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The Topshee Conference was held at St. Francis Xavier University, sponsored by the Coady Institute, every second year through parts of the 1980s and 1990s. Each conference’s aim was to present facts relating to critical social and economic issues of the Atlantic Region; to enable people from all walks of life in the region to discuss those facts in terms of their own experience; to encourage follow-up action on the issues by a range of organizations.

In 1997, the theme of the conference was the media. I gave the keynote address that year and these are some excerpts from my speech.

The mainstream media is not a monolith. And yet, the mainstream media covers the news within a very narrow framework. Any attempt to cover the news outside that frame is immediately suspect and the person pushing the boundaries of the frame is marginalized and isolated. I’ll give you two examples – which reach different conclusions:

I was once taken off a story because the producer thought my background and my beliefs weren’t suited to the subject matter. It was about the feminization of poverty; I had done a lot of research on this, knew a lot of sources, felt I could throw some light on a complex subject. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I think a story like this coming from your point of view would lose some credibility. I’m going to give it to Bernie.”

“And whose point of view will Bernie do it from?” I asked ingenuously. But my ingenuousness was lost on him because he looked at me strangely and said, “Well, from nobody’s point of view. He’ll just do a straight objective story.”

Those of you who have worked in radio or television will be familiar with those machines whose job it is to erase tapes. You just take all your full tapes, line them up, run them through and they come out clean as a whistle, with no pre conceived ideas on them, no background, no history. I suddenly imagined the producer running Bernie through that machine every morning, making him much more qualified than I to do a story – pristine, written on a blank slate.

(Just in passing, around the same time, I heard of a black male reporter with a private radio station in Montreal who was removed from a story dealing with a police shooting of a member of the black community – presumably in favour of a white reporter who would bring no `point of view’ to his coverage.)

My second example is more positive. In the mid ’80s, I was the first editor of a newspaper called Atlantic Fisherman which covered the commercial fishing industry in the four Atlantic provinces. I made a conscious decision to cover the Atlantic fishery from the point of view of the people who caught the fish, worked on the boats, and worked in the plants. I spent days driving around the Maritimes, wharf to wharf, and hours on the phone to Newfoundland. I wanted to know what the issues were to the people who were affected by them. Once I knew, I began to call people – politicians, bureaucrats, big business processors. I would tell them the issue I wanted to discuss and I would explain why. I was received very coolly. There would be a long pause and then they – politician, bureaucrat, business executive – would say, “We don’t consider that an issue and have nothing to say.” So I would put that in the paper. It didn’t take very long for them to realize they’d better talk to me because I wasn’t going away. One satisfying moment I had was when the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans was fetched from the floor of the House of Commons to talk to me – and thanked me for calling. The fishermen and the fish workers thanked me too because they realized the power they had when they were able to get their message out.

This comes under the heading “Who defines the issues?”

Today, the privileged and the powerful define the issues and set the agenda. Those who work outside the accepted boundaries are at worst, invalidated, or at best, diminished in importance.

Here are my examples.

This one astonished me: a story in the paper – Canadian Press, I think – reported on a news conference called by the president of the Canadian Nurses’ Association at the end of an annual meeting. She reported on several resolutions that had been passed by her organization, all of which had to do with the state of health care today, in these times of heavy cutbacks. Amazingly enough, at the end of the story were a couple of quotes from the president of the Canadian Medical Association, patronizing the nurses’ position on health care, leaving an impression of “who cares?” Try to imagine the opposite. Try to imagine the CMA stating its position on anything and some reporter saying, “gee, I’d better call the Canadian Nurses Association and see if they have any comment on this.”

Each year, before the federal government budget comes down, an alternative budget is presented in Ottawa by a coalition of economists and social activists to demonstrate that there are other ways of handling the economy than the way this government has chosen to handle it. If you see any coverage of it, it will be discredited by a handful of conservative economists who will declare it a product of the looney left while the budgets of Paul Martin are presented with no such scrutiny by progressive economists. In fact, Paul Martin’s budgets will probably be reported with reverent quotes from the Fraser Institute, the C.D. Howe Institute, or maybe Brian Crowley of the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies.

The most blatant biased reporting happens in the realm of business. Watch the business pages if you doubt me: Thomas d’Aquino, president of the Business Council on National Issues, gives a speech at the Empire Club in Toronto. He praises the government for its deficit fighting cutbacks; he extols the idea of small government; he’s ecstatic over privatization, de regulation, globalization. His speech is reported as Truth. His salient points are lovingly picked out, a little background is thrown in, maybe a quote or two from a couple of the guests at the Empire Club are included. And so to press.

In Hamilton, Bob White, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, speaks to a workers’ rally. He assails the BCNI for its anti-worker rhetoric. He attacks the Ontario government for its new anti-labour legislation. The report of his speech is written up but wait! Call Tom d’Aquino to get a reaction to White’s statements. Call the Ontario Minister of Labour to get a “reasonable” explanation of the legislation. By the time the Bob White story goes to press, his points have been distorted, his position has been weakened, he has been rendered less effective by a press that chooses to diminish his pro-labour point of view.

