Mark Bastien

Out of Whack

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On the subject of journalism, The Canadian Encyclopedia sacrifices depth for accessibility

When The Canadian Encyclopedia was published last fall, newspapers across the country clamored to praise it. Superlatives leapt from their pages like so many tiny maple leaves fluttering in the wind: the encyclopedia promised Canadiana from A to Z and it delivered, they said, so why not wave the flag a little? It’s “the finest work of Canadian publishing in decades, and the clearest statement ever of this country’s spirit and achievements,” gushed The Toronto Star. “It’s an encyclopedia, with all the authority, weight and resonance that implies. But at the same time, it’s so Canadian-so jubilantly, so triumphantly our own,” trumpeted the Calgary Herald.

Not even Saturday Night magazine, that hallowed journal of sombre thought, could resist getting in on the act. In a shamelessly patriotic and wistfully nationalistic review, playwright James C. Reaney waxed eloquent about the encyclopedia’s virtues. “I congratulate both editor James Marsh and publisher Mel Hurtig on producing such an effective mosaic of information for and about Canadians,” he wrote. “…The Canadian Encyclopedia is itself, in a very exciting way, a new communications satellite.”

Not that all the praise was unjustified: more than six years of research and preparation went into the three-volume, 2,089-page book. And Hurtig, who earlier last year had spent considerable time and money protesting an American icebreaker’s presence in Canadian waters, was able to whip the Canadian media into a nationalistic frenzy.

The book, he said, was “the first entirely new comprehensive reference work on Canada in 50 years.” So reviewers, dutifully slack-jawed, played cheerleaders to the nation. (You can get a lot of rah-rah-rah out of three volumes of me-me-me.) But what they missed as they glided through the glossy, $175 encyclopedia’s straight-shooting entries on hockey great after near-hockey great was how the Canadian media themselves are treated in the book.

The news is not good. (Or, perhaps more fitting in this hockey-crazed nation: the puck stops here.)

For the most part, the journalism entries are distressingly short and, in some instances, annoyingly smug. Who would have thought that June Callwood, long revered as one of Canada’s best journalists, would be tersely dismissed as a magazine writer who became “an activist for such social causes as homeless youth and drug addicts” and subsequently ghosted the autobiographies of American celebrities? (The one-paragraph entry, discreetly unbylined, mercifully neglects to tell us who these celebrities are.) Callwood deserves better than this anonymous, subtle putdown.

The Canadian media in general deserve better than they get in the encyclopedia. The main entries on the subject-journalism, newspapers, magazines and broadcasting-begin with definitions that are innocuous at best and patronizing at worst. Magazines, we learn, “are paper-covered publications issued at regular intervals, at least four times a year.” What do you call those paper-covered things that come out, say, twice a year? And journalism, we are told, is the occupation of “a diverse group of people who earn their living by writing or editing material of current interest for dissemination via print or electronic media.” Some of them even work for those paper-covered things.

The entry on radio and television broadcasting begins with this shocker: “In a northern land marked by long winters, vast distances and a fragmented population, the communication by Canadian radio and TV is crucial.” Let’s alert the media. Writer Frank W. Peers, a politics professor at the University of Toronto, continues: “Broadcasting has not only become a principal source of entertainment, it also links the citizen to what is going on outside the home and has helped to develop a sense of community.” And this citizen is grateful.

Encyclopedias are by definition accessible, easy-to-read collections of facts on a wide range of subjects. ButThe Canadian Encyclopedia, at least in its coverage of this country’s media, sacrifices some depth for accessibility. Many of the entries (such as Peers’ above) read like junior high school essays on “the Canadian identity” assigned by over-eager Grade 9 teachers.

In his introduction, editor-in-chief Marsh points out that contributors to the encyclopedia were asked to stress the Canadian aspect of their subjects. The encyclopedia was written, he says, “by specialists who were best able to explain the finer points of their subjects and could impart to the encyclopedia the distinctive quality of representing the country as a whole.” These are not merely writers here-these are protectors of the national image. This boosterish quality gives some of the entries a slightly insincere cast: they’re pep talks on patriotism. Throughout the entries, we’re reminded that what we are reading is of interest primarily because it is Canadian, not because it has intrinsic value. But given this, some of the articles manage to articulately give the facts.

The one on Canadian. magazines (despite its unfortunate opening paragraph, which also tells us “paid magazines are sold on the newsstands or delivered through the mails to subscribers”) is detailed and straightforward. Writer Sandra Martin gives us a lengthy history of Canada’s magazine industry from The Nova Scotia Magazine and Comprehensive Review of Literature, Politics and News (1789) to Recipes Only, which in 1983 became the country’s largest controlled-circulation magazine. Martin spends much of the article explaining how Canadian magazines have survived the onslaught of American publications in this country: she gives brief, clear summaries of the 1959 Royal Commission on Publications, the 1969 Special Senate Committee on the Mass Media and the 1973 Ontario Royal Commission on Book Publishing. But while she is thorough, Martin isn’t very interesting. Isn’t there the least bit of mud that could be flung at the Canadian magazine industry? Where are the colorful characters who pioneered publishing in this country?

