I have to cop to being completely naive and mystified how those anonymously-penned editorials get made, and what standard they’re supposed to meet in terms of accuracy & ethics. According to Allen Garr’s Dec. 4th column in the Vancouver Courier regarding what we now know was a Harvey Enchin penned editorial in the Vancouver Sun, the standard is quite low.
It’s not really that the fundamental premise of the editorial was factually incorrect (it was Superintendent Cardwell, not Patti Bacchus, who determined Chevron’s Fuel Your School program did not meet the VSB’s corporate donor policy). Though there is that.
It’s not really that, unbeknownst to the reader, the then anonymous writer is the spouse of the communications director for a political party then engaged in a bitter election campaign against one of the subjects of the editorial and this link was not disclosed in the editorial. Though there is that.
It’s not really that the Vancouver Sun is part of the Postmedia chain, which had or has a commercial arrangement with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers – of which Chevron is a member – to “leverage all means editorially, technically and creatively” to further the “critical conversation” on the industry. Though there is that.
It’s not really that the Chevron Fuel for School program, as we discovered in a subsequent post-election Pete McMartin article, works in the way Patti Bacchus said it does. Though there is that.
It’s not really that Enchin, unlike McMartin, apparently didn’t pick up the phone to call Chevron to confirm the details of Fuel Your School. Though there is that.
It’s not really that Enchin engaged his own children to photograph a poster to support his case against Bacchus. Though there is that.
It’s not really that this poster was not, according to Garr, in the place Enchin said it was. Though there is that.
It’s that in his effort to call Patti Bacchus a hypocrite he questioned the professionalism of Francois Clark, the teacher of his own children. In his own word, the mere existence of this poster, which Enchin admits he has not seen, has this effect:
No one should be deluded into thinking this has anything to do with education. There is no serious study of science, no discussion of economic benefits, no attempt to address the engineering challenges related to production and shipment of oil, no consideration of the people and communities that depend on resource industries for survival.
Claims that was not his intent is simply an attempt to have your cake and eat it too. Francois Clark’s name did not have to be used to make whatever point, inaccurate as it turned out to be, Enchin wanted.
I think all the above is actually quite appalling. But, as mentioned, I’m naive and don’t really understand how newspapers work.
So, to recap, we have in Vancouver two major dailies owned by the same company which has (or had in 2013) a partnership with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers to “leverage all means editorially, technically and creatively to further the critical conversation” on the “importance of energy to Canada’s business competitiveness”.
In Postmedia daily #1 we have an editorial strongly in favour of corporate grants to our education system by a petroleum company.
In Postmedia daily #2 we see an op-ed by an individual who has in the past received an honorarium from the CAPP and who is vocal in support of developing Canada’s petroleum industry, equating it with patriotism.
Undoubtedly Postmedia journalists retain full editorial independence and any hint that this could be a real or perceived conflict of interest arising from the aforementioned partnership with the CAPP is ridiculous and if you do have questions you’re probably a troll or a bully.
UPDATE: Paul Chapman of The Province and Jeff Lee of The Sun thoughtfully weighed in on the subject of the CAPP partnership on Twitter and insist, and I believe them, they have never felt any pressure to change, modify or ignore a story, etc.
But this isn’t so much about the newsroom than the editorial room and business operations. It’s about who gets to appear in the op-ed pages and when. And the safeguards in place. For example, on Dec. 4, 2013 an advertorial ran without attribution on the Vancouver Sun entitled “Born to the Challenge: Janet Holder’s B.C. roots make her the perfect lead on Northern Gateway.” It was only when a rebuttal was submitted that we, the public, found out that it was advertising. Another advertorial ran without attribution in the Postmedia owned Regina Leader-Post in error.
How is the public to perceive all this? That’s really the question. It is really so outrageous to wonder that a media company in financial difficulty, that has slashed newsroom budgets and staff, might balk at crossing a group that has a strategic partnership?
As the another outlet’s code of Standards and Practices note: “The trust of the public is our most valued asset. We avoid putting ourselves in real or potential conflict of interest. This is essential to our credibility.”*
*Something noted by Kirk LaPointe, in another career.
UPDATE 2: Tom Hawthorn reminds us of the time Dan Murphy’s cartoon was pulled at the Province after pressure from Enbridge.
“‘If it doesn’t come down, Enbridge says they’re pulling a million dollars worth of advertising from Postmedia, and if it doesn’t come down, I, Wayne Moriarty, I’m going to lose my job,’” Murphy said Moriarity told him.
As mentioned, isn’t that the real danger?
FINAL UPDATE: While the issue of the advertorial remains, it should be noted for the record that The Province gave space yesterday to Emma Gilchrist of DeSmogBog to write a rebuttal of Vivian Krause’s op-ed AND the Sun issued the following correction to it’s editorial:
A friend and former reporter from Scotland writes:
Right. I’ve read the post. So how do I put this…
You’re right. And you’re wrong.
Right, inasmuch as the shenanigans highlighted are a sad and troubling sign of the decline of the journalism professionalism.
Wrong, inasmuch as the role of “editor” is no longer one synonymous – or requiring – extensive, practical journalism experience. And it hasn’t been for 30 years or so.
As sheer commercialism has come to dominate the newspaper industry, so has the role of editor become one more attuned to that of departmental manager in a large industrial organisation. He need not necessarily have a nose for news or be capable of noticing the subtle swings in his readership’s attitudes so long as he can deliver a “product” to a budget.
Too, I’ve got to say, having this Mr Mihlar cruise from a thinktank into a media role and then into a public policy position is substantively no different from newer generations of politicians graduating from think tanks to public positions and then to cosy board appointments. Both types of career can be subject to accusations of nest-padding or shilling. How often do we bait our political masters over their lack of “real life” experience, of having experienced only the world within a bubble of unreality?
I was touched to read “The public need investigative reporters, not court stenographers or industry spokespeople.” You could have had this in the era of that redoubtable Canadian press baron, Lord Thomson. But in the day of Murdoch? Not so much.
Seriously, for an insight into the general lie of the media land today, have a gander at “Flat Earth News”. Written from a UK media perspective, it nevertheless applies across the board in those places where a “free” press is supposed to prevail. Read it, weep, and wonder no more why I turned my (principled?) back on the field years ago.
Mr Mihlar’s progress is merely a symptom of a deeper disease. It’s that malady that should be being railed against. But it’s difficult to do (or, at least difficult to do credibly) because it means recognising that the media audience/market has changed, that readers no longer clamour for news and that we ourselves bear responsibility for this decline from the ideal. The mover-and-shaker classes (the career politicos, big business etc) have recognised that, by and large, people just don’t give a sh!t any more. It’s said we get the politicians we deserve. Same goes for our media.
Perhaps I’m idealistic or naive or both but I tend to think the decline in profitability of newspapers is in part due to this de-highlighting of their traditional role outlined above. Despite the widely held belief “the people” want Entertainment Weekly rather than hard news I think it’s more a case the people want Entertainment Weekly with their hard news. The success of The Guardian speaks to that, I think.
But The Scot is wise and almost always right.