December 2006

Re: ““Big Media Bad Thing”,” by Christopher Dornan

Re: “Big Media Bad Thing,” by Christopher Dornan

I’m assuming that Professor Christopher Dornan has never worked for a significant length of time on a daily newspaper in a highly competitive market. If he had, he could never have written the essay that appeared in the December 2006 issue: “Big Media Bad Thing.”

My own experience at competitive newspapers in Montreal, Winnipeg and Toronto from the 1950s through the 1970s, and that of the majority of my colleagues, convinced us that competition was the sine qua non of a responsive and responsible press. And as competition lessened, more and more journalists found themselves muzzled. I gave a small personal example of this last month in my LRC review of Barry Zwicker’s latest book, when I noted that an invitation for me to comment in the media about a recent media merger was suddenly withdrawn with no reason given.

Professor Dornan apparently lives in another world. In the 1970–80 period, he saw “a steady expansion of traditional mass media” at a time when large newspapers were faltering and in a few instances disappearing. From 1980 to 2000, he saw “an unprecedented proliferation of the media.” And this was true if you looked only at our few elite newspapers and a proliferation of TV channels. Apart from The Globe and Mail and the National Post, most of our daily newspapers in those decades were losing thousands of readers and millions of potential advertising dollars.

And now the decline is accelerating. Leading newspapers in the U.S. as well as Canada are in deep trouble. The Toronto Star fires its publisher and editor and tries to bolster its own prospects by investing in the Globe. A desperate Toronto Sun seems to grow suicidal as it launches its own free newspaper to compete with all the other freebies that are eating away at its revenues. And in a closely related development, the Harper government muzzles the Press Gallery in Ottawa by cutting off information at the source and, after a few squawks last spring, the media accept this!

“What is happening, right in front of our eyes,” according to Professor Dornan, “is the full flowering of liberal democracy.”

What is he talking about? Well, the Internet of course—this marvellous world where people “can mouth off all they want and listen to one another to their hearts’ content.” Some of us may find this confusing and even troublesome but Professor Dornan finds it “exhilarating.”

Yes, I know, I sometimes tell my journalism students the same thing. They worry about the decreasing number of jobs in their field. They don’t see writing blogs as much of a substitute. But don’t worry, I tell them, times of change are always challenging. And as Professor Dornan tells us, “We are privileged to witness the birth of an entirely new echelon of public communication.”

Perhaps. Easy enough for a tenured academic like Professor Dornan to say. But the Internet is still in its infancy and none of us know how it will develop in decades to come. The best you can say at the moment is that the Internet seems more and more to resemble society itself and that isn’t very comforting unless you happen to be a gambler, a religious fanatic or a sexual predator.

Peter Desbarats
University of Western Ontario
London, Ontario

Re: “Big Media Bad Thing,” by Christopher Dornan

When you strip away the rhetoric of bubblegum forests, lollipops and aging hippies from Christopher Dornan’s critique of the Senate Final Report on Canadian News Media, what’s left is a polemic in praise of big media and the “full flowering of liberal democracy” as found on the Internet.

The Internet is not a replacement for an independent and diverse media—not in Vancouver, Newfoundland or New Brunswick where print media corporations enjoy monopoly power. Nor is it the place to find local and regional news. Many parts of rural Canada are still waiting for high-speed Internet.

Dornan seems to think there’s not much difference between a monopoly public bus service and a media corporation. As long as they’re well run, they’re fine, he trills. It’s easy to see where that idea came from. We get most of the news about our media on the business pages.

The reality is that publishers would not accept the levels of regulations that guide public utilities. Cross-owned media corporations are constantly lobbying against broadcast regulations. Public dialogue is taking a back seat to a profit-driven business model. It has been happening with the approval of the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission, the federal regulator that licenses use of the public airwaves, airwaves that belong to you and me.

That’s the point Dornan misses in his attack on the Senate report.

