The Media's Role in Society: The Media Viewpoint
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 14 Apr 1994, p. 402-411
Nash, Knowlton, Speaker
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The media's current critical role in society. Problems with the Media. Journalism's essential role in a democracy. Differences between news reporting and news commentary, editorials and columns. The role, impact and responsibility of television journalism.
Date of Original
14 Apr 1994
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Knowlton Nash, CBC Broadcaster; Journalist and Chair, The Canadian Journalism Foundation
Chairman: Dr. Frederic L. R. Jackman President, The Empire Club of Canada

Head Table Guests

Rob Davis, Councillor, City of York and a Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Christine DaSilva, grade 12 student, Bloor Collegiate Institute; Avie Bennett, President and CEO, McClelland & Stewart Publishers; Donna Logan, Vice-President, Media Accountability Canadian Broadcasting Corporation; John Ferguson, Senior Vice-President, Corporate Communications and Public Affairs, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce; Nona Macdonald, Past President, The Empire Club of Canada; Douglas Bassett, President and CEO, Baton Broadcasting Incorporated; Carlyle Dunbar, Financial Journalist and Honorary Director, The Empire Club of Canada; The Rev. Wolf Belzing, Pastor, First Evangelical Church; Mary Byers, Author and Historian and a Director, The Empire Club of Canada; David Jolley, Publisher and President, The Toronto Star Newspapers Ltd.; Anthony Manera, President, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation; The Hon. Barbara McDougall, Former Secretary of State for External Affairs, Governor of The Toronto Stock Exchange, Director of several companies and an International Consultant.

Introduction by Dr. Jackman

Ladies and gentlemen, it is one thing to watch Mr. Nash perform every weekend on CBC-TV, it is another to have him with us live. We are particularly glad that you have returned to The Empire Club after an eight-year absence. In 1986, you told us about Television News--History on the Run. You spoke then to the combined audiences of The Empire Club and The Royal Commonwealth Society, who together had selected you as their distinguished speaker to celebrate the Dominion of Canada Day celebration. Now you return as the Founding Chair of The Canadian Journalism Foundation to participate as the second speaker in our special series Media and Society. We welcome you.

Knowlton Nash was born in Toronto in 1927 and attended public and high school here in Forest Hill. He went on to study at the University of Toronto before launching himself in his chosen career.

I'm sure it will come as a surprise to you, as it did to me, to learn that Canada's most venerable newscaster began his career as a nineteen-year-old sports writer for the Globe and Mail. He also edited a fiction magazine. In 1947, at war's end, he edited a weekly newspaper in Toronto before joining the British United Press News Service that same year, serving as Bureau Manager in Halifax, Vancouver and Toronto.

At 24 (1951), Knowlton Nash was on the move again, this time to Washington as Director of Information for the International Federation of Agricultural Producers. Now, lest you think he spent his time touring America's rural heartland, let me assure you that the key word here was "international." Mr. Nash spent his time in such noted agricultural communities as Paris, Rome, London, New York. He also represented the IFAP organization at the United Nations.

Finally, in 1956, having now covered subjects ranging from hockey pucks to "cow patties," Knowlton Nash was ready for the CBC.

He began as a freelance reporter travelling on assignment to virtually every corner of the world. Appointed CBC Washington correspondent in 1961, he reported for both radio and television news and public affairs programmes until 1969 when he became CBC Director of News and Public Affairs. It was during these years that Mr. Nash became privy to President Kennedy's opinions and antipathy toward John Diefenbaker and the feeling was mutual. The saga of their relationship is told in the fascinating book Kennedy & Diefenbaker: The Feud that Helped Topple a Government published by McClelland & Stewart (1991).