And by the way – you notice I said, watch the business pages. Business has its own pages, usually its own section. For many years, it had its own column on Morningside on CBC Radio. It has its own shows on television – on both private and public channels. Soon to get more, in fact – Newsworld, I read, is about to dump all its sports coverage in order to add more business programs. And business is covered simply as it says it is – no questions asked. My example this time is not from my own experience but from the writer James Winter whose most recent book is Democracy’s Oxygen: How the Corporations Control the News.

“In 1995,” wrote Winter, “Canada saw $77.4 billion in corporate mergers and acquisitions, up 60 % from 1994, which in turn was up by more than 100 % from 1993 – three record breaking years in a row. Overall, Canadian companies racked up a record $95 billion in profits in 1995, up 19 % from the year before.

“At the same time, the commercial news media were also reporting that 1) these profit gorged corporations were continuing to lay off thousands of workers; 2) wage increases were still lagging behind the rate of inflation; and 3) the Chretien government, elected in 1993 on the promise to create jobs, was instead confining its role to pleading with the corporations to stop downsizing.

“The media, in reporting the mass layoffs by profitable firms, either did so without explanation, or attributed them to mysterious and irresistible market forces such as globalization and international competitiveness.”

It’s probably true that media have always been owned by rich people; it seems more recent to me that the interests of the rich and powerful have been so outspokenly represented. In Conrad’s flagship paper, for example, (The Ottawa Citizen), members of the editorial board gleefully and smugly refer to themselves as “right wingers.” Yes, they think government is the enemy. Yes, they believe that the public’s assets should be sold off to the highest bidder. Yes, they believe that people should be able to buy superior health care if they can afford it. During the recent election campaign, one of their editorials said, “There will always be a place for a party that preaches fair distribution of a country’s wealth although we would never support such a party.”

You can’t ask for more directness than that. And for some people, that’s comforting – better to know where they stand.

But news coverage can be much more subtle. News coverage – going right back to where I started from – is never objective, is never without point of view. And so commentators and reporters have identified groups that show up regularly in news coverage as “special interest groups.” These could be environmentalists – whining tree huggers; they could be people working against discrimination and racism – politically correct bleeding hearts; they could be labour unions – power hungry thugs; they could be – and so often are – women.

I once came into a story meeting directly from a visit to my bank. I told my producer that all the tellers at my branch had been cut that very morning from full time to half time, had lost half their wages and all their benefits. “Yeah, well we can’t do that story,” he said. “We’ve already done womenstuff this week.” That could have meant that we had done a story on child care, on sexual harassment, on bake sales, on pay equity, on family violence, on Harlequin romances – womenstuff. The bank teller story was not seen as a story of employment or underemployment, of the economy, of human decency in the work world – it was seen as special interest. (Of course, make a note please. I don’t go to banks any more. I go to credit unions.)

A few years later, during the Gulf War, I called a local media outlet to tell them about a dramatic peace demonstration that was taking place the next day. The editor I spoke with hesitated, then said “I don’t think so. We’ve already done peace stuff this week.” You’ve done war stuff every day, I countered. But that’s different. Peace: special interest. War: the way of the world.

There’s even subtle bias shown in much more benign ways: last Christmas, a large front page photo in the newspaper showed weary Christmas travellers stranded in an airport during a snow storm. Far back in the newspaper was a picture of empty shelves in a food bank and people beginning to line up for a little bit of food for Christmas. Is it just that the person deciding on the placement identified more with the travellers in the airport? Or did that person find the food bank lineup distasteful? On some level, did that person say, “why don’t you people get a job?”

In his book, James Winters talks about the myth of journalists’ independence from ownership. He documents with academic studies and interviews with working journalists that “owners and managers in fact exert tremendous pressure over news content, beginning with the hiring and firing process and extending through to sources, editing, and placement. Sometimes the pressure is subtle, sometimes direct.”

So am I saying they make things up? No, they usually don’t have to. It’s not hard to find sources to say what you’d like them to say for the slant of your story. But I think somebody in our right wing newspaper world did try to make something up during the recent election campaign. I saw a story in two different places about someone called the “4×4 guy.” There were not so subtle references to the angry white male vote in the 1992 American elections and the soccer moms of 1996. This 4×4 guy – looked kind of like a suburban Marlboro Man – was supposed to be representative of a large block of voters living in the suburbs around the major cities and was, at time of writing, an undecided voter. “I’m going to look at each party carefully,” said 4×4. “I’m going to see what each offers and which one will be best for me and my family.”

That said a lot to me. Over the last decade and a half our country has been pulled away from an earlier sense of community we felt – not only for each other but for others in other parts of the world. We’ve now been given permission to think only of ourselves. That serves the agenda of those who seek to gain from the breakdown of our communal society, who know that if they can isolate workers from each other, can build a distrust for our institutions, can separate us from each other by dismantling our public services and our public broadcaster – they will have won.

They already run many of our governments. They already own much of our media. And that’s why media literacy is so important.

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