Tilting at Windmills: The Fourth Estate in 2017
I’m a leader in an industry that miscalled election results, hyped up terror scares, ginned up controversy, and failed to report on tectonic shifts in our country. From the collapse of the financial system to the truths about how strong we are to the dangers we actually face. I’m a leader in an industry that misdirected your attention with the dexterity of Harry Houdini while sending hundreds of thousands of our bravest young men and women off to war without due diligence. The reason we failed isn’t a mystery. We took a dive for the ratings. In the infancy of mass communications, the Columbus and Magellan of broadcast journalism, William Paley and David Sarnoff, went down to Washington to cut a deal with Congress. Congress would allow the fledgling networks free use of taxpayer-owned airwaves in exchange for one public service. That public service would be one hour of air time set aside every night for informational broadcasting, or what we now call the evening news. Congress, unable to anticipate the enormous capacity television would have to deliver consumers to advertisers, failed to include in its deal the one requirement that would have changed our national discourse immeasurably for the better. Congress forgot to add that under no circumstances could there be paid advertising during informational broadcasting. They forgot to say that taxpayers will give you the airwaves for free and for 23 hours a day you should make a profit, but for one hour a night you work for us. And now those network newscasts, anchored through history by honest-to-God newsmen with names like Murrow and Reasoner and Huntley and Brinkley and Buckley and Cronkite and Rather and Russert, have to compete with the likes of me. A cable anchor who’s in the exact same business as the producers of Jersey Shore. And that business was good to us, but News Night is quitting that business right now. It might come as a surprise to you that some of history’s greatest journalists are working right now, exceptional minds with years of experience and an unshakeable devotion to reporting the news. But these voices are a small minority now and they don’t stand a chance against the circus when the circus comes to town. They’re over matched. I’m quitting the circus and switching teams. I’m going with the guys who are getting creamed. I’m moved that they still think they can win and I hope they can teach me a thing or two. From this moment on, we’ll be deciding what goes on our air and how it’s presented to you based on the simple truth that nothing is more important to a democracy than a well-informed electorate. We’ll endeavour to put information in a broader context because we know that very little news is born at the moment it comes across our wire. We’ll be the champion of facts and the mortal enemy of innuendo, speculation, hyperbole, and nonsense. We’re not waiters in a restaurant serving you the stories you asked for just the way you like them prepared, nor are we computers dispensing only the facts because news is only useful in the context of humanity. I’ll make no effort to subdue my personal opinions. I will make every effort to expose you to informed opinions that are different from my own. You may ask who are we to make these decisions. We are Mackenzie McHale and myself. Miss McHale is our executive producer. She marshals the resources of over 100 reporters, producers, analysts, technicians, and her credentials are readily available. I’m News Night’s managing editor and make the final decision on everything seen and heard on this program. Who are we to make these decisions? We’re the media elite. We’ll be back after this with the news.
Consider this monologue from Aaron Sorkin’s short-lived The Newsroom, worth printing in full with the explicit promise that it will be by far the longest direct quote I utilize in one of my articles over the course of this next year, my de facto manifesto for the continued importance of the Fourth Estate in this tumultuous time of mayhem and misinformation. Airing from 2012-2014, The Newsroom feels a world removed from the state of media in 2017, not because the show’s quixotic extolment of journalistic integrity has been rendered irrelevant by recent events but precisely because it predicted, with almost frightening accuracy, the relentless perversion of so-called New Media and citizen journalism. Sadly, Will McAvoy—the news anchor of Sorkin’s show-within-a-show and an obstinate interlocutor of the rigorous journalism I still wholeheartedly believe in—was confined by the uncompromising vision of his creator. Maybe both of us are just tilting at windmills, after all.
Thus, I cannot help but constantly ask myself: What is the McGill International Review’s raison d’être in May 2017, when Trump has so thoroughly degraded the office of the American presidency, when cross-cultural cooperation and diversity are considered tentative social experiments and historical anomalies rather than human progress, when Orwellian terminology like “alternative facts” and “fake news” have become part and parcel of mainstream media, when empirical and professional research can be so freely dismissed while outright fabrications are privileged as legitimate grievances?
Social media and other forms of contemporary digital communication can and should be wielded as powerful weapons to learn, educate, discuss, organize and—perhaps most urgently—empathize. Indeed, the ease with which one can now readily research and discover disparate sociocultural or political contexts from once-remote corners of the globe, often with the luxury of primary sources, is unprecedented in the history of mankind. How we use such versatile technology in practice, however, is another matter entirely. The resounding retreat of political partisans, from across the spectrum, into their respective “bubbles” of support is one of many troubling issues accompanying contemporary media consumption. This phenomenon is far from limited to simple left-right dichotomies, political parties or even traditional philosophies like conservatism or liberalism. Rather, adherents of any sub-movement or faction—however radical, extremist or dogmatic—can connect with their ideological brethren at the touch of a button and are collectively empowered to emerge from the political fringes. Aberrantly, some of the foremost beneficiaries of New Media—hailed by leftists as a democratizing force for radical social change—have been authoritarian, energized extremist groups with little tolerance for individual dissent.
If anything should become abundantly clear over the course of this next year, I am a sworn enemy of inflexible ideologues, dogma and moralism, though I may have certain principles and overarching goals that indelibly inform my work. As editor-in-chief, I intend to further MIR’s exponential development as a versatile media platform where staff members and readers alike can explore their unique interests and curiosities, thus fostering a distinct brand of rigorous student journalism that stimulates productive conversation across divergent viewpoints and cultural contexts. Indeed, I feel an ideological mandate or rigid editorial line represents the antithesis of authentic education, the very purpose of a postsecondary institution of higher learning. Open-mindedness and tolerance are particularly paramount for MIR, being the foremost undergraduate publication of international affairs at a major research university where over 150 nationalities are represented in the student body.
I will never claim to speak for my staff. This summer, I edit roughly 7-10 articles per week, with that figure jumping to over 20 during the academic year. Simple logic tells me I will disagree with the central theses of several articles per week, with still more containing points of personal contention in their expanded arguments. I make this preliminary assumption with no trace of disdain; on the contrary, I say it with pride. One of McGill’s greatest impacts on me has been the ability to confront my own hypocrisies, and I believe this is a prerequisite exercise for substantive critical engagement with both academic coursework and media production. On that note, I aim for nothing less than a seismic shift in the way we—as students and intellectuals of international politics, but also intrinsically social creatures in a dizzying, abrupt age of interpersonal communication—approach media; to embrace a healthy standard of elitism in the journalism we champion, to become guarantors of truth and coveters of knowledge for its own sake rather than gluttonous consumers of [pseudo-]information that merely confirms our own biases and preconceptions, to keep the light on in our little corner of the world.
Welcome to MIR 2017-18.
-Benjamin Aloi, Editor-in-Chief