In 1978, now aged 51, Knowlton Nash was named Chief Correspondent and Anchor CBC-TV, a position he would hold for 10 years. He handed the position over to Peter Mansbridge in 1988 in what you will remember as one of the most decent and generous acts a Canadian could do by offering a colleague and his country, his job. To entice Peter Mansbridge from the American CBS multi-buck deal, Knowlton Nash said to Peter, "You take my job--it's the best job in television journalism you'll ever find." Peter accepted, Knowlton wrote another book for Avie Bennett and the rest is history.

Knowlton Nash has travelled the globe many times over. Had frequent flyer points been in vogue from the beginning of his career, he would be able to take everyone in this room as his guest on the dream vacation of a lifetime. He has interviewed Canadian Prime Ministers Pearson, Diefenbaker, Clark, Trudeau, and Mulroney; and U.S. Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan. He has covered elections, international crises, revolutions, civil wars and famines.

He is a noted author of five books, all written in the last 10 years. They include Prime Time at Ten, which looks at his years on The National and news broadcasting in Canada, and History on the Run, an account of his years as a foreign correspondent. This fall Mr. Nash will publish, the McClelland and Stewart History of Public Broadcasting with the CBC. Not only is Mr. Nash a superb deliverer of television news, but he is a magnificent writer whose real life stories are hard to put down.

And finally, our speaker has been active in many press organizations over the years. Today, he chairs the Canadian Journalism Foundation, an organization whose mission is to enhance the quality of Canadian journalism. It is due to his sustained leadership that the "CJF" has flourished.

As a founding governor of the Canadian Journalism Foundation, it has been my distinct pleasure to work with Knowlton Nash for the past six years. It is also my pleasure to introduce him to you.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Mr. Knowlton Nash.

Knowlton Nash

Never before has journalism and have journalists been under such intense scrutiny as they are today. The media are a "hot topic" and getting a lot hotter. The reason is really fairly simple. It's because life has become so complicated--our politics, our economy, our social environment have all become so complex, so interrelated, that it's hard for the citizen to make head or tail of what's going on. And what is going on, say in Japan or Germany, let alone Ottawa or Vancouver, can very often have a very direct effect on our own national economy or personal business.

So the media's role is to provide the agenda of the day's happenings--the news most important and most relevant to you--the details, the significance, the background. And also our role is to not only chronicle the past and the present, but to signal the future, to look for trends and implications.

Whether they read about what's happening in the newspapers, hear it on radio or see it on television, journalism is basically how members of a modern democratic society keep in touch. It's the prime, cohesive factor in creating, nourishing, adjusting and sustaining a democratic society.

Now, I have to admit that our journalism today is hasty. It's incomplete, sometimes inaccurate, occasionally misleading. The media are imperfect, but they are also an absolute necessity.

I believe that journalism--this imperfect necessity--is the hinge of democracy. It's the only way we're going to find out about the events and issues that dominate our lives. Without journalism, there would be a universal sense of uncertainty because people simply wouldn't know what was going on.

My basic points are these: First, I believe the media are the adhesive that holds together a democratic society. And second, although under increasing criticism, I believe the media are doing a better job today than ever before. But I also think it's not good enough.

There are all kinds of power centres in any democracy: the judiciary, the government mandarins, the elected representatives, the establishment, the business community, the unions. But to my mind, what binds it all together is the media. Only through the media can the governing communicate with the governed in any mass sense.

And there is just no other way for the mass of the people to send messages back to our governors in Ottawa, or Washington or London, other than through the media, except, of course, at election time. A real, participatory democracy today simply can't survive without a free, independent and professionally- and socially-responsible media.

And it's precisely because of that critical role of the media that society's leaders try to manipulate the media. They want to shape our reporting to their objective. Prime ministers, presidents, all political leaders, view managing the media as a vital precondition to their domination of the legislature or the Parliament, the public and the whole political process. And increasingly, corporate executives, labour leaders and social activists of all kinds, are taking the same view and seeking to manipulate the news so that their point of view dominates headlines, not somebody else's.