The same is true of Ottawa journalist Tim Creery’s article on newspapers: he gives us the facts in a dreary, workmanlike way. Newspapers from the Halifax Gazette of 1752 to The Toronto Sun (which, we are told, added “right-wing populism to the tabloid formula of sex, sin and sport”) are dutifully documented, and that’s about it. Creery mentions the Royal Commission on Newspapers headed by Tom Kent but says little about the joint closings of Southam’s Winnipeg Tribune and Thomson’s Ottawa Journal, which sparked the investigation. What analysis we do get is really editorializing in disguise-Canadian newspapers, for instance, are characterized as hungry headline hunters lacking editorial identity. Apparently only The Globe and Mail, a “writers’ newspaper,” rises above the superficial scoop-seekers, having given skilled journalists such as Jeffrey Simpson and John Fraser “the opportunity to practise their craft.”

The condescending tone of many of the shorter entries on individual publications and personalities is similarly unnerving. Saturday Night, we learn, has “a dedicated snobbishness” and in the 1980s has “hovered uneasily between liberal trendiness and serious coverage of the Canadian scene.” The entry begrudgingly concedes, however, that the magazine, begun in 1887, has survived nearly a century. Similarly, the one-paragraph entry on Weekend magazine, flanked by “Weeds” and “Weightlifting,” says the publication was the most popular advertising vehicle in the country in the 1960s, without noting its value as a piece of journalism. AndMaclean’s, we are told, is successful because it is “a welcome supplement to the pallid fare in most newspapers.” (Newspapers are the ones that aren’t paper-covered.)

The Canadian Encyclopedia tries hard to please, but not hard enough: the publications and personalities that get individual entries seem to have been chosen arbitrarily. The Edmonton Journal (the major newspaper in the city where the encyclopedia was published) gets an entry, but the Calgary Herald does not. Margaret (Ma) Murray, who gained national notoriety as the out-spoken owner and editor of the Bridge River Lillooet News, doesn’t rate an entry; instead, she gets a sentence in the article on Lillooet, B.C., and two sentences and a photograph in the journalism entry. Other old-timers, such as broadcast journalists Matthew Halton and Norman Depoe, don’t even rate that. And even if they were mentioned somewhere in the encyclopedia, they’d be difficult to find-the index is infuriating.

It lists only subjects that don’t have their own articles; if a subject isn’t included, in an article on something else, you’re out of luck. This is most aggravating when you’re looking for something you’re certain must be in there, but you just can’t find it. Such was the case with information on Canadian broadcast journalism. Except for the statement in the main entry that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has “an excellent news service” and “a commitment to public-affairs programs,” the encyclopedia has remarkably little information on Canada’s growing telejournalism industry. Programs such as the fifth estate are mentioned, but Adrienne Clarkson is not. (Just because she’s now trying to sell Ontario to the French makes her no less Canadian.)This Hour Has Seven Days gets a passing nod, but nothing is said about its creators, Patrick Watson and Doug Leiterman.

As a final test of the encyclopedia’s coverage of the Canadian news and current affairs media, I looked for information on 10 important journalists, past and present. But to The Canadian Encyclopedia, apparently, the media is not the message. Of the 10, seven (editor Ralph Allen, broadcaster Barbara Frum, and writers Pierre Berton, June Callwood, Roger Lemelin, Peter C. Newman and Grattan O’Leary) have their own entries, though most are only a paragraph long. Allen’s entry, written by Doug Fetherling, says he was “one of the best-loved and most influential editors of his day,” who implemented “many editorial techniques and procedures still in use today,” but neglects to say just what his innovations were. The unbylined (again) article on Pierre Berton does little more than identify the man as a “journalist, historian, media personality” and give synopses of his books. The anonymous author does take time to tell us, however, that “patriotic verve” is one of Berton’s strengths.

Frum is cautiously described by Allan M. Gould as “probably Canada’s most respected and best-known interviewer.” Her achievements are crammed into a brief paragraph that is slightly shorter than the entry on Frederick Philip Grove’s 1933 novel Fruits of the Earth preceding it. It is two paragraphs shorter than the article on the “Fuel Cell” on the same page. Certainly Frum, through her work on As It Happens and The Journal, has generated as much energy across the country as the fuel cell. At least she rates an article in the encyclopedia: Montreal Gazette publisher Clark Davey, Globe and Mail editor-in-chief Norman Webster and former Toronto Telegram editor-in-chief J.D. MacFarlane are three prominent journalists who do not.

The Canadian Encyclopedia gives the country’s news and current affairs media shoddy treatment: it devotes too many pages to the troublesome amalgam of mounties, maple leaves and mukluks that make up Canadiana. There is even an entry on Canadian disasters. Yes, home-made catastrophes rate a quaking 29 paragraphs and flood almost two pages, more than broadcasting, Saturday Night and Pierre Berton combined.

Journalism in Canada, it appears, is hardly earth-shattering news.


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