Russia reminds us that journalism is too big to fail
It’s fashionable to disdain the media, but like democracy it’s the least bad option
The Russia-Ukraine tragedy offers a useful reminder of the vital importance of the news media in any country and for the world. We seem to love to criticize it viciously, but we do so at our peril.
Russia’s murderous assault on Ukraine aims to slightly enlarge the world’s largest country, is devastating to Russia’s economy, may well lead to war crimes charges, has turned Russians into pariahs and was decided on by a kleptocratic dictator. Yet, all signs indicate that it has considerable domestic support.
There are many possible reasons, including specific grievances related to losing the Cold War and the universal human inclination to be idiotically nationalist when at war. But perhaps the main reason requires no special understanding of Russia’s fraught history. It is a classic tool that enables dictators to dictate: a pliant media.
Cut off from foreign news and even social media, most people in Russia are simply not exposed to an open discourse about the mostly absurd justifications, the true cost, and the failures on the ground. Eventually people may turn to short-wave radio, as in Communist times, or to other means. But for the moment, they get their information from media beholden in one way or another to Russian President Vladimir Putin. What they hear is that the West is threatening Russia, the “operation” protects Russian speakers from neo-Nazi attacks, and Ukrainians hate their fascist government.
Like other big lies, it has an element of truth. A smarter Ukraine might have been open to unloading Russian-speaking regions that were appended to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic precisely to cause trouble, might not have ham-handedly eliminated the official role of Russian in its 2019 language law, and might have avoided any reliance on militias with a neo-Nazi hue, like the Azov Battalion.
But none of that justifies the brutal and cruel war. The Russian people cannot judge this intelligently, because of their cowed and cowardly media.
The Israel-Palestine imbroglio offers a somewhat different but equally useful case study on the importance of news media. The grays are grayer than in Ukraine: no side is in the right. It would take an unlikely degree of wisdom to disentangle what millennia of religious history and a century of national conflict have wrought. But for there to be any hope, we need the best conceivable journalists delivering the facts and connecting the dots for Israel, Palestine, the region and the world.
So let’s see what we have.
Israel’s media is free, but also mostly at this point commercial. It needs the approval of a public which under the trauma of constant attack has been moving steadily to the right. And it lacks easy access to the West Bank and Gaza. There is a European tradition and the Jewish legacy of scholarship, so the Israeli media is diverse and professional, but it nonetheless very often gives people what most of them seem to want: a self-righteous, inwardly focused, us-against-the world grievance narrative.
So most Israelis rarely realize what injustices are done in their name in the West Bank with security as the excuse. They hardly understand the legal situation there in which neighbors live under different legal systems as a function of ethnicity — and so they are shocked to hear comparisons to apartheid. They barely know the demographic realities that constitute the main argument for partition. And this failure is still way better than what you find on the other side.
The Palestinian media are mostly not free and lack any tradition of impartiality, introspection or the challenging of dogma. In many cases, it is a mouthpiece of the authorities by design or coercion. It often spreads virulent nationalism that borders on antisemitism and includes incitement to violence.
From their media, Palestinians would get no sense that other ethnic groups exist with a better case for independence, and that similar and even greater ethnic dislocations occurred right around the time of their Nakba, including of Middle Eastern Jews.
And the foreign media? It does its best, and that best is often quite good, but it, too, is a business that must cater to a global public that has little patience for complex narratives. The easiest story to tell is that of a victim – in this case the Palestinians. As a past chairman of the Foreign Press Association I have been its staunch defender, but the world media has often proved unequal to the task of telling a complicated story – in part simply because it needs to tell an interesting story.
Moreover, despite brave coverage many publications have walked into charges of picking on Israel: I have yet to see The New York Times publishing front-page photo galleries of child victims of the Russian aggression, as it did with Gazan victims of last year’s war. In that war, Israel had a far better case that Russia’s in Ukraine: Hamas initiated and persisted in the firing of rockets from within a dense civilian population. And the damage in Gaza, however tragic, was magnitudes less than in Ukraine. I am less than certain that world audiences know this.
So few people anywhere – local or international – have a sophisticated understanding of the complex situation in Israel and Palestine. And yet I come here today not to bury the media but to praise it, because what understanding there is – and whatever improvements we can dare hope for – attach to journalism.
The widespread fashion of deriding the media by definition is a terrible mistake. We have no alternative to a responsible media for essential information to reach people. Open societies and free markets need dedicated and knowledgeable journalists holding power to account. Voters and investors will make terrible mistakes if information comes only from partisans.
The rough draft of history will not write itself and will be produced by neither algorithms nor the wisdom of the crowd. Social media – where Americans increasingly get their information – is a zone of hysteria and nonsense.
So it’s a shame that the industry is self-destructing, first and foremost in America. The latest example was the implosion of the CNN+ streaming service last week, a month after its launch.
Run by a privileged caste, the industry has made monumental errors, including an ill-advised stampede by many serious publications to the progressive fringe, which accounts for scarcely more than one in 20 Americans. When the average American sees editors fired and being forced to issue pretend apologies for violations against progressive orthodoxy, it only worsens the distrust being fanned by the populist right.
The industry wasted dwindling resources on a pivot to video, the recent years’ mammoth shift in which layoffs of text journalists were presented as progress while selective data persuaded everyone that video was king. Video is good for some things like delivering pre-roll ads and riveting children to a screen, but it is also inefficient. What drove knowledge and probably always will is the word. Because of the pivot, more journalists can think fast but fewer can think deep.
But the most disastrous error came when the news media in the 1990s threw everything online for free. Now that advertising has mostly migrated to search and social, there is a mad scramble to charge for content. The original sin is hard to walk back, but publishers are trying, with paywalls that amount to subscriptions (with no allowances for the equivalent of just buying a daily paper). For elite investigative and explanatory publications it is working. For most, it’s not.
The setup is exacerbating a toxic inequality. The already educated (and mostly quite comfortable) will read publications like The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The Economist and the New York Times, gaining yet more information and with it more advantage. Wealthier people will better understand geopolitics, technology and the economy. The others will be left to enjoy reality TV and real-estate pornography, and to get their news from crass, populist or dubious sources. Societal gaps will worsen and the elites will despair of democracy; it is happening already.
The challenge is to expand the paying audience beyond the highly educated – and to educate more people, because when the free media is simplistic it is responding to market demand. And that is a political affair: it amounts to democratic societies deciding to invest much more in education.
How to get people to do the right thing politically? Well, it helps if they already know what’s going on, which requires a serious news media - Catch-22.
Meanwhile, we should yearn for and support serious news outlets that can be trusted to offer credible information, exercise news judgement that is fair, and analyze with impartiality and intelligence. Get your entertainment elsewhere.
We should examine alternatives like local news as a public trust – paid for with taxes, not unlike the BBC, which works somewhat well – and local news as a charitable trust, philanthropic at the core but independent.
And we should appreciate that disdaining the media is idiotic. Seek instead to make it better.
(Article published originally in The Jerusalem Post)