Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Murder of Television News Was Premeditated

"The greatest power of the mass media is the power to ignore. The worst thing about this power is that you may not even know you're using it." --Sam Smith

There's no argument that we have a serious problem in this country when it comes to our media, or lack thereof.

Most newspapers are a joke, which is why more people are turning to international news or social media if they want to know what's going on in this country.

We can trace a lot of this back to Conrad Black, when he bought up many of the country's papers and made them a vehicle for the far right.

But even some of the more moderate publications have become a disappointment. Very little investigative reporting and far too much fluff.

That's not to say that they are all bad. We still have a few very good journalists, who aren't afraid to tell it like it is: Lawrence Martin, Murray Dobbin, James Travers, Don Martin, Antonia Zerbisias, Frances Russel; to name a few.

But most of the others are now just cut and paste specialists, or topic spinners; so I rarely waste my time.

And television news is just as bad if not worse. Again a few good ones, but the majority are more into entertainment than keeping the country informed.

And if we don't believe that these so-called news 'personalities' are partisan, look at how easily they move into government. Pamela Wallin and Mike Duffy from CTV. Peter Kent from Global. How can we believe anything they tell us now?

I thought however, that a lot of this problem started with Stephen Harper, and while he is definitely the worst to control the media, bar none; a 2000 article from the Ryerson Press, describes how Mike Harris manipulated the press, so it's definitely a neoconservative trait.

We may not have anything as deplorable as Fox News, but give it time. Everything these guys do, they learned from the worst of the Republicans.

TV newsmakers need vivid images to illustrate their stories. Harris's Tories, easily the most communications-savvy provincial government this country has ever seen, are delighted to oblige — on their terms. They dodge negative coverage at every chance and will go to ridiculous lengths — giving preferential treatment to friendly reporters, shutting out critical ones and staging elaborate, unrelated events — to avoid it.

With expectations so superficial, many television journalists are losing the incentive and initiative to go out and chase stories beyond the pre-packaged photo ops offered up by government communications staff. Even if they want to go beyond these prefab items, with shrinking political reporting staff and dwindling resources, they can only pursue one or two stories a day. Government PR people know this and are prepared to make it easy for journalists to get their precious pictures, provided the coverage doesn't end up being too hard on them. The result is political coverage that serves no purpose other than promoting a government that's already very good at promoting itself.

But what happens if a television anchor tries their hand at a little honesty?

... in October 1984 when Lesley Stahl said on air what President Ronald Reagan was really doing: she called him on all the promises he had failed to keep, particularly to the poor, since his election, calling him a president who "highlights the images and hides from the issues."

But minutes after the CBS Evening News Broadcast was over, Richard Darman, Regan's deputy chief of staff and Michael Deaver, a republican political consultant, called to thank Stahl. They'd watched it with the sound off, and without her verbal assault, it was just five minutes and 40 seconds of sweet, wholesome pictures of the American president with balloons, the president with the flag and the president with needy children.

As Stahl found out, consistently getting the right pictures on the evening news is a PR tactic designed to keep government in the public favour. Harris's communications staff, many of whom are trained by Republicans in the U.S., subscribe to the Mike Deaver school of thought: they know they can't control what journalists say, but they do their damndest to control what they show. Robert Fisher, a Global anchor and host of Focus Ontario, a weekly half-hour political analysis show, says he's never seen such tight control by a premier's office in his 19 years of political coverage.

"This government, unlike any governments before it, is absolutely obsessed with image," he says, "whether it's what shirt the premier wears or what the bus looks like or what backdrop he's in front of. I don't remember governments before being that concerned. If they stood in front of a grey curtain, they stood in front of a grey curtain. I've seen these guys change the curtain because it clashed with the premier's suit."

Image politics. It's the new norm. And news programs are not written with a view to keeping a country informed, but keeping a country pacified. Or even worse, and something that is all too common with Harper's divisive style, keeping a country turned off.

Being offered flawless pictures isn't the kind of help reporters need, but it's the only help they're getting. CTV's Queen's Park bureau, which had three full-time reporters in February 1997, now depends on one CFTO reporter. Global also has just one. The Ministry of Health, however, has a communications staff of 40. "I've sort of adapted to it more, maybe because I'm younger and I can go with the flow a little more," says Kelly. "But it drives guys like Robert Fisher nuts. In his day, we always did issue stories, issues were important."

Fisher admits the decreasing emphasis on solid political reporting does aggravate him, but he recognizes why it's happening. Issues don't usually make for good pictures and, once reporters commit their meagre resources to a superficial event, they can hardly afford not to cover it. This budget-induced apathy is compounded by the stations' general disinterest in traditional political coverage.

Bill Fox, author of Spinwars, who has been both a political journalist and a communications advisor for Brian Mulroney, says news executives are giving up too easily. "Behind a lot of this focus on dumbing the news down is the belief that you can't communicate anything of substance on television. But the academic research indicates the opposite. Used properly, television is an excellent medium to communicate very complex issues," he says.

Used improperly, local news becomes more vulnerable to communications initiatives. "You won't have the time to get behind the pre-packaged announcement," says Fox. Over time, consumers will realize that and move on.
North Americans are already giving up the evening news as a source of daily information. In the late 1970s, 92 percent of Americans watched one of the big three stations' evening news but that number, according to Fox, is now below 60 percent.

Toronto news organizations don't seem deterred by these statistics and, according to Kelly, are perpetuating the dumbing-down trend. "We're an inch thick and a mile wide," he says. "TV news has always been very shallow and in the past five years we've become even more so. It's shorter clips, shorter stories, more pizzazz ...

More pizzazz ... Yep. I guess that's why I've only watched television news very sporadically for the past 20 years. I just couldn't handle the pizzazz.


  1. Thanks for the mention, Emily.

    Just one point: I truly believe that the econmic model for broadcast (over-the-air) TV news has collapsed. Newspapers will outlive these supper hour and late night newscasts.

    Cable news will survive, but only because it is (mostly)ludicrous infotainment built to spew 24/7.

  2. No problem. We have to start promoting honest journalism. I'm so tired of spin. Your columns are always great.