One might have expected, with the devolution of the National Post to the more finitely-focused Financial Post, a tightening up of the technical and ethical sloppiness that characterized the short period when the presence of the National Post was fostering journalistic competition amongst Canada’s big newspapers–and sucking dry the labour market. At very least there ought to have been some increased diligence in dotting i’s and crossing t’s—literally and metaphorically—that the ecstasy of competition seems to have made most newspapers and their workers forget the value of. Such an improvement might be said to constitute a kind of post-Conrad Black technology convergence bonus, and the only bonus newspaper readers are likely to get in the foreseeable future.
We don’t seem to be getting it. Senior management at all the papers now appear to believe that computers can check spelling, correct grammar and understand context, the first two of which tasks computers can perform with bare adequacy while the latter is beyond the capacity of any binary logic technology. Hard to say whether this misconstrued belief about computers arose because the newsroom managers couldn’t find competent copy editors while the gravy was running, or whether the bean-counters upstairs have put guns to their heads and told them care and diligence don’t matter any more. It is, however quite easy to say that the resulting sloppiness is irritating.
The piece of slop I found the most personally irritating was when the Toronto Star assigned some moron to the statistics page of the sports section who clearly didn’t know a baseball from a watermelon—which is okay—but clearly didn’t care—which isn’t okay. It wasn’t just that the game scores or team names were regularly transposed between the box and line scores. Player names were regularly garbled, statistical categories were switched and individual game stats were so often fouled up that I began to check them on ESPN’s Internet site. That sort of migration in technology by any reader of newspapers ought to have the Star’s managers nervous.
A more serious sort of offense has also been popping up, in which journalists are found wanking their own products or those of others that can be seen to compromise their theoretical journalist’s role as honest brokers. Anyone who’s seen Evan Solomon’s shoe-caressing interviews with Chapters/Indigo head (and possible show advertiser) Heather Reisman knows what this looks like, but Solomon is on television, which is an informationally looser medium. Similar transgressions are more offensive when they occur in print, maybe because all you have to do to substantiate the distortions is to reread the words on the page.
There was a particularly luscious transgression in the Sunday October 28th business section of the Toronto Star. Business columnist David Olive wrote a lead story reviewing a book on contemporary business jargon written by, of all people, David Olive himself. The story reads like book jacket blurb, and is a mini-manual on the conceptual syntax of business writing (it begins with quotes from Henry Ford and Bill Gates, then summarizes with an aphorism that exaggerates its point enough to make it useful as an employee-bullying slogan for managers: As the worker population of an enterprise grows, employees spend more time managing each other than the business).
The entire article is a piece of self-aggrandizement, implying that the Olive-reviewed Olive-written book is an heir to the wit of Ambrose Bierce, who produced The Devil’s Dictionary in 1911 and then disappeared forever into the deserts of Mexico. Symmetry if not modesty should have had Olive disappearing himself at this point, but he goes on to offer readers 19 entries from his book, none of which I’m going to quote because I don’t want to encourage this sort of thing by giving it any more publicity. Suffice it that the entries were wittily cynical in a board room-friendly sort of way, and that the book will eventually get the employment it deserves, mostly likely in a few high-end corporate saunas where the children and the true believers aren’t listening.
I don’t want to appear to be singling out the Star for criticism because it’s no worse than the other papers. I don’t even want to be picking on Olive, who is a former Editor for the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business and a Senior Writer for both the ROB and The Financial/National Post along with being the founding director of the Canadian Centre for Ethics & Corporate Policy and of the non-profit Housing Development Resource Centre—whatever those last two are. I’m onto the Star for the simple reason that it’s the first newspaper I read every morning, and thus I’m more likely to spot—and have sufficient energy to make notes on—its slips than those of the other papers. I’m sure David Olive is a nice man, too, particularly because I’m told he makes part of his living lecturing corporations on their ethical behaviors. It isn’t clear to me what sort of ethics are possible when you’re hostage to shareholders’ need for profit, but corporate ethics aren’t what I’m pursuing here. I’m chasing down the erosion of journalistic ethics, which really do have to begin with two non-negotiable absolutes: get the details straight and don’t be caught with your lips pressed to your own behind.
Journalistic ethics may seem quaint in an informational sphere dominated by television-based infotainment in which the real message is usually the kisser of the main star, front and centre, corporeal or corporate. But the only non-replaceable value print has lies right square at the centre of that quaintness, which translates technically as ponderability, something that is only a theoretical property of television, even with today’s home recording technologies and nearly a hundred television channels looping the majority of their programming. When print journalists start thinking its okay to slease things past readers—in this case a noxious piece of self-advertising pretending to be news—because they think readers don’t care or won’t notice, they’re wrong, and it isn’t just that the contorted view they’re presenting isn’t always attractive to on-lookers. They’re undermining the single element of information shaping and delivery print excels with, and which television can’t duplicate: accountable precision.
1033 w. November 3, 2001