Media turmoil through the eyes of Bill Fox
Tumult is washing over the news media business, with staff being cast overboard as newsrooms shrink or disappear. Postmedia and some newspapers in Atlantic Canada are now publishing digital-only Monday editions. The two owners of the Toronto Star wound up in court, and then mediation, over a disagreement about the business and editorial models for a once money-spinning organization they purchased for $60 million; it might have been worth ten times that amount several decades ago. The investment giant Warren Buffett, who during childhood delivered papers door to door and remained emotionally attached to them for a long time, eventually sold his thirty-one dailies.
Several years ago, an excellent report from the Public Policy Forum, The Shattered Mirror, noted that in 1950 there were 102 newspapers sold per 100 Canadian households every day; the ratio was projected to be two per 100 homes in 2025. More recently, the Local News Research Project has found that 468 news outlets were closed or merged between 2008 and 2022. The search for survival afflicts not just newspapers: Maclean’s, now a monthly, has shifted from a newsweekly to a gooey lifestyle pastiche, for instance.
Media turmoil is happening throughout the Western world as news consumers’ preferences change, technology overturns long-established patterns of collecting and disseminating information, young people abandon the traditional media altogether, and advertisers flee. A very few print institutions in North America — the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and perhaps the Globe and Mail — are surviving and even thriving by focusing on higher-quality journalism and a broader offering of subjects. And, thankfully, at least some new outlets are springing up with sprightly copy and sometimes in-depth analysis and commentary (the Local News Research Project notes 207 openings between 2008 and 2022).
Earlier this year, the Canadian television world was rocked by the forced departure of Lisa LaFlamme from her perch as CTV’s nightly news anchor. It was said, wrongly, that she fell afoul of management for showing her grey hair rather than dying it darker. She actually departed as part of a flap with Bell Media, the network’s owner, over cuts heaped upon more cuts to the news department. It’s the type of upheaval that’s being driven by those changing tastes and declining audiences. Other wounds are self-inflicted idiocies. Case in point: the English-language news and current affairs programming at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The nightly ratings for CBC’s prime-time news show, The National, reveal a pitiful 200,000 to 300,000 viewers, roughly one-quarter to one-third of the audience of CTV’s national newscast and down from around a million not many years ago. The CBC’s forced march to marginality has been driven by the corporation’s disastrous president, Catherine Tait, and a supine board interested less in journalism for a broad public than in pursuing “diversity,” “inclusiveness,” and the other buzzwords of our time.
As a news junkie, I review five websites each morning. By far the best for serious coverage of international events is Deutsche Welle, the English-language service of Germany’s national broadcaster, whose slogan, “Made for Minds,” summarizes its approach. Next would come the BBC’s, followed closely by those of Radio-Canada (the CBC’s far superior sibling) and CNN. Way behind in fifth is CBC News, a collection of third-rate human interest stories, endless articles from Indigenous, Black, and LGBTQ communities, and spotty, often not terribly well reported stories of international and national import. (Recent exceptions to this critique: a long, detailed investigation into the Indigenous icon Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond’s Cree ancestry claims and reports of disorder around RoseAnne Archibald, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.)
Buffered by public subsidies, CBC News apparently does not worry about its increasingly evident marginality. The Conservative Party’s new leader, Pierre Poilievre, bangs on about “defunding the CBC,” to mighty rounds of applause from like-minded partisans. He should forget about the network. Most Canadians already have.
In defence of its marginality, the CBC might point to its podcasts. These have proliferated everywhere, with varying quality and with smaller audiences than traditional newscasts. Podcasts reflect the churn within today’s news business: they target micro-audiences that seek deeper reflections on issues of all kinds and closer identification with specific ethnic, racial, political, or cultural groups. Yet podcasts in general do not generate much revenue — because their audiences tend to be narrow rather than broad.
News consumers are being sliced by the arrival of social media more than by anything else. Giants such as Google are essentially aggregators gobbling up and displaying work done by others, although Google has negotiated some payments in some countries to some outlets. Other online services appeal to ideologically like-minded people, creating echo chambers within which “facts” that are demonstrably false by any reasonable measurement are disseminated and theories abound unleavened by any serious attachment to reality. And this, as we know, contributes to the polarization of political debate.