The Senate report bluntly states that concentration of media ownership in Canada has reached “levels that few other countries would consider acceptable.” Just as bluntly, it blames the CRTC and the Competition Bureau for not using “the processes available to them to limit concentration.”

In their Final Report on the Canadian News Media (216 pages) and its accompanying 2004 Interim Report (100 pages), the senators offer an accurate snapshot of big media and Canada’s regulatory openness to cross-media ownership. Senators don’t want to turn back the clock. They want to see some leadership.

The Senate report calls on Ottawa to do the right thing and develop public policy to curb further mergers. The recommendations echo the Davey Committee, the Kent Commission and two other more recent studies Dornan failed to mention—the 1986 Task Force on Public Broadcasting and the 2003 Heritage Committee 872-page study of the Canadian broadcasting system.

Like these earlier studies, the Senate final report generated little media coverage and virtually no debate. Big media have little interest in reporting these issues and politicians seem to have no interest in protecting our interests.

If you believe the business pages, more media mergers are on the way. It may be cause for champagne in the boardrooms as the full flowering of corporate oligarchy sets the public agenda.

Kim Kierans
University of King’s College
Halifax, Nova Scotia

Re: “Loaded Assumptions,” by David Dunne

Given his role as a teacher of marketing and advertising, I’m not surprised that David Dunne disagrees with my book No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart, but I am disappointed that he gets the idea at the heart of the book wrong.

My central claim is that our faith in consumer sovereignty is misplaced—not because we are tricked into making bad choices, but because even good individual choices can lead to bad results. I use game theory to explore this paradox because it’s the most precise framework we have for thinking about choices and their consequences.

So when Dunne claims that “for Slee … game theoretic scenarios … demonstrate that people, acting individually and rationally, make bad choices” (my emphasis) he is getting it backwards. Game theory demonstrates that bad things can happen to good choices. The difference matters because it allows for a discussion based on the respectful assumption that people make the best of their circumstances.

Here’s a simple example. Imagine you are sitting in the crowd at a packed sports stadium and you want a better view of the game. The sensible thing to do is to stand up. But as others around you do the sensible thing and stand up as well, everyone’s better view is eroded until you are no better off than when everyone was sitting down. Was your decision to stand up a “bad choice”? Clearly not: by sitting down you would see even less. Yet does the outcome reflect your preference? Not if what you prefer is a better view.

It’s a trivial example, but this kind of trap appears in more important places too. Pollution, urban sprawl, employment discrimination, credit rationing and overwork are among the examples I discuss. To escape, we need to change the rules of the game; to open up additional options not easily available to us as consumers, such as the ability to act together.

Faith in consumer sovereignty would have us believe we’ve voted with our feet for any outcome the market provides—that if we valued our downtowns we would not shop at Wal-Mart and if we cared about sweatshops we would not buy the clothes made there. But, as I hope the book shows, things are just not that simple.

Tom Slee
Waterloo, Ontario

Re: “Who Really Destroyed The Twin Towers?,” by Peter Desbarats

Re: “Who Really Destroyed the Twin Towers?,” by Peter Desbarats

More than a dozen substantial books published since 2002 undermine the official 9/11 story: that 19 crazed Arabs caught the whole of the U.S. intelligence, military and civil aviation establishments completely off guard.

Yet no major media outlet in North America, to my knowledge, has published a substantial review of any of these titles, including my Towers of Deception: The Media Cover-Up of 9/11. And apart from the LRC’s review of Towers, no literary journal in North America has to my knowledge reviewed any of these titles. The LRC is to be warmly congratulated for taking the topic of 9/11 skepticism seriously—and making publishing history.

I agree with several criticisms Peter Desbarats makes of Towers. His claim that the book’s organization is confusing has merit. My intention was to break out of the mould and add variety. Hence the “Diary of 9/11 and the Media” entries (I’m a media critic after all), sidebars (“What is a False Flag Operation?”) and profiles of heroes of “9/11 Truth” activism (I fear no one else will recognize them). Point taken, however. My next book will be more conventional in organization.

