MEDIA WATCH

Broad strokes and stingy substance

Newspapers’ treatment of Jean Chrétien’s speech on the Meech Lake accord is an example of how print has come to ape TV

GEORGE BAIN February 26 1990
MEDIA WATCH

Broad strokes and stingy substance

Newspapers’ treatment of Jean Chrétien’s speech on the Meech Lake accord is an example of how print has come to ape TV

GEORGE BAIN February 26 1990

Broad strokes and stingy substance

MEDIA WATCH

Newspapers’ treatment of Jean Chrétien’s speech on the Meech Lake accord is an example of how print has come to ape TV

GEORGE BAIN

In his column the day after Jean Chrétien made his formal policy statement on the Meech Lake accord, Roy MacGregor in The Ottawa Citizen wrote an enraptured account of how things had gone for the probable next leader of the Liberal party before an audience of cheering and booing students. “It had been a marvellous hour inside the University of Ottawa hall,” he wrote. Then, having told readers how enlivening the event had been for reporters “who have all but turned to stone from recording Canadian life since the last election,” he went on: “Jean Chrétien had a speech to deliver. He called it a ‘lecture’ and that is a far better description of what it was, for Jean Chrétien reading a single-spaced 18page lecture is far removed from Jean Chrétien speaking from the heart without notes. He reads poorly, in either language, but no matter—what he had to read aloud deserves more to be read, and read again, than heard once and forgotten.”

That last bit left a question: read where? The reporters who seemingly were so invigorated by the performance would have had texts to take away with them to savor if they were so minded. But a sampling of the country’s largest metropolitan newspapers shows that mere readers who may have counted on those reporters to share with them what was actually said found themselves to have been leaning on a distinctly frail reed.

MacGregor’s own newspaper carried on page 1 a story by staff writer Daniel Drolet. It made an admirable example of journalistic compression, but compression achieved at the expense of any reflection of Chrétien’s own words on his substantive points. There were 17 paragraphs, two saying that he had spoken and to whom, two on the Quebec demands taken account of in the accord, one giving a capsule account of what the accord is about as it stands, one saying simply “Chrétien proposed,” five subsequent paragraphs each of four lines or less summarizing his main points, and six more on the politics of Meech Lake. Such direct

quotation as there was—91 words from 17 ¥2 pages—was taken from the political portions of the speech.

But if Drolet was concise to the point of stinginess in paraphrasing what the (perhaps) future Liberal leader, and (perhaps) future prime minister, would do to fix the accord, he was babblingly munificent compared with Susan Delacourt and Hugh Winsor, performing as a duet in the Toronto Globe and Mail’s lead story on page 1 of the national edition. They became so engrossed in their own analysis and commentary that they never got closer to reporting the meat of his “manifesto,” as they called it, than to write: “The changes Mr. Chrétien wants are similar to those espoused—in varying degrees—by the three holdout provinces. . . .” Those words led off their 22nd paragraph; the next two also sketched some of his proposals, in the broadest possible strokes.

Fortunately for readers of “Canada’s national newspaper,” as the Globe calls itself, Ottawa bureau chief Graham Fraser contributed, as the ninth paragraph of 18 in an inside story, a tightly encapsulated recitation of “the six specific amendments the accord needs.” Columnist Jeffrey Simpson also devoted his editorial-

page column to the subject. As a result, a Globe reader prepared to wade through 59 inches of type might be able to piece together a rough understanding of what Chrétien had said. However, that reader would have taken in along the way several times more of on-the-spot reaction, probable political consequences, background—and what the reporters themselves had to say. Those things, and particularly the last, stand on its head the old notion that the news columns report the news and the columnists and editorial writers tell readers what they think the news means and how it is likely to impinge on the life of the country.

The Calgary Herald ran, from Ottawa editor Geoff White, 11 inches of copy on an inside page relating in almost equal aparts that Chrétien thought the world would go on if Meech Lake weren’t ratified on time, and ticking off in point order the several changes he proposed. The Vancouver Province, in an evidently truncated Canadian Press report, dispatched the whole issue in just over six inches of type on page 14, without ever saying what Chrétien considered essential changes.

The Vancouver Sun did better, but not much, with a story by Joan Bryden of Southam News that said in its lead paragraph that Chrétien called for an “overhaul” of the Meech Lake accord, but not saying in what ways. Terrance Wills in the Montreal Gazette carefully listed “the faults Chrétien found with the accord,” and even found room for some direct quotation, but, once more, the substance of his suggested changes was to be found under layers of the background and politics of Meech Lake.

Among 10 newspapers seen, The Toronto Star was the exception in publishing a substantial portion of the text. It also carried a newspage piece by Edison Stewart, mainly, again, on the politics of Meech Lake; a next-day column by national affairs columnist Carol Goar; and a thoughtful, evenhanded editorial. It may be. a fact relevant to the Star’s use of a partial text that it likes Jean Chrétien and doesn’t like the Meech Lake accord as it stands. But questioning motives is as unfair as looking a gift horse in the mouth is unwise. If newspapers are to preserve any reputation as journals of record, any little gesture in that direction, for whatever reason, helps.

It will also be helpful if people who want to be informed are given hope to find in the news on the news pages more of what was actually said, so that they are not left to rely altogether on someone else’s interpretation. Because television’s news programs are confined within inflexible time boxes, TV can’t do that; a speaker speaking takes too much time. To get around that obstacle, television invented the “voiceover,” the reporter speaking over tape of some relevant action. The treatment of the Chrétien speech on Meech Lake is an example, more nearly commonplace than unique, of how print has come to ape television—the voice of the reporter subordinating the voice of the speaker, and of commentary taking precedence over the news commented on. It is ideally the way for newspapers to go if the aim is to make themselves wholly irrelevant.