Confessions of a Media Critic
By Barrie Zwicker
To hear people talking about the facts you would think they
lay about like pieces of gold ore in the Yukon days waiting to be
picked up. . . . There are no such facts. In a sense all stories
are written backwards — they are supposed to begin with the
facts . . but in reality they begin with a journalist's point of
view, a conception, and it is the point of view from which the facts
are subsequently organized. Journalists encourage the layman to
have the picture of these nuggety facts lying about on maybe frozen
ground and a lot of noble and utterly unprejudiced journalists with
no idea whatever of what they are looking for scrabbling in the
iron-bound earth and presently bringing home the pure gold of Truth.
— Claude Cockburn
Not long ago I was one of a few people invited to speak
at what may have been a significant meeting, a retreat for CBC
Radio producers. They settled into an old inn in the countryside
to reconsider the direction of CBC Radio's feature programming.
How useful the retreat turned out to be, or will turn out to be,
I don't know. What I do know is that I was dissatisfied with my
contribution. I've spent some time trying to figure out why.
It was Max Allan Allen of CBC's Ideas series who included
me on the speakers' invitation list. Max among other things is a
restlessly thoughtful media critic. Since non-news programming was
the focus of concern, Max presumably reasoned that the news was
the most appropriate yardstick against which to measure.
At the retreat I prefaced my critique of news by voicing my concerns
about the fate of the earth, concerns which permeate almost everything
I think about and certainly my judgments of media performance. I
personally feel every day the erosion of our biosphere and the threat
hanging over us minute by minute of obliteration from the insanely
excessive stock of weapons of mass destruction. In my deeply-held
opinion it has not been for some time now a time for business as
usual, least of all in journalism.
I then went on to criticize the news. I must go out of my way here
to emphasize that I was — and am in the main in what follows here — specifically
criticizing the CBC Radio
news we hear on the hour. This news, as Max Allen has documented,
consists about five-sevenths of the time of death, disaster and
destruction, snippets of usually de-contextualized reports of violence
and mayhem: bombings, derailments, hurricanes, shootings, earthquakes,
murders, riots, hostage-takings, hijackings, crashes on land, at sea
and in the air, explosions, kidnappings . . .
Because the world is so in need of greater understanding of process
— patterns of violence (and co-operation), trends (good
and bad), roots and history and the context of
events — this "news" strikes me not only as a colossal
waste of the incredibly valuable resource of airtime, not only as
confusing and diverting, but also destructive. Destructive because
it puts people on edge without offering any understanding, leads
people to think simplistic thoughts (disgust, revenge, amazement,
titillation), through its incompleteness, and creates uncertainty.
Uncertainty equals anxiety.
I was led at the retreat not just to venture, but to assert, that
the news makes me sick, that I find it worse than useless, that
all-in-all it would be better not broadcast.
There was more to the retreat, but for the moment my concern with
it ends here, and my concern with myself in relation to it starts.
After my outburst I regretted it. I regretted the simplistic over-statement
which was almost a mirror image of one of the unhealthy aspects
of the news I criticized. New layers of projection continually show
themselves. Reaction to my outburst was mixed. A news person took
strong exception, and little wonder. The ever-civilized Lister Sinclair offered some gentle remarks which upheld the value of reasonableness.
When the news bombs . . .
All script, in order, from "The World at Eight," CBC Radio News, 4 October 1984
Looking back on it, I realized that anger was probably dominant
in my approach that afternoon, as it is so frequently when I listen
to those hourly radio newscasts — this interminable stuttering
of psychological warfare against the population, clothed in the
ineffable bona fides of news authoritativeness, read by decent,
competent announcers, scripted by my former journalism students,
accepted as their perceptual environment by my friends and neighbours
and to some extent even my family.
My confessions are to explore the roots of my anger.
Part of my anger is that there appears to be relatively little sharing
among most media people of my sense of the danger our world —
life-faces. It's as if most know nothing or care not nearly enough
. . . and bombs . . .
of what is represented by the doomsday clock on the cover of The
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists having been re-set at four
minutes to midnight. When society's firemen deny they smell smoke
they endanger me. Fear provokes anger.
