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How the Media Promote White Supremacy

Or do they?

Anthony Westell

Discourses of Domination: Racial Bias in the Canadian English-Language Press

Frances Henry and Carol Tator

University of Toronto Press

291 pages, paperback

Discourses of Domination: Racial Bias in the Canadian English-Language Press comes to an alarming conclusion in the final paragraph:

This study reveals a profound tension in Canadian society: a conflict between the belief that the media are the cornerstone of a democratic liberal society and the key instrument by which its ideals are produced and disseminated, and the actual role of the media as purveyors of racialized discourse, supporters of a powerful White political, economic, and cultural elite, and the vehicle for reinforcing racism [in] Canadian society.

Can it be so? Have I really spent most of my life as a journalist promoting racism? I will confess to working for—“supporting” goes too far—the famous, or infamous, elite of businessmen who own much of the media, because that is the way things work in a democracy, where the alternative is state control. But I will not confess to racism, even though the authors are kind enough to say that I and my colleagues mostly do it unconsciously, implying that we are ignorant or dumb or both.

So let’s dig further. The first task is to discover what the authors, Frances Henry and Carol Tator, mean by “discourses of domination.” Helpfully, they provide a glossary in which they translate their technical terms—both are anthropologists—into plain, or at least plainer, English. I wonder why they did not write that way in the first place, but no matter. A discourse is a “repertoire of words, images, ideas and practices through which meanings are circulated and power applied” to influence our conceptions of ourselves and our society. Dominant refers to “the group of people in a given society” that shapes and controls other less powerful groups: “In Canada, the term has generally referred to White, Anglo-European Males.”

Put dominant and discourses together to make dominant discourses and the result is rather greater than the sum of the parts, because it introduces the idea of racism. Dominant discourses, in this context, says the glossary, are “discourses of democratic racism”:

The ways in which society gives voice to racism are often subtle and even invisible to mainstream society because these discourses are often contextualized within the framework of democratic liberal principles and values such as freedom of expression, equal opportunity, colour-blindness, individualism and tolerance. Within these discourses are unchallenged myths and assumptions.

I think that means that the Canadian media pretend to be good guys while secretly promoting racism. But what does racism mean here? We all distinguish among our friends, colleagues and fellow citizens by skin colour, do we not? The authors certainly do, because they complain there are not enough minorities visible on TV. Maybe the happy time will come when multiculturalism has produced a new race, probably mud coloured, in which there are no distinctions, but until then whites, blacks, browns and yellows will see each other as distinct—which, of course, they are. And where is the harm in that? The harm comes when racism is interpreted to mean something completely different, which is what the authors have in mind:

A system in which one group of people exercise power over another group on the basis of skin colour; an implicit or explicit set of beliefs, erroneous assumptions, and actions based on an ideology of the inherent superiority of one racial group over another.

So the accusation against the media, essentially, is that journalists, in the service of an elite of white, Anglo-European males, manipulate words and images to promote an ideology of white racial supremacy. And now, what is the evidence?

The first section of the book, in the manner of many academic studies, reviews what others, in Canada and abroad, have written on the topic. Not surprisingly, they tend to confirm what this book is about to discover. Next, there is an “empirical study” of “representation in the media”—not how minorities are represented in editorial content, but how many journalists from racial minorities are to be found in the newsrooms of the nation and what some of them think about their treatment. The authors note that they employed a black journalism student to interview selected minority journalists; ironically, the student reported that minority journalists do not like to be assigned to cover stories about minorities, which is more or less what he or she was doing. There is also the problem that few students would be equipped for such a delicate task. But, and again not surprisingly, the survey found that some minority journalists felt they had been discriminated against because they were not white. The problem with this is that not a few white journalists would, with or without being asked, complain volubly of unfair treatment by their misbegotten editors. Journalists are notorious complainers, and newsrooms are always alive to the sound of bitching.

However, it is undeniable that minorities are grossly underrepresented in the newsrooms. In fact, as the authors concede, this is a problem much discussed, and sometimes lamented, in the industry. The important question is why. Editors usually claim that there are just not enough applicants who are not white and qualified, but the authors dismiss this: There are plenty of aspiring and able minority journalists, they say, without offering evidence, but editors will not give them a fair shake. Guess why. Things may have changed, but a decade ago when I was director of the largest journalism school in Canada, we were overwhelmed with white applicants, but there were few minority applicants, and most of the few were not Canadians. Why? The likeliest explanation, it seemed to me, was that immigrant parents came from countries in which journalism was a low-status and even dangerous occupation, and in Canada they wanted something better for their children—say medicine or the law.

Now we come to the heart of the book, and the evidence on which the authors mainly rely. They select several “cases” for “critical discourse analysis.” This analysis takes several forms, but a couple of sentences may give the flavour of the undertaking:

We analyze the articles by looking at the semantic and micro-level meanings of words, by examining the organization of the text—its structure and vocabulary, its sentences and sentence connections—and by dissecting rhetorical statements to find their core ideas and images. We examine carefully the relationship between global and micro-level text analysis. Each case study shows how some of the media constructed and analyzed a particular discursive event and how they can create, solidify, change, and reproduce power relations.

And that is just one form of analysis. But it seems apparent that the methodology relies more on judgement and opinion than on impartial fact-finding. In other words, to put it politely, such analysis is unlikely to disprove the presuppositions of the social scientists. But there is worse to come. Any fair survey would have to take into account all the coverage of an event— news, comment and opinion—that might influence the readers and persuade them of their white supremacy, or not. But the authors do not proceed in that way. They choose not only the incidents to study but also the examples of coverage, drawn from a mass of items, they wish to analyze.

