MEDIA WATCH

When a publisher has the last word

The next turn in journalism will be to more analytical, impersonal reporting—or it will be to the Honderichstyle newspaper

GEORGE BAIN June 26 1989
MEDIA WATCH

When a publisher has the last word

The next turn in journalism will be to more analytical, impersonal reporting—or it will be to the Honderichstyle newspaper

GEORGE BAIN June 26 1989

When a publisher has the last word

MEDIA WATCH

The next turn in journalism will be to more analytical, impersonal reporting—or it will be to the Honderichstyle newspaper

GEORGE BAIN

Nobody intimately acquainted with Canadian newspapers and capable of seeing lightning and hearing thunder ever said that Beland H. Honderich, as publisher of The Toronto Star, did not keep a sharp eye on what went into his newspaper. That was true alike of the editorial page, other sections of the paper devoted to commentary, and the news pages. In the early 1970s, I was briefly editor of the editorial page, a fact I was able to confirm for myself any day by reading the list of principal editors at the head of the page without ever being unaware that, on subjects of consequence, the last word was the publisher’s.

That is an arrangement difficult to argue against logically. The publisher is not only ultimately responsible for the contents of the newspaper, but also to the shareholders for the newspaper as a business. When finally I realized that what I really wanted was to replace his opinions with my better opinions—which was unrealistic and wasn’t going to happen—I quietly went elsewhere; not angrily, because I like and respect Honderich, and also without regret because, as a columnist, I had been used to my own platform for too long.

Now, as chairman of the board of the parent Torstar Corp., Honderich—for the first time, I think, publicly—has articulated his philosophy of newspapering. He did so in a convocation address on June 8, in Ottawa at Carleton University, where he was made an honorary doctor of literature. What he said ought to tweak the interest of everybody in the business—publishers, particularly, when they can wrench themselves from contemplation of the bottom line—and of all newspaper readers who occasionally wonder if they are getting the newspapers they deserve. Here is a sample: “No self-respecting newspaper deliberately distorts or slants the news to make it conform to its own point of view. But you cannot publish a newspaper without making value judgments on what news you select to publish and how you present it____A newspaper’s value system—

what it thinks is important—originates with the owners and publishers... and the audience they are trying to reach. These considerations determine editorial policy as reflected on the editorial page. And they establish the basic framework that guides reporters and editors in the handling of news. Reporters and editors will strive to be as fair and accurate as possible. But the paper’s value system—its view of society—will still prevail.”

That is a seductive doctrine, but one to be looked at critically. If the newspaper has an internally defined value system, then it may not be a case of slanting the news but of causing everyone to approach the news with a built-in slant. A preconception will have been introduced into the process that must weigh on the news judgment of reporters and editors, even if, in the end, they succeed in sloughing it off.

A recent study by the Carleton University school of journalism analysed coverage of free trade in the 1988 general election in several newspapers. All items were coded according to perceived effect—neutral, favorable, unfavorable. The Star carried more free trade items than any other newspaper in the sample—410. It carried a smaller proportion of neutral stories, 64.6 per cent versus 81.4 per cent for the

others, therefore more that might affect a reader’s opinion. Of those, 6.1 per cent were favorable and 29.3 per cent were unfavorable. The equivalent figures in the rest were 2.6 per cent and 16 per cent. As the paper editorially was strongly opposed to free trade, this seemed to reflect the Honderich thesis at work.

Honderich says—he did so in a telephone conversation—that, while matters might be different if there were only one news source in town, news with a viewpoint needs no defence where print, television and radio are all present. There is something to be said for that. When people can pick and choose how they will take their information, they are not susceptible to being propagandized, if any outlet were to try. In some respects, the newspaper or broadcast station with a defined viewpoint may serve the public better than its equivalent in which every reporter in national and economic affairs is his or her own editorialist. (The Toronto Globe and Mail, on free trade among other issues, has exhibited that tendency.)

Anthony Westell, director of the school of journalism at Carleton, does not care for either extreme. He looks at a form of journalism above the prescribed scheme-of-values school of journalism and the everyone-for-himself school—namely one that encourages reporters to be analytical and explain meanings but lays on reporters “an obligation to be fair and balanced and to be aware of their biases and to correct for them.” On the other hand, “if they do what they too often do and let their own biases creep in—biases that tend to be those of the pack that day, and not any ideological conviction they have—then it is better if you have an outright ideological journalism and it is the publisher who lays down the line.”

Honderich’s thesis of a corporate definition of what is important that will underlie editorial policy and coverage is both old and new. When the publisher of a newspaper frequently was also its owner and newspapers unashamedly had political alliances, readers had no trouble knowing what allowances to make for bias. That epoch gave way to one in which objectivity became the cardinal rule, carried in some places even to the extreme of preferring crowd estimates at political events to come from such an “objective” source as a policeman rather than a reporter. When it became apparent that hands-off reporting did not go sufficiently below the surface of events for complete public understanding, a new style emerged permitting analysis and interpretation, which brought the reporter’s judgment more into play.

It also created more room for opinion and the pack phenomenon, mainly in political reporting, and for what Westell characterizes as a “them” and “us” attitude, the “us” being reporters, and the “them” the quarry—government. At a guess, the next tum in the evolution of newspaper journalism will be to a more analytical, but also more impersonal, style of reporting, in which reporters will strain out their own likes and dislikes, or it will be to the Honderich-style newspaper in which the hand that holds the stick that beats the drum will be unequivocally the corporate one. It has done well for the Star.