Would we lie to you?

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 2 2000

Would we lie to you?

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 2 2000

Would we lie to you?

Anthony Wilson-Smith

A couple of weeks ago, Brian Mulroney was about to make a speech in Montreal when he spotted Michel C. Auger, political columnist for the Quebecor newspaper chain. (Auger, by the way, is not to be confused with Michel Auger, his fellow Journal de Montréal writer who was recendy shot in a failed assassination attempt.) “I better make sure I clap louder than anyone else,” joked Auger, in a reference to Mulroney s position as a director of Quebecor. “Fat chance of that,” replied a grinning Mulroney—recalling the number of times Auger has whacked him in print over the years.

On the one hand, that exchange between Mulroney and Auger was amiable—and in normal circumstances, immediately forgettable. But in an era of media convergence and mega-mergers, it represents precisely the concern that keeps conspiracy theorists working overtime. When journalists report on their bosses, or on companies related to their own, how much is that likely to affect their coverage?

In the specific case of an independent sort like Auger, the answer is not at all. But overall, the picture is not as clear. You’re damned either way when you cover your own company. If you write too favourably, you’re written off as a house shill. If you’re critical, you may be writing off your career, depending upon how prickly your bosses are. What do you do if you are John Allemang, TV critic at The Globe and Mail, and you really hate CTV’s fall lineup? Pending federal approval, BCE is about to own both the Globe and CTV. Or what if you’re a consumer affairs reporter at CTV dealing with complaints about the Bell telephone or Sympatico online services that BCE runs? Or wanna become a TV critic for the Ffollinger newspaper chain, now that it’s been bought by the Aspers, who also run the Global TV network? And here at Macleans, our owner, Rogers Communications, runs a huge cable and high-speed Internet access service, as well as partnering with AT&T on phone service.

The point is that consumers should carefully consider both the quality of information they’re receiving—and who they’re receiving it from. It’s an easy out to say that journalists write without fear or favour on all issues—and it’s nonsense. Look at the snarky ways in which the Globe and its arch-rival the National Post report on each other’s doings. The issue is not so much what is written in columns or editorial pages, where it is understood the writer is expressing an opinion. In fact, some of the most balanced comment on recent media goingson has come from columnists like Eric Reguly and Matthew Ingram at the Globe, and Matthew Fraser at the Post. But readers should be wary of reporters currying favour with their masters by writing commentaries that masquerade as news. A piece in the Sept. 16 Post that was not a column and not

slugged as an analysis piece, included such sweeping asides as an observation that “critics agreed that synergies were more likely from a coupling like CanWest-Hollinger than from a merger of a telephone company with a newspaper operator.” Gee, guess which company the Post is owned by. In fact, CanWest is a TV network that bought some newspapers, while BCE just added a newspaper alongside its TV network. As kids say, same difference.

When newspapers slag each other, it’s tedious and incestuous, but there is no real harm done to anyone else: their conflict of interest is obvious. It’s a bigger problem when the links or rivalries may be more hidden—as in the Post writing about BCE, or the Globe pronouncing on Rogers’ phone services. The bias isn’t always overt. Any experienced reporter knows how to slip in “weasel” words or phrases that paint a subject in a certain way without saying so directly. If you are profiling a CEO and want to make nice, you might describe him physically as “a bear of a man whose imposing stature reflects the manner in which he dominates a room.” Or if you think he is a jerk, you might focus on the manner in which “his stomach protrudes over his belt, and his excess weight causes him to perspire profusely.” Either way, same guy.

It is very seldom the people at the top who practise or promote bias or self-censorship. Ken Thomson was famous for staying far away from the Globe newsroom. Ted Rogers has seldom set foot inside Macleans editorial offices. Izzy and Leonard Asper at Global are far more interested in the bottom line than the editorial line. Ditto Pierre-Karl Péladeau, CEO of Quebecor. The flamboyant exception is Conrad Black, who espouses his views to anyone who asks, and has never pretended to hide them.

More often than not, it is the middle-managers and career climbers among reporters and editors who are at the root of journalistic evils: they hear their bosses cough, and whip their interpretation of that into a hurricane by the time it hits the newsroom. The irony is that the bosses of competing companies are often a lot more sanguine towards their rivals than the people who work for them. The CEOs know that todays rival is tomorrow’s ally, and vice-versa. At the wedding of Mulroney’s daughter, Caroline, recently, Rogers and Péladeau —both invited guests—resolved to iron out past differences and discuss future partnerships. Conrad Black sat nearby. If you’re concerned about media bias, don’t blame the CEOs: their focus is usually stricdy on building business and profits. The fact that some reporters and editors twist the news to advance themselves isn’t new: there are now just more opportunities than ever. The truth isn’t pretty—and it isn’t, sad to say, always the way it’s presented in the media.