The media are feeding us more information than ever before, but is it nutrition for citizens or empty calories for consumers?
When did the bleak days of January become journalism’s silly season?
The question was prompted by the appearance of two speculative pieces that made it to print on Jan. 18. The first was by Andrew Coyne, a journalist for whom I have a great deal of respect, who published a piece in Maclean’s called “Why Harper should hire Bob Rae: Isn’t it time Harper appointed Rae as foreign minister?”
Now, whatever Rae’s credentials, we know that’s about as likely to happen as Stephen Harper joining an ashram. Coyne himself admitted the likelihood of Harper appointing Rae as foreign minister is zero. Is Coyne’s article a bizarre argument aimed at criticizing the current foreign minister, Lawrence Cannon? Or is he simply wasting readers’ time with outlandish speculation?
The second, similarly time-wasting article appeared in the Ottawa Citizen: “Cannon and Baird next in line, if Harper were to die.” Actually, Canada doesn’t have a set order of succession, so the article was based on pure conjecture. Personally, I’d call raising the spectre of John “Rusty” Baird as prime minister fear-mongering. But that’s just me.
One usually sees stories like this in August, a traditionally slow news month. That articles like these are cropping up during a period that’s relatively busy for newsrooms has me concerned that Canadian journalism, both in form and content, is becoming dominated by non-serious stories that have nothing to do with the real issues of the day. If journalism is the “oxygen of democracy,” then it would seem we are slowly choking to death.
Take, for instance, CBC’s The National, which was for decades been considered the best news hour on Canadian television. While it’s still better than its competitors, The National, despite the considerable talent of its correspondents, has been on a steady slide downhill ever since the revamp in October 2009.
The new format – the set, graphics and standing hosts – is immaterial. The real problem is the growing focus on crime and personal tragedy. My wife and I were appalled last summer when it became The Russell Williams Show. It seemed that no matter what else of import happened that day, we were first treated to 15 minutes of incredibly important news about Russell Williams’ lingerie fetish, his disconcertingly friendly smile, and other morbid details.
While the capture of a crazed murderer and rapist is an important story, prioritizing it for weeks on end amounted to the creeping tabloidization of a once respectable news show. These days, the chances of The National, leading with a story about a horrific crime or a fatal accident are about 50-50. Sorry, Mr. Public Broadcaster, but these stories are not relevant to citizens of a democracy.
The other night, one of The National’s lead stories was about a 40-car pileup on Highway 11. Considering there was only one fatality, it really wasn’t much of a story. But they put it at the top of the line-up and gave it at least five minutes, when it deserved 30 seconds at most. To top it off, we were treated to a breathless report that Minister of Industry Tony Clement had driven past the accident in question and tweeted about it. Please.
I can’t leave the subject of the CBC without expressing my disbelief at its decision to devote hours of daytime programming to the recent police funeral in Toronto. The story of the policeman’s death is newsworthy, certainly, but how did this broadcast serve the public interest? What more could it be than a pathetic sop to the sensibilities of the Harper government?
But it’s not just broadcast news that’s failing. I recently cancelled my Globe and Mail subscription after reading it daily for over 30 years. Last year’s redesign marked another case of a news organization losing its way. Maybe we should have seen it coming after the editors’ December 2007 decision to devote the entire Focus section to the sad story of Ian Brown’s severely disabled child – for several weeks running.
Essentially, the Globe has decided to print a paper website. The amount of white space has dramatically increased, as has the use of large pictures and colourful graphics. Text? Um, stick it somewhere in between. It’s the inverse of The Onion’s brilliant satire, “Time Announces New Version of Magazine Aimed at Adults.”
I look around the Canadian mediascape and find serious journalism is in decline. The corporate conglomerates that own print and broadcast media are taking mankind’s fascination for shiny objects to the bank. Mandarins at the CBC have lost heart and are following suit.
The key problems are terrible story prioritization and an increasing focus on image over word. The media may feed us with information, but is it nutrition for citizens, or empty calories for consumers? Speaking of empty calories, the news that the CRTC is floating a proposal to loosen standards for disseminating “false or misleading news” is the icing on the cake.