How the Media Distorts the News

by George Bain,
256 pages,
ISBN: 1550135554

Post Your Opinion
Mixing Up the Message
by Allan Levine

THERE IS ONE VIEW OF journalism, generally accepted by reporters, that portrays its practitioners as the objective guardians of the public trust, as writers who are almost always on the side of "right," and as professionals who do not "make the news," only "report it."

Then there's the other view, which paints a slightly different picture. According to this way of thinking, members of the media do indeed play a significant role in shaping the public's opinions, particularly about politicians, and are often biased and judgemental in their daily assessments of these leaders; and they also refuse to take full responsibility for their errors, inconsistencies, and distortions of the truth.

It is this latter perspective that is represented in Gotcha!, a hard-hitting expose of the Canadian media by the journalist George Bain. A veteran of the Ottawa press gallery, where he covered politics for the Globe and Mail for many years, and now a columnist on the media for Maclean's magazine, Bain has a commonsense approach to the world and a writing style that has always been logical and easy to follow.

Bain's main thesis is simply this: if we currently live in a country where politicians are disliked, distrusted, and in some cases reviled, then it probably has a great deal to do with how journalists have presented politicians to the public for the past 15 years. According to Bain, among members of the media there is a discernible "inbred anti- governmentalism" that has permeated newspapers and television broadcasts for far too long. Such an attitude has transformed political coverage into what Brian Mulroney referred to as "gotcha journalism," or what Bain labels "issue-making by entrapment." Mulroney's various troubles with the media -- from Tunagate to Sinclair Stevens -- serve as Bain's main examples of media unfairness and distortion, but he also analyses the Globe and Mail's manufactured assault on the former Alberta premier Don Getty (in a series of investigative articles published in 1990) and journalists' critical treatment of the former prime minister Kim Campbell.

In marshalling his case on the media's dealings with Mulroney, Bain underplays the former prime minister's blustery style and his unfulfilled promises of a new, cleaner government, both of which may have contributed to the contempt many journalists had for him. Nevertheless, in every so-called scandal that Bain examines, his evidence that the media got all or part of the various stories wrong is difficult to dispute.

Canadian editors and journalists clearly have a lot to answer for. But will this book or any other significant commentary make a difference? Bain is not overly optimistic, and rightly so. He suggests that more quality control be introduced into newsrooms and calls for a return to more coverage of Parliament. Unlike the politicians they write about and often condemn, however, journalists do not take criticism like this easily. As Bain concedes, his advice will be regarded not only as an intrusion into the media's private affairs, but, more important, as an assault on the "freedom of the press." And nothing, not even the truth, at times, is more sacred than that.


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