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The Case of Cox vs. Coyne

As publishers squabble with journalists over government subsidies, why should the public support financial assistance?

Shannon Rupp 26 Feb 2018TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)shannonrupp.com.

So it’s come to this has it: newspaper publishers issuing not-so-veiled threats to their columnists via the newspaper’s own pages.

Bob Cox, chairman of the newspaper publishers’ association News Media Canada, gave us the perfect illustration of exactly why the public should not be funding his association’s members. In a piece so badly written I’ll assume it was drafted by committee, Cox has the audacity to pat himself on the back for not “gagging” National Post columnist Andrew Coyne, who argues that it is not in the public interest to grant newspapers government subsidies.

Cox’s column, “Canadian newspapers have a future — if publishers get support for the present,” offers some clues as to why readers began abandoning newspapers in the 1980s, when the corporate monopolies took over.

Cox boasts about allowing Coyne to do exactly what a newspaper columnist is supposed to do: write on behalf of the public interest and springboard the discussion among citizens without fear of censorship from the owner.

“We certainly have not gagged columnists like Mr. Coyne, who is free to accuse us of such crimes as blackmail and bribery,” Cox writes, as if gagging a columnist would be an option in any real newspaper.

And then I realized: he feels free to put that comment in print because, in his world, it is an option. And there are so few owners in the country that they could blackball even a writer with Coyne’s huge audience.

Cox really shouldn’t have brought this up. It reminds us that the Post already demoted Coyne from being the editor of commentary after he refused to go along with its endorsement of the Harper government, leading up to the 2015 election.

“Postmedia executives and I had a professional disagreement,” Coyne tweeted, as reported by the Star. “Their view was that the publication of a column by the editorial page editor... dissenting from the Post’s endorsement of the Conservatives would have confused readers and embarrassed the paper.

“I don’t see public disagreement as confusing,” Coyne tweeted. “I see it as honest. Readers, in my view, are adults and understand that adults can disagree.”

But corporate CEOs want everyone singing from the same song sheet, as the saying goes. Of course, a publication that does that is not a real newspaper — at least it’s not the sort of newspaper that serves the public.

And this is an issue again, because the federal budget is coming Feb. 27, and comments from Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly have been ambiguous enough to lead Postmedia to run this optimistic headline: “Ottawa poised to offer financial assistance to newspapers in upcoming budget.”

Maybe. Newspaper publishers have certainly been lobbying hard to grab a share of the $75 million publishing fund that was created to help Canada’s tiny magazine industry compete with the bigger, wealthier American magazines. The idea was to protect Canadian culture.

Are Canadian newspapers offering the Canadian brand of culture? In a way. But I think we also have to ask ourselves if we consider fake journalism for Canadian products or op-eds written by self-promoting Canadians to be something worth preserving at taxpayer expense? Especially when readers have made it clear that they don’t want to read this puff and nonsense, let alone subscribe to it.

As Coyne pointed out in his Valentine’s Day column with the catchy headline, “Newspaper owners shamelessly pleading for cash only make bailouts look worse”:

“... the Trudeau government seemingly having failed to respond to their demands with the proper enthusiasm, the publishers have become increasingly shameless in advancing their self-interested cause — not just in the usual luncheon speeches or lobbying sessions, but more and more in the pages of their own papers.”

He went on to list the number of publishers who were, yet again, abusing their readers by using their own pages for propaganda. He namechecks John Honderich, chairman of the Toronto Star, along with Bob Cox.

One wonders what made Mr. Cox think he should take on Mr. Coyne in the column-writing department, as he did on Feb. 15? Perhaps Cox should have hired one of the many unemployed journalists as a ghostwriter to prevent him making a number of comments that only made his association look worse. For example, there’s this platitude, which reeks of hypocrisy: “News is not about spewing propaganda or public relations; it is about independently gathering facts and presenting fair opinions not tarnished by falsehoods.”

That’s true enough, but let’s have a look at the sort of things his members have been spewing.

Here’s the Globe and Mail producing content marketing for a pharmaceutical company under the guise of a feature about a celebrity. Later, they would tell the public it was an error made by a reporter so unsure of the standards of journalism in a paper-of-record that she would run a single-source news story she got from a PR firm.

Here’s the National Post unpublishing a mildly unflattering opera review. In the process, the editor doesn’t just suck-up to the advertiser, he insinuates that he’d like some free tickets, too. This is so outrageous that the Washington Post took a swipe at them for unethical behaviour.

Here’s the Vancouver Province running a theatre critic under a fake name, for God knows what reason, and arguing that it’s “tradition. ” Sure. A hundred years ago, before the public got fed up with skeevy doings of newspapers and threatened to regulate them.

I could go on, but you see my point? Collectively, they add up to all the reasons subscribers rejected newspapers as increasingly uninteresting. They’re self-serving. They’re badly written. They’re bumf.

But yet again, newspapers are asking the government that granted them the monopoly that generated 30 to 40 per cent profits for decades to do them more favours. Why? So they can keep giving their C-suite executives million dollar paydays?

Why, yes. That seems to be their pitch. With the additional tagline: do it for democracy!

Now, I’m the first to say that there are some excellent journalists in every outlet, fighting the good fight. But (with apologies to those superb reporters) I think they are window-dressing. Just a front to maintain an illusion that newspapers are still doing the sort of journalism they did 40 years ago. Meanwhile most of the pages are filled with other “content” of the sort designed to sucker readers and pander to advertisers.

I take Coyne’s point that giving them subsidies is crossing a line that no newspaper should cross. But I would also argue that these outlets are no longer newspapers in the mid-20th century meaning of the term. They’re more like corporate newsletters: they run what the head office wants, regardless of the truth.

You doubt me? Read Bob Cox’s column yourself: is this the sort of thing the public should be funding?

Send your answer to Mélanie Joly.

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)shannonrupp.com.  [Tyee]

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