By Jason Menard
I like to keep the wackos where I can see them.
Call me strange, but I’ve always preferred to have racists and bigots, misogynists and misandrists, crackpots and whack jobs out in public. I’m not afraid of the guy who posts pro-NAZI propaganda on his Web site. Him I can avoid and at least I know where he stands. What scares me more are the people who keep their biases to themselves – they’re the ones that are the most dangerous because you never see them coming.
If I were black, it’s easy to avoid the guys in the white sheets and the pointy hats. If I’m gay, it’s not hard to stay away from the people yelling epithets on the street. But it’s the people who don’t vocalize a word and pretend to be friendly who put themselves in the best position to do real harm.
Maybe that’s why I’m not as up in arms about the CRTC’s recently expressed desire to relax the standards to which broadcasters are held as some others.
The regulation, as it stands, says that broadcasters “shall not broadcast any false or misleading news.” Sounds great, right? Nothing wrong with that. That’s what we want out of our media. What the CRTC wants to do is change the regulation to ban “any news that the licensee knows is false or misleading and that endangers or is likely to endanger the lives, health, or safety of the public.”
And that’s what’s got people up in arms. The common dogma right now dictates that this decision will lead us right down the path to U.S.-style FOX News-esque reporting. To which, I reply, is that really so bad?
Press mute on the ol’ insta-reaction for a moment and hear me out. First, here’s a dirty little secret: everyone has biases. Unless you’re brain dead and hooked up to a machine to breathe and pump blood, you have biases. That’s what makes us what we are.
We all have preferences, we all have opinions. We have thoughts, fears, loves, and dislikes. They colour our perception of the world and shape our reactions to it. To deny it is folly. And there lies the great challenge in journalism.
We all want the people charged with delivering our information, sharing knowledge, and presenting the stories that shape our lives to do so in a completely impartial fashion. But for us to best be able to do that, we have to throw common sense to the wind and assume that these people have no motivations, no opinion, and no thoughts of their own.
I don’t know about you, but I really don’t want somebody who moves through life with no opinion about anything to be responsible for serving me a cheeseburger, much less actually presenting the issues of the day and thereby helping to shape my view of the world.
It would be wonderful to see the world in absolutes. I’d love to hold everyone to this impossible ideal and believe that there is no bias in our mass media. I’d love to, but I can’t.
I know that the vast majority of broadcasters do their jobs extremely well. If they have biases, they do their best to not allow them to colour their presentation of the news. But I also know that we’re all human – we’re subject to frailty and mistakes. We expect them to act as an impartial god, which is funny because most gods seem to have a particular bias towards those who read their own books.
Personally, I’d rather know what my broadcasters’ biases are up front. Then it becomes my responsibility to sift through the filters and piece together the whole story. If I watch FOX News, I know that they’re leaning so far right that they’re pretty much horizontal. I’m good with that – at least I know that going in.
Look at the CBC. It purports to be neutral, but come on. We all know it’s fairly left-leaning institutionally. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I happen to be fairly left-leaning myself, so I enjoy a lot of the coverage. But I can tell you that when the CBC is covering Stephen Harper, I’m not going to simply swallow everything they say without liberally (no pun intended) applying a huge grain of salt.
We need to be more active as consumers of media. Too many Canadians take what they see, hear, and read at face value, and that’s just dangerous. We need to be more critical of our critics. We need to question what’s being presented and form our own thoughts and opinions. And knowing which side of the fence our broadcasters reside should help us formulate our own opinions.
In the end, do I think the regulation needs to be changed? No. However, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with re-examining our media providers. The CRTC could leave the initial “false or misleading” statement as it stands, because that’s an ideal to which all media should hold itself.
What we need is greater transparency up front. I want to know if the person hosting a radio show is a Fundamentalist Christian, because that will shape my perception of his commentary on the Gardasil debate. If a reporter is a card-carrying member of the Liberal party, then I should have that information to help me form my opinion of her coverage of the House of Commons. If anything, that’s what needs to be changed. Our media outlets need to be more transparent.
But the biggest responsibility lies with Joe and Jill Average. Canadians, as a whole, need to understand that broadcasters aren’t serving up the whole meal. They’re preparing the ingredients, and may be liberally adding their own spices – but it’s up to us to take those ingredients and use our knowledge, research, and understanding to serve up the final dish.
When you expect to be spoon fed your news, you lose control of what you’re eating. Our media should make their biases clear up front, with or without regulations, or step out of the kitchen.