Mark Twain once complained about newspapers that use one half of their pages to tell readers how good the other half are. It's a valid grievance; no paper ought to do it. But in a year that saw a boom in fake news, neo-Nazi sloganeering against the "lugenpresse" and attacks on journalists by the president-elect of the United States, it is defensible for this little space to spend a minute celebrating, not our newspaper in particular, but a free and unbiased press in general.
Note the word "celebrating." We could have said "defending," but we aren't going to play that game. The attacks on the media of the past year, from left and right, have been driven either by political operatives or opportunists. There is political gain to be had from whining ceaselessly that the "elite" media are biased against you, as Donald Trump and many others ritually do. There is also a solid business model in telling your readers that the mainstream press are lying to them, and that they should spend their money and time on the alternative that you just happen to own and operate. There is no point decrying these inevitabilities, and it is wrong to be censorial about them if one is committed to free speech.
Note in that first paragraph the word "unbiased." There are undoubtedly readers who got to that contentious term and crumpled this page into a tightly wadded ball, carried it to the kitchen garbage pail and dropped it in with relish.
The charge of bias is a constant today, for reasons already stated, but also because there is no hiding the fact that newspapers and the people who write for them have a variety of leanings. Toronto alone is the home base for four major dailies ranging all over the ideological map, and which will, in their opinion pages, praise or criticize the same event in different ways. It's wonderful for readers and viewers who are capable of handling a range of opinions without taking affront when their own isn't reconfirmed. For everyone else, it is proof that the media is unreliable.
But the take on a newspaper's editorial page shouldn't affect the way news is reported on the other pages. You are probably tired of hearing that journalists and editors "aren't perfect" and "do their best," but it isn't any less true for the retelling. Responsible reporters and editors don't deliberately publish a falsehood or fail to correct a harmful error.
The ideal that reporters are to be unbiased, and try to find and serve objective truth, will always be extremely difficult to achieve. It will never be perfectly attained, because humans, even ones trying to follow an ethical code, aren't robots. But if 2016 has shown us anything, it's much better than the idea that media outlets should be entirely uninterested in objective truth, and should instead ruthlessly promote an agenda, or advance a political party, and using the cloak of "media" as a cover. Or that, because of trumped-up bias allegations, it is justifiable to publish completely invented tales, without a second thought to the consequences. It is one thing to do your best and fall short; it happens every day to journalists and to all human beings. It is another to deliberately and malevolently do your worst.
It is also a self-serving conclusion to reach that says, because mainstream newspapers make mistakes and mainstream politicians lie, a fair alternative is to be belligerently untruthful. There are people in both the Trump camp and the anti-Trump camp who no longer believe in "facts." There is only power and spin. Some mean that as a statement of despair, and we can empathize. Some mean it as a credo of smiling, opportunistic cynicism.
If facts don't exist, the world is in a hell of a pickle. So let's celebrate that, across Canada and around the world, there are buildings filled with people who stake their living – and even their lives; 74 journalists were killed in 2016, according to Reporters Without Borders – on the counterproposition. Without a set of norms and principles that are defended vigilantly and in a non-partisan way, societies can fall apart. Liberal democracy depends on a healthy free press closely watching our increasingly large and complex governments. The media, digging up what politicians, CEOs and bureaucrats would rather you not know, or saying things that those in power would prefer were not said, are an indispensable mechanism for ensuring an informed public.
And the public knows it. The media, new and old, big and small, traditional and non-traditional, have been doing this work in a hard space, economically speaking. The funny thing is, though, that in some ways it has been getting a little less hard, lately. The rise of Donald Trump's alternative-reality show prompted tens of thousands of people, in December alone, to buy subscriptions to The New York Times, the Washington Post and other American subscription-based media that have been doing a balanced job of reporting on the state of American life and politics. It will be a sweet irony if a man and a movement that see the free press as an enemy turn out to be its saviour.