Media

Nobody's a Critic

Who holds journalists to account in Canada?

by
Illustration by Jason Logan

• 1,919 words

Illustration by Jason Logan

Canadians often lament our lack of an equivalent to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show (no, the Rick Mercer Report does not count), but that barely describes the dire state of media criticism in this country. The United States has NPR’s On the Media, Gawker, and numerous blogs and newspaper columns that dissect journalism from various perspectives; we have almost nothing comparable. The UK, beyond its cutthroat Fleet Street wars, has Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe and the Media Show, both on the BBC. Australia has Media Watch on TV and Media Report on public radio. Al Jazeera English has Listening Post. Media analysis is an established beat in almost every nation with a free press, and it’s a given that journalists must scrutinize our own profession as diligently as we would any other.

Canada is a strange exception. Although we have a few media reporters, our attempts at substantive criticism never last long. Antonia Zerbisias served as the Toronto Star’s media columnist from 2003 to 2007, but then she changed beats and the position was eliminated. Decades ago, CBC Radio tried out a show called Media File, which sought to provide an inside glimpse of the newsmaking process. Sunday Edition host Michael Enright, then a CBC executive, remembers the show failing because journalists refused to appear as subjects. “It didn’t last for more than a season,” he told me in an interview last year. “People in the media got nervous.”

Why would journalists get nervous? Here’s a theory: because the Canadian media is insular, heavily concentrated in Toronto, and more of a club than an industry. I learned this at my first real job, as a chase producer at the CBC. My boss’s husband was a Globe and Mail reporter, and her boss’s husband was a Globe critic. Two others on our team lived with each other, and soon I was dating within the building as well. (I was laid off in 2008, following a round of budget cuts.) This is not particular to Canada. Journalists worldwide are notorious for inbreeding; even our friends tend to be colleagues. In a country this small, however, such cross-pollination becomes an inhibitor to free expression. Complain about a column at a cocktail party, and its author might overhear you. Challenge an item published by a rival outlet, and sooner or later its editor will be your boss. Our industry is tiny and shrinking; egos are sensitive and memories long. It is easier to take aim at politicians and celebrities, keeping opinions about one another’s work to ourselves—or at least out of print and off the record.

When the industry considers itself, it does so to dole out awards. Laurels include the Canadian Association of Journalists Awards, the Canadian Journalism Foundation Awards, the National Magazine Awards, the National Newspaper Awards, and the Canadian Online Publishing Awards. A comprehensive list might add the Michener Awards for excellence in public service journalism, the Kenneth R. Wilson Awards for the business press, the Canadian Community Newspaper Awards, and a flurry of regional honours, stand-alone prizes, and academic fellowships. Given the financial state of the industry, the running joke—that Canada has more awards than full-time journalists—may soon cease to be an exaggeration.

The constant bestowal of trophies within the trade illustrates not just how self-congratulatory the Canadian press is, but how badly we have lost sight of who we are. We seem to be under the impression that we are doing something dignified and respectable. Elected officials pander to these airs with Senate appointments and calls to the Order of Canada. A few journalists have even been tapped to serve as Governor General. This is all very nice for a handful of beneficiaries, but it has proven toxic for the profession; smugness and self-righteousness do not make for a healthy or accountable press. The job is adversarial by nature. Our duty is to inquire, provoke, and irritate without reverence. When we stop applying that principle to ourselves, rot sets in.

Examples abound of what can go wrong when we don’t look under the rug. Many in the Canadian media knew that Globe columnist Margaret Wente was getting sloppy: borrowing arguments, sources, and entire passages from other writers without adequate attribution or verification. But few dared to write about it until evidence of Wente’s transgressions, catalogued by an independent blogger named Carol Wainio and later picked up by the Guardian, became too overwhelming to ignore.* The Toronto Star initially labelled its coverage of the Rob Ford crack video “exclusive,” even though Gawker was the first to report on it; without the New York website’s scoop, the Star might never have pulled the trigger. Eventually, Star publisher John Cruikshank quietly issued an apology to Gawker, but it is worth noting that the mea culpa was never printed in his paper. He uttered it during an On the Media appearance.

