The Hermeneutics of Suspicion

Enough SaidThe title is a phrase I encountered while reading Mark Thompson’s excellent book on political rhetoric, Enough Said: What’s Wrong With the Language of Politics? Thompson’s book is both about the current and historic use of political rhetoric (from Aristotle forward), but also about the role of journalists in covering it. Thompson — a former new editor and executive in the BBC and now with the New York Times — maintains we are in  “a crisis of political language” that comes from a combination of modern media, social media use, and also in the changing way politicians speak (“characterised by lies, spin and demagoguery.”)

The phrase itself was coined by the French philosopher Paul Ricœur, in his book on the writings of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche, but Thompson uses it to describe the mindset of suspicion and disbelief in modern journalists towards politicians, and the reverse shared distrust, as well as the public’s suspicion of the media in presenting its content.*

Personally, I believe a strong sense of skepticism and disbelief is necessary for a journalist to see through the spin and the bullshit to the hidden truths and the corruption below the surface. It’s necessary to have a skeptical perspective so as not to be conned by the blandishments and empty assurances of the corporate elite, too. Without skepticism, journalists are vulnerable to piffle in an age where there is so much disinformation and claptrap around.

In a speech given in 2008, Thompson said, 

…proportionate, rational scepticism is healthy and a civic good – as well as being a prime building block of good journalism… the evidence points rather the other way: the less you trust politicians and public institutions, the more likely you are to believe in outré conspiracy theories, not to mention witches and warlocks and so on.
What the evidence points to, I think, is of a large group of the population who feel outside a charmed circle of knowledge and power. Modern public policy is fiendishly complex and debates about it are conducted in a mysterious, technocratic language which – despite the best efforts of the BBC and some of the rest of the media – many people find hard to understand. This by the way may be why, as Onora O’Neill pointed out, the modern mechanisms of accountability, which are riddled with this impenetrable language, have not only failed to arrest the decline in trust but may have accelerated it.

And also in that same speech, he noted,

One of the tasks of a free press is to uncover public malfeasance. The media is right to be alert to it and to pursue and investigate any evidence that it is taking place. But no good – and almost certainly some ill – is served by exaggeration or endlessly crying wolf… However, this does not seem to be one of the main drivers of broader public disillusion…The biggest reason people give is because, in their view, politicians don’t tell the truth. People also think politicians “say what they want people to hear” and they don’t give straight answers – all issues related to the theme of truth telling.

Trust has to be earned by both sides, and is not a right or a given by either. It starts by being honest. Non-critical acceptance of political or corporate blarney by the media leads to the sort of banal, bland coverage (it doesn’t deserve to be called reporting) we get in the ideological media (like PostMedia and Fox “News”) where everything conservative is treated as wonderful and illuminating, and anything done, suggested, or spoken by a liberal or Democrat is vilified regardless of content or context. This reduces their content to a sort of Tarzan-Jane language of simplisticisms: “Them bad. Us good.” This, of course, appeals increasingly to a polarized audience that views complexity and intellectualism with suspicion and hostility.

Little wonder public disillusion with politicians has extended to the media**. We used to expect of our media to be the watchdogs of the greater good; trusted guardians of the public weal to give us truth and fairness. We also expected them to look deeper into issues on our behalf. Now we expect far too many of them to merely regurgitate the party line, shills for the shallow, self-serving ideology of their corporate owners.

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Books, writers, words, and competencies

Oxford English DictionaryI have always believed that any good, competent and credible writer can be judged (if judge people we must, and yet we do) by the books on his or her desk. Yes, books: printed hardcopy, paper and ink. I’ll go into why books are vastly superior to online sources a bit later (although I suspect my readers already know why…).

Although I am no longer in the media or much of an active writer these days, I believe I can still determine the craft, the credibility and dedication of a writer simply by a quick glance at their library. That’s because good writers have a library to which they refer. Words, and words about words, matter to them.

For a writer or editor not to be passionate about words, not to continue to read and learn about them, not to to delight in them, is like an architect not to be passionate about wood and steel. Or a musician not to be passionate about the materials of which the instrument is constructed. A cook not to be passionate about the ingredients that make up the dish. Good writers care about words. This is true whether the writer be in advertising, technical writing, PR, journalism, a blogger, a poet or a novelist.

And it’s not just words by themselves, but how they play together, how they glide or grate, how they tangle or spin. Good writers also care about grammar, spelling, punctuation and style. Even the typefaces matter. If these things don’t, matter, to paraphrase Truman Capote, they’re not writers, just typists.

There are four essential books every writer and editor needs on a desk, or at least within reach: a dictionary, a thesaurus, a style guide, and a usage guide. Anyone’s claim to be a writer or journalist without these is suspect. However, which ones they chose is also important to consider.

But before I look into these categories, let me explain about books vs. online sources, and why books are superior. And this advice applies not only to people who write for a living, but to bloggers, aspiring novelists, academics working on dissertaions – anyone who writes regularly or for pleasure.

