Sunday, January 22, 2017

When a country turns criminal, why is it just the fringe press that's blamed?

Hanging the Sin Eater: International Criminal Law’s Failure to Engage with the Role of Media in a Criminal State.

Mark Bourrie

CML 4108
January 20, 2017

When a political system lapses into despotism and a government embarks on criminality, who is to blame? When a nation’s energies are directed at waging aggressive warfare, who should be called to account for manipulating the minds of the people to engage in such aberrant behaviour? It might be argued that cruelty and theft are hard-wired into the human psyche. What we would call aggressive warfare and genocide are simply normal human violence that has been amplified through the organization of individuals into large groups equipped with a level of technology that makes mass killing and vast destruction relatively easy. Most people, however, will never hold powerful political office, command an army or tally up the foreign currency taken from the bodies of death camp victims. They will never kill other people except under unusual circumstances. They live their lives as farmers, tradespeople, teachers, miners, truck drivers and others whose names will not show up in the indexes of history books. They have just one real currency in the political sphere: the chance to give their vote or, in places with no vote, their physical support, to a regime, whether it be honest or criminal.
They are swayed to do this by communicating with other people. Word of mouth is effective, although the facts communicated from person to person must come from somewhere. In a large society like Nazi Germany or America, the chances of one’s neighbours and friends knowing many people in the top tier of the political class are quite slim. More likely, the ideas and supposed facts spread by word of mouth comes from some sort of mass media or propaganda system. Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman and Edward Said called this process “manufacturing consent,” a smart allusion to the industrialization of mass communication.
The mass media is part of the power structure. The top political journalists work very hard to be members of the political class. The respect, admiration and legitimacy that they give political actors is reflected in the attitudes of their readers. When a society engages in genocide and its leadership is called to account in international criminal law, it is not these influential consensus-makers who end up in the prisoner’s box. In the very few cases of prosecution of media for incitement of genocide and war crimes, it has been the disreputable fringe, rather than the respectable mainstream, that has been tried. Quite often, the journalists who normalized criminal regimes and their cruel policies have been able to walk away, or even continue working in media.
Journalists who facilitate and normalize state crimes are not victims. No one forces a person to become a journalist. Even in the most vicious wars and soul-sucking police states, goons and thugs don’t come around to a village or apartment block to round up half-bright people and force them to work as headline writers or copy editors. Young people are rarely pressured by family to take up reporting rather than banking, civil service work, law or some other white-collar job. And, when a journalist is pressured to do things that are evil or immoral, the journalist – unlike a soldier or a civil servant, or even a railway engineer running the locomotive on the train to the death camp –  can quite easily beg off and find more palatable work without much repercussion, since they’re easily replaced due to their rather common skill set. The journalist who engages in genocidal propaganda or beats the drum for aggressive war thus has a very high level of mens rea and likely cannot argue coercion.
When shilling for regimes that engage in war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, the mainstream journalist performs a very important role without serious personal risk from the outside world (though they may face serious consequences if they fall out of favour or the regime is overthrown by internal political actors). Instead, the journalist most likely to end up in the prisoner’s dock in an international tribunal will be the fringe player kept at arms-length by the real planners and perpetrators. These fringe journalists, deliberately kept from the mainstream media elite, are used by political actors to get out the ugliest part of their message. Later, the “respectable” journalists bring sanitized versions of those messages gently into the mainstream, where they become part of the political consensus of the power elite and those they govern.
           Surprisingly little has been written about the mass print media of the Third Reich. It is difficult to track the fate of journalists during and after the Hitler regime. There appears to be a lack of academic interest in print media history, as opposed to studies of Nazi radio and film propaganda. Those undertaking a study tracking individual journalists and executives of Nazi-era newsrooms must also contend with the industry practice in Western countries of publishing most stories without bylines.[1] We are, however, able to piece together a rough outline of the consequences for being part of the Nazi mass media.
          The Nazis placed a very high value on cooperative and co-opted journalists. Many of the major Nazi leaders had, like their Soviet counterparts, some media experience. They had written articles for newspapers, or had edited, owned or published a paper. Hitler was well-aware of the importance of media, always travelling with a personal photographer and often with a film crew. Unlike the alt-right in today’s America, the Nazis did not vilify journalism as a craft. Deputy Reich Press Chief Helmut Sundermann issued a brochure in 1938 titled “The Path to Journalism in Germany,” in which he equated the role of journalists to that of politicians. “After all, there are professions that introduce youth to politics because they are inherently a political profession. Journalism stands at the summit of such professions. A born journalist is a born politician."[2]
        On October 4, 1933, about nine months after taking office, the Nazi regime promulgated a Reich Press Law that effectively shut down the opposition newspapers. The rest came under direct government supervision. The Nazis were careful to maintain the illusion of freedom for the top tier of the respectable print media. Frankfurter Zeitung was allowed to continue publishing but the Nazi regime forced its Jewish owners to sell the newspaper to corporate conglomerate I.G. Farben. With nearly a 200-year tradition of moderate political writing and respected business news reporting, the paper had value to the Nazi leadership both as a solid news source and a political prop. Hitler’s regime, knowing that Frankfurter Zeitung had a large foreign readership, used the paper as evidence that the regime allowed “respectable” publications to survive with a minimal amount of interference. (The paper was shut down in 1943 and revived in 1949 with most of its wartime staff.) Obviously Frankfurter Zeitung’s staff knew about at least some of the abuses of the regime and understood the vile propaganda spewing from the Nazi press, but Frankfurter Zeitung’s journalists continued to press on under the somewhat gentle guidance of Josef Goebbel’s propaganda ministry. Although they had given an air of legitimacy to the Nazi regime and had collaborated to ensure the Third Reich looked somewhat like a respectable Western state, the journalists who worked on this newspaper had little trouble transitioning into elite journalists in post-war Germany. Yet they provided a curtain behind which Hitler’s regime committed its crimes. The existence of the veneer of professional journalism in a sense allows the continued denial by some Germans that they were duped by the illusion of normality and therefore had no idea what was going on in the death camps and on the assembly lines manned by slaves.
         Hans Fritzche straddled the line between professional journalism and Nazi apparatchik. Fritzsche was forty-five years old when he was put on trial at Nuremberg. He had some university education and, before the Nazis took power, had worked for mainstream newspapers, most notably the Hugenberg Press, a chain of papers that supported right-wing parties. During the Weimar regime, Fritzsche was appointed head of the state-run Wireless[3] News Department, a position that he held when the Nazis took power. On January 30, 1933, the day Hitler was appointed chancellor, Fritzsche was visited by Nazi officials, and soon afterwards, Fritszche was confirmed in his job, on the condition that he fire any Jews who worked for the news service. Two months later, Goebbels, who was now Minister of Propaganda, visited Fritzsche to tell him the radio news service was going to be laced under the jurisdiction of Goebbels’ ministry. Again, after assuring Goebbels that all the Jews working at the Wireless News Department had been fired, Fritzsche was confirmed in his job. On May 1, 1933, the Wireless News Department, now purged of Jews and liberals, was folded into the Ministry of Propaganda. That day, Fritzsche took an oath of allegiance to Hitler and joined the Nazi party. Later, Fritzsche was given control of the German Press Division, which, according to Fritzsche’s own affidavit submitted at Nuremberg, provided efficient state control of more than 2,300 German daily newspapers. He was the lead communicator for the Nazi regime, holding daily press conferences for journalists from major papers and handing out censorship and propaganda instructions. These Daily Paroles of the Reich Press Chief instructed newspapers on the slant they were to take on the news, and told them the stories that should be highlighted and those that should be suppressed. These story lines included propaganda against Jews and others targeted by the Nazi regime, as well as propaganda articles that agitated for aggressive warfare.[4]
       Fritzsche was able to convince his judges that he did not create policy, but he was sometimes in the room where it happened. For example, in his testimony at Nuremberg, Fritzsche admitted to being part of discussions in late in the war to decide whether the political risks outweighed the potential gains if German abandoned the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war.[5]
        The indictment against Fritzsche placed in front of his judges at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in October, 1945 said:

By virtue of its functions, the German Press Division became an important and unique instrument of the Nazi conspirators, not only in dominating the minds and psychology of Germans, but also as an instrument of foreign policy and psychological warfare against other nations.[6]

           Despite Fritzsche’s conscious decision to drive out Jews and liberals from his organization and to continue to disseminate propaganda to all the country’s daily newspapers, the International Military Tribunal found “Fritzsche had no control of the formulation of these propaganda policies. He was merely a conduit to the press…” Fritzsche still had personal control over the Reich’s radio news network and issued daily “paroles” to all of the Reich’s propaganda offices, and was present at Goebbels' daily staff conferences. The court found he was simply a conduit for the Nazi leadership. Spreading its message, written in somewhat polite language and distributed in a seemingly professional, bureaucratic way, was not an act of criminality. The guilt of the offence of incitement lay with the makers of policy, not the people who worked to make it seem like normal government action. It also lay with the most extreme journalists, not those who normalized hate and made it mainstream.
         Even Fritzsche’s inflammatory anti-Semitic radio speeches were somehow less criminal than the material published by his co-accused, Julius Streicher, according to the Tribunal:

