Fake News, Real Money

We have all heard the President say that the news is fake, and we have seen this assertion take root and spread like a kind of conceptual weed. The phrase “fake news” contains within it the connotation of counterfeit and thus the insinuation of an act of wilful deception. Or, to use a more plain word, lying. If I were to spread around the claim that the Prime Minister of Canada is addicted to Xintopan, the way that Hunter S. Thompson did of Ed Muskie and Ibogaine, it could be correctly said that I was spreading fake news. The presumption that something like this is widely taking place in the dominant commercial media, each and every day, could only be maintained by the most credulous and lazy. A news outfit that deliberately fabricated would soon find itself discredited and driven out of business. And yet there is no denying that news is a manufactured good, like bicycle tires or washing machines or laxatives. The news does not drop from heaven, it is made. What is it then that the media are doing, as makers of a mass-consumer product called news?

When I was a boy the news was something trotted out by three news stations each weeknight between 6 and 7. This was before the cable networks invented the 24-hour news cycle. Where once it had been accepted that a one-hour dose of news per day was sufficient, the cable universe substituted the proposition that news is something requiring round-the-clock attention and comment. Whatever else this substitution may entail, it is beyond doubt a scaling-up of manufacture. To go from one hour of news a day to twenty-four is more than a quantitative change: it is an admission that something arbitrary is at work, untethered from any underlying principle or logic. News is only another product that can be made in batches small or large. Here I do not mean to equate the manufacture of a product with fabrication in the sense of lying. I mean only that the news is made up in the way that a book or song or photograph is made up. It is a matter of perspective and of discrimination. An outbreak of war or the assassination of a public figure will be obvious instances of news to most people, but many daily events will necessarily occupy a grey area which only subjective considerations will resolve. It is someone’s job every day to scan the landscape and to package up a selection of found objects for this thing we call the news.

I have been claiming that the news is a product, but in a sense this is misleading. While news is packaged, the media do not deal in the business of selling news. The actual product of the news media are the eyeballs of their audience, which the industry sells to advertisers. And just as every audience constitutes a market, with exhaustively studied desires and beliefs and tastes, so too the media audience is a market. Everything produced by a news corporation will defer to the interests of advertisers by taking pains to court the market they are selling, because that market is the fruit of their efforts, hence their chief product. The specific character of a news outlet is a reflection of this ongoing and often imperfect effort to attract and to hold viewers. It is possible to parse the various news outlets into the grammar of their respective markets, taking into account matters such as aesthetics and social class and political assumptions. Here are some rough examples off the top of my mind, of the respective markets targeted by media outlets, to demonstrate how this might look:

PBS Newshour: “I believe there are two sides to every story and so it is important that we seek out balancing points-of-view in a rational and civilized manner. I’m a pretty informed and intelligent person and I think of myself as open-minded and highly educated. I think the great malaise of our time is partisanship. The parties must work together to find compromises that serve the broader public interest.”
New York Times: “To me America is an imperfect country whose history is marred by hubris and miscalculation, yet it remains a beacon to the world. I care about the arts and humanities and I don’t apologize for wanting sophistication, and I like my news to be informed and thoughtful. Our system is unique in history and to protect it politicians must be held to account, in particular by media.”
FOX News: “I’m sick of the establishment. It’s corrupt and must be brought down. The GOP is Republican In Name Only. Liberalism is ruining America. I am angry as hell and it’s time to fight back to reclaim the real America our forefathers fought to protect. I love this country and I love God and I am not ashamed to call myself a Patriot.”
National Post: “There’s nothing worse than Social Justice Warriors and the Culture of Entitlement. Taxes are too high and free enterprise plus individual responsibility will solve most of our problems, if anything can. Most politicians are clowns, and we would be better off without them, but Canada remains the greatest country in the world and our system is fundamentally sound and just.”
The Rebel: “I love this country and I care about what happens to it. We’re at war with Cultural Marxism and Islamic terrorism, whether you want to admit it or not. Political correctness be damned. Radical feminism and the fascist left are huge dangers today, and the mainstream media is either too weak or too biased to see it. If we don’t act now, our civilization will be lost.”

These sketches are of course caricatures, but even a caricature projects the recognizable outline of a face. What the media share among them is an unspoken but firm assumption that “our way of life” is fundamentally sound. This is why no allowance is made for outside-the-system cranks and revolutionaries, even on a more extreme network such as Fox. The media target and trade in, above all else, aesthetic differences, from the calm establishment tit-and-tat of PBS to the fringe-establishment agitation of Fox. The New York Times marketing department knows exactly what ads to put in front of the people who read it, and in the main they are ads for “luxury” watches and automobiles and not for obesity medication or adult diapers. Even the PBS fiction of a publicly-funded broadcaster has a marketing/aesthetics impetus, aimed as it is at upper-middles whose tastes lead them to abjure anything they regard as vulgar capitalism. Because the PBS NewsHour ads come at the end of the program, disguised as public-service announcements, the viewer may enjoy the wholesome illusion of an organic, free-range, untainted media.

