Media comes out the loser in political forum

By Greg Fulton* Special to Media Culpa

(Vancouver, December 3, 2003) -- If recent trends continue, Canadians could wake up one morning to find their democracy all but gone. Falling voter turnout, incompetent politicians and a sensationalist press have all contributed to a culture where public service is no longer a respected career.

In a recent Ipsos-Reid poll, national politicians ranked dead last in a survey of trustworthy professions (nine per cent). The press as a whole faired little better at 27 per cent, two per cent below lawyers.

The press and public service are the foundations of democratic society, and are mutually dependent. The press cannot exist without politicians to provide news, and politicians need the press to project an image to the public.

Given this symbiotic relation, which is the more to blame for our slide into American-style apathy and popular alienation -- the press or politicians? That was the subject of the public forum "Politics in Crisis: Are Media Meanies to Blame?" Thursday night at the Marriot Pinnacle Hotel. The B.C. Press Council invited Sen. Pat Carney, pollster Angus Reid, former premier Mike Harcourt and new Vancouver Sun managing editor Kirk LaPointe to present their personal and professional perspectives, and take questions from the audience.

Reid, who spoke first, found that neither side was uniquely to blame. Pack journalists turn politicians into objects of scorn and ridicule by caring more about sensationalism that honest reporting. Political lobbyists and spin-doctors create an air of political dishonesty and aloofness by impeding media access.

Citizens also came in for criticism. In the 1988 federal election, voter turnout was almost 79 per cent. In 2000, it fell to 63 per cent. Reid even reserved criticism for himself and other pollsters, whose reporting between elections has led governments to enact wrong-headed policies. The basic cause of the problem, he said, was a matter of dollars and sense.

"The political economy of the media puts profit ahead of news coverage," said Reid. "Resources for media are lower than ever whereas resources for politicians are higher than ever."

Media coverage of politicians can only change if our political reporting culture changes, he said and made four recommendations: Restructure the CBC budget to increase regional reporting; redress the problem of concentrated media ownership; expedite access to government information, and: end the obsession over polls between elections.

Harcourt's personal accounts from his life in politics dovetailed neatly with Reid's generally analytical treatment. Using the famous aphorism of the newspaper comic strip character Pogo -- "We have seen the enemy and it is us" -- Harcourt described his disgust at the debased image of public service, and how "politician" had become a term of derision.

"We entered politics because we wanted to improve our community; to make a difference, but then the community activists you respected as private citizens suddenly became politicians," he said.

Notwithstanding the fact that politicians should be held accountable when they screw up, Harcourt laid the blame for their bad image squarely at the feet of the media and the public.

To illustrate how the media skews the news he cited two examples. The first concerned the widely reported statistic that 600 people in B.C, were on a waiting list for heart surgery. In fact, 300 were waiting for one doctor at St. Paul's Hospital, and two groups of 100 patients were each waiting for specific doctors. Even though Harcourt called a press conference to announce this data, none of it was reported.

The second case concerned allegations from CKNW reporter Kim Emerson that Harcourt was in a conflict of interest because of a government contract awarded to a communications firm. After a thorough, time-consuming analysis, all but eight of 1,490 contracts were awarded properly. The eight in question had only technical problems, but the Vancouver Sun focused on them, not the other 1,482

The public, Harcourt said, has to rediscover the responsibilities that come with living in a democracy. As a first step, people should stop using defamatory language toward politicians, or else good people will not be willing to serve. "I am at odds with whiney, lazy, sniveling citizens," said Harcourt to much applause.

Carney also dealt with the quality of reporting but also focused on the difficulty a politician faces in responding to reports that create a false or misleading image.

She opened by making a facetious complaint to the press council because of an e-mail she received from Vancouver Sun columnist Pete McMartin. Carney had written a Remembrance Day piece about the need to honour veterans from small towns, and McMartin described it as "sweet."

For someone who had made a career of projecting a tough image, Carney considered the comment "defamatory," not because it unfairly described the piece, but because it undermined her political persona.