Other, less well known problems have cropped up. In 2012, CBC News and Parks Canada entered into a confidential contract. The document, leaked to an independent news site, revealed an unusual arrangement: the department paid CBC News $65,000, for which the broadcaster agreed to provide coverage on television and online. Sure enough, a failed Arctic shipwreck salvage project undertaken by Parks Canada was featured on two episodes of The National and extensively on the CBC’s website. Management later denied any wrongdoing, insisting that the CBC retained editorial control, and describing the payment as a fiscally responsible way to recoup costs for creating a “joint website” with Parks Canada—a claim that went unchallenged in the press.

Some issues fall completely under the radar. During last summer’s wireless wars, when Bell, Telus, and Rogers were engaged in a relentless PR campaign to sour Canadians on Verizon entering the market here, someone at CTV News leaked a series of confidential emails. (CTV is owned by Bell Canada but claims editorial independence from its parent company.) Included was a note sent from Bell Media president Kevin Crull to, among others, Wendy Freeman (head of CTV News) and Chris Gordon (head of radio and local TV). In it, Crull alerted them to a study suggesting that, contrary to popular belief, Canadians pay reasonable rates for wireless service, and he highlighted findings that supported Bell’s business agenda. A segment about the study aired on the CTV News Channel that day, and Gordon forwarded Crull’s email to a few employees, writing, “Kevin is asking if this report can get some coverage today on Talk Radio.” I filed a piece about the incident for Macleans.ca, where I was on contract as a blogger. It never ran.

Intrigued by stories such as these and excited by the opportunity to fill a void, I pitched media criticism—sometimes as a column, sometimes as a radio program—to our various news organizations. I didn’t get far. I was told that Canadians may be passingly interested when the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd or CNN’s Fareed Zakaria commits plagiarism, but they couldn’t care less when a local pundit lifts a line or two. Conflicts of interest, political interference, outright fabrication: all are juicy enough stateside but petty quibbles up here. The term “inside baseball” came up more than once; as for how sausages are made, I was assured that no one wants to know.

None of these rationales satisfied me, so last fall, after my fourth rejection, I found a corporate sponsor and independently launched a media criticism show. Canadaland, a weekly podcast and blog, turned into quick poison for my career. Freelance work dried up almost instantly, and my phone stopped ringing with requests to serve as a talking head. Worse, I had trouble finding guests of my own. Most journalists turned me down flat (including the editor of this magazine), fearing repercussions, so I expanded my scope to include filmmakers and comedy writers.

The situation improved after my first big scoop. In February, Canadaland broke the news that National anchor Peter Mansbridge had been paid to speak at an oil industry event. Similar information had already emerged about the pundit Rex Murphy, whom CBC management defended on the basis that he is an editorialist, not an impartial reporter, and a freelancer, not subject to the corporation’s rules for full-time employees. However, Mansbridge is both a reporter and a staffer, not to mention chief correspondent of CBC News. The oil sands are one of the most contentious issues in Canada, and here was the public broadcaster’s top journalist moonlighting for one side of the debate. Three similar speaking engagements for other oil groups came to light—each worth as much as $28,000.

The story ricocheted from Twitter to news websites to the Senate, where CBC president Hubert Lacroix was called on to defend Mansbridge’s activities. Many established writers, politicians, and academics spoke up to say that journalists should not take money from the organizations they cover; at a minimum, such conflicts must be disclosed. At this point, even CBC Radio had to treat the issue as news. As It Happens broke the silence with a thorough piece on the issue, and The Current and Q followed. Both Mansbridge and CBC management were invited on the air to discuss their positions, but they declined.** The CBC was stonewalling the CBC.

Eventually, Mansbridge defended himself in a blog post. He denied any wrongdoing, offering that he delivers about twenty speeches a year, half of them paid. None were a secret; in some cases, he had publicized them himself. “Bottom line,” he wrote, “I follow the rules and the policies the CBC has instituted governing journalists making public appearances.” Was he lying? Absolutely not. He was certain he was following the rules, because management assured him he was—but he was wrong. In reviewing a slew of public complaints about Murphy and Mansbridge, CBC ombudsman Esther Enkin found that “it is inconsistent with policy when CBC news and current affairs staff accept payment from groups that are likely to be in the news.” The rules are extensive, clear, and leave little room for interpretation: outside contracts that lead to the mere appearance of conflict of interest are forbidden.

