Why we must limit the influence of corporate media

| December 15, 2009
Editor's Note: This is the second of five articles that address the need to develop independent media -- print, broadcast and Internet-based -- in Canada. All five articles will appear on rabble.ca. The first article explored the reasons why traditional media no longer provide reliable news and information to the Canadian public. It can be viewed here. This second article explores how for-profit, corporate-owned media have filtered and censored both print and broadcast news for decades. The third article, which will appear following the Holiday break on Jan. 12, 2010, will discuss what independent media could look like and how it could benefit communities across Canada.

Is your community poorly served by the traditional media? Would you like to become involved in a group to see if an independent media project could be launched? It is hoped that this series of articles will encourage public-minded groups to set up new media projects in their city, town, or region. Interested groups and individuals are invited to send us their comments on the series along with any ideas on how to establish independent media projects. Send your comments to editor@rabble.ca and fillmore0274@rogers.com

WARNING: News from corporate-owned media is bad for our country's health!

Traditional for-profit media, including our daily newspapers, radio and TV news, filter out all kinds of information they don't want us to get our hands on. This filtering process includes many kinds of stories, including reports that would offend advertisers but, if carried, would alert the public to things such as improper corporate behaviour. Corporate-owned media also slant the content of stories so that, for instance, some stories paint a negative picture of organized labour, protest groups or some environmental organizations.

On the other hand, what corporate media does allow to pass freely through the filter are all kinds of stories that tout capitalism as being good for everyone. They endorse free-market economic practices, even though such policies tend to make the poor even poorer and the rich richer. For instance, between 1980 and 2005, a period when unrestricted capitalism dominated life in the country, median earnings among Canada's top income earners rose more than 16 per cent while those in the bottom fifth saw their wages dip by 20 per cent.

News editors know which topics can't be covered

Traditional news departments follow unwritten but well-understood guidelines concerning what they should not cover. Most people in the newsrooms have been so thoroughly indoctrinated in corporate ideology that they seldom suggest a story that falls outside of the guidelines.

When a contentious story comes along, its fate is determined away from the newsroom, behind closed doors. And management sees to it that only the editors they approve of make key decisions about what stories are covered in the news. In response to a survey conducted in 2007, some 60 per cent of a cross-section of more than 600 journalists from for-profit newspapers, TV and radio said that the values and politics of their corporate owners had an effect on the editorial agenda of their news organization.

"The people that get promoted to positions of responsibility in a newsroom," says author and columnist Linda McQuaig, "tend to be people who share the views of those who ultimately own the paper, or are willing to go along with those points of view." She has first-hand knowledge of how the newspaper power structure works from her years as a business reporter for The Globe and Mail. "If you don't [share such views], you don't tend to get promoted into those positions."

Serious news censorship to protect profits began more than 100 years ago, when newspaper owners found that they could get rich from selling advertising. They quickly stopped publishing stories that would in any way offend their advertisers. While this practice still helps the media companies' bottom line, it prevents the public from having access to all kinds of information, including reports that might alert someone to problems at a company they're doing business with, or to a company using bad business practices.

Nowadays, traditional media companies occasionally carry individual stories about the transgressions of corporations. When there are such stories, they are usually buried in a paper's business section. When a corporation is convicted of a crime, most traditional media editors would say that it involved "just one bad apple in the barrel." But, in truth, there are countless bad apples in the barrel -- corporations charged and convicted of price fixing, bribery, industrial espionage and tax fraud, among other wrongs.

Media covers street crime, but not corporate crime

But Canadian media companies do not cover the world of corporate crime in a way that would alert the public to the extent of the problem or that would act as a deterrent to corporations. The media companies apparently prefer to have lots of reporters covering criminal courts or following the police as they catch petty criminals, but not reporting on corporate criminals who cost the North American economy billions of dollars each year.

Meanwhile, a small but long-established U.S. magazine, Multinational Monitor, does report on the activities of big corporations. Each year it publishes a list of "The 10 Worst Corporations." Six of the ten companies on its most recent U.S. list also do business in Canada. An Internet search of several Canadian newspapers turned up no coverage of the cases cited by the magazine.

In the same way that the traditional news media show little interest in reporting on corporate crime, they make little effort to investigate and alert the public to situations concerning faulty goods and products. If newspapers wanted to attract readers and show they care about consumers, they could take their journalists who write "puff pieces" for the Cars or Homes promotion sections and have them investigate possible consumer fraud situations. Obviously, media that are primarily driven by advertising revenue are not going to take on this kind of journalism. This is simply another conflict area in which for-profit media cannot -- or will not -- provide the kind of service that the public needs.

Powerful people get lots of media ink

The corporate media give inordinate weight to the views of powerful people in business and people in positions of authority. But they pay meagre, and almost never positive, attention to people from less powerful groups, such as the poor, white-collar workers, unionized workers, feminist groups and environmental organizations. The result is that organizations representing the interests of millions of Canadians have little if any voice in the mainstream media.

Corporate media have done their bit to advance the decline of the organized labour movement. When reporting on labour, news media tend to focus heavily on the "damage" done by strikes while sparing only a few lines, if that, for explanations about the workers going on strike, for example, to prevent "take-backs" by companies or government. Ed Finn, a long-time labour journalist with The Toronto Star and now editor of The CCPA Monitor, the publication of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, says that the media treat organized labour unfairly: "Most union conventions get no press at all. Coverage of a labour-related story (usually a strike) is left to general reporters with little or no knowledge of unions, union history or structure, collective bargaining, labour laws, or any other aspect of labour relations."

Because alternative economic or social views -- such as those of the labour movement -- are seldom presented in a positive light in traditional media, the public can only assume that either there are not any alternative ideas or, if there are, they must be impractical.

