Letters from Green Island

November 30 2007BR>
Terrified of democracy....

Dear Ms English, publiced@thestar.ca
You talk a good talk with your writing about the purpose and ideals of 'journalism' in Canada in your columns, but your newspaper is far, very very far, from walking the walk. I refer (this time) to the editorial yesterday, Electoral reform redux, and for reference to your ideas of what journalism ought to be about, your earlier article on Defending responsible journalism (Nov 17/07), in which you say:

"...What is responsible journalism on matters of public interest? ... as both the newsrooms and courtrooms across this country seek to answer it in coming years, it's likely that journalism itself will be on trial... There is simply no defence for irresponsible journalism...".

I couldn't agree more with that sentiment, which is why I am so disappointed with the entire Canadian media the last few years, and most especially the Toronto Star and CBC, who are supposed to be more fair and progressive than the others in this corporate age, but are sadly letting us all down. You have been, as the saying goes, being tested, and failing quite miserably.

Let me expand on this briefly using the example of the editorial I refer to today. (There is an ongoing list of examples on my website which I will refer you to at the end, where this letter will be published as surely as it will not in your newspaper.)

This editorial attacks those who are still looking for electoral reform in Ontario and Canada for daring to not accept the command of the Star to cease and desist, and says, for instance, that electoral reform was '..An option turned down by 63 per cent of Ontario voters..' - but, well, not quite, not exactly. There are about 12.8 million people in Ontario (see here), of which there are about 8.4 million eligible voters, of which there was a 52% turnout in the election, or, that is to say, 4.4 million voters actually voted (here). Of these 4.4 million, 63% indeed said they did not want to adopt the proposed MMP voting system. In actual numbers, then, that was approximately 2.7 million voters rejecting the proposal, with about 1.7 saying they wanted the change. In an eligible voting population of 8.4 million voters, 2.7 million is around 31% of Ontario voters. Somewhat substantially fewer than the rather decisive 63% your editorial talks about. Do you think this is an 'accurate' portrayal of the situation? If you were teaching a journalism class, would you tell you students this was a good way to present 'news' to your readers? Would it be a bit more honest and ethical to say 'those who voted' rejected the proposal, rather than the much more inclusive, and very misleading, 'Ontarior voters'?

Nitpicking, you will no doubt protest (having nowhere else to turn), but is it really? Or is this kind of 'reporting' somewhat more the norm than the exception?

Similarly, the editorial states "..An option turned down by 63 per cent of Ontario voters hardly constitutes "unfinished business," and it certainly doesn't merit being at the top of anyone's agenda just seven weeks after voters rejected it. .." - but we can certainly look at this another way - an option rejected by 2.7 million voters, but approved by 1.7 million, and upon which 4 million voters stated no opinion, might well be considered unfinished. Consider a related situation - your post-election stories talked constantly about 'vindication' for McGuinty, and a 'solid majority' and etc - but in reality, McGuinty got 42% of the vote, not a whole lot more than the 37% who voted for MMP - or to use numbers, some 1.8 million of 8.4 Ontario voters actually cared enough about McGuinty to vote for him and/or his party, but 58% of those who voted in Ontario did NOT want McGuinty, but you declare the remaining 42% to have given him a substantial 'majority'??? Myself, now, I could easily advance the idea that a political leader who could barely draw 20% support of eligible Ontario voters might consider himself 'turned down by Ontario voters' - no?

As you are no doubt aware as a journalist with some experience, everything depends on framing - and framing, pretty much by definition, is not honest or fair journalism, yet your paper is quite disgracefully engaged in serious framing of these things - framing MMP to look as if nobody wants it, framing McGuinty's 'win' to look like a 'resounding majority'. Both are extremely inaccurate portrayals of what really happened, if actual numbers and facts are used instead of hyperbole, and very, very unworthy of the kind of good journalism you pretend to favor in your commentaries.

The editorial says that "..Electoral reform proponents had a fair opportunity to make their case.." - and here you get into something approaching an outright lie, at the very best extremely careless and inaccurate 'reporting'. How did these proponents have a fair chance to make their case? The media was lined up completely against them, and surely you aren't implying that Fair Vote Canada has an equal public voice with the Toronto Star and the other Ontario papers, or the CBC and other television stations? All the mainstream media were lined up against the MMP proposal, and there was a great deal more space given to stories and commentary opposing the idea than in favor of it - and not only was the coverage unfair in this gross analysis of simple space given, but also your paper, and others, were not only very, very poor in their explanation of what was actually proposed, but more often than not outrightly misleading, with your false presentations of the relative positions, downplaying and misrepresenting the positive arguments of the proponents, and engaging in inflammatory nonsense in the statements of those who argued aginst it. The presentation by the Canadian/Ontario media on this issue was no more 'fair' than, oh, the American invasion of Iraq was a 'fair' war.

You aren't going to honestly tell me that if, in our journalism class, a student asked you about this MMP referendum, that the media did a 'fair' job of informing Ontario people about it, are you? Could you really look yourself in the eye in the morning in the mirror if you did?!? Rhetorical question - I suppose, considering what you do, that would not be a problem.

The last sentence of that last short paragraph I quoted from is extremely ironic, saying "...Now, Fair Vote Ontario and other like-minded groups should respect the democratic process, accept the wishes of voters and resist the urge to harangue Queen's Park until they get the result they want..." - but in reality, it was the media of Canada/Ontario during this short campaign who harangued the Ontario voters with a coordinated message of 'YOU DO NOT WANT TO DO THIS!!!!!', backed up by a daily barrage of nonsense and disinformation and essentially nothing to do with the truth of the matter, and got the result you/they obviously wanted. - and, one might note, as a central part of this process, very carefully ensured that the Ontario voters had no idea what MMP was really all about, but were inundated with stories of 'shadowy unelected backroom political hacks running the political process if people voted for this change'.

I guess I missed the point in history when it became the role of the newspapers to tell people what they wanted, rather than giving the people honest information and letting THEM decide what they wanted, as the theory of democracy says things ought to happen.

A final point - it is very illuminating, when you think about it, that the Citizens' Council, that spent a long time examining this proposal very carefully, was overwhelmingly in favor of it - a group of average citizens, as the editorial notes. One can only imagine what the entire population would have done had they been equally well informed.

Well, I'll write no longer - there is very little chance you will respond to this, as your 'fair' journalism paper refused to publish any of my letters during the campaign supporting MMP - or any other letters I write such as this one, pointing out the great gap between your fine journalistic theory and the reality of what you are doing.

Your hypocricy is being noted, however, by many of us, and however much you people are refusing to acknowledge this, it is the reason the media in Canada continues to lose public trust. And very related as well, I strongly suspect, to the low voter turnouts which lead to things like McGuinty's 'majority' government, representing in reality less than 2 million of Ontario's almost 13 million citizens. It'a a big problem, and you people in the media are largely responsible for it.

Which, I am sure, is another truth you aren't interested in looking at.

One wishing for a truly decent media in Canada some day, but the hope grows less day by day -

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