Hugh Segal lecture transcript
I start this evening with the premise that in Ottawa and elsewhere the best option for democracy and accountability is a robust, well-resourced and free press. Now there are constraints under libel laws and certain national security provisions to that freedom, some reasonable and some not so reasonable. But for a free press to be of value it must have impact. I will, in a moment or two, deal with how the panoply of new media and related economics are diluting that effectiveness and the credibility of the media itself.
I want to begin however, with the issue of priority. In an open democracy, the media, its owners and working journalists, editors freelancers, producers and bloggers get to choose what they cover. I respect that freedom of choice without any quibble. But when journalists prefer one set of choices over another, they are as accountable to the rest of us as citizens, viewers, readers and listeners as anyone else. To suggest that the real news may not only be at the official sites where news is expected to happen is surely not a radical wild-eyed proposition. But to comment that most journalists seem content with covering the official news locations is, I think, more challenging. Let me put it another way. Why would one think that those places like the House of Commons or the Senate, or provincial Legislatures or City Councils, which have press galleries, would in any way be more important sources of real news, than a Service Canada office in Hamilton, a customs hall in Montreal, or a college campus in Victoria? Because the latter three locations don't have press galleries? Forgive me if I find that approach to what matters profoundly lazy and hidebound. Could it be that one of the reasons the Auditor General or Parliamentary Budget Officer are so media popular is because they are doing a lot of the work the media can and should be doing themselves? Officers of Parliament deserve credit, whatever media priorities may be, for the work they do – but the media in general and assignment editors in particular might take the odd opportunity to reflect on whether they have fallen into a path dependency in terms of what they choose to cover – a deeper and deeper rut that conversely becomes shallower and shallower the deeper it gets. Do ministerial statements, aldermanic diatribes or exchanges in question period not count as news? Well surely that is a decision based on the newsworthy merit of what was said, announced or engaged and should not only be based on who they are, or where they spoke. An opposition questioner who blames the government for every bird that fell from the sky (and all parties do this in opposition) strikes me as the least of newsworthy persona – as would the minister who says all is well, the mess being cleaned up was inherited etc etc..... Usually the engagement could be scripted by a parliamentary intern in their first week – and is utterly predictable. So when what is an utterly predictable, scripted, regularly recurring event happens time and time again, and our leading news vehicles treat it as news, we are seeing the victory of filler over substance and hollow ritual over consequence. When this becomes the norm, backed up by daily programmes often rebroadcast each evening, that only re-hashes a hollow series of earlier exchanges, and public disengagement from the process is inevitable. Public disengagement produces the apathetic drift to electoral turnout collapse which de-legitimizes government and parliament itself. This is the kind of cycle we now see in many elections. When democracy loses its standing there are always extremists on the left, right or authoritarian perch who will propose other options.
Do not get me wrong. It is not the role of journalists, nor their duty or profession, to make politics look interesting and noble on those many days when it is neither. If some politicians choose petty and hollow as a means of expression, they deserve to be covered as they are. But the larger issue is whether the pettifogging aspects of the daily partisan ritual are truly and really news? Are they news when compared to senior civil service changes, promotions and shuffles which are lightly reported and rarely analyzed? Are they news when compared to the increase in young girls taking up smoking when a government of Canada, trying to reduce smuggling, radically reduced the taxes upon and price of, cigarettes? Are those predictable machinations really news when compared to the dynamics at food banks, or the changing demographics on Canadian campuses?
It has always struck me, as an absolute indicator of a political personality's balance, that he or she does not conclude that just because they are elected to parliament, or work in the mayor's office, that this is the most important of all places. The corollary for a competent journalist surely is in not believing that, just because Parliament or Ottawa or city hall is your beat, they are at the centre of really important news every day. They may be on occasion – but rarely every day. What is going on in rural communities, school yards, factory lunch rooms and a stockholders' meeting in Calgary may actually matter much more. All capitals are consumed with themselves. It is an occupational illness and workplace hazard. Journalists and the media are lynch pins supporting freedom and informed citizenry, consumers, investors, patients, students, farmers and all the rest of us well beyond the narrow confines of this or that self-important capital city. The actual use of real power for constructive or other ends is as real in courtrooms, livestock auctions, classes, labs, libraries, prisons, boardrooms and union halls. We hear little of all that when compared to the dominance of the news cycle by the usual suspects in the usual spots. And treating the capitals as centre ice, while the rest of the country is one long, rather exotic, special event road trip, seems to be altogether the reversal of reality. That approach is in one sense an alternate reality. Judgment and broad context really matter.
