In his post on Friday, David Eaves drew a direct link between the Globe & Mail’s decision to present an alternative view of climate change and their dependence on auto advertising revenue to sustain the newspaper (newspapers, the auto industry and climate change). His contention is that by continuing the debate on climate change, people will still consider buying traditional gas guzzlers, thereby saving significant ad revenues that would be difficult to replace. Eaves targets Margaret Wente and Rex Murphy as the Globe’s perfidious instruments of choice in implementing what amounts to a policy of letting ad revenue control editorial content.
Coincidentally, CNET ran a op-ed by Declan McCullagh (Should you be taxed to subsidize ‘The New York Times’) debating whether the New York Times (and other newspapers) should be publicly funded to ensure its survival as competition for ad revenue continues to escalate. Interestingly McCullagh comes to much the same conclusions as Eaves. As newspapers became more reliant on government funding they would inevitably succumb to political pressure to limit or eliminate criticism of government policies or malfeasance.
While it is inevitable that the newspapers come under pressure to surrender their crucial role to place a critical lens on events, it doesn’t hold that this is happening or will be an inevitable outcome of the changing media landscape.
Let’s consider Eaves’ contention. There’s no question that Wente and Murphy have written numerous articles questioning the validity of the science of climate change and the benefit of adopting difficult emission reduction programs like Kyoto. But that is in keeping with their role with the Globe. They write columns that are deliberately controversial. The controversy attracts readers from on both sides of issues and generates significant commentary on the Globes website (Wente makes my blood boil to the point where I’m starting a weekly post on her). Which in turn may generate ad revenue but there is no indication that editorial content is planned based on ad content.
Providing a balanced view of issues is central to newspapers’ role. The fact that the science overwhelmingly on one side of the climate change issue is to a large degree irrelevant. Continuing to question and debate the extent and impact of climate change and what action we should take must continue and is central to the Globe’s fundamental purpose.
Take Wente’s recent column on Bjorne Lomborg’s (a well know climate change denier) new book Cool It. In it Lomborg now concedes that global warming is happening but still questions the merit of focusing our efforts on reducing green house gas emissions which, according to him won’t have any measurable effect for the next 50 to 100 years. Rather, we should be focusing on developing technologies and policies that will help us to cope with the impact global warming will have.
While his argument seems fundamentally flawed (if we don’t take action now the negative consequences will likely be an order of magnitude greater than we plan for now), it does bring to the fore issues we should be considering. The point is that continuing an open debate that considers all viewpoints is critical – and newspapers are an essential component of this. The Globe’s coverage of the other side of the climate issue and criticism of governments here and abroad when they have failed to act decisively seems to provide sufficient evidence that they are fulfilling their mandate.
The same criticism can be made of McCullagh’s contention that public funding of ‘The New York Times’ would inevitably result in the cooption of the newspaper. McCullagh’s example of the pressure put on NPR by President Richard Nixon and House Speaker Newt Gingrich simply illustrates that, as long as they maintain editorial boards with a strong sense of ethics and journalistic integrity, media will not inevitably succumb to the pressures that will be placed on them by the corporations who advertise with them or governments who fund them. NPR seems to have done that. In Canada, the CBC is an example of a publicly funded company that has, in large part, managed to retain their integrity. They have been and continue to be critical of the governments that fund them.
The real concern as we move forward is to how we ensure that newspapers and other news media continue to generate enough revenues to continue the crucial role that they play in our democracies. Without them we may indeed be in peril.