April 2005: No News is Bad News

Does it do any good to complain about mass media failings?
April 1, 2005

Journalism was always the career I wanted, almost from the time I learned to read and write, and I was fortunate to get into it while still in my teens. I became a reporter, columnist, and editor, worked for several newapapers, including The Montreal Gazette and The Toronto Star. I covered sports, politics, organized labour. I enjoyed my work, most of the time, because the managing editors and publishers gave me a lot of freedom and rarely rejected or censored my reports.

But that was several decades ago. I’m glad that I’m not a working journalist today. The concentration of ownership—with a few large companies now owning most of the big newspapers as well as the major TV and radio networks—has terribly degraded both the quality and integrity of the media in Canada. Canadians are being woefully ill-informed by the papers they read and the broadcasts they watch and hear.

Let’s take just one sector as an example: labour. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, into the ‘80s, almost every large newspaper had a reporter who specialized in labour-management relations. Wilf List covered labour for the Globe and Mail for an amazing 35 years. I wrote a labour column for The Toronto Star for 18 years, and several other papers also had labour columnists as well as labour reporters. Conventions of the Canadian Labour Congress and most of the larger unions attracted a dozen or more reporters.

Today, I’m not aware of any paper that has a labour reporter on staff, much less a labour columnist. Most union conventions get no press at all. Coverage of a labour-related story (usually a strike) is left to general reporters with little or no knowledge of unions, union history or structure, collective bargaining, labour laws, or any other aspect of labour relations.

The same dearth of proficient journalists is evident in other fields—with the notable exception, of course, of business affairs. Most papers have whole sections devoted to the activities of corporations, and detailed business reports proliferate on the TV stations. Keeping their big advertisers happy is the main concern of today’s media owners.

Obsessed with making profits instead of enlightening the public, the media moguls have ruthlessly slashed their editorial personnel. The journalists who remain (or who have recently quit in disgust) are not a happy crew. Some of them aired their frustration at recent hearings of the Senate Committee on Transport and Communications, which is looking into the state of the Canadian news business. Here are a few extracts from their testimony.

Christopher Waddell, former Ottawa bureau chief for The Globe and Mail: “When I started in Ottawa in the mid-1980s, Canadian Press had a bureau of about 36 people. It has half that number now and probably does less than half of what it used to do. CBC-TV had about a dozen reporters in its Ottawa bureau, now it has half that—despite operating a 24-hour news channel in addition to everything it did before.”

Joe Matyas, reporter at The London Free Press: “If you could have looked at the Free Press 15 years ago, you would have seen that we had 152 people in the editorial department. Today the number is 77. We no longer have reporters assigned to labour, social services, agriculture, consumer affairs, religion, the environment, and other areas of interest, as we once did.”

David Beers, former editor with The Vancouver Sun: “Amidst the moldering morale in the Sun’s newsroom, I managed to do some good work with good colleagues before being fired a month after 9/11 when I wrote about the need to protect free speech in frightening times.

“The experience confirmed for me what I already knew—that Vancouver is a heartbreaking place to be a dedicated news reporter, news editor, or news reader, because a single company owns the big papers, the big TV news station, and many other media properties. There is simply not enough competition to keep the owner honest. And by honest I mean dedicated to informing readers rather than pandering to advertisers or to political allies.”

Beers is now an editor with the Tyee, a new online website that publishes some of the best journalism in B.C. by some of that province’s most talented journalists. He reminded the Senate committee members that the lack of good, balanced news reporting is not confined to Vancouver.

"The slashed staffs, the lowered standards, the conflicts of interest, the lack of accountability to the public: this is where today’s news business trends—the cross-ownership, the convergence and homogenization of content—are taking all of Canada.”

Other witnesses also cited the lack of reporters with knowledge and experience in the areas they are assigned to cover. Journalists are instead turned into “general-assignment” reporters—“poor saps,” Waddell called them, “who just run from a Supreme Court hearing to a briefing on disaster relief to a cabinet minister’s news conference.”

Waddell cited Newfoundland’s recent dispute with Ottawa as an example of today’s poorly covered news stories. “Twenty years ago, there might have been a reporter in Ottawa who knew enough about economic policy to explain this dispute.” Today, how does a reporter bereft of this knowledge, suddenly dropped into the middle of such a story, try to cover it? Says Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells: “You emphasize what any other stranger would notice: personality (that Danny Williams is colourful) and conflict (my, he’s angry at Paul Martin). We can’t hope to make sense of government, so we cover shouting.”

