The hushed firing and re-instatement of Victoria Times-Colonist columnist Vivian Smith was, in some ways, just juicy gossip to media insiders. But its significance echoes through every news story.
As reported blow-by-blow in 24 Hours journalist Sean Holman’s blog “Public Eye“, Smith penned a column criticizing the high cost of many local Victoria, BC tourist attractions. T-C publisher Bob McKenzie subsequently met with irate tourism representatives who spend many advertising dollars in the daily, and immediately fired Smith without explanation. T-C freelancers Janis Ringuette and University of Victoria writing prof Lynne van Luven quit in protest, and the Canadian Association of Journalists started probing. CanWest Global execs stepped in, reassuring everyone they “vigilantly” protect “unencumbered” journalism in their empire. McKenzie then assured his staff that “we do not allow advertisers to influence the content of this newspaper”, and admitted his “error in judgment“.
Fans of honest, independent journalism might find reassurance in Smith’s re-hiring; an unusual situation resolved appropriately.
Unfortunately, what truly makes this unusual is not reassuring: Unlike most similar situations, this battle was stacked in the writer’s favour.
McKenzie was brashly overconfident; with a wink to the complainers and a month wait, the firing would have appeared far less suspect. And as a former Globe and Mail editor, Smith had more stature than the average freelancer, plus notable associates well-placed and willing to publicly help. Further, Smith’s article was really just an innocuous ribbing about those 50-smacker teas and gardens, wrapped in suggestions about nice things to see and do for free. Did anyone actually believe a million tourists would read Sunday’s page D3 and suddenly decide they preferred to eat only beach seaweed while sleeping in Mount Tolmie bushes? Finally, it was crucial that a political journalist like Holman, prominent but outside the CanWest Global empire, found a source willing to speak publicly about that fateful meeting.
Without these factors, veteran Smith would’ve gone the way of a student intern caught fabricating government sources, and we’d be none the wiser.
Which would have been a result closer to the norm.
Even with McKenzie’s backhanded apology (or red-handed confession), every local journalist shivers more today, wondering, ‘What happens when the stakes are higher?’
We don’t know because media keep themselves out of the media spotlight. Media conglomeration worsens that. Indeed, this persistent, secretive shroud makes Ringuette and van Luven reluctant to return to our daily. Van Luven was even refused the right to discuss the events in her column. “The whole issue was not discussed in the T-C’s pages at all,” says van Luven. “That really bothers me.”
I can only speak from my own experiences and research in 20 years of freelancing: It’s a far-reaching problem.
Influences are sometimes very direct. I’ve seen scathing arts reviews spiked to prevent angering long-time advertisers, and magazine editorial policies explicitly outlining monetary terms for companies to get articles written touting their health products. A national news outlet stopped reporting on a massive business scandal after directors of the company involved lunched with the media corporation’s management.
My freelancer friends and I often discuss companies we believe to be almost unassailable–no major local media would run extremely critical stories about them for fear of losing their abundant ad-spending.
However, the main influence comes indirectly through budgets and hiring.
There’s nothing conspiratorial. If the media owner is less social visionary than number-cruncher, a news director is simply hired who’s more enthusiastic about playing ball than rocking boats. If you’re in charge of car reviews for a paper’s lucrative car-ad-filled “Motoring” section, are you more likely to hire Ralph Nader to include lists of every dangerous, pollution-causing, corner-cutting design flaw, or a former ad copywriter who simply relishes driving? I’m guessing you’ll go with the sleek look, slick functionality and innovative interior which make that latter wordspinner every inch the Mercedes of writers.
Prioritizing profits has similar effects. Monday Magazine had survived two decades when Island Publishers/Black Press purchased it, but freelancer pay rates were still cut by 2/3rds. Since then, we’ve lost investigative, socially-critical features from award-winning, frequent former contributors like Sarah Cox, Ben Parfitt, James MacKinnon, Ross Crockford and Alicia Priest, and gained in news bites and easy-to-write lifestyle briefs about ad-friendly topics like kids, music, travel and books.
There’s no black and white separating advertising and editorial; shadings of grey depend upon the particular topic, the individualistic spirit of the writer, the spine of the editor or news director, and the vision and fearlessness of the owner.
Certainly, I understand those tourism reps. Who doesn’t become annoyed with perspectives in the media we disagree with, or which undermine things we work for or believe in? But now more than ever, we all need to decide what to support in our media. Do we want journalism that voices our favourite points of view, or independent, questioning, intelligent journalism? Because, as smart as we all think we are, those aren’t always the same thing.
Want business-supportive media, for example? Consider former media-darling Enron. Long after it bilked companies, investors, workers and taxpayers for billions and became the second biggest bankruptcy ever, we discovered not only media but journalists themselves from The New York Times, National Review, Weekly Standard, CNBC, Wall Street Journal and others were taking payments from Enron while promoting the company in their stories.
In the end, practically no one liked that coverage. Most people would have been happier to have instead learned about enjoyable things they could see and do for free. But what news media provide that service anymore?
I’ve written more about this story and van Luven’s refusal to return to the T-C for rabble. Also, I should disclose that I get occasional work as a writing instructor at UVic, so I do have a professional relationship with Lynne van Luven.