Since I left the Toronto Star last fall, a number of online news sites have asked me to return to media criticism.
I always say the same thing: “unh-unh, no thanks, no way, not me.” Not full-time, not even part-time. Truth is, I can’t even muster up the energy for a media blog, despite having been the country’s most prolific media writer just a decade ago.
There’s no going back. Media criticism in Canada ain’t what it used to be.
That’s because Canadian media aren’t what they were.
Forget recent headlines about Postmedia getting the green light to acquire the Sun newspaper chain and the subsequent muzzling of staffers on the deal. That has always happened. Difference now is, as Canadaland has reported, the Montreal Gazette‘s cartoonist Terry Mosher (aka Aislin) published his censored views on Facebook.
As for Bell Media president Kevin Crull messing with CTV’s coverage of a CRTC decision that might affect the parent company’s bottom line? The news there was that the staffers fought back — and won. Thanks to the Globe and Mail’s report and Twitter, Crull was forced to apologize.
So social media have, to a large extent, taken over the kind of thing I used to do.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
As CANADALAND’s Jesse Brown noted last year in a piece for The Walrus, I served as the Star’s media columnist from 2002 to 2007, but then “changed beats and the position was eliminated.”
Before that, but for a hiccup in 1991-1993 as a Montreal correspondent, I was, in chronological order: a broadcast columnist (TV and radio), a media reporter with a once-weekly column on the Star’s Insight page, then back to TV columnist (with responsibility for industry issues such as the CRTC), and then, post 9/11, media columnist and blogger.
I wrote about – they all sound so quaint now – such miracles as “the 500 channel universe,” “the information highway,” and “convergence” – the revolutionary notion that, one day in the future, we’d be getting our phone and TV through a single pipe.
A pipe. Hah.
Along the way, I also participated in weekly panels on CBC Radio’s now-defunct Morningside as well as the media show And Now the Details. In 2002, I began co-hosting Inside Media for CBC-TV News along with Matthew Fraser, who would end the season, and the crossfire format, by becoming editor-in-chief of the National Post.
I have to say that those years were the best of my professional life. Media criticism then gave a girl the opportunity to tackle any subject, from The Bachelor to the “war on terror” in a kind of meta mode, allowing one to opine on what a warmonger Dick Cheney is (his office actually called the Star to complain about a column) to the so-called “cycle of violence” between Israelis and Palestinians to just about anything really.
I had no direct competition. Props to the Globe’s John Doyle on the TV criticism front but he didn’t schlep to Hull or Hamilton for CRTC hearings where I’d be in the same hotel as the industry players I was covering. There was nobody who could scoop me on CRTC decisions or mergers. I had sources everywhere – on newsroom floors, in edit suites, even in corner offices – were willing to talk.
Oh the stories I could tell, and did tell – and maybe, one day, will tell.
I reported the mergers before Bay Street could announce them, the CBC presidents before they were appointed. One network vice-president learned he was being fired from one of my columns. And yeah, sure, there was some of that “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine” horse-trading but I never, not once, held back, and I am proud to say that the Star, all had my back. So did Bert Bruser, our house lawyer, who had to constantly review threatening letters from the Asper brothers who then owned CanWest Global and the National Post.
So here’s the problem: When I began as cub TV columnist, I’d start my day with the Report on Business section of the Globe and Mail. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Because that’s where the clues to the stories were.
On page two, there used to be – and there may be still but I only have an online subcription now – an “index of companies” that were mentioned in the ROB pages that day. Alliance, Atlantis, Astral, Baton Broadcasting, Blackburn Group, CanWest Global, Craig, CHUM, Rogers, Shaw, Standard, WIC…
So many more but I have forgotten them over the years as they were swallowed up into networks, newspaper chains and cable companies.
They were led by people then, visionaries, not corporate ciphers. CHUM’s Jay Switzer and Moses Znaimer, for example, built a genre of news programming, and a stable of specialty channels that have now been subsumed by converged, consolidated and concentrated behemoths like Bell Media, Rogers and Shaw Communications. Peter Herrndorf overhauled TVO into a must-see network for current affairs programming. Alliance’s Robert Lantos basically created English Canada’s movie industry.
Expense account lunches – on the Star’s dime back in the day when it had lots of dimes – was standard fare, complete with cocktails and vintage wine. All the better to grease the information cogs with, my dears. If I wanted to know what was happening at CTV, I’d call its biggest affiliate – CTV was not a single corporate entity then – and talk directly with its owner, Doug Bassett, on his private line. And yes I had the number.
Bay Street wasn’t a factor. Few media companies were publicly-traded. They weren’t all owned by each other, complete with newspaper chains and distribution systems. The Banff Television Festival was a great big family party. It was as if we were all working together to build a better Canadian industry, although there was more than a bit of backstabbing, bitchiness and backbiting.
In short, it was a blast. I could report on stories that didn’t come from corporate communications VPs and I had access to people who created programming for audiences, and didn’t just curate them for shareholders.
But, after newspapers and networks started getting tangled up in the early 2000s, and the owners and creators cashed out, the business, and the beat, changed. Newspapers and networks merged their newsrooms, independent production stalled.
For the record, I wanted out – and I bailed right on the heel of a CRTC decision that allowed CTV, then partly owned by Torstar, to take over CHUM. (CTV had to divest some of the CHUM properties however.)
What cinched it for me was that year’s MuchMusic Video Awards bash, that parking lot party at Queen and John that was, to my mind, the best industry hoedown in town, a creation of the innovative minds at Citytv, where you could rub shoulders with pop stars and politicians over free-flowing booze and non-stop food.
Up until that year, it was a laid back event. The only visible security present was to ensure that you had the proper wristbands to gain access to the upper floors, where the food and drink were better and the atmosphere more rarified.
But that year, something changed. It was most apparent to me when I had ventured into the “photo opp” room so that my young female guest could grab a pic of herself with Adam Levine. Suddenly the crowd parted, a squad of what looked to me like off-duty cops pushed everybody back and the elevator doors opened. Out emerged then CTV president Ivan Fecan and his wife Sandra Faire with the sort of bodyguard detail I wouldn’t see again until I covered Stephen Harper’s maternal health summit. This was not how the MMVAs rolled. The party was over for me.
Canada’s media world had changed. And it kept changing. Now, with alternative sites like this one, or The Tyee, or Rabble, there’s very little room, or need, for mainstream media criticism anymore.
In fact, there’s very little media to write about anymore.
Sure, I can still subscribe to three newspapers a day, albeit considerably thinner now than just a few years ago. But their news is day-old and who needs an overflowing recycle bin?
The all-news channels – but for Sun TV which came and went – are still around but they strike me as dominated by weather and celebrity trash. Besides, they make you sit through stuff you don’t care about. I’d rather listen to CBC Radio.
So no, no media criticism for me.
I can’t even be bothered to scream at the TV.