That's why the new business of "Spin Doctors" is thriving. The "Spin Doctors" in politics and elsewhere are usually very nice, friendly public-relations people whose job is to make a cabbage smell like a rose. They want to have the media reflect their own self-image. They prefer a sympathetic and sometimes sycophantic media, not an assertively-independent media.

Now that's understandable, but sympathy and sycophancy are not in our job specs in the media. Our role is fundamentally different. Our role is to try to reflect reality, not somebody's self-image. The media is, I think, essentially a teacher in the broadest sense of that word. Although it may sound excessively flattering, I think we're really in the educating business. And thus the media must be assertively independent, insatiably curious and maybe we are demanding. But we are, because the media are, in effect, agents for the public in trying to provide that fair reflection of reality in seeking out and providing information on what's happening, where, when and why. We report what is said, we provide some context and we may occasionally note where some leaders are economizing on truth as happens all too often.

These days, reporters do hear such a lot of manipulative rhetoric--so many statements that seem to be promises chiselled in water, especially among our political leaders. That Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock once said, "It's simply in the nature of a politician to promise a bridge in one election, and a river to run under it in the next."

People complain that the media spend too much time reporting bad news. In fact, people have been complaining about that for centuries. Sophocles once declared that, "Nobody likes the man who brings bad news." Well, nobody does, and it's true, we do report a lot of bad news. But that's because there is a lot of bad news in this world of ours. To pretend it isn't there, to be some kind of emotional cheer leader, is to fail as a journalist. Our responsibility to the public is to try to present reality, not wishful thinking. Our challenge is to strive relentlessly to come as close as we possibly can to providing that reality so people can understand and can cope with the real world around them. Politicians, business people, labour and social activists have to realize that disputing reality will never change reality. And a key part of our journalistic job is to enlarge public understanding of what for some may be uncomfortable facts.

I have to note here, incidentally, that I'm talking about news reporting--not news commentary, editorials and columns. And it's critical to recognize the difference. The purpose of a column, an editorial or a commentary is to take a position. You may not agree with it, but that's its purpose. The purpose of news reporting is different. It is, as I've said, to try to reflect reality without opinion, without bias. Some may say that objectivity is impossible and perhaps 100-per-cent objectivity is, but as a reporter you have to strive for it. You have to try to be as fair and balanced as you possibly can.

The media's role is to provide the raw material for the public dialogue. And that means the media have an enormous responsibility because a nation's vibrancy and confidence depends on its awareness of what's happening, what's changing.

Mind you, there is a lot of criticism of those of us in the media, too, and we're often accused of having delusions of adequacy.

One of the most biting criticisms that I've ever heard came from Jimmy Carter's Press Secretary Jody Powell, who said political journalists are "like those who watch the battle from afar, and when it's all over, come down from the hills to shoot the wounded." Actually, it's hard to think of a political leader today who doesn't think that way. And heaven only knows there are more than enough wounded politicians these days, and it is true that in politics, nobody stops to pick up the wounded.

But most of us in journalism are not trying to "shoot the wounded." What we're trying to do is to sift through the rhetoric of society's leaders and would-be leaders, to try to find reality. Too often, though, people in both the public and private sectors, are not so much interested in reality as they are in perception.

If we steer our lives and our country on perceptions only, then at some point we're going to have some very rude shocks when we come face to face with reality. There simply has to be room in a democratic society for things you may not like to hear there has to be freedom for the thought you may hate.

If you look back at the front pages of 10, 20, 50, 100 years and more, what we in the media are doing today is, I believe, better than it's ever been. But, as I've said, it's still not good enough. We're far from perfect. In fact, sometimes it seems there's hardly enough mediocrity to go around.

In the competitive rush to be first, we sometimes are not as thorough as we should be on fact checking. Joseph Pulitzer was once asked what he thought were the three most important qualities for a journalist. He answered, "Accuracy, accuracy and accuracy." And he's right.