Management often interferes in the news decision process

Although it is acceptable for media owners to decide which political party their company will endorse during an election, as a rule managers should not interfere in the day-to-day news decision-making process. They should certainly never change the meaning of a story. But both actions are regular occurrences. This sort of interference is just as prevalent at the CBC as it is at corporate media organizations. Here are some quickies:

• During the tense times in the 1970s when the future of Quebec was hotly debated, Toronto Star desk editors frequently changed the copy of their Quebec reporters so that the stories would reflect badly on the separatist movement.

• I worked with CBC-Radio's The World at Six for two or three years. During that time, perhaps a couple of times a week a CBC mid-level manager would wander over to the line-up editor, make a comment or two or ask a question, and, presto, the nature of a story would be changed.

• Over the past three years in Toronto, both the Star and Globe and Mail showed their dislike for NDP mayor David Miller and his politics by running story after story critical of the mayor.

• Many years ago I was publisher of the weekly muckraking newspaper The 4th Estate in Halifax. The city's daily paper, The Chronicle-Herald, was very proudly Nova Scotian. In fact, publisher Graham Dennis was so concerned about protecting Nova Scotia's reputation that he censored and would not publish certain stories that reflected badly on the province. This was a great boon for my little weekly, as a couple of frustrated and angry Herald reporters more than once arrived at my office bearing copy for unprinted Herald stories in their hands. We got some nice exclusive front-page stories that way.

The Globe: The best and the biased

The Globe and Mail, the newspaper that I and some 325,000 people read and rely on every morning, is perhaps both the best but also the most biased of the dailies in the country. I say the best because its various sections have so many skilled reporters who provide what is probably the best journalism anywhere. I say the most biased because, first of all, its Report on Business -- the most influential news section of its kind in the country -- is an extremely partial publication that lacks the ethics to background its stories with pertinent information. You could even say that the RoB does not operate in the best interests of the majority of Canadians because it publishes unbalanced journalism that paints a false picture of many important issues, and its pages harbour rabid right-wing columnists who if they had their way, it seems to me, would have children working in the coal mines again.

Secondly, a large majority of the op-ed pieces and columns in the main section of the Globe are right-wing, often coming from corporate-financed front groups like the Fraser Institute and the C.D. Howe Institute who are usually pushing ideas that are not in the public interest. Add to this the Globe's safe and conservative editorials, and the right-wing views of regular columnists Christie Blatchford, Rex Murphy, Marcus Gee and Margaret Wente, and you have a publication that is not the reasonable, balanced publication that the Globe purports to be, but a truly right-wing publication.

Adding this all up, I'd say that the country is in need of a balanced and responsible daily newspaper.

Chill causes journalists to censor their work

Two powerful ideologies -- ultra-conservatism in politics and free-enterprise corporate ideology -- have reached into the newsrooms of the country and left a chilling effect. The range of free expression that both journalists and columnists/panelists feel comfortable in occupying has narrowed considerably. Self-censorship is now a widespread problem. Journalists tend to suggest only stories that fit into the accepted norm, which might help explain why most Canadian dailies are so vacuous these days.

Columnists and commentators have adopted a different method of self-censorship to try to protect themselves. It used to be that many journalists who had the luxury of their own column, or the chance to appear as a commentator on a political program, expressed their opinion in no uncertain terms. Now many columnists and TV panelists blather on about a politician's strategy to get out of a tight spot, or speculate about what a politician might do next to advance their careers, but that's about it.

One of the most surprising, and disappointing, examples of self-censorship appears week after week on CBC-TV's The National. The highly touted Thursday night panel, with host Peter Mansbridge joined by panelists Andrew Coyne, Chantal Hebért and Alan Gregg, offers an extremely well-informed group who can talk with great clarity -- but about things that don't mean a damn in Weyburn or Weymouth. A lot of the time they talk "spin" about "spin." I don't know if they actually realize the reason why they perform in the way they do: that is, because of the wider environment of self-censorship in which such programs have operated in for so many years. Except for hard-core politicos, the segment leaves most real folk no better informed about real issues then when they tuned in.

It is probably impossible to rid the news media of self-censorship. But considering that self-censorship is a practice that severely undermines freedom of the press in Canada, there is surely a worthwhile task here for Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) and PEN Canada. The two groups could conduct an informal investigation of conditions at several media outlets to determine the extent of chill and self-censorship. This could be followed by the publication of a report, which would bring the problem out into the open and possibly even lead to a decrease in self-censorship.

The public is well aware that journalists are not able to report freely. A 2008 public survey conducted for the Canadian Newspaper Association (CAN) by the Canadian Media Research Consortium reported that only 37.3 per cent of those questioned believed that journalists can freely report the news.

Independent media would be much better for us

Journalism in Canada should not be so firmly in the grip of corporate-owned media. The news filtering and information manipulation that goes on every day infringes on our right to have access to all media, and not just the stories and reports that editors hidden somewhere allow us to see. Moreover, when you take into consideration all the censoring that occurs and pro-business bias, our traditional media would be much different if it were independent and not relying on advertising revenue.

Unfortunately, thousands of fine, hard-working journalists are in this up to their necks. Journalists and editors have become so accustomed to living by the unwritten laws of corporate journalism that they turn a blind eye to how they are really part of what has to be considered a conspiracy -- a massive, well orchestrated effort to prevent the public from obtaining fair and balanced information that is vital to the functioning of society and democracy.

Next, the week of Jan. 11: Why independently owned and operated media would be good for Canada.

Mr. Fillmore, a past-president of the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) and former Executive Director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), is a freelance journalist and media fundraiser based in Toronto. He can be contacted at: fillmore0274@rogers.com

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