The media once got to the bottom of things now they go only as far as the bottom line
It’s impossible to serve two masters at once-we have no lesser authority than the Bible for that-yet the news media try to do it every day. Working journalists like to think their primary role is to serve the public by letting it know what’s really going on. But the higher-ups, the media managers, have a different agenda. Their first duty is to the bottom line of the corporations that control the airwaves and the presses. The two goals are as mutually exclusive as, well, God and Mammon, a fact that’s been acknowledged for some time now by the separation of the media’s business and editorial sides.
Unfortunately, as profits grow thin, so does the wall between the boardroom and the newsroom. Corporate influence is rampant in editorial departments everywhere these days and the result is a kind of bottom-line journalism that owes more to the grease of marketing than the grit of what’s really going on. Even legitimate stories such as the arrest of Paul Bernardo, the suspected Scarborough rapist, get so overblown that the mainstream dailies start looking and reading like supermarket tabs. It seems editorial integrity can no longer withstand the pressure to increase ratings and circulation.
In this issue, the Ryerson Review of Journalism deals with the impact of bottom-line journalism on some of Canada’s most respected publications. Charlene Yarrow reports from Kingston on The Whig-Standard’s demise from an enterprising and splendidly literate newspaper to just another link in the Southam chain. Anita Lahey writes about a similar fate befalling Harrowsmith, a magazine whose environmental commitment went from purity to parody after it sold out to the mixed-media conglomerate Telemedia.
Our Issues section contains still another example of corporate interests at play in the fields of editorial integrity. The story concerns Bill 40, a package of labour reforms introduced by Ontario’s NDP government last year. The province’s newspaper owners and publishers saw the reforms as a threat to their profits, and reacted predictably: they forgot about fairness and balance and used their pages to slam the bill.
When it comes to slamming a Bill, we’re guilty of it too, though not, we hope, of ignoring the other side. Our cover story on William Thorsell, The Globe and Mail’s capricious editor, concentrates as much on the way he’s trying to achieve changes as on the changes themselves. To find out how much Thorsell’s high-handed manner has hampered his progress, Joan Tintor had to talk to a lot of people around the Globe-unfortunately William Thorsell was not among them. He refused to be interviewed.
That’s a pretty hypocritical stance for someone whose business depends on people cooperating with the Globe, but such snubs are not new to the Ryerson Review of Journalism. The 1993 issues mark our 10th publishing year and continue our tradition of probing, questioning and challenging the powers that be in Canadian journalism. Often we’ve found our inquiries less than welcome.
In a critical retrospective of our first decade, Susan Cowan chronicles the origins of the Review and our growing pains on the way to becoming one of the highest-regarded student publications in North Ametica. When it comes to bottom lines, we’ll take excellence every time.