Nobody's a Critic
Who holds journalists to account in Canada?
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.