In the News: Michael Goldbloom

In the News: Michael Goldbloom McGill University

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Home > McGill News > 2003 > Spring 2003 > In the News: Michael Goldbloom

In the News: Michael Goldbloom

Former newspaper publisher Michael Goldbloom on Who Controls the Media

Currently visiting scholar at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC), Michael Goldbloom, BCL'78, LLD'79, has been a lawyer, fundraiser and publisher of the Montreal Gazette. He organized a national conference in February which drew journalists, media company owners, academics and policy makers to McGill to discuss the thorny issue of who influences the news.

In a January 2003 poll, Canada's print journalists said that newspaper owners' views were evident in the nature and content of news stories. Is this a problem?

A significant number of journalists say that proprietors' views are having an impact not just on editorials, which is understandable, but on the selection of news and how it is covered. That crosses a significant boundary, because a fundamental principle of journalism is that no one's views and interests affect how the news is covered.

I would hope that the news organizations themselves or the academic milieu will explore the issue further, because we don't want that line crossed, at least not in North American media. In some European media, it's more traditional and acceptable that newspapers had political biases, and you had to read their presentation of the news while understanding those biases. But that's not the case here, so the next step could be that the political scientists (who conducted the poll) move to content analysis or more in-depth interviews with the journalists involved to see how this (influence) manifests itself.

Is it more significant that journalists would say this than newspaper readers?

Sure. There were two polls conducted prior to the conference. An Environics poll focused on public opinion, which indicated that there is significant concern within the Canadian public about the consequences of concentration of media ownership. But there was a higher degree of concern expressed in the survey of nine newsrooms across the country. That is a significant finding.

Are journalists better placed than readers to know what is going on?

As a reader, you are in a position to judge what you read, what you see. It's much more difficult to make an assessment of what you don't see, or what the options were. We don't know all the different ways the journalist might have approached the story. Journalists and editors are the ones who are best placed to know whether they are exercising their news judgement based on the highest standards of the profession, or whether they are being influenced by the perspectives or interests of the owners.

Do you think the survey results are due to media concentration?

That's difficult to judge. I don't think that concentration of ownership is necessarily a bad thing. The issue is whether the owners who have that power exercise it with restraint and responsibility. I would argue that the more power owners have, the greater restraint they should exercise in terms of their influence on news coverage. If you look at the survey, there was a pretty consistent response among journalists working for CanWest papers, although journalists from other chains also expressed concern.

Is concentration of ownership a worldwide trend? Is the situation in Canada different from other countries?

There are unique aspects to the Canadian situation, but it's fair to say that there is consolidation of media around the world. This latest phase began with the merger between AOL and Time Warner, and the belief that convergence of these different media would produce a successful business model. That trend has continued not just in Canada, but in Australia, Germany, England and several other countries. What does distinguish Canada, at least from the U.S., is that we have not allowed foreign ownership of our media, but we have allowed for cross-ownership in a single marketplace. So one company can own both a television station and a newspaper in a particular city. That has largely not been allowed in the U.S.

Those two rules together lead to a higher concentration of ownership. If you decide to sell your newspaper and you can't sell it to someone outside of Canada, then the likely buyer is a broadcaster. That's helped to create concentration of ownership, at least in big cities.

So even though this is a worldwide trend, media concentration is heavier in Canada?

There are parts of Canada where it would be hard to imagine a more concentrated media; in British Columbia, for example, CanWest owns the two daily newspapers in Vancouver, the only daily newspaper in Victoria, and the dominant private sector television station.

What is the effect of that?

With the fragmentation of audiences, media companies have to consolidate; otherwise, they cannot be sufficiently profitable to invest in quality programming. There is a valid argument that that is the reality of the new, globalized media world. By allowing this concentration of ownership and cross-ownership of media, we are limiting the number of voices. I would say that's not true in terms of our access to international news. Today we have access to more news sources than at any other time in history -- you can read any newspaper you want online. But in terms of local news, all that access doesn't get you very far. The local media covers your community, and that's where media concentration has its biggest impact.

