On the Bad Business of Selling Editorial

Blitz Magazine, March 2002

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We’re all familiar with the practice of selling editorial. It’s nauseatingly common. Blitz does not engage in this practice. Why? Because everyone can tell when editorial is paid for and, once they realize that, that piece of editorial has no credibility. Then everything else in the magazine has no credibility. No one wants to read a magazine that has no credibility. And, since advertisers want their ads read by the magazine’s audience, there’s no point in advertising in a magazine that no one believes and/or reads. Forget journalist ethics—selling editorial is bad business.

I speak of magazines because (call me naive) I tend to think that newspapers aren’t as easily swayed by outside interests. There are many instances of editors and columnists going ‘too far’ and consequently having to apologise (on the insistence of their publishers) to representatives of ethnic groups, trade groups. But I like to think that these PR moves do not keep serious reporters from continuing to do what they should do, which is find the facts and truthfully and objectively report them.

My philosophy is: if it’s true, print it. If someone’s insulted, they’ll get over it. If a journalist reports on shenanigans at ABC Widgets, and ABC Widgets pulls its advertising, fine—it can find another way of reaching your valuable audience and other advertisers will be smart enough to stay with you because yours are the publications that people will read. Because they have credibility. Objectivity and fearlessness, therefore, are not only good for journalism. They are essential for the success of your publications.

Oh look. I seem to have slipped into saying ‘your’ and ‘publications’. I’ve somehow begun speaking to the Aspers, whose CanWest/Global Communications now owns the majority of Canada’s daily newspapers. What with the mess being created by media convergence and the negative ink that CanWest is getting over its convergence efforts, I have mixed feelings. This is a positive move for media buyers and sales reps. I think it’s a great idea to use CanWest journalists for cross-promotion. But I feel absolutely sick about the fact that CanWest, as a corporation, appears to intend to dictate the content of its newspapers.

The slope couldn’t be more slippery. CanWest is a huge company. Its owners (duh) could have corporate and personal financial interests in all sorts of conflicting areas.

What if a CanWest bigwig owns a large share of a pharmaceutical company and it releases a Wonder Dug—let’s say a cure for baldness. A Vancouver Sun journalist finds incontrovertible evidence that the drug attacks the liver. He does the story, head office finds out, the story’s yanked. No competing journalists find out about the problem. People take the drug, their hair grows, sales soar, profits rise. A year later, those customers are waiting for liver transplants and the other investors in the pharmaceutical company have lost their money.

What if the Aspers have a particular religious position?  Political position? Could this policy lead to the end of any reportage that goes against their grain? Of course it could. Should we care? Well, yeah. Every day, millions of us make decisions based on information taken from newspapers. If that information is tainted by the influence of private interests, our lives can be so tainted.

Should those in business care? Sure they should. Businesses of all types rely on print advertising—in most cases, a marketing plan without print advertising is no marketing plan. Further, because PR is often as important as advertising, businesses want their activities (well, most of them) reported in publications which are deemed to be legitimate.

Newspapers are integral to the smooth functioning of a society. But if people think that the material in their papers is inaccurate, incomplete or biased, the trust is gone. No trust, no credibility. No credibility, no readers. No readers, no advertisers. No advertisers, no newspapers.

It ain’t brain surgery. If you own newspapers, you leave your journalists alone. Your only communication with them should be your signature on their cheques and the order to ‘Find the Facts, Then Tell the Truth’. The worst that could happen is that your papers develop stellar reputations and your profits go up.

On Dicks & Democracy

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Blitz Magazine, May 2001

I used to spend a lot of time with a political strategist. I’ll call him Dick. I can’t say I knew him well, because it was his goal to not be known well. Once, he had too much to drink and let slip his mother’s name. The only time I got a direct answer from him was when I asked the time.

I thought of Dick while watching the ‘debate’ during the run-up to the recent provincial election. There were four candidates, facing four seasoned journalists. The journalists asked questions. Their questions were not answered, not even indirectly. The robots spouted scripted statements vaguely relating to the subject. No one was challenged; there was no debate of any kind. Later, the media discussed who won.

There were only three notable things about the session: the incumbent’s response to every question was a tired deflection against Gordon Campbell; Campbell’s constant repetition of the words ‘British Columbia’, as if to remind himself what province we’re in. And Green Party leader Adrienne Carr’s statement that she “truly believes” that private sector businesses would “find a way”, on their own, to establish wage parity. Sure. Have another joint.

I’ve had several conversations with Premier-Elect Campbell over the years. Ordinary, interactive conversations. But for this election, he’d clearly put himself thoroughly in the hands of a Dick. So had the others. I could hear the conversation, applicable to any one of them.

“You said we weren’t supposed to speak to the public.”

“Correct.”

“Then why am I doing this debate?”

“Just recite one of the responses you’ve memorized.”

“What if the response doesn’t match the question?”

“Immaterial.”

“What if the journalists notice?”

“They’ll be drunk.”

“And later, when journalists gather around me to scram-”

“Scrum. Say nothing. Be in a hurry.”

“But what about democratic principles? What about my obligation to be open, honest, forthwith—”

“Forthright.”

“That too.”

“Forget democratic principles. This is an election.”

BC politics has always been unusual. But this election was extraordinary. I’ve never seen an election, anywhere, where the Dicks so obviously orchestrated everything. No attempt was made to hide that fact that Dicks had total control. Over every movement, every syllable spoken. No one got a direct response to any question, from any candidate, at any time. No citizen was able to spontaneously communicate with any candidate: when a candidate arrived somewhere, the grassroots members that everyone’s always gushing about were unable to get near him without literally muscling through the pre-arranged barrier of placard-waving supporters.

