Sunday, August 21, 2005

Spinning in the Fast Lane

Edward Greenspon's Letter from the Editor this weekend—defending the Globe's recent coverage of the Michaëlle Jean thing—bugs me. Mostly for this tidy little bit of fatuity: "The only question to ask ourselves about the allegations swirling around Mr. Lafond and Ms. Jean was whether they were of relevance, significance and interest to our readers."

Now, I'm willing to brave accusations that I’m being naive, that I'm taking Mr. Greenspon a little too literally, and that I’m arguing far beside the point; but I do so that I might, in my own turn, be allowed to ask with a certain amount of incredulity (feeling certain of the degree of smarminess that gave rise to his prize platitude): what do a paper's readers have to do with the "relevance” and “significance" of a given story? Now, don't laugh! You can’t deny that the man's not even trying to disguise the fact that he's putting the cart well before the horse here! Honestly. If ever there was an admission that the editorial priorities of the Globe and Mail actually begin with a covetous concern for the number of copies they are able to flog—rather, say, than with their ability to report the news competently (which, good sense insists, should be enough to ensure a considerable (and admirable) readership)—this is it!

If a story is relevant and significant it will be of interest to its readers. The first condition insists on the latter outcome. It's why people read newspapers. It's why newspapers exist. If it happens that readers don’t find significant and relevant stories significant and relevant, then there is something wrong with the readers. (Which is, for the most part, and indeed always has been, the case.) But to suggest that, first and foremost, this vacuous notion that what the average reader wants to read dictates the contents of the Globe’s hand-blackening pages, is at once impossible—the reader, after all, reads the news so that he knows what it is, not to confirm that the given paper got its facts (or its spin) straight—as well as a rather naked and shameless piece of flattery, inserted to make the gullible reader feel as though he’s important beyond his role as a consumer. (Which, of course, he isn’t.) It is also a highly unethical suggestion, as very often the average reader is not at all concerned with many of the things that he should be. (Of course, if it's an amalgam of all readers that Mr Greenspon's talking about, which he is, then they need not be mentioned at all, as they are, then, an abstraction. A given ... Precisely the sorts of things the Globe hates, and thus it schemes to have its cake and eat it too.)

It’s so unsettling when even the news media can’t be bothered to disguise the fact that all they’re trying to do is sell something. (Greenspon goes so far as to use a kind of cuisinese to entice the reader to gobble up the journalistic entrée served by Tu Thanh Ha, Doug Saunders and Ingrid Peritz on the new GG, describing it as “sprinkled with new insights” … For real. As though anything sprinkled with insight could ever, in a million years, be insightful.)

Don’t get me wrong. I’m under no illusions as to what Greenspon is doing here, i.e. trying to make amends for what was, unquestionably, competent and ethical journalistic practice. But, of course, that’s the problem. Where’s the journalistic integrity in an apology for competent and ethical journalistic practice? ... He’s got his nose wedged so far up the new GG’s bum I wonder that he can’t tell us what sort of sprinkles she had on her ice cream at lunch!

If the medium is the message, then between the Globe and Mail and its apparently editorial readership (which, incidentally, nearly doubles that of the only other national newspaper), the message—contrary to the popular cant endlessly spouted off about "moving forward"—is simply spinning in place.