About Trust in The Media, Especially the CBC.
We can pretend trust is collapsing because of Twitter & those crazy right-wing populists, but that lets a lot of people off the hook. Because it's not the half of it.
I took a break from my Postmedia perch this week so there was no mid-week newsletter from me here. I’d come down with a nasty cold. Came near to composing my last will and testament. Probably because I’m a guy. Man flu is a thing, and it’s twice now this winter I’ve been down with whatever it is. Maybe I’m just being a big baby. Also I was overwhelmed with other stuff. Whatever.
Anyway, for this weekend instalment of the Real Story I feel obliged to return to a recurring theme around here, which is the epochal collapse of conventional journalism and its replacement with a weirdly dystopian wasteland of almost-quangos and digital dailies and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation dominating a landscape of ruins.
If you take this as the introduction to a Defund The CBC tirade or a jeremiad about the “MSM,” you might be disappointed. But if you’ve entertained dark thoughts on the subject of the news media you really should stick around because you’ll feel right at home.
We can begin with recent developments related to the once-beloved Mother Corp and its dwindling legion of supporters. We’ll carry on from there to a saucy independent press enterprise in Ottawa that routinely scoops everyone else and is taking the Ottawa Press Gallery to court, suing the exclusive 313-member institution for a whopping $224,000.
I take no side in the matter, of course. That would be gauche. Also the high-drama backstory will be below the paywall. For everyone and for now we’ll start with something everybody should know, but few do.
Don’t Blame The Reporters. I’m Serious.
The problem isn’t the journalists working for CBC News - the CBC is blessed with some great, hard-working reporters and editors. I’d list off a bunch but I wouldn’t want to inadvertently leave out a name or two. The problem is the bosses and a weird class and cultural isolation afflicting the editors’ offices in quite a few CBC newsrooms. I loathe the term “woke” but for brevity I’ll use it here, because it’s a thing that comes into it. You know what I mean.
You might say the same about much of the news media generally, but the thing about the CBC is we all pay for it whether we want to or not and it’s got resources almost equal to everyone else’s combined. And management tends to think of itself as a branch of government, as we shall see. Add to all this the fact that the CBC’s workforce is inescapably hostile to or at least incorrigibly fearful of the leadership of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.
That’s because the Opposition is led by the Conservative Party, and for some long while the Conservatives have wanted shut of the whole damn thing, or at least most of it.
Put yourself in a CBC reporter’s shoes. What reserves of moral strength would you be capable of summoning to the purposes of your news judgment when you’re covering a politician like Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre, knowing full well that his apparent intention is to pull the struts out from under the institution you work for and leave you jobless?
Now put yourself in a Conservative’s shoes. Day in and day out, justifiably or not, you’ve become accustomed to reading and seeing and hearing from the CBC a routine and casual disregard, disrespect and sometimes contempt for the kind of country you’re trying to hold onto against seven years of the Trudeau government’s unrelenting and arrogant upturning of all your beloved national applecarts.
You have to set aside your own sentiments about the CBC to grasp the dystopian wreckage here. The CBC is Canada’s state broadcaster. The Conservative Party’s entire purpose is to wend its way into the wheelhouse of the Canadian state. For good or ill, the CBC’s corporate culture and management sensibilities are fully and totally in sync with the avant-garde affectations of the Liberals and the New Democrats. Right or wrong, this produces results that make Conservatives genuinely and understandably “angry.” The CBC: Oh dear, somebody has a ‘rage problem.’
I was reminded of just how deep the CBC bosses’ effete isolation runs this past week when CBC president Catherine Tait began a national CBC-Of-Thee-I-Sing tour, in Vancouver. Straight away: The CBC’s tarnished reputation is Trump’s fault, it’s because of social media, the CBC is the “gold standard” of journalism and the public’s distrust of the CBC is all part of the distrust in government institutions generally. It’s not the CBC’s fault. It’s yours.
Well, at least we’ve got that on the record. The CBC is a public institution, like government, and the CBC’s trust predicament is part and parcel of all that bedevils the Trudeau government in its inability to maintain the confidence of a wide swathe of Canadian public opinion. In her little chat with the CBC’s Anita Bathe, Tait mentions what she calls the “Gustavsen Trust measure” and how it calibrates public trust and how it explains things.
It’s actually called the Gustavson Brand Trust Index. It measures “the role trust plays in the minds of consumers when making purchasing decisions.” That’s pretty telling: Tait sees the CBC’s problem as a corporate branding problem, a public-relations problem, and what the CBC needs to do is get behind a more effective corporate branding exercise: People need to know there’s lots of things the CBC does apart from news, like making room for independent film production, for instance. After all, the CBC’s bringing in Black and Indigenous interns at the CBC’s Nature of Things program and so on.
