A Winter of Discontent: The Broadsheets vs The Tabloids

One may infer a few things about my writing career from the first publication – a poem entitled ‘Winter,’ which appeared in the Toronto Sun on 17 October 1976. I quote it in full.

I hate winter as you might know
I hate the wind, I hate the snow
You stand out there and you’ll be freezing
You’ll catch a cold, and you’ll start sneezing
I think the winter isn’t fun
It isn’t warm, there is no sun
You have to wear all of those clothes
But still you get a runny nose
You can’t go swimming in a pool
But still you have to go to school
You can’t go riding on a bike
And that’s what I think winter’s like.

A good bad poem, that. I’ll put aside the fact that Alexander Pope was writing Greek Pastorals at the same age, and concentrate on this poem’s chief merits – that it is clear, that it rhymes, that is has rhythm, and that it lacks artistic pretension. Isn’t that more than can be said of much contemporary poetry?

Now that I am older, I look back and see glimpses of my adult self in this work. I continue to dislike winter, and I am still a bad poet. There is more. Something of the curmudgeon is here, for I could have written a poem called ‘I Love Summer,’ but no, I just had to get my digs in against Winter. It’s a list of grievances, really, cleverly arranged to bring delight but still grumpy and discontented. Today’s Sun editorialists would no doubt label this the beginnings of a ‘liberal’ outlook. Isn’t that what Liberalism is? An endless list of grievances? My god, lighten up! Vote Tory!

This poem was written before I’d learned how to make my point with irony and humour. The ironist in me today is amused by the fact that it was the Toronto Sun which introduced me to the public. The truth is, I think the Sun is goofy. It is a daily trotting-out of murders, car accidents, child molestation and other perversities, fires, freaks, and mayhem. In other words, it is TV. (Christie Blatchford, who was a Sun columnist for 16 years, sketched the paper’s character nicely in an October 29, 1998 National Post article: “…the [Sun] loves, in no particular order, Tory government, breasts, more folks in jail, better controls on immigration, lower taxes, less red tape, fewer civil servants, a return to basics in education, and breasts.”) Then there are the advertisements, full page after full page of them. Even for a commercial newspaper, the Sun is excessive in its use of advertising. The sports coverage is passable and certainly better than what you’ll find at the Globe and Mail. Also, the Sun’s tabloid format is to be preferred to the cumbersome superabundance of the Toronto Star. (Really, do we need two Wheels sections?) Unlike the Star, the Sun can be read from end to end in an evening; it has a user-friendly Coles-Notes approach to daily events. There are other strengths of the paper, the chief being that it knows its audience well and never fails, pardon the pun, to deliver. Nonetheless, it is tabloid journalism, and unpretentiously so.

But to return to the subjective: the really goofy thing about the Sun, in my opinion, is its coverage of public affairs. Here is a description of the Sun I read the day I began this essay, 19 October 1998. On the cover the headline reads ‘It’s Flutie Day in Buffalo,’ below which there is a colour photograph of the quarterback and a small column, to the right, describing the Buffalo fans’ reaction to a 17-16 upset over Jacksonville. In the bottom right-hand corner one finds the words, ‘Pet pitbull savages owner, Page 4’ (the font is approximately 26 points). On the obverse, i.e. page two, there is an ad for the Sunday Sun featuring a model in a haute couture hourglass bathing suit – her curvaceous sides are nicely exposed from shoulder to hip – partly over which the words ‘Paris Fashion’ are imposed. The remaining upper-half of the page is given to an article describing Mike Harris’s plan to attract women voters in the upcoming provincial election. He is quoted as saying, “We do have a gender gap. We are not communicating clearly and directly with women.” A bit further on in the article, Social Services Minister Janet Ecker adds, “We need to do more. Women are pretty skeptical voters. It is important for women to understand what we are doing.” The ‘gender gap’ sounds like a Darwinian missing-link, and the assumption that women aren’t swarming to the Tories only because they don’t understand what the Tories are doing is conventional patronizing, but never mind. Another article, occupying the frame of the aforementioned, is headlined ‘The PC party, party, party!’ and compares the bashes of Conservative Members of Parliament and other various candidates. In case you’re interested, “The most popular parties were hosted by Management Board Chairman Chris Hodgson and federal Tory leadership candidate Brian Pallister.” The rest of the page is advertisements.

Page three features, of course, the Sunshine Girl: always nubile, always enjoys music, dancing, roller-blading, and volleyball, always has as her aspiration college and afterward bucketsfull of money. The Sunshine Girl is a generally tasteful and welcoming statement, an implicit manifesto; it says, ‘Relax, there are no liberals here. Help yourself to a can of beer.’ And once you’re comfortable in your armchair, contentedly drinking your beer, what is it you want? These, of course: ‘Pitbull rips owner’s throat,’ ‘2 teen girls rob, assault victim,’ ‘Hard-core TV freebie shocks mom,’ ‘How did granny die?’ and ‘Peek into you neighbour’s bedroom.’ Thus begins the News section, on pages 4 and 5.

I could go on, but what would be the point? The Toronto Sun is a niche paper, quite harmless really. According to the 1998 Canadian Global Almanac, it’s got the fourth largest daily newspaper circulation in Canada, after the Star, the Globe, and Le Journal de Montréal. It’s preaching to the converted, but I doubt it has converted them. The last recession, or tax hikes, or falling wages, or the Star, or a 1972 mugging, did that. No one I suspect is buying the Sun for in-depth analysis of the latest provincial budget, or of anything else. (They could, however, have read a recent article about Tory Finance Minister Ernie Eves’s new hairdo.) They’re buying it for the Sunshine Girl. They’re buying it so they can read something that doesn’t require them to think. Or they’re buying it for the reasons social democrats buy This Magazine and Canadian Forum: confirmation of their beliefs, further evidence that the enemy is evil, and reassurance that their side can win. Perhaps also they’re buying it for the sports coverage. The Sun needless to say is an openly right-wing publication, but its appeal cannot be boiled-down simply to ideology. It is the newspaper that – nudge nudge, wink wink – isn’t just news as usual. One may compare the appeal of the Sun to the 1995 appeal of its beloved Mr. Harris, who (nudge nudge) wasn’t just politics as usual.