Excerpts in evidence from his speeches show definite anti-Semitism on his part. He broadcast, for example, that the war had been caused by Jews and said their fate had turned out " as unpleasant as the Fuehrer predicted." But these speeches did not urge persecution or extermination of Jews. There is no evidence that he was aware of their extermination in the East. The evidence moreover shows that he twice attempted to have publication of the anti-Semitic " Der Sturmer " suppressed, though unsuccessfully… It appears that Fritzsche sometimes made strong statements of a propagandistic nature in his broadcasts. But the Tribunal is not prepared to hold that they were intended to incite the German people to commit atrocities on conquered peoples, and he cannot be held to have been a participant in the crimes charged. His aim was rather to arouse popular sentiment in support of Hitler and the German war effort.[7]

             Fritzsche was acquitted by the International Military Tribunal, although he was later convicted by a domestic de-Nazification court and spent four years in jail. Max Amann, treasurer of the Nazi Party and publisher of the Volkischer Beobachter, by far the leading circulation Nazi Party propaganda paper, with a circulation of about two million at its peak, was not tried at all by a Nuremberg tribunal, although he was sentenced to four years in prison by a de-Nazification court.[8] Amann’s newspaper carried a constant stream of articles advocating warfare and the oppression of Jews and other non “Aryans”. At least once during the war, the paper advocated the murder by German civilians of downed Allied airmen in violation of the Geneva Convention.  On March 29, 1944, the Volkischer Beobachter published an article by Josef Goebbels encouraging the paper’s civilian readers to kill "terror fliers" on the principle of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."[9]
Along with publishing its newspaper, Amann performed other useful services for the Nazis. When Hitler took power, the Depression had already made the German newspaper industry financially untenable. There were about 4,700 daily and weekly newspapers in the country. While many of the leading Nazis wanted a complete take-over of the press, Amann, who was delegated by Hitler and Goebbels to run the Reich Press Office, instead decided to rationalize the industry. The financially weaker papers were closed and the stronger ones allowed to dominate local and regional markets. Ideological conformity was ensured through the Nazi race laws, which forbade Jews and those married to Jews to work as journalists, and by the purging of centrist and left-leaning journalists from newsrooms, On the surface, the Nazi regime had fairly mild censorship laws, but because of its complete control of the economy, including allotment of paper, the regime could easily decide which publishers survived. At the same time, the Gestapo’s powers to arrest and imprison political prisoners, many of them in “protective custody” were deterrents for journalists who might try to criticize the regime.
        Women print journalists in Nazi Germany got a complete pass from international and domestic courts. About 250 women were licensed to work on German newspapers and magazines during the Hitler regime after they had finished a year of study at a journalism school.[10] The Nazi leadership did not allow them to write about political events, but women journalists’ work on what we would think of today as “lifestyle” coverage was valued by the regime. In the public mind today, National Socialism was a militaristic movement with the sole motivation of waging aggressive war and genocide. In fact, the situation was much more complex. Hitler’s regime wanted to remake German society and culture, along with its military and economy, and to politicize the private sphere. The regime sought to create larger families by giving public recognition and financial incentives to women who bore many children. Nazi labour organizations were set up to maintain productive workplaces without strikes or agitation from leftists. The Nazis engineered mass production of previously unavailable luxury items like cars, built a high-speed highway system, created the first entertainment television broadcasts [11]and even set up inexpensive resorts for families. All children were required to enroll in Nazi youth groups. Positive press coverage in sections of the newspapers geared toward women helped normalize the regime. This kind of writing, seen by its readers as light-hearted, upbeat and apolitical, appeared to be an escape from the steady drumbeat of often-frightening news and Nazi opinion pieces.  Women might have their political rights restricted and be limited in their choice of careers,[12] but they still had influence over their husbands and sons and their support of the Nazi social system was a strong incentive for them to pressure their families to conform. In writing this kind of soft news and features, the women journalists of the Third Reich performed an important service to the regime, one that took on even greater value as the war began going badly for Germany.
            In 1934, the women journalists were organized by the Propaganda Ministry into the Committee of German Women Journalists (Reichsausschuss der Schriftleiterinnen). This was a sub-department of the German Press Association, chaired by Annie Juliane Richert.  Committee members met frequently to discuss workplace issues affecting women journalists. They also discussed the regime’s expectations regarding their articles and held professional development sessions to improve the quality of the women journalists’ writing.[13] 
           While male reporters were sometimes put through “de-Nazification” processes, women were not. Allied occupation officers did not see the work done by women journalists as important or political, and thus women kept working without a break during the quick transition from Nazi-dominated press to Allied-run media.[14] The occupying powers, especially in what became West Germany, were eager to communicate with civilians and prisoners of war through German-language newspapers and lacked the personnel to write and publish these papers themselves.
            One man did assume the sins of the Nazi regime Germany media and took them with him to the gallows. Julius Streicher, a pariah in his lifetime, was the odd man out among the Nuremburg defendants. Unlike Fritzsche, Streicher was short, ugly, bald and foul-smelling. He wore shabby clothes and had no manners or social skills. Most of the other Nazi defendants believed Streicher was psychotic.[15] At “Ashcan,” the special jail a that held the major German war criminals at Nuremberg, the other prisoners would not eat with Streicher, so he took his meals alone at a small table. One German field marshal told the Americans Streicher washed his face and brushed his teeth in a toilet. Streicher firmly believed that the trial was a Jewish plot, and that the lawyers and judges were all Jews.[16]
Streicher had been trained as an elementary school teacher. He had fought in the First World War and returned to Germany as a decorated, embittered war hero. He sought companionship in the veterans’ groups of Franconia, which were blazing with anti-Semitism grounded on the myth that Jewish politicians had stabbed the army in the back in November, 1918, and signed a humiliating peace. By the mid-1920s, Streicher was an eager, vocal Nazi, publishing the tabloid Der Sturmer and using it as a platform to viciously attack Jewish politicians in his home city of Nuremberg. Weimar Republic authorities often investigated him because of complaints about the racist and pornographic nature of Der Sturmer and Streicher’s own violent and threatening behavior. Despite Streicher’s protests that he was engaging in free speech, his writings and speeches cost him his teaching job. In the hearing held to determine whether Streicher would be fired, Streicher argued he had come to his anti-Semitism honestly, after years of study, and had a free expression right to comment on an opinion that he believed to be true. He claimed that he had no hatred for individual Jews unless they had somehow crossed him and wished none of them harm. Streicher claimed he wanted Jews to be driven out of society and the economy by legal means. As for creating an environment of persecution, he said: “If I must wade in mud, I do not create the mud. Rather, I pursue positive moral ends.”[17]
           While Streicher advocated the destruction of the Jews, he claimed to have meant that in a metaphorical way. At Nuremberg, he said that he was as surprised as anyone when he found out the Germans had built an entire industry of murder. The Holocaust would certainly have happened without Julius Streicher and his shabby newspaper. With a relatively small circulation, the utter lack of respect of most people, including the most vehement Nazis, and no real credibility, Der Sturmer was racist pornography, entertainment that titillates by pushing boundaries rather than by enlightening. If it resembles anything available on newsstands in the West today, the closest comparisons would be Hustler magazine and perhaps Charlie Hebdo. Still, only Streicher would die for the things he wrote and said during the Nazi regime. He did have one positive grace: loyalty. Of all the major war criminals hanged at Nuremberg on October 16, 1946, Streicher was the only one who called out Adolf Hitler’s name at the end.[18]
            Streicher was charged with crimes against peace and crimes against humanity.
Streicher was tagged by prosecutors at Nuremburg as the No. 1 Jew-baiter in the Third Reich. His entire publishing career was a relentless attack on the Jewish people, not by rational argument or by gently bending facts. Streicher’s tabloid carried vile, crude, sexually-explicit cartoons and hate-filled rants. Despite his loyalty and his services as a low-road propagandist, Streicher had no role in policy-making by the time war broke out in 1939. He had been sidelined by Hermann Goering after Streicher suggested Goering’s daughter Emma had been conceived by artificial insemination because of Goering’s supposed heroin-induced impotence. He had been fired from his local political job in Franconia in 1938 was drummed out of the party in 1940 after being accused of embezzling Jewish assets after the state-sponsored Kristalnacht riots. The regime let him publish Der Sturmer, which he aggressively pushed on the public through a network of street peddlers. Despite being suspended from the Nazi party, Streicher still had many loyal readers among its most die-hard followers, and the paper was displayed in prominent places in newsstands. As Nazi influence had grown through the 1920s, so had Der Sturmer’s circulation, reaching a peak in the mid-1930s, although it appears to have never exceeded 500,000. It’s not known how many of those were unread give-aways.
     In his defence, Streicher argued it was ridiculous to blame him for anti-Semitism in Germany. It had always been a part of the culture of the country. He did not need to put into evidence the racial theories written by scholars and published in the scientific press in the 19th and 20th centuries. He could reach back to the writings of Martin Luther in the 16th century. Streicher argued: “Anti-Semitic publications have existed in Germany for centuries. A book I had, written by Dr. Martin Luther, was, for instance, confiscated. Dr. Martin Luther would very probably sit in my place in the defendants’ dock today, if this book had been taken into consideration by the Prosecution. In the book The Jews and Their Lies, Dr. Martin Luther writes that the Jews are a serpent’s brood and one should burn down their synagogues and destroy them.”
             Streicher did not get to finish that argument. Robert Jackson, the U.S. Supreme Court justice acting as prosecutor at the tribunal, cut Streicher off and said Luther’s writings were irrelevant to the case. “It seems to me very improper that a witness should do anything but make a responsive answer to a question, so that we may keep these proceedings from getting into issues that have nothing to do with them.”[19]
     Nor could the court reasonably conclude Streicher lay the ideological foundations of Nazi anti-Semitism within the clique that created policy, including the extermination of Jews. He had not infected Hitler with it. Hitler and the other Nazi leaders were railing against Jews long before they met Streicher. While Hitler and Streicher met before the Nazi leader wrote Mein Kampf, Hitler makes clear in that memoir that his anti-Semitism took shape during his years as a homeless man in pre-war Vienna.
       Because Streicher was not one of Hitler’s inner circle and held no military rank he was acquitted of the charge of crimes against peace, the International Military Tribunal finding:

There is no evidence to show that he was ever within Hitler's inner circle advisers; nor during his career was he closely connected with the formulation of the policies which led to war. He was never present, for example, at any of the important conferences when Hitler explained his decisions to his leaders. Although he was a Gauleiter there is no evidence to prove that he had knowledge of those policies. In the opinion of the Tribunal, the evidence fails to establish his connection with the conspiracy or common plan to wage aggressive war as that conspiracy has been elsewhere defined in this judgement.

            The International Military Tribunal convicted him of crimes against humanity by  helping create the social and political environment that generated the Holocaust. Noting Streicher’s reputation as “Jew baiter number one,” the tribunal ruled Streicher’s speeches and writings “infected the German mind with the virus of anti-Semitism and incited the German people to active persecution.” Talk of the physical destruction of the Jews had started appearing in Der Stürmer in 1938, at a time when Jews were brutally persecuted in Nazi Germany but were not yet being murdered in large numbers. His propaganda was “poison [that] Streicher injected into the minds of thousands of Germans which caused them to follow the National Socialists’ policy of Jewish persecution and extermination.”
     In its judgement, the International Military Tribunal explained how Streicher had used propaganda to de-humanize Jews and create a cultural environment in which they could be destroyed. The judges noted how prosecutors had entered twenty-three articles published in Der Sturmer between 1938 and 1941 into evidence in which Streicher called for the “root and branch” extermination of Jews. Streicher’s targets were portrayed as something other than human, “germs” and “pests”, “a parasite, an enemy, an evil-doer, a disseminator of diseases who must be destroyed in the interest of mankind," and “swarms of locusts.” Streicher did not just advocate the extermination of Jews in Germany. He also urged the regime to launch a “punitive expedition” into Russia to kill that country’s Jews.
     “Such was the poison Streicher injected into the minds of thousands of Germans which caused them to follow the National Socialists policy of Jewish persecution and extermination,” the Tribunal judges ruled.[20]
Other defendants of the 1945 major war crimes trial argued they had little or no intent to commit crimes against humanity and genocide. Invariably, they -- and the people tried in less famous war crimes trials – argued they were simply doing their jobs and following orders, or had no idea of the magnitude of the Nazi industrial killing system. Streicher was a prosecutor’s dream, an unpleasant, unsympathetic, unrepentant ideologue who was quite willing to admit to his actions without trying to explain them away or deflect guilt to others.
Streicher was tried as a symbol. The spread of anti-Semitic ideas generated the German societal mens rea for the genocide conducted by the Nazis. But was hanging Streicher a mistake? Did he, in effect, have the sins of German journalism piled onto his shoulders? Was his hanging a grotesque absolution or the thousands of nameless German journalists who were willing, sometimes eager, to go along with the Nazis from the very beginning? Subsequent International Military Tribunals tried the cases of Nazi military officers, lawyers, industrialists, and doctors, but there was no International Military Tribunal session for the Nazi-era media. (William Joyce, who was dubbed Lord Haw Haw for his English propaganda broadcasts directed at the United Kingdom, was prosecuted for treason by the British and executed.)
     So in this way Streicher was symbolic, but his execution was made easier for the International Military Tribunal because he was so obviously antisocial, both in his creepy, sleazy character but also the fact that he had no respectability and worked outside of a bureaucracy or military, and far from the middle-class mainstream media. In a sense, he was a freelancer, unprotected by solidarity from members of his profession and from mannered society. In fact, much of what was written about Streicher at the time of the Nuremberg trials and in the years since then dehumanizes him in ways that would have been familiar to a Nazi propagandist. Once he was made less than human, he was no longer of the same species as the respected, pliable journalists of Frankfurter Zeitung.
Why were Amann not indicted as a war criminal, Fritzsche acquitted, and women journalists and the staff of Frankfurter Zeitung allowed to step easily into the newsrooms of Germany in the Post-Nazi era, and yet Julius Streicher was hanged? Was it because Streicher was a true believer in Hitler and refused to recant? Was it because Streicher published a kind of pornographic propaganda that was repulsive even to some of the Nazi leadership? Was his fanaticism translatable into a higher level of mens rea for the crime of inciting genocide than that of mainstream Nazi editors and publishers like Amann and his editorial team at the Volkischer Beobachter, who, just like Streicher, were intent on destroying the Jews of the Third Reich, at the very least in the cultural and financial sense, and, arguably, physically?
International law has never grasped the difference between a fringe character like Streicher, an important apparatchik like Fritzsche, a major mass-circulation publisher like Amann, and mainstream women and men journalists willing to accommodate a criminal regime and normalize its message and its actions. Journalists have not been prosecuted at all by the International Criminal Court, and have not been called to account at the special tribunals for Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone. When a tribunal finally embarked on an examination of the role of media in a criminal regime and in atrocity crimes, it again heard evidence against fringe media. The Rwandan newspaper Kangura very much resembled Der Sturmer. Its owner and editor, Hassan Ngeze, is the only print journalist convicted under international criminal law since Streicher. Even this case is not a clear-cut case of holding media to account, despite the obvious incitement, since Ngeze was far more embedded in the governing clique than Streicher, and evidence was presented to the Rwanda tribunal that Ngeze took an active part in the actual genocide against the Tutsis, including the killing of people with his own hands.
 Ngeze was charged with seven counts: conspiracy to commit genocide, genocide, direct and public incitement to commit genocide;[21] complicity in genocide; and crimes against humanity (persecution, extermination and murder). The court made it clear that his actions as publisher of Kangura were at the core of the case.[22]
 The ICTR found Ngeze guilty. His culpability lay in his abuse of his rights to freedom of expression:

Hassan Ngeze, as owner and editor of a well-known newspaper in Rwanda, was in a position to inform the public and shape public opinion towards achieving democracy and peace for all Rwandans. Instead of using the media to promote human rights, he used it to attack and destroy human rights. He has had significant media networking skills and attracted support earlier in his career from international human rights organizations who perceived his commitment to freedom of expression. However, Ngeze did not respect the responsibility that comes with that freedom. He abused the trust of the public by using his newspaper to instigate genocide… He poisoned the minds of his readers, and by words and deeds caused the death of thousands of innocent civilians.[23]

          Although the court had the power to impose the death penalty, Ngeze was sentenced to life without parole, which was later reduced to thirty-five years. His co-accused were convicted for their involvement with the radio station Radio Television Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM). Ferdinand Hahimana, who had fled Rwanda at the outbreak of the genocide, and Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza were found guilty of creating a radio station that incited the Hutus to engage in genocide against the Tutsis. One of its broadcasters was imprisoned by a domestic Rwandan court, and several are still at large.
          But if an element of Ngeze’s offence involved failing to use his medium for shaping public opinion to prevent genocide, why were the main Rwandan media not held to account for the same crime? Kingura was printed sporadically before the genocide and did publish at all during the killing, yet it took the blame for the media of a society that was steeped in genocidal discourse. The writings on the Rwandan genocide are strangely silent about the rest of the media in that country, including Radio Rwanda, which often spread false smears against the Tutsis, and extremist publications issued by the Tutsis themselves.[24]
At traditional Irish funerals, a “sin eater” is employed to take on the sins of the deceased. Piling the sins of media onto the shoulders of people lie Streicher and Ngere ends up being a deflection. By doing so, courts do not have to carefully parse out expression rights because the published material is so obviously false and crude. More importantly, they don’t have to dissect the power structure of a society and question how good and bad ideas become part of mainstream discourse. Doing so would challenge ideas of normalcy and respectability in ways that are beyond the abilities of a court of law.

