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When did Maclean's Become a Tabloid?
and other laments for the state of Canadian journalism


Okay, I'm diverging a bit from talking about movies and TV -- the raison d'etre of this site. But I'm still talking about "media" so, hopefully, it won't seem too far a field. You see I was flipping through a copy of Maclean's magazine the other day -- self-described as "Canada's news magazine" -- and I thought: when did Maclean's become a tabloid?

I used to subscribe to Maclean's years ago, when money was a bit less tight, and I've continued to flip through it in waiting rooms. I don't know if I hadn't been in a waiting room for a while, or whether the switch was quick, but recently, Maclean's seemed...glibber, more vacuous. Celebrity pictures seemed squeezed into every article, no matter how tenuous the connection. Little blurbs, also featuring celebrities, were inserted into half the pages...with the questionable banner "We're stalking..." (What's next? The editors compiling a list of the celebrities they'd most like to rape?) Honestly -- I repeatedly had to check the cover to remind myself whether I was reading Maclean's...or People. And the articles were few and far between -- oh, sure, there were long form text pieces. But in tone, they were not "just the facts, ma'am" articles, but editorials, biased, pushing a point of view...and almost invariably right-of-centre.

Sure, Maclean's always had right wing op ed pieces (Barbara Amiel, for one, who I used to think was parodying ultra right thinking -- but, no, she was serious). That's called balance. But the balance seems to have shifted radically, to include even the supposedly objective articles. Linda Frum's bizarrely orgasmic interview with some American hardliner cop was particularly uncomfortable in its lack of objective distance (get a room, kids).

Then there was the memorable piece in which a writer referred to ex-prime minister, Jean Chretien, as a "penis". Ah -- high school debating teams everywhere lost one of their brightest lights when that reporter graduated, eh?

Another article covered the controversy over the seal hunt. Okay, I'm not sure if I've ever read an article in a Canadian newspaper that didn't demonize the anti-sealers. Environmentalist are just slightly above pedophiles in the minds of most Canadian journalists. Still, this was Maclean's, and this was an article -- so I expected a little he said/she said stuff. But there was no attempt (in that issue at least) to interview the anti-sealers, only the sealers. And there was, of course, the usual ad hominem attacks. The journalist attacked the anti-sealers by suggesting they were hypocrites, happy to see chickens slaughtered...ignoring the fact that the lead Devil of the piece -- Sir Paul McCartney -- is a well known vegetarian and doesn't condone killing chickens. And even if it had been true, it's a tad absurd to suggest that one's devotion to a cause is suspect because there are other causes out there. That thinking leads to calling Christopher Reeve a hypocrite because he devoted his final years to championing spinal chord research when he could've been raising money for Cancer research instead.

I'm conflicted as to whether the seal hunt is a good or bad thing, culturally, morally, economically. The anti-sealers will tell me what they want me to know...and the sealers will tell me the opposite. That's why I might turn to something like Maclean's...to provide an insightful balance, airing the different sides. Apparently, not anymore.

As I said, this isn't unexpected when it comes to Canadian journalism and the seal hunt. An amusing example was a newspaper which, in a supposedly "objective" article, mocked how an anti-sealer activist-celebrity had to turn back because his decrepit, el cheapo boat sprang a leak...then, a few weeks later, it ran an article denouncing the anti-sealers as rich dilettantes with more money than God. Get it? Environmentalist are fools because they're poor...then evil because they're rich. Money seems to be a two-edge sword in this issue: anti-sealers are to be despised because they ask for donations...yet sealers are to be admired because sealing is a profitable industry.

Okay, Canadian journalism generally tends to be right-of-centre -- I know that because I read an editorial explaining how Canadian journalists weren't right-of-centre (you know what they say about "protesting too much"?)

This phenomenon has, of course, been awkward for Canadian Conservative politicians who, seeking to paint themselves as the grassroots underdogs, constantly decry the "Liberal"-bias of the media, knowing it would tarnish their man-of-the-people image if voters perceived them as being the ones having "Big Media" in their back pockets. Recently, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has been baiting the media every chance he gets (banning their coverage of military funerals, announcing "secret" cabinet meetings so ministers won't have to answer journalists' questions) broke the camel's back by announcing only pre-approved journalists would be permitted to ask questions at press conferences. When the parliamentary press walked out, Harper fumed that they wouldn't have done that to the Liberals...ignoring the fact that that's because the Liberals had never done anything so remotely undemocratic.

Harper essentially "manufactured a crisis" (to borrow a term from another Conservative regime, Mike Harris' Ontario Conservatives) in order to portray himself as the victim of a Liberal press.

Now, I don't read every paper, or every magazine. My perceptions may be unduly narrow. But most of what I read are articles and editorials desperate to bolster and lionize any right-of-centre politician they think has a shot at Sussex Drive (dating all the way back to Kim Campbell and newspapers proclaiming a tsunami of "Campbellmania"...just before she lost her seat and the Conservative party was all but obliterated in the House of Commons). Let's not forget how the media was quick to rally around then-leadership hopeful Paul Martin (who was perceived as being from the Liberal Party's right wing), editorial after editorial insisting he -- and only he -- could lead the Liberal Party. We all know how well that turned out, don't we?