Sure. That really helps.
Here’s a Vulcan mind-meld for you. It’s Prime Minister Trudeau himself in a sit-down with the Toronto Star’s Susan Delacourt (who asks the right questions) in this weekend’s paper, explaining the real reason he is so disliked. Trump comes into it of course, and there are Canadians who “need to lash out at whoever they see who’s in charge,” which is I guess true enough. and that darn Pierre Poilievre is so angry and he’s “playing and preying on the kinds of anger and anxieties about some Canada that used to be — where men were men and white men ruled.”
Crikey, that’s a hell of a thing to say. But it’s perfectly consistent with the CBC bosses’ view of its growing cohort of voting, taxpaying non-fans, too.
In the launching of Tait’s conversational tour across Canada from Vancouver there was this panel at Simon Fraser University on “journalism and online safety, public policy, and trust.” You had to be there. Seriously. No livestreaming was allowed. Online safety, I suppose.
Tait’s fellow panelists: Jeanette Ageson, publisher of the determinedly hipster-left digital newsroom The Tyee (hey I used to write a column for them!). The famous Tennessee journalist-multimillionaire Linda Solomon Wood, publisher of her own Vancouver-based vanity project, The National Observer (which is on occasion not entirely half-bad). Also Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, an SFU professor and federally-endowed “Canada 150” research chair. My favorite (drum roll please. . .) Jeremy Kinsman, career diplocrat, “distinguished fellow” with the Canadian International Council and Prime Minister Trudeau’s own Liberal Party Foreign Affairs Council.
What the hell Kinsman was doing on the panel I daren’t imagine. I mean, bless their hearts, all of them, but for the love of God is this the crowd the CBC brass should be running with to learn how the CBC might win back the trust of all those disaffected Canadian voters and taxpayers?
There are quite a few of them out there. Here are the results of an interesting Mainstreet poll from last September. It’s not as depressing as you might imagine, for most of the media. The crew over at The Hub get deep into these poll numbers, and deeper into the recent history of Conservative (and public) un-fondness for the CBC, right here.
Q: “What is your level of trust in traditional Canadian Media (e.g. CBC, CTV, Global, Toronto Star, National Post, etc)?”
A: Fifty-five percent of respondents said they strongly trust or somewhat trust the traditional media, while 38 percent said they strongly or somewhat distrusted the media. Seven percent “don’t know.” Given the framing of the question I might have put myself somewhere between “don’t know” and “somewhat trust” responses.
Here’s where a CBC question leaves a welt.
Q: Do you support de-funding the CBC?
A: Thirty-one percent said they strongly supported defunding the CBC and 15 percent said they “somewhat” supported defunding. Only 24 percent strongly opposed defunding the CBC - that’s a horrible position for a national public broadcaster to be in - and another 13 percent only somewhat opposed defunding. Those that “don’t know” amount to 17 percent of Canadians, and I think I situate myself partly with them and partly with the 13 percent who strongly oppose defunding.
I should clear this up.
There’s Knowledge, and There’s Belief: There’s a Difference.
As I insist on pointing out, ad nauseam, we’re living in a time of epistemological crisis - the breakdown of consensus on how to assess truth claims, and the debilitating conflation of knowledge with belief. It’s an age of saturation coverage by news simulacra and propaganda platforms and pseudo-news that has the capacity to spread a lie around the world before the truth has had a moment to put its boots on.
The substitution of “narrative” for true stories built from the raw material of facts - that’s how it’s done these days, and it’s fatal to deliberative democracy.
For some while I’ve argued that because of this strange new world we’ve been dragged into the CBC should be better funded to do the work of proper journalism: Let’s have a strong public news broadcaster that pays attention to where we’re at and goes into battle for evidence-based reality. I’m finding this a harder case to make lately, I admit. I’ve been losing faith that the CBC as an institution is up to the job.
The CBC’s obscene round-the-clock advertorials and gleefully enthusiastic promotional features for the Genocide Olympics in Beijing last year may have been the turning point for me. But maybe it’s not too late, because there’s a hell of a lot of defunding that could be done while still retaining a local, national and international public presence in news broadcasting.
Here’s something that doesn’t say much for any of Canada’s “legacy” news media institutions, the beneficiaries of nearly $600 million in federal subsidies of one kind or another in recent years. In any given week you’re as likely as not to find blockbuster national stories from one little Parliamentary Press Gallery operation than from the combined output of any of the biggest players in the gallery. . .