The Media's Role in Society: A Statesman's View
Publication:
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 7 Apr 1994, p. 380-390


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Davis, The Hon. William G., Speaker
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Text
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Speeches
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Journalism. The Media. The media and advertising. A distinction between comment and news. Fact vs. opinion. Journalistic responsibility. Entrepreneurial journalism. Dark journalism. Substantive journalism. Should journalists set practice standards?
Date of Original:
7 Apr 1994
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English
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The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Full Text
The Hon. William G. Davis, Former Premier of Ontario; Counsel, Tory Tory DesLauriers & Binnington
THE MEDIA'S ROLE IN SOCIETY: A STATESMAN'S VIEW
Chairman: Dr. Frederic L. R. Jackman President, The Empire Club of Canada

Head Table Guests

Margaret Scrivener, formerly Member of the Provincial Parliament for the Riding of St. David, member of the firm Martin & Meredith Limited Real Estate and Honorary Director, The Empire Club of Canada; The Rev. Dr. Malcolm Sinclair, Minister, Metropolitan United Church; William Wilton, Executive Director, The Canadian Journalism Foundation; Anthony Fredo, Vice-President of Public Affairs, Ford of Canada; Robert J. McGavin, Senior Vice-President, Public Affairs, Toronto Dominion Bank and Chairman, Olympic Trust of Canada; John A. MacNaughton, President and CEO, Burns Fry Limited and a Past President, The Empire Club of Canada; Tom Wells, President, T. L. W. Consulting and a Director, The Empire Club of Canada; John Fraser, Editor, Saturday Night Magazine; Julie K. Hannaford, Partner, Borden & Elliot and 2nd Vice-President, The Empire Club of Canada; The Hon. J. Trevor Eyton, O.C., Q.C., B.A., LL.B., Chairman and Director, Brascan Limited; Francoise Bertrand, Presidente-directrice generale, Societe de radio-television de Quebec.

Introduction by Dr. Jackman

It is with great pleasure that we welcome The Honourable Bill Davis as the first speaker in the Media and Society series. Both the Canadian Journalism Foundation and The Empire Club are pleased that you were willing, Mr. Davis, to review your years of political and civic activity and to bring us the distillation of your wisdom today.

Mr. Davis, of course, is no stranger to The Empire Club, having addressed the Club on many occasions over his distinguished career, perhaps more than any other speaker. While he spoke previously on different subjects, he was not one to mention the media very often. Perhaps he had little reason to.

Objective observers would likely look back at the Davis years and conclude that Bill Davis faced a kinder and gentler press than we know today. Or perhaps he was a beneficiary of Richard Needham's tongue in cheek belief that "Newspapers go to great pains to give honest, accurate accounts of the lies told by politicians." Now Mr. Davis may, or may not, tell us, that that was or was not, the case. But it may well be that his own calm and patient demeanour helped bring about media coverage that was lower-key and less confrontational. After all, one would not expect a lot of crisis or controversy in the media about a man who was variously described as Buttermilk Bill, Bland Bill or Brampton Bill Davis.

Mr. Davis described his own relationship with the media as relatively calm. This is in contrast to Tom McMillan, when he was a federal conservative cabinet minister and commented on the criticism to which public officials are subjected bluntly saying, "The reputation of Jesus Christ himself could not withstand the kind of abuse the media heap upon anyone who rises above the rank of water commissioner" (1991).

Perhaps Bill Davis' attitude toward the media was part of his own success. I can tell you on reliable authority that he was not all-consumed by his own media coverage. When he arrived at the office, he would ignore what was on the front page of the newspaper, even if it was about him, and turn immediately to the sports page to see how the important things in life were going, like the Blue Jays and the Argos. In this habit, he was like the American Chief Justice Earl Warren who concurred in saying: "I turn to the sports pages first, which record people's accomplishments. The front page has nothing but man's failures."

And so, Bill Davis with his ever-present pipe, his so-called rural residence in Brampton and a great ability to keep everything in perspective, weathered the storms of political life and the ups and downs of media coverage in a way that few others have.