[1] This problem has dogged and frustrated many researchers. For example, few of Ernest Hemingway’s estimated 200 articles in the Toronto Star, where he worked from 1920 t0 1924, were bylined. None of his work in the Kansas City Star, where Hemingway worked for seven months before moving to Toronto, was bylined. See an interesting web page on Hemingway at the Star at
[2]Helmut Sündermann, Der Weg zum deutschen Journalismus: Hinweise für die Berufswahl junger Nationalsozialisten (Munich; Berlin: Franz Eher, 1938), quoted in Deborah Barton, Writing for Dictatorship, Refashioning for Democracy: German Women Journalists in the Nazi Post-War Press. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Toronto, 2015, at p. 93, available at
[3] “Wireless” being synonymous with “radio” in the first half of the 20th century.
[4] Fritzsche’s career history can be found at and in testimony at the IMT on January 23, 1946, available at
[5] The idea, floated in the early months of 1945, was one of Hitler’s brainchildren, although it had originally been floated by Goebbels. Hitler asked the Nazi leadership to decide whether the German people would fight more tenaciously if they felt they were utterly alienated from the civilized world. The idea was dropped when the consensus was reached that abandoning the Geneva Convention was more likely to demoralise the population than stimulating more ferocity. “The Treatment of Prisoners of War in World War II” Author(s): S. P. MacKenzie Source: The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 66, No. 3 (Sep., 1994), pp. 487-520 AT 496ws
[7] The verdict can be found at
[8] Including time served before his conviction, Amann spent just over seven years in jail. He was, however, stripped of his substantial fortune and died in poverty in 1957.
[9]S.P. MacKenzie, “The Treatment of Prisoners of War in World War II”, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 66, No. 3 (Sep., 1994), pp. 487-520 at 496.
[10] Barton 96. There were also several women working as full-time and part-time freelancers for magazines, since many magazines in Nazi Germany, as they do now in the West, relied on freelancers for most of their content,
[11] Selections from Nazi television broadcasts can be seen in a documentary film “TV Station Paul Nipkow 1935-1944” created by Der Speigal, which cane be seen at
[12] These limitations were fairly common throughout the West for women who were not engaged in domestic labour, such as maids, cleaners and child-care workers. For example, Canadian women working for the federal government in white-collar jobs, even during wartime, were expected to resign from their jobs when they married.
[13] Barton op cit 94
[14] Barton op cit 282
[15] Three psychiatrists examined Streicher and said he was sane, and his sanity was not an issue at trial. The psychiatrists – one American, a Soviet and a French clinician – administered Rorschach tests to all the defendants, all of whom were willing participants in the testing. The psychiatrists found Streicher to be paranoid but able to understand the nature and qualities of his actions. See Douglas M. Kelley M.D., Med. Sc. D. (1946) Preliminary Studies of the Rorschach Records of the Nazi War Criminals, Rorschach Research Exchange, 10:2, 45-48,.Two years after Streicher was hanged, a team of graduate students in psychology examined the trial transcript and came up with the following diagnoses: Paranoid schizophrenia (6); Chronic Paranoid Schizophrenia (2); Paranoid State (1); Neurotic Depression with Paranoid Trends (1); Neurotic Depression (3}; Mild Depression (1); Anxiety and Depression (1); Normal but with some signs of paranoid schizophrenia or obsessive-compulsive disorder (1) Walter Kass and  Rudolf Ekstein ,  “Thematic Apperception Test Diagnosis of a Nazi War Criminal (Anonymous Post-Mortem Evaluation by a Group of Graduate Clinical Psychology Students: Problems of Inter-Judge Consistency)” Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science (1903-), Vol. 51, No. 3 (Sep., 1948), pp. 344-350 at 347.
[16] Overy, Richard, Interrogations: The Nazi Elite in Allied Hands 1945. (New York: Viking, 2002) at 223.
[17] Dennis E. Showalter, “The Politics of Bureaucracy in the Weimar Republic: The Case of Julius Streicher,” German Studies Review, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Feb., 1983), pp. 101-118
[18] [18] Smith and Kingsbury, It Happened in 1946, 1947, ed. Clark Kinnaird. Quoted in John Carey, Eyewitness to History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 645–647.
[19] Michael Lackey, “Conceptualizing Christianity  and Christian Nazis After the Nuremberg Trials,” Cultural Critique, Vol. 84 (Spring 2013), pp. 101-133 at 106
[21] Author’s italics
[22] The Prosecutor v Ferdinand Nahimana, Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza Hassan Ngeze Case, Case I%. ICTR-99-52- T
Judgement and Sentence, December 3, 2003, at para 10
[23] Ibid para 1101
[24] Human Rights Watch, Leave None to Tell the Story; Genocide in Rwanda, Human Rights Watch, March 1999

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

What's Wrong With Punditry (written in early 2014)

Why mainstream media doesn't work anymore.
From Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper's Assault on Your Right to Know, HarperCollins Canada, January, 2015

Outside of the bubble, the news business had changed, and journalists, who used to be fairly sure that they would always have media work of some kind, were now just one phone call or staff meeting away from losing their careers. The news industry was being re-made, maybe even killed off. Days like February 4, 2014, when Postmedia closed its Parliament Hill bureau, laying off five people and sending its last four Hill reporters to the Ottawa Citizen, became common. Don Martin, a CTV news journalist, had walked into that bureau, then called Southam News, as a Calgary Herald columnist in 2000, when it had about thirty journalists covering very specialized beats, writing news that focused on issues that were important to the chain’s readers in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, southwestern Ontario and Montreal. Now it was over. There were even fewer people analyzing and explaining federal politics and the workings of the government. Mike De Souza, one of the few skilled energy reporters in the country, was let go. It was bad day for more than just the people who had lost their jobs: “After all, a smaller media means a greater chance of bad news staying under wraps,” columnist Don Martin wrote.
“The obligatory coverage of Parliament stretches reporter resources beyond the industry’s ability to dig deeper than the press release or scripted news conference. In a drought of warm reporting bodies, investigative journalism becomes a luxury, not a necessity. Add it up and that means victory for a government which has cocooned itself with communications staff programmed to deny, obfuscate or simply not respond to media requests.”[i]

In Canada in 1950, the number of daily newspapers sold each day equaled the number of houses in the country. (Of course, some people bought more than one, and some bought none). On average, between 1950 and 2000, circulation dropped by a little more than 1 per cent per year, so that by 2000, just 40 per cent of households bought a daily paper. In 2000–2010, the decade after high-speed Internet became common and smart phones rolled out, newspaper circulation was at 40 per cent but still gradually falling.
Through the second half of the last century, political conversation in Canada was muted by the gutting of community journalism, as vibrant independent small-town papers were absorbed into national newspaper chains and ruined. Then, in the late 1980s, big city journalism abandoned small-town Canada. The Globe and Mail had built itself on regional distribution. It became the dominant political newspaper in Ontario because people in its circulation department memorized railway timetables and made sure every farmer, Main Street business owner and small-town lawyer had the paper first thing in the morning. (The Globe’s creator, George Brown, made his fortune in the 1850s by getting the paper to the train on time. George McCullagh, founder of The Globe and Mail, started in the newspaper business in the 1920s as a kid wandering the back concessions of Ontario, betting farmers that he could plow a straighter furrow than they could, with a Globe subscription as the stakes.) The Globe and Mail, in a deliberate decision made in 1988, threw away farm and small-town readers and stopped covering most local and provincial issues. The ad industry lusted for the urban, wealthy demographic, even if it’s not large enough to support a great newspaper. People in the West and small-town Canada clued in quickly. No one likes to feel unwanted by snobs. Other big papers, especially in southern Ontario, closed their small-town bureaus.
Hidden in the stats is a dirty little secret of the newspaper industry: payment for news was dying long before the Internet came along. In the 1980s, big newspaper chains like Metroland, owned by the Toronto Star, had begun giving away “community” newspapers in small towns to cut into the incredibly profitable monopoly of the Thomson chain of weeklies and small dailies. These “controlled circulation” papers were toothless local watchdogs. Newsroom staffs were minimal, pages were full of ads, and the give-aways cut prices to scoop up the real estate and grocery ads, which were the guts of the traditional weekly. (That’s why the weekly papers were usually printed Wednesday, when grocers published their pages of ads listing specials, which were the ripest fruit of all, and not to be trifled with by young reporters who lusted to write price comparison blockbusters). By the end of the 1980s, most grocers had started printing flyers that were delivered in the freebie “community” newspapers and by Canada Post at a cutthroat rate, using non-union labour.
By the early 1990s, the freebies were in the country’s biggest cities, taking the morning rush hour circulation that used to be owned by the big dailies, especially the tabloids. And most of the people picking up the freebies like Metro and the short-lived and strangely named Dose were the young readers that the paid media so desperately needed.[ii] These papers provide just snippets of the news, with no analysis and very little nuance. And none of the freebies have reporters on Parliament Hill. Instead, they chop and rewrite stories sold to them by The Canadian Press wire service and the newspaper chains, some of which own a piece of these “papers.”
Still, despite the hemorrhaging of readers, overall ad sales for most “mainstream” media stayed strong until the 2008 recession, when they fell off a cliff. They haven’t climbed back. When companies found themselves in a squeeze for profits, it was easy to justify slashing ad budgets, especially since the new conventional wisdom was that the media, as we had known it, was on its last legs anyway.[iii]
Smart phones, websites, blogs, iPads, Facebook, Twitter and easily-accessible free wireless didn’t kill newspapers. They were already dead from a cancer that infected them some thirty years ago.[iv] It’s likely no coincidence that newspaper circulation went into freefall in the late 1970s at about the time that The New York Times led North American media into a disastrous evolution from being chronicles of current events to arbiters of lifestyle and trends. In fact, if the Internet hadn’t come along, most newspapers would have had to do some serious soul-searching to determine why their readers had abandoned them, or, to be more accurate, had never acquired the habit of reading them. The numbers show newspapers throughout the developed world went into a death spiral when Pierre Trudeau was still working on the Constitution and Jimmy Carter was president of the United States.
In 2009, 35.9 per cent of people aged 18–34 read a newspaper regularly. Some 43.3 per cent of Canadians aged 35–49 were regular newspaper readers, while 58.8 per cent of people over 50 still had the habit.[v] People weren’t walking away from newspapers. They had never read them in the first place. For example, in the first four years of this century, just 19 per cent of Canadians aged 23–31 read a newspaper every day.[vi] In the early 1980s, 59 per cent of people between the ages of 18 and 29 read newspapers. That’s 20 per cent more than all of the people who read them now.
Maybe TV’s to blame. But broadcasting has been around for years. It’s always delivered news. Radio networks of the 1930s had correspondents all over the world, the same way the big networks do now, and they devoted much more time to serious journalism than any electronic media, even cable news networks, do in modern times. Broadcasts of Hitler’s speeches by the big American radio networks scared the hell out of my grandmother and millions of other people, and the blood-chilling eyewitness radio report of the burning of the airship Hindenburg in 1937 ranks with the best journalism anywhere. Radio correspondents like Ed Murrow, William L. Shirer, and Matthew Halton were big stars in Canada. Father Coughlin, the Canadian radio preacher who operated out of Detroit, collected so many coins from his millions of listeners that he created a continent-wide shortage of pocket change and seriously considered cornering the silver market.
Now, viewership for CNN and most other North American news networks—Fox News Network being a notable exception—is declining, although none of them had stellar ratings to start with. In Canada, ratings for flagship national TV newscasts flatlined years ago. None of our major news networks were ever roaring successes. The Sun News Network has laughable ratings, but the CBC’s and are so bad that they have to fight with Sun and other private news networks to land advertising from peddlers of burial insurance and walk-in bath tubs for geriatrics.
The future of network TV, especially news channels, looks confusing, and not particularly good for the old, big national broadcast networks. A Harris/Decima poll called Let’s Talk TV: Quantitative Research Report, taken in late 2013, found, of Canadians surveyed:

·        39 per cent watch TV programming through the Internet-on-demand such as Netflix and YouTube
·        47 per cent subscribe to cable
·        19 per cent subscribe to satellite
Even scarier for legacy broadcasters, just 10 per cent of viewers relied on Netflix and other Internet subscription services in 2011. That number had jumped to 25 per cent by 2013. That year, a bare majority of people under 34 were getting their TV from the Internet, where there are no Canadian content rules, not much serious news, and a lot of crap. A year later, 62 per cent of people in that age group in Canada subscribed to Netflix. The tsunami that’s about to hit broadcasting will remake this country’s political and regulatory landscape.[vii]
Even at election time, young Canadians ignore political coverage, if they come across it at all. (And they certainly won’t on Netflix, which doesn’t yet carry ads). The supposedly pivotal (though actually stage-managed) leaders’ debates during election campaigns have seen a fairly steady decline in viewers. More than 60 per cent of voters under 30 ignored them in 2004, when the Liberal government of Paul Martin came close to being turned out of office. So, since the elderly people actually get out and vote—and also donate money and time to political parties—governments, no matter which party is in power, tailor their policies to the baby boomers and their parents. The Harper Conservatives see this demographic as an important part of their voting and donor base, in contrast to Justin Trudeau’s and the Liberals’ targeting of young people for both votes and campaign workers.
Why bother with media when it’s all about games and spin and manipulation? People know that the “news” is hardly a mirror held up to events, and that coverage of, say, Question Period and the “scrums” that follow is just bad theatre. By 2004, only one in five young Canadians could name the country’s minister of finance. The elderly, at 65 per cent, scored much better. And, of seven developed countries surveyed, Canadians, young and old, were the most ignorant about their political leadership. At the same time, and probably not coincidentally, pollsters found people had very little faith in politicians to solve the country’s problems. That lack of confidence in politics and the political system was reflected in voter turnout. The 2011 campaign was supposed to be a watershed election that would decide whether the Harper Conservatives would be able to govern unfettered by the compromises of a minority parliament. It was a spring election, so people couldn’t be blamed for tuning out politics while they were on vacation. And there were some interesting local races. Yet only about 61 per cent of the voters of all ages felt it worthwhile to go to a polling station and cast a vote. Obviously, in what was called “the Twitter election,” tweets had not connected candidates to voters, even if tweeting and reading tweets did make journalists feel important.[viii]
Still, according to Harper’s Magazine publisher Lewis Lapham, while the media has many sins of pride, sloth, incompetence and greed, it’s too easy to make journalists scapegoats for the shabby politics that we’ve been stuck with on both sides of the border for the past couple of generations. Lapham wrote in 2000: “To do so serves no purpose other than to flatter the media’s sense of their own self-importance.” The idea of a media conspiracy seemed ludicrous to Lapham; at the same time, conformity of thought and ideology among journalists was not only stifling to intelligent political conversation throughout society, but it was also dangerous to the public good.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Lapham said, most of the top journalists in the country were social-climbing poseurs who talked a good fight about liberty, including freedom of the press: “Having attended a good many weekend conferences at which various well-placed figures within the peerage of the fourth estate exchanged decorative platitudes while admiring the view of the mountains or the sea, I long ago learned that nothing so alarms the assembled company as the intrusion of a new idea.”[ix]
Another problem is that most “news” is not news at all. It’s masked advertising, bumph, propaganda, filler and spin that takes up time and space in the media because it’s cheap to make, politically safe and seems to have some value to someone. And much of it is eye-splittingly boring. Daniel Boorstin wrote about “pseudo-events” fifty years ago. Back then, pseudo-events were things like newspaper interviews with politicians and celebrities, anniversary commemorations and government announcements. The stories created by coverage of these non-events filled newspaper pages and radio newscasts, but they weren’t really written to inform the people. Rather, they were created to help sell ads and fill the space between ads, and they almost always made the subject of the pieces look good. If these stories hadn’t been generated by the media itself and by public relations hacks, the “events,” this “news,” never would have “happened.”[x]
Eric Alterman, writing in 1991, just before the Internet hit, realized that journalists had stopped writing for their readers and were trying to make themselves important players in the power game. Rather than expressing readers’ issues to the powerful and explaining actions of lawmakers to the people, newspaper executives decided they wanted to make and break politicians. Of course, newspaper executives had always been in that business, but now, as newsrooms thinned out, pages of news stories were dumped and newspapers literally became smaller. Cheap and easy punditry dominates the media. Newspapers and newscasts are often preachy, disconnected and tedious. “The American body politic is sick and getting sicker as our democratic muscles atrophy from disuse. The very pundits who bemoan the state of American political debate are themselves responsible for its dilapidated condition. For except in the most extreme cases it is the punditocracy, not the general public, to whom our politicians have become answerable,” Alterman says.[xi]
Award-winning journalist David Halberstam said the rules of objectivity force journalists to write in a “bland, uncritical way” that requires them “to appear to be much dumber and more innocent” than they really are. By trying to keep their news pages looking fair and objective, then by chasing lifestyle trends, news managers had chosen to make them safe and boring, becoming what A.J. Liebling once called “Adolph Ochs’ colorless, odorless, and especially tasteless [New York] Times.” Newspapers lost readers in droves. They’ve tried to become relevant by offering more local news, but that’s failed to bring readers back.[xii] Not only did newspapers see an impact on circulation and ad lineage, but newspapers’ role in the political system, going back 200 years in the United States and more than 150 years in Canada, started to die.[xiii]
Blandness was mistaken for objectivity, and the failure of newspapers to explain what was really going on, Halberstam says, “plundered the guts out of American politics.” And people knew that the “insiders” gave them just snippets of the truth, leading them to believe that whatever was going on in Ottawa or Washington wasn’t showing up in their hometown newspapers.
“The resulting abdication from politics,” Alterman writes, “coupled with the increasing identification with the culture of celebrity, represents as much as any single development, the foundation of the punditocracy’s opportunity to hijack our national political dialogue and direct it toward goals and ambitions that have precious little relevance to most American’s lives. Were contemporary journalists able once again to recapture the hearts and minds of their readership, the reconstruction of our community conversation might follow.”[xiv]

