For the sake of argument

For the sake of argument

FRANK H. UNDERHILL February 27 1960
For the sake of argument

For the sake of argument

FRANK H. UNDERHILL February 27 1960

For the sake of argument

If our politics are dull— blame our dull press


The chief trouble with the Press Gallery at Ottawa is that its members are so typically Canadian.

Their range of ideas and interests is parochial. They avoid measuring themselves by the best British and American standards of contemporary journalism. Their writing is dull and pedestrian, without bite, without wit or humor, irony or passion. Since they obviously have not read any English prose for years except the speeches of Canadian politicians, the reports of Canadian royal commissions and the journalism of their fellow Canadian newspapermen, they are blissfully unaware of how bad their writing is. They are intellectually lazy and unwilling to devote the time and effort that are needed for an adequate study of the complex issues which it is their duty to report. They think they have covered a subject and given an inside story of it when they have gone around and talked in a few government offices and accumulated a few handouts.

Parochial — and proud of it

In short, their professional ambitions are too modest, in the typical Canadian way, while their complacency in achieving them is unbelievable until you have experienced it. When you listen to a group of Press Gallery men defending themselves and expounding the services that they perform for the Canadian public, you cannot help realizing that most of them are actually proud of their parochial standards.

Just to forestall too many cries of outrage, ! had better explain that these remarks arc generalizations and do not apply to every individual whose job it is to report national politics from Ottawa. But, on the whole the interpretative political reporting that comes out of Ottawa deserves what the New York Times’ James Reston said

about the work of Washington columnists: “The average column

sounds like a stuck whistle. Most columnists never surprise you. Each day’s news is either a dreary and undistinguished report of the obvious or merely a new peg for old tired themes.”

Reston made these remarks in a recent book that consists of a series of tributes to the greatest of all present-day North American journalists. Walter Lippmann. Lippmann himself on his seventieth birthday, when he was honored by an overflow meeting at the National Press Club in Washington, made some remarks about the job of the political correspondent which are as applicable to Canada as to the United States.

He pointed out that since he entered the profession the job of the Washington correspondent has gone through a notable change. It is no longer sufficient to repeat the newspaperman's creed that the reporter collects the news and gives the facts while the editor expresses opinions about them and tests them by his standard of values. “The Washington correspondent has to teach himself to be not only a recorder of facts and a chronicler of events but also a writer of notes and essays in contemporary history." This change has been brought about, Lippmann thinks, by the continuous revolution and crisis in which wc have lived since 1914. Our world seems in chaos, it has become more complex and more difficult to understand; and the relevant significant facts often exist far away and out of sight of any newspaperman. Thus the highest qualities of understanding and imagination are required of him if he is to make the unseen requirement intelligible and interesting to his readers.

In Canada, the Press Gallery has gone through two long, evolutionary stages in its history and is now hesitating,



For the sake of argument continued from page 8

“To woo mass readership, newspapers have become colorless”

in reluctant mood, to enter upon a third.

The first stage lasted until about the turn of the century. A hundred years ago Canadian newspapers were bitterly and wholeheartedly partisan to a degree that a modern reader can hardly imagine. Each paper reported all its political news solely from the point of view of the party to which it adhered. Political opponents were denounced, slandered, deluged with vituperation. Politics was the arena where the forces of good and evil fought a great struggle, and the editor, along with his readers, was vitally committed to one side in this struggle.

This made political reporting colorful and exciting. News from Parliament Hill was far more completely covered then than today. Column after column of nearly verbatim reports of parliamentary speeches gave the reader the material from which to form his own judgment.

By the end of the nineteenth century this situation began to change. The individual editor who did most to bring about the change — at least in English-speaking Canada — was, as far as I can make out, John S. Wiliison of the Toronto Globe. Willison became exasperated over the demands of Grit politicians that the Globe must adjust all its news and editorial columns to their party needs. He insisted on impartial reports of what went on in the political world. Long before the end of his career he had reached the conclusion that Liberal politicians differed from Conservatives only in their "voluble virtue." I still remember the shock that I received as an undergraduate student (about 1910) hearing him expound to a student club as a self-evident proposition his view that the only difference between Canadian Liberals and Canadian Conservatives was that between ins and outs.

This new nonpartisan objectivity of the great urban dailies was made easier, of course, by the growth of their financial independence. Their revenue came to be derived more and more from commercial

advertising, and they depended less on government printing contracts and other political subsidies to keep solvent.

This new independence of the press made for much more impartial reporting from Ottawa. And this was a great advance. But it went along with some other developments which have not had such happy effects upon the quality of the political reporting in our papers.