Even more curiously, several of the so-called cases studied are not news events, but the opinions of newspapers and featured writers on current issues. The first such study focuses on several editorials in The Globe and Mail about employment equity. Editorials are the anonymous voice of the newspaper and were once thought important in leading public opinion. Having years ago written editorials for the Globe and The Toronto Star, I suspect that they are about as influential as Sunday sermons. They certainly give no indication of what is being reported in the news columns and are therefore a poor way to sample media coverage. Nevertheless, the analysts are able to conclude that although the editorials called for debate on what was, and still is, a contentious issue, what they were really about was quite different:

The Globe presents the privilege of maleness, Whiteness, and able-bodiedness as natural and normal. It also presents any attempt to change the status quo as a threat to the nation’s most cherished liberal values.

Well, the Globe is, or was, conservative in outlook, so what did they expect? The Toronto Star is, or was, liberal in approach and frequently at policy odds with the Globe, as the authors note. Is that not the way it’s supposed to work?

Analyzing the National Post’s coverage of “Immigration, Refugees, and the Tamils,” the researchers examine first the opinions of a columnist, Diane Francis. She probably has more readers than the anonymous editorials, but as far as I know she has never been offered as a model of fairness and balance. Her stock-in-trade is strong, almost angry, conservative, even reactionary opinion. I doubt that the analysts were shocked and appalled to discover that she was not always supportive of people claiming refugee status or attempting illegal entry, or even of the Liberal government’s immigration policy.

More interesting, although hardly more surprising, is the case of Avery Haines, a CTV journalist who flubbed a line while recording and attempted to pass it off by saying to her colleagues in the studio that as a stutterer she could be listed with other disadvantaged minorities— blacks, Asians, people in wheelchairs, lesbians—and then claim “equal rights” to employment. By accident, her weak little joke was broadcast, the offended minorities protested, and she was promptly fired—but soon found another job. The issue of whether she should have been fired was taken up by the print and electronic media and expanded to include the issue of employment equity policies. From a mass of coverage, the authors choose 44 commentaries to examine, finding about 30 supporting Haines, and the remainder critical, mostly in The Toronto Star.

The essential issue was whether or not Haines’s remarks, intended to be a joke in an embarrassing situation, were actually evidence of a racist mindset with which her defenders identified. The problem with the study is that the commentators were responding to an incident in their own industry and involving a colleague, factors that certainly influenced the volume and tone of the coverage. In short, the commentators were even less likely than usual to be objective, so that what they said about the affair was an unreliable test of their basic attitudes.

Another issue, and one of concern to the public, is whether crime is related to race. For journalists this raises the question of whether to report the race of an alleged criminal or even a suspect sought by the police. On the one hand, facts are facts, and if a criminal is, for example, black, then the public has a right to know. The contrary view is that reporting racial identity may “racialize” the crime—that is, make it appear that the minority to which the subject belongs is more likely to engage in crime than others. The authors of this book take the second view and charge the press with deliberate racialization. To attempt to prove their case, they analyze the coverage of two Toronto murders. In 1994, three young black men robbed the customers at the Just Desserts café, shooting and killing one in the process. The following year, a young Vietnamese man was shot and killed as he left a Chinese restaurant; he was, in the official euphemism, “known to the police,” indicating it was probably a gang murder. Both cases attracted heavy media coverage in news reports, commentaries by columnists, speculation about the spread of black and Asian gangs, and editorials raising the associated issues of gun control, immigration and deportation. The politicians responded with new legislation.

Having subjected selected coverage to various forms of analysis, the authors conclude:

In the Just Desserts case, the media helped significantly to create a moral panic about the need for law and order. Gun control was elevated to a key issue. The “truth” being promoted was that young Black foreign men were responsible for the escalating violence in this society and had to be deported in greater numbers. It is also quite apparent that the media strongly influenced parliamentary debates on the new legislation. The case therefore illustrates the media’s great power to influence attitudes and policies. More specifically, it shows how the media can target specific groups in society for marginalizing. This distinction between us and them was especially clear in the case of the [Chinese] restaurant murder: allegations of violence and gang warfare were used to isolate the Chinese community from mainstream Canadian society.

Now let us try our own analysis. Moral panic is surely an absurd exaggeration. Law and order are desirable, are they not? Gun control was and still is a legitimate issue to discuss in the context of crime. We simply do not know to what extent young black men have been responsible for violent crimes for the simple reason that the Toronto police—no doubt to avoid charges of racializing crime—do not keep those statistics. The available evidence is anecdotal, such as the fact that young black men were responsible for the Just Desserts crimes. If there is any empirical evidence that the Chinese community was in fact marginalized it is not reported here. So what exactly did the media do wrong in covering these two crimes?

Again, the impression is that the authors set out not to explore what happened and what if any were the consequences, but to prove the media guilty of conspiring against the public interest, as conceived but never defined by Professors Henry and Tator. Part of the explanation may be that Professor Tator, as she says, “has worked on the front lines of the anti-racism movement for over two decades,” which probably makes her about as objective as some of the journalists she criticizes. There is much to be said in legitimate criticism of journalism and the news media. Journalists themselves and their readers and viewers can be eloquent on the subject. But this book falls far, far short of proving the charge that they are agents of white supremacism.

Anthony Westell is a retired journalist and a former editor of the LRC.