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Centre for Investigative Journalism
Annual Convention: Individual Reports

RADIO JOURNALISM

by Barrie Zwicker

 

"In pursuit of the brown envelope, in contempt for the press release, we are going to miss the truth."

Mark Starowicz

 

JOURNALISM IS HEADING for a fall, in the opinion of one of Canada's most successful radio public affairs executives.

Mark Starowicz, executive producer of CBC Radio's Sunday Morning, claimed the credibility of journalists is, in the public eye, declining.

Journalists too often are underinformed, too often don't read books, or public documents, let alone study them, Starowicz suggested here at one of the final sessions of the second annual conference of the Centre for Investigative Journalism.

"We have no right to practice our profession... We don't know what we're talking about," Starowicz told an overflow audience of about 200.

A lack of "quantifiable data" is too often replaced with the "new journalism," with "showbusiness techniques" and "a vogue for what we call investigative journalism."

It turned out he was referring mainly to U.S. journalism. "Thankfully, it's not happening too much in Canada. We must not import the American perversions of what passes for investigative journalism," he cautioned.

As an example of the "60 Minutes syndrome" he suggested "the crooked rodeo in Arkansas, or the peanut vendor in New York who gives you 49 peanuts instead of 50. Meanwhile entire books are passing through Congress..."

Starowicz stressed time and again the importance and attractiveness of journalists having their facts down cold.

"I don't know if you ever had the experience of really hating somebody, knowing the guy's a crook... but you go up to these guys and half the time, some of that rock feeling in your gut starts to melt a bit and you say to yourself 'it's more complicated, a little more complicated than the bar talk,' and when it gets complicated, that's probably when it gets close to the truth."

Another reason journalists are heading for a fall, in Starowicz' view, is that too many journalistic resources are being devoted to digging out skeletons in public figures' closets.

"If we want we can probably find out that René Lévesque stole something... we are bordering on vigilantism in some cases, at least in the United States.

"The greatest investigative journalist our mythology has is I.F. Stone. He brags he never made a phone call, and he never went to a press conference in Washington. The public record. The Congressional Record. This document. That document.

"I fear that in the pursuit of the brown envelope, in the contempt for the press release, we really are going to miss the truth. Because nobody's read the entire 80 pages or 46 pages of the budget. And nobody's read something that the Saskatchewan Department of Health came out with on Medicare..."

The other need stressed by Starowicz is for systems.

"I would hope that we would press, as a collectivity, for correspondents in Calgary. Why are there no properly built information systems? Why is there nobody reading legislative records in New Brunswick except one poor overworked son of a bitch who's got to feed the local Hourglass and the World at Six and this and that?

"We're all going to be safe when there are five of us in the legislature poring over it. Because it takes five of us to read it. And I want to be one of those five because then I'll find it, and I'll find it in some little departmental report... again the analogy of I.F. Stone..."

Starowicz said he despises the new journalism. "It's exhibitionism. We were not meant to be the stars." In responding to questions later he agreed he was putting his points vigorously for effect, and that he had nothing against good feature writing.

Journalism "has no reason to adopt the theatrical mode," Starowicz asserted. It is the "relentless, computerlike, lawn-mower (approach to truth)" that is "an enormous courtesy to our readers and listeners."

 

Published in Sources May/June 1980

 



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