Media as weapons of mass distraction

By Leslie Campbell, June 2015

Whistle blowers, citizen activists and persistent journalists are the antidote.

On May 15 I attended a stimulating talk by David Barsamian, the award-winning founder of Alternative Radio, now in its 29th year. Barsamian has also co-written a number of books with Noam Chomsky. 

Green leader MP Elizabeth May introduced Barsamian to the crowd of about 80 people at UVic’s SUB lounge.

He was speaking on “Media and Democracy”—and had lots to say on both subjects, mostly from a US perspective. From my perch as the editor of a local magazine, I tried to apply his analysis to the local scene.

Both Barsamian and Elizabeth May highlighted the continuing growing concentration of media ownership as a key to understanding everything else that’s wrong with media today.

Where once Canada’s cities each enjoyed a couple of independently-owned newspapers—offering a diversity of local voices—now we are reduced to just a few companies (Shaw, Rogers, Bell, Postmedia, Newcap) owning virtually all of them. The trend was noticed decades ago. May mentioned the Kent Royal Commission in 1981 which labelled the growing consolidation “monstrous.” There was an earlier commission in 1970, as well. Both recommended legislative changes to reverse course, but nothing was done. In fact in the years since, in both the US and Canada, rules were changed to allow even more mergers and acquisitions. In Canada, where once the CRTC disallowed companies from “cross-ownership” of TV, radio stations and newspapers in the same market, now they can own two out of three. By 2005 only one percent of Canada’s daily newspapers were independently owned. 

In this part of the country, Black Press and Glacier, with 250 titles between them, did a deal last December wherein Black Press acquired 11 titles from Glacier, making it the sole owner of all newspapers save the Times Colonist (still owned by Glacier) on Vancouver Island. 

This is not a healthy situation. In the Cowichan area, for instance, where there had been one paper owned by each company, within months of the deal Black Press closed down its other one. Expect similar shutters on diversity in other areas where one of these corporations own two papers (e.g. Nanaimo, Alberni Valley, Maple Ridge, Tri-Cities, Burnaby and Richmond). This swap, by the way, wasn’t the first; there was an earlier one in 2013 resulting in the closure of the Abbotsford/Mission Times by Black Press.

This type of scenario has played out ad nauseum over the decades across North America. Postmedia’s recent purchase of Sun Media means that it now owns both major papers in each of Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa. Postmedia is largely US-owned.

In the wake of consolidation come depopulated newsrooms and a narrowing of debate. Barsamian pointed out that instead of carrying a range of opinion from A to Z, mainstream media tend to just broadcast about A and B. He used the example of two retired US generals having a heated television debate about which fighter plane—F16 or F18—the US should rely on for its airstrikes in Iraq, but avoiding the real question of whether the US should be intervening at all.

Because profit is the motive, not service to democracy or community, investment in editorial quality and diverse voices diminishes. We get the same pundits, the same wire-service copy, the same regurgitated press releases, the same news bites and celebrity gossip, with barely a variation among the corporate media. It’s propaganda for the status quo, and as Chomsky puts it, it manufactures consent for the existing system. By offering up titillating stories about celebrities, sensational crimes, and Elizabeth May’s use of the f-word, the media, Barsamian argued, function as weapons of mass distraction.

At Focus we try to dig into a few select issues at a time, so we know how much time it can take and understand why most for-profit businesses would try to figure out an easier, less costly approach than investigative reporting. Hence the wire copy; and the reliance on quick “he said, she said” reports that just string together quotes from opponents on an issue without any attempt at analysis or independent digging—accomplished by combing through multiple reports, filing FOIs, and interviewing numerous people. It’s laborious tasks such as these that help journalists and their audiences get closer to the truth about local infrastructure projects, deer culls, contaminated soil sites, homelessness, privacy violations, the lack of doctors in BC, pipelines and tankers. But we seem to have largely lost the ability or the will to do this sort of journalism—or even to demand it.

You might think the internet (also controlled by very big corporations) can provide the sort of information that allows us to hold power accountable. Facebook friends direct us to a wealth of useful (and useless) information. But the best of it is provided by journalists. And they require adequate funding to provide quality content relevant to central issues. Different funding models are being experimented with, but there’s no obvious fix for journalism in the new era. This is especially true at the local level.

So creativity is called for. Barsamian supplied this wonderful quote from Kenneth Rexroth: “Against the ruin of the world there is only one defence—the creative act.” 


TOWARDS THE END OF HIS TALK, David Barsamian mentioned the importance of whistle blowers, people who are among the most quintessential creative actors in defence of what’s right: “We need whistle blowers—in Ottawa, in Victoria, in Washington DC and New York—to tell us what’s going on behind the scenes. So they are very, very important. They should be encouraged, they should be protected by the law, not be the target of the law. [Under Obama] there’s been a huge onslaught of muzzling dissent, muzzling information—perhaps parallel to what’s going on in Ottawa with the Harper regime.”

While there is some protection for whistle blowers in legislation, it’s very limited. Canada’s criminal code protects only those who report to a law enforcement agency about illegal wrongdoing. As one commentator in a Canadian law journal notes: “Unfortunately, it is common for whistleblowers to experience demotion, dismissal and otherwise negative treatment from their employers after they disclose the malfeasance or corruption.” (Yosie Saint-Cyr, Slaw).

As you’ll read in one of David Broadland’s pieces this month, if it weren’t for a courageous local whistle blower who followed his conscience, we’d never have known the lengths a local government corporation went to to deny a democratically elected mayor both privacy and information. Yet he was disciplined, not protected by the officials he worked for. He still fears for his career.

Edward Snowden, in an early interview in Germany (US media never aired it), said he was guided to do what he did, in part, because of “the creeping realization that no one else was going to do this. The public had a right to know about these programs. The public had a right to know that which the government is doing in its name, and that which the government is doing against the public, but neither of these things we were allowed to discuss.”

Those “things” the NSA was doing (and Canada too as one of the “Five Allies”) were similar in nature to what some Saanich managers agreed to do to the mayor: monitor  everything he did on his computer, whether he was checking his medical records, bank transactions, private correspondence—or even drafting ideas he quickly thought better of and deleted, every website he visited, etc, etc. When someone collects that much and that variety of information on anyone, they can easily build a case against him or her. 

In a July 2014 interview with the Guardian, Snowden noted, if we want to live in open and liberal societies, we need to have safe spaces where we can experiment with new thoughts and ideas without being judged. If we can’t, he said, “have the privacy of our notes on our computer, if we can’t have the privacy of our electronic diaries, we can’t have privacy at all.” He explained that too often we frame the debate as one of security versus privacy—“a misstatement of the issue, which is liberty versus security.” If we do not have those private spaces, we do not have freedom.

By deciding to collect all that information on Atwell, certain bureaucrats interfered with his privacy and his freedom. They basically set themselves up in opposition to a democratically elected mayor. 

And if it hadn’t been for a whisle blower, we’d have no inkling of it. Thank goddess for whistle blowers. Let’s encourage them to come forward and then take care of them as best we can.

Leslie Campbell is the editor of Focus. On June 6 check out Media & Democracy Days with speakers and panels at Victoria Event Centre. See listing page 36 and