Early newspapers were often more interested in expressing the opinions of the owners than the facts
By Allan Bonner
Fake news is a popular term these days. It’s hard to imagine why.
Much more inflammatory and even manufactured ‘news’ has been with us all through history. Pamphleteers of the French and American revolutions may be the most famous. Among the best was Thomas Paine.
But the average person with an axe to grind and a printing press didn’t worry too much about quality control. Many pamphlets were interactive, with a blank page at the back for readers to write a response and pass on.
Early newspapers were often more interested in expressing the opinions of the owners than the facts.
America’s “Federalist Papers” were newspaper articles advocating for ratification of the new U.S. constitution.
George Brown’s Globe newspaper spent several months publishing articles supporting Canadian Confederation. About the same time, Joseph Howe in Nova Scotia used his newspaper, the Novascotian, to expose corruption.
In those days, many leading newspapers were sometimes just a few pages and featured advertising on the front page.
Owners of media outlets, and senior managers or publishers, sometimes have goals other than promoting an ideology. Howe, for example, used his newspaper fame to successfully run for office. Claude Ryan is a modern example, having been an editorialist and director of Le Devoir and then leader of the Liberal Party of Quebec.
Early broadcasting in Canada featured veiled attempts by churches and less savoury groups to promote their views. A 1929 Royal commission all but ended that with the advent of public broadcasting and regulation of the public airwaves.
It’s obvious why American journalist A.J. Liebling quipped that “Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.”
More so in America than Canada, newspapers’ names told of their bias. You still see some of this with several newspapers with the terms Democrat or Republican in their names.
The most infamous case of fake news likely occurred when William Randolph Hearst sent reporters to cover the Cuban insurrection in 1897 against their Spanish rulers. Among them was artist and illustrator Frederic Remington, known for his cowboy paintings and sculptures.
Remington cabled to Hearst, “Everything quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. Wish to return.”
Hearst reportedly replied, “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”
Of course, in times of war there’s a lot of disinformation. The notion that “In war, truth is the first casualty” goes at least as far back as 2,500 years to Greek playwright Aeschylus.
Some famous photographs of warfare were staged.
Canada’s press baron, Lord Beaverbrook, played a role as minister of Information in the United Kingdom during the First World War, and later used his newspapers to promote conservative politics.
Wire services helped clean up newspaper journalism. The best known are Canadian Press, Reuters, and AP and UPI in the U.S. They are co-operatives feeding member papers with coverage that even a few papers might not be able to afford.
Wire service news had to be palatable to newspapers operated by people with a wide range of political and social views. That tended to homogenize the coverage and push the opinionated commentary into columns, editorial pages and local coverage.
Media barons were happy to have the wire service content, which increased profits, and also happy to have the other pages to maintain their platforms to promote causes, support political parties, destroy candidates of other parties or just promote friends.
At the most benign level, most journalists have been assigned the task of covering the opening of a restaurant, big event at a car dealership, or interview a civic booster when that story turns out to be about a friend of the owner of the media outlet. I’ve been sent on such stories. No big harm was done.
It was also well known for sales people to entice advertisers to buy space by offering likely news coverage to go with the ad. I’ve pitched a story to some pretty big-time journalists who noted that the person I’m pitching for advertises on the station and that puts the pitch over the top.
I’ve also worked in newsrooms where we second-guessed ourselves about whether to report on something going on in the owner’s other businesses. When we did cover the owner in any way, we worried we’d be accused of promoting the boss. When we didn’t, we worried about an accusation of a coverup.
At least one owner I worked for just wanted to keep a really low profile while raking in the profits. Pointing to the wire service, I was told just to report the available news, not make up any new stories, especially about the owner, whom I’d tried to interview.
A great example of an owner with a political axe to grind is the late John Bassett, who built Toronto’s CFTO television station into the CTV network.
He ran unsuccessfully for the Progressive Conservatives twice, so we know his leanings. When Joe Clark was leader of the party, Bassett made a rare TV appearance, interviewing the leader and unapologetically promoting Clark. This overt promotion was rare in radio and TV.
But the oddity award must go to Newfoundlander Geoff Stirling. He used his local TV stations to promote a range of eccentric ideas, including eastern mysticism and intestinal health.
Radio talk show hosts Joe Pyne, Jack Webster and Pat Burns ranted, but not usually driven by ideology.
It’s hard to pin juicy stories on the Thomson newspaper family, Conrad Black or the Sifton newspaper and broadcasting group, but no doubt they and other media owners occasionally influenced what was on and in the media they owned. Black was known as a great writer who supported and promoted great writing – a not-so-secret agenda.
Then there’s Joseph E. Atkinson, who built the Toronto Star into the largest circulation paper in the country. On his death in 1948, ownership passed briefly to the trustees of the Atkinson Foundation. His principles of justice of all types, the legitimate role of government, the rights of working people, and other centre-left ideas governed the editorial stance of the paper for 70 years. Ownership is changing again and so may the principles.
Serious and political ranting evolved in the electronic media, starting in the U.S. William F. Buckley’s TV show Firing Line was unapologetically conservative, but also intellectually sound. Right-wing radio talk’s most famous voice, Rush Limbaugh, is skilled at filling hours of air time per week but does take oddball positions.
Limbaugh has been emulated in Canada by some but the best example, Sun News Network, wasn’t well funded so those rants ended.
Cable TV was late coming to the U.S. and even in recent memory it was like early Canadian cable of the 1970s.
Fox fuelled the evolution. There had been tabloid TV in the 1980s. But Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News mechanized the transition. He built a network on sensationalism with mercurial hosts such as Geraldo Rivera, Laura Ingraham, and Bill O’Reilly. The salacious was interspersed with outrageous partisan rants.
When MSNBC morphed into its all-news format, Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann and later Rachel Maddow seemed to inaugurate a new golden age of political and social commentary. But they quickly jumped the shark with predictable rants from the other side.
Now that ownership is concentrated in a few corporate hands, there will likely be a trend to homogenization, as there was when wire services began feeding diverse newspapers.
It’s hard to argue in favour of media baron ownership, but I miss the local millionaires I worked for. Most didn’t interfere in any material way, and we at least had more diverse and known self-interest in the marketplace.
Dr. Allan Bonner, MSc, DBA, is a crisis manager based in Toronto.
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