Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Media, News Control and All That

A rambling examination of the print media

In her review of You Can't Read This: Forbidden Books, Lost Writing, Mistranslations, and Codes by Val Ross, writer Deborah Ellis writes: "It is very clear in this book how those with power or vested interests have always striven to keep information deemed dangerous out of the hands of people with less power --- "dangerous" meaning information that could upset the status quo, and start the masses thinking that perhaps the emperor is not wearing any clothes."

Vested interest will always seek to control the news. That's why they monopolize the mass media.

There is nothing new in all this. Here's one from 16th century England from The Book in the Renaissance by Andrew Pettegree. When Protestant Henry of Navarre became king of France in 1589, the news was available to English readers in "at least 40 pamphlets" -- the then common mode of news dissemination. However, his 1594 conversion to Roman Catholicism "was greeted with deafening silence in London."

The purpose of a newspaper is to make money. No money, no newspaper. It makes its money by entertaining readers with only that information the publisher wants them to know. The "public's right to know" is media code for the publisher's right to print what they wish.

If you want to know why a newspaper has adopted a certain policy, follow the money. Evaluate the influence of the policy on their bottom line. Rare is the publication that goes against its own financial interests. It will do nothing to harm its income and everything to bolster it. The owners demand no less.

Struggle is the essence of plot. With no struggle, conflict, or dispute, there is no story. The lazy journalist seeks extreme opinions or situations. If none is at hand, one is fabricated. A common technique is the negative interrogatory, such as "Don't you think . . . ?" Another method is reporter harassment, "Why won't you answer my questions? As if a citizen need explain his behaviour to a reporter.

The subjunctive mood with its supposition, contingency and doubt can plant seeds of concern in the reader's mind when there need be none. But the subjunctive helps create a story in progress. It implies the potential of something negative. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us it designates a mood the forms of which denote an action or state as conceived and not as a fact. Collins English Dictionary describes subjunctive as "denoting a mood of verbs used when the content of the clause is being doubted, supposed, feared true etc. rather than being asserted."

The use of the passive voice alerts to possible indecision or lack of grasp of the issue.

Look for undue use of the conjunction "but." The report may be -- We know A, but we do not know B." It may be used to instil a false concern, or to cover up poor investigative performance.

On the CBC's At Issue Panel (25 Sep 08), Maclean's Editor Andrew Coyne acknowledged that "the media has a vested interest in exaggerating events."

While proclaiming freedom of expression, our media indulges in its own style of censorship under the rubric of "publisher's prerogative".

"It is a characteristic of people in the news business that they are forever on the side of the public's right to know -- so long as the knowing stops short of media affairs" -- George Bain, Maclean's, March 20, 1995.

The news industry "represents the only major corporate activity in our society that effectively controls communications about itself." -- Peter Desbarats

"How much of the wealth which a newspaper takes out of the community is it morally obliged to give back in services?" -- Peter Desbarats

Interpretive reporting has become more designed to affect people's feelings about issues than their understanding." -- George Bain

"The sensitivity of the media to their own interests, usually stated as the interest of Canadians, is never to be underestimated." -- George Bain

The quality of a newspaper may be judged by the quality of its published Letters to the Editor. They reveal the perceived level of readers' intelligence, as well as the publisher's attitude toward its public.

I believe it safe to presume journalists take instruction from their paper's editorials. After all, it is the boss who signs the pay cheque. To state otherwise would be to deny human nature, both that of the publisher and that of the journalist.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Selective News at the Toronto Star

A May 8 email to Kathy English, Toronto Star apologist. No reply.

Dear Kathy English:

Your recent column Who decides what is news? inspires this letter.

You state, "Journalism is, by necessity, the art of selection, or deciding what matters and how to present that to audiences." You leave hanging the question "matters to whom?" Of course, it's what matters to the publisher, the editor, and the journalist.

Two cases in point. A week ago, the Star ran a front-page story about women who may have been abused by Catholic clergy. This past Saturday, you ran another front-page story speculating about a bishop you have been unable to locate.

The former story was based on anticipation of something that may not happen. Why you ran the latter story one can only speculate. To whom would Star anticipation and speculation matter? Each of these pieces was used to dredge up and re-print hoary stories. May I speculate that this fits into the Star agenda of never missing an opportunity to smear the Catholic Church? May I anticipate a righteous denial?

Let's be honest. Neither report is news, but an attempt to create news. Splashing non-news on the front page reveals much about the quality of Star reportage. It's only being realistic to state that newspapers publish only what they want the public to know.

A December 8 email to Kathy English. No reply.  

Every time someone smears swastikas on a synagogue, the Star give it coverage. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I have not seen mention of the November 25 vandalism of the Nativity scene in front of old city hall. Why the difference?