Desbarats’s take on my 15,000-word chapter “The Shame of Noam Chomsky and the Gatekeepers of the Left” is mistaken on two counts. First, it isn’t true I wrote this chapter because Chomsky and the other 20 individuals and “alternative” media outlets I define as left gatekeepers “do not agree with or pay attention to” my analysis. My ego is not nearly that large.

Desbarats’s certainty that most readers will find this chapter “embarrassing and largely irrelevant” is contradicted by the fact this chapter is the most discussed, most popular and most agreed-with chapter in the book, now in its second printing.

I take issue with Desbarats’s central thesis, which I think he himself undermines. It is that there is a breed of cats called “conspiracy theorists” who just can’t think straight. This overlooks the fact that the aforementioned dozen-plus titles provide reams of hard evidence. And it is cumulative. Desbarats’s review is completely typical: to sustain his thesis that I am a theoretical conspiracist, he glosses over my evidence-rich chapters, including Chapter 2, with its numerous footnotes and photographs. Example: WTC Building 7, a 47-story steel-reinforced skyscraper, suddenly collapsed into its own footprint at near freefall speed at 5:20 p.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. It had not been seriously damaged by the earlier events of that day. It was a controlled demolition.

Desbarats’s typical over-psychologization of an imagined category of people lumped together as “conspiracy theorists” is beside the point unless and until he and his fellow armchair psychologists first look at evidence. Forensic evidence, for instance, stands hermetically sealed from the emotional or mental state of individuals presenting it.

I fervently hope the LRC will choose to review more of this almost completely blacked-out genre of non-fiction titles. It is the failure of the media to investigate evidence that 9/11 was an inside job, or even question the official story, that impelled me to write Towers of Deception.

To learn the true story of 9/11 is crucial: the official 9/11 fiction is the linchpin for the so-called “war on terror,” which in turn is being used to justify full-scale wars, diminution of ancient civil liberties and obscene expansions of surveillance and militarism, at the expense of worldwide human needs ranging from saving the environment to reducing poverty.

Barrie Zwicker
Toronto, Ontario

Re: “One City, Two Nations,” by Tony Penikett

Re: “One City, Two Nations,” by Tony Penikett

Since the motto of the Fraser Institute is “if it matters measure it,” we welcome books that attempt to measure something. But the crucial step, having measured, is to apply sound methodology in the interpretation of one’s results. Even more importantly, one must use detachment and circumspection to put the measurements into context so that the insights they reveal can be tested against reality.

The essayists in Dimensions of Inequality in Canada, to some extent, and your reviewer Tony Penikett, with unbridled enthusiasm, set out with a cure in search of a disease. The cure is government action. The symptoms are unequal economic outcomes, which these commentators equate with inequity and injustice. Missing from the book, as well as from Penikett’s review, is any appreciation that many of the observed inequalities are byproducts of the sorts of cures they recommend. Both reviewer and book fail to acknowledge even tangentially the results of the grand socialist experiments in China, India and the former Soviet Union where the anti-inequality cure was applied most extensively. It is particularly odd that Penikett should forget to mention the latter, since his fellow travellers were often seen to extol the virtues of the Soviet system of organization and the superior social outcomes that it obtained. Some were signatories to the “Waffle Manifesto” of the NDP, which sought to introduce socialist levelling nostrums throughout Canada. One, David Barrett, got a chance to apply them to British Columbia—with disastrous consequences. Another, Bob Rae, provided a similar test case in Ontario.

Two decades ago in writing and compiling the book Discrimination, Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity, I persuaded Kurt Vonnegut Jr. to let me re-publish a piece entitled “Harrison Bergeron” from his collection Welcome to the Monkey House. Vonnegut, a lifelong Democrat and no apologist for corporate interests, provides a glimpse of what it would be like in a world in which government-forced equality has reached its zenith. A public official known as the Handicapper General goes about ensuring equality, with the best of intentions, by handicapping those with higher than average intellect, athletic ability or artistic ability. At the time Vonnegut wrote this essay, pro-government activists such as Paul Samuelson were writing about the inefficient North American economy being eclipsed by the Soviet Bloc, with its constitutional commitment to the pursuit of equality. The tenth edition of his famous text actually contained a graph projecting the Soviets overtaking the American economy.

