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The CBC & bias: a counter-argument
Scan, April 2000
“The perception that our news and current affairs has a particular slant must be seriously examined, because the CBC’s hallmark is fair, accurate, and objective reporting.” – CBC Board chair Guylaine Saucier, letter to Media Guild president Lise Lareau, January 18, 1999
“The criticism that we often hear about the CBC having left-wing bias is, in volume, more than I would like to hear and suggests to me that we need to take a long look at whether we are as balanced as we think we are.”
- CBC chief operating officer James McCoubrey, National Post, December 16, 1998
I’m a child of the CBC. I’m old enough to have been born the same year the CBC was created, 1936. I grew up listening to CBC radio. Even as a kid I knew the CBC was different and special. I related to everything, from Ace Percival’s Sports College and Hockey Night in Canada to the noon-hour farm-family serial, Wayne and Shuster and the Stage series (of which I became an aficionado).
The early CBC, with its balance and openness to differing voices, also liberated and democratized Canadian journalism. Shows like the National Farm Radio Forum and Citizens’ Forum broke new ground: people appeared on the panels as equals regardless of their wealth and power or lack of it. Although most light-entertainment programs carried commercials, and commercial revenue was sought after, “sustaining” programs - programs without commercials - were fundamental to the schedule.
These were expressions of a broad and deeply-rooted populism - a “popular” sense of democracy that was instrumental in the creation of public broadcasting in Canada in the first place and that helped give the CBC its unique character. It wasn’t that the CBC was left-wing. It wasn’t, and I never thought of it that way, and never expected it to be - couldn’t expect it to be for a Canada dominated, as it was, by conservative Ontario. The CBC was open, however, to diversity of opinion and ideas in a way that commercial broadcasters and the American networks were not.
Looking back on that period, I’m struck by how courageous the CBC was in its very first years, hewing to a democratic vision and standing up to...well, to powerful financial interests. (Leonard Brockington, the CBC’s first chair, actually used such language, unashamedly, tenaciously. “We believe we should be false to our trust as custodians of part of the public domain,” he told a parliamentary committee in 1938, “if we did not resist...any attempt to place a free air under the domination of the power of wealth.”) It was this powerful egalitarianism - the airwaves belong to the people; “either all of us have a right to speak over the air or none of us has any right to speak over the air” - that was so particular to the young corporation.
The CBC has now lost this balance and populist character, and lost the democratic quality that went with it. Far from being left wing, moreover, the corporation has become profoundly right wing in the process.
When did the transition happen? While the most visible exhibit is Venture, which hit the airwaves in 1985, the events that first signalled the surrender to private power occurred several years earlier, in 1978, when the CBC buckled under to a corporate lobby.
The fifth estate, Ombudsman and Marketplace had carried some hard-hitting items on corporate misdoings. Several corporate bureaucrats were outraged. One of them, Kenneth Barnes, director of corporate affairs at Redpath Sugar, organized a high-level corporate group to lean on the CBC called the Committee for Improved Business Reporting. The Committee had the backing of 22 of the largest corporations in Canada and seven of their trade associations. It prepared a brief charging the CBC with inaccuracy, bias and lack of balance.
As it turned out, the business committee’s brief fell apart on close examination. In a long and detailed internal CBC memo, Robin Taylor, head of TV Current Affairs at the time, rebutted the charges:
One of the most serious concerns [that face the people of Canada] is the question of power, and how it is exercised - political power, financial power, labour power, business power and so on. In the kind of society in which we live, business enterprises, especially the larger ones, have considerable power. One of the responsibilities of Current Affairs programming is to reveal how this power is used.
The lobby’s attack nevertheless cowed the corporation. A series of meetings in various cities took place between CBC news and current affairs and corporate executives, for a two-way exchange of views. “I couldn’t be more pleased,” said Barnes of the meetings. “A greater sensitivity on our part for the concerns of business,” the CBC chimed in. Venture grew out of this surrender - a direct pandering to this power and a symptom of the collapse.
The bias went further and deeper still. It was contained in the primary premise of the program - that solely the urge to make a profit, “greed” in short, dressed up perhaps in a patina of heroic individualism, is what lies behind our economic development.
I should say that I’m not against business corporations in themselves (nor against markets where they’re appropriate). I believe that large corporations are a useful and productive way to organize certain kinds of work. I genuinely admire their creativity, when they are creative. Private-sector corporations as they function today, however, are individually and collectively centres of power, just as Robin Taylor explained. They are more powerful ultimately even than governments, because of both their economic leverage and their influence, direct and indirect, over politics and media. They are exactly what journalism should be critically focusing on, as a check against that power. The CBC caved in to this power instead, and has never recovered its independence.