And so does avoiding the debilitating and limiting constraints of journalistic group think made more problematic these days by the oppression of digital obsession that values timeliness over accuracy.
It is a privilege to be invited here tonight to reflect on the media world in which serious journalists try to ply their professional craft. The cause of transparency argues that I share my biases with you at the outset.
I am a child of CBC radio, where news mattered and was treated as if it did. I come at the media mission and the role of a free press with a mix of idealism about the importance of ideas and criticism, and a very stuffy Tory bias about judgment, balance and integrity. And, as someone who was in advertising for a decade, headed a think tank and either ran for office or served others who did, I have no naivety about the role of the advocate, pamphleteer, booster, spinner or promoter of lost or popular causes.
It also strikes me that we would do ourselves a rare service as Canadians if we disabused ourselves of any unduly puffed-up notion of our own press freedom or history on the side of courageous journalism. The way the press and media generally knuckled under the Trudeau administration during the time of the War Measures Act in 1970 should not be a source of pride or comfort. My recollection reveals only a few journalists – the late Peter Riley at CTV Ottawa, the late Tim Ralfe at CBC Parliament Hill and George Bain of the Globe and Mail who showed some fight and courage. Otherwise, media and journalist acquiescence reigned supreme. And that kind of ‘group think’ which can run towards or against any government, politician or individual seems, during the period since, to be still rather universal. Few write today for example, about how things might turn around for Michael Ignatieff; fewer still, back in the late nineties, wrote about how newly-elected Alliance leader Stephen Harper might unite divided conservatives. We can all think of other examples where the will to conform smothered the will to actually report and analyze.
Media and journalism diminishe their salience and credibility when they get seduced by the twin evils of celebrity journalism and the congenial truth. While these terms were not coined by my good friend Bill Fox, his experience as a Toronto Star Bureau Chief in Washington and Ottawa, and as a war correspondent in Central America, as well as Head of Communications for a Prime Minister, helped him I am sure, to write the most compelling Canadian treatment of these two journalistic evils in his landmark “Spinwars” book published by Key Porter in 1999.
When news is only about celebrities it is not really about the shared experience society provides for masses of people – good, bad or otherwise – and thereby detaches itself from reality. TV and what I call its digital derivatives, seems particularly smitten by this wild self-indulgence. Understand that I am untroubled by media embrace of celebrity and entertainment. Conflating it with news however, is where foundations of credibility begin to crumble. This debate is about more than only trying to make news entertaining – a whole other area of debate and journalistic purpose dilution I will get to – it is about blurring any sense of difference between entertainment and actual news. I have no objection to CBC-TV enjoying and touting the success of its “Battle of the Blades”. It is unique, inventive and outstanding entertainment whose creator deserves kudos; doing it as a headline story on a national TV newscast is an embarrassment.
The “congenial truth” problem is more fundamental because it is about integrity as simply opposed to stylistic shallowness. What Andie Tucher, the former Associate Editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, described as “congenial truth” – mainly as “a pact between the reporter and the reader – an understanding of reality that is mutually acceptable” is, of course, the ultimate victory of convenience and marketing over actual news facts on the ground. Bill Fox offers numerous Canadian and American examples of this distortion from the pre-1999 era in his book. We here can all think of many more.