Mr. Davis served 25 years as a member of the Ontario Legislature. He was a long-time Minister of Education and he served 14 years as Premier of Ontario, creating a record of accomplishment that earned the trust and admiration of many in Ontario including many in the media.

Today, he is counsel to the law firm of Tory, Tory, Deslauriers & Binnington, a director of many major Canadian corporations, and someone who is regularly called upon by the leadership of this province and this country for his sage and balanced advice.

We are fortunate in having Mr. Davis with us. In creating the Media and Society series, we wanted a speaker with not only political experience, but also with sufficient distance from that experience in his life to be reflective about what the media and political relationship was all about. In short, we wanted a person who might offer us some wisdom.

Please welcome our former Premier, one of Canada's most distinguished statesmen, The Honourable William Grenville Davis.

William Davis

The only reason I would have accepted the invitation to speak about journalism today--0n the record and in public--is because I remain, as I have always been, an unrepentant optimist. That kind of optimism is an essential ingredient, not only of being a Conservative these days, but it is also essential if one is to look with any confidence to the future of journalistic practice. For today's purposes, I will not reflect on which vista is brighter--except to say that I am optimistic about both.

The evolution of industrial democracies in the West has made media into a business tied to advertising rates, frequency levels, cost-per-thousand ratios and production-cost constraints. The recent recession has tightened the belt around many media organizations even more firmly. Journalists and journalism are not immune to the impact of all this--riot immune to both the constraints and opportunity pressures all this implies.

The demise in major and even smaller markets of the independent media or print enterprise has also radically changed where and how journalists work and ply their profession. Critics of news coverage or media practice are often a little insensitive to the broader economic realities that now define the journalistic workplace. None of these conditions are particularly new--and none are necessarily oppressive or negative.

It also strikes me that the advent of instant news all day everyday has moved the print medium into an essentially analytical role--a role often more focussed on opinion and comment rather than news and facts.

The issue here is not the nature of those opinions--or even the broader question of bias--but rather the movement of an entire segment of media from simple reporting of the facts to a mix between reportage, analysis, opinion and comment. In a free society this represents a qualitative change over the last two decades that is, regardless of the market forces that may have caused it, worthy of note.

The distinction between what is clearly comment and what is news will blur on occasion--but that is simply human nature. It is my own recollection of public life that some newspapers could be with you on the editorial pages while eviscerating you in the headlines. Others could be with you or "agin you" from the headlines right through to the obits and sports with absolute and total consistency. It was my great pleasure in public life to experience all of the above.

But the blurring of opinion, analysis and fact is not, on balance, a great thing. If all facts are relative--then the basis upon which we understand each other and how things work in a free society can also become a little relative, a little loose, a little less than precise. Think about that not in the context of folks who are grounded in the Canadian way of life, but from the perspective of new arrivals who are learning about their new country largely from the public media. It does give one pause.

It also makes one reflect on the many causes of gripping public cynicism that are not media-related and the one or two that are. In a general sense, the media are still the eyes and ears of most people relative to their community, their profession, the business world, their country, their government. The media is not, therefore, just another business. It is one with an awesome responsibility--and quite frankly, one about which we do not talk publicly quite enough--which is why this series is so welcome an event.

Before taking a look at some concerns allow me to offer a broad overview. The journalistic profession, like any other profession, cannot be any stronger than its weakest link and, because it has no self-regulating or peer-review process, it can do precious little about those weak links. As such, and despite that problem, it does extremely well at a job that by its very definition is prone to controversy and mixed reviews.

The Canadian viewpoint on international issues is respected worldwide as largely unfettered by ideological hangups or secondary agendas. It is a reputation on foreign affairs which is richly deserved and hard won.

On domestic issues, it would be my bias that the media tend to reflect the regionalization of the country and the swings in public mood. One prominent TV editor once confided to a friend in fact that if the audience has a huge problem with a particular politician or issue, one had to reflect that anger in order to stay alive and relevant. The impact of a many-walled mirrored room reflecting back on itself, impressions it itself had created, is a little troubling--especially because it quickly becomes unclear where the impression began in the first place.

