Who must worry about journalistic ethics? Nobody (if they don’t want to): David Frum

David FrumOutsourcing quality control, optional media ethics, and personal journalistic networks are some of the trends David Frum saw when he surveyed the North American media landscape. He presented his findings during a speech in Toronto. The event was hosted by the Canadian Journalism Foundation and the Canadian Club of Toronto.

Frum, who has worked as a journalist for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes magazine, is a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and has written a series of books about politics. He was born in Toronto but has made a name for himself in the U.S. Republican party (a National Post story earlier this week suggests that conservatives have begun to turn on Frum).

During his speech, Frum quickly outlined the sordid state of journalism (“Layoffs at ABC News, Newsweek sold for $1, the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times traded as distressed properties…”) and described  troubling trends in hope that journalists can respond “creatively and positively.”

1. De-monopolization.

Media monopolization has complicated the issues facing journalists today. Frum’s father-in-law, Peter Worthington, launched the Toronto Sun in 1971, marking the first major North American newspaper launch in 30 years. In that era, Frum says, the barriers to entry were high: printing presses were expensive and the best of the advertisers would flock to the dominant paper, leaving little for the competition. He laments the death of classified advertising (KO’d by Craig Newmark, the man behind Craigslist) and the proliferation of cable channels that have “cannibalized” network revenues. He jokes that the “surest way to sound like an old fogey in the media business is to tell the youngsters that there used to exist this thing called an expense account.”

2. De-professionalism.

Frum noted that as barriers to entry have begun to collapse – anyone with access to the internet can become a defacto journalist – so too has the line between “media professional” and everyone else.

“Who exactly is the media these days? Anybody who wants to be,” Frum said. “Who must worry about journalistic ethics? Nobody who does not want to.”

He used Jon’s Stewart’s appearance on CNN’s Crossfire as example. Stewart accused the show’s hosts of dumbing down the public debate. When the host accused Stewart of the same, he replied “You’re on CNN. The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls.”

Frum said this same excuse is used by radio talk show hosts and bloggers, who sometimes claim they’re not governed by the same rules as journalists.

When media companies were “vertically integrated”, there was a clear hierarchy  of editors and checkers to govern quality control. But, Frum said, “Today, the quality control comes from outside, in effect outsourced. Websites try to catch each other in mistakes, Jon Stewart satirizes Fox, the conservative Daily Caller buys the KeithOlbermann.com site and posts hostile items about the MSNBC star.”

Frum was asked, by an audience member who said she was a lawyer,  “There are so many people acting like
journalists, without [employing] professional standards. Is there a
legislative solution to this, a law to make people more accountable for
what they say?”

Frum answered “If there is such a solution, I
can’t imagine what it would look like.” He pointed out that rumours that
traditionally would be snuffed out or ignored by news media are now
able to quickly gain traction as media report on the controversy surrounding the rumours, which in turn gives credibility to
non-substantial and sometimes completely false information. “I think
this is our world now,” Frum said. “More open, more partisan, more
bought and paid for by outside sources.” It means, he said, that “we all
have to be much better consumers.

3. Rising demands on the media consumer

Newspapers “a generation ago” decided what readers should and shouldn’t know. But with more information available than ever before, making sense of the news is increasingly falling on the consumer.

4. Information inequality

If you want to know about something that happened yesterday, you can
access more detailed and instantaneous information than ever before. Or you can avoid it completely. Frum pointed out that before the internet is was much “harder to  be completely ignorant of public events. You had to rise off the sofa to turn off the television when the news started, then turn it back on when  the news ended.” Organized institutions like churches and unions also helped distribute information to members.

“Today the best informed 5% of the population know more about the world” than any educated group before them, he said, while the “least-informed 1/3 of the population almost certainly know less.”

5. Increasing importance of strategic communication and miscommunication

Frum compared communication to modern warfare: the purpose of violence is to shape global public opinion. “War is PR by other means.”

“The media collectively are more powerful than ever, but individual media
enterprises are much weaker than they used to be. This gives sophisticated
messengers both greater incentive — and greater ability — to shape the mental universe in which we all live.”

6. I-Networks

Trina McQueen, former head of CBC News and president of CTV (now retired)
asked Frum how Fox News has changed American political behaviour, and if
Sun TV, Quebecor’s new Fox-style news network, will have a similar
effect on Canadians.

Frum replied that the existence of the
network is “not something you can have an opinion on. It’s a fact.” And,
as branding continues to become more and more important (Frum admits
he’s embarrassed that his online community, FrumForum.com,
is named for himself, but reluctantly believes that personal branding
is here to stay), it’s likely that there will be more of these types of
networks, not less. “One day we might all have our own [network]. That’s
not a joke–YouTube already makes it possible. Signalling out one
channel and excluding it from the national conversation” will not help,
he said.

He also noted that Fox started out with a positive
focus, but has changed dramatically since the 2008 presidential
election, where the focus swung from fact checking to fact competition.
Now, the narrative that Fox has formed (us against them) requires an
enemy at all times, and needs a hero.

7. The power of language

Andy Barrie (former host of CBC’s Metro Morning and now resident scholar at Ryerson University’s j-school) asked Frum to comment on the famous speech he wrote for George. W. Bush that first used the term “axis of evil.” What Frum originally wrote was “axis of hatred.” Barrie asked Frum how he felt about his words being used to propagate a feeling and a sentiment he might not share, and about the power of language to shape the Republican Party’s war narrative.

Frum compared the misuse of his words to the Tea Party’s current attempts
to interpret what Americans are going through (ever-rising house prices, never-rising wages). Fear and simplicity are powerful tools long used by politicians. “A test of political communication is: does your simplification help people make decisions to better themselves?”

An event report including a webcast of the event is available at the CJF site.