By Published On: September 10th, 20066 Comments

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?
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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.
rw

6 Comments

  1. Keith Gottschalk September 15, 2006 at 6:40 pm

    Rob:

    Read your column on rabble.ca. Great work keeping this in the public eye. Was in Victoria as a tourist in July and saw firsthand how expensive the touristy stuff was. High tea at the Empress was out. Anyway, it seems that major Canadian media organisations act little differently than their American counterparts. They came after me with long knives at the Cedar Rapids (IA) Gazette after I cancelled my paper over their picking up Ann Coulter’s column – and started discussing it publicly. In the end, they used my rabble.ca writing to force me into resigning. Typical. There is no wall between the major advertisers and the editorial side anywhere anymore so it seems. Only public pressure can ensure press freedoms.

  2. Rob Wipond September 16, 2006 at 12:56 pm

    Thanks for your comments, Keith. What did they force you to resign from, and how did they force you into resigning? And I have an opinion question for you I’ve been thinking about: Will people keep reading newspapers, even if and when they learn/know that they are/have become 100% corporate-state propaganda? Like, I’m pretty sure news shows and newspapers are popular in China, too. Maybe our interest in “news” transcends our interest in “truth” or “facts”…?

  3. Keith Gottschalk September 17, 2006 at 6:22 pm

    Hey Rob:

    I was the religion writer. Basically I had been writing for rabble.ca for six months. Unpaid, of course. Nobody said a word and I told some of my cowrokers about it. After I cancelled the paper and expressed my disapproval, suddenly copies of my online writing magically began appearing on the desk of the editor and managing editor early in the morning or late at night. All of the sudden it became an ‘objectivity’ issue – if I write these ‘strong’ opinions for the Canadian alternative press, then people in Cedar Rapids (99.99999 percent who don’t even know of the existence of rabble.ca, the .00001 is me) will not be able to trust my ability to be objective.

    I didn’t appreciate the very public harangue in front of my section editor. Basically it was stop doing this or be fired. Neither of them seemed to have any idea how these copies got on their desks. Right. Nor did they care to find out. It was a planned hit which they probably set up. Even if I quit writing for rabble I was dead in the water there anyway. Everyone knew about it and I was getting a lot of cold shoulder. A few people, however, secretly told me they were on my side but feared for their own job if they spoke out.

    I felt in an untenable situation and did not want a firing on my record – either now or later, so I quit. It was a terrible company to work for anyway – completely right wing even though they tried to tell everyone they were ‘moderate’ and objective. The irony wasn’t lost on me. But management can mouth whatever lies they want with a straight face. Basically most of the staff wanted to quit and and the turnover rate in editorial in the 2 1/2 years I was there was about 35 percent – and they paid well! It was just the work atmosphere that was so bad.

    I’ll never forget when they hung one of their restaurant reviewer out to dry for writing a truthful review of a local restaurant. The owner, who is acknowledged in the community as a scumbag who runs a dirty kitchen, threatened to pull ads and I think threatened our editor in other ways. So in his Sunday column, he castigates his own writer in print for being too honest. And she was a city reporter who, like others on staff, did the review on her own time. Just hung her out to dry on Sunday morning. A real rat and a half. Morale plummeted on staff which was amazing since I couldn’t believe it could go lower.

    So I can’t say I miss it. But I have a bad feeling that the business is just not what it was when I started over 20 years ago. It was fun then – in my last two newspaper jobs the fun definitely seemed over.

    In response to your question, circulation keeps slipping all across the demographics in the US and even older readers seem disgruntled. I think they remember the way it used to be before papers got desperate to pander (and badly) to younger readers by trying to turn their papers into websites on paper. In most cases, they just embarassed themselves.

    I think most people still get the paper for the sports, ads and comics in that order and other local info tidbits. Only the zealots (the letter writers) seem to pay attention to the news sections and then only to complain that the paper is biased one way or the other. People here in the states generally look at their newspapers from a utilitarian perspective. We had more interest in our weekly shopper supplemental tabloid than the regular newspaper. Buy and sell is what is keeping many newspapers from drowing in red ink. Our paper is also owned in conjunction with a local TV station which helps it stagger along in the company’s bottom line. Its also independently owned but the owner is a right wing business class type and his paper reflects the country club view of the community.

    I don’t think most people really believe in honest news anymore. They don’t buy the paper for that anyway.

    I get such a kick out of cable TV news for instance, including the Sunday morning network chatshows. They have the most highbrow advertising in television – luxury cars, investment banks, other expensive baubles.

    Basically its the American upper classes having their prejudices reinforced. That’s what they want anyway.

    Remember when for one brief shining moment in the post Katrina coverage, the news anchors on the scene were overcome with actual human feelings like disgust and horor and actually started telling the unvarnished truth? It was so unusual that everyone noticed – MY GOD THEY’RE TELLING THE TRUTH – EVEN ON FOX!!!

    Well, like Prague Spring the suits issued a few strong memos and that took care of the little incident. These people had gone to the right schools and met the right people and were not going to jeopardize all that just to emote for the poor. So it was back to business pretty quickly – to unquestioning Bush photo ops. And the American people forgot about it pretty quickly too.

  4. Rob Wipond September 20, 2006 at 9:48 am

    Thanks for the reply, Keith. Your story is a good example, I think, of the overlap between two connected but not exactly similar issues, and I’ve been thinking of writing about the second, too. Basically, your firing/quitting wasn’t about advertisers. But it shows an equally important side of our news media — how dramatically the personalities of owners, publishers etc can and do influence the content of the news behind the scenes. Even when I was writing my article about Smith, for example, I kept thinking about how if McKenzie would talk, perhaps he might say, ‘actually, it had nothing to do with money. gosh darn, i just LIKE those industry guys better than i like most of those damn, shitty writers’. You know? There’s a bit of that ‘old boys network’, ‘don’t want to offend the people whose dinner party I’m attending’ attitude behind all this stuff we’re talking about that, in some cases, is even more influential than money. And since most owners of most media these days hang out mostly with owners of other big businesses…
    I will say one thing: You’ve forever changed my view of the letters pages! I like them, and often participate myself, but I think you may be right, they may distort our sense of how much most people care about the news. From now on, I’ll always refer to us as “the minority zealots of the letters pages”.

  5. J Cline March 4, 2008 at 2:56 pm

    Hmmmm. The long knives cut both ways, you know. If I want to read progressive propaganda wrapped up as “social commentary”, all I have to do is check out Heather Mallick on CBC. Commercialism may be crass, but its motivations are less obscure and disturbing than the nihilism of left-wing critics.

    Why is it acceptable to bash all things American, for instance, but it’s open season on Canadian business interests — who have significantly more direct impact on the wellbeing of Canadians than anything Americans do?

  6. rob March 9, 2008 at 11:53 pm

    I’m not sure what you’re trying to say, exactly, J. Although, I certainly see lots of stuff that some would call “left” that I find just as unhelpful as anything, if that’s what you’re talking about.

    I don’t agree that commercialisms motivations are “less obscure”, however. Business enterprises are often extremely sinister and complex in their motivations. Looking at this article, for example, was any of this particularly astute “business”? Not really. And sometimes businesses are deliberately secretive, e.g. read googles “do no evil” claims, and then study it’s ridiculously sinister ways of seducing personal information out of people and using it for nefarious ends.

    I also wouldn’t agree about the Canadian-American thing. American companies and investors control extremely high percentages of most Canadian industries and resources, and much of that as a profound effect on our lives. And don’t you think the rise of more extreme forms of conservatism in Canadian politics is directly influenced by U.S. media, these aforementioned businesses, etc?

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