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A Press that's All Bark and No Bite

Today's big news outlets are losing their teeth. Witness CKNW.

By Rafe Mair 28 Aug 2005 | TheTyee.ca

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Watchdogs?

I'm truly sorry to see CKNW change from Vancouver's "heritage station" to whatever it's becoming. I say "Vancouver" advisedly because, as the call letters indicate, it was until recent years very distinctly a New Westminster station.

If you've read this far you may well have said, "Here comes Rafe Mair with sour grapes because in June of '03 CKNW fired him." But I can truthfully say I have no anger, let alone bitterness, at my old station, and haven't from the beginning. In honesty, I must say that if I came across their head bean counter, Lou Del Gobbo, trying to fix a tire with a rusty car jack during a downpour I would take delight in sitting and watching. But Del Gobbo, the bean counters, and the Corus Radio group are not the CKNW I'm talking about. My sadness is to see the 'NW of the Frank Griffiths and WIC Network days leave the scene never to return.

I suppose the day of the "heritage" station has passed, just as the day of the heavy-hitting journalists, the muckrakers, has also passed. This is the era where hard-hitting journalism doesn't seem to have a place.

Corporate truth

But I wonder if that's true? Surely, in this highly technical age where billions of dollars move from account to account in a nano-second, where one's car has probably been made in four countries, where my Amex Bill is processed in India and I get my long distance phone information from Texas, in an era where there are no secrets, where the police can scan your emails and where the state becomes more powerful by the minute -- surely there is a greater need for tough journalism than there ever was. Is it just possible that the potential for the muckraker would be greater than ever if the media hadn't become so corporate? Is the media so tightly controlled and so in bed with government and big business, so in thrall to the bean counter, that it doesn't want anyone to make too many big waves?

There's news available, God knows that. Everywhere you turn there's an all news station, an all weather channel, hot and cold running headlines bounding across the screen. But there's no tough analysis. It's so polite that I want to puke when I hear most of it.

We all think it was better in the "old days." But I can tell you that it was in terms of the establishment having its feet held to the fire. When I was in government, politicians were scared unto terrified of people like Marjorie Nichols, Allan Fotheringham, Allan Garr in the print media, and men like Jack Webster, Pat Burns, Ed Murphy, Gary Bannerman and others in radio and TV. There are no equivalents today. There is cool, cautious analysis but nobody with loaded revolvers looking for a target. Some, like Sean Holman, who has left the Vancouver Sun to go back home to his own online paper, and Charlie Smith who works for The Georgia Straight that makes its money by being non-establishment, carry on the old tradition. But the main media has no one.

Honest fear

I must admit I'm prejudiced. I believe that when politics is not a blood sport the public does not get well informed. Unless they are pressed and pressed hard, politicians can avoid trouble with a smile and a soft answer. They know how to run out the clock. They're prepared by spinmeisters. This wasn't always so.

When I started at CKNW back in 1984, not only did we have tough hosts but we had reporters like George Garrett who, when he got onto a story, was like a dog with a bone. So were his colleagues, guided by the best radio newsman of his time, and other times as well, Warren Barker with his fearless sidekick, John McKitrick.

One night, George Garrett, whom I nicknamed the "intrepid reporter," was riding with the cops when they pulled over a weaving car and questioned the driver, who was clearly pissed. He was a well-known Supreme Court Judge -- a powerful member of our community and the establishment. The judge began to moan and cry for mercy because if they arrested him he might never be able to judge again. George recorded the entire process and, what's more, played it on air. There was no one sacred.

Love and libel

CKNW attracted libel suits in those days -- Gary Bannerman and I are probably tied for the dubious honour of libel leader, and my legacy to 'NW is that one case I was involved in drove their deductible from $10,000 to $100,000. Don't misunderstand me -- I don't believe in libeling people. But in a justice system that militates dramatically against the media in this area, if you don't sail close to the wind, the public will learn nothing.

I look back at some of the issues I was involved in -- the Vander Zalm years where the sales people went to 'NW manager Ron Bremner and told him they wouldn't be able to sell advertising if he didn't shut Rafe Mair up. Bremner's response was typical of the CKNW of that day -- he told the salesmen to get screwed and that the reason CKNW had such huge ratings was that their hosts had free speech. I think of the Meech Lake/ Charlottetown Accord days where the ownership and management got pressure from the highest perches in the land to shut Rafe Mair up and get on side with the "yes" vote. Well, management did nothing of the sort.

The Kemano Completion Project pitted my show (allied to a great many other very brave people) fighting Alcan and the two senior governments and I was supported all the way.

Other hosts could tell you similar stories.

Muckracker MIA

The muckraker is dead, long live the pallid presentation of news, neatly self censored so as to keep management and its advertisers happy.

The process of censorship is simplicity itself. Owners hire editors or station managers whose views accord with theirs. They don't have to be told what slant to put on the news, and the people they hire know the bounds in which they must operate. I say that without the slightest suggestion of criticism of my colleagues. They have wives, kids and mortgages. I did too, but my managers made their money by giving their contractees full reign.

I've been lucky. I was privileged to have Ted Smith, Ron Bremner and Rod Gunn as managers when I worked at CKNW and for nearly 19 years I never heard a whisper from any of them except a note of congratulations from time to time. I must also say that at my present perch at 600AM I have never felt any pressure at all to do or not do something. But 600AM is a music station with me grafted uneasily to its corpus and I have to wonder whom, if anyone, will take my place.

I close with this -- I pick on CKNW because they were the leaders in the kind of radio we did, and this wasn't an easy burden to bear. CKNW is still a strong station and it will always do well enough to make a piss pot full for Shaw Cable.

But they've abandoned their leadership, which is, of course, their prerogative. That makes it much easier on those set in authority over us.

And that makes me sad. Very sad.

Rafe Mair's column for The Tyee runs every Monday. He can be heard every weekday morning from 8:30-10:30 on 600AM. His website is www.rafeonline.com.  [Tyee]

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