Books

Stifling public debate

A Calgary academic questions journalism’s rightward shift

Brian Bergman May 10 1999
Books

Stifling public debate

A Calgary academic questions journalism’s rightward shift

Brian Bergman May 10 1999

Stifling public debate

A Calgary academic questions journalism’s rightward shift

Power & Betrayal in the Canadian Media By David Taras Broadview Press, 247pages, $21.95

Books

After Prime Minister Jean Chrétien nearly lost the country in the 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty, he vented his anger on a favourite whipping boy of Canadian political leaders: the CBC. Chrétien claimed that the public broadcasters French-language arm, Radio Canada, had given Quebec

Premier Lucien Bouchard

“kid glove” treatment. It failed, he said, to challenge the fiery sovereigntists revisionist view of recent history, which painted English Cana-

da as an oppressor. Chrétien also complained that Radio Canada had largely ignored a pro-unity speech he gave at the United Nations during the referendum campaign. “I think I made a good speech and I was the seventh item just before the sports,” groused Chrétien. “When the people were already asleep, probably they put my item in.”

Chrétiens fine whine is recounted in David Taras’s new book, Power & Betrayal in the Canadian Media, as one example among many of how Canadian politicians have second-guessed—and undermined— the journalistic integrity of the CBC. Taras, a University of Calgary political scientist, argues that the constant criticisms levelled by the CBC’s political overseers—backed up, in recent years, by severe budget cuts— give solace to those who would privatize the CBC. “The CBC has become so battered, so beleaguered,” he writes, “that its very weakness has become the rationale for closing it down.”

The author’s lament for the CBC, which he describes as “the spinal cord for national

communication and identity,” is part of a much broader analysis of recent media trends. On the surface, he notes, media choices appear to be expanding with the advent of the 500-channel TV universe, the Internet revolution and, in Canada, the launching of a second national newspaper, the National Post. But in reality, he writes, the product being delivered is becoming less diverse—something Taras blames on the concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few individuals and corporations.

Taras writes that, in its best moments, the media act as a kind of “public square” in which the central events and dramas of our world are recorded and debated. In Canada, he adds, the CBC has served as the traditional electronic “meeting place” in times of both triumph and crisis. But its role has been steadily eroded not just by budget cuts, but by unfettered competition from private broadcasters who, in Taras’s view, are “mainly in the business of importing Hollywood hits and do relatively little to keep the public squares of Canadian

culture, identity and political debate open.”

Taras see different threats to diversity in the print media. Of Canadas 105 daily newspapers, he notes that 60, including the National Post, are owned by one individual, the ardently conservative Conrad Black. (Black now owns 58 Canadian dailies.) The media barons chief rivals, Sun Media Corp. and The Globe and Mail, are also what Taras describes as “reliably conservative.” He worries that journalists who do not share this point of view have few places to turn and will engage in “self-censorship” to please their bosses. The result, he says, is to stifle public debate.

While Taras focuses on Canada, some of his most telling examples of corporate interference come from south of the border. In what Taras calls “one of the most cowardly acts in modern journalism,” he recounts how NBC, which is owned by General Electric Co., apologized to China—a major market for GE—after NBC announcer Bob Costas cited Chinese human rights abuses during the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. And since the 1990 advent of the Time Warner conglomerate, Taras finds that whenever a cover of Time or People features a star in a Warner Bros, movie or television show, “it is difficult to discern where legitimate news ends and selfpromotion begins.”

The sweep of Taras’s book is impressive—and, at times, oppressive. By touching on so many themes, some inevitably get short shrift. The rightward shift in the media, confined here to a single chapter, could easily warrant its own book. Most of Taras’s recommendations for change are sensible enough, including making all appointments to the CBC’s board of directors strictly non-partisan, and urging the CBC to strengthen, not weaken, its regional presence. At least one, though, is simply groan-inducing—the call for yet another task force on the future of newspapers to deal with the issue of ownership concentration. Still, this is a provocative book that should be considered must reading for anyone concerned about the forces that shape the way news is delivered in Canada.

Brian Bergman