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What’s wrong with local media?

What are the papers saying?“It’s about trust. Our relationship with our readers is built on transparency, honesty and integrity.” So opens the front-page piece in this weekend’s Connection, titled in all-caps, “Local News Needs Support ‘Now More Than Ever'”. It echoes the theme of”now more than ever” written for National Newspaper Week, Oct. 1-7. And some of it is eerily similar to what Bob Cox wrote about journalism on Oct. 2. Imitation is the sincerest form, I suppose.

Apparently the Connection only climbed on board six weeks later. But I suppose it’s better late than… well, no it’s not. At least during National Newspaper Week they could have justified publishing some of this gooey dreck.

The self-aggrandizing theme – begging for local support, whingeing that ad revenue is declining while boasting how great the paper and its staff are – is present on five pages in a publication that has limited editorial content even at its best. Trust us, we’re journalists, the copy screams. We’re pros. And in case you missed it once, they say it again and again and again.

The claim about declining advertising might be hard for readers to swallow, what with the paper fat with (by my count) fifteen thick store flyers in the latest issue. And it’s not like the paper lacks display ads – see my analysis below.

Let me start by saying that I worked as both reporter and editor for the local papers. I was appalled that such self-serving content (and so much of it!) was not just on the front page, but embedded throughout the paper. Is it in the best community interest to show a photograph of the reporters on the front page instead of a community event or group? That speaks volumes to me about the paper’s focus: itself before the community. This sort of content should have come as a special section, or displayed after the news.

The Connection was an independent paper back in 1990 when I first moved here, but was bought by Metroland – owned by TorStar – in 1992 or 93 (I worked there briefly as the editor/reporter/layout person before being hired by the Enterprise Bulletin). It has always been a one-person operation – the single reporter covering politics, police, events, sports and everything else – overseen by a regional editor, with contributed content and columns.

Nowadays they have to handle social media and online filing, too. Overworked, I admit, albeit a union job better paid than I ever was in newspapers. But inadequate staffing and poor resource use is a management failure.

Metroland has always been about advertising. It’s the free wrapper around the flyers (of Metroland’s 106 papers with 5.27 million circulation, only 15,300 are paid). That’s called a “community” paper although how much real community content is available depends on the publication.

Let’s take a closer look at this week’s paper and analyze the contents so we can see just how committed to local news and coverage the paper is. (I apologize in advance for any mistakes – there are some bits like the front page logo and some classified columns that may be estimates).

The paper has 44 pages, divided into six 11.5-inch columns (excuse me for being so imperial in my measurements). That’s 69 column-inches per page for a total of 3,036 column inches from front to back.

Of that space, 599 column inches are dedicated to editorial content of every sort, including photos, sports, community, events, news, columns and contributed material. That’s a ratio of about 19.7% editorial to advertising. Note there is an 11.5-inch masthead, too, making the total of non-ad space somewhat higher at 610.5 column inches. Even with that masthead included, the ratio is just 20% editorial to 80% advertising.

But let’s take a closer look at what’s in those 599 inches (all figures include photos, pull-quotes and headlines) in order of volume:

  • Community news (personalities, church, lawyers, babies, pets, Santa Claus parade): 196.5 inches (p.3, 14, 25, 28, 29, 31, 33 and 34)
  • Self-serving, self-promoting articles and opinion pieces about how great the Connection and Metroland are: 182 column inches (p. 1, 4, 6, 8 and 24).
  • Events: one full page, 69 inches (p. 30).
  • News: 61.5 inches (p.10, 16, 21 and 26). Note that the first item of actual news – and arguably the most important piece in the entire paper (the town being sued at the Ontario Supreme Court over a flaw in its clandestine airport deal although the reporter never asked who in town hall was responsible for the disputed lease… ) doesn’t even appear until page 10. Stories on p. 16 and 26 are about Clearview Township, not Collingwood. Total Collingwood news: a mere 22 inches. And the 5.5 inch piece on p. 21 is from a police report. 
  • Opinion (not including the self-serving two-column editorial: that’s counted above): 34.5 inches (16.5 for the cartoon, 18 for mostly irrelevant comments copied from social media – no letters or op-ed pieces).
  • Contributed columns: 33 inches (p. 23 and 27)
  • Other contributed content: 22.5 inches (p. 21 and 22)

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Honderich’s hypocrisy

Honderich and GodfreyIn late January, the Toronto Star published a lengthy opinion piece by board chair John Honderich, titled, “We should all be very concerned by the crisis facing quality journalism.” But just in case you thought this was really just about journalism and not a political screed, there’s the telling subhead: “The Trudeau government has either ignored or rejected virtually all the recommendations proposed to help support newspapers. What particularly stings is that the vast majority would not cost taxpayers anything.”*

Honderich is the chair of the board of the TorStar corporation. His Wikipedia page says he worked at the Ottawa Citizen a year or two after I left. He was a reporter at the Star – the publisher then was his father, Beland Honderich, so no stench of nepotism there, eh? – around the same time I worked for the corporation. He rose in the ranks to become publisher, and, despite being the “author of the largest layoff, at the time in print media history,” he was awarded the Order of Canada in 2004 and the Order of Ontario in 2006. Savvy Canadian readers will recognize those years for the Conservative governments in both Ottawa (Harper) and Ontario (Eves). Conservatives recognizing a plutocrat for laying off a record number of workers was not out of step with the party line.