Can this decline of real journalism be reversed? Waddell’s proposed solution was to break up the Canadian ownership monopoly by allowing foreign owners into the Canadian newspaper market. Wells agreed with him. “What have the Canadian owners done,” he asked, “apart from getting rich and gutting newsrooms, to deserve further protection?”

As much as I am loath to disagree with such icons of journalism, I don’t think their “solution” would be helpful. It might even make the news business in Canada even worse, since the likely foreign intruders, such as global media tycoon Rupert Murdoch of Fox News “fame,” are even more profits-obsessed and less devoted to balanced coverage than Ken Thomson, Ted Rogers, and the Aspers.

David Beers of Tyee and S.F.U. journalism professor Donald Gutstein had what I would consider more effective reforms to suggest to the senators. One was to cancel or deny broadcast licenses for companies that own daily newspapers. Another was to make it illegal for anyone to own all the major newspapers in a major market. A third was to develop a “community-based web portal” managed by public libraries to provide alternative sources and perspectives.

The development of the Internet as a fast and effective means of communication has of course already helped fill the void left by the commercial media. In addition to the Tyee, we have the Rabble and Straight Goods websites and the vast Indymedia network, all offering access to informative news and views that rarely make it into the daily papers.

The downside, of course, is that 90% of Canadians still depend on the mainstream media for coverage of newsworthy events. So the argument for monopoly breakups and a media accountability monitor with teeth is still valid. The journalists who took the time to speak to the Senate committee called fervently for such reforms, but, sad to say, were talking to a bunch of toothless political appointees. Even if their committee were to recommend some of these needed changes, the chances of any of them ever being implemented would be about as likely as George Bush leading the next big peace rally.

We’ve had earlier Commons committees that also looked into the media concentration issue, and even a Royal Commission on Newspapers headed by Liberal guru Tom Kent back in 1981. They listened to all the concerns and criticisms of media shortcomings—which were quite evident even then—but all their proposals for actually making the media a source of edification instead of obfuscation were promptly filed in the nearest waste-basket. As will be the current Senate committee’s recommendations—if indeed it makes any that are worthwhile.

Let’s face some unpleasant facts. The newspaper and broadcast industries are being operated just like all other corporate enterprises these days. They have one overriding objective, which is to maximize profits. This means cutting staff and in-depth news. It means catering to their biggest advertisers, not to their readers, viewers, and listeners. Since their biggest advertisers are the biggest corporations, and since these corporations favour neoliberalism, privatization, tax cuts, unlimited pollution, and minimal social services, these also become the operational guidelines for the media moguls, to be dutifully propagated by their editorial staff.

To expect that this transformation of the commercial media into right-wing propaganda outlets and public brainwashing tools is going to be reversed—or even seriously challenged—by politicians who are also corporate lackeys is, frankly, to indulge in daydreams. No government at any level in Canada would dare risk the tiniest abridgement of the freedom of the press lords.

What facing this hard reality means is that we can’t live in hope that the current political system will ever lend itself to reforming the mainstream media. We can occasionally shame the owners and editors into paying some attention to what we are doing and saying, and even running the odd left-of-centre op-ed piece. This enables them to claim they are not barring us from their pages completely. A few progressive writers, such as Jim Stanford and Rick Salutin, are even given regular columns to “balance” the overwhelming output of the many far-right columnists and editorial writers.       

But to ask the commercial media for fair treatment is to ask our massively-armed enemies for a few of their cannons so we can shoot our ammunition back at them. They’re never willingly going to help us get our message to the Canadian people. We have to rely on our own resources, as limited as they may be, to engage in the crucial battle for the minds of our fellow citizens.

This is not as daunting a task as some might think. We shouldn’t underestimate our ability as communicators. We have several “alternative” publications like The Monitor. We have dozens of progressive websites. We have thousands of activists willing to spread the word to their relatives, friends, neighbours, and co-workers.

The polls that track Canadians’ opinions on a wide range of issues show that millions of our citizens have refused to be brainwashed by the commercial media. The values of caring for and cooperating with one another are still treasured by most of us. So is our national sovereignty and our distinctive culture.

It would be nice to have the mass media with us. It would be nice to have the corporate and political leaders on our side, too. But that’s not likely to happen. We’re on our own. Facing that reality, we have the consolation—and the inspiration—of knowing that our cause is a worthy, even a noble one, compared with the avaricious pursuit of wealth and power than drives our adversaries.

This is a struggle we have to win, and one we can win, no matter how much the media ignore or denigrate our efforts.

(Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor. He can be reached at [email protected].)