The evolution of Minifie journalism lectures

The symbol -30- traditionally signifies the end of a story. It’s also the title of an anthology of the first three decades of the annual Minifie public lectures on journalism at the University of Regina. Catherine McKercher reviews -30- Thirty Years of Journalism and Democracy in Canada: the Minifie Lectures 1981-2010.

In his introduction to this anthology, Mitch Diamantopoulos pays tribute to three leading figures in Canadian communication. One is Ron Robbins, the long-time CBC journalist who was the founding director of the University of Regina journalism school. The second is Dallas Smythe, the political economist who spent his career studying the complex relationships among money, power and communication. The third is James M. Minifie himself, a war reporter and CBC Washington correspondent who was one of Canada’s first journalistic celebrities. Diamantopoulos, the head of the journalism department, says these “three wise men” helped make possible the sustained critical reflection that characterizes the annual James M. Minifie Lecture.

There are no journalism educators among the 30 Minifie lecturers in this volume. There are no political economists either. Instead, the lecturers are much like Minifie himself. They are a who’s who of Canadian journalism, national figures whose accomplishments have made them celebrities in their own right. But as the 1984 Minifie lecturer Charles Lynch points out, journalistic celebrity has its price. “The danger is that the care and feeding of a national reputation takes over from the business of reporting on the story itself, and that’s addictive,” he says. “Like taking dope.”

Certainly, many of the Minifie lecturers spend time shoring up journalism’s collective reputation. In addition to extolling the personal gratifications of the journalistic life, they make high-minded pronouncements about the mission of journalism – nods to its essential role in democratic life and the need for accuracy, fairness, balance, independence, courage, professionalism, high ethical standards and so on. These are fine ideas, of course, but they are also uncontroversial. (Who could argue in favour of a journalism of inaccuracy?) So if this is what journalism is, why does it so often go wrong?
Clark Davey, the 1982 Minifie, gives the pithiest answer to that question: “In the never-ending fight for accuracy and fairness, the real enemy is us.” He adds, “If we remember that and do something about it we can restore to journalism the basic strengths that will again be our best protection and the public’s best protection against the government interference that neither we nor the public want or can afford.” Criticizing deviations from the ideal as a way of reinforcing the ideal is a recurring pattern over the years. The lecturers’ targets, more often than not, are journalists rather than the business of journalism.

The discussions of journalism’s failures are the most interesting aspects of the anthology, in large part because they cover a time span that begins in the era of monopoly newspapers and big TV networks and runs to the present day. In addition, the nature of the criticism is contradictory. For example, Eric Malling, the 1991 Minifie, criticizes journalists who pay too much attention to special interest groups and become the captives of activists and single-issue advocates. June Callwood, speaking two years later, calls for a journalism of advocacy, criticizing those who believe journalists can stand above the fray. Adrienne Clarkson, the 1999 Minifie, says journalists must be introspective, self-aware, consumed with the need to understand and have a moral centre. “Who are you?” she asks. “If you can’t begin to figure that out, and realize that it is going to be that life-long journey, you’re going to have real trouble keeping up a career as a good journalist …”

Forget maturity or life-long journeys, Kevin Newman suggests in his 2005 lecture. Journalism’s problems lie with “those of us 40 and older who are in the way of how journalism is changing.” A number of lecturers talk about government and (occasionally) corporate spin that gets in the way of seeking the truth. A larger number mention lazy or arrogant journalists.

When it comes to the business of journalism or its place in the overall political economy, the analysis is considerably more muted. Again, Charles Lynch puts his finger on the issue. “What we boast about — our independence — is open to the criticism that we get crotch-bound when we are dealing with our own business.” He makes a good point, but few of his successors at the Minifie lectern take it up.

There are exceptions, especially in the third decade of the series — a time of crisis in the business of journalism and in the society in which it operates. These exceptions are among the hardest-hitting lectures in the volume, the ones most likely to prompt debate in a journalism class or around a dinner table.

Linden MacIntyre, the 2001 Minifie, describes the rise of  “a sixth estate … a marshalling of professional skills, bureaucratic resources and a great deal of money, all dedicated to managing and blunting the exercise of accountability by the fourth and fifth estates.” The journalists trying to counter this force, meanwhile, are working for media that are driven by a corporate agenda of cost cutting and downsizing in the name of maximizing profits. “The result is what seems to be an ever-decreasing number of journalists who have the time or the energy to look beyond what’s being shoved in front of them — material usually crafted by the sixth estate.”

A year later Haroon Siddiqui notes that monopoly newspapers, though far from ideal, once had an ethos that power comes with an obligation to respect diversity of opinion. No more. He goes after Conrad Black and the Aspers for using their vast media resources not just to promote a particular point of view but to suppress opposing viewpoints. Siddiqui also criticizes the media for some sociological shortcomings: for failing to cover the changing nature of Canadian society, for ignoring visible minorities except when they get into trouble, and for following “a mindless anti-immigrant narrative.”

Terry Milewski begins his 2009 lecture with a sharp critique of the business model that has dominated journalism for decades: “(it) is now skidding into history with all the grace of a gas-guzzler heading over a cliff with a sleeping drunk at the wheel.” This crisis in the business model feeds into editorial timidity, seen in a watered-down product and the fear of libel suits. Meanwhile, thanks to new technology, “everyone’s a journalist now — actually, everybody’s a bad journalist.” Where most lecturers close their talks by urging journalism students to embrace the romance and noble calling of journalism, Milewski’s conclusion is muck darker. “All I can tell you is that you’d better try, and you’d better succeed — or the loony bloggers and celebrity recipes will be all we have. Thank you and good luck.”

It’s hard to know how James M. Minifie would react to the evolution of the lecture series that bears his name. But my guess is Dallas Smythe would be smiling.

Catherine McKercher is Professor of Journalism at Carleton University. Her most recent book, co-authored with Allan Thompson and Carman Cumming, is The Canadian Reporter: News Writing and Reporting. Third edition.