And, of course, the piece re-appeared in dozens of TorStar-controlled publications, like our own Collingwood Connection. Whether this was rammed down the editorial throats of local papers – a dictate to publish or else – I can only suspect. But replacing local content with this screed is very hypocritical and self-serving (especially when it appeared as it did here on the front page: opinion is not news).

Community papers have limited space that should be dedicated to local news, opinions and events, not to the bloviation of the big cheese. (Even more ironically, in late 2015, Honderich himself penned a criticism of Postmedia for dictating what political endorsements its chain would carry)

I remember the umbrage in the media community in the mid-1990s when Conrad Black demanded a letter of his – a much shorter letter than Honderich’s piece, but no less a personal political opinion – on the editorial or op-ed pages of papers he controlled under Hollinger. The outcry over corporate control, over media independence, over freedom of the press and editorial rights. Anyone see a difference here? Neither do I.
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The death of community newspapers

The Bulletin officesIn 1857 – a year before Collingwood was incorporated as a townJohn Hogg launched the Enterprise. The first local newspaper started its presses. In 1870, David Robson launched its first competitor: the Bulletin. In 1881, the Bulletin was sold to William Williams and J.G. Hand. William’s 17-year-old son, David (later a town mayor), joined the paper in 1886.

After the Great Depression, citing financial reasons, the two papers merged: The Enterprise-Bulletin was born. It printed its own paper, as well as being a printer for community events, flyers, brochures and even personal publications. In the 1960s, owner Jack McMurchy sold the paper to the Thomson newspaper chain. The newspaper continued to grow, soon requiring new space. In spring, 1989, the paper moved from the Bulletin’s original location on Simcoe Street to a new building at 77 St. Marie St., half a block east. It thrived there for the next six years, until the chaos began.

Bear with me if the history below seems a bit scattered: following the trail of media sales and bankruptcies is not easy and I may have forgotten or confused some of my dates in the interim.

Back then, the EB published on Wednesdays and Fridays. Each edition ran about 40 pages, split in two or three sections, with the annual local industry and business review edition running 60 or more pages. In 1991, a regional Sunday (Huronia Sunday) edition was launched in cooperation with papers from Barrie, Orillia and Midland. There was talk in the newsroom of going to thrice weekly and even daily publication.

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Why the panic over Julie Payette?

Governor General Julie Payette made comments in a speech to the Canadian Science Policy Conference on Nov. 1 in which she encouraged her audience at a science convention to ignore misinformation, fantasy and conspiracy theory, to support facts and science, and to engage in “learned debate.” That has the right furious, and as is their wont, making both fallacious claims about her words while launching ad hominem attacks against her.

It’s particularly galling to the right that not only is Payette a woman, she’s smart and accomplished: a former astronaut and an engineer. That means the right gets wildly incensed when she says anything vaguely interesting, let alone true. And so they’re trying to make this into a wedge issue about religion. The undertext being that Payette, being a Liberal appointee, is touting Liberal anti-religion screed.

Andrew Scheer, the pasty-white leader of the Conservatives who recently hired as his party’s campaign chair a former media director of the vile Rebel media organization, said,

It is extremely disappointing that the Prime Minister will not support Indigenous peoples, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Christians and other faith groups who believe there is truth in their religion.

Which is bullshit. Scheer, of course, completely ignores the actual truth and substance in Payette’s comments. How dare the GG make any statements that are not the most innocuous, content-removed, pastel puffery? Yet nowhere in her speech did Payette mention any religion or indigenous people, so where does he get this allegation? Probably from his misogynist, racist Rebel media buddies. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to see Scheer’s attack as an anti-feminist one: that’s been Scheer’s way since he took charge.

What colossal arrogance for Scheer to think he can speak for millions – even billions, because he doesn’t specify there are just Canadians he’s speaking for – of people with whom he has no contact, let alone consulted about their reaction to Payette’s comments. And why does he think that any Canadian, not just our Prime Minister, has to have blanket, unquestioning support for every bit of religious myth, pseudo-health or pseudoscience claptrap? That’s simply nuts. And cowardly. We elect people to have opinions, to take stands, to advocate for issues, and to stand up for truth, not simply agree with everyone and everything. A toy bobblehead doll does that. That’s not what Canadians expect from their leaders. Unless, it seems, they are Conservatives.
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