To appreciate how thoroughly the news is market tested and market formulated, one only has to spend some time watching a program that makes no accommodation for one’s tastes and outlook. To begin with, the aesthetics and the social-class markers will be all wrong. You will either find the program too loud and uncouth, or you will find it boring and pinheaded and elitist. The villains will be wrong, as will the heroes. A Marxist-Leninist will be unable to consume any of the widely-available news except critically and oppositionally, as imperialist-capitalist propaganda, because in capitalist societies Marxism per se does not exist as a market. The same is doubtless true for white-power fascists, who until the arrival of Mr Trump saw little in the media tailored to their obsessive hatred of the elites, and especially of establishment race traitors. In recent years however outlets such as Breitbart and The Rebel have courted what might be termed under-served markets. As the media markets further segment and diverge, we approach the point at which the news can refer to a widening range of subjects, for example Tucker Carlson dedicating weeks of programming to a Hillary Clinton scandal from the past. Presumably there is a sizeable chunk of America that wakes every day enraged at and obsessed with a woman who is not a politician and who is no longer pursuing public office. It follows that such a person will be deeply unsatisfied by news that doesn’t take up as its operating premise the notion that Ms Clinton remains America’s foremost menace.

It is easy to conclude that the news is so much fabricated, or fake, nonsense if one’s assumptions and tastes and prejudices go unserved. The final ineluctable truth of every human life is that it is brief and pointless and of no enduring consequence, but only a person of mental instability would seek out a messenger and a message emphasizing this point day upon day. For reasons having to do with our animal survival, most of us prefer to believe reassuring if also distorted propositions about our own intelligence, beauty, rightness, and significance. In the same way the news is forever serving up a workable and reassuring version of the world, even when it is delivering word of the latest political scandal or humanitarian disaster. Mr Trump objects to the “fake news” for the simple reason that much of the press is neither workable nor reassuring from his perspective, both practically and psychologically. He is a pedlar of emotions and not of arguments, and if the facts do not serve his emotional needs then they are in a sense inauthentic. It goes without comment that Mr Trump runs what amounts to a media platform, via Twitter, that has all of the New York Times‘ reach but none of the fact checkers or editors. Much of what he claims in public would not pass the hastiest edit, because the standards of even a small-town paper exceed those of the Commander-In-Chief. But facts are not what the Trumpists have in mind when they complain of fake news. What they have in mind is a different test: “Do I like what I am hearing?”

Beyond this is another consideration, the fact that the President is so far outside the norms of American politics that it is impossible to say whether political norms will move him, or vice versa. What is clear is that the liberal-centrist-consensus media markets, which have long been the dominant markets, are under an organized attack that shows no sign of relenting. As a celebrity media personality, from roughy 1980 to 2015, Trump got what he needed and wanted from the media by providing them outrageous and therefore attention-getting tidbits to distribute, which they faithfully did and continue to do. Only, Mr Trump is no longer in the celebrity business, or perhaps is in it but in another business also—a business where his provocations and broadcasts can lead to international scandal, impeachment, violence, and war. Under the former dispensation, both sides got what they wanted, that is to say celebrity-and-profit-promoting click-bait. Now the President wants something more. He wants media that are supplicants of his reign. And there is no reason to assume he won’t get it if, in exchange, the media get eyeballs and clicks and dollars.

The columnist versus the commons

In my experience it is not the editors of papers but rather the readers who are intolerant of unorthodoxy

Editorials

✎  WAYNE K. SPEAR | MARCH 13, 2017 • Personal Essays

ALL WHO HAVE WRITTEN for the newspaper editorial section know what readers know, that theirs is a strange and, in some respects, ridiculous task. We understand how tedious it can be to discover us, once again, with our opinions of the moment. In the defence of editorialists, however, I’ll note it’s simply the case that someone must fill the area between the ads, and a fellow with something to say about the President’s latest tweet (or whatever) is a cost-effective proposition. Not only this, comment sections are as a rule popular features of a paper. As a result you are probably stuck with us, as we with you. This being so, isn’t it time we confessed to some unspoken truths of editorial, opinion, or political writing?