Into this world of tumult steps Bill Fox, who wore many hats during a long and varied career as newspaper reporter, press secretary to a prime minister, corporate executive, and university lecturer. One chapter of his 2013 doctoral thesis is included in his excessively sprawling Trump, Trudeau, Tweets, Truth: A Conversation. The rest of the tome is a melange of anecdotes, brief case studies, culls from serious academic papers, media theory, and penetrating insights born of reading and personal experience. Every writer needs a good editor, and Fox was let down by his publisher, McGill-Queen’s University Press, who allowed his worthy and quite interesting manuscript to become too bulky, scattered, and repetitive. This letdown is a pity, because Fox has many important things to say about today’s media landscape.
Fox grew up in Timmins, Ontario. With an “aw shucks, gee whiz” affectation that hid a nose for a good story, he used to say that he “crawled out of the bush.” I know, because he at the Toronto Star and I at the Globe and Mail competed for a few years at our employers’ respective Ottawa bureaus. He kicked my butt more often than I or my editors liked. With that experience in Ottawa and a later stint in Washington, and by working as Brian Mulroney’s press secretary and then as an executive with Canadian National and Bell Canada, Fox saw the media from the outside in and vice versa. By living and working on both sides of the border, he watched it change in the United States and Canada, with trends to our south usually influencing, even dictating developments here.
Facebook, one example cited by Fox, still has vast appeal in both countries, of course. That erroneous information is conveyed by the site is partly because it is not a conventional news operation. “The social media platform’s algorithms reward ‘likes’ more than ‘truth,’ ” Fox writes, “it trades in ‘likes’ and ‘shares,’ and if the numbers benefit from clickbait — the social media platform equivalent of steroids — then so be it.”
Any student or practitioner of journalism appreciates that the definition of “truth” has always been fungible. There has always been scuttlebutt and even unchecked slander in the public domain. Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers, hired a writer to produce malicious and false information about his rival John Adams. Father Charles Coughlin, a Canadian minister, moved to Detroit in 1923, launched a radio program that would reach millions, and went on to belch bile against Jews and Franklin D. Roosevelt — a style copied later by the conservative tub-thumper Rush Limbaugh and other on-air haranguers. In Canada, newspapers in the pre-electronic age were fiercely partisan: Conservative or Liberal with no middle ground.
So anyone who thinks there was once some kind of golden era of journalism unsullied by nonsense, vituperation, exaggeration, malice, and error is wrong. But — and this is the crucial point — there were some limits that went beyond libel laws. There were ways of sniffing out erroneous information and discarding it, even if reasonable people could interpret situations differently. There was the “fair and balanced” doctrine in the U.S., though it was eventually wiped away by regulatory authorities. And there was the very structure of television, a medium that sprawled across the country with a small number of networks all striving to maximize viewership. They had to be — or so they felt by virtue of their business model and reach — as down the middle as possible, usually with a father figure reading the evening news, à la Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, and later Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, and others. (In Canada, we had Stanley Burke and Knowlton Nash and then Peter Mansbridge and Lloyd Robertson.)
That era is long past, as some citizens desert television altogether while others shift to channels that reinforce and deepen their biases, the most obvious examples being Fox News and smaller networks even further to the political right. There, as at many social media outlets, fact checking doesn’t exist, so that what is called “fake news” becomes the “truth.”
Bill Fox is very good at showing how and why this shift transpired, but he is more hopeful than convincing that a return to better journalism is somehow possible. The best journalists, and he was one, are romantics at heart. They believe that if they do their work well — by pursuing facts and analyzing situations — the public will be informed, institutions will work better, and the common good will be served. Such is the conceit. Fox certainly lays out today’s obstacles: declining revenues, splintering audiences, social media, increasing social polarization in the U.S. (and to a lesser extent in Canada), and rule by algorithm. Yet he believes that expanded room exists for better journalism. One can only hope against hope that he is correct.
Donald Trump — as candidate, president, and defeated politician — overturned numerous assumptions about the media. Fox chronicles many of them.
