How the media works, and for whom, isnt always reassuring

The Calgary Stampede-Vancouver Humane Society story (June 29-30) is a vivid demonstration of how, and for whom, the Canadian news media works in many cases.

What began as a sad demonstration of corporate self-interest and failed professionalism ultimately redeemed itself somewhat.

The situation proved some Calgary publishers are cowards, not journalists.

The Vancouver Humane Society (VHS), an aggressive West Coast animal-welfare advocacy group, tried to bypass its less activist Calgary counterpart and place a full-page ad in the Calgary Herald and Calgary Sun decrying calf-roping as cruel, on the eve of the annual Calgary Stampede.
The popular calf-roping event involves cowboys lassoing, leaping onto and trussing three-month-old calves in a race to be the fastest. The VHS ad alleged the competition inflicts pain, fear and stress onto baby cows for entertainment that wouldn’t be tolerated if applied to kittens, puppies or other cute young animals. The professionally-produced ad showed a cowboy (labelled bully) wrestling a roped calf (labelled baby) to the ground.

The Herald, that city’s big CanWest daily, refused to run the ad even with all reference to the Stampede removed, no reason given. The tabloid Sun, owned by Quebecor’s Sun Media, also turned it down for expressing an opinion that the Sun “does not share.” At least one radio station ad representative, in rejecting a radio version of the ad,  informally told the VHS it would offend a bigger local advertiser, the Stampede.  

I teach journalism at Langara College in Vancouver, including a course in ethics. In response to a VHS inquiry, I explained the ad rejections were legal:  Canadian courts have confirmed Canadian newspapers are private companies entitled to almost unilaterally choose who can buy their advertising space.  

But media advertising has become so central to issue advocacy by everyone from governments to churches that its denial raises a question of who determines free speech anymore and why. The two newspapers’ advertising blackout of criticism of the Stampede was discreditable public service journalism,  although media corporations increasingly know no journalism ethics. The corporate “blinkering” of the community was a legitimate story. And a bad strategy, as it turned out.

Curiously, The Canadian Press’ Calgary reporter rejected the VHS story, according to the VHS, because not every possible media outlet in Calgary to that point had been offered and rejected the ad. So much for the peoples’ wire service identifying a Calgary corporate phenomenon for the rest of the country, let alone being a watchdog for the media industry.

But the animals rights crowd persisted. Their calls to The Globe and Mail (my former employer) in Toronto led the Globe’s Vancouver bureau to craft a Monday-front-pager about the perceived corporate censorship, albeit focusing heavier on the Vancouver animal rights group trying to out-flank the Stampede-tolerant Calgary humane society. But the cat was out of the bag.

A slow Monday, the week of Canada day and summer holidays or maybe serious journalism: CBC News, both television and radio, both nationally and locally, plus Reuters, UPI, and at least several private TV and talk-radio outlets in Calgary, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Toronto matched and advanced the Globe story in the next few days, variously noting the ad-ban by the two Calgary dailies.  

And CP apologized to the VHS for blowing its first crack at the story and came back with a balanced piece, including the Herald’s assertion of its right to reject ads. The Sun had no comment.

Journalistic integrity appeared ascendant, when the Herald’s own CanWest News Service moved a Tuesday story about animals rights groups clashing over the Stampede’s calf-roping.

But CanWest’s redemption was short-lived: the story made no mention of the ad that the Herald (and the Sun) refused to run.

As if to confirm the distinction between corporate and journalistic perspectives, the Sun weighed in with a xenophobic defense of its muzzling of pre-paid free speech, or controversial advertising.

According to a June 30 editorial, the Sun was not trying to spike free speech, but “allowing a group of outsiders to come in and insult a proud Calgary tradition [the Stampede] seemed just plain wrong.”

It was advertising – a publisher’s prerogative, not news, said the Sun‘s publisher and CEO Gordon Norrie. “We turfed it because…we don’t need outsiders telling us how to run our rodeo.”

The Iranian state news service could not have said it any better of Western media coverage of recent pro-democracy riots in Iran.