In the early years of this century, the blizzard of puffery and the hours of journalists-interviewing-journalists news coverage was explained away by media experts as “feeding the goat” of the new news channels. Round-the-clock media—whether multiple newspaper editions or hourly radio newscasts—changed the nature of the business more than twenty years before CNN started broadcasting in 1980. “The news gap soon became so narrow that in order to have additional ‘news’ for each new edition or each new broadcast, it was necessary to plan in advance the stages by which any available news would be unveiled,” Boorstin wrote in 1961. “With radio on the air continuously during waking hours, the reporters’ problem became still more acute…it became financially necessary to keep the presses always at work and the TV screen always busy. Pressure toward the making of pseudo-events became even stronger. News gathering turned into news making.”[xv]
Now it’s TV that’s the “goat” that needs to be fed, and even though round-the-clock news stations have dismal viewership in Canada, the entire media-political system is being twisted and warped to fit a medium most people ignore. Question Period became the focus of TV coverage because it guaranteed the conflict and images that TV news feeds on. When Question Period ends, the House of Commons empties. Debate on new laws is ignored by the media, so politicians ignore it, too. In fact, Stephen Harper, in his time as a backbench opposition MP, in his brief stretch as leader of the Opposition, and as prime minister, has never debated a bill. In the 1940s, the House of Commons was full on sitting days, and it often met at night, too, with important ministers and opposition leaders sparring over new laws and policies. (During World War II, the House even convened on Saturdays). Now, when a law is debated, usually only a handful of MPs are in the House. Those few people who are watching on television are tricked by MPs who cluster around their colleagues to fill the camera’s frame as they speak to an empty house. Democracy in Canada is now what Boorstin called a pseudo-event.
Question Period gives the visuals for the never-ending campaign. “To paraphrase von Clausewitz’s famous dictum that war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means, Question Period is the continuation of the election campaign by other means,” long-time Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson wrote during the Chrétien years. “Television, by its visual, kinetic nature, demands conflict. Nuance and subtlety are television’s sworn enemies. Question Period provides institutional verbal combat in short, sharp bursts of rhetoric. Better still for television, Question Period offers occasionally genuine but usually rehearsed and packaged emotion. Television treats indifferently the motivation for emotion; it just wants people to show emotion, and the more of it the better. Knowing this, opposition parties place a premium on emotion, anger being for television the most visual and therefore the most appealing emotion.” His observation was still valid more than a decade later.[xvi]
And Question Period, along with the mob-like interviews of politicians in the foyer of the House of Commons right after (“scrums,” in Hill lingo), is cheap to cover. In an environment where the greatest volume of words and images at the lowest price is essential to survival, Question Period is vital. Watch TV or go through a few newspapers sometime to see how much coverage, if any, is focused on debates over new laws. You’ll likely find none.
Partly, geography is to blame. Toronto, not Ottawa, is the media centre of the country. Toronto media executives, editors and publishers have a Toronto-centric view of national politics. Issues outside Toronto don’t catch their interest, and Ottawa, with its arcane culture and strange political rituals, seems very far away and, usually, unimportant, unless there’s a lot of easy-to-understand drama:
Lobbyists, media relations strategists, political spinners and others with a large stake in the Ottawa game often appear on cable news-talk shows and on the pundit panels of network news shows. The strategists tend to know Ottawa very well and are eager and, usually, articulate commentators. But they’re also on at least two payrolls—the networks, which pay between $200 and $1,000 to these talking heads, and their business or political clients. People watching the shows don’t know who the so-called “political strategists” are lobbying for. And even among the journalists themselves, there’s some double-dipping. Mike Duffy had a lucrative little guest speaking business before he was appointed to the Senate. Peter Mansbridge, anchor of the flagship CBC nightly newscast, and Rex Murphy, host of CBC radio’s national open-line phone-in show and editorialist on Mansbridge’s newscast, were both paid hefty fees for speaking to oil producer groups. With many of these people, politics is a game where winners land hefty contracts and get to appear on TV “news” and analysis shows. Credibility is the media’s stock in trade, but it’s hard to believe, if you’re a cable television news junkie, that you’re getting a clean product. Knowing the people giving policy advice and commenting on the political horse race have conflicts of interest and hidden agendas must make people sour about everything on “news” networks.[xvii]
And much of the media seems thinner, cheaper, more superficial. Media managers have tried to save money and make the media fit together by trying to merge TV, newspapers, the Internet and, in some cases, radio as well. Though embraced by media consultants and journalism professors in the 1990s and early 2000s, “convergence” of media has been a disaster that trashed the media, leaving newsrooms gutted and overwhelming the surviving reporters. David Olive of the National Post wrote convergence is not a potential boondoggle. It is a proven one. It failed a century ago when William Randolph Hearst tried to develop a vertically-integrated news company. Rupert Murdoch had not been able to pull it off with newspapers and television. Michael Eisner and Edgar Bronfman Jr. also failed in the modern era. Yes, there are new media, but news managers—a notoriously uncreative bunch on their best day—are nowhere near capable of evolving.[xviii]
Newspapers finally realized, by about 2010, that they had been fools to give their stories away. Most of the country’s major newspapers set up paywalls, give away a few stories every month, then ask readers to pay for the privilege of reading news online. But it’s too late. People don’t like to pay for something they used to get free. And, in perhaps the unkindest cut, the CBC has developed the country’s most comprehensive news page, with stories and opinion pieces from across the country. That website is free, and it competes directly with all of the country’s newspapers. By 2014, the paywall score was being added up and it was grim: just 110,000 people had signed up for Globe Unlimited, The Globe and Mail’s paywall service. About half of those subscribers got The Globe and Mail delivered to their door and had online access. All of the Postmedia papers—the dailies in Vancouver, the Calgary Herald, the Edmonton Journal, Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette—are hyping themselves as “digital first” but, in 2014, had only scraped together 137,000 paywall customers, and only 45,000 were digital-only subscribers. The Toronto Star said it couldn’t give solid numbers because its paywall was new.[xix]

Social media is the next passing ship for journalists. Twitter is hyped as the great connector between the powerful and the rest of us. The 2011 Canadian federal election was labelled the “Twitter election” by those who embraced the micro-blogging fad. The Canadian Press, probably the brightest collection of journalists in a single Ottawa bureau, hired Ottawa social media consultant Mark Blevis to analyze Twitter’s content and blog about its role in the campaign.
Certainly, the volume of election-related “tweets” seems impressive: about 16,000 of them on a typical day, jumping to 25,000 a day in the week of the leaders’ debate and levelling at 18,000 in the last week. Twitter fans think those numbers are stellar, but when you consider that 24 million people were actually eligible to vote, they don’t look so hot. Blevis counted re-tweets as well as original tweets. The most popular tweeters, like Kady O’Malley, who was paid by the CBC to tweet and blog almost around-the-clock, drew about 35,000 followers, numbers comparable to the viewing statistics of Sun News Network, which everyone in Ottawa’s political circles believe had no impact on the campaign.[xx] Most of the journalist and political insider tweeters had less than 1,000 followers.
Academics David Taras and Christopher Waddell, (the latter a former Globe and Mail political reporter and CBC Parliament Hill bureau chief), wrote after the election that Twitter had a decidedly negative role in the coverage of the election. In earlier elections, journalistic insiders had communicated with each other by Blackberry. Twitter had replaced the Blackberry and had become what Waddell called “the logical next step in the media’s turning inwards.” Journalists’ tweets dealt with what they and the campaign strategists cared about. Energy that might have gone into real coverage and analysis was spent by social-and political-climbing media stars on campaign planes cozying closer to political operatives and distancing themselves even further from voters.
Andrew Coyne from Maclean’s, David Akin from Sun Media, the CBC’s Rosemary Barton and Kady O’Malley, and Susan Delacourt from the Toronto Star[xxi] became the core of a small group of tweeters who tried to dominate the media agenda and frame the campaign’s issues. Very little of the material they posted dealt with things affecting the voters. Rather, they focused on the election-as-horserace meme. Twitter stripped away the pretense of objectivity: anyone who cared to examine the opinions of political journalists could pick through their tweets, many of which were remarkably frank about biases. The Hill media rarely followed or talked with outsiders, or even other journalists who worked for unimportant organizations or weren’t members of the clique that covered the campaign. Reporters might be able to quickly get comments from candidates (or staffers posing as them on Twitter), but these comments were superficial at best. How could they not be, when even the most thoughtful candidate could reply in just 140 characters or less? Most politicians knew better than to say anything substantial on Twitter. Only two seasoned Conservative Twitter hands, Tony Clement and James Moore—who, not surprisingly, were also two of the handful of ministers allowed to say anything substantial on behalf of the government—made the bulk of the Harper campaign tweets.[xxii]
Some people point to media scandal-mongering as the culprit for killing political involvement and undermining the watchdog role of the press in Canada. George Bain, a respected Globe and Mail writer, made that case in his 1994 book Gotcha! But coverage of scandals began long before Confederation. Dozens of newspaper and television news awards grace the walls of newsrooms, home recreation rooms and even some bathrooms for coverage of controversies and wickedness that are long forgotten. And other press critics argue young people might be turned off by regional griping. But Canada’s always had that, too, and in fact, those concerned about disenchantment with the federal system should turn public attention to provincial politics. Even college and university students, who feel the direct financial hit of increased tuition and residence fees and have the most to fear from today’s economy, are very unlikely to engage in politics or rely on the media to follow current events. The notable exception is Quebec, which is unplugged from much of American-dominated media culture. There, in 2012, young people learned by experience that they could throw out a government that they felt was gouging them and that had passed a law to limit their right to protest.[xxiii]
Perhaps, then, people care about their immediate surroundings: roads, bike lanes, policing, urban planning, transit, garbage disposal, parks—all things run by municipalities, with meetings right in the community and representatives who are often easy to call, email or visit at a city hall. But voter turnout at the local level is appalling, even in cities with notoriously inept, even comical, candidates. Yet, where young people actually see the effects of social engagement, you find a very interesting thing: young people volunteer twice as much of their time as their parents did thirty years ago. Some Canadian provinces now require students to volunteer for civic causes, but that simply reinforces a trend among youth that began in the 1990s. (Even taking into account the idea that some students do volunteer work to beef up their resumes for college applications, the doubling of volunteer hours is phenomenal. If anything, universities are easier to get into than they were in the 1970s, and doing free work in, say, a newsroom or a law firm to try to get into a competitive professional program would not count as community volunteer time.) In the United States, young people volunteer more of their time than any demographic segment except people in the 40–49 age group.[xxiv]
Certainly, something is happening to make young people feel like the political system does not want them, and that it’s owned and operated by, and on behalf of, other people. Even during the Obama presidency, young people showed very little interest in American politics. While young Americans supposedly swooned over Obama in 2008, wore his buttons and put “Hope” and “Change” posters in their bedrooms, it was black people who actually got off their seats and voted for him.
This is a reversal of the way things used to be. Surveys showed that, between 1948 and 1972, the elderly were less likely to be informed about politics than young people.[xxv] Back then, young people also found their way to the polling booth. Now, when it comes to democracy and public service taking place in power centres like parliaments, city halls, political parties and voting booths, where there’s little obvious impact by each individual, the kids are absent. In places where they see results and maybe get a smile and some praise, more young people are showing up. So we can toss the idea that young people have become too lazy and too pampered to be informed about their government and engaged in democracy. Something else must be keeping them out of the public sphere. Maybe, like most people, they simply don’t feel welcome and believe they are lied to.[xxvi]