In the end, it was Vonnegut’s essay that proved prophetic. Samuelson must live with the embarrassment that he missed a key factor—the corrosive effect attempts to legislate equality have on human behaviour. He forgot about context, and I fear that much of the well-intentioned work reflected in the volume under review has the same crucial weakness.

As to the review, if the nonsense, errors and deliberate distortions he reports about the Fraser Institute are any indication of the care Mr. Penikett exercises in his research, readers would be well advised to check his “facts.”

Michael Walker
Vancouver, British Columbia

A response from Jonathan R. Kesselman and David A. Green

In his letter to the editor, Michael Walker takes a swipe at reviewer Tony Penikett and also at contributors to the book under review. Ironically, Mr. Walker attacks with a charge of ideological rigidity while displaying a similar trait himself. Mr. Penikett had critiqued the book for ignoring the plight of society’s most disadvantaged and the political forces driving inequality; he had also provoked Mr. Walker by citing the Fraser Institute as an agent of those forces. As co-editors of the volume Dimensions of Inequality in Canada, and on behalf of its 25 contributing authors, we feel caught in the crossfire and obliged to respond.

Both Messrs. Walker and Penikett describe the volume’s chapters as “essays” or its researchers as “essayists.” However, only one or perhaps two of the dozen substantive chapters could properly be described as essays; the balance are all hardcore social science research. They undertake original and secondary analyses of Canadian data to sculpt the most complete and nuanced portrait to date of the trends, patterns and causes of inequality in Canada. Where appropriate, the authors suggest implications for public policy in their respective areas, but that is not the primary thrust of their analyses.

Mr. Penikett’s principal critique appears to be the volume’s failure to focus on Canada’s most unfortunate, the bottom 1 or 2 percent. In contrast, Mr. Walker’s complaint is that the volume and Mr. Penikett fail to attribute the causes of inequality to the “corrosive effect attempts to legislate equality have on human behaviour.” From his lifelong research and his recitation of a Kurt Vonnegut fable, Mr. Walker appears most concerned about incentives for the topmost tail of the distribution. Presumably, with unfettered markets the Invisible Hand would ensure that greater wealth generation at the top were widely dispersed across all income groups. Yet worldwide evidence shows that growing inequality is rooted in deeper causes than interventionist public policies. In fact, inequality has been rising most starkly in China’s increasingly laissez-faire economy and has been contained best in Nordic countries with the most activist policies.

In one sense, both Messrs. Penikett and Walker are correct; the studies in our volume do not focus on the extreme tails of the distribution. However, one study finds that commonly used Canadian statistical sources have significantly undercounted those at the very lowest incomes. Other studies produce new insights in areas such as income mobility, gender inequality, inter-cohort wage profiles, ethnic and linguistic impacts, tax incidence, consumption inequality and the effects of education. While the volume concentrates on inequality rather than incentives, many of its studies do engage incentive issues. And the volume’s contributors include Canada’s most seasoned analysts of the incentive effects of diverse public programs, such as one whose earlier research yielded highly critical findings on Ontario’s pay equity legislation and others who have mapped the disincentive effects of employment insurance. Yet understanding the biases of existing programs is a prerequisite for formulating better policies to mitigate poverty and inequality, not a reason to give up on the problems.

A warning to those who possess a preternatural knowledge of the complex socioeconomic processes that underlie inequality—and those who possess ready-made solutions to the associated policy problems: Don’t waste your time on this volume!

Jonathan R. Kesselman
Simon Fraser University
Vancouver, British Columbia

David A. Green
University of British Columbia
Vancouver, British Columbia

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