News Worries

How Showbiz Values Are Corrupting the News
By Knowlton Nash
McClelland & Stewart, 240 pp

Why Canada’s Daily Newspapers Are Failing Us
By John Miller
Fernwood Publishing, 272 pp.

Edited by Donna Logan
Sing Tao School of Journalism, University of British Columbia, 205 pp.

In this country, where propriety has long been a priority, the 20th century was born exasperated with the newfangled mass-circulation media and how they were mucking up the social fabric.

In 1902, Sir Sandford Fleming was the chancellor of Queen’s University and justly celebrated as the architect of standard time zones – as naked an outcome of cool machine rationalism as anything Bill Gates has managed to concoct. Aghast at what he saw as the corrosive irrationalism of the popular press, he used his office as a bully pulpit to announce a $250 essay prize on the topic: “How can Canadian universities best benefit the profession of journalism, as a means of molding and elevating public opinion?”

It was a leading question, of course. It presumed that the public values of the university – rectitude, certitude, patience and the rest – might somehow be imposed on the media, whose unchecked impulses otherwise run to emotionalism, prurience and snap judgments. If only the media would smarten up, we’d all be better off. Discuss.

Thirteen entrants, most of them working journalists, took up Sir Sandford’s challenge. Their essays, published the following year in book form, all agreed that the press had the potential to be a “popular educator and a moral force” but lamented that instead it “kills time, satisfies the thirst for scandal, and acts as a preventive to thought.” One by one, they decried Canadian journalism’s fixation with lurid crime, its eagerness to invade the privacy of public figures, the literary bankruptcy of its prose, the dominance of American content, and the disappearance of substance to the point that newspaper content had become “a rivulet of text amid a wilderness of pictures.”

Flash forward 10 decades and little has changed except the intensity of the complaints. As the 20th century shudders to a close, its signature feature is the sheer prominence of the media, but almost no one argues the media are making things better. Quite the contrary.

These three books are the work of some of the most accomplished Canadian journalists and journalism educators. They are all people who make the media their business, and almost all of them aren’t too thrilled with how things are going. John Miller is a professor and former chair of the School of Journalism at Ryerson Polytechnic University and a former senior editor with the Toronto Star. His book Yesterday’s News is a plaintive catalogue of the failings of Canadian newspapers. Trivia Pursuit, by retired CBC news anchor Knowlton Nash, is a “personal cry of pain” that carries the self-explanatory subtitle How Showbiz Values are Corrupting the News. Meanwhile, Journalism in the New Millennium, a collection of essays commissioned to mark the 1998 opening of the Sing Tao School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia, is the contemporary equivalent of the essays composed in answer to Sir Sandford Fleming’s question all those years ago.

Of the three, Nash’s volume is the lightest – a breezy potpourri of anecdotes, potted history and snappy quotations, all adding up to a rueful report card on the news media. In a nutshell, he reiterates the familiar argument that market economics have subverted the civic obligations of the fourth estate. Democracy demands an informed citizenry in order to function rationally and responsibly; the media are the principal vehicles whereby the public is informed; alas, the competition for ratings, circulation and advertising means a steady diet of diversion, not edification: pathos and scandal, sex and tittle-tattle in lieu of dutiful attention to the serious business of society’s affairs. Too often these days, journalism is just vaudeville hiding behind a lectern.

Nash states the standard complaints passionately, but his solutions aren’t persuasive. One of them is that the public ought to shape up, kick its addiction to cheap jolts and start demanding higher standards in its media diet. What are the odds of that happening?

The real problem, though, is that he draws the wrong conclusions from his own evidence. Much of the book is devoted to reminding the reader how the press has always been inflammatory and infuriating to those who know better. By that logic, things are no worse today than they’ve ever been. Even his most egregious examples of recent media excesses are drawn from our cousins south of the border, but instead of breathing a sigh of relief that things here at home are still in hand, he leans on the panic button. Isn’t that the sort of overexcitement Nash himself deplores on the part of the media?

John Miller’s Yesterday’s News is much more interesting because it is original. His thesis is that the metropolitan daily newspaper in Canada, crucial to civic well-being, has become dislocated from the people it supposedly serves. From the readers’ point of view, it tells the wrong stories, stirs up trouble, and hobbles solutions. It grinds the gears of community culture rather than greasing them. Worse, it is seemingly incapable of explaining to its own readership what it’s doing and why. The broadsheet newspaper is a medium fewer and fewer people “get,” much less appreciate.

The first half of the book is a litany of bad news for newspapers: steadily declining circulation, attrition in advertising, sometimes savage cuts in personnel, newsrooms run by focus groups and marketing executives. If there is a villain in all this, it is Conrad Black. John Miller does not like Black’s influence in the Canadian newspaper industry one little bit. Slash-and-burn management, Miller warns, has been allowed to squeeze profits to the detriment of the civic mission of the newspapers under Black’s ownership.