It was the same story again at the producers' retreat. No one as
I recall picked up on my comments about the state of the world as
constituting the ultimate context for programming decisions. I'm
sure it's not that no one there shares the concern. I know for a
fact several do. It would just be a bit reassuring if once in a
while someone would voice agreement, would pick up in an articulate
way on the implications.
Alternatively, or coincidentally, an important root of my anger
is frustration that I don't communicate successfully enough to provoke
a useful response.
People in the peace and social justice field understand the connections
between the media performance and the state of the world; they respect
the power of communication more than its wielders do.
At this particular retreat, I failed to specify another reason for
my unhappiness over the news. And that failure of mine contributed
further to my frustration, although it was only latent at the time.
The assumptions behind so much of the news simply don't square with
the world as I understand it. The assumptions are in a nutshell
that things as they are make sense simply because they are, and
that those who imagine things should be significantly different
are alien. I find the existence of 60,000 nuclear weapons (when
200 can end all life on the planet) alien. I find those who are
working to abolish these weapons extremely life-friendly, not to
mention courageous and imaginative. I guess I'm angry because I
haven't found more people in the media who find the existing world
life-alien and correspondingly find the imaginers of a disarmed
Correspondingly it's a source both of inspiration and frustration
to me that persuasive visions of a safer, saner world I find mainly
in social justice and peace literature, in tiny-circulation magazines
such as Nuclear Free Press, Nuclear Times, The Nation, some
church publications and to a lesser extent in the Manchester
Guardian, public television and other relative ghettos of communication.
. . . and bombs . . .
But as to the Niagara Falls of mainline news (as exemplified here,
remember, by the hourly CBC Radio newscasts), the omnipresent,
repetitive, persuasive, politically-relevant organs from which most
people get most of their ideas on most subjects most of the time,
here I find nine interlocking times out of 10 the establishment
explanation provided for everything. Provided not as an
explanation, not within quotation marks (which are reserved for
non-establishment explanations), but right in the body of the newscast,
in the bedrock "givens" from the announcer's lips, with the
authoritative sonority and resonance and electronic signatures of the
total news organization and all that lies, and is implied, behind it,
going in the case of the CBC all the way through
the system, to the top, into Parliament and back to the electorate,
by implicatory subliminal image forming a seamless feedback loop
enclosing the listener himself. A perceptual cocoon is woven as
difficult for the listener/prisoner to break out of as it would
be for a convict to scale the electrified walls of his prison.
As I write this, for instance, the CBC Radio news
at 1730 on Thanksgiving Day reports the latest shootings of two
policemen in lock-step with the inevitable, predictable calls by
. . . and bombs . . .
officials for a return of the noose. I've been listening to these
newscasts all this day and have not heard one shred of the richly-available
background, history, statistics or even simply countervailing opinion
as to what conclusion(s) might be drawn from this latest pair of
tragedies. The solemn, respectful, obligatory pairing of police
calls for the noose with all reports of killings of policemen or
prison guards is as ritualized as prison routine itself.
Now there I go again, carried away with anger. And since writing
that foregoing paragraph I've seen as thoughtful a piece on the
capital punishment debate as you'd care to see (in the Toronto Sunday
I think it angers me that the "news" — the regular
everyday stuff that fills most of the pages of most newspapers most
days and most of the radio and tv newscasts hour in and hour out
around the clock year in and year out — is virtually at war
with the thoughtful feature articles, with the thoughtful opinion
columns, with the documentaries, with the serious public affairs
shows, with even some of the editorials, for goodness' sake (witness
the capital punishment issue).
If the news is as bad as I say it is, how can its drawing power
be explained? Among the reasons, only some of which have positive
It is reassuring in its regularity, and in the technical competence
of the familiar voices which bring it to us.
Even when the news is garbled and threatening, it may be —
contrary,to the old saying — better than no news at all. This is because a vacuum
of information can leave us in a state of even greater uncertainty,
and such greater uncertainty also equals anxiety.
There is a figure-ground relationship between the authoritative-sounding
news and most non-news programming. And the news constitutes the
authority figure. That is reassuring to some.
