Sounds Of Silence

It is the silence that bothers me. The silence of once feisty newspaper editors to challenge what they feel are unwise commands from their corporate owners, the men – and women – who live in far-away places, have little or no knowledge of the communities or even the country in which their assets are published, and judge the quality of the publications they “own” more by profit than content.

Thus it was that when Postmedia, which owns most of Canada’s major newspapers, ordered its stable of editors to run lead editorials urging voters to rally to the Conservative cause on October 19, all but a few obediently tugged their forelocks and complied. One or two protested, ran the theme of the editorial as ordered, informed their readers as to why the action was taken and hoped the “we were just obeying orders” excuse would quickly disappear.

All but one of the political columnists writing for Postmedia remained silent as ordered by their owners. The single exception was Andrew Coyne, editor of editorials