The problem he flags, however, predates Black’s arrival on the national newspaper scene. What Miller truly objects to is the arrogant tendency of big city newspapers to write about people knowing full well one will never have to encounter them later. The best part of the book is the second half, when he puts this proposition to the test. On a sabbatical year from Ryerson he joined the staff of the Shawville Equity, a community paper in rural, anglophone Quebec. Here, where almost everyone knows one another, the local reporter cannot avoid bumping into the townsfolk he writes about. If the typical metropolitan daily is estranged from its own readers, Miller argues that a paper like the Equity still commands trust and loyalty.

Miller’s portrait of Shawville and his own adjustment to writing for the community press is finely, almost touchingly rendered. One of his first stories for the paper was a profile of the local taxi-driver who was retiring after almost 44 years on the job, and who was universally known as “Coaster” Cone because he used to shift his cab into neutral and coast down hills to save wear on the transmission. Only once the story was published did Miller learn to his mortification that the man can’t abide his nickname and was hurt that Miller acknowledged it before the entire town.

Later, Miller hears about a mysterious bovine infection on a nearby farm, a story all his instincts tell him to splash. Instead, he sits on it so as to protect the farmer, only publishing when it becomes clear the virus is spreading and other farmers need to be warned.

Eventually, though, he runs into the reality that sometimes the news that needs to be told does the opposite of foster community harmony. His story on a long-simmering dispute over renovating the Shawville rink brings latent tensions to the surface and splits the town down the middle.

Myself, I’m not convinced the lessons Miller learned during his sojourn can be imported wholesale into metropolitan newsrooms. Big-city journalism and small-town reporting are two very different species, as distinct as the urban and the rural. As well, if what Miller advocates is a journalism sure of its place within its own constituency, an advocate of a specific type of common interest, loyal to its core readers and they to it, surely this already exists in Canada.

It may not be the Toronto Star, but it is most assuredly the Toronto Sun and quite possibly, in its own way, the Globe and Mail. Nonetheless, Miller has a point. He’s right about how city dailies and their readers seem to be drifting apart, and his spirited treatise should give all thoughtful journalists something to contemplate.

Journalism in the New Millennium, edited by Donna Logan, a former CBC vice-president and founding director of UBC’s new graduate school of journalism, assembles a blue-ribbon roster of contributors, including Trina McQueen, president of the Discovery channel, Val Sears, the legendary Toronto Star feature writer, John Cruikshank, editor of the Vancouver Sun, Victor Malarek of the CBC’s Fifth Estate, authors Robert Fulford and Peter C. Newman, and newspaper mogul Conrad Black.

Back in 1902, Sir Sandford Fleming’s essayists thought the way to reform the press was to ensure that the men and women who staffed the nation’s newsrooms were university-educated and therefore guided by a higher purpose. However, they did not recommend teaching journalism as a university subject, if only because the realities of publishing and deadline pressure were impossible to reproduce in the classroom. To this day, there are prominent journalists who are firmly dubious about the worth of a university degree in journalism. They insist the requisite skills simply cannot be taught and have to be learned on the job; that schools of journalism teach the wrong things, deadening the imagination of their students and drilling them in laughable bafflegab; that one’s time at university would be better spent studying something substantive.

The roll call of bylines in this anthology is a riposte to that skepticism. Near uniformly, the contributors accept that the current state of Canadian journalism could stand improvement and welcome the new school at UBC as a step in the right direction (although, to be honest, Val Sears doesn’t sound completely convinced of the merit of journalism schools, and Robert Fulford, writing in Toronto Life, recently questioned whether their graduates go on to the top jobs in their calling).

With the notable exceptions of Conrad Black (who sees a rosy future for the newspaper industry, or at least those titles under his stewardship) and Robert Fulford (who is aware that certain tensions in the practice of journalism are inevitable, and not necessarily detrimental), the rest of the contributors call for reform and improvement in the media – more investigative journalism, a more civil political coverage, more foreign news, better storytelling, a more pragmatic ethos of objectivity.

Because these are for the most part journalists writing about journalism, their evidence is often anecdotal and the sources they cite are either other journalists or academics already favoured by the media. Two of the contributors cite the same Economist article to make the same point (drawing on a high-quality media outlet to bemoan declining standards in the media, oddly enough). We hear a lot about Neil Postman and James Fallows, the authors, respectively, of Amusing Ourselves to Death and Breaking the News, and both very much flavour of the month for self-flagellating journalists. We do not hear from anyone who has critically engaged either Postman or Fallows. And though there is a certain uniformity to the various contributions, there are occasional contradictions. Paul Sullivan, western editor of the Globe and Mail, and the Montreal Gazette‘s own Josh Freed both offer wry and amusing appeals for a better devotion to narrative in news writing. But surely narrative turns on exciting the reader’s sense of expectation: What’s going to happen next? How’s it going to turn out? Those are precisely the factors that kept viewers riveted to the O.J. Simpson Bronco chase and the subsequent trial, both cited repeatedly elsewhere in the volume as emblematic of what has gone wrong with the media.

And, of course, running through the anthology is persistent reference to cyberspace. No one has the faintest idea of how the Internet is going to change the mediascape, but everyone is quite convinced that it will.

Journalism in the New Millennium is an almost perfect time capsule of our current concerns. It will make fascinating reading 100 years from

  • Montreal Gazette January 9, 1999