August 21, 2012

The hotbed press: what the Canadian Senate said about student journalism in 1969

The red chamber was not impressed with the student press in '69. (Photo courtesy of jonath/Flickr)

In 1969, the Canadian Senate's special committee on the mass media put out "Uncertain Mirror," a report examining the state of, well, the mass media in Canada. It was a comprehensive look at the subject, with sections devoted to not just newspapers and public broadcasters, but the ethnic press, "farm press" [whatever that is], the underground press and student papers, which they dubbed "the hotbed press." The next excerpt captures the essence of their message:

The Committee devoted part of its research effort and a full day of its hearings to the student press in Canada. We find it reassuring to report that although the rhetoric surrounding this subject has changed in the past few decades, nothing else has. Canada's best student newspapers are still un-professional, shrill, scurrilous, radical, tasteless, inaccurate, obscene, and wildly unrepresentative of their campus audience. They always have been.
Read the rest of the section on the student press after the jump.

 In 1926, A. J. M. Smith wrote a quatrain that is still quoted:
"Why is The McGill Daily?"
Asked the pessimist sourly.
"Thank God," said the optimist gaily,
"That it isn't hourly!"
The McGill Daily is no better loved now than it was then. Canada's student newspapers continue to be the most deplorable, and the most widely deplored segment of the country's press. Even some staffers on university newspapers are alarmed at the prevailing fashion among student editors to ram SDS ideology down their audience's throats. David Chenoweth, managing editor of The McGill Daily at the time of our hearings, told the Committee that members of the student press 
have too often ignored the interests of the general campus audience for the sake of propagandizing along very narrow lines.... The student press has become increasingly ineffective, for it has increasingly alienated its own audience .... 
For while the student press has the fewest "external" controls of all the media operating within Canada today, it has internally enslaved itself through politics, immaturity, and an understandable lack of expertise. 
Right on, Mr. Chenoweth. But the Committee, which is rich in years and wisdom, cannot recall a time when this was not the case. 
As a communications medium, the student press has always been ineffective. But as a training-ground for journalists — Peter Gzowski, Pierre Berton, Stephen Leacock, Ross Munro, John Dauphinee — it has been unexcelled. Newspapers such as The Varsity, The McGill Daily and The Ubyssey have a long tradition of editorial freedom, and an equally long tradition of abusing it. It is no coincidence that the student newspapers that publish under the fewest restraints from student councils or university administrations have produced an astonishing number of excellent journalists. These newspapers, as Mr. Chenoweth reminded us, operate with fewer pressures than does any other segment of the media.  
They are subsidized by their student councils, and thus see no need to "pander to the masses" - that is, give their audience what it wants to read. As a result, a student who has gained control of his university's newspaper may never again find himself in a position of such naked, unrestrained power.  
Later in his career he may have to worry about audiences and advertisers, payrolls and publishers. But for one sweet season he can print exactly what he wants, restrained only by the laws of libel and contempt (which are seldom applied), and the apathy and chronic unreliability of his staff. 
This system often results in perfectly dreadful newspapers. But it also subjects its participants to several years of marvelous journalistic training. They mature in an atmosphere of endless controversy and sometimes learn more about the process of social change than they would in six years of postgraduate political science. A lot of concerned Canadians, from Wayne and Shuster to Patrick MacFadden, have gone through this mill. We doubt that the experience caused permanent harm to them or their audiences. In some cultures, it is widely believed that if a man spends a lot of time in bagnios while young, he will be more sensible about sex in his later years. The Committee does not give blanket endorsement to this principle, but we think it has a certain amount of relevance as far as journalistic training is concerned. 
And so we have no intention of viewing the student press with alarm. Instead, we offer a few observations on current fashions in campus journalism: 
* As usual, campus newsrooms are hotbeds of radicalism. But where, in previous generations, this fervor was directed mainly at events within the university community, it is now directed to "outside" events as well. There also seems to be an attempt to present "inside" and "outside" events as part of the same Big Picture - and in years to come this tendency could exercise a salutary influence on professional journalism. George Russell, bureau chief for Canadian University Press in Ottawa, tried to explain it this way:
We talk about pollution of various kinds rather than the fact that the basis of pollution is a specific relation between man and his environment which is conditioned by specific social relations particular to specific forms of society. such as capitalist society ..•• We talk about the problems of group ownership of portions of the media rather than the fact that sociologically there is a hegemonic control as a means of mental production in communications by society. by class. 
We see the violence in the streets of Quebec rather than attempting to transmit the interconnection to the psychopathology of oppression which triggers that violence .... All this proceeds from the fundamental assumption that there is no inter-conductivity of events.
Translation: conventional newspapers present events as isolated happenings, instead of as individual manifestations of an overall condition. Applied rigorously, this is the Soviet view of journalism - that all observed experience must be interpreted in the light of Marxist-Leninist theory. This shouldn't invalidate the technique: as Mr. Russell pointed out, there is a connection between two such apparently isolated events as the sinking of the oil tanker Arrow and the spendthrift lifestyle of Jackie and Ari Onassis. One of the companies in which Mr. Onassis has interests owned the Arrow - although most news accounts described the vessel as simply of Liberian registry - and his extravagance is in part financed by the kind of economy that allowed the Arrow to go to sea with almost none of its navigational equipment in serviceable condition. If it violates our prevailing canons of "objectivity" to point out that connection, then there is something wrong with our journalistic assumptions. In a number of Canadian city-rooms, young reporters who are alumni of "radical" student newspapers are dismaying their elders by demanding a reassessment of "objectivity." We think the reassessment is long overdue, and we acknowledge the role of the student press in bringing the issue to the fore. 
*Student newspapers are becoming a light industry. There are fifty-five of them publishing, they collect about $600,000 annually in advertising revenue, and they have a readership that must be almost as large as the Canadian university population- about 300,000 in 1969-70. Canadian University Press, the Ottawa-based organization that operates a news service for fifty members, has recently attempted to form a national advertising sales bureau. We hope they succeed, because the more advertising student newspapers attract, the less dependent they are likely to be on student councils and university administrations. 
*The University of British Columbia, York University, University of Waterloo, and McGill publish administration-sponsored newspapers. This appears to be due to the administration view that the student newspapers on these campuses are doing a rotten job of informing their audiences. Some of these publications are excellent, and more are likely to appear in future. Again we approve. Competition never hurt anybody, even on campus.

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