Publish and be damned: the media as the message nobody wants to receive

Robert Miller April 5 1976

Publish and be damned: the media as the message nobody wants to receive

Robert Miller April 5 1976

Publish and be damned: the media as the message nobody wants to receive

Robert Miller

Quite apart from its political and legal implications, the so-called judges’ affair has once again demonstrated the importance of an independent press in a free society. Had it not been for newspapers, particularly the Toronto Globe and Mail, which first published details of federal ministers’ improper conversations with members of the judiciary, the issue would still be hidden away in the memories and locked correspondence files of the people directly involved. The mass media, imperfect as they are, remain the only way someone with an important message can communicate with the public. In such circumstances, the virtues of an unfettered press are self-evident. The judges’ affair provided a textbook illustration of the interrelationship between press and parliament, as well as between press and politicians. Press and parliament have become mutually dependent; press and politicians remain adversaries.

The Globe’s doughty performance couldn’t have been more timely, coming on the heels of the most overt demonstration to date of what appears to be widespread and growing disaffection with Canada’s news media. This, of course, was manifest at the Progressive Conservatives’ leadership convention in Ottawa, where bashing the media threatened on occasion to outstrip bashing the Liberals as a Tory pastime. A good knock at the press guaranteed an ovation from the convention; in post-balloting recriminations losers tried to blame television and newspapers rather than their own shortcomings. Jack Horner, the cowboy from Crowfoot, snarled that just because he knew how to rope a calf the press had decided he wasn’t qualified to be prime minister. (Unaccountably, no one in the press replied that ability with a lasso was insufficient qualification for the job.) Heward Grafftey brought the Tories roaring to their feet with his assertion that Pierre Trudeau may have been invented by the Liberals but he was packaged by the CBC. Even Robert Stanfield evoked an angry chorus with his lighthearted swipe at the pundits. “Shoo, flies!” said Stanfield with a grin. “Boo!” yelled the Tories, blood in their collective eye.

Politicians, of course, are chronic whiners about their treatment in the press. It’s curious. Politicians never cease trying to manipulate the media (a whole industry has grown up, dedicated to news management; it is called public relations) yet they are seldom satisfied with the results. When the press perceives an issue the way a politician sees it, the press is commended for doing its duty; when it dissents, it’s held to

be irresponsible. Well, the press has broad shoulders. In fact, it seems to relish the disapproval of politicians. But there ought to be concern in the boardrooms of the nation’s newspapers and broadcast outlets about a different form of disapproval.

A little more than a year ago, Grant Maxwell set out with a tape recorder and a notebook to discover what ordinary Canadians think about their society and its prospects. A journalist-turned-social-adviser to the Canadian Catholic Conference, Maxwell visited every province and interviewed 750 individuals in 40 communities about their hopes and fears, about what was right and what was wrong in their lives. Their answers, and his interpretation of them, are being assembled in a five-volume report. Attitudes At The Grass Roots,

which he is preparing for the church. Maxwell says he didn’t set out to inquire specifically what people think of the media, but he reports an astonishing number of Canadians are concerned about the quality of their newspapers and broadcast outlets, or hostile toward them. “Again and again,” says Maxwell, “when people were talking about their concerns they would mention the media. The attitude seemed to be that, given the enormous social power of the media, people were asking for greater accountability.” He reports he found widespread resentment of newspapers’ tendency to “stress the negative aspects of life, to emphasize social confrontation rather than report examples of cooperation.” Strangely enough, media executives (who have heard all this before) are not seriously concerned. True, newspapers of late have intensified their efforts to open themselves up to readers, to make more space for reader criticism, to carry more letters, even to appoint (as in the case of the Toronto Star and Winnipeg Tribune) senior editors as newsroom ombudsmen. But most of them seem to believe that reader unhappiness is inevitable, and even proof that the press is doing its job. Martin Goodman, editor-in-chief of the Toronto Star, sees disaffection with the media as part of a more general mistrust of big, established institutions, of which the press unarguably is one. “Any demagogue worthy of the name,” says Goodman, “can bring a hall to its feet by denouncing the press. Or big government. Or big business. Or big labor.” Globe and Mail editor Richard Doyle recalls an observation by expublisher James Cooper: “There is no such thing as an objective reader.” Charles King, the Ottawa Citizen’s editorial page editor, agrees that reader criticism is increasing, but sees it as healthy. “The news industry is like Churchill’s democracy— pretty awful, but what do you replace it with?” Again and again, editors explain away reader hostility by citing the Cleopatra syndrome (she had the nasty habit of lopping off the heads of messengers bringing her bad news). “We hold up a mirror to society,” says Star ombudsman Borden Spears, “and the people don’t like the image they see.” The fault, in other words, is not with our Star but with ourselves. Maybe. But given the importance of the media in our system, any trend toward diminished respect or credibility ought to be fiercely resisted—as a public service, as well as a corporate duty. Would Pravda have published a story as embarrassing to government as the judges’ affair?