What are we to make of this incident? That CBC News management is corrupt? That Mansbridge is? No, but the truth may be more unsettling: that the Canadian media’s lack of scrutiny allowed both the anchor and his bosses to believe their behaviour was above board. Each time Mansbridge broke the rules without getting called out, it was taken as further proof that he was not breaking the rules at all. However, there is a bright side. In this case, unlike the Guardian criticizing Wente or Gawker hounding the Star, we cleaned up our own mess. Everyone from Vice Canada to Huffington Post Canada to the Globe worked the story, because they knew their readers would be interested; even the news organizations that had rejected my media criticism pitches picked it up. Some readers were outraged. Others had no problem with journalists taking money from the oil industry—but nobody said they wished they hadn’t heard about it. It turns out that people do want to know how sausages get made after all.


This appeared in the June 2014 issue.

Jesse Brown is a National Magazine Award winner and a former CBC Radio host.

Jason Logan founded the Toronto Ink Company, which sells ink made from street-harvested pigments.


  • dave

    I think what happened is that journalists USED to hold them selves in account. It was a personality trait to the job. As the world changed so did they, for profit, religion, government, war, money, technology causing competition all those reasons and more. When journalism changed it lost that personality trait. It’s happened to other professions before, remember when lawyers didn’t advertise? It was before everyone started suing everyone to get a head.

    • Peter Henderson

      Lawyers wanted to advertise, they just legally weren’t allowed to.

      Journalists can become complacent, but that trap is no different now than it was 30 years ago. In fact, the Internet provides a great forum for policing journalism – as evidenced by the Wente fiasco. But we can’t let a distributed system of volunteer bloggers and tweeters take the place of real media reporting. I interned at On the Media back in 2010 and loved it, and that sort of voice is sorely missed in Canada.

    • Infanteer

      Journalists used to try to keep themselves out of the story. Today, the bias of reporters is injected into every story – each piece an editorial by stealth – yet the editors allow it and the publishers obviously support it. Instead of news reporting, therefor, we get the opinions of reporters distributed as news.

      That the large majority of reporters self-identify as liberal-left becomes apparent in each story as well, since every action of a centre-right politician in this country is described as a “right-wing fringe reaction” or some such nonsense. Canadians get good reportage from only a few outlets, such as the much maligned Sun News, which has less bias to their reportage but an obvious right of center tilt to their op-ed pieces.

      The rest of media in the country is happier to join in the social reform of the country, rather than honestly reporting news. Better to filter what Canadians see and hear, or to shape the news, than to let us decide for ourselves. Orwell would recognize their ilk.

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  • http://www.nu4ya.com/ K.I.A.

    good stuff; want more stories like this. somehow i didn’t know about ‘canadaland’. many times i’ve wanted to know the real story behind the story — has that reporter received a book deal after a few years of saying the right thing (name your pundit)?; did they receive scholarships and ‘training’ for university from certain groups with a vested interest (see Koch bros. funding of college newspapers); that survey they cited — did it come from a think tank, and what is the political stance of that Institue (for ex. is it the coal industry calling solar too expensive?) or: did that advertiser demand a story, or a magazine cover if they buy some ads?

  • Will Gibson
  • The Phantom

    “Nobody’s a Critic: Who holds journalists to account in Canada?”

    Oh, you mean like when the Walrus prints stuff like “Vigilante Nation” by Christopher Hedges, who writes to tell them he’s utterly full of it? I do. Check the comments.

    I also stopped paying for media. I don’t get cable or newspapers, I don’t watch television or listen to radio. At all.

    I don’t need to. Because Internet. Plus they lie about pretty much everything. See example, The Walrus, “Vigilante Nation” Sept 2013. So why pay?

    Every time you boys step out of line, thousands of people point and laugh on the interwebz. Why do you think all the big media outlets are laying off more and more every year? Example, CNN has less than 500,000 viewers. Their business plan is circling the bowl. Canada is no different. Example, CBC.

    Anybody who wants to know what’s going on looks at Drudge, Small Dead Animals, SUN TV and a myriad of other sources. Anybody who wants to feel all warm and comfy like a mushroom reads the Star and watches CBC.

