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History Table of Contents
1996 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1996
Citizens of the Electronic Village: smartening up or dumbing down?

Brave New World

Vice-President, Government and Public Affairs,
and Chief Economist, HongKong Bank of Canada;
former President, Canadian Association of Broadcasters

When I was originally approached back in the dead of winter, the topic I agreed to speak upon related to the media and individual accountability. So, that is what I am going to do.

I will talk about accountability and the media and the citizen. I will advance six basic propositions and, having stated them and the evidence in support of each of them, I'll draw some conclusions.

Then, those of you who have stayed until the end, and are awake, can tear into me and we can exercise our minds which is, after all, essential for the survival of our nation and the activity which makes each year's conference at Couchiching so delightful.

My first proposition is: Thinking, particularly cognitive reasoning, is for most people not necessarily a pleasant activity. When I put this proposition to my colleagues at the bank, they all agreed.

When asked to supply evidence in support, they said:

  1. Look at the results of the election. Which one? Any election!
  2. Thinking often involves something new and there is comfort and no risk in sticking with the familiar tried and true, so that's why people don't like to think.
  3. Thinking involves risks and most people cannot quantify the potential return from such activity and, therefore, they have no incentive to take the risk.
  4. I use my own personal measuring scale. I determine if the individual is over 21 and, (1) has learned how to program their own VCR; (2) do they read for at least 30 minutes a day something other than the Enquirer or a daily tabloid, where in-depth articles go as long as 700 words? or (3) can they actually write a cogent paragraph making a simple logical argument? By this simple test with a possible maximum score of three, I found the average is .06.
  5. If thinking were popular, then the old New Yorker, not the new one, the Atlantic Monthly, Harpers, or the Economist would be the most popular magazines, not People or TV Guide. The Telegram the U.K. would outsell the Sun and/or the Mirror and Ideas and the indestructible Lister Sinclair would be the most popular program on radio. I did not use a television title because I could not think of one from the Canadian offerings other than Air Farce, which is pretty high with me.

My second proposition is, Given a choice between something that stimulates and demands cognitive reasoning and something which provides the equivalent of chewing gum for the mind, the vast majority will prefer the mental chewing gum.

The proof here is in the ratings of television and radio, the circulation of newspapers and other print publications and in the best seller lists.

Now, there are exceptions. Stephen Hawking's book on time and space or Rushdie's Satanic Versus are two that might be offered as refutation. They sold an awful lot. I mean Rushdie has that ironic thing of being doomed to death by the Ayatollah, who also made him a millionaire because he sold so many copies of the book.

I suspect, with those two at least, the lure has been in being able to have it in one's bookshelf, not actually reading it. Neither was a breeze and it takes tenacity to plough through them.

Neither, I might add, outsold the likes of the average Harlequin Romance, which is the largest single publishing enterprise Canada, nor Harold Robbins, nor Judith Krantz. I rest my case.

Proposition number three:

The electronic media, even the so-called specialty channels on cable, are broadcasting activities and, if they are to be successful, must attract, by definition, a broad audience. Ergo mental exercise takes second fiddle to creative verbal and pictorial valium.

While broadcasters might argue otherwise, particularly those involved in the production of news, deep down in their hearts they know they are in the entertainment business.

Newspapers have the word news right in their titles. It is their raison d'etre. That is for me, at least, the defining difference. Which in turn means, if as is claimed, most people get their information from television, then we will all be in tough luck to gain any substantive knowledge of the issues facing modern society, or of the differing positions of the political parties and leaders.

Twenty second sound bites do not make for profound thinking.

Politicians, as a consequence, run safe campaigns hoping that the cameras will not catch them off guard or in a reflective moment. Just think of Bob Stanfield dropping the football. They turn to verbal and mental pap which is then presented to the public as profound and thoughtful news.

Here I can turn to the current fascination offered by the quadrennial activity to the south of us, the fight for the U.S. Presidency. The United States nation, as is the case with our own nation, is faced with fundamental problems.

Let me site just one: the issue of race.

During the first 70 years of that nation's life the race question proved to be the one issue which threatened the very existence of the nation. Having fought a civil war in which more than one million died over the issue, the next 130 years were spent in assiduously avoiding the race issue itself.

Even with the advent of Brown versus the Board of Education of Topeka, which ruled segregation as unconstitutional, change has been exceedingly slow and often accompanied by violence and a lot of avoidance.

The result has been the massive decay of inner cities, the destruction of urban black society where the dominant role model is now the drug dealer; where equality of opportunity is non-existent and where a sizeable minority of families are without a male head.

For inner-city residents their chances of economic advancement are just as poor — or just as good — as their chances are of being in prison, or being poor, or being not equipped with skills for the future.

The ambitious kid in the ghetto looks to becoming the dominant drug dealer, not a Nobel laureate in Chemistry. The U.S. position on addictive drugs ignores the fact that the more you try to reduce supply of an addictive illegal substance, the more you increase the rewards for those who provide the illegal substance. That triggers a rational and to be expected reaction in those to whom legitimate career paths are closed.