News as usual, unfortunately, is a tiresome affair. Even the highbrow Newshour with Jim Lehrer is at bottom silly. Every night a suited, career Republican is trotted out to volley the issues with an apposite suited, career Democrat. The result is a moribund parody of democratic debate and a reminder of what Gore Vidal had in mind when he spoke of ‘the chattering classes.’ Alas, from here things only degenerate, or get better, depending upon your point of view. News, in the minds of many, means ‘gobs of vague irritating talk about something we can’t change in some place we’ve never heard of.’ What’s to be done? Well, if that’s how it’s got to be, let’s at least make the talk juicy, nudge nudge, know what I mean.

Conservatives in the 1970s began launching newspapers and other various media to reintroduce their values and ideas into the public domain. Even Sun columnists admit they were on the lunatic fringe in the beginning. Now some on the left, who’ve noticed the fringe beneath their feet, have begun saying it would be nice to have a national social-democratic – note the lower cases – answer to papers like the Sun. The feeling is that if newspapers are going to be enhanced political pamphlets, which apparently they now are, let’s at least broaden the spectrum beyond David Frum vs. Andrew Coyne. Let’s have a national left-wing newspaper. At this point however I’m mindful of something George Orwell wrote in a 1939 essay entitled ‘Boys Weeklies.’ Noting that boys’ magazines tend to have a conservative slant (something about militarism and the cult of the powerful leader), he asks, ‘Why is there no such thing as a boys’ left-wing paper?’ Orwell, a socialist, provides an answer which I think continues to be relevant:

At first glance such an idea merely makes one slightly sick. It is so horribly easy to imagine what a left-wing boys’ paper would be like, if it existed. I remember in 1920 or 1921 some optimistic person handing round Communist tracts among a crowd of public-school boys. The tract I received was of the question-and-answer kind:

Q. ‘Can a Boy Communist be a Boy Scout, Comrade?’
A. ‘No, Comrade.’
Q. ‘Why, Comrade?’
A. ‘Because, Comrade, a Boy Scout must salute the Union Jack, which is the symbol of tyranny and oppression,’ etc. etc.

Orwell goes on to suggest that a left-wing paper would probably be something like the passage above, and that “no normal boy would ever look at it.” I expect that in the case of a left-wing Canadian newspaper, something similar could be claimed: most Canadians would never read it. What incentive would there be? It would likely feature all the characteristics that make the political left mawkish to a majority of Canadians: humourless, preachy, self-righteous, jingoist, predictable, self-absorbed. The left is famous as the folks who take it upon themselves to tell you what’s wrong with everything you think, everything you do, and everything you want. Imagine a publication staffed by We-Know-Best school-marms, and you’ve got it.

Perhaps it’s useless to argue that a social-democratic newspaper could be interesting, entertaining, and best of all, a thumping good read. In theory, anything can happen; in reality, the political left is today a handful of ageing activists tenured at the CCPA Monitor. It is in many regards a secret society, labouring in obscurity to produce arcane works known only to the initiated. Probably more people read my bad 1976 poem in the Young Sun than have read, say, the most recent issue of Canadian Dimension – which advertises itself as ‘a magazine for people who want to change the world.’ Change the world? Here even the faithful are inclined to feel vague embarrassment. Anyway, it sounds awfully ponderous to most contemporary ears, rather like an invitation to help out with calculus homework. Even the NDP has given up on the 1960s and is busily repackaging itself as Nice Capitalism in time for the election. Whether the emphasis falls on the nice, or on the capitalism, is a moot point. Either way, the traditional list of socialist grievances has been shred, and the Open for Business sign is out being lacquered. The question for the left is, What’s left?

The short answer is Not Much. I’m tempted to argue that social democrats need not just a newspaper but a Sunshine Girl of their own as well, by which I mean an indication of some sort that, Yes, progressivism comes in styles other than Shrill and Reactive. The high ground doesn’t necessarily lead to the mountaintop; it can run through the market too. In any case, the market is where the action is. Nor does the high ground mean holier-than-thou. Part of the appeal of the ‘progressive newspaper’ is that it could offer the public an alternative to the prevailing murder-and-mayhem, anything-for-a-buck manner of presentation. Folks of all political persuasions tell me the current state of our airwaves and newspapers dismays them and that they would gladly welcome something different. Of course, there is a good measure of ordinary human hypocrisy in this, and it remains to be seen how many really do deplore the gutter. My point is that there’s always room in the culture for pukka journalism, ‘pukka’ being defined by Chambers 20th Century Dictionary as “out-and-out-good: thorough: complete: solidly built: settled: durable,” and so on. I’m not implying that there’s no good journalism at present in Canada, but only that there’s room for innovation. Conrad Black, who for decades has committed himself to the idea of a high-profile national conservative newspaper, realized his dream this week with the publication of the National Post. Today (29 October 1998) the third issue has come out. I have read all three, and I find there is a good deal in them to commend. Conrad Black, I’m sure, will have his critics – but give him credit. He has offered his alternative on behalf of conservatism. And to his critics he has always said: If you don’t like my newspapers, you are free to start your own. [-October 1998]

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