The most important reason in my case for leaving those hourly newscasts
on, rather than snapping off the radio (although I occasionally
do that, or switch to FM music programming) is that a minority of
items seem genuinely to be news. These are developments — in
world affairs, in science, technology or the arts —
. . . and bombs . . .
interesting and important to my mind (and which should in my judgment
be important if not always interesting to most people).
These items constitute what is called in psychology "random
reinforcement," the occasional payoff that keeps gamblers gambling.
So there's a random payoff for me. But the totality of the throws
of the hourly radio news dice to me are not random in their pattern
and cumulative impact. They are a distillation of the news in general:
the promulgation of an outmoded status quo framework of assumptions
and values, but with a peculiar bias toward violence and mayhem.
In the foreign reports the consistent bias — which can be heard
in the reports of the likes of Harold Brilev of the BBC.
regularly carried by the CBC — is the U.S. Administration
line (and hook and sinker). That this is paraded forth as "objective"
CBC news must inordinately please agencies such as the CIA which
take an expensive and sophisticated interest in the news and its
manipulation, as has been well documented in Marchetti and Marks'
book The CIA and The Cult of Intelligence.
Just when I'm wrestling with how to reconcile my anger as a human
being and media critic with my sincere desire — also as a human
being and media critic — to be reasonable, along comes the
founding meeting of Media People for Social Responsibility (held
in Toronto Oct. 10).
There are about 40 of us. What I hear is both hopeful and disappointing.
. . . and keeps on bombing even
when there are no bombs.
There are many groups like this in Europe and have been for some
time. They consist of journalists who have overcome belief in the
false god of "objectivity" and have come to the belief
that every human being — whatever his or her station or calling
— has some responsibility to try to preserve life on the planet.
But this group apparently doesn't want to focus on the threat of
extinction as being over-arching. The consensus is that the group will concern itself
with any social issue: pornography and censorship are mentioned.
And with any issue within the media: decision-making processes are mentioned. I support the group and
keep my misgivings to myself except for a brief remark that there's
a danger of the group fragmenting if it fingers off into several
complex and divisive issues.
It turns out there's one study the group is willing to place high
on its agenda, admittedly with the articulate urging of, yes, Max
Allen. That is media criticism.
And in urging the group to focus its attention inward on the performance
of our own field, Max goes overboard in condemning the news. He
excoriates it with trenchant descriptions of its failings. He flails
it with findings. He lacerates it with anecdotes. Finally he pummels
it with the observation that the news is so bad "it's driving
us mad. It's making us crazy."
I know there is helpful news, news that does not blindly reinforce
dangerous outworn status quo ideas and institutions. I know there
are news people who are thoughtful and superbly-competent. It may seem incongruous to single out individuals
but these confessions have been short on supporting evidence, among
other things. Rick Welbourn of CBC Radio news and Joe Schlesinger
of CBC TV News spring to mind. Their work shows it is possible
consistently to communicate accurately and fairly and, really, wisely
in and between the lines of a one-minute, thirty-second item.
But when Max Allen in his bone-deep concern for the overall effects
of the news system fails to balance his anger, I feel better.
I've got to confess it. And somehow it's calmed me a bit. Not much,
but a bit. I guess it's just a matter of knowing you're not alone
in the great Canadian newsroom.
The self-appointed elites who run modern societies must try to
control people's minds. What each of us accepts or rejects . . .
is a matter of prime political concern: it would be too dangerous
to leave these matters to ourselves . . . What is being abolished
in today's affluent societies, from Moscow to Los Angeles, is not
exploitation but our awareness of it.
It takes quite a lot of effort to maintain this state of affairs
. . . an entire industry (the consciousness industry) is engaged
in eliminating possible futures and reinforcing the present pattern(s)
of domination. There are several ways to achieve this: on the one
hand we find downright censorship, bans and a state monopoly on
all the means of production of the mind industry; on the other hand,
economic pressures, systematic distribution of "punishment
and reward" and human engineering can do the job just as well
and much more smoothly. Its most obvious manifestation is the decline
in political options available to the citizen(s) of the most advanced
nations: a mass of political nobodies over whose heads even collective
suicide can be decreed . . . That this state of affairs is readily
accepted and voluntarily endured by the majority is the greatest
achievement of the mind industry.
— Hans Magnus Enzenberger, in The Industrialization of the
Published in Sources, Winter 1984
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