I have written before about my discussion in the fall of 1991, with a dear friend who was the CBC senior news producer on Parliament Hill when I joined the Prime Minister’s staff. He informed me categorically that in order to keep CBC TV local news ratings up at the supper-hour broadcast – because local CBC stations and affiliates needed advertising revenue – he would always dispatch a negative story about the government as opposed to a positive one. At the time, the government was somewhere between 7 and 9 percent in the polls. However, given the choice between a “good story” about the government and a “negative” one, he would, by local market forces, be forced to choose the negative story. Well, that was the end of my CBC “puts accuracy and balance first” naivety. Surely, I argued, you would choose the most newsworthy story on its merits, good or bad, and send it. He quickly disabused me of that conceit. This was in a sense, the ultimate victory of “congenial” over “real”. It also suggested, but did not confirm, that a story line might on occasion be pursued quite independently with or without factual justification.
Whether they relate to the prospects of a political leader or party, what Canadians may want to believe about the Afghanistan war, the “incivility” of the House of Commons or the “laziness of academics” – all by the way classic areas for congenial truth – matters less than the cost to real journalism and its credibility when what is “congenial” actually replaces what is “substantiated” and at times “unpleasant” truth as a critical journalistic offering.
So there is a problem of the absent countervail, the too-limited lone voice, that produces the “go with the flow” journalism which is about criticism-free content, or “fact and history and context-free” analyses that is little more than a weather report – and markedly short-term at that.
The networks in November of 2000 that called Al Gore as winning Florida, raced each other on the time continuum to make timely and inaccurate predictions in the American election. The networks that for four hours, reported that Major Hassan, the alleged murderer of soldiers at Fort Hood a few sad days ago, had been shot dead at the scene, also put speed ahead of accuracy. Speed is of no value when compared to accuracy. I know of no advertiser who would change a media buy because of who reported a fact first – accurately or otherwise. Media buys are the result of complex audience analysis, issues of reach and credibility and “editorial context”. Rapid reporting of wrong facts advances none of the factors that matter to the advertiser. To the extent that kind of reporting reduces the perception of “trust”, “confidence” and “credibility” they deter advertisers.
There are driving factors here, some beyond journalists' scope to manage on their own. The thoughtful McLuhan premise that the “medium is the message” has a lot to do with the potential victory of form over substance; it may be that in terms of audience, shape and scope, how a message is transmitted is both formative and important. But to take that premise and confuse it with journalistic purpose in a free society is to suggest that the colour of a candidate's tie or scarf is more important than what he or she believes. That is the kind of belief structure and sense of artifice and priority that ends civilizations. We see it often and hear it more among the proponents of news coverage in 120 character tweets, or the digital world's advocacy in support of the death of print. The forces of darkness are real and those of us who care about journalism and freedom and the way they are both essential to each other are well advised not to underestimate these dark forces’ strengths or misconstrue their purposes. CBC’s Royal Canadian Air Farce had a wonderful takeoff of Lister Sinclair’s “Ideas” radio broadcast which they called “Notions” – thoughts not good enough to be ideas. We now face a world of digital “impressions” – reports not balanced, verified or factual enough to be “news”.
A few days after the 2000 Election Florida snafu, while he was lecturing his journalism class at the Henry W. Grady College of Journalism at the University of Georgia, Professor of journalism Conrad Fink put it this way: “I’m just an old-fashioned guy who says ‘report what happened, not what you think is going to happen”.
This is what people have a right to expect from a reputable journalist, a reputable news organization. Otherwise, how is one to know if a view of what ought to happen or what the news should be, has in fact deeply coloured how what actually happened was understood and how it was reported – making news a “relative truth” as opposed to “objectively confirmed reality” – destroys news and the credibility, salience and value of those who report it. And news reports, where a trusted news person conveys what another network purports to have transpired, is a simple and unhelpful cop out. Trust is not transferable and cannot be rented.
If the "what and why" of a journalist or news report are much less important than the "how", then quality journalism, offered by experienced and well educated observers, writers and broadcasters, matters less than well coiffed hair, new CNN-miming news sets, or the figures and physical attractiveness of what BBC calls "presenters". It is an absolute parallel to the unedited or in today's parlance, the 'un-mediated blog" – where timeliness and personality quirks of the "presenter" occupy space that should be filled by quality of research, perspective, balance and competence. There is a price to be paid here by both the transmitter and recipient; in both cases credibility and trust suffer. Impressions are not confirmed facts, one source “news” is really only gossip or spin opinion. If news is allowed to evade the screening of reputable, multi-source credibility, it is the end of news and not news at all.