When the CBC announced it was considering a business program of its own, it was warned about the ideologically loaded American model. The CBC, it was explained, being a public broadcaster and also a Canadian one, could and should do it differently. The new program, it was suggested, should be cast to make room for all aspects of the practical economy, covering private-sector corporate business and finance but also including the public sector and the workplace. The suggestion was ignored.
The program’s prospectus was a crude ideological document. Only private-sector companies with money-making first and foremost on their minds would be eligible for coverage. This not only effectively excluded most parts of the economy but also crown corporations and co-operatives, although crown corporations in particular had been at the heart of Canada’s economic development. The country’s largest and most creative broadcasting company, the CBC itself, wasn’t eligible for coverage, although tinpot private broadcasters were. The declared model for the show was the front page of the Wall Street Journal.
The program, in other words, involved a sweeping, arbitrary and highly ideological censorship and exclusion.
The bias went further and deeper still. It was contained in the primary premise of the program - that solely the urge to make a profit, “greed” in short, dressed up perhaps in a patina of heroic individualism, is what lies behind our economic development. The opening graphic that Venture used for years, the piles of coins, symbolized the assumption. The premise satisfies unadulterated right-wing dogma and no doubt the ghost of Ayn Rand but has little to do with reality.
Venture also represents a major, and glaring, “structural bias” at CBC television. It is a dedicated “service” program on just one element of the economy. Where, however, are similar dedicated weekly programs for the other elements of the economy, like education, public-sector work, the workplace, labour unions, and engineering, applied science and technology?
You can watch a documentary about a man who makes a living walking dogs in dog shows (Venture did do just such an item) but, say, a primary school teacher or a nurse working in the operating room are blacked out. What does that say, in media terms, about how economic resources should be allocated?
For that matter, employees in general are blacked out. Most people who work in the Canadian economy are blacked out.
When I mentioned Venture in passing to a producer at the CBC, he riposted that the CBC also produced Marketplace. Say what? A program with some useful advice about buying things somehow, via some magical non sequitur, offsets what Venture represents? It was another sign of how muddle-headed and evasive the CBC had become.
The CBC uncritically accepts the rituals and imagery of right-wing, private-sector business ideology and passes them on, no matter how arguable the imagery might be.
As the 1980s rolled along into the 1990s, both the internal and structural biases of Venture were replicated on the AM radio network. Business World on radio ran for the better part of three years, when it was dropped, but the business column on Morningside continued seemingly forever, until Peter Gzowski finally quit and the entire program changed. There were no equivalent programs or slots for other aspects of the economy.
For years local CBC radio in Vancouver cited Fraser Institute studies without qualification, as if the Institute were independent, although we all knew that the Institute was underwritten by large corporations - had been established by them - and represented their executives’ combative right-wing ideological politics.
The Morningside business column was particularly embarrassing. All three columnists, led for quite a spell by Diane Francis of the Financial Post, shared the same bent; were chosen because they worked in, or were protagonists for, the private-sector business bureaucracy.
The structural bias remains in CBC radio, if the Vancouver station is typical: a daily Business Report without equivalent daily service reports for other elements of the economy; the exclusion in such programming of crown enterprise; a money column without an equivalent slot for how to improve our public pensions and reduce economic disparity; a daily stock market report (of which more later); short features or series about people in small business, but until last fall nothing at all in praise of people in other kinds of work and what there is to be learned from their experiences. (This Morning finally broke the pattern, with a short, weekly segment, Shoptalk.)
Newsworld is perhaps the worst case for replicating this ideological fix, because it has plenty of scheduling liberty for other choices. Newsworld Business News (NBN) has three editions every day, including the lead one-hour edition at 8 a.m., plus weekend editions. There’s also the Money Show and the current version of Venture from the main network. With repeats, they’re on the air 19.5 hours a week between 8 a.m. and midnight, and 25 hours if you include overnight slots. They’re also among the most indulgent shows one will find anywhere. There is no similar dedicated programming of any kind on other elements of the economy. NBN is mostly about, or acts as a platform for, playing the stock market. In a comically Orwellian flourish, the NBN lead edition calls itself “Working Day.”
The Money Show is a thinly disguised infomercial for mutual-fund companies and investment advisors.
The National, not surprisingly, exhibits some of the same syndromes. Here’s an example. Two “experts” are canvassed to comment on some public financial matter. Both are investment analysts sharing the same right-wing perspective. Why? Bank economists and business reporters from right-wing papers are used in the same way. Part of the assumption is that even on general financial issues like interest rates and budgets, private-sector corporate representatives and right-wingers who support them have special authority just because they are part of the private-sector bureaucracy. This bias lies deep and lies everywhere.
