Thursday, February 15, 2007

Conrad Black visits Rick Salutin’s U of T class

Calls journalism a craft but not a profession, says Post still “quite a fine paper”

From an article in today’s Varsity (free subscription may be required to view):

The Culture and the Media in Canada class at University College regularly hosts high-profile lecturers who speak to students about issues in the Canadian media. But, as course instructor, author and columnist Rick Salutin put it, yesterday’s guest “genuinely needs no introduction.”

For an hour yesterday afternoon, former media baron Conrad Black shared his insights on media bias in Canada, the United States and Britain.

He began his address by lamenting the “certain incongruity” between the tendency of journalists to hold themselves up as members of the learned class, yet at the same presenting themselves as belonging to the working class.

He added soon afterward that he “finds the affectation of journalism amounting to a learned profession to be tiresome. Journalism still is more or less a craft…with variable judgment criteria. There is no yardstick to measure them against others.”

He mentioned, however, that most journalists are pleasant, even interesting, people and that he is “not trying to demonize them, rather [he is] pointing out anomalies.” Later, he pointed out a number of journalists he respects, such as Edward R. Murrow and his friend Brian Stewart.

Black also discussed his concern with what he views as a blurring between reporting and commenting.

“There is a much-discussed bugbear in the distinction between comment and reporting. We have a natural instinct to include our commentary…a gratuitous opinion in anything we write. But it can be very much a distortion.” He said that competent editors must safeguard this distinction.

Black said this task must also be taken up by publishers, who are at the “apex of editorial and commercial interests.”

“The best course is to try and have commercial management encourage good, professional standards. Otherwise, it’s like the CEO of an auto company not caring about the quality of his products.” Black said. He said the role of management in the editorial office should be “protecting the integrity of the product.”

At the same time, Black said that newspapers should have an ideology, “but you need to try to keep it out of the reporting.”

When asked about his experience in establishing the National Post, Canada’s first new national newspaper in decades, he spoke about the homogenized climate of Canadian media in the mid-90s, when he founded the paper.

“On most important public issues,” Black said “a consensus was reached by [nearly all Canadian media] that made steady concessions to the nationalists in Quebec.”

Black claimed that these media outlets pushed for a “comfortable social safety net, higher taxes” as well as having a constant tendency to set Canada above the United States. While Black didn’t fully disagree with each issue, he did consider this consensus a “tired, old bowl of porridge” cooked up to appease Quebecois nationalists.

According to Black, the establishment of the newspaper went well, despite criticism of excess spending. “In this country,” he said “you need to spend money to create a national franchise.”

“I still think that it’s quite a fine paper” he remarked about the National Post, which he still writes columns for.

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