Memo to Trudeau: CBC Earns Our Tax Money, Corporate Media Does Not

Fake news, and more reasons to ignore lobbyists pounding on your door.

By Shannon Rupp 18 Oct 2016 |

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor. Find her previous Tyee pieces here.

When your public broadcaster catches The Globe and Mail running a fake health story on behalf of a pharmaceutical company, then you know exactly which news media the public should be funding — and it’s not those self-serving corporate newspapers.

But pouring your tax dollars into propping up corporate media is exactly what lobbyists are begging the Trudeau government to do. More about that effrontery in a bit.

First, though, a shout out to the CBC’s Kelly Crowe, who caught the Globe and Mail participating in what is known as a “stealth marketing campaign” funded by a pharmaceutical company, Novo Nordisk Canada. The firm hired Cathy Jones of This Hour Has 22 Minutes as the spokesperson to give interviews about “female sexual health after menopause.” Apparently the drug company is trying to hype some condition of aging called vaginal atrophy, so they can sell the hormones that treat it.

Jones was accompanied by a Dr. Vivien Brown, a family physician in Toronto, who is also an assistant professor in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Family and Community Medicine. Some of her research has been funded by Novo Nordisk.

As near as I can tell, vaginal atrophy is the “ring around the collar” of the drug-selling set. Like soap sellers, they have to exaggerate some normal aspect of life in order to sell you the product that fixes it.

As Crowe’s story recounts, the Globe reporter, Wency Leung, said she was unaware the drug company was paying spokespeople when she was spoon-fed an article by the PR company, the GCI Group. But she did know a drug company was involved, as the Globe’s public editor Sylvia Stead admits in her response to CBC’s expose.

“During the interview process, the reporter found out that a pharmaceutical company was involved in the campaign,” Stead writes, but she makes no mention of why the writer didn’t kill the story. Stead seems to blame the PR company for doing what PR companies are paid to do — gloss up their client’s image, frequently at the expense of facts.

“The PR firm that suggested the two women for the interview did not say what company it was working for. This should have been stated,” Stead writes, implying that PR companies are obligated to serve someone other than the client. “But Globe staff should also have asked who the firm was working for.”

Did she really just say that Globe reporters do stories invented by PR people without asking who they represent? Really? Now I want to know how often Globe staffers act as unquestioning stenographers for PR firms? Perhaps, in the spirit of her article, Stead would be willing to volunteer that information to readers?

The flacks at GCI told the CBC that this is “an unbranded campaign” and explained why the reporter didn’t mention the source of the story — apparently none of the parties wanted the drug or the drug company mentioned.

I’ll bet they didn’t. This isn’t journalism; it’s performance art. And mentioning the source of the story would spoil that faux reality that Novo Nordisk worked so hard to create, as it “raised awareness” of vaginal atrophy. The Globe has now edited their online story to reflect the facts that CBC uncovered.

Corporate media pounding government for public funding

While Crowe pursued the pharmaceutical company’s machinations — I recommend the story, it’s stellar work — I’m much more interested in what this tells us about newspapers. Especially in light of their latest lobbying for more public funding.

Last week The Hill Times, an Ottawa-based paper covering federal politics, reported that Newspapers Canada, the industry’s lobby group, has filed 14 communications reports with the lobbyists’ registry since July.

The lobbyists want several things, including more government advertising. (To whom they plan to show this advertising is unclear, since everyone knows that newspapers lost their advertisers in the first place because they lost their readers.)

Newspapers Canada would have you believe that their aggressive bid for more government subsidies is about funding journalism. But the facts suggest that the newspapers’ honchos are just looking for a new source of revenue to keep their investors and executives rich and happy as they kill jobs (at a dizzying rate).

You can’t cover the news without journalists, but just since August the Star has cut another 50 jobs and the Globe has offered buyouts, again.

In Vancouver, at what we might as well start calling the Sun-Province, they have merged the newsrooms and are in the process of doing buyouts. They maintain the fiction that these are two papers, printing both the broadsheet and the tabloid, and keeping separate mastheads online. But a newspaper is its newsroom, not its corporate branding, which means these are identical papers, with different names, and no competition. Sun-Province scribes are also filling the commuter tab, 24 Hours, which laid off its staff, abruptly, at the end of September.

Meanwhile, Postmedia executives earned bonuses for acquiring the Sun newspaper chain last year, and laying off more employees. CEO Paul Godfrey still pockets $1.8 million annually for his role in selling off the assets of about 180 newspapers.

But to hear Newspapers Canada’s John Hinds tell it, these outlets are still the plucky family-run businesses of the mid-20th century, with pressing concerns about city hall coverage.

“There is a real challenge around public-interest journalism and around local news content that is presenting itself across the country,” Hinds told The Hill Times, explaining why people who earn million-dollar paycheques need taxpayers to keep their businesses afloat.

Earning their keep?

And Hinds may well convince the politicians. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that no one can agree on what a newspaper of record is anymore. When I see Stead’s defence of a reporter who is taking her marching orders from a PR company, I think: that’s not a newspaper, that’s a marketing platform.

The business of journalism is to check for accuracy before running a piece, and newspaper reporters are trained in fact-checking techniques. That is what sets journalists apart for all the other kinds of writers — copywriters, content marketers, bloggers, novelists, poets, playwrights, scriptwriters... There are lots of different types of writers.

But in newspapers of record there was a social contract for much of the 20th century: what appeared as news and features was checked for accuracy. Even columnists were once read the riot act: “You are entitled to your own opinions; you are not entitled to your own facts.”

Newspapers began breaching that contract sometime in the 1980s, with “advertiser driven” sections full of bumf about new homes and cars. Blurring the lines between journalism and marketing isn’t unique to the Globe. Every old media outlet is doing some variation on this and, ironically, blaming new media, like HuffPo, for starting it.

Still, the chutzpah of running a story featuring drug company shills when Globe subscribers are paying top dollar for the paper — more than $500 a year — shouldn’t be overlooked. That’s a slap in the face to their paying customers. And if they treat them with such contempt, why should consumers who have already rejected this product be forced to support it via government largesse?

Here’s what we know from the mountains of market research newspapers did in the 1980s and ‘90s, as they tried to stave off their falling circulation — readers rejected newspapers specifically because of this sort of content marketing. It’s not just misleading, it’s painfully boring.

And this is why so many Canadians, including me, are big supporters of the public broadcaster’s online news reporting. When I read CBC I know, more or less, what I’m getting — a journalist’s good faith effort to report the news on behalf of citizens. Sometimes they fail. Sometimes they have conflicts of interest. Some individuals are corrupt. Others are just dummies.

Yes, humans make mistakes. And since journalism is a labour intensive job, even with the best of intentions our screw-ups can be spectacular. (That’s why a healthy democracy needs lots of reporters working for lots of competing outlets.)

Still, despite some missteps, I never suspect that CBC, as an institution, is bent on deceiving me. But that is not the case when I read Canadian newspapers, which, like most people, I do less and less.

Of course, when it comes to public funding, the choice isn’t CBC or corporate newspapers. The government committees currently investigating media could — and should — look at ways of encouraging the growing number of journalist-owned and operated digital news outlets springing up.

But I’d be surprised if politicians nurtured small independent newspapers, some of which have the express purpose of holding government to account. It’s not just that tiny online news producers can’t afford to hire lobbyists or contribute to election coffers. It’s simple common sense. Politicians would be crazy to feed the kind of newspapers that were once called “the watchdogs of society” when they can fund rhinestone collars for what might be called the lapdogs of the bourgeoisie.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Media

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