It’s fascinating to watch the print media in its death throes. In a way, I feel like dancing on Postmedia’s grave but somehow that doesn’t seem appropriate. I devoutly wish it hadn’t happened but, slow and painful though it may have been, it has.
Newspapers have been with us, for better or worse, for too long to be tossed aside like, well, yesterday’s newspaper. One can wade in with praise or vitriol, depending on one’s own obituary preferences, but to what end? The eminent journalist, Paul Willcocks, in a recent Tyee article, advised that it’s time to sit back, take a look around, and start making some decisions. Right, but first we must know what we want and what our choices are.
Newspapers bring many things, much of which is irrelevant except to those to whom it isn’t. If you’re in the market for a house or a car, those sections are invaluable; if not, you skip scores of pages to get to the Comics or Sports Pages. I’m going to assume that like me, it’s Public Affairs you’re interested in.
Since the arrival of radio in the 1920s, the papers have been on a slide when it comes to reporting news. They’re just too slow, their lingering advantage being the ability of the consumer to consider matters at leisure. To me, that “lingering advantage” has been important – TV and radio needs more. They try and sometimes succeed with talking heads, but it’s not the same as the Sunday Papers by the fire. The sad truth is, there just aren’t enough “Sunday by the fire” folks to make it pay.
Part of that “lingering advantage” is, or rather was, the opinion columns. Again, the talking heads are OK but just can’t match the ability to get you to sit back, in a place of comfort or perhaps need, relax and read a provocative article on something that interests you, cast it aside for a moment if the phone rings then pick it up again when you wish. This, I daresay, is why, along with sheer habit, most of you buy the newspaper.
Newspapers gave up what they did best
One article which gave me pause for thought was in a recent Globe by Marsha Lederman, who came to newspapers’ defence, her theme being that they held the government’s feet to the fire and did a wonderful job of keeping the Establishment honest. What this did was remind me that newspapers were indeed singularly well-placed to do just this and the problem was they hadn’t been doing it for years. It happens so seldom now that when it does occur, it stands out like a nuclear blast on a barren desert.
There have been some great examples of journalistic courage, integrity, and persistence – the most memorable being Watergate. There have been others and some closer to home. But perhaps Ms. Lederman can remind us of the last time the Globe and Mail actually got involved in a big exposé.
They were involved, all right, with Brian Mulroney and the bag full of money from Karl-Heinz Schreiber of the Airbus scandal but they no sooner got close to the mark and they abandoned ship and allowed Mulroney to get away with blue blooded murder.
One of their writers, the estimable Rick Salutin, even demonstrated that the Harper government retained a lawyer to set out the terms of reference for investigating Mulroney, that the terms of reference were a laughable whitewash, whereupon upon the lawyer was, with indecent haste, appointed Governor-General of Canada. It was a hell of a story but led by the “establishment man”, Andrew Coyne, the good ‘ol boys circled the wagons and insisted that Prime Minister Mulroney and lawyer Johnson were nice, decent Canadian boys whose actions really ought not to be questioned on solemn matters like this. It was really just another amazing coincidence for which Canadian politics is famous. Mr. Salutin suddenly wasn’t writing for “Canada’s National Newspaper” any more.
What happened to Vaughn Palmer?
Moving closer to home, the Vancouver Sun, during the NDP decade, were relentless in digging out scandals and near-scandals and it’s been fairly said that the government was brought down by Vaughn Palmer and his relentless exposure of the fast ferry scandal.
That was the high-water mark for hard-hitting, investigative journalism, because the moment the Liberals came to power in 2001, the gloves were back on.
Follow the money
I stop there because it’s not my purpose today to lay out all the sins of the media but simply to remind everyone that Ms. Lederman is quite right to say that the print media can and often does a helluva job in holding the establishment to account – but, for some reason, these days that all but stops if they get too close to the mark.
Perhaps the clue can be found in Vancouver. Big advertisers could see that, in fact, they were financing the wasting of their own money. They would give the paper millions of dollars to advertise a product and pay good money to political parties and the next thing they knew the government they supported was having the shit kicked out of it by the principal political writer for the paper they also supported. This was nothing new but now business saw the ways and means to retaliate, big time.
Advertising executives and their clients are not known for their love of democratic principles like free speech if they, in any way, interfere with their livelihood. I can’t speak for the writers but I can say without hesitation from my own experience that until recent days a decent talk show host wouldn’t tolerate interference from an advertiser or management for a second.
Then, almost overnight, trumped up reasons for firing became the order of the day, along with refusal to renew contracts and deliberate failure to bring on aggressive, young successors. There is the occasional hero like Ian Jessop of CFAX in Victoria, but they are on a short rope and don’t need reminding.
Blame the Internet
Whatever the reasons and however it was done, by the turn of this century, the muckraker was gone. A tough interview was no longer to be seen and editorials took on all of the excitement of a Sunday school sermon.
The inevitable happened. People stopped listening to radio and buying the newspaper. The owners gave all sorts of reasons, mostly that it was the fault of the Internet, but the fault was in themselves not the stars.
Revenues plummeted and, one by one, previously impregnable corporations found themselves groping for partnerships and buying a smaller companies in the vain hope of increasing their cash flow. The harder the executives tried to stem the flow the worse it got.
What will save the mainstream media?
Probably nothing, because they have no ability to make the difficult decisions needed. To put it bluntly, there’s no money available for them to recapture the respect of the public by going back to doing what Ms. Lederman says they are so skilled at.
It’s easy, and often fun, to point out the idiotic decisions media moguls have made in the past 20 years. But it’s no longer fun when you see the president of Postmedia preside over massive lay-offs while he pockets almost $2 million while the shareholders say nothing. When the same Postmedia makes faustian pacts with the fossil fuel industry, where each pledges to kiss the other’s backside on cue, and the public sees an industry pledged to inform people fairly and accurately climbing into bed with the most controversial industry in the world, it’s game over.
The world will get by without Woodward and Bernstein and without Edward R. Murrow. It won’t be as good a world, it won’t be as honest a world nor as promising a world…but it’s the world we’re going to have to get used to.