Paleolithic conservatism and the decline of mainstream news media

Let me start, in the spirit of Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, by saying the old newsways are dying but new ones aren’t fully born and in the meantime, everything is weird.

We live in a sort of netherworld between traditional mainstream news media like newspapers and TV networks and the new media of the internet. The old ones can still create the dominant issues. .


For instance, it’s hard to imagine either the war in Ukraine or the China interference scandal without them. The events themselves might well exist but how and what would anyone know of them without those old, lumbering news organizations? You can’t rely on lone citizen journos wandering around a vast, distant war or locals posting on social media.

Or, in the case of Chinagate (or Chinahate), some shoestring operation like Canadaland might get hold of a strand, but how would it become an extended national fixation without the prestige, pomposity and resources of a Globe and Mail? Only the mainstream news media can still “create” those events. But — and here comes the but.

What they can’t do any longer is, as they say in media courses, frame those stories the way they used to and thereby control the ways they are understood and play out.

Why? Because most people influenced by the mainstream news media today don’t even know that’s where those stories came from. They didn’t consume the story in a newspaper or newscast; it came to them in a post on Facebook or Instagram or TikTok, naked and alone. Not surrounded by editorials, columns and all the other tchotchkes by which the mainstream news media inject and implant their favourite themes and assumptions, not to mention causes and candidates.

So they can’t bend the will of audiences to their agenda as they did in the days of free trade or globalization. If there’s any framing it’s a hodgepodge of tidbits from other social media: Donald Trump, Joe Rogan, Pierre Poilievre’s greatest Justin hits. The audiences on the internet don’t really distinguish between lofty sources like the Globe and the scuzzy random stuff. It’s all just out there.

I’d say this shift in newsgathering and dissemination accounts partly — nothing accounts fully for anything, all major events have too many causes, not too few — for the current state of the conservative movement, what I’d call paleolithic conservatism.

I’m thinking, obviously, of Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro and Viktor Orban, but also, in our case, of Poilievre and Danielle Smith. It’s a primitive, atavistic version of the right, very amenable to simplistic Christianity and identifying passionately with some eternal clash between good and evil that includes the Crusades along with the manicheanism of the Cold War.

In the old days of mainstream news media, they’d have cut the legs off those candidates with no one to patch them back together. In 2016, it would have been Hillary Clinton vs. Jeb Bush, in many ways the same person but they’d have been depicted with vast differences; that’s how mainstream news media always framed the two main parties.

They’d have been all over Trump like one of Boris Johnson’s bad suits. He didn’t fit their recipe for their own maintenance of power and the causes they espoused: neo-liberal economics, deregulation, austerity, mild mitigation of social injustice as long as it didn’t interfere with soaring corporate profits.

But by 2016 there’d already been Fox. Think of it as a timid precursor to social media and then the rest — Breitbart et al. Above all, there was the decline of the mainstream news media itself, relentlessly shedding ad revenues while hoping for a miracle. I’d say similar, though not identical, trajectories apply to Poilievre and Smith.

The mainstream news media can still “break” stories and shepherd them to prominence, as we see. But they can’t control the overall narrative any more. No one, at least for the moment, does. We are all carried along in a wild current, including those of us who despised the agendas of the mainstream news media, as we now discover we almost miss them. At least they were predictable.


This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

is a Canadian novelist, playwright, journalist, and critic and has been writing for more than forty years. Until October 1, 2010, he wrote a regular column in The Globe and Mail; on February 11, 2011, he began a weekly column in the Toronto Star. He currently teaches a half course on Canadian media and culture in University College (CDN221) at the University of Toronto. He is a contributing editor of This Magazine. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and got his Master of Arts degree in religion at Columbia University. He also studied philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He was once a trade union organizer in Toronto and participated in the Artistic Woodwork strike.[