All politicians have healthy egos. They need them to enter politics in the first place and then to survive. Trump’s unequalled narcissism and utter lack of shame allowed him to craft his own narrative, create his own audience, willfully distort verifiable facts without paying a political price, lacerate his opponents, and use social media, especially Twitter, to create a parallel reality divorced from anything even vaguely approximating truth. It was scary enough to witness his performance; even scarier, though, was knowing that millions of Americans believed his every word. Trump’s consistent lies and distortions, more than any other modern phenomenon, exposed the capacity of social media to do harm. Twitter eventually removed his feed, and other networks began to censor his lies — but it was too late.
For much of his presidency, Trump used Twitter as his prime method to circumvent the traditional media and speak directly to those eager to hear him, and even to some who were not. Fox cites studies showing that Trump posted fifty-one tweets in a single day during a trip to South Korea in November 2017. The month before, he posted 300 tweets; in June 2019, more than 650. Another Trump strategy, of course, was to attack traditional outlets as purveyors of “fake news”— about him and most everything else. It’s a strategy now being aped by Pierre Poilievre.
Like so many other observers, Fox is repelled by Trump but fascinated by his impact on the media — and the media’s impact on him. The former president’s insatiable need for attention made him front-and-centre news day after day — before, during, and after his time in the White House. The media needed him, fed on him, drove ratings through him. And he needed the media to nourish his ego and his lust for power. His leitmotif was the old cliché: better to be looked over than overlooked. Fox writes extensively about celebrity journalism, or more accurately journalism about celebrities, where Trump topped them all.
Fox offers many other stories about media manipulation by politicians and the daily dance between the two. In Justin Trudeau’s Ottawa, for example, all messaging flows through the Prime Minister’s Office, but there is little new in that observation, as anyone who worked in Stephen Harper’s Ottawa knows. Centralized control is now a hallmark of all governments, especially in this fractured age when potential political damage can arrive from so many fragmented sources. By virtue of his corporate experience, Fox also has much to say about the relationship between the media and business, in which corporate spin plays a prominent role. Big business has a coterie of advisers, both internal and external, to anticipate and shape corporate images, as Fox describes when chronicling how Bell Canada handled speculative stories about a potential takeover.
CBC News, being largely beyond repair but apparently untouchable, leaves federal policy makers wrestling with how to support the Canadian news media in all its forms. There are voices on the political right who insist that outlets should sink or swim without government help. Money from the public purse in whatever form risks compromising press freedom, making owners beholden and reporters wary. Just put out a better product and let the best survive, they argue. Fox doesn’t buy that purist line of thinking. “If news organizations are just another business, then their survival is of little importance or significance,” he writes. “But if civic journalism is as central to democracy as classic liberal theory asserts, then the situation warrants a fresh think on the part of federal policy-makers, both political and bureaucratic.”
In 2019, the Trudeau government announced it would spend hundreds of millions to support media companies. As Fox wryly notes, the government then appointed a committee to advise who should sit on a committee to advise the government on which companies should receive money and how (this is the way governments sometimes work). A few measures have since been launched and others proposed, the latest being Bill C-18, which would force Alphabet and Meta (the parent companies of Google and Facebook, respectively) to make fair commercial deals with Canadian news publishers, who would be able to negotiate collectively. Newspapers are obviously keen; the tech giants are not. The debate continues, with the Parliamentary Budget Officer estimating that payments to the news organizations could reach about $330 million annually. Whether this sum could calm the turmoil remains to be seen.
Debates about Canadian content and government assistance are hardly new. The wave of American news and entertainment — whether in the form of radio, television, movies, or the internet — spilling across the border has been a fact of life for years. What complicates matters today, however, is not just the amount of that incoming content but the fragmenting of domestic audiences in the age of social media. Putting together a mass readership or viewership is harder than ever in Canada.
Fox offers a few ideas for helping the media survive. Helping it thrive is a mightier task. Fittingly, he subtitles his book a “conversation,” a suitably modest description for a work that helps underscore the challenges of the modern media world without presuming — for who could? — to offer magic inventions for better journalism and the profits needed to support it.