The Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), in their “Principles for Ethical Journalism”, state that “journalists have the duty and privilege to seek and report the truth, encourage civic debate to build our communities, and serve the public interest.” An ignorant and aloof media, then, is of no use to us. But that is what we have. In the words of Nick Davies, one of Britain’s finest investigative journalists, “the mass media now operate like a global village idiot, deeply ignorant and easily led.”
The mainstream media serve powerful private interests through the profit motive. This is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, the modern, “free” press was created by the 19th century capitalist bourgeoisie, who needed a press for their own revolution against the aristocracy. In fact, The Economist was founded by the free trade Anti-Corn Law League in 1843. The profit motive, however, now obfuscates the facts. Driven to publish what sells, the mainstream media focuses on salacious tidbits of apolitical “news” information stripped of any critical content, and ignores the true activities and motives of the powerful. This might not be so bad if we had mainstream alternatives, but we don’t. Over the last twenty years the number of independent Canadian media organizations has drastically shrunk: in 1990, 17.3 per cent of daily newspapers were independently owned, but by 2005, only 1 per cent were. A few large companies such as CTVglobemedia, Rogers, and the CBC control most of the flow of information to the general public. Today, these companies decide what is “news,” and most of the time define it to mean gossip.
But what of the others, the organizations we trust to remain highbrow? Chris Hedges, foreign correspondent for the New York Times for over twenty years, has argued that “a too comfortable relationship exists on the part of major news organizations like the New York Times with the elite.” Instead of doing their own research, the mainstream media rely on Robert Rubin, Citibank, and the heads of Goldman Sachs for their information. Joan Didion called this charade “insider baseball” – I call it a lie.
Why has the New York Times, one of the world’s most prestigious newspapers, failed so abysmally to fulfill its task? One answer is that the mainstream business model is failing. Revenues have dwindled in the age of the Internet, so newsrooms have cut staff, meaning less time is spent fact-checking. A study in Britain found that, in 2006, only 12 per cent of newspaper articles in the highbrow papers were the result of real investigative journalism; 80 per cent were re-written wire copy or press releases. Moreover, more people now work in PR than in journalism. That is, more people are paid to disguise the truth than to reveal it. In service of profit the media has stopped fulfilling its purpose. According to the CAJ’s own principles, the mass media is unethical.
This is where alternative media comes in. Small, local, and independent media organizations try to make just only as much money as they need. Supported by donations and volunteers, these organizations exist to tell the stories of the people who took on Citibank’s sub-prime mortgages, who were beaten by the police, and whose communities were destroyed by Walmart. They don’t have access to the government or Goldman Sachs, and so have no reason to join in the charade. In fact, academics Michael Boyle and Mike Schmierbach have shown that audiences of alternative media are likelier to be more frequently engaged in protest actions than audiences of mainstream media. The people who make and consume alternative media are the very people who “encourage civic debate to build our communities, and serve the public interest.” The problem is that these organizations are poor and their means of distribution are all owned by large conglomerates. The threat of extinction is never far away.
This is where student media comes in. Student media is alternative because it is distinct from the dominant forms of production, distribution, content, consumption, and aesthetic that characterize the mainstream media. But student media has a ready-made audience and funding base, unlike other forms of alternative media. Easily accessible, student newspapers that tell the stories forgotten by the The Globe and Mail are picked up by tens of thousands of individuals on campuses across the world. Students from a diverse range of backgrounds can read about racism, sexism, and ageism – issues too often ignored by society – and this must continue.
It is vital, therefore, that we support our campus media. We must support The Daily and CKUT. We must use the opportunity student media gives us to critique accepted truths. If you want to read a defense of the status-quo, of mainstream economic thought, or of petty Ottawa in-fighting, then please pick up any mainstream newspaper. But if you want to see what else is out there, use this valuable opportunity to explore the world from different perspectives. In 1988, Professors Delaney Jr. and Lenkowski reported the sad fact that “the typical student is mostly concerned with consumer goods, a career, and sometimes even an education.” Use this space to prove them wrong.
Steve Eldon Kerr is a U3 Political Science and English Literature student. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org