COLUMN

How the mighty barons have fallen

Allan Fotheringham December 14 1992
COLUMN

How the mighty barons have fallen

Allan Fotheringham December 14 1992

How the mighty barons have fallen

COLUMN

ALLAN FOTHERINGHAM

The newspapers, the supposed tough guys, are the biggest suckers of all. The myth in the common room down at the faculty club and in the beer parlors—both being the embodiment of lazy thought—is that the press is all-powerful, capable of overthrowing governments and leading public opinion.

The fact that the opposite is true—Franklin Roosevelt went gleefully into four terms while the resolutely Republican owners of the major American press railed against him—is ignored. (The obvious truth that no one ever reads editorials need not be commented on.)

The depressing reality is that newspapers now are used; helpless victims of noisy interest groups who have learned how to play the game. Our present example is the shock news that the University of Toronto is so strapped for funds that it is cutting back its sports program and— horrors!—is about to no longer have a football team.

This is the 1992 version of media manipulation. The chances of the U of T abandoning its football team are about the same as Jean Chrétien winning the Nobel Prize for elocution. It’s a con game, and the newspapers treat it as if it is really serious.

The game by now is getting rather tired. A “crisis” is invented: “Jesus Back” headlines on the front page and then for endless days there are the follow-up stories resolving the problem. The U of T fake crisis is merely emulating similar fakes at the University of Calgary and St. Francis Xavier University in downtown Antigonish in Nova Scotia.

Both of them, each of them, shocked shockable local papers by killing their football teams on the spurious excuses of lack of bucks. Both of them, each of them, were saved by the suddenly enthusiastic alumni and the sportpage-inspired outrage at such a calamity.

As an old jock and an old sportswriter (it takes one to know one), the gimmick is familiar. Report a crisis as if it is a real crisis and then report—Eliza fleeing across ice floes— on the resolution, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Today, newspapers are the captives of every special-interest group that has cleverly learned how to play the media game. The fake U of T administrators are only the latest example. The university only happens to be the richest university in the land. So rich is it that it happens to own the sumptuous property called, hello there, Queen’s Park, on which sits the legislature of the province of Ontario, which pays one buck a year in rental.

This is the university that says it can’t afford a football team? Excuse me. This is a joke. As will be revealed, trust me, in major headlines in coming weeks when alarmed alumni and sportswriters save it.

Newspapers are suckers. They almost blushed last week when the head fake of the Guardian Angels in New York confessed (boasted?) that over the past 10 years he had invented tales of his derring-do that the slavering press had eagerly printed.

The Guardian Angels, for those not personally familiar with muggings on the Manhattan subway, are those self-appointed heavies who claim to make the streets safe for little old ladies in Supp-Hose and threaten to out-thug the thugs. Their leader has just announced he has for a decade been inventing concoctions, and the eager press has swallowed it.

This will not surprise any experienced practitioner of the public-relations art. Including the celebrated con artist, in fact a satirist of the highest calling, who several years back announced a Sex Olympic Games, with detailed advance dates and alleged events involving things you wouldn’t want to talk to your mother about, and the papers and magazines swallowed the whole thing (so to speak) until, choking on his mirth, he told them they had been homswoggled.

One of the best examples of how newspapers are used, while they sort of realize they are being used, was when a clever South African ambassador to Canada, by name of Glenn Babb, grew frustrated at the unctuous Ottawa attitude to his country going back to the ultimately unctuous John Diefenbaker, who led the Commonwealth decision to expel that country from the world community.

Babb, advised by a very clever Toronto public relations/consultant brain, went on a tour of a Peguis Indian reserve in Manitoba, trailed by an eager press, to highlight unctuous Canada’s treatment of its minority. And then he invited native chiefs to tour South Africa. Great PR!

Is the press a sucker, captive of its own beliefs? Ovide Mercredi is the expert, instantly recognizing how our gang seizes on the unusual. Once his constituency was accepted into the federal-provincial fandango, he appeared in ceremonial headdress with a mandatory drum beat from his chiefs while the television cameramen slavered in excitement, and a resigned Joe Clark stood in the background, knowing well he was the evening news backdrop, the scenery, the spear carrier.

Worry not for the University of Toronto football team. The boys with muscle are as safe as houses. Worry only about the poor proprietors of the newspapers, who used to think of themselves as masters of their own fate.

They ain’t. They are helpless purveyors of causes that they cannot control. Fake catastrophes, like the spurious “death of college football,” consume once-valuable newsprint. Newspaper editors sit in their comer offices, disconsolate, knowing they can no longer control events. Events control them.