One can only conclude that the lessons America should have learned from prohibition somehow have been lost.

Yet, is drug policy — or any other facet of the problems of America's growing underclass — seriously being debated as the U.S. approaches the choice of a chief executive, as well as all of the members of the House and one third of the Senate?

Instead, we have the lunacy of the Helms-Burton Bill and precious little debate on what adverse impact it will have upon the U.S. itself — and column yards, not column inches; yards about Dole's stand on abortion, or stand on banning automatic assault weapons, which everyone needs to protect their home; or on an amendment to ban the burning of the flag, and an seemingly endless stream of vituperation directed at Mrs. Clinton.

On these relative irrelevancies the most powerful nation in the world will decide its future.

Lest you sit wrapped in some blanket of smug contempt for the U.S., think about Canada. Gordon Gibson, my fellow west coaster, in a recent piece in the Globe and Mail pointed out that we need a reasoned debate on the distribution of wealth.

A debate that covers everything from the usefulness of Marketing Boards to the authority of certain groups to determine who can and cannot perform certain work, supposedly for our protection but in reality for their benefit.

Who should get the priority for scarce resources, if we have to make choices — and we will. Should it be the elderly or the young? The public, the press and the politicians assiduously avoid these debates, because most people find them to be unpleasant.

They do not like making choices and politicians do not like to do so either, so there is a silent conspiracy between the governed and the governing to avoid choosing, and, thus thinking.

Proposition four.

The average individual does not wish to admit their aversion to mental stimulation and respond to problems by seeking scapegoats, rather than solutions. Because they are both handy and visible, the number one scapegoat is the media.

Here the evidence is overwhelming. Think back to the debates on both the Meech Lake and Charlottetown and constitutional affairs.

How often did each of you hear something along the lines that a particular individual wished they could find out just what was involved in each of these proposed changes.

They would ask, "why wasn't there some handy guide to what it all meant?"

The truth was, there was tons of it. Every daily that I read — and I get five a day — had extensive summaries, coverage, and thought pieces; even the Vancouver Province, which is saying something. The various think tanks from C.D. Howe to the Canada West Foundation turned out an endless amount of commentary and analysis.

Certainly the print media covered the topic extensively, and the CBC responded to the challenge and produced several hours of thoughtful programming.

I note the exception of most of radio and commercial television, which avoids any type of thought stimulating activity. I cite as the archetype a local station in Toronto who for the longest time in the 1980s and '90s, until it switched to all talk format, had limited news. The broadcasts were limited to 67 seconds per hour.

I often wondered, since they gave the world but 67 seconds an hour, how the owners and managers of the station would have felt if the CRTC had said to them, make your case 67 seconds.

So, did the electorate read or watch or listen to the material on the proposed constitutional changes?

Well, not if you listen to the comments. Blame the media for the lack of material, when the real culprit is to be found looking out at you from the mirror. The fault lies not our stars but, as the man said, in ourselves.

Keeping informed in a democratic state is a time consuming and demanding task. Be it with respect to the dominant issues of the local school board, the civic, provincial or federal government, two facts stand out:

First, the vast majority of citizens take neither the time nor the effort to be informed, but delight in wailing about the poor quality of decisions made by elected officials.

[Second] knocking on doors or going to all candidate meetings seldom, if ever, results in voters asking for the candidate's position on topics such as constitutional reform, the ending of subsidies, the role of the state, the creation of jobs. Sound bites yes. Thought, not on your life.

I personally believe that for the citizen who takes the time, the information available on any subject is both extensive and diverse. In addition to the mainline media, there is the Internet, public libraries and just plain old fashioned reasoning.

Put in simple terms: if there is a will, there is a way.

The media cannot be expected to provide some method whereby the citizen can fulfil their duties as voters without work, effort, or thought.

Yet, somehow that is what I think most citizens feel they are entitled to. They want instant total comprehension without any work, or time put into it, or any assistance from "experts."

That's just not possible, but that's what they want.

My students at UBC — and I teach a course there every year — object to me giving them articles to read from The Economist. That's too difficult; too complicated and, of course, too long. They're over 500 words.

Now these students are the cream of their age cohort. Imagine what the skim milk looks like!

The other part of all this is that too often, when presented with glib shallow analysis, there is little if any comment from the public. Limited wrathful indignation; the type of stuff that leads to letters about being shocked and appalled.

True, you do get indignant letters about transgressions in the use of language — those are rippers in The Globe and Mail. But, aside from the material being done with the Fraser Institute in their On Balance analysis of news broadcasts, who is there objecting to the editorial slants that I perceive made relative to the Reform party, cutbacks in government spending, or reporting on the Arts Canada?

No one!

We sit there like automatons and accept it. Or, at least vast numbers of us do. I do manage to send a zinger every now and then to the CBC over something, but if I wrote about everything which I perceive to be biased, I would spend my life at the keyboard.

