation and fake news. I am well aware that is a tall order, especially in this day and age, and possibly not totally achievable.
What we need to guard against now at all costs, however, are those in the media, or in the government for that matter, who really believe their job is to ‘control what people think’.
That is the great and present danger.
Hugh Mackenzie has held elected office as a trustee on the Muskoka Board of Education, a Huntsville councillor, a District councillor, and mayor of Huntsville. He has also served as chairman of the District Muskoka and as chief of staff to former premier of Ontario, Frank Miller.
Hugh has served on a number of provincial, federal and local boards, including chair of the Ontario Health Disciplines Board, vice-chair of the Ontario Family Health Network, vice-chair of the Ontario Election Finance Commission, and board member of Roy Thomson Hall, the National Theatre School of Canada, and the Anglican Church of Canada. Locally, he has served as president of the Huntsville Rotary Club, chair of Huntsville District Memorial Hospital, chair of the Huntsville Hospital Foundation, president of Huntsville Festival of the Arts, and board member of Community Living Huntsville.
In business, Hugh Mackenzie has a background in radio and newspaper publishing. He was also a founding partner and CEO of Enterprise Canada, a national public affairs and strategic communications firm established in 1986.
Currently, Hugh is president of C3 Digital Media Inc., the parent company of Doppler Online, and he enjoys writing commentary for Huntsville Doppler.
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