Resting on our Laurels: the Problem of the Canadian Media
Date: Monday, October 10 2005
Working from Al Gore's speech on the degredation of American media
and of why the media is so important/essential to democracy, this article turns the focus on Canadian media and demands that we recognize our even more deplorable condition. We don't control our national media -- moreso, do we even have a national media with any credibility?
Let's start with the state of the Canadian media, and by the "media" I mean the dominant forum for public discourse. If America has problems with their media of late, ours is infinitely more deplorable. The role of the media is a strange and unstable (and unregulated) combination of entertainment, public service, information, and public discourse (Gore's idea of a "national conversation"). If in the United States, the latter three have been swamped for the first point, the situation is even more deplorable here -- for we don't even produce our own entertainment. 95% of our media is foreign produced and intended for a foreign audience.
We don't have a national conversation, we have a national eavesdropping.
Our public (and private) intellectuals spend an incredible amount of time debating and considering and investigating things emerging out of that foreign content and of which we have no control or say in. Of our own issues? Almost nothing: 5%, a number below "statistical significance." Of our own stories? Almost nothing. Of our own problems? Of our own issues? Of our own information? Of our own national conversation? Canada in Canadian media is statistically insignificant (and that's the technical term to represent 5% or less). Furthermore, Canadian media are not just comfortable with this -- they want to further it. That 5% seems to bother them, like a grain of sand in an oyster's mouth.
You can say, But even the American media don't produce their own shows. But they do commission them; and they are commissioned for American audience tastes. You can also conceive of American media in a more holistic sense that doesn't simply stop with American broadcasters and theatres, but includes the American companies hired to produce the American stories. We had Salter Street until Alliance Atlantis shut it down.
You can say, But it is inevitable because America is so much bigger. But there are models of much smaller markets being much better served. It also doesn't change the fact that all positive and possible functions of the media (excepting through foreign escapist entertainment) has been lost to Canada.
You can say, But it isn't the government's role to regulate this. But I have not suggested any kind of remedy -- government or otherwise -- to the fact that on almost all counts of "value" Canadian media is an abject failure, or "statistically insignificant." In fact, it is much more essential to recognize both government and private complicity in the current state of things than it is to embark on an ideological rant arguing one or the other. The fact that neither recognize this as a problem suggests how comfortable we have all become.
You can say, But the fact that Canadians are watching what they want signals that Canadians are getting exactly what they want. But surely the fact that we have no national media of our own is the perfect evidence of the complete failure of the national media. How can it be otherwise? The Canadian media has nothing to contribute, nothing that connects with the interests and needs of Canadians. Maybe the problem starts with Canadians, maybe the problem starts with the Canadian media; I'm not attributing cause here either. I am identifying a phenomenon.
You might disagree with me. You might think that Canadian media is not statistically insignificant. Well then I ask you; in what way, or in any way, can the Canadian media be said to be successful? If you are happy with statistical insignificance, there's nothing left to say. If you think the media doesn't have a role to play in a democracy, well then there's nothing left to say. If you think that Canadian issues -- particularly around our own social problems, our own political leadership vacuum, even our own innovations and contributions -- are being well served (developed, promoted, and distributed) by the Canadian media, well then I would be very interested in finding out where. It isn't on the television and it isn't on the movie screen, the two dominant mediums of our time.
Benedict Anderson once identified that nations exist only in as much as they are imagined by its inhabitants. Marshall McLuhan added that the content of media is an externalization of the human imagination. The Canadian non-presence in the Canadian media suggests an extremely limited presence of the nation in the imagination of Canadians. Recognizing the phenomenon is not a value judgement: it is in deciding what to do from this point that we make use of our values. In any event, to ignore the problem or to not recognize it as a problem is to make a value judgement.
And I am not saying anything new here: the recognition of a similar problem in book publication, radio, and theatre led to the Massey Report (1951-7). Since then, Canada has developed an internationally respected and (more importantly) nationally used book, radio, and theatre industry. Of course, these mediums have all been pushed aside by the dominant media of our time. Maybe once the internet supplants television we'll finally start a national discussion and decide to become a leader in the field. Sort of like how we're waiting with Green technology instead of becoming leaders in the inevitable future. Of course, so long as we don't have a national conversation to talk about such things, we'll never know whether we are or we aren't leaders; we'll never need to confront problems we aren't aware of. We make the choice on a daily basis. Heck, we could reach the point where we never even knew we existed in the first place.
"Quick: change the channel. It's another History Special on 'Canada'"
[Proofreader's note: this article was edited for spelling and typos on October 12, 2005]