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One Paper's New Attitude Toward Peace

Commentary by Barrie Zwicker
broadcast nationally by CBC Radio Syndication April 1982.


SATURDAY, APRIL 10, 1982 was the day. The Toronto Star is the paper. The Star made newspaper history by devoting its whole front page that day to just one subject, and it was not a news event.

The Star's focus was the nuclear arms race and the growing peace movement trying to stop that deadly race. Now you might ask: "Is this really so surprising?" The answer is yes, definitely. The April 10 Star reflected a fundamental change in how some editors and reporters define what news is.

Gary Lautens, the Star's executive managing editor, headed up the coverage.

"First of all I think that the nuclear business — bombs and so on — that's the number one moral issue facing mankind. And while I think you're a journalist and therefore a spectator on the events that go around you, you also have to be a human being and be a participant in what's going on. And I know that I didn't raise my children to be cinders. And when I see people talking — I can't believe the insanity — talking about limited war, first-strike capability and so on — they're talking about a holocaust, they're talking about blowing up the Earth and there's no way that I as a journalist, as a human being, as a father, as a husband, just as a human being — as I say — can stand back and be passive and just record this insanity. I've got to try to stop this insanity. And I do it the best way I can. I try to do it with facts, but there's a gut passion and feeling about it, that this is, this is, madness and somebody's got to stand up and say stop."

The traditional definition of news gives us "event journalism." Most newspaper people most of the time are conditioned to take for granted that if something hasn't happened as an event it isn't real. It isn't news. As a result our papers are filled with a hodge-podge of unrelated fragments called "news stories."

Now the arms race is real enough, but not an event, rather a process. Those who believe in "process journalism" say papers must begin to paint whole pictures and give the pictures the weight they deserve. The Toronto Star has decided that the arms race is more important than clinging to an outdated definition of news.

Critics say the Star overplayed the topic of peace. They mention the size of the main headline, which read "Choose life over the bomb." But a bigger blacker headline was used when martial law was declared in Poland. Isn't the imminent destruction of mankind more important than one development in Poland? And all of the Star's April 10 peace coverage occupied less than three per cent of the paper's 112 pages that day.

No, the Star didn't go overboard. It only appears so by comparison with the astounding underplay of the peace issue that the press routinely gives us. Travellers to Europe have found the level of public knowledge there about the arms race much higher than it is in North America. The press here bears most of the responsibility for public ignorance and hence apathy about our possible impending destruction.

The Star on April 10, 1982 took one small step for peace. But it was a very large step within the rigid traditions of the press.


Published in SOURCES Summer 83


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