I have never fully trusted the CBC since the War Measures Act.
As a charter member and initial co-conspirator with David Suzuki, Adrienne Clarkson, David Macdonald, Peter C. Newman, Lois Wilson and others in the creation of Friends of Public Broadcasting in 1984-85, my belief in the potential and value of CBC, TVO and other public broadcasters remains undiminished. Suffice it to say that CBC television would have done more for the public broadcaster if the monies spent on set design and promotion (not to mention raiding other networks or stations for the young and attractive and no doubt talented), had instead been invested in countercyclical news research teams or more bureaus abroad. It is not that CBC programme management made bad choices. It is that they made obvious choices that any non-public network could have made and have already made. In promoting its new look, the CBC touts “new energy”, “new attitude” and “new name”. Wouldn’t it have been nice to see “more bureaus”, more in-depth coverage” and “more correspondents”.
The “TV News Consultants” seem to move comfortably from network to network, making them all look the same. It all resembles CNN’s Situation Room. Now I like Wolf Blitzer – but ever since I saw him in 2006, on CNN, in a Tel Aviv street, sporting a flak jacket during the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict, while reporting on the breaking news of an alleged confession in Thailand to the murder of Jon Bennett Ramsay, well, it’s been a tad difficult to take him seriously. The never-ending Michael Jackson TV novella dominance, the Anna Nicole Smith paternity test saga controlled the networks – not as trivial celebrity excess, but as core, real world, leading news stories. Spare me. Spare us all!
Set design and “presenters” standing and walking convey motion, activity and digitally competitive angst; a public broadcaster not tied to quarterly profits or tweenie ratings might well have chosen dignity and depth instead.
Newspapers face similar challenges from a looming and much ballyhooed generational disengagement from the printed word; succumbing to McLuhanistic down-market, digital impulse is hard to resist. Admittedly, capital markets and publically owned conglomerates make resisting these pressures very tough. But can they be resisted?
Living in Kingston, I am spoiled by what the Kingston Whig Standard used to be under the Davies family for several generations. The “Out of Afghanistan” stories in 1986, before the paper was sold to Southam, for which the author, David Prosser, won a Centre for Investigative Journalism Award, the wonderful and substantive work on Revenue Canada and hard-hitting stories of illegal drug shipments through Eastern Ontario, all spoke to the quirky editors and staff of considerable talent. They also reflected a committed publisher in Michael Davies who valued finding and investigating real news as opposed to just the congenial variety with an aim to look and report elsewhere than the beaten path. This is where journalism adds value to the democratic discourse and the informed nature of society. It should be unpredictable. It should separate opinion from fact. It should open up vistas and seek undisclosed truths people have a right to know.
Simple path dependency – where existing news bureaus that are fixed costs mine areas of diminished or alleged importance for news of a lesser and lesser value, confusing gossip with news, or mixing small items of interest about celebrities with news of more expansive importance are all part of a serious media virus. And that this path dependency is shaped by the “medium over message” McLuhan Theology, which suggests that the means of transmittal actually overtakes what is being transmitted, only further runs down the relevance of competence, expertise, editorial judgment or actual real life experience as journalistic attributes of some value.
Using the digital world to extend brand and reach and promote print depth is a good idea. Replacing print depth and substance however, with micro-content-digital impressions only threatens print more intensely. And if well-considered and high quality print shrinks the print market to only the thoughtful, well-read and better educated, then that re-profiling, in the tight demographic world of focused advertising and census tract-based print and message targeting, would be a clear step ahead. Broadening one’s appeal by lowering standards and weakening content dilutes both the former and the latter – and destroys journalistic equity and brand at the same time.
