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The Newsmongers
How The Media Distort the Political News

Comber, Mary Anne; Mayne, Robert S.
Publisher:  McClelland & Stewart
Year Published:  1987  
Pages:  178pp   Price:  $22.95  

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Those who live in the media world daily often feel that they are the best qualified to criticize it. And indeed most print (and all broadcast) critique of the media are produced by journalists of some description.

Interesting about this tome from Comber and Mayne, a political scientist and researcher respectively, is that, as Peter Trueman notes in his foreward:

"This is not another reporter's look at the news business."

More interesting, though, is that while castigating the media for their abuses, the authors tumble headlong into the same pitfalls that they have identified as being wrong, wrong, wrong.

This pattern is not long in revealing itself. On page 23 the loss of many newspapers over the years is rightfully lamented. "Today there is only one newspaper available in many Canadian cities." Before that lamentation, though, in the introduction, we are told that, " in the first phase we conducted a systematic review of selected media coverage of the 1984 Canadian federal election." These selected media, we find out one page later, consisted of the Globe and Mail and the CBC's The Journal. Hardly the broad spectrum of opinion that our authors so long for (and which they could find should they choose to cast their net across the vast number of non-daily periodicals in Canada, which range from local ward newspapers to esoteric special interest magazines, and which do deal in subjects of weight to their audiences.)

This lack is evident in the second phase of the investigation, during which, we are told, they "interviewed many people, both inside and outside the media." Fine and well. Whom? With but one exception, we don't know. They criticize the media later for using unnamed sources and deep background. But the authors have resorted to the same anonymity to (wait for it) protect the identity of those who wouldn't have felt free to express their opinions under their own by-lines as it were. Now where have we heard that before?

Certainly there is a lot of merit in this book, both in often-accurate assessments of the end-product of journalism, and in the feeling gained that there is a contingent out there dissatisfied with that product. A dissatisfaction that newsgatherers are ill-advised to ignore.

Yet one is still at a loss to divine what the authors consider the right path to follow to correct that dissatisfaction. We are early on urged to emulate our opinionated predecessors who "argued for reform, sometimes radical reform, of the economic, social and political structures of the country." Later that approbation is turned on its head when we are criticized for providing " a new interpretive and personalized journalism..."

Whatever is one to do?

Setting aside these trivial digressions, though, let us proceed, accepting for the moment the strictures of the investigation.

The most telling point made, and it has been made before, concerns the trivializing of the news, especially political news, largely at the urging of television, which must deliver more jolts-per-minute to compete with Hill Street Blues. Gone are the days of Earl Cameron dispassionately delivering the day's events. Instead, we have brightly-attired, always-smiling, anchor persons trying to entertain (as well as inform).

And this has consequences far outside the television studio, for it has changed the way our politicians conduct election campaigns, and, in fact, has often replaced a traditional campaign with a series of poll results, giving neither style nor substance to the electoral battle being waged.

The more so, since, as they correctly point out, newspapers (and don't be so smug, magazines, too) feel they have to deliver more bounce to the ounce, as well, giving over what would have been inches of analysis to photos and graphics that may or may not tell the story. And examples are provided where the use of a photo colours the whole complexion of the story, giving opinion where none is looked for.

Unlike some critiques, which only serve to vent some discontented spleen, Newsmongers does have a prescription for what ails us. Unfortunately, for them and for us, it is a prescription which will never see the light of day, couched as it is in reason and logic, and not in the dog-eat-dog mentality of ratings and circulaton in which we in the real world must contend.

The prescription, briefly, is for journalists to keep their opinions to themselves unless they clearly state otherwise. Journalists are simply to provide facts on which readers can base their own conclusions.

Looking with a critical eye, a journalist can find much fault with the arguments here presented. Lay readers, though, will not be as concerned with the finer points, but rather, should want some sort of honest discussion of these issues. For that reason, among others, the working press should find out what these issues are seen to be by two very eloquent spokespeople.

[Review by Derek Suchard]

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