ONLY DAYS ago I watched again the marvellous “network fight” scene from the 2004 Will Ferrell movie Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. As I rehearse the ongoing and thoroughly dishonest battle between the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and QMI/Quebecor, I can only wish that Pierre Karl Péladeau and Hubert T. Lacroix would take it to the back lot and have done. That I would watch.
Instead we are all subjected to the fraudulent journalism of an attenuated catfight. A CBC program Enquête undertakes an “investigative report” of Quebecor. Sun newspapers issue a stream of editorials. Criticisms and charges and counter-charges (and countercountercharges) pose as news items. The first shot in this war, as I recall it, was fired by Sun TV’s Brian Lilley. You’ll remember he wrote an article last Spring about the CBC’s Vote Compass, charging that the broadcaster “is in the business of telling Canadians what party they stand for.” This led to many columns of ink and many raspberries, as Sunmen Lilley and Ezra Levant and Macleans’ Andrew Potter (and others) engaged in this Battle of the Networks. Sorry to bore you, but it did happen.
It gets worse, for the explanation of why this sort of thing happens is boring also: the CBC and Quebecor are competitors. CBC leans to the left, Quebecor to the right. It’s probable, although not certain, that Ezra Levant and (let’s say) Rick Mercer do not dine. These CBC and Sun people don’t much care for one another, and the same may be said of their respective audiences. In the early 1900s, after centuries of mudslinging among the English-language dailies, the idea arose that journalists would do better to assume the appearance of objectivity. (In part this derived from economic motive, openly sectarian papers having an appeal and hence sales only among members of the sect.) A kind of bloodless civility set in, which is fine and practicable enough when the market for news is decent. The arrangement was certain not to last however, journalism and ideology being by necessity cohabitant. In the Internet age, when cheap data are plentiful, information commodities must be reinvented. One consequence, it appears, is that going are the days when personal and professional rivalries are kept from the airwaves and the printed page.
As a result of this recent trend, when I need five minutes of cheap entertainment I sometimes will seek out what CBC writers and readers say of the Sun, and vice versa. The vitriol gains a certain something from that touch of spice, the impossible claim that it is in the service of fairness and objectivity — or if not that, then in an opposition to their antitheses. Much more entertainment value there than one will find for instance in Peter Mansbridge’s insouciant and hopelessly correct observation, that “this is no different than most times for the CBC — we’re under the microscope, we’re being challenged on a lot of different fronts on the whole raison d’etre.”
I don’t mind a bit that these bitter rivals are attempting to bring one another down, as, being bitter rivals, they well should. I enjoy a good fight as much as the other fellow, and I suppose it’s time we had one. Only do drop the pretence that it’s nothing personal and that lofty journalistic standards are in operation: this only degrades the otherwise edifying prospect of fisticuffs. Also, retire the anachronistic charge of “media bias,” which assumes your audience arrived from another century and requires a primer on current-day ideology — or is merely stupid. Most of all, make it a vigorous battle in which there is heat and light and something we can all agree is worth fighting over. Who knows, someone might actually start paying attention. You might even sell some news.