Saturday, July 8, 2017

Reflections on Canadian/American media coverage

It is going to sound smug and pompous.

But it has to be said.

As a Canadian who has spent hundreds of hours swimming in the words, images, opinions and gestalt of the Canadian media, I am beginning to become annoyed, frustrated and even a touch contemptuous of the American media. Let’s look first at the apparent differences, before we start to unearth some potential root causes.

We can all agree that full and complete objectivity is neither possible nor demanded from any source of information, including the information we “provide” through observation and interpretation, to ourselves. Nevertheless, we all know the difference between prose that takes a wide birth around objectivity and into ad hominum argument (attacking the person and not the merit of the argument) and prose that attempts to set out the basic information of a situation. And our conscious awareness of that difference does not depend on having spent four-plus years in Journalism school. This scribe even subscribes to the Kierkegarde notion that there really is only one truth and that truth is subjectivity.

Nevertheless, journalism is not the locus for that argument. It belongs more appropriately in theology or philosophy.

Canadian journalists are schooled in assertive digging for details, almost akin to the archeologist’s “dig,” starting from the premise that whatever piece of ‘hard’ evidence, the kind that is fundamentally beyond dispute, that appears in the dust on the screen (of their perception) still needs corroboration to validate its being included in a ‘report’. If a Canadian “newsmaker” is going to get mentioned in the news, it is almost exclusively through the recorded reporting of his/her own words. There is inevitably more than enough affect in most utterances worthy of being quoted to eliminate any need of the reporter to add to the affect. Pierre Trudeau’s, “Just watch me!” when asked how far he would go to counter the FLQ (terror cell in the Quebec Revolution) is a case in point. Nearly half a century later, that quote is still extant in Canadian consciousness and culture. Similarly, C.D. Howe’s, “What’s a million?” back in the 1940’s still echoes through the halls of our Parliament. Justin Trudeau’s aphorism, when asked to explain why his first Cabinet contained 50% female members, “Because it’s 2015!” has been repeated so often by the feminist chorus that it is gathering “legs” for the length of its newsworthy life. General Charles de Gaulle’s, “Vive le Quebec libre!” in 1967, Canada’s Centennial year, also continues to echo in our history. He was sent back to Paris by then Prime Minister Lester Pearson for his national insult.

Yet, even though such statements bear reporting, and later more repeating, the “person” uttering the words is never disgraced, through additional editorial comments in the original reporting. Of course editorials are later written about all political statements considered significant by those in the editorial rooms, yet again, without the character assassination that we have come to associate with the coverage of politics, aided and abetted by some candidates, from our American news outlets.

Another feature of Canadian reporting is that it always includes a considerable component of international news, often with Canadian correspondents on site. (The number of such reporters has, unfortunately, been cut with the many cost-saving moves by the boardrooms of our networks and daily newspapers.) Not only are we a mid-sized country, we also have an appetite for what is going on in the world, without the accretions of editorial content in our first exposure to any issue. Respect for the whole truth is not only an essential ingredient of our courts but also of our national, and to a large extent our provincial and urban and regional dailies and weeklies. The topics covered in the respective outlets naturally differs given both the perspectives of the reporters and their usually local editors who too often do not wish to alienate any of their local advertisers.

Sometimes, in the interest of cash flow, editors and radio and television station mangers are compelled (although their arguments need to be resisted at every opportunity) to delete or to “soften” the coverage their permit into print or onto the air. And it is in this “rub” where the story does not portray some public figure in a positive light, (and not necessarily because of his private life but also because he might oppose a specific land development) that the news and the advertising dollars are in direct conflict.

 I recall having taken a negative editorial view on an upcoming shopping development on the periphery of the city, as compared with a central core option, both of which were vying for council’s approval. The city could obviously not afford both. The station manager had been approached by the local representative of the peripheral development and told that the advertising dollars from that sizeable bank account would be withdrawn from his radio station if I were to continue to advocate for the downtown development. I had no pecuniary interest in either development company, and my position was based exclusively on the merits of rejuvenating the downtown core, as opposed to sucking that section dry of activity, taxes and additional development. The peripheral development would, I argued, leave a devastated Main Street and bring no more and no fewer shopping opportunities than the peripheral development to an anticipated retail-draw area of some additional 100,000 shoppers from as far away as 100 kms. So, after a walk out behind the radio station, I was told, in unequivocal terms, “You have to stop doing editorials on our radio stations; there is too much revenue that we will lose if you continue to broadcast in favour of the downtown development!”

And that was that. As a freelance journalist, with no worker protections, no permanent job and no supports, at least from my perspective at that time, I quietly walked. I learned later that the peripheral developers underwrote the political campaigns of candidates who supported their development, sometimes even without the knowledge of the specific candidates. And, with a majority of the new council supporting the peripheral development, it passed easily. The downtown project was instantly euthanized, without the benefit of appeal.

However, back to the question of how American news differs from Canadian. There are no specifically “ideological” television networks, although all Canadians know that CBC as a pubic broadcaster, leans left, while Global and CTV tend to the moderate right. And national dailies, too, demonstrate leanings without being brash, offensive or ugly either in the stories they choose to cover, or in the manner in which they tell those stories. The Toronto Star leans left, the National Post leans right and the Globe and Mail also leans right. Both the Globe and the Post also have considerable business coverage, the Star less so.

The Toronto Sun, and its various sister papers in other cities, come closest to the tabloid variety, clearly also leaning right, on the political spectrum. Postmedia, too, with its smaller dailies, tend to lean right while daughter papers, both dailies and weeklies of the Toronto Star, lean left.