I believe media should be able to separate reporting the facts from reflecting the opinion swing of the day. They surely have the right to do both--but should do so more separately and in clearly-marked compartments.

Coverage of business issues has improved massively in the last decade; coverage of politics is still given to peaks and valleys but overall it is fair. If I have any concern, it is the obsession with gossip and marginalia and the increasing use of unnamed sources whose own agenda is rarely shared in any way with an unsuspecting public.

Overall these are quibbles on a job that is well-done in one of the most media-intense environments in the world. But let me now pass on to a problem area or two. I can think of little that is more tempting, and for someone of my Methodist principles, therefore more dangerous, than inviting a former politician to address the impact and state of journalistic practice. As the essence of Methodism is the resistance of temptation, I intend to operate within a framework of some considerable restraint. Indeed, were I to offer a weather report--purely from the vantage point of a citizen observer of the journalistic climate today--in our country, south of the border and in the U.K., the verdict of the main street Brampton weather service would simply be: "overheated."

While many Conservatives are hard-pressed to attack anything entrepreneurial, my own rather less-conservative and more-progressive view is that entrepreneurial journalism, which is always overheated and overwrought, is in some quarters rapidly replacing the journalism of substance, the journalism of care, the journalism that used to count.

Whether it is the tabloid shows in the U.S., or their imitations here, whether it is the present Whitewater phenomena in the U.S. or the feeding frenzy approach taken in Canada to election coverage, whether it is the insatiable appetite of all news broadcasters for low costs, repetitive gossip and marginalia masquerading as news, I leave to others more learned in the media arts to sort out.

What I do know is that public cynicism about the media is at the same level as cynicism about politicians which means that not only are those who try to govern responsibly and honourably at a profound disadvantage but so now are those who try to cover and analyze the newsworthy events in an honest and fair-minded way. Unless I am missing something, this state of affairs can only help the dishonourable and dishonest in both public affairs and the media by creating a broad public context in which there is apparently no difference between the honourable and the dishonourable.

If a society is broadly perceived to be devoid of honest men and women who enter political, business or community life for the right reasons and if the media sector is unable, unwilling or unlikely to discern the difference then, by definition, the only true media mission is that of finding the self interest that must invariably be there.

Now, for a media corporation to make the pursuit of venality, the sine qua non of success and advancement is only as bad as making entertainment and news roughly indistinguishable from each other. The Americans are particularly good at this and, inexplicably, we seem to have many Canadians who otherwise might see themselves as serious nationalists, desperate to replicate the searing shallowness and sensationalism of some American practitioners.

The boorish and over-opinionated open-line radio host, who usually has never tried the phrase, "I don't know" even once, often finds counterparts, now, in malicious print columnists and practitioners who make character assassinations and "guilty, until proven innocent," the operative rule for the treatment of anyone in public life. No wonder litigious activity is increasing.

Disposable facts, disposable sources, rumours and innuendo are not so quietly engineered into disposable reputations and careers. Gamesmanship with people's lives, with the facts, with fair judgments, with any notion of balance, can become common place. It happens in business; it happens in government; it happens in journalism.

And the contrast between the sadness, despair and cynicism spread by dark journalism vs. the journalism that informs, inspires, imbues and leads must not be lost on any of us.

Nor must we believe that any of this is new. When governor Al Smith called the endorsement by the Hearst papers of his gubernatorial challenger, Ogden Mills, the kiss of death, he knew of what he spoke. Public antipathy to a general media view or bias has fuelled many politicians--from Harry Truman to George Wallace, from Rheal Caouette to Preston Manning.

Do I have any solutions to offer? Well precious few.

At the outset, the marketplace will sort some of this out. Quality journalists will leave places where they are not allowed honourably to do quality work. The proliferation of broadcast options will allow people with education and judgment to turn off the cheap, ill-considered and sensational, while the seasoned, fair-minded and balanced get more high demographic viewers or readers who attract either more subscribers or advertising dollars.

The sensationalized, the dishonestly-investigative, the tabloid-as-life people will find smaller audiences, less impact forcing them into more sorry indulgences and excess to survive.