I have already alluded to the self-awareness of an op-ed writer, whose job subsists on the improbable and therefore embarrassing conceit that she has something useful, intelligent, and worthwhile to say on any and every topic. A columnist is someone forever sticking out his neck, a broadsheet whack-a-mole impelled by some impenetrable force that no normal person experiences. This raises the unavoidable question, What compels an opinion writer to do it? There are as many possible answers as there are people to give them, but the more credible explanations begin with the observation that newspaper columnists are human beings driven by ordinary human impulses, such as ego, need for acceptance, a desire to do something useful with one’s time in this world, and so on. Once a writer has clothing and shelter (not easily obtained by the labor of writing, alone) she moves up the hierarchy of need, where objects like belonging and love and meaning obtain. A news writer is likely to offer you all kinds of high-minded and self-congratulatory nonsense—he is defending democracy, fighting for truth, standing up for the little guy—but none of these speak to the base and universal human motivations. Taking my own case, I knew I was going to be a writer by age eight, long before I knew there was something called “politics.” From this it follows that my ultimate motivations as a writer, whatever they may be, must involve things that would be available to a typical eight-year-old. And sure enough, I recall from my earliest days a fascination with the sound of words and the shape of printed letters, the feel of paper and the smell of books, the click of typewriter keys. First came the inner compulsion to write, and only years later the ennobling propaganda.

Notice that, for the purposes of this essay, I am focused on writers of opinion pieces. Much of what I have to say will apply to novelists and journalists and poets, but these are not my concern. The relationship of a professional editorialist to the novelist is that writers start out imagining themselves the next Faulkner or what-have-you, and when this turns out not to be the case, they go in search of other pastures, arriving eventually at the opinion pages. There is a definite hierarchy of writerly ambition, with literary fiction at the top and mere utilitarian prose—things like tampon instructions or VCR manuals—at the bottom. The editorialist is somewhere in-between. It is a broad category of persons, comprising well-paid media celebrities as well as obscure bloggers. Most opinion writers work for no money and less fame, a sure indication that something beyond material gain is their motivation. I mention this because I have encountered the charge that my opinions are purchased, which is not the case. Everything I have written at the National Post, for example, is untainted by the moral filth of pecuniary recompense. Once in about 2012 Kelly McParland took me out for lunch, on Postmedia’s dime, and although the leasing of my opinions could have been put into play, no one present (McParland, Matt Gurney, and Christopher Nardi) undertook the gambit.

This leads me to a second common misconception, that opinion writers are under the control of media owners and/or editors. The problem with this notion is that it posits a totalitarian world of invigilating Big Brothers and thoroughgoing thought control, a proposition which requires efficiencies well beyond contemporary newsrooms, including Postmedia. I know as fact that editorial staff have been cut to the point at which articles now get published with only the most cursory review. My opinions have never once been censored or silenced by an editor, but then again I have yet to call for Marxist-Leninist revolution or Juche in the classroom or other beyond-the-limit measures. For reasons I’ve never understood I got a few letters over the years accusing me of subservience to Jonathan Kay (the former National Post editor), but we spoke only twice in the years he was there, and as I recall them our conversations went something like the following:

– How are you?
– I’m doing well. Some weather we’ve been having.
– Yeah, some weather.
– Etc.

This is as good a place as any to note in passing that the “provocateur” type of columnist, Ezra Levant for instance, often turns out to be mild and unobjectionable when you meet him. (People you have only known from television also tend to be smaller than you imagined.) Opinionists are no more anti-social jerks than any other segment of the population, and it is revealing when we suppose people with whom we disagree to be bad people. Nor are comment pages run as a matter of course by zealots. In reality, editorialists intuitively sense where the boundaries of respectability are and go about their business accordingly. The term for this is self-censorship, which is nothing to be proud of but neither is it necessarily an evil. The person who decides not to tell her grandmother about the great sex she had last weekend is self-censoring, and good on it. I can remember the times when I decided not to write something that I wanted to, and invariably those decisions had to do with considerations such as decorum or libel—for example wanting to call such-and-such politician a “lying piece of fucking shit” but deciding against it. Jon Kay and I had, and have, real disagreements, especially as concerns Indigenous people, and it happened that we took them to the pages of the National Post.

In my experience it is not the editors of papers but rather the readers who are intolerant of unorthodoxy. To write opinion pieces is to be denounced as a Bolshevik and a mouthpiece of the dividend-drawing classes, in equal measure. No matter what you do half of your readers will decide that you are a dangerous left-wing radical and the other half that you are a reactionary war-monger and capitalist-apologist. My friend at Macleans, the columnist Terry Glavin, collects insults the way our parents’ generation collected the porcelain Wade figurines that came with their tea. Most of the email an editorialist receives is incoherent if not deranged, so much so that a writer for the newspapers soon enough comes to regard his mail-bag as a kind of freak show offered up by Providence for his amusement. Along the way, many editorialists and would-be influencers confront the unpleasant fact that they have gone into the business under the false expectation of serious and important conversation. At 25 years of age the budding columnist envisions a milieu of movers and shakers, but by 35 hers is a world of Internet trolls and inboxes stuffed with cut-and-paste invective. Whatever one says to the contrary, the first time you are attacked it is arresting. Until you have been denounced by a stranger in a public manner, you have no idea how it will feel. Some of your detractors will go to great lengths, probing into your history and your finances and your family for something to hurl against you. But the other surprise is how quickly the attacks become routine and tiresome, even absurd. To read a newspaper comment section thread is to witness a form of human entropy, and since one grasps the point the very first time, I saw no use in reading the comments ever again.