Is Canada leading or following the trend of media concentration?

I don't think we're leading the trend; as I said, it started with AOL and Time Warner in the U.S. There are debates going on in lots of countries on what to do about concentration of ownership. My concern in Canada is that we allowed cross-ownership of media to occur without much discussion about it. I hope the conference will generate further discussion, so that we can better understand whether we need cross-ownership to compete in the world, or whether there are better business models we can look at.

There are no simple answers, but I hope we will find non-legislative mechanisms to address the problems that have arisen as a consequence of cross-ownership and convergence. Convergence has not proven to be very successful. Many companies have tried it, but it's hard to point to too many success stories. Time Warner and AOL suffered huge losses, and the same is true for (French media conglomerate) Vivendi. It has worked mostly from the perspective of cross-promotion; you turn on the TV and see the newspaper partner being promoted, and vice versa.

You mentioned that media owners have the right to influence editorial opinion in the papers they own. What about the "national editorials"?

Owners have the legal right to have their views expressed in the editorial in their papers. However, the national editorials that CanWest implemented -- and now seems to have backed away from -- were a mistake, in my opinion. Not so much because the Aspers (the family which owns CanWest) wish to have their views reflected in the opinion pages of their newspapers; I would have no problem with them expressing their views in a regular opinion column. But I have a problem with the policy they announced, in which local papers not only had to run these national editorials, but were then expected to follow the broad line of those editorials. That's where you're starting to limit the range of opinion available to Canadians. We have been well served by having newspapers that had a sufficient degree of local autonomy to be able to reflect their communities. That is a better way than national editorials to get a sense of how Canadians think, and to generate debate.

In the last several months, there has only been one national editorial, so public reaction has had an impact on CanWest in terms of understanding what its responsibilities are and what its readers' expectations are.

If large media companies are less interested in local issues, is this an improvement over old-style owners who would oversee every aspect of their papers?

When newspapers started in this country, the publisher was the owner and his paper expressed his views. These were individually owned newspapers across the country. We've since moved toward newspaper chains, and the more a proprietor owns, the greater the reserve he should be exercising in terms of insisting the paper reflect his views. There is no question that journalism is much better today than when the original newspapers were started in Canada. In some cases, the consolidation of ownership has had positive results; papers have greater resources to reinvest in journalism, for example in more foreign correspondents. If consolidation of ownership results in greater investment in journalistic quality while maintaining a high degree of editorial autonomy, Canadians can be well served by that.

The central question of the conference was "Who controls Canada's media?" What is your answer?

Ultimately, the audience controls the media. One could say that in some cases there is a lack of choice for audiences, so in that respect, nobody is fully in control. But the objective of the conference was to determine whether we've got the right balance between the power of the proprietors, the advertisers, and the reader or viewer. Individuals do have an enormous impact through which media they choose.

Another question raised was "Do the media have undue influence on civic life?" Why is that a concern?

Some people would argue that the media is too intrusive in covering politics, that it focuses too much on the personal lives of political leaders, and that has made politics less attractive. Most Canadians say they would never want to go into politics because of the degree of media scrutiny.

There is also a concern, in both the U.S. and Canada, that the way the media covers politics may be influencing a decline in voter turnout. This is more serious in the U.S., but we did have a lower turnout in the last federal election in Canada. So media coverage of politics may be turning people off politics, and therefore diminishing the quality of our democracy.

Did any consensus of opinion emerge from the conference?

One interesting point was this: as the lines between information, opinion, advertising, fiction and propaganda blur in our media, it becomes increasingly critical that we develop media literacy skills to discern the differences. We need to invest more in helping our young people, particularly at the high school level, to learn the difference between fact, information and advertising. The lines are frequently blurred, particularly on the Internet, and people need to be able to distinguish between them in order to be effective participants in democratic society.

Michael Goldbloom was interviewed by Montreal writer Sylvain Comeau.

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