As for coverage of individual political leaders, the national media carefully and comprehensively cover all three national party leaders, and Members of Parliament appear on daily and weekly political talk shows, where the rhetoric might become a little heated, without any ad hominums being considered, offered or permitted. Occasionally, a host will utter these words: “If you are not going to answer the question, at least let’s agree that that is what you are doing?” That anecdote has made the rounds in various outlets, as proof of the strength and the character of the host, without focusing on the delinquent politician, whose reputation was sullied by the exchange.

If we do have a political person who rates extremely negative coverage, a recent example would be the former, now deceased Mayor of Toronto, who was reported to have used crack cocaine, and who garnered as much media in the U.S. mostly from the late-night comedians, as he did in Canada. That type of story is relatively rare in Canadian news coverage, whether there is a written or an unwritten code of ‘separation’ from the more juicy details or not. Personal lives, generally do not make it to the headlines in Canada, unless or until someone is facing some legal trouble. At that time, the bare details of the story are published, and the fine print waits for the examination in the court room. And while there certainly are cases in which the public is extremely divided, we rarely have gunshots fired over ideological or political differences.

Underneath this issue lies a fundamental difference between Canada and the U.S. over “freedom of speech” notions. In the U.S. money and guns represent “free speech” in the political debate. From the outside, it appears that there really is no such thing as “hate speech.” In Canada, however, we know there is a limit to freedom of speech and that limit is carefully observed, modelled and expected both from public figures and from those charged with reporting public events. We will be proudly ridiculed by red-neck Americans for being “too nice” and for “always apologizing” even when there is no apparent need for such deference. That does not make us “spine-less” or wimps.
 Our courts are not filled with frivolous law suits, although we do have some. Our police and law enforcement are more delinquent in their investigation of cases involving murdered and missing aboriginal women, for example, than they are in overtly taking the lives of minorities. We do, however, also have an inordinate and disproportionate percentage of minorities incarcerated, as well as epidemics of suicide in both indigenous communities and in cities like Vancouver and Toronto, where fentanyl has gained a foothold.

On the last issue, our is less sensational in the reporting of individual incidents when compared with the American coverage of white police officers shooting and killing black young men. Almost as a potential pubic denial, we have only come to full disclosure after the numbers topped 1000, in the case of missing and murdered aboriginal women, and only much later initiated an investigating commission to dig more deeply into the causes.

Concurrent with the North American fixation on sexual abuse, in the military and in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, where the numbers of cases of abuse gather front-page coverage in Canada, as they would in similar organizations in the United States, the two countries most likely closely resemble each other in their coverage of these stories.

Also underlying any discussion of media has to include the nature of the consumer. In Canada, we are a much more easy-going consumer of all product and services, not easily aroused by errors, or even by missed headlines, and we demonstrate an apparently higher degree of confidence, and less cynicism, of our authority figures, including our news outlets. Of course, we are not bombarded by outlets like Breitbart, nor do we have a deep well of racist organizations like the KKK.

The colours on our national canvas depicting what appears on the surface to be our innate civility are more tempered, almost water-colour-like, as compared with the brassy, bold deep red and black and yellow oils on the American canvas. We have no Rush Limbaugh’s on our public or private airwaves, inciting supporters to hate whatever or whomever might happen to be in the sights of their rhetorical rifles, and receiving truck-loads of cash in advertising dollars to keep such BS afloat. We  have no Bill O’Reilly’s, Sean Hannity’s,  Ann Coulter’s or Laura Ingraham’s. And we certainly have no Sarah Palin’s, although in the recent Conservative leadership contest, one candidate, Kelly Leitch, attempted, in abysmal failure, to introduce a “Canadian values” test for all immigrants and refugees, as an apparent imitation of the trump ban. On the other hand (and on the other side of the political divide), we also have no Chris Matthews’s or Rachel Maddow’s, or Keith Olbermann’s.

As an Australian exchange student responded when asked about the differences she had observed between the U.S. and Canada, "Oh that's easy!" she replied instantly. "In America, racism is right on top of the table, in Canada racism is underneath the table!"

If there is a scent of pride, even smugness in this piece, I am guilty. Having consumed hundred of hours of media coverage in both countries, (and will continue, on a diet from both sides of the 49th), it is to the Canadian side of the television dial that I return for some calm, less agitating and less anxiety-generating news consumption. It may be, and is, much less dramatic, entertaining and probably less magnetic in generating viewer dollars and emotional enthusiasm. We are a more retrained, polite and even self-effacing people. In some ways, that “mask” covers deep and profound emotions, especially among Canadian men. And yet, we are not only capable, but also willing to exhibit strong feelings, even in our professional and private lives.

Two brief anecdotes from a brief “walter mitty” journalistic sojourn:

I once wrote and recorded for radio broadcast an editorial in which I berated a national reporter for “wanting to be the story” and for not simply “reporting the story”. Immediately following the broadcast at 8:10 a.m. the News Director marched into the Station Manager’s office demanding I be fired for such heresy and apostasy to the news fraternity. Thirty years later, history has unfolded in demonstrative proof of my original contention.

On another city council report, I opened with “Council will continue to debate this year’s tax increase” in subsequent meetings. The news director of the television station angrily criticized my “lead” and replaced it with: “City tax payers face a 2.5% tax hike unless the number can be lowered in subsequent meetings.”


Rather than joint M.B.A. programs between Canadian and American universities, it would be a worthwhile project for at least two Canadian and U.S. Journalism schools to integrate an international curriculum and provide undergraduate and graduate students the benefits of both cultures within the discipline of a broadened journalist perspective. 

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