MEDIA WATCH

News that is stylishly shallow

George Bain April 25 1988
MEDIA WATCH

News that is stylishly shallow

George Bain April 25 1988

News that is stylishly shallow

MEDIA WATCH

George Bain

News falls into two categories— natural news and made news. Natural news is what happens. It is news that droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven—or like the monthly cost-of-living figures from Statistics Canada—without anything having to be done to precipitate it. Made news is in journalistic terms as the English bespoke suit is to tailoring. It is the article made to order. For example, if fire destroys several small stores, that is natural news—a phenomenon that news people need only observe and report. However, if an editor the next day assigns a reporter to find if a common thread exists in several such fires, and to gather expert opinion on their origins with a view to offering conclusions, that will be made news.

The usual terms for these different sorts are, on the one hand, hard news, and, on the other, interpretive, analytical or investigative. Both sorts are legitimate and long-established. The people to whom Theodore Roosevelt, not pejoratively, gave the name muckrakers—including Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair—were people who made news by inquiring into social and industrial conditions and bringing to light facts that facilitated reform.

Muckraking in U.S. journalism — Canada has no precise parallel—is associated with the early years of this century. It faded in the 1920s, revived slightly in the 1930s and lapsed again during and after the Second World War. The most recent turn to more made news can be dated, again in the United States, from the McCarthy era. Many reporters then concluded that to report the charges of a demagogue, without question or amplification, was not to be “objective,” as the term went, but to put truth at a disadvantage and to do a public disservice.

A later style is not properly described as interpretive, analytical or investigative. It is more opinionated than expository, requires less work and/or thought and is frequently simply abusive. Under the heading “Can we trust the news?,” Fred Barnes, White House correspondent for The New Republic, wrote in the January issue of Reader's Digest (American edition only): “Tough investigative reporting, sharp political

analysis and close scrutiny of public officials are all crucially needed in a democracy. But, increasingly, news reporters are personally challenging the decisions of America’s leaders.” He also said that the assumption by a media elite of the role of chief antagonists of presidents “may well have created a media environment hostile to effective government.”

An introductory anecdote illustrated what he meant by “personally challenging.” Before a presidential news conference in March, 1987, Sam Donaldson, ABC TV’S White House correspondent, told a talk-show audience that President Reagan faced several tests, the first being, “Will he get there, stand in front of the podium and not drool?” While perhaps grudgingly passable as political invective from a declared opponent, that was no sort of reporting. Per-

Ever since live television coverage began in the Commons, newspapers have become second-rate plagers of TV's game

sonal antipathy—and censure—were again evident in the celebrated choking off last February of Vice-President George Bush by CBS TV anchorman Dan Rather.

Both examples come from U.S. television. But as television now sets the style in journalism in the United States and Canada, they are not irrelevant. Recently, the Toronto Globe and Mail ran a six-part series by reporters Graham Fraser and Ross Howard, a series remarkable for its failure to look at the place where TV may have had its worst effect—in the print media. They found TV the intellectually thinnest, least detailed source of information, good at creating impressions but, “in a world . . . where intensely detailed information is often required . . . , tells us very little about anything it cannot show in visual form.”

It is not, in the circumstances, to cry for some distant and probably illusory Golden Age to ask why, in the 10 years since live television coverage began in the House of Commons, newspapers have let themselves be led away from what they can do in-

comparably better — inform in depth—to become second-rate players of television’s game.

For example, Fraser and Howard said that of the daily seven hours the House of Commons sits, Question Period occupies 45 minutes—a period of rehearsed questions and answers. When, as a Liberal MP said, “an angry-sounding quote makes better TV,” and that he sometimes feels like a whore. And when, according to Fraser and Howard themselves, “the images of gesticulating members shouting accusations and denials . . . are a key factor [in] public disdain for politics . . . .”

Why, then, if Question Period and the subsequent scrums are playacting, a distortion of reality, an influence toward public disrespect for Parliament and politicians, do the print media, which have not the same need to provide excitement (in lieu of the substance that television has difficulty with), allow this fraction of the parliamentary day to dictate the largest part of their parliamentary coverage?

Why, except for newspaper editors’ exaggerated sensitivity to television’s having skimmed the top off the news, do newspaper readers find themselves so often wading through reaction to find—with luck—the substance of whatever action, policy, statement is being reacted to? Why is it so hard to find the actual words spoken by anybody about anything, except that television prefers controllable “voice-overs” by its reporters to politicians speaking their own words, a practice which has put direct quotation out of style? Why, except that television, lacking depth, needs a quick turnover of images, do so many stories flare briefly and disappear, leaving readers to wonder what became of them?

Meanwhile, laments are heard— some months ago, in passing, even from Barbara Frum on CBC TV’s The Journal—that, on an issue like free trade, people don’t know enough to be able to make up their minds. As if to bear that out, a reader asked in a letter to the Halifax Chronicle-Herald in February: “Why doesn’t Mr. Mulroney insert full-page ads in all major newspapers ... to inform . . . taxpayers what the deal really means?” But isn’t that, as Fraser and Howard seemed to be saying, what the news pages of newspapers are for?