Rage, rage against the dying of the idealized past

I used to love reading the newspaper. For years I had the Globe and Mail, and then the Toronto Star, delivered to my home. I’d read it on the subway, or on my couch, and feel I was reading something important. Five years ago, the Globe pissed me off by charging me twice to read the same content, and I canceled my subscription out of protest. Shortly thereafter I began reading the Star, but once newspapers rolled out RSS feeds I basically threw the paper versions over for this more efficient (and more environmentally friendly) method.

I read this as my own example of how mainstream media was dying, though not already dead, as ‘new’ media liked to claim. It caught my attention, then, that NPR’s Intelligence Squared podcast dealt with the statement “Good riddance to mainstream media” last week. For those of you who haven’t heard NPR’s Oxford-style debates before, the debate is book-ended by audience votes for or against the proposition, and whoever changes the most minds during the debate (according to the audience poll) is declared the winner. Now, forgive the spoiler (as if any of you are going to sit through it!) but those against the proposition win the day. In my opinion this had less to do with the efficacy of anyone’s argument and more to do with the phrasing of the proposition.

I’ll explain: I’d wager that, apart from investors in blog networks, no one wants the mainstream media to collapse and disappear. In fact, most people probably just don’t care. Few, then, would vote for a proposition that sounds rather gleeful about the demise of mainstream media.

Even then, the nays might have won it on a low blow, as those backed into a corner sometimes throw. Again, I’ll explain: the classic tactic of any industry which finds itself under siege is to ignore the facts and appeal to emotion. Think of the music industry: there was no debate about one medium (the CD) being superior to the other (the MP3), and there was certainly no attempt to produce profit by matching supply to the obvious demand; instead, sensing a threat to their existing business model, they wept for the poor artist starving now that he was deprived of album royalties. That was, of course, horseshit, but that’s the tactic: obfuscate by tugging at the heartstrings. Likewise opponents of gay marriage (who purport to defend the very fabric of society), gun ownership lobbies (“You couldn’t be more wrong, Lisa. If I didn’t have this gun, the King of England could just walk in here any time he wants, and start shoving you around.”) and union organizers (who still cast their negotiations as Dickensian urchins struggling under the boot of wealthy land barons).

In this case the MSM tries to equate their business model — print, newsrooms, and on on — with the moral righteousness of pure journalism. Kill newspapers, they say, and you’ll lose the Woodwards and Bernsteins and Murrows of the world who expose corruption and tweak our collective conscience. Leaving aside for a moment the false sanctity of journalism this supposes, there’s a gaping logical flaw in their argument. Just because the mainstream media is where journalistic triumphs have tended to happen, does not prove that only the mainstream media that can produce beneficial journalism.

This notion did float up during the podcast — someone arguing for the proposition did say that no one would debate that journalism is good — but it didn’t garner much discussion, probably because the ‘no’ side benefits from marrying the ‘how’ and the ‘what’. Would should have been debated was the probably longevity of the ‘how’, but it became — as such debates often do — a discussion on the merits of the ‘what’. If the proposition is that the MSM is no longer the most viable model for journalism, but the MSM successfully convinces people that they are journalism, the inferred extension of this is that the end of the MSM equals the end of journalism. It’s a logical fallacy, but an effective tool.

This deceptive tool is usually wrapped up in the banner of tradition or ‘way of life’. Five to ten years from now we’ll be listening to the auto industry explain that conservation and urbanization make us drive less, and driving is synonymous with freedom, and therefore environmentalism is killing freedom.

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