When growing up in Montreal, I knew that the readers of Le Devoir and Montreal Star or the Gazette or Globe and Mail were different from the readers of “Allo Police” and the “Suburban”. Not better – but different. And the advertising strategies and financial issues behind each had, per force, to differ. The readers of Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, The Economist, Global Brief, Walrus, Policy Options, the Star, the Globe and National Post are all different and do, at some level, overlap. But economic survival is about the integrity of the brand. And that integrity must be about the unique mix of style and content that sets you apart. Competence and objectivity, if you purport to offer “news”, matter. Balance and fairness, if you purport to offer opinion and analysis, count.
In the radio world, modernizing and updating, when confused with dumbing down and trivializing does little for the brand and less for the audience. It may well be that like the BBC, CBC Radio should have different signal and programme packages tightly or narrowly targeted, as opposed to diluting CBC 2 and offending loyal audiences. Digital options and web-based solutions can and do help here. But shallow content transmitted by podcast does not become less shallow because it is a podcast.
There are some rules that I submit would assist in preserving intellectual depth, news credibility and brand expansion for both newspapers and broadcasters and some concurrent rules of the road. All are about journalism as a pillar of freedom in an open democracy.
- News and opinion are not the same. Mix them without care and you pollute both in broadcast, print and digital format.
- Define your audience and deliver high quality journalism to it. “Thou shalt not covet a third rater’s audience” should be a commandment for all editors and producers and provide assistance in defining the standards for the kind of journalists one hires and develops.
- Endless fighting, partisan or ideologically opposed panels of personalities are of value only in very small doses, if ever. Kathleen Petty’s rule on CBC Radio’s “The House” wherein differences of opinion should not be expanded into rants or fact-free attacks was a huge step forward. I have often been on those panels and gladly accept my share of mea culpas and then some. But disagreement and civility are not mutually exclusive. Radio that yells, TV that overspeaks with bile as opposed to reason are simply boring and brand-destroying.
- Sources matter. A blog is a blog. It is usually unedited and unverified. It may well be a source with which true journalists can verify independently whether any of its “facts” are actually real. Mixing blogs with news is a cop out. Blogs absolutely have a role – in the opinion or commentary section. They are no more news than a political party’s press release or a tobacco lobbyist’s letter to the editor. Reporting on what a blog said as if it were news speaks to zero news judgment and a race to find any content that can fill space. It destroys the brand and dilutes credibility among viewers or readers. Elevating blogs to an equal standing with news simply degrades the meaning of news and the standards of journalism.
- A public broadcaster is not there to compete with private broadcasters. Public broadcasters were created by Conservative governments in Ottawa and Queen’s Park to fill a void the private market could not fill. That is still what public broadcasters are there to do. TVO does. CBC-TV does not anymore. It is superb in many ways but less and less distinguishable on issues of news from private market players. Radio Canada is distinct. CBC Radio is distinct. The most recent CBC TV news re-profiling is the latest evidentiary proof of surrendering distinctiveness and brand particularities. I don’t blame the outstanding, CBC on-air broadcasters who are among the best in the world. I blame the management that let the TV consultants shape a shallow new reality. PBS’ McNeil Lehrer changed a studio to accommodate HDTV and maintained its depth, sincerity, high quality and dignity. BBC News did the same. It can be done without appearing to lose one’s grasp on the seriousness of the news process.
- Brand loyalty is not marginal. New generations of readers, listeners and viewers do not, upon arrival, get to change the offering they read, listen to or view. They come to a magazine, newspaper or national newscast because of the entity’s existing reputation and competence. That’s why they will stay. Changing the product every time an age cohort turns 14 means the product has no brand equity or integrity. CBC, CTV, the Globe, the Post, the Star are brands and all have integrity and identity and they do evolve. One should not sacrifice those brands on the altar of “new and improved” – the shallowest of advertising come-ons!
- While I can read the Financial Times on my blackberry, it is not the same as reading it in-hand, in its print and paper form. Digital versions are usually abbreviated and reformatted. Digital is often, for the least of important reasons, a censoring, abbreviating and technical format, uber alles-based editor. It is derivative and, as we saw with Lehman Brothers, not all derivatives are of equal quality or value.
- Authenticity matters. Being of and about a place, a set of values, a world-view, is not a parochial weakness. Americans often comment about how pleasantly surprised they are at how much of our news broadcasts and newspapers cover other countries, in comparison to Americans’ wild fascination with themselves. This is not about better or worse but about difference. Not difference for its own sake, but difference that reflects who we are and what we care about.