Then there are the stock market, currency and commodity reports on news shows. Why are they broadcast at all in their current form? They don’t represent productive business, nor are they useful for investment. Investment, after all, requires a little more background and has a longer time horizon than 24 hours. These reports do, however, have a powerful function, which is why I’m writing about them. They symbolically say: “This is business and the economy. This is our system.” Those flashing figures are icons. It doesn’t make any difference that we don’t, or can’t, absorb the particulars. It’s ritual, and the ritual gives us the symbolic message regardless.
This message is, of course, ideologically loaded and highly partial and exclusionary. It is also economic hooey, both generally and for the private sector itself. Although you may not think it possible, given the symbolic bombardment, stock markets played a minimal role or no role at all in the development of modern industrialized economies, including the American economy, until quite recently, and their constructive role is still relatively minor.
How would one provide balance? With a loud guffaw or raspberry each time?
The BBC, incidentally, declines to provide a regular daily report on stock-market movements, on its main evening news, despite indignant criticism from the expected quarters.
The working poor and the poor generally, meanwhile, although they may get some feature attention from time to time, are otherwise invisible. No equivalent of Venture, Newsworld Business News, “Your Money” (on the National), stock market reports or money shows for them.
Radio One, for its part, is relentlessly middle class - all right for me, who is thoroughly middle class, but not so for many others. Radio One here in Vancouver has a day-long food-bank campaign. It is highly successful and much appreciated. It also takes us back to the days of Victorian charity. It is charity radio instead of populist radio that gives struggling people the access, information, connections, sense of themselves and political understanding to help gain some real measure of equality.
There are several common strands to these illustrations. First, the CBC genuflects to one aspect of the economy, creating a frame where other activities and other participants are economically downgraded or marginalized by comparison.
Second, it gives a false notion of what the economy really is and who keeps it going.
Third, it assumes that only a narrow, highly ideological, dogmatic and conformist spectrum of commentators is deemed qualified to comment on business. This is a bizarre notion, akin to saying that only left-wingers are qualified to comment on politics. It is even more bizarre on those occasions when the assumption spills over to public policy issues.
Fourth, the CBC uncritically accepts the rituals and imagery of right-wing, private-sector business ideology and passes them on, no matter how arguable the imagery might be.
Fifth, it’s just plain lousy journalism.
The bias also negatively affects business and economics themselves, as bias could be expected to do. Major stories are missed, like the punishing impact on the economy of right-wing monetary and fiscal policies, or the bureaucratic waste of the private sector. The ideologically-driven destruction of a vital entrepreneurial current in Canada - crown enterprise - was also missed. Missing as well is critical coverage of Canada’s entrepreneurially weak corporate culture and its lack of staying power. The biased frame, similarly, ignores much of an economy’s creativity, which is found among people working and striving everywhere.
Then there is the ongoing story of corporate power. If journalistic resources should be allocated according to who has power and what they do with it, the CBC should be giving corporate power even more critical probing than it does government.
...Which brings me to perhaps the CBC’s most notorious journalistic failure - its handling of the federal deficit and debt issue which marked Canadian politics in the 1980s and 1990s. It stemmed from one aspect of this same general right-wing bias - that private-sector business, the politicians who represented them, and economists (a dogmatic and foolish right-wing sect) had special credibility on financial matters simply because they were right-wing and associated, either politically or ideologically, with business.
The upshot: the CBC regurgitated the right wing’s specious framing of the issue, that the debt was created by overspending (when in fact it had been created largely by high interest rates, with its destructive effect on the economy, and by tax leakage); and the corollary, that the only way to reduce the deficit was by cutting program spending. The choice of reducing the deficit by changes on the revenue side (tightening up the tax system) and in monetary policy, on the other hand, was always available and had been well-developed by the political left in Canada. You might not agree with it, but it was a choice.
The deference the CBC showed governors of the Bank of Canada and right-wing finance ministers was memorable. I remember watching a television interview with the hapless Michael Wilson, finance minister in the Mulroney years. Instead of aggressive journalistic scrutiny, the interviewer verbally bowed and scraped. I had the feeling that Wilson, simply because he had been a Bay Street investment dealer, could have said anything - could have said that white was black and black was white - and the interviewer would have nodded at the sober financial gravity of the statement. Wilson continued to run up large deficits - he wouldn’t tackle the deficit’s real causes or even admit to them - but he was portrayed as a doughty deficit fighter anyway.
The Bank of Canada, a nest of inbred, cockeyed dogmatists, remarkably destructive of the economy - a collection of monetary Rasputins - was given the same kid-gloves treatment.