Just prior to the last election, an editorialist cautioned that the Liberals wanted to "scare" us with spurious claims that Stephen Harper would re-open the same sex marriage issue -- about two days later, the election was called, and the first policy platform out of Harper's mouth was...a vow to re-open the same sex marriage debate! I don't recall the editorialist penning a follow up editorial, advising us whether it was all right to be scared now.

Another example of the media's continual effort to soften the image of hardline conservatism was a front page headline in the Toronto Star, just days before the election, which proclaimed that Harper was "redder" (ie: more moderate) than we thought. Whether journalists reassuring us that we shouldn't be scared of Harper, and that he's really a huggable, Red Tory teddy bear, helped him win his minority government, who knows. But I bet it didn't hurt.

But, as they say, I digress. Because I didn't really want to talk about the right wing bias of the media (I'm sure many people reading this will disagree, anyway).

I can be uncomfortable with the contrary bias. I was reading a magazine (can't remember what -- told ya: it was a waiting room) that did a lengthy piece on the militias that have arisen in the USA, guarding the Canada-U.S. border. The article took a blatantly condescending, mocking attitude to its subjects. Admittedly, maybe there was no other way to report it, no "other" side to report. Maybe the militiamen were a bunch of goofballs, but still, it seemed cheap. Though even then, at least the article was about them, interviewing them, the journalist spending a few days "embedded" with them -- which was more than Maclean's did with the anti-sealers.

Anyway, I'm not trying to argue whether a "right" wing or a "left" wing philosophy is right or wrong. What I wanted to write about was the decline in standards and quality of journalism. Sloppy reporting and a decided bias not just in the editorials (which, after all, are supposed to allow for a certain amount of bias) but in the news articles themselves.

So when and why did it happen?

Well, obviously, some of it was always there...I'm just becoming more cynical and aware of it. After all, I'm claiming I first started to perceive a right wing bias dating back to Kim Campbell's leadership of the Conservative Party which was -- what? -- almost twenty years ago. And people blurring the line between "objective" journalism and "subjective" editorializing have always existed.

Read Knowlton Nash's book Kennedy vs. Diefenbaker -- a brilliant parody of that kind of faux-objectivity. Nash cleverly uses blatantly manipulative adjectives, and bizarre topsy turvy arguments (claiming Diefenbaker was paranoid...even as Nash acknowledges Kennedy really was having secret communications with the leader of the Opposition and respected Canadian journalists) to show how a less scrupulous journalist than Nash might try and skew things into an anti-Diefenbaker tirade. The result is a book where I finished it with a greater respect for Diefenbaker than I had before, while also being more conscious of the tricks a journalist might use to manipulate me. Uh...unless Nash didn't intend it as a parody -- but, no, that couldn't be it...could it?

But as I said, it seems to be getting worse and more blatant -- from Left and Right, as both use the escalating excesses of the other to justify their blatant biases and misconstruing of information. "Well, if (blank) won't report both sides, why should I?" Certainly FOX News in the United States seems to get a lot of credit for radically blurring the line that separates acceptable, balanced reporting from just propaganda in service of an editorial agenda.

Partly, I think it's my fault.

Okay, not mine, per se. But people like me. The internet has become a forum for what we'll call meta-journalism -- people posting their views with little, if any, editorial oversight. We've got websites, and blogs, and message boards, all being utilized by people with a point of view, an axe to grind. And, you know what? A lot of it's not bad. A lot of it's well reasoned, by people who have genuinely thought about the issues, even providing links to where they got their info (the ultimate footnotes!). Sure, some of it's garbage, I'm just saying, is all.

The point is, a lot of these meta-journalists become popular, gaining their own loyal readership, becoming almost on a par with "real" journalists. Not me, perhaps -- though even then, I have seen some of my comments regurgitated in "real" publications...not always with proper credit!

And so the real journalists feel they have to compete. A lot of websters (like yours truly) try to be deliberately wry and witty and flippant, and the real journalists see that, see how fun that can be to read and to write, and they start emulating it. They like the freedom of being snide and sarcastic and witty, they like the unfetteredness of writing innuendo with very little in the way of substantiation.

After all, just consider this editorial (notice how I say "editorial" though, not article). Though I have links to some relevant articles, many of the newspapers I cite go unnamed, and the dates unspecified. I say it's unavoidable: the newspapers have long since been sent out for recycling. Still, it's questionable "journalism" -- I'm asking you to trust, not just my integrity, but my memory!

Anyway...journalists worry about losing popularity, and control of the social discourse, to the meta-journalists, so they start to become meta-journalists.

But they aren't meta-journalists, dammit! They're journalists. They have a responsibility -- to the stories, to readers, and to themselves. A responsibility to report facts, not just glib vacuities and opinions disguised as facts. And when they forget that, we all suffer, right and left.

So the once-respected Maclean's magazine starts glibly talking about "stalking" celebrities, calling people "penises", and intimating that Paul McCartney clubs baby chickens in his spare time, becoming a sad joke of its former self.

And the waiting rooms of the nation no longer have anything worth reading.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

June 6, 2006

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