"IS THE PRESS TOO SENSATIONAL?"
An Address by PIERRE BERTON Newspaper Columnist
Thursday, January 21st, 1960
CHAIRMAN: The President, Mr. Harold R. Lawson.
MR. LAWSON: This past Christmas was a big day for me for, in addition to the usual assortment of ties and socks, most of which, in deference to the sensibilities of my friends, had to be promptly buried at the bottom of a bureau drawer, Santa Claus brought me the only two things I ever really want, a tin of tobacco and a good book. The book was called "Just Add Water and Stir", by one Pierre Berton, and the author describes it as a random collection of satirical essays, rude remarks, used anecdotes, thumbnail sketches, ancient wheezes, old nostalgias, wry comments, limp doggerel, intemperate recipes, vagrant opinions and crude drawings. I would describe it as terrific. If you weren't fortunate enough to get a copy for Christmas, buy one for yourself. If you can't afford it, see your nearest Neighbourhood Worker for it is one of the necessities of life.
This, of course, is not the first time we have heard of Pierre Berton. We also know him as the author of other books, Klondike, The Mysterious North, The Golden Trail, The Royal Family. We know him as the former editor of Maclean's Magazine, a former newspaperman in various editorial capacities, a radio and TV personality, a writer of theatrical sketches and, most recently, a columnist for the Toronto Daily Star.
In this latter capacity he has become, amongst other things, a sort of Jiminy Cricket or social conscience, pointing out the seamy side of certain prevalent business practices. Among his targets have been municipal land deals, the dancing instruction business, finance companies, the television repair business, the advertising business and the life insurance companies. We would not all agree with everything he says but, for myself, I am glad that someone has the courage to say these things and I enjoy the way he does it.
Today, he is going to speak to us on the subject "Is the Press Too Sensational?" It is a pleasure to present the one and only Mr. Pierre Berton.
MR. BERTON: I am here before you today to talk to you about the terrible sensationalism of the daily newspapers in this country.
I was discussing this whole thing on a radio panel a while ago. The subject of the discussion was the title I have chosen for this talk, "Is the Press Too Sensational?" The first panellist who is a bearded intellectual said, "Yes, it certainly is--flaring headlines about inconsequential subjects"; and the second speaker, who is a former newspaper woman said the same thing; and the third speaker, who is a housewife said the newspapers blow up these stories of violence out of all proportion to get circulation and so on; and then I was asked and I made myself very unpopular by saying: "No, the Press is not too sensational; I don't think it is nearly sensational enough."
But I should explain that my definition of what true sensationalism is, is slightly different from the accepted clichés. I happen to believe that it is the subject matter of a newspaper story that makes that story sensational, and not the way it is handled on the front page. You can take any newspaper story and makes it look sensational. For instance, suppose that Allan Lamport, exhausted by his work on the T.T.C., decides to take a holiday in Bermuda; normally that is a two-paragraph story buried among the classified ads. But suppose the Toronto Star decides to make a big front page story out of it--flaring 196-point headlines:
LAMPORT LEAVES FOR BERMUDA "Not Coming Back for Two Weeks" Says Controversial T.T.C. Commissioner
Well, that story looks sensational and a lot of people will rush out and buy newspapers and read it, and they will be very disappointed.
Now, of course, that is not true sensationalism. It is phoney sensationalism. That kind of story does not really cause any sensation at all because it just is not sensational no matter what you do with it. My feeling is that, by and large, the daily newspapers of this country do not carry enough stories on their front pages and elsewhere that are really sensational, or that cause a sensation.
The fact is that most traffic accidents and most drownings--yes and most murders--no longer produce sensations. We know in advance that there is going to be so many every year. Just as we know that there is going to be a squabble in the T.T.C. regularly every month. I suggested the other day, that a really sensational headline would be:
NO SQUABBLE IN T.T.C. TODAY
My newspaper thought I was being funny but I was deadly serious.
What is a truly sensational story? Well, it is a story that people do not expect to read, to start with. It is usually a story that is not on the surface, in other words a story that takes time and effort and money to uncover. A plane crash these days is not a sensational story. But if a newspaper goes out and discovers the reason why the plane crashed--it may be the pilot was worried about his wife's illness; or it may be sabotage; or it may be a defect in the plane's construction--well, that story is likely to be sensational.
I will give you an example of what I mean. Last March an unknown Toronto Organization called The Freedom Foundation got itself in the news because it distributed a rather silly pamphlet saying that fluoridation was a Communist plot. Miss Phyllis Griffiths of the Telegram dug into this story over a period of several days and discovered that the people behind this same foundation were mixed up in a gold mine in B.C. and were raising money from the Foundation members in a very dubious manner. She produced a series of front page stories which the Tely properly ran under big headlines. These stories were truly sensational.
