Saturday, June 9, 2012

June 10: How the news media got so bad...

Until the 1890s, newspapers were too expensive for most people; and news took a long time to travel. Accordingly, early newspapers were heavy on shipping news, official statements from the colonial governor, legal announcements, and very old and very brief reports of events around the world, reports that might commonly  be only a few sentences.

Often, they could be operated only with substantial help from political parties - and sometimes from churches. The Globe depended on help from Liberal backers (called Reformers in those days). In Montreal, Presbyterians sponsored The Witness. Catholics responded with The True Witness. These connections naturally led to some very prejudiced reporting. However, the Presbyterian version figured bigger in Canadian history. It had the first sports columnist in Canada - Elmer Ferguson who would be a major figure in sport reporting for well over half a century.

Three great changes occured, and were felt strongly by the 1890s - cheap paper and printing, the Atlantic move news quickly, and improvements in the ease of photography. Now, almost everyone could afford a newspaper (which also meant a newspaper could attract more advertising), and quicker, fuller news along with photos to make it far more attractive. These also made the newspaper far more influential.

An early proof of its influence was the Boer War. This was the first big war for the 'new" newspaper, the first great opportunity for war correspondents - and the papers covered that war with the proverbial blanket.

Trouble is, there really wasn't much to report. But correspondents, desperate for a story, any story, found one in a daring British colonel named Baden-Powell who, surrounded by Boer armies, was defending the small town of Mafeking against impossible odds.

Correspondents painted the story up with all the glamour they could invent; and for months the valiant Baden-Powell was the hero of the day around the globe. When a British army got through to relieve Mafeking, Britain when so wild in celebration that even today such a public display is often called 'mafeking'. The British army was not so enthusiastic.

Baden-Powell wasn't supposed to be defending Mafeking. There was no point in defending it - and he wasn't even supposed to be in it. He was supposed to be leading his regiment on hit and run raids behind enemy lines to disrupt their movements. Instead, the fool had got himself bottled up so badly it took months of effort by the British army to get him out. There were mutterings at the top level of a court martial. But they couldn't court martial him.

The newspapers had made the dolt such a hero that the army had no choice but to promote him to general. (However, it was made plain to him that his military career was over. That's what gave Baden-Powell the spare time to found the Boy Scout movement.)

The experience also created the modern war correspondent as the least truthful reporter in the business.

That lesson of the impact of newspapers was quickly picked up by ambitious publishers.  William Randolph Hearst used his newspaper empire to start the Spanish-American wars with false reports of an attack by Spaniards on an Americn ship in Havana harbour. He later admitted it; and was proud of it.

A New Brunswick boy named Max Aitken used his newspaper ownerships in Britain to make himself a powerhouse in Britain. The leadership of his party was so worried about his political power that it feared he would become prime minister. That's why they cut him off at the knees by naming him Lord Beaverbrook. He remained a power in the Liberal pary. But his rise in rank effectively ended his chances of becoming party leader.

More recently, Rupert Murdoch has used his power of the press to make British prime ministers dependent on him to win elections. We have recently learned that cabinet meetings of both the Labour and the Conservative governments were always open house for Rupert Murdoch; and he used his power to force acceptance of his very right-wing views.

He also uses Fox News, basing it on the success of his British papers with cheap sensationalism to spread news that is highly biased, usually lying, designed to appeal to morons, and pushing his opinions on politics.

That is pretty much the history of most of the world's press, particularly in North America. It's a history of power exerted by newspaper owners who make sure that certain news never appears, that some news which is featured is, in fact, news that never happened, that newspaper commentaries usually reflect the biases, political interests and business interests of the ownershhip.

Within limits, some newspapers have editors who preserve bits of dignity, honesty and ethics. The Globe does. (Not always. But it does.) And it offers intelligent business coverage and book reviews, several of the best columnists in Canada, and a wide, if not always truthful, coverage of world events.

The National Post is a large notch below The Globe. And it continues downhill from there, reaching abysmal levels in Atlantic Canada, then dropping into a pit of shabbiness, ignorance, bias and distortion with the Irving Press.

The Press in the United States is used as cynically as the worst in Canada. That's why the average American has an extraordinary ignorance of what is going on in the world  Very few Americans, for example, have ever heard of the slaughter of Guatemalans by the CIA, of the death tolls for Vietnamese and Iraqis, of the failure of the US to deliver any significant aid to Haiti, of those Americans who ae now in prison without charge or trial, of the stunning levels of curruption in congress., of the role of the US in propping up some of the world's worst dictators.. It's almost all loaded language and hysteria.

Much of the world press is no better. And, in countries like China, it's at least as bad with a state controlled press (just as one often finds state-controlled newspapers in much of the American empire. (Incidentally, most Americans -and, perhaps, Canadians - would be astonished to hear there is an American empire.)

One has to search very hard to find good newspapers.  Cheap production, the Atlantic cable, and photography created a medium with tremendous potential. But it was largely ruined from the start to become a seller of pills and prejudices and ignorance and lies.

The major newsmagazines like Time and MacLean's, alas, are no better. The best I know of are British - The Economist (right of centre) and all those military and intelligence reviews whose titles begin - Jane's.

So there are some good ones. Better still, it's a big help to remember the basic rules of human behaviour. Think, for example, of the story in a current "Time" special edition. One story is about how the US invaded Afghanistan to make it a happier country. Now, many people, made brain-dead by years of reading newspapers, will believe that. But, come on. You know people and governments do not behave that way.

You don't try to make people happier by invading their country and killing tens of thousands. And why would the American government try to make people happy by killing them and spending a trillion dollars on it when when they could make a lot of people a lot happier by giving them real aid?
Common sense is the most important thing you need to understand the news.


  1. In the USA, their are some great newspapers. The problem is, most people will only read one, or only have the time to skim the headlines of their local paper. For instance, the New York Times, while not always perfect, does have a few good writers. Same for the L.A Times, Washington Post and so on. As a whole, the papers may deliver a pretty shoddy and biased product, but once again, we never teach anyone how to read between the lines.

    I know that you know all of this already, but people have to start learning how to diversify sources and reading plenty!

  2. Hey, here is a feature interview with Dan Rather that I strongly recommend to everyone! He was a guest on CBC's The Current.