Tuesday, June 5, 2012

(No.201) Part 2 of media myths & RickardsRead.com: 200 columns & counting

"Part 2 of media myths and RickardsRead.com:

200 columns and counting"

by Alastair Rickard

In the first part of this column (No.200 on RickardsRead.com, posted May 30, 2012) I marked the 200th of these columns by talking about the origin of this blog and the background which produced it. This column continues those reflections.

Part of my motivation to continue writing after leaving Sun Life Financial was based on my experience with the media. For some years, because of my profile as editor of the Canadian Journal of Life Insurance while simultaneously working at a life company head office, I was frequently called by journalists looking for help with articles and opinion pieces.

I usually agreed, in the interests of upgrading accuracy, to talk to them and my comments were most often used as background or in the form of quotes from an unnamed source. I soon came to understand that the majority of the journalists who contacted me did not really understand all that much about the reality of the business about which they were writing (happily, there were exceptions).

In this context a particular memory is my becoming, within a single newspaper article, three different people. I had been called by a business reporter working with a short deadline plus pressure from his editor. When his article appeared I was in it alright  but as a trifecta: as a "company executive", an "industry insider" and an "informed observer".

On another occasion I was involved with a consumer-oriented Canadian television program. I was called by a segment producer who knew of my public criticism of an American named Charles Givens who had also become active in Canada. He was a hustler as well as an indefatigable self-promoter, the author of a best seller entitled "Wealth Without Risk"and, of course, a media darling.

Part of his act as a self-proclaimed consumer advocate involved attacking the life insurance business and misrepresenting its core product. Givens was so full of it that, to borrow a line from the late Christopher Hitchens, if you gave him an enema you could afterwards fit him into a shoe box.

I helped this television producer with sources and information and put him in touch with experts in the U.S. like Alan Press. Time passed, work on the program proceeded and then I received a call from a very unhappy producer.

His series segment exposing Givens had been killed by the program's chief executive when the latter realized that a program exposing the falsity of Givens' views and approach to life insurance (among other financial matters) would actually also serve as an indictment of the views of certain Canadian critics of the life insurance industry to whom the program had been in the habit of providing a friendly platform for similar nonsense.

Givens was eventually sued left and right by unhappy consumers who had suffered financially from acting on the basis of his unsound and self-interested views. There was never really an appropriate sort of revisiting of the Givens story by those media whose publicity had so materially aided his rise.

I also still see interview articles these days with senior corporate executives about whom I know more than a little. The articles often owe far more to the initiative, skill, imagination and manipulation of corporate public affairs staffers than to the cause of accuracy.

Many talking heads from the world of journalism love to blather on about the challenges confronting today's traditional media. One is declining credibility with the public, a subject overloaded with myth and short on reality.

For example: many people are (because of their own experience, training, employment or special interest) knowledgeable on a particular subject(s). However they frequently read or hear media material in their own area of expertise they know is misleading or factually incorrect or conceptually flawed. Inevitably this reality tends to undermine media credibility on other subjects and issues.

Nor is media credibility with the public helped by the fact that too often newspaper 'reviewers' of subjects with which many readers are familiar (e.g., movies, restaurants, travel and even theatre) are engaged in writing what amounts to little more than promotion of their subjects masquerading as journalism.

Is the blogosphere in which I participate through RickardsRead.com an improvement? In some respects at least it is worse because unrestricted participation, while it contributes to ease of access for alternative voices, is a negative as well as a positive. The blogosphere is populated not only by those who contribute useful facts and thoughtful opinion ignored by or shut out of the mainstream media but also by the ignorant and the looney whose contributions are ghost milk.

In his recent (Toronto) Globe and Mail "media" column (May 22, 2012), "Lament for a national blogosphere", Simon Houpt argues that in comparison with the U.S. the Canadian "blogosphere is tame and ignorable." That is arguable but the more significant issue involves another current media myth: that people are not just reading more news in a non-traditional digital format and less in traditional hard copy form but are actually accessing more news.

The reality is that newspaper readership began declining before the rise of the internet and digital news and has been in recession for years because more and more people were not prepared to invest the time, effort and money to keep themselves well informed. Walter Cronkite, the legendary CBS television news anchor, famously worried years ago about the number of Americans who relied for their news on a half hour of television per day and they thought themselves informed.

The supposed migration to digital media that is ongoing is also misleading in terms of how much actual news is being read. Yes, many millions of people are on the internet and using social media like Twitter and Facebook. I would not go quite as far as Conrad Black did recently in the Huffington Post (May 23, 2012) when he wrote that Facebook "is essentially the recording and transmission of utterly mindless reflections, mainly between boring and under-occupied people." But the idea that today more people than a decade ago are actually reading more news is simply an expression of internet utopianism, a product of thinking that is typical of digital media groupies.

In fact it is rooted in yet another media myth. The reality is that to get one's news by reading a newspaper via the internet, a computer screen or  digital device is to read less news, not more coverage than one does in a hard copy newspaper. That reality is self-evident to anyone who reads, say, the New York Times in hard copy and then tries to gain the same breadth and depth of news experience from the NYT online edition.

I am reminded of some of the business executives I knew who seemed to consider themselves as well informed from scanning bite-sized news capsules selected and prepared for them daily by company staff as those among their colleagues who took the time to actually read even one good newspaper each day.

Another reality is that among many younger people there is decreasing interest in and attention span for reading  real news and current affairs regardless of its delivery format, a reality reflected also in their steadily lower voter turnout. It's hardly a puzzle that the 'social media' attract far greater time and attention from this demographic group. The digital 'social media' are for many people both an avenue and a rationale for the understanding of less and less about more and more.

It may be argued that much or most of the mainstream corporate media are too flawed in terms of delivering the news to warrant as much attention as they have been accustomed to receiving from the public. This is indeed a cogent argument given so much media blindness to subjects that concern many Canadians on an ongoing basis (one example: the hollowing out of Canadian control of the Canadian economy).

Combine this with an increased media commitment to the publication of organized irrelevance through the devoting of wildly disproportionate space and resources to the sensational and insubstantial (e.g., details from the trials of child murderers; or the grisly murder and dissection of a single victim of just one of Canada's 500+ annual homicides; or the endless trivia involving celebrities' lives). It is difficult to take seriously the defence of the media by custodians of such shallow editorial judgments.

To the extent that this sort of stuff undermines credibility with readers it is partially offset by access to opinion columnists of quality and insight who avoid group think and the herd mentality that so frequently support various media myths. I refer to people such as Rick Salutin of The Toronto Star, Jeffrey Simpson and Eric Reguly of The Globe and Mail (Toronto) and Robert Fulford and Christie Blatchford of The National Post.

They routinely offer cogent opinion while avoiding the familiar traps of today's mainstream media opinion: sycophancy or disdain and the expression of opinions that leave no straw man standing.

All in all there is ample motivation for me to continue making for awhile yet a modest contribution to public conversation through RickardsRead.com.


email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

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