So what happened? Partly, politicians began working hard to delegitimize the role of “mainstream,” “lamestream” and “corporate” media. In 1835, the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville had credited the vibrant American press for spurring public participation and the creation of political associations. The death of newspapers—and, it’s reasonable to assume, intelligent TV journalism—hurts democracy. Empirical studies confirm that when newspapers scale back coverage or shutter their offices, a rather frightening number of people simply stop caring about the way they are governed. Portland State University professor Lee Shaker took a look at public engagement in Seattle and Denver, two cities that recently lost daily newspapers. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, which had been bleeding readers and advertisers for years, were crushed by the 2008 recession. In both cities after the papers closed, voter turnout dropped, people made fewer calls and visits to their political representatives, they joined fewer civic organizations and they were less likely to engage in protests such as boycotts.[xxvii]
In the years leading up to the emergence of Stephen Harper, the Canadian media had done a tremendous amount of damage to itself, mainly because of cheese-paring and poor financial and journalistic decisions in head offices. Very few of the surviving journalists have beats, so many reporters really don’t understand what they’re writing about. That’s especially true among the new generation of young reporters hired—even in print media—because they look good on TV and Internet video streams. Most of those kids have never worked anywhere else and have no idea of life outside of school and their fresh media jobs. There aren’t enough bodies around, even in the Ottawa bureaus of the CBC and the big Toronto newspapers, for reporters to devote their days to specialized reporting. With fewer people to write hard copy, prepare web content and file film clips for web pages, most Parliament Hill reporters can’t take chances on stories that may not pan out. Investigative reporting, when it’s done at all, happens when reporters have filed their quota of stories. And reaction to investigative stories can be ugly and expensive, as the Toronto Star learned when it took on mayor Rob Ford, was hit by a boycott campaign and saw its sales plunge.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, newspapers, magazines and radio and TV stations had been abandoning Parliament Hill, leaving coverage mainly in the hands of The Canadian Press wire service, and, recently, to the Ottawa Citizen, which feeds to Postmedia papers in Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver, the bureaus of the Toronto dailies, and the CBC. In the 1960s, reporters from individual papers, from publications like the Montreal Gazette, Hamilton Spectator, London Free Press, Winnipeg Free Press, Calgary Herald, Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and Vancouver Sun were the bedrock of the press gallery. By the turn of this century, almost all were gone, the family-owned Halifax Chronicle Herald being one of the last holdouts. Where once there had been reporters from news organizations all over the country, looking for regional and local stories, now there were national news bureaus of so-called national media. There are no reporters at all in the Parliamentary Press Gallery from newspapers or radio or TV stations east of Montreal, except for one journalist from the Halifax Chronicle Herald. And there are none from Saskatchewan.
After the 2011 election, only one English-language private radio bureau on Parliament Hill survived, and it had one reporter. News-talk radio stations might claim to offer wall-to-wall news, but none of them would pay for their own Parliament Hill reporter. This change—which had been evolving for years as Canadian newspapers and radio stations were bought up by chains, and which accelerated as newspapers began withering in the late 1970s—radically altered the outlook of the press gallery. Formerly, its members had worked their way up through their own news organizations and were respected reporters in their own communities. Now, many Hill reporters are hired straight out of university, partly because they’ll work for almost nothing just for the experience of covering national politics.
The deterioration of Hill coverage has made a difference to the way Canadians vote. Christopher Waddell, chair of Carleton University’s journalism school, took a look at the voting patterns of cities whose dominant newspaper had closed their Ottawa bureaus and found an interesting, disturbing pattern. He and David Taras looked at the voter turnout in six Ontario communities over the seven federal elections from 1979 through 2000. Three of those cities—Windsor, London and Hamilton—started the period with a local paper sending a reporter to Ottawa. The other three communities—Niagara Falls, St. Catharines, and Sault Ste. Marie—didn’t have anyone in Ottawa reporting for the local paper. By 2000, the Hamilton, London and Windsor dailies had closed their bureaus. Taras and Waddell found voter turnout in the three cities whose newspapers had shut their Ottawa bureaus fell more quickly than the provincial average. Those towns started the period with a much higher voter turnout than the cities without Hill reporters, and, by the end of the period, voter turnout had plunged to the mediocre norm of the rest of Ontario’s cities.[xxviii] Why was that? Probably because local MPs and the issues they raise in Ottawa no longer get coverage back home. If issues affecting those cities do make it to the floor of the House of Commons or a parliamentary committee, the news is not considered national and therefore important enough to be covered by national media. The tree falls and no one hears it.
After the mid-1990s, the economic problems of Ontario outside Toronto fell off the agenda in official Ottawa because no one—especially in the media—seemed to care. An unpleasant new shallowness crept into national news coverage, which, even more than it had before, became a sort of sports reporting. The public picked up on it. The media was no longer really part of the public. So it was easy for the media to be identified as elitist, out-of-touch and insular. The Media Party nickname coined by Ezra Levant of Sun News to describe the Hill media is effective because, at the heart of it, there is a substantial grain of truth. Rather than dealing with real people—say, talking to individuals, municipal and provincial politicians, business, church and non-governmental organization leaders, First Nations and others back home—the Ottawa media elite talk to each other and to the new professionals who develop retail politics. This is the selling of voters to parties and parties to voters, paid for with money raised through state-of-the art donor identification, tracking and fast communications using carefully targeted messages.
These strategists, pollsters and lobbyists work in the high-rises near Parliament Hill and socialize with members of the press gallery. The old National Press Club died a generation before, but the members of this elite, and those who were desperate to join it, haunt the bars on Sparks, Elgin, Queen and Albert streets in downtown Ottawa and find good tables at clubs in the ByWard Market. Now so-called news stories are about polls, party strategy, and winners and losers, not about jobs, health care, and pensions. Those topics may be at the core of some Hill stories, but the issues are not the focus of the stories. Instead, reporters tend to focus on how politicians and their strategists are seen to be handling those issues. People don’t care about the things Hill reporters find interesting: How did political strategists react to some piece of news? Will there be a cabinet shuffle? An election? Will a leader quit? Is the Liberal Party still split by infighting? Will Stephen Harper be able to hold his party together? One recent study showed that more than half of Canadian federal election news in 2011 coverage was about the way the parties were running their campaigns, rather than about candidates and issues. This cryptic insider coverage may intrigue reporters and the campaign strategists who feed them information, but it must be deadly dull to those who don’t know the players.[xxix]
During the frequent elections of the 2000s, reporters turned their backs on issues and embraced the technology that bound them, ever more strongly, to each other and shielded them from dealing with real people. In 1984, the country had a free trade election. In 2011, it had a Twitter election, after the YouTube and Blackberry election of 2008 and the blog election of 2004. This came just a few years after the web election of 2000, the first one that featured sophisticated Internet advertising. “Web-based media can narrow rather than expand the information and perspectives available to journalists,” Taras and Waddell wrote. “Reporters become so preoccupied with the latest tweets from politicians and each other that they lose sight of what’s taking place beyond their own gated community.”[xxx] Elections became so expensive to cover that the big TV networks started relying on pool footage shot by a single camera. The networks chipped in for the pool cameras, which are always trained on the prime minister. That ensures that all the networks are able to get their Harper shot on the nightly news, but the camera doesn’t turn toward, say, the Muslim girl being dragged out of a 2011 Conservative rally in London, Ontario, and it doesn’t ask questions.
Some papers actually ran winners and losers lists written by reporters who watched to see who was up and who was down. When there was space, they ran insider notebook columns that were read by power players and few other people. Most Canadians, though, seeing their standard of living eroding and unsure of their ability to get their kids through college and retire with dignity, simply did not care about Ottawa’s power games.