As for journalism as a profession--well that is for journalists to decide. Organizations like the Law Society of Upper Canada, the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the accounting institutes and others set standards for themselves, however imperfectly. Only journalists can decide whether they wish to set standards of practice for their own profession--without question a difficult task indeed.

Yet, if journalists do not, then there is no one else in a free society who will or should, at which point the invisible hand of the marketplace will allow standards to be set--some very very low, and some quite high--and in a pretty ruthless way. But, like many journalists, I do not trust the "invisible hand" in business or politics and journalistic standards. Often, greed and self-interest can push the invisible hand into places it should not be. That, as I say, is for journalists and those who care about journalistic excellence to sort out.

As one voice from main street Brampton, I am hopeful that the profession does act and does sort it out before the possibility of standards becomes highly improbable in and of itself. That would be a tremendous loss to freedom, to informed discourse, to civility and the quality of our democratic, business and intellectual life as a society. Quite simply, it is a loss we cannot afford.

The operation of a modern industrial democracy requires that those who purvey information provide information that is, in fact, not a judgmental distortion of reality and fact, but as close to accurate as humanly possible--or else a society can quickly, with the persuasiveness of modern media, be thrown off balance.

Since much of our marketplace economy, much of our voluntary compliance with laws and norms and customs of civility reflect common understandings, those who purvey information that puts bias ahead of fact only contribute to the ultimate instability which excessive misinformation brings.

Totalitarian administrations often move first to crush religion and the free media to ensure compliance with the fundamental injustice of what they are seeking to do. To keep a population off balance, you need to obscure the truth, or at least distort it massively.

So while excess and distortion may, today, have less evil and more careerist roots--none of us should doubt their long-term effect and danger. Democracy is at the best of times quite fragile. At times of rapid economic and social change, it is especially so. A fragility all of us who care about public life should never take for granted.

So, I end on a positive note. As an eternal optimist, something someone of my political persuasion must be, I believe journalists will act in a way that will bring peer pressure in favour of standards and against dishonesty and dark-side journalism.

Publishers and broadcasters will be pushed by audience pressure to consider the high road.

On balance, the quality and tone of substantive journalism will improve and those publications and broadcasts that reflect that tone will gain support from readers, viewers and listeners.

Politicians will, of course, be the last to stop complaining, except for former politicians from Brampton who will seize the moment to herald the change for the better.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Francoise Bertrand, Presidente-directrice generale, Societe de radio-television de Quebec and Co-chair, The Canadian Journalism Foundation.

Mr. President, Mr. Davis:

It was an honour for us to have you as the first speaker in our series of four conferences by The Canadian Journalism Foundation and The Empire Club. At a time when democracy is more important than ever, reflection and discussion on media is an important activity if we want to not only keep democracy but to improve democracy.

Your presence here today starting this series is a great honour, a great privilege. You've told me privately that you don't make any public appearances to speak except on issues concerning Canadian unity. Your involvement and reflection on media is certainly a gesture in favour of Canadian unity, because democracy certainly needs the checks and balances between audience, public, politicians and media. It has to be interactive as we wish sometimes television could be.

The Canadian Journalism Foundation has, as its main priority, excellence in journalism. To us journalism is not simply a matter of the journalist's profession, but it is also the responsibility of all the people involved in media.

Now as a manager of the media, I have a great responsibility because I have the privilege of being able to speak to the public everyday through my organization. It is because of that privilege and that responsibility that I accepted the Co-chair of The Canadian Journalism Foundation position to work for the goal of excellence in journalism.

Thank you for giving us your thoughts, your experiences. I will remember your words as I co-chair The Canadian Journalism

Foundation--optimism, a positive way of approaching things, care, kindness, dedication and national unity. In Quebec that will be an important question, and if it is for Quebec, it is for Canada as well. And I will remember that in order to get the message through, humour and discretion are important.

Thank you very much.

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The Media's Role in Society: A Statesman's View


Journalism. The Media. The media and advertising. A distinction between comment and news. Fact vs. opinion. Journalistic responsibility. Entrepreneurial journalism. Dark journalism. Substantive journalism. Should journalists set practice standards?