Now this is the sort of thing I am talking about and I say there is not enough of it in this country. Why not? Well, there are several reasons, but the main one is that it is cheaper and easier not to be sensational. It is simpler just to sit in the office and let the news roll in--as, indeed, the radio stations do. And it does roll in. It comes in off the CP wire and off the UP wire and off the AP wire. It comes in the form of handouts and press releases and syndicated articles you can buy for a song. A handful of men can today put out a newspaper that touches all the bases and that covers all the superficial news of the day. Now if that newspaper has no competition to keep it on its toes it will thrive and, as it does not spend very much money, and never gets into trouble or controversy, never expresses a distasteful opinion, or goes out on a limb, or makes anybody mad, it will make a lot of money. And that is the situation in many cities in this country today, where there is no alternative means of communication.
You know I am always amused by newspaper publishers who write editorials, or get somebody to write editorials, demanding freer competition in some field, and praising the principle of free competitive enterprise to the skies. And then you find that all the time they have been writing these editorials, they have been trying to buy up the other paper in town, or the paper in the next town--or the local radio and TV station--so there will be no competition and they will have everything their own way.
There are precious few cities left in Canada where there is open competition between the newspapers. Let us look at the major cities: Victoria, two papers, both owned by the same interest, Vancouver, two papers, both owned by the same company, Edmonton, one paper, Calgary, two papers in competition, Regina, one paper, Saskatoon, one paper, Hamilton, London, and Windsor, one paper, Winnipeg and Ottawa, two papers in competition, Toronto, three papers, all in competition, Montreal, two English speaking papers in competition, and finally east of Montreal, no competition. In this rapidly growing country the number of newspapers is diminishing and the control of these papers is falling into fewer and fewer hands. There are only five cities left in Canada where the newspapers are competitive.
But this is not the whole story. In many cities the chief means of communication are controlled by one source. In the United States there are 73 communities where the radio station, the TV station and the local newspaper are all in the same hands. The situation in Canada is comparable.
We have 16 cities in this country where a newspaper owns a radio station, and in most cases it is the only newspaper in town. We have eight cities where a newspaper owns a television station and in every case it is the only television station in town, and in all but one case the only newspaper in town. And we have seven cities in which the newspaper owns the television station and a radio station as well.
Now we find, in the hearings before the Board of Broadcast Governors, several applications by concerns which already control radio or television stations or newspapers and sometimes all three.
One of the companies applying for a private TV licence in Vancouver already has interests in both Vancouver newspapers and two of the 3 private radio stations in the area. One of the members of this group, The Southam Company, owns seven daily newspapers outright, has substantial interests in four more together with heavy interests in three TV and three radio stations. It is applying for further TV licences in three Canadian cities in which it also controls newspapers.
Frankly, I think this situation is unhealthy. I think if a newspaper does something infamous, the TV station or the radio station ought to be independent enough to rake it over the coals. The newspapers all employ TV critics. I would like to see a television station independent enough to employ newspaper critics. Somebody who will say: "Berton wrote a lousy column today; he is slipping." or "Nathan Cohen hasn't fulfilled his promise." or "The story on the front page is a lot of nonsense." Then the public will get a fighting chance of learning--and learning it from more than one source--what is going on. We might then, gentlemen, have some true sensationalism on our front pages, and on the back pages, too.
Now there are some people, of course, newspapermen among them, who believe that if a newspaper enjoys a monopoly, it can do a better job for its readers. It does not operate under the pressure of the deadline, it is not forced to shovel the news into print at high speed, it can spend more time in a leisurely and thorough manner getting things right, instead of getting them first. Well, these are valid arguments, but I do not see them working anywhere. The best reporting is being done in those cities--and this is the chief one--where the competition is fiercest.
The fact is that if a newspaper hasn't got somebody across the street continually keeping it on its toes it tends to get flabby. The publisher thinks twice before he will foot the bill to send one of his own reporters to Washington or Ottawa. If there is a scandal in the city council, there will be no excessive haste to unearth it, because the paper will know that nobody else is going to bother to unearth it. And the fact of the matter is in many cases, it won't get unearthed at all. And the readers won't complain because they won't know what they are missing--they won't have any yardstick to judge the only paper by. What they will probably say is--isn't it nice that we have a solid respectable unsensational paper. Because you know a lot of people are like that Social Committee of the U.N. the other day which said that reporters should merely gather the news, but they should never seek it out. Lord help us all if reporters become that passive.