The CBC’s coverage of Paul Martin is of a piece. Once more a finance minister has been portrayed as a tough and resolute deficit fighter. Martin, though, eliminated the federal deficit not by taking it on proper but by offloading a good chunk of it onto the provinces and letting them bleed. The way that Martin and the federal government have been journalistically indulged in this way, by the CBC and others, has had wide-ranging political repercussions, especially here in British Columbia where the media, virtually all right-wing, blithely had the provincial government take the rap for the shortfall instead.
This doesn’t mean that there weren’t differences in CBC coverage and that talk of the options was completely excluded. The CBC is a large multi-service operation, and 365 days per year is a lot of programming. There are going to be some chinks in the wall. What ultimately matters, however, is the major coverage and its establishment of context. By the time The National and its magazine showed signs of waking up, the damage had already been done.
Here also, on several counts, lies another right-wing-CBC journalistic failure. Surely a manipulative propaganda system like this one, led by an inflated and amoral bureaucracy, deserves unremitting attack journalism.
Let us not forget the CBC’s television commercials. Commercials are more than a shadowy or not-so-shadowy influence on programming. They constitute a propaganda system unto themselves - are effectively a right-wing propaganda system, as I’ll explain - and CBC television ipso facto is one of its agents.
One has to remember what television commercials are. They are expensively produced, highly manipulative, pervasive, repetitive, one-way propaganda, with right of response excluded. The manipulative intent is admitted in advertising circles; it’s the whole point of the propaganda.
This “materialist realism” as I call it - the pushing of the consumption of things - is right-wing propaganda in classic ways. It treats people as factors in a market (the consumer market) rather than as people in their own right, just as old-style capitalists tried treating their workforce as mere impersonal factors of labour rather than people. “Selling people to advertisers” - forgetting about the cuteness of the phrase - means trading people as commodities.
The propaganda system also glorifies a narrow band of market activity, no matter how trivial or routine much of it might actually be, while excluding everything else. The ideological presence of private-sector corporations, which produce for that market, is correspondingly enhanced. The propaganda system, similarly, distorts values and, with that, indirectly, the allocation of resources by society. It is profoundly dehumanizing and, in its implications, anti-community.
Its long-term effect on politics and on the political economy, in shoring up a right-wing perspective, is enormous. One only has to imagine balance - a counter-commercial for every commercial, with no political holds barred - to visualize it.
Here also, on several counts, lies another right-wing-CBC journalistic failure. Surely a manipulative propaganda system like this one, led by an inflated and amoral bureaucracy, deserves unremitting attack journalism. What would journalists do if the state took over those 12 minutes per hour and the equivalent in other media, and used them in the same self-serving, but highly refined, manipulative and seductive manner, with right of response banned?
Of course I understand the reason, or rather the excuse, behind this journalistic quietude, but that doesn’t make the CBC any less right-wing.
Concentrated media power is the power to establish the frame. In order to appreciate its abuses….one has to somehow move outside the frame....to actively work at it. A largely right-wing CBC, as I have described above, can’t and won’t do it.
The late Australian psychologist Alex Carey perhaps put it best. “The 20th century,” he wrote, “has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.” Carey’s original work was on public relations. The main vehicle of protecting that power against democracy today is ownership and control of the mass media. Almost all newspapers in this country and most broadcast outlets are right-wing.
This is another aspect of the CBC’s right-wing bias, a bias of omission and complicity. It has backed off providing a journalistic check on this right-wing media power. For that purpose, media operations, power, bias and abuse would have to be major beats on the CBC’s regional and national news services, casting light on what the players are doing and what their ideologies and connections are with the same energetic inquiry now given to politicians.
The CBC instead acts as an additional conduit for this right-wing media power by overly relying on the right-wing press for source material and by carelessly using their regular columnists as commentators - columnists whose status comes through exposure provided by right-wing owners.
I once asked a CBC television executive, in Toronto, a dedicated public broadcaster as it happened, why the corporation didn’t take on the media as a major beat, since media power and abuse were such a great continuing story, begging for coverage. It would also generate audience. He replied that if the CBC did move on it, then the other media would accuse the CBC of being self-serving and would start beating up on the CBC in return...and nobody would give the go-ahead.
So it was cowardice, was it? Are the CBC cowards?
At least he was honest.
Concentrated media power is the power to establish the frame. In order to appreciate its abuses not only conceptually but also in practice, and with that appreciate what kind of continuing journalistic response is really needed, one has to somehow move outside the frame...to actively work at it. A largely right-wing CBC, as I have described above, can’t and won’t do it.
The publicly-owned CBC, through to the 1970s, was a memorable part of the “growth of democracy” phase in the 20th century just past. It was so not because it was left-wing - again, it wasn’t - but because of the sense of democratic principle and populist courage that it carried forward from its founding in the 1930s.
I wonder how it is going to find that unique spirit of independence now.