MEDIA WATCH

Entertainment disguised as news

The Journal has illustrated a definition of TV news as ‘stylized dramatic performance’— more theatre than information

GEORGE BAIN April 24 1989
MEDIA WATCH

Entertainment disguised as news

The Journal has illustrated a definition of TV news as ‘stylized dramatic performance’— more theatre than information

GEORGE BAIN April 24 1989

Entertainment disguised as news

MEDIA WATCH

The Journal has illustrated a definition of TV news as ‘stylized dramatic performance’— more theatre than information

GEORGE BAIN

In 1984, a professor of communication arts and science at New York University, Neil Postman, wrote a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. It was not the diatribe against junk in television that might be imagined—Postman is tolerant of the junk, it is the serious stuff that bothers him—but a lamentation about the dominance achieved by television news. “In saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform,” he wrote, “I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well-informed.” There, perhaps, but surely not here? Consider CBC TV’s The Journal for April 3. Lead item on that day’s throne speech—a gem of an illustration of Postman’s definition of TV news as a “stylized dramatic performance,” complete with theme music, which has nothing to do with news, but a lot to do with theatre; “likable” and “credible” principal players Bill Cameron, anchor, and Denise Rudnicki, reporter; visuals, there to tweak interest, not necessarily to make any point.

We open with The Journal’s music. As it fades, Gov. Gen. Jeanne Sauvé, seated in the Speaker’s chair in the Senate, is heard: “Canadians want to ensure a secure future for themselves and their families.” Thus, the text for the coming playlet. Now, camera on anchor Cameron, who says, dramatically, “Insiders are saying that the Tories mean business this time. There is talk of a radical new Conservative agenda____But first, The Journal’s Denise

Rudnicki on the mood of nervous anticipation in Ottawa.” (Here, fortuitously—or by the magic of sound tape from The Journal’s library—the bells in the Peace Tower carillon sound to assist the transition.)

Rudnicki: “It’s been a long, quiet winter in Ottawa without the House in session. But the deep freeze is ending. Ministerial motorcades finally have some place to go.” (Shot of motorcades, presumably ministerial.) “The bureau-

crats are once again doing their briefcase ballet.” (Shots of disembodied arms, presumably bureaucratic, from which dangle briefcases.) “And nothing says springtime in Ottawa like a flock of migrating reporters come back to the Hill to chase cabinet ministers down corridors.” (Shot of untidy gaggle, presumably of reporters, pursuing something, presumably ministerial.)

Rudnicki: “ ... If you really want to know what the next few years are going to be like, forget about the throne speech; get ready for the budget. The Conservatives have decided it’s time to get tough .... The word is that the government wants to make a $ 6-billion dent in the federal deficit.” There is a suggestion of something faintly reprehensible in this as Rudnicki adds that the Prime Minister and his deputy, Don Mazankowski, have been leading “what some are calling a search-and-destroy mission,” i.e., looking for places to cut spending. (We have now, note, had “insiders say,” “there is talk,” “the word is,” as well as the unidentified “some,” who presumably are also the source of the “nervous anticipation” referred to.)

Rudnicki: “There is a lot of nervousness about what they have found. But Mulroney

remains tight-lipped.” (Shot of Mulroney, tight-lipped.) Shots follow of Finance Minister Michael Wilson in office, leaving office, on stairway. Rudnicki: “The big show is coming?” Wilson (pause, enigmatic smile): “It’s not going to be an easy one.”

Rudnicki: “Off the Hill is a jungle of office towers filled with lobbyists, consultants and political hangers-on. Their drums are beating a message that is loud and clear: ‘Brace yourself for the worst.’ This lobbyist represents the National Anti-Poverty Organization.” (Shot of woman buying a newspaper.)

Rudnicki: “Havi Echenberg is on her way to a prebudget meeting with a New Democratic MP. Her experience warns her that, once again, the poor will bear some of the burden of cost-cutting.” Ms. Echenberg says: “I think Mr. Wilson is quite serious about raising more revenue and cutting expenditures. I don’t know that it’s going to be a great deal worse than it has been in the past.”

Rudnicki: “When business lobbyist Tom d’Aquino went to work this morning, he was hoping the government would heed his advice to cut the deficit.” (Shot of d’Aquino opening his office door, looking cursorily at mail.) Sitting on his desk, he says that the deficit should be cut: “That is what the people of Canada need and that’s what I think the government of Canada should give them.”

Rudnicki: “A block away from Parliament Hill, three reporters grab a bite to eat. They have spent the last few weeks talking to finance department officials and to other senior government sources and they have put together a picture of a tough budget and significant budget cuts.” The three reporters—Michel Vastel of Montreal’s Le Devoir, Don MacDonald of the Halifax Chronicle-Herald and James Bagnall of the Toronto-based Financial Post—say essentially that.

This, remember, is Monday. The item is keyed to that day’s throne speech. These vignettes, then, have been plucked just as they happened from a city seething with nervous anticipation. Not really. For example, the three reporters chummily “grabbing a bite” scarcely know one another. Bagnall and MacDonald, for example, have never met. They were asked by The Journal the previous Thursday, in effect, to perform as actors in a scripted mini-drama and were taken to the Brokerage Restaurant on Friday for the shooting. Nor was Echenberg caught on the wing; she was sought out to represent a known viewpoint—in effect, to play the Po’ Folks’ role. Similarly, d’Aquino was cast as Big Business. He was in Brussels when The Journal called late the previous week. His secretary made the appointment for his cameo appearance; The Journal’s crew was waiting at the door when he arrived Monday morning and found it visually worthwhile to film him opening it.

All that, and the panel with which The Journal item ended—four people ostensibly discussing a large subject, but with no room for anyone to make a coherent argument—is not news, far less the news in depth that is The Journal’s supposed assignment. That’s entertainment.