Journalist challenges TV’s ‘race to the bottom’

Good job, well paid, and all the trappings of success - so why did Kai quit CTV?

At a time when the media is under scrutiny because of the Murdoch-empire phone-hacking scandal in the UK, we just read an interesting take on television news in Canada.

It’s written by Kai Nagata, who just quit as CTV’s Quebec City bureau chief.

He said he had a great job, and was making good money. So why resign? Because, in his words, he got tired of ‘the growing gap between the reporter I played on TV and the person I really am.’

Here’s part of what he wrote:

TV news is a curious medium. You don’t always know whose interests are being served – or ignored. Although bounded by certain federal regulations, most of what you see in a newscast is actually defined by an internal code – an editorial tradition handed down from one generation to the next – but the key is, it’s self-enforced.

Various industry associations hear complaints and can issue recommendations, or reward exemplary work with prizes. There are also watchdogs with varying degrees of clout. But these entities have no enforcement capacity.

Underneath this lies the fact that information is a commodity, and private TV networks are supposed to make money. All stations, publicly funded or not, want to maintain or expand their viewership. This is what I’ll call the elephant in the room.

Consider Fox News. What the Murdoch model demonstrated was that facts and truth could be replaced by ideology, with viewership and revenue going up. Simply put, you can tell less truth and make more money.

When you have to balance the interests of your shareholders against the interests of the viewers you supposedly serve, the firewall between the boardroom and the newsroom becomes a very important bulwark indeed.

CTV, in my experience, maintains high standards in factual accuracy. Its editorial staff is composed of fair-minded critical thinkers. But there is an underlying tension between “what the people want to see” and “the important stories we should be bringing to people”.

CBC Television, post-Stursberg, is failing in two ways. Despite modest gains in certain markets, (and bigger gains for reality shows like Dragon’s Den and Battle of the Blades) it’s still largely failing to broadcast to the public. More damnably, the resulting strategy is now to compete with for-profit networks for the lowest hanging fruit.

In this race to the bottom, the less time and money the CBC devotes to enterprise journalism, the less motivation there is for the private networks to maintain credibility by funding their own investigative teams. Even then, “consumer protection” content has largely replaced political accountability.

It’s a vicious cycle, and it creates things like the Kate and Will show. Wall-to-wall, breaking-news coverage of a stage-managed, spoon-fed celebrity visit.

On a weekend where there was real news happening in Bangkok, Misrata, Athens, Washington, and around the world, what we saw instead was a breathless gaggle of normally credible journalists, gushing in live hit after live hit about how the prince is young and his wife is pretty. And the public broadcaster led the charge.

You can read Kai’s full article here.

 

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