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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 3, November/December 2005

Media makes the news

by Donald Gutstein

The evening after the British Columbia government introduced legislation imposing a contract on the province’s teachers, Michael Smyth interviewed British Columbia Teachers’ Federation President Jinny Sims and Labour Minister Mike de Jong on his CKNW Nightline BC radio show. Smyth was argumentative and surly with Sims. He accused her of not being straight with the public. When he interviewed de Jong, Smyth was respectful and attentive. He sought de Jong’s opinion; he disputed Sims’s opinion. Smyth ended the segment with a promo for his next-day column in The Province.

The column continued his attack on teachers. Smyth accused Sims of displaying "predictable moral outrage," as if it had been fabricated for the cameras and tape recorders. He lambasted the union for its "militancy" and the NDP for its predictably "snuggly relations" with the teachers.

As for the government, Smyth informed us, Premier Gordon Campbell had to bring down the hammer because "the hammer is the only thing the BCTF understands." The kindly but firm father applied the punishment he knew would hurt but would be good for his unruly children.

Several days later, his column and radio show spread some of the blame for the impasse to the government. Both sides were at fault, Smyth said and wrote. Government was responsible for provoking and baiting the teachers, among other factors.

It’s as if he’s creating his own echo chamber. He shouts "teachers are militant" or "government provoked the teachers" in one direction. He shouts it again in another. It bounces back from somewhere else, as other media pundits join in. Soon the message surrounds us and we don’t know any more where it originated. The message seems to have always been out there, so it must be true.

Smyth is not alone in appearing on supposedly rival news outlets. Vancouver Sun political columnist Vaughn Palmer appears every morning on CKNW’s Morning News with Philip Till. Palmer also hosts the Voice of BC show weekly on Shaw Cable 4. Keith Baldrey, Global TV’s legislative bureau chief, is a weekly radio commentator on the "Cutting Edge of the Ledge" segment of the Bill Good Show on CKNW.

CKNW is one of 50 radio stations across Canada owned by Corus Entertainment, including four in Vancouver. Both Corus, which also owns 10 cable channels, and Shaw Cable—the second-largest cable system in the country—are controlled by the Shaw family of Calgary, whose net worth last year was $635 million.

Global TV, The Vancouver Sun, and The Province are owned by the Asper family of Winnipeg. The Aspers own major newspapers across Canada, the Global Television Network, eight cable channels, and the canada.com web sites. This family was worth $1.09 billion in 2004.

When the Senate Communications Committee came to town earlier this year to study media concentration, it heard loudly and clearly that CanWest holds too much of the Vancouver English-language media market. The inevitable consequence, many presenters told the committee, is a reduced diversity of news and opinion available to citizens.

Now CanWest is sharing its people with Shaw and Corus. Reduce, reuse, and recycle are excellent concepts when applied to the environment; they are dangerous when practised by news media.

CTV, CHUM, and The Globe and Mail are small players in the Vancouver market. CBC radio and television are the only news organizations equal in size and scope to the giants. But after its recent labour troubles, the public broadcaster may be permanently weakened. That leaves industry leaders The Vancouver Sun, The Province, Global TV, and CKNW, and they’re increasingly speaking with one voice.

Some of the connections between CanWest and Shaw-Corus are long-standing. The premier’s brother, Michael Campbell, has had his Money Talks show on CKNW for years, and his Vancouver Sun business column is tired news. Vaughn Palmer has been doing his Voice of BC show for several years.

CanWest’s near-monopoly means that its commentators and columnists are the experts, not because they are most knowledgeable and well-informed but because they have the soapbox and no one else can compete. If another organization wants to be taken seriously, it grabs CanWest’s experts.

These practices may be good for shareholders but they do little for readers and viewers. With so few major news organizations in the city, the pool of experts is shallow. They know each other, they interview each other, and they rarely disagree. The range of opinions is narrowed even further.

Sharing employees creates other concerns for the audience. Can CanWest ever report objectively on Corus or Shaw, or Corus on CanWest, if their most high-profile people are scurrying between the organizations? Can one reporter work simultaneously for two competing media organizations? Can one reporter use the facilities of one newsroom to write for another? Where is the reporter’s loyalty when she or he obtains a scoop? What ethical issues might arise?

Telus says the future is friendly, but in media the future is all about controlling content and distribution. CanWest has huge content resources but no electronic distribution systems such as cable or satellite TV to deliver them. Shaw-Corus has the cable and satellites but is light on content. Together they make a world-class powerhouse, at least domestically.

Such a combination would make the Aspers and Shaws even richer. But it would be a black day for Canadians, weakening our rights to receive the information we need to be informed citizens. The echo chamber would be made permanent and we would forever lose our bearings.

Meanwhile, Jim Pattison’s AM600 pulled the plug on Rafe Mair’s talk show last week. Mair ended up on that station after his popular CKNW show was cancelled by Corus several years ago, in part because he was critical on-air of Corus’s cost-cutting measures. Who will tell those stories now?

Source: Donald Gutstein, Georgia Straight, October 20, 2005

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