There are some other dangers in newspaper monopolies which conspire against hard, objective, searching reporting. Here is an incident that happened recently in a Canadian city where a monopoly position prevails. A well known city businessman was charged and found guilty of drunk driving. Now when anybody is found guilty of drunk driving, the newspapers report it, as they report any other crime, and they name the man involved. This particular newspaper had run editorials on the evils of drunk driving. But the advertising manager went to the city editor and said: "You cannot publish this story." The city editor said, "I do not take my orders from you." So the advertising manager went to the publisher and the publisher said to the city editor: "I am sorry but we are not going to run this story." I should add that the businessman in question was a heavy advertiser.
Now if there had been any competition in town the following things might easily have happened:
First, the opposition paper might have got wind of the story and revealed that its rival had suppressed it, thereby embarrassing its rival no end. Secondly, the city editor, who is a good one, might have quit and gone to work for the opposition. Neither of these things could happen however, because the opposition paper was under the same ownership. This is a tiny example of the sort of thing I am talking about, but it is an indication of the stultifying effect of monopoly on the press.
Now we do not have that situation in Toronto. This is the only city in Canada that has three English speaking newspapers all under separate ownerships and all competing with each other like mad. We hate each other! And I think that is wonderful. The papers here are all vigorously independent and because the superficial news is always covered first by radio and TV, there is an honest attempt being made here now to get behind the headlines and tell the public things they do not know and cannot get elsewhere.
There are some disadvantages to this hectic competition and the thing is not perfect. When you get really fierce competition, the newspapers tend to arrange their front page for the benefit of the opposition newspapermen and not for the readers. I remember in Vancouver, in the old days, when competition was really rough, it is not anymore, there was a small fire on one of the docks, and the managing editor said to me: "Get a car and six other reporters and three photographers and go down there and run around taking pictures and writing in your notebooks like mad." He said: "That will scare the wits out of the opposition." And, of course, it did. They thought it must be a big story and they phoned for reinforcements and spread it all over the front page, when it should have been two paragraphs inside. That is what I mean about putting out a newspaper for rival newspapermen and not your readers. And I would be the last to say that that does not happen here sometimes.
Also it seems to me that editors tend to think in terms of cliches of two generations ago. When the motor car was a novelty, a traffic accident was big news. When our population was smaller and there was no radio or TV, a murder was always big news. That is less true today. I am convinced the public does not want so much to know what has happened--it already gets that instantly on the radio--it wants to know why it has happened and what is behind it. And this, often enough, provides the real sensation.
Some of the best reporting being done in the three Toronto papers does not appear on Page One at all, under flaring headlines--it appears on the page opposite the editorial page, Page 7, where background stories are published under the by-lines of reporters who take their time and use their heads. Many of these stories are truly sensational; and some of them are disturbing. But my only complaint is that there are not enough of them. But there are more in this town than elsewhere, because when one paper starts something, the others have to follow suit even if it costs money and time and effort.
It is no coincidence that we have in Toronto the only newspaper in Canada that has two of its own men in the Far East, The Globe and Mail; in fact this paper has the only correspondent in Red China of any North American paper. And as a Toronto journalist and a Canadian, I am proud of this even though it is not my paper. Of course, the Star used to be the one paper with a Far Eastern correspondent. It is the same correspondent, as a matter of fact the Globe stole him from us; and more power to them for it. It is always a healthy situation when a newspaperman has an alternate job to go to; it makes him just a little more independent than he otherwise might be; and independence is the life blood of our business. I hope the time will come when all the Toronto papers will have permanent staff members, not only in Peking, but also in Moscow and other capitals. As it is, there are more overseas correspondents from this town than from any other. In the towns where a monopoly exists, there aren't any; the newspaper readers there have to depend for their information on syndicated writers or press agency dispatches. I do not think that is any substitute for having your own man on the spot.
And so we return to the question: Is the Press too Sensational?, and my answer: I only wish it were. News, surely by definition, is that part of life around us that is sensational. The sensational findings of the archaeologists, for instance, have always been news. What I think the public objects to, in newspapers, is the attempt to make a sensation out of something that really is not very interesting, or very important, that is not, in fact, sensational at all. The advertising people, of course, are partially responsible for this. They use words like amazing, and wonderful, and sensational, with absolutely no regard for their meaning. "Here is wonderful news of an amazing new scientific discovery that brings sensational results on wash day." And, we, of the press ourselves, have to take some of the blame. We have used the word "sensational" to describe events and discoveries and even speeches, like this one, which are something less than sensational.
Well, I happen to believe that it is an honourable adjective. I hope we can apply it properly and in its true meaning to more and more newspapers in the future. I should add that I hope that there are more and more newspapers in the future, and not fewer and fewer. And, if anybody wants to call me sensational, and some people have, of course, I will not be the least bit upset or disturbed as long as my own brand of sensationalism falls within the definition I have advocated here today. And if it does not, I will be the first to know.
THANKS OF THE MEETING were expressed by Mr. James B. McGeachy.