I worry also about too much emphasis on the scoopery and snoopery of the supermarket tabloids--the flash and trash journalism and bubblegum news of the socalled "Info-tainment" shows on TV masquerading as journalism. They're cheap and damaging and can be infectious. As I said earlier, I believe journalists are basically teachers, not entertainers, not panderers selling cheap thrills.

I worry, too, about cynicism of many journalists, which is something Bill Davis spoke about last week. Journalists by nature must be sceptical, but cynicism is, I think, a malign pre-judgment.

I worry that we too often look for good guys and bad guys in black and white simplicity and ignore important subtleties and nuances in complicated stories.

I worry, also, about the increasing emphasis of theatricality in the news and lessening emphasis on substance. And that's a particular challenge for television. For instance, in the American presidential election campaign of 1968, the average sound bite of the candidates on American Network TV was 43 seconds--43 seconds to outline their position on a particular issue. In the last election, it was about seven seconds. No wonder we now have sloganeering politics.

Given my background, I'm perhaps especially sensitive to television's role. And of all the vehicles of information--newspapers, magazines, books, radio and TV--clearly by far, television has the most impact on the public at large. I certainly have to say that when we have in our audience today the President of the CBC, Tony Manera, and the President of Baton Broadcasting, Doug Bassett.

But I also have to confess the reality of television journalistic domination alarms me. I happen to think that to be well-informed, a citizen must read the newspapers, the magazines, books, and listen to radio--at least, CBC Radio--as well as watch television. Certainly, the print media can far more effectively provide the details of what's happening. But clearly, the enormous impact of television news is an irrefutable reality.

Canadians today are spending more than half of all their leisure time watching TV--an average of about 23 hours a week in front of that mesmerizing box. More than three hours a day, on average, for every man, woman and child in the country.

In Canada there are 15 or 20 million television sets--15 or 20 million electronic cannons, if you will, firing out information all day long. I think it's fair to say that Canadians and people in most democracies today are better informed than ever before because of television. It has brought the news to people who simply didn't read the papers or books before.

But for television news, that huge platform means TV has the heaviest responsibility of all the media. The bigger the platform, the bigger the responsibility. And thus TV has a particular responsibility to make our news programmes more than just chewing gum for the eyes--more than trivialized glances at important issues and events.

Television and the media as a whole basically are a mirror walking down the street and as such we must reflect reality as best we can, as accurately, as fairly, as thoroughly, as relevantly and as interestingly as we possibly can.

I can think of no occupation that performs a higher public service than serving the public's desire, right and need to know what's going on. The very survival of our democracy depends on how well journalists do their job and we all have a stake in that.

Thank you very much.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Donna Logan, Vice-President, Media Accountability Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Knowlton, I am not sure everyone in the room agreed with you when you said that you think the media is doing a better job than it ever has done before. I'm not going to ask for a vote, but that is a somewhat-controversial statement today. However, I am one of the people who does agree with that statement and I think the media is doing a much better job. It's just that the job has become a lot more difficult and it's more difficult to do a good job. You have cited some of the things that have made it more difficult. The complexity of the world and the issues we're dealing with, the spin doctors, technology and competition.

I think it is time we talked about that in this country, and I am really pleased that The Empire Club is doing this series and that the series will be published. In doing this assignment on media accountability for the CBC, many times I have been looking for good, literate pieces on media issues. Invariably I have to go to U.S. sources because not enough has been written in this country. I am grateful to you today to begin the dialogue and you have left us with some very interesting thoughts.

I also want to pay tribute to the work you are doing with The Canadian Journalism Foundation because it is important that we talk about all of the issues that are going to get us through this period where the media is under such scrutiny.

Thank you very much.

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The Media's Role in Society: The Media Viewpoint

The media's current critical role in society. Problems with the Media. Journalism's essential role in a democracy. Differences between news reporting and news commentary, editorials and columns. The role, impact and responsibility of television journalism.