On the subject of comments, a number of truisms occurred to me quickly. The first is that many judgements about a columnist’s work are based on the headline alone, which is supplied by the newspaper’s headline editor and not by the author of the article. But even in those rare cases when a reader has attended to your words, his judgement of your writing will almost always come down to the question of whether or not he agrees with what he takes to be your politics. If he disagrees, then you will be dismissed as a stupid and incompetent hack, a lousy writer, a fool, a fascist, etc. If she agrees, you will be praised, but either way the thing is meaningless. What you will likely never encounter is actual criticism, which is to say discernment of the strengths and weaknesses of your position, as well as of the mechanics by which it is articulated. For years I waited in vain for the person who would say: “I disagree with your politics, but I think you’re a good writer, and here’s why…” (or the inverse: you’re absolutely right, but a shame about the writing). Everyone is sorting out whether or not you are on their team, so that they might stuff you into the appropriate conceptual drawer. After this there is nothing to do but string together the appropriate adjectives and press send.

My object in the preceding is not to elicit sympathy for the editorialist. No one who insists upon broadcasting his unsolicited opinions to the world deserves coddling. Criticism, abuse, insult—we ask for and therefore deserve all of it. Of course there are, or ought to be, limits to this arrangement, such as injunctions against violent physical attacks. An editorialist should not be subject to credible threats of harm, whether in the real or virtual world. When you write for a newspaper, especially a national one, you have something that is denied to the great mass of people, a voice which is carried over the air. Perhaps no one will pay any heed to you, but you nonetheless will be perceived to have a measure of power and privilege, a perception which can be invidious. I have always felt a keen awareness of this, and it has made me sympathetic to the critics, up to a point. Many times I have been the fellow yelling at the television, to no use, and I know how it feels. One of the terrible shortcomings of our age is that we have made it possible for corporations, media conglomerates, politicians, and celebrities to pound their nonsense into our ears no matter where we are, but we have not made it possible for the common citizen to be heard even on matters that effect her deeply. If the revolution ever arrives, it is probable that the talking heads and the spokespersons and the pundits will be rounded up and shot, which is after all an unanswerable retort. ⌾

To boil a frog

I was in an Upper Manhattan bar with Herbert J. Gans, around the time he was writing The War Against The Poor, and once again we were discussing media bias. Journalism would be better without objectivity, I argued. Better to be truthful than objective. Report the facts, and never be afraid to declare and defend a position. I had the best arguments that day.

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Civilization is too important to let Venetian old-style serifs fall to the jihadists

Jacqueline Milczarek
I hope it’s Comic Sans and Papyrus!

A FEW DAYS AGO, I told you about my adventures in televisionland. Well, wouldn’t you know it, but right after I published that piece, Bell Media announced a big whack of layoffs. Here’s how Canadian Press reported it:

Jacqueline Milczarek

Jacqueline Milczarek is the host of CTV News Panel, or as I’ve been referring to it for nine months, “this newsy thingy I’m apparently on each week.” Or rather, she was the host, up until now.

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More Thoughts on Unpaid Internships and Writing for Exposure

zero-dollar-bill

THE ONTARIO MINISTRY of Labour recently announced an enforcement “blitz” of provincial regulations governing unpaid internships, an action which led to the termination of internship programs at Toronto Life, Canadian Geographic, Rogers Publishing and The Walrus.

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How the Blog Digitized Not Just Writing But Readers

blogging

WHEN I BEGAN writing, only the Pentagon had Internet. The rest of us used pens and typewriters, as well as paper, which came in both liquid and solid form. You’d write out your essay, story or article, make a few changes, and then type out the manuscript, editing as you went. In some cases, you would do an additional edit, by producing a second typescript. This is what we veterans called writing. What else would you call it?

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The Paywall and the Blockhead Writers

BOSWELL REPORTS THAT Samuel Johnson once said “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” There are many reasons to write, and those of us who have written for objects other than money will likely petition the blockhead designation. Having read about the 2013 imposition of pay walls, however, I begin to suspect Johnson was nearer the truth.

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Making a living, dead languages, and why so many pros write so badly

RARE IS the day that I do not find a piece of bad writing in the New York Times, Washington Post, National Post, or Globe and Mail. This statement, I am confident, could be applied with justice to any newspaper of your choosing. The badness is delivered in many varieties, and in fairness I must observe that some errors are a product of working conditions, deadlines and the under-resourcing of bureaus and so on. Most bad writing however has as its root a more troubling fact: its creators do not know what words mean.

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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]