As publishing expenses have grown, the individual newspaper has had to seek mass circulation and, in doing so, to appeal more and more not merely to readers of its own political persuasion but to all classes and groups in its regional community. It must have something every day to attract every group, and it must avoid offending any group. And so its political reporting becomes more colorless and less probing. The more that modern invention extends the means of communication, the less the political side of the newspaper communicates. For politics have to compete with an ever greater variety of new interests — sports, women's activities, stockmarket news, births, marriages and deaths, the comics, TV and other enter-

tainment news, the doings of the highschool crowd, the advertising from department stores, chain stores and the supermarkets, not to mention murder and sex. The mass-circulation journal becomes a daily entertainment medium; and it is hard to make politics, merely as entertainment, as fascinating as many of these other items, except when the politicians contrive to produce something spectacular like the pipeline crisis of 1956.

The trouble now is that our political reporters are writing for an audience that is only half interested — and half interested only now and then. Yet democracy will not work unless, somehow or other the great issues that determine the fate of the individual citizen can be made interesting and significant to him and can be presented to him in a way that enables him to make up his mind about them— issues such as inflation, tight money, the cold war, thermonuclear power.

Our Press Gallery needs to achieve a great breakthrough from the second stage of its evolution in which it has been living for the last fifty years, and to advance to a third stage in which politics,

al least in the good newspapers, will be restored to their proper leading position. This requires reporters who have much more of the student in their intellectual make-up than have most of the members of the present Press Gallery, and who are ambitious to do something better than grinding out daily gossip columns. It also requires publishers and editors who will be adventurous enough to try political reporting on the standards of the better British and American journals, and who will set out to build up a constituency of readers who demand such reporting.

There are certain special conditions in Canada which make it difficult for the Ottawa press-gallery man to reach the level of a Lippmann or a Reston. The Ottawa reporter cannot probe so easily as his Washington confrere can. into the story behind the handouts from the public-relations officers in government, because our British cabinet system of government makes for a much tighter discipline among party politicians and civil servants than exists in Washington. Down there an unending struggle goes on between executive and legislature. Every

senator and congressman is fighting for his own hand and is seeking personal publicity. Every faction in every government office has its own channel of public relations which it uses to get its special point of view through to the press.

In Canada our politicians follow the party line laid down by their leaders, and our civil servants are accustomed to limit themselves, when they are pressing for some policy, to efforts to make their minister believe that he thought of the idea himself.

But the British cabinet system does not

prevent British reporters in London from doing a good job both on the personalities of the politicians and on the issues over which they are fighting. No one who has read The Times, the Manchester Guardian. the Economist, the New Statesman, the Spectator, the Observer or the Sunday Times would complain that the British voter does not have available really enlightening guidance from his press about the issues of the day. Why can't our Ottawa journalists do as good a job?

Ottawa itself has a deadening effect on all who live in it. It has never quite grown up to be a national capital. But the great influence that lowers the quality of our Ottawa journalism is that of the Canadian community itself.

In Britain there are two classes of national newspapers, each with a national circulation and each appealing to a different type of reader. There are the popular mass-circulation dailies like the Daily Mirror and the weekly News of the World. They go in for sensationalism, frankly despise politics and shamelessly distort the issues. On the other hand there are high-class journals, daily and weekly, to which I have already referred.

The latter can concentrate on firstclass political news and comment because they are writing for readers who are accustomed to getting nothing less. In the United States there are no national dailies, because of the size of the country; but there are a few papers, like the New York Times, that are published for the more exacting reader.

In Canada, our daily newspapers are all just regional organs. They have to compete as entertainment agencies with television and the movies, and they must make a large part of their appeal to all the nonpolitically minded among their readers. Presumably our Ottawa correspondents write the kind of stuff which their editors require, which is the kind of stuff that the editors think this local public wants. For as the hard-boiled newspaperman will tell you. the daily paper has to keep more closely in touch with its public than does even the politician: the publisher has to be re-elected by his readers every day.

But surely there must be a minority who want something better. Surely an adventurous editor would discover, if he let his more lively press-gallery men run free, that a good writer makes his own audience.

I started by complaining that our Ottawa Press Gallery is only too typically Canadian. But this isn’t quite the right way to put it. The Press Gallery belongs to pre-war Canada, to the Canada of before 1914. It hasn't been growing intellectually as so much of the rest of Canada has. Its members are shocked when you tell them that they ought to aim at journalism that can match the best examples in Britain and the United States. They immediately take refuge in the old colonial apologia: Canada is a young country; we mustn't expect too much of ourselves. Our Canadian novelists anti poets, painters and musicians, scholars and scientists, physicians and engineers no longer resign themselves to this kind of comfort. They have grown beyond it. Why shouldn't our journalists also grow beyond it?

Why shouldn't some Canadian newspaper be trying to report the Canadian scene with the liveliness, the breadth of imagination, the depth of insight and literary style of. say, the Manchester Guardian?

There is ultimately only one reason. Our Canadian political journalists are too lazy or too timid to aim at the highest standards. ★