"If an image is a mirage of what is real, and perception is reality, then what is accurate?" she asked rhetorically. Since a politician essentially presents an image to the public, the vulnerability to lazy or inaccurate reporting is high.

For example, the media reported that former privacy commissioner George Radwanski paid $440 for lunch with a female companion, yet a survey of the finest eatery in the national capitol region found that the highest menu item was $31. Yet this and other stories create the image that all public servants are spendthrifts.

In addition to invading a politician's privacy and reporting irrelevant and outdated personal information, the media, Carney said, has created a culture of suspicion.

The last speaker, Kirk LaPointe, stood out from the other three. He seemed defensive from the outset and did not really address the topic. Instead, he spoke primarily of the changes he is making to the Vancouver Sun and described the challenges that the print media face in a world dominated by electronic media.

"The only way out is more depth, context and originality," he said. "We are too dependent on staged news. We are covering too much and uncovering too little."

To bring about this change the Sun will run more "because" stories to give meaning to the news, feature an in-depth local story every edition, and admit errors more readily.

A major plank of LaPointe's new look will be the use of the Freedom of Information Act to uncover stories the government doesn't want us to know about.

"We don't publish the truth; we pursue it," he said, and noted that the media doesn't need to be balanced.

LaPointe expected he would be in for a long evening, because he opened with the joke that he would be their "human piñata," presumably because he represented the media. Nevertheless, he compounded his predicament with some ill-chosen comments and answers.

Toward the end of his address he spoke of the "Golden Age" of journalism and doubted if it really existed. Using his early days at the Canadian Press as an example, he said every table had a stubby beer bottle on it, women were nowhere to be seen, and reporters put away their notebooks when a politician went "off he record." Instead of stopping here, though, he said that we might now be living in a Golden Age.

Soon afterward, a member of the audience proceeded to ask Angus Reid how he thought media monopolies could be broken, given the failure of the 1981 Kent Commission to do this very thing, and the reluctance of politicians to tackle the subject. The member also rejected LaPointe's "Golden Age" musings, noting that CanWest reaches 97 per cent of English Canada.

Reid admitted that it would be nearly impossible for politicians to get up the nerve to do this, after which LaPointe responded to the criticism.

He cited Toronto's diverse print and electronic media culture as an example of how CanWest does not have a monopoly, only to be rebuked by Reid, who reminded him that he was in B.C., where the Asper family's company owns almost all the newspapers and commands the major television network. "If Gord Fisher wanted to fire someone, it would happen," said Reid.

Another audience member told LaPointe about the disrespectful treatment he received from a long-time Sun business reporter after complaining about him running company press release as news. The responses were: "So what -- do you have a problem with that?" and; "Who are you to talk to me this way?"

LaPointe reiterated his position that balance was an "unworkable concept," even though that wasn't the substance of the question. He did, however, agree to have a talk with the reporter.

LaPointe was latter asked if he had a directive from CanWest not to portray Israel negatively. Rather than answer directly, he said the Sun had run a negative story on Israel's wall and another on UN sanctions. "I don't think about what the owners think. My ultimate loyalty is to the audience," he said.

Earlier in the evening Reid said the only time the higher ups at CanWest called him about a poll was regarding a pollster from Palestine.

Many in the audience were journalism students from Langara and BCIT and they put numerous questions to the panel.

One student asked how she could be a better journalist, and received three responses. LaPointe said a story had to be told well and could not be driven by visual imagery. Carney said the media should move away from "vanity" stories of reporters writing about what they think and like, and write more "because" stories.

Kevin Evans, who made a point of not wanting to be remembered as a former CBC news anchor, moderated the forum.

* Greg Felton will be contributing regularly to shunpiking online and media culpa. He is an award-winning investigative reporter and columnist on Middle East affairs from British Columbia. He writes a media column for the monthly Arabic/English newspaper al-Shorouq, contributes to mediamonitors.net, and is the author of the upcoming book Enemies of Necessity, an examination of how anti-Arab/anti-Muslim propaganda drives U.S. Middle East policy. Mr. Felton holds a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's in Political Science from the University of British Columbia. He may be reached at: gfelton@mediamonitors.org