It hasn’t helped that politics has become progressively more ugly and nasty in the past thirty years. By the time Harper arrived in Ottawa as leader of the new Conservative Party, real discussion and debate in Parliament had pretty much died, electoral politics had become a professional game played by lobbyists and professional campaign managers, and by people hoping to join their lucrative businesses. Running a successful campaign can earn a strategist more than $500,000 a year. Wedge-issue politics, which had been honed in the United States, were brought to Canada by all of the major parties.
“The political parties and the media have created a world in Ottawa in which voters have become outsiders and can’t relate to what is being reported,” Christopher Waddell wrote. “Too much political coverage means nothing to them and has no impact on their lives. As a result, Canadians tune out until something happens, such as the prospect of an unwanted election that temporarily forces them to pay attention.”[xxxi]
Part of the problem lies with the fact that many Hill journalists don’t bother reading newspapers. Some print reporters don’t even read the publications they work for. News aggregator web sites like are popular with members of the press gallery. These sites do a fairly good job of listing Canadian national news stories and opinion columns, but they’re not particularly good at finding important regional and local stories and bringing them to the attention of people inside the Ottawa bubble and they have almost no international news. So, by relying on those kinds of sites for their news, Hill reporters effectively see themselves reflected back.
“This kind of coverage produces a world that people across the country can’t comprehend. Canadians don’t act that way when they deal with their neighbours, when they are out in the grocery store or riding a bus to work. They do not see any of it as relevant, so increasingly, they ignore it and the national political media as well,” Waddell wrote after the 2011 election.
Decisions to cut back on reporting staff, close bureaus, and replace reporters from local newspapers and TV stations with national news bureaus and national network reporters have broken the link between the public and the media that has been at the core of political communications. As a result, the media now plays a shrinking role in informing Canadians about politics and public policy.
It has replaced its traditional role with an inward-looking, narrowly-focused coverage that concentrates on the issues defined by the parties through their joint sharing with the media of technological tools and their ability to engage reports in concentrating on the artificial world they have collectively created. Instead of using technology to bridge the communications gap between voters in their communities and the media, the media has used it to turn its back on the public, forging closer links with the people reporters cover rather than with the people who used to read, watch and listen to their reporting.[xxxii]
It’s hard to know the full amount of the damage that’s been done to our political system, though we do have some U.S. numbers that may be useful. In August 2013, Pew Research issued a report showing that Americans’ public respect for the media on key issues like accuracy, fairness and independence were stuck near all-time lows. Still, the survey showed, a broad majority of those surveyed continued to believe the media has an important role as a political watchdog. And those numbers have held firm for the past three decades. Interestingly, Republicans were slightly more likely to see the media as legitimate watchdogs. Young people, who had seemed apathetic and hostile to media in other surveys, now seemed more supportive of its role. But the media should still take cold comfort from the Pew numbers, which showed a clear break between what people thought the media should be doing and how the public believes media actually behaves. Almost as many people who believed the media had an important policing role in the political system also said news reports were often inaccurate, and more than three-quarters of the people surveyed thought media outlets were biased and subservient to power.[xxxiii]
In Canada, the Tories have a foundation myth that the “mainstream media,” the “lamestream media” and the “Media Party” oppose them and everything they stand for. They’ve said it so often that it’s believed by many people who don’t see themselves as conservative. In fact, through Stephen Harper’s career, especially before he won his 2011 majority, he’s enjoyed media support, especially among print journalists, that other leaders would envy. Here’s what The Globe and Mail said in the editorial that endorsed the Tories in 2011: “Only Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party have shown the leadership, the bullheadedness (let’s call it what it is) and the discipline this country needs. He has built the Conservatives into arguably the only truly national party, and during his five years in office has demonstrated strength of character, resolve and a desire to reform.”[xxxiv] The Globe was not alone. The Tories, in their hunt for a majority, were endorsed by the Vancouver Sun, Calgary Herald, Montreal Gazette, Hamilton Spectator, London Free Press, Ottawa Citizen, National Post, Winnipeg Free Press, the Waterloo Region Record, the Sun chain of tabloids in Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto and Ottawa, and Maclean’s magazine. The Toronto Star endorsed Jack Layton’s NDP. Michael Ignatieff and his Liberals did not get the endorsement of any large newspaper in Canada. As well, Conservatives effectively set the issues in that campaign and received much more coverage than the other parties, continuing a trend that began when the Tories re-emerged as a national contender in 2004.[xxxv]
So, when Harper was elected in 2006, the media was already very, very sick. Isolating and delegitimizing the media and its role in Canadian democracy would be easier than it could have been at any other time in recent Canadian history. The stars had aligned, the media was hobbled, and now, if possible, Harper and his people would push it to the fringe of Canadian politics. At least it wouldn’t be alone: scientists, parliamentary watchdogs, and pretty well anyone else who could get in the way would be out there, too.

[i] Don Martin, “Only the government wins as Postmedia goes dark in Ottawa,”, February 5, 2014.
[ii] Floridian Sauvageau, “Advertising Looks Elsewhere,” in David Taras and Christopher Waddell (eds.), How Canadians Communicate IV: Media and Politics (Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2012), 34.
[iii] Ibid., 36.

[iv] Martin P. Wattenburg, Is Voting for Young People? (New York: Pearson, 2012), 13.

[v] Sauvageau, “Advertising Looks Elsewhere,” 32–34.
[vi] Wattenburg, Is Voting for Young People?, 13.
[vii] Paul Delahanty, “TV Viewers Head for Exits,” Blacklock’s Reporter, April 26, 2014; Tom Korski, “CRTC Says 62% Eye Netflix,” Blacklock’s Reporter, May 27, 2014.
[viii] David Taras and Christopher Waddell, “The 2011 Federal Election and the Transformation of Canadian Media and Politics,” in How Canadians Communicate IV, 74.
[ix] Lewis Lapham, Gag Rule: On the Suppression of Dissent and the Stifling of Democracy (New York: Penguin Books, 2005), 91–92.
[x] Daniel Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 12–13.
[xi] Eric Alterman, Sound & Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy (New York: HarperCollins, 1992 edition), 296.
[xii] Carl Sessions Strepp, “Why Do People Read Newspapers?,” American Journalism Review, December/January, 2004.
[xiii] Alterman, Sound & Fury, 307.
[xiv] Ibid., 309.
[xv] Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-effects in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 12–14.
[xvi] Jeffrey Simpson, The Friendly Dictatorship (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart 2001), 36, 39.
[xvii] Andrew Mitrovica, “Who’s paying for that ‘expert’ opinion?,” iPolitics (, March 5, 2013.
[xviii] Crazy David Olive, “Hazy days of convergence: US experience exposes some flaws in media marriages,” National Post, September 16, 2001.
[xix] Tamara Baluja, “How well are Canadian newspapers doing with paywalls, tablets?,”, January 24, 2014.
[xx] Justin Trudeau had some 360,000 Twitter followers in 2014, a number that has to be taken seriously as a political force by even the most die-hard critics of social media.
[xxi] Delacourt later wrote a book condemning the effects of retail politics and “insiderism” on Canadian politics. The book, Shopping for Votes (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2013), is an interesting account of the development of the political persuasion industry. It is well worth reading by anyone who wants to know how the permanent campaign works and who the players are.
[xxii] Taras and Waddell, “The 2011 Federal Election,” 97–98.
[xxiii] Martin Wattenburg, Is Voting for Young People? (New York: Pearson, 2012), 155.
[xxiv] Ibid.
[xxv] Ibid., 71.
[xxvi] Ibid.
[xxvii] Lee Shaker, “Dead Newspapers and Citizens’ Civic Engagement,” Political Communication 31:1 (January 2014), 131–148.
[xxviii] Taras and Waddell, “The 2011 Federal Election,” 113.
[xxix] See Thierry Giasson, “As (Not) Seen on TV: News Coverage of Political Marketing in Canadian Federal Elections,” in Alex Marland, Thierry Giasson, and Jennifer Lees-Marshment (eds.), Political Marketing in Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012), ch. 11.
[xxx] Taras and Waddell, “The 2011 Federal Election,” 104.
[xxxi] Ibid., 126.
[xxxii] Ibid., 127.
[xxxiii]Pew Research, Amid Criticism, Support for Media’s Watchdog’ Role Stands Out,, August 8, 2013. Pew surveyed about 1,400 Americans over a one-week period in July 2013.
[xxxiv] “The Globe’s election endorsement: Facing up to our challenges,” editorial, The Globe and Mail, April 27, 2011.
[xxxv] For an interesting analysis of the volume of media coverage of Canadian political parties in recent elections, see Blake Andrew, Patrick Fournier, and Stuart Soroka, “The Canadian Party System,” in Amanda Bittner and Royce Koop (eds.), Parties, Elections and the Future of Canadian Politics (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013), 161–184.