I suppose my attitude about what is and is not biased reflects the fact, as my daughter says, I am rapidly approaching — if not already at — the age of curmudgeoness.

Proposition five.

Print media and the Internet provide tons of info for those who wish to find it. And apart from the CBC and most particularly CBC radio, the electronic group do not do a good job of providing in depth information.

I sincerely believe that the print media, most particularly the dailies and weeklies, the preponderant majority of those, really do take seriously their responsibility to inform their communities of what is happening in their world, their country and their community.

Some do it better than others, but all must respond to that requirement or eventually they wither and die. Yes even the tabloids, like The Province, which seem to cater almost exclusively to gore, guts and sports; even they sandwich in here and there reporting and commentary about what is happening in the world at large and in the local community.

In broadcasting it has been shown time and time again the station which has the best audience for local news dominates the local market. In British Columbia and Vancouver, BCTV is the case in point: 70 per cent of all homes in the lower mainland are turned to BCTV news at 6 o'clock at night. That's an incredible market share.

That does not, however, get translated into prime time programming of thoughtful in-depth coverage of major issues facing the nation or society as a whole.

The problem is that cerebral topics do not lend themselves to easy visualization. The one or two exceptions were The Ascent of Man or Connections, or a program which Patrick Watson ran in New York State called the 51st State, which he ran for two years while he was commuting from New York to Toronto. It was a superb news broadcast about New York City.

It just proves my point that broadcasting is entertainment not information.

My final proposition:

The media lets down the public and its responsibility to inform whenever it comes down on the side of the easy way out, rather than challenging readers, viewers and listeners to weigh the consequences of different policy alternatives.

I suppose that we should be grateful the media do anything to stimulate debate and thinking, but that is the easy way out, too. This should be their real test of worth to society: have they contributed to a better understanding of what is happening and why and what the choices are that we all face?

Let me cite a case point.

During the recent international AIDS conference in Vancouver we were inundated with TV and radio coverage and print coverage. The protesters and demonstrators made their point in most living rooms. They wanted more money spent on AIDS research and treatment and really did not care where it came from.

It was the hot topic of most newscasts. In much of the reporting, fact virtually all of it that I witnessed, there was no discussion of how to provide more money and what other priorities might suffer.

I believe one obligation of the media is to inform the public that there are a myriad of important issues affecting our nation's welfare, not just the hot one of day — and that responsible governing consists of making very difficult and tough choices.

If the electorate is to be able to effectively judge how well a government has governed, they need the facts and stimulating analysis that allows them to reach their own conclusions. I do not believe we get enough of that, most particularly from the electronic media. They have neither the inclination nor the incentive to do so.

Constantly shifting fads in public concern strike us all — individuals and media alike. Environmental issues get superseded by concerns about air safety, or fisheries policy, or whatever. But there is precious little on the bigger, more fundamental and difficult questions that require a concentrated and prolonged attack.

For example, the reform of our educational system, which will require making trade-offs between the priorities of the elderly who vote and the youth who, if they're under 18 shouldn't vote, and who, after all, will pay for it in one way or another.

Why is there relatively little effort put into such questions? First and foremost it is expensive. Writing or producing a piece on some of these issues is not something done off the top of one's head. It takes time to understand the issue — to test out various approaches and make sure you have it right. When the journalist is out doing that he or she is not doing other things; so it is not just the time expended, but the opportunity cost. Few are the organizations which can detach a thoughtful and experienced person to pursue a topic which may or may not pan out into a feature piece or a series.

Second, is the availability of talent with suitable training and experience. I am not condemning journalists, but the number who have the background and training in the various disciplines is limited. Take for example science reporting. Just understanding the basics requires at least an undergraduate degree some form of science, coupled with journalism training and perhaps five to 10 years of work in the field.

That is a highly specialized field and I doubt there are more than a handful of people in the business in Canada today that can do that.

Finally, there is the other aspect apart from opportunity cost and availability of talent. Who is willing to pay for such in-depth reporting? With the exception of the CBC, media at the end of the day needs to make a profit.

Thoughtful and intelligent reporting on often difficult and demanding topics is just not a wildly popular activity. Remember my first proposition that people don't like to think.

There is a limit of tolerance and topics which many react to as downers and those don't win friends. Each editor or publisher or producer has to determine where the line can be drawn.

Each determines that line in his or her own way and I doubt are there any of them that can satisfy all of their viewers or readers all the time.

Which brings us back to the beginning.

If I am correct in saying that most people do not willing engage in stretching of their minds is there anything that can be done about it?

I think there is, but it is a long-term process aimed at instilling in our youth the pleasure and fun of learning — teaching them that the rewards from mental exercise are great and that the task becomes easier and more rewarding the more the art is practiced. It's like learning to play tennis.

To achieve that, however, demands reformation of our education system; a topic we do not like to think about. It also requires the conviction of our leaders that such reform and all the headaches it will engender is worthwhile, it is popular, and that's it's an attainable goal.

Convincing them of those three things is the real challenge and it is truly formidable.