Thomas Paine is often misquoted. He didn’t say that ‘power corrupts’. He said that ‘authority corrupts’. The difference is evident here. Those who have attained power ceded the authority to acquire that power to highly-paid Dicks, Who are faceless, invisible, simultaneously paid by many differing interests, accountable to no one.

Who loses? Any pre-existing good intentions on the part of prospective politicians are smothered, which must make politics torture for the well-meaning. Governments vanish behind a fog that we can’t rely on journalists to dispel, because centralized media ownership dictates their positions. And the man on the street? What man on the street?

When Dicks run the show, we lose, Dicks win. The Dicks gotta’ go.


 

On Being Fed Up With Crap Television News

When you read the Letters section in this issue, you may be one of the many who will empathize with Robert Fripp, the former Fifth Estate producer who says that he hasn’t watched television news or current affairs programs for over 10 years because “The steady drip-feed of Shock-Horror, negativity, finger-pointing and a press-room compass eternally pointed towards noire, is no more conducive to good mental health than is television.”

badtv

I can remember a time when I would have been mortified if I’d been caught not being informed; if, during cocktail conversation, I was found guilty of not knowing about the latest gaff of some politician, or what kind of reviews a certain movie received. Now, I don’t care. Neither do a lot of people. Because the trend seems to be that we’re backing away from the media. No one is embarrassed to say so any more. I have friends who no longer own television sets. People have made the decision because anything to do with mainstream media these days is maudlin crap, slanted reporting, That Blowed Up Real Good!, or Oh The Humanity! It’s stressful and depressing.

When I first heard about the Tsunami in December, I thought ‘Oh, poor people.” Then I thought ‘I bet newsroom journalists all over North America are just jumping for joy.’ I was right. There was a palpable giddiness in the reportage of the event’s aftermath, as if producers were shouting ‘We’ve got enough Human Interest for last for months!’ Reporters flocked to the region to report on sick orphans and starving people. Global News BC sent a native of the region, along with a reporter and cameraman, for that ‘first-hand, personal’ touch while, at home, its reporters were doing remotes from coffee shops whose owners were smart enough to see a great promotional opportunity when it arose.

When the Tsunami story started to cool, the same news organization invented its own story. A Thai princess came to Vancouver to settle legal and insurance matters relating to a property she owns here, and that almost burned down last year. Global reported on that fire at the time, and likely knew exactly what she was doing here. Instead, it reported that she came here to ski, swarmed her at the airport, demanded an interview with her representative here, and did ‘people on the street’ interviews.

Man oh man oh man….

While North American news organizations were squeezing every last sad drop out of the tsunami story, and many of us were hoping for some other disaster so the subject could be changed, the temperature plummeted to a (Vancouver) record of -7. I’m schlepping winter clothes to the Salvation Army and thinking “Hmmm…we’re sending millions and millions and millions overseas but, uh, doesn’t charity begin at home?” That same day, Nelson Mandela’s son died of AIDS. In South Africa alone, 600 people die of AIDS every single day—that’s 219,000 every year. While recording artists in every country are organizing concerts for those affected by the Tsunami, I’m thinking: “Whatever happened to Bob Geldof’s push for famine relief in Africa?, and “Why aren’t more people fundraising for HIV meds there?”

I used to be a fundraiser—I organized my first event at 14 and hung up the ball gowns about 10 years ago. I know how easily good causes can fall out of favour, or lose their cachet. There’s a status attached, or not, to each one. But once the media sees the opportunity to show the Blood & Guts, and countless images of suffering and pain and loss and damage, our response is to jump on! Do something now! Buy an Armani t-shirt (made in Mexico—I checked), send little kids on door-to-door collection excursions. That’s great, but then the cause in question seems to become obscene to us. After a very short period of time, people turn away, repulsed, or bored. It’s March now, and few of us think of the tsunami disaster; by the summer, most people will have pretty much forgotten about it. (The answer of course is for everyone to give a monthly sum to a broad-reaching charity.)

I digress. I turned on the news today. Services for the slain RCMP officers—an event that has grieved and disgusted the entire nation. Paul Martin’s ongoing support from his party. The US border’s closure to our cows. This is good—this is news that is relevant and meaningful to Canadians. But I’m watching the CBC. At 6:00, I will turn to one of the local channels—Global, CTV or CHUM. I will hear about the latest car accidents, house fires, some out-of-bounds skier being rescued. In ‘international’ news, it will likely be news of a landslide in California, a bad car accident in Holland, or a flood in Wales—anything gut-wrenching to fill the time.

We need to write to news directors and ask: ‘Why are you doing this to us? Why can’t we have fresh stories, discovered and developed by Canadian reporters, about things that actually mean something to us? Why is it that, when we are finished watching the news and there was an important issue mentioned, we’re left asking questions about it? Why give reporters 2 minutes, when they need at least 6 to lay out the facts? Why is all of our news coming from the wire services? Have you forgotten that there is, or used to be, something called ‘investigative journalism’? Are you appealing only to those who use TV as a dinnertime opiate? Or are you trying to frustrate us all and force us into blissful ignorance?’

That may be the route I’m taking. In fact, it is. I used to spend time writing essays about ‘Big Important Issues’. Now, I’m writing children’s books. My new main sources of news are the New Yorker and Vanity Fair. I’m tired of being depressed by every news show. I’m tired of listening to junk no one cares about. I’m turning over a new leaf. I have a new ‘tude: Don’t ask me nuthin’ because I won’t know nuthin’.

Blitz Magazine, 2006