- Being in and from a place matters. Calgary’s approach to homelessness is far more creative, humane, grass roots and courageous than Toronto’s. We need to know why. Cover potholes if you must – but do not confuse that with things that matter deeply in people’s lives. Communities are where we go to school, work, invest, sell, buy, worship, live and die. They matter. The view of a community and its news shapes a community’s self-image and aspirations. The view from a community of the larger world also matters a great deal. We surrender that to the great digital homogenizers or the reshuffled content purveyors at great cost to brand, identity, equity and community.
- Cost pressures are not new or any more dynamic than they were in the past. The same technologies that put digital media pressure on the printed word also make photography easier and more compact and speed up transmitting reports, editing, publishing and printing. Revenue expectations that are driven by public capital markets are real. But that does not always make them realistic if quality is to count and competence and experience matter. Firing older reporters, letting editorial and news rooms shrink, moving to the unedited and immediate news model because financial analysts in their thirties had a view of your stock’s relative performance, may seem unavoidable for some. It is neither rational nor competent. It may well be that at the public policy level we need to look, not at media concentration issues, but at media ownership restrictions. I would rather a Canadian newspaper or TV station be competently owned by a private German, American or Japanese proprietor who was committed to a quality product of integrity than artificially owned behind a wall of Canadian ownership rules by a public company that saw 15% quarterly EBITDA as its only compelling purpose or by accountants whose goal in life is to have a newspaper turn a dollar into a dollar ten.
- The demographic reality has two sides to it. The oncoming generation with digital and web proficiency and habits and the less young who have a more mixed disposition. My exposure to young people in every class I have taught at the Queen’s School of Policy Studies for 16 years, every new generation that arrives, has taught me a couple of things I am eager to share.
a. Digital comfort and range does not dilute a search for quality, trustworthy sources and justifiably important facts and analysis. If anything, younger media consumers reach farther and more broadly than when I was their age. So low quality, cheap sensationalism and rigid shallowness is apparent to the thoughtful, younger digital consumer just as it is to the older Financial Times reader.
b. They do not set aside the printed word. And whether consumed in hand, on the web, on a Kindle or in its analogues, the printed, ie: reflective, edited, mediated and considered word, still matters
And as we know how older people feel about the same considerations in their morning Star, Globe, Post or Whig Standard, we should understand that in the end, the shallow, myopic, cheap hit, congenial, celebrity inebriated content really has nowhere of value to hide.
In the beginning and in the end, journalism that matters, informs, uncovers, empowers and liberates societies and citizens is about the integrity of content. I do not look to FOX for news integrity. I look to FOX for the American neo-liberal, neo-con view of the world. Nothing wrong with that. I wish them well. It’s just not news I would ever trust. I will disagree with Chantal Hebert on occasion, but I always trust the integrity and intrinsic balance and fairness she brings to her task. I know that Lloyd Robertson reports the news as he believes it honestly to be – not as how he would like it to be. That matters. Trust matters. Competence counts. Integrity is essential. There are some of Terrence Corcoran’s opinions I agree with and some I do not. But he separates opinion from news and strives for competing views in his Financial Post’s editorial page – a tradition begun by Diane Francis. His opinions are honestly held and eloquently advanced. That speaks to competence and integrity. I think of David Brooks at the New York Times in the same way.
Journalism, reporting the facts and informing the public, in a truthful, factual, verified and balanced way are not lofty goals. They are the standards of the standard bearers of the profession. There are countries where attempts to reach these goals are viewed as criminal and result in imprisonment and worse. I believe the profession owes it to those fighting for the right to “report” to set the standards high. My bias is to aim high. I believe many in journalism still share that same bias.
Now I know what some here might be thinking. When do we a have a dinner, perhaps organized by the Foundation for Quality Politics to talk about integrity, shallowness and quality in public life now that the good Senator has lectured us? Well that would be an outstanding and overdue idea – hopefully not too far in the future.
Thank you very much.