    • JPCactus

      Phantom and Walrus sucks, I had much more to say, But you just said it – and better than I would have. We’ve done the same – no cable, no newspaper, nothing at all. Until were able to get only SUN TV on cable, they’re kind enough to send us email alerts. There’s so much good coverage of issue’s online, why waste money on “professional” journalism.

      • Doug Earl

        So you both access it, read it, remember it clearly and comment on it, but you don’t pay for it. Way to take a principled stand.

        • Jim Maki

          I don’t pay for crap.

          • The Phantom

            Word.

        • JPCactus

          So you’re inferring, sarcastically, that reading here is now for me somehow unprincipled? How exactly – when the point I was making is as Jim said; I don’t pay for crap.

        • The Phantom

          Yes Doug, that is correct. My principled stand is, I don’t pay for Liberal political propaganda twice. My tax dollars already paid for it once, you think I’m going to shell out again? Nuh uh.

          Furthermore, the only times I ever “access” the CTVCBCGlobalG&MStarSpectatorCITY mainstream fire hose of poo is when they’ve told yet another egregious lie. That means its time to point and laugh.

          Today’s howler, The Toronto (Red) Star comes out in support of the Ontario Liberals! Like there was ever a question they might support Hudak. As if the Red Star isn’t a wholly owned subsidiary of the LPC, but rather earnest journalists soberly considering the candidates.

          My principled stand is that these lying bastiges need to be driven out of business as soon as possible, to be replaced by somebody who doesn’t lie for money. Its called a boycott.

          Try turning off the TV for a week. You’ll instantly become smarter and less disinformed just by not listening.

  • walrus sucks like the rest

    Why would you need a critic?
    Can anyone name a mainstream media journalist who isn’t a bald faced liar?
    How about that hunger strike a few years ago, were we really supposed to think Chief Many Chins was really on a hunger strike?

    Too funny!!!

  • walrus sucks like the rest

    Does this sound like a conflict of interest?
    The OPP are investigating the Liberals for the gas plant scandal, and the OPP union is actively campaigning against Hudak.
    Nothing fishy there?
    No cause for concern?
    Well, no cause for concern in the mainstream media anyway…the cops are just doing the investigation into the party that has the best chance of beating they guy they want beat.
    Where is the media storm over this obvious opportunity for shenanigans?

    • Doug Earl

      No that doesn’t sound like a conflict of interest because the OPP who direct the investigation into the gas plant e-mails are not the same people who run the OPP union. It does sound awfully off-topic, though, for a response to a column about media criticism.

      • MikeSr

        Don’t respond to shout backs very often Doug Earl; however you do seem to be part of the CBC/Walrus “I am entitled” group. Cheers;

      • Elilla Shadowheart

        So you’ve got people in the union, who are service members, and you have members of the service who are doing an investigation. You do know that the PSA says that officers are not allowed to be involved in partisan politics correct?

        Note how the media really isn’t calling this forward in terms of an investigation.

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  • montana83

    Kate holds journalists and politicians to account. Read her blog if you dare:
    http://www.smalldeadanimals.com

  • http://curmudgeonreport.com/ bGreenInnes

    Tip of iceberg. Crony capitalism executes on editor’s desk. Beholden to advertisers. Exposes or hides according to THEIR interest, not yours. CANCEL YOUR FRIGGIN SUBSCRIPTION is all you need to do. Do it today.

  • http://ommag.blogspot.ca/ OMMAG

    If anyone expects any critical thinking from the brain dead remnants of mainstream media consumers there is a deep lack of awareness in that individual.

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  • Frank Drakman

    Am I the only person who remembers Ottawa’s version of FRANK? You know the one that was forced to close because it lost a libel suit to Mike Puff.. er. Duffy, because they said he was fat? There’s your answer in a nutshell – in our incestuous media/political society, if you make fun of prominent someones whilst pointing out their foibles, you get sued until you shut up or are out of business.

    • anonymouse

      It is still being published, and it still publishes plenty of gossip about Canadian media personalities.

      http://www.frankmag.ca

    • Watachie

      You mean the magazine where a now leading journalist and award winner, working for the Ottawa Citizen, held a contest to decide who got to rape a Prmie Minister’s daughter?

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  • James Knoop

    I remember once I was in Palestine working as a journalist intern for a few months. I went to a press conference where the PA mentioned a few comments about Canada and John Baird. The press secretary made some comments about she could not understand the position of Canada regarding Israel and Canada and even went so far as to make some kind of joke about our new foreign policy position being so one-side.

    There was a National Post reporter in the crowd that day. I don’t know what he was thinking but he totally misinterpreted the entire situation. The next day I read a story in the newspaper about how the Palestinians had become militantly anti-Canadian. It was over the top and extreme. Anyone who was in the room that day would not have agreed with that reporters’ contextualization and description of events. It was completely irresponsible journalism.

    I have one or two other stories but that one comes to mind….

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  • Watachie

    I think the media and especially the CBC have a whole lot more explaining to do in light of the Jian affair. First of course there’s the question of the CBC brass and what did they know and when did they know it? Secondly there’s the issue of a possible media cover-up concerning many of the leading lights of their industry. It’s no secret that rumours abound of misdeeds reaching into the highest echelons of journalism in this country. It’ll be interesting to see if this self-appointed group of arbitrators of public life, now begin to take a closer look at their own.

  • http://www.ireneogrizek.com/ Irene Ogrizek

    Yes, it’s about time we started holding our media accountable. The Ghomeshi affair is small potatoes, in my opinion. It’s the deliberate use of misleading information that gets me. That and turning every major story into some sort of Hollywood script. No nuance, no moral ambiguity allowed — someone is always a villain. http://www.ireneogrizek.com/category/media-critiques/

  • Joan Montgomery

    One of the biggest issues is one sided reporting like in the Eric Cunningham recent death articles attempting to show him as a victim when as a bully the ongoing litigation was about continuing to promote a liberal lie, fraud and the exhaustion of keeping the elephant in the closet. Llike many politicians he lied and died by the stress of promoting a lie and fell on his own sword. The consolidation of media in corporate hands who have a political agenda is dangerous, undermines critical reporting and can lead to public misinformation,public mischief, and undermines democracy. Like many bullies he used the legal process to launch vexatious suits and promote misinformation via press cronies to protect himself but the book of life will show a sad account in deliberately defrauding, defaming, the first wife of 24 years by a fraudulent divorce application omitting to disclose his legal marriage agreement and failure to disclose to undermine fair contract rights and equalization based on a lie that he only made 19k. The truth will show a conspiracy to defraud the first wife by collusion to misrepresent the OEB enterprise alleged sale which never took place. The record will show deliberate liquidation of assets and false witnesses and a deliberate attempt to block evidence. Those who play war games and listen to counsels without scruples to win at any cost – and use children as an emotional tool of abuse, use fabricated affidavits and unaudited statements, use false fabricated police evidence to secure a political judicial decision, use political and judicial connections to avoid court orders to the banks and Anton Pillor orders to obtain the truth and have cronies bully ccra to never have an audit done to conceal a different life – eventually will be ultimately judged by God. We all are accountable in the end but the press did the Canadian public no service by spinning political propaganda as opposed to the truth. One sided journalism and poor investigative reporting is a public disservice.

  • http://unseatHarper.ca/ Paul Bronfman

    Who Killed Canada:

    Media Ownership and the Radical Right in Canada

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d8D67YiLcOM

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fiurWhmOIgk&feature=related

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRnZ43wxGvY&NR=1

    Part 1, 2 & 3.
    Note: each video about 10 minutes
    long

    ………….……

    • http://unseatHarper.ca/ Paul Bronfman

      No time for video?
      Read review instead:

      Mel Hurtig begins by discussing the Canadian media and how
      we now have the greatest concentration of media in the western world. In fact, he states this would simply not be
      allowed in any other western democracy.

      And since these same media outlets control newspaper,
      television and radio news; we are essentially only being given one voice. There are few or no alternative views. As stated in the video, a healthy democracy
      should foster a healthy and independent news media.

      http://pushedleft.blogspot.com/2009/11/under-stephen-harper-we-are-no-longer.html
      #cdnpoli

      Note: The video
      link Emily Dee posted in her blog doesn’t work anymore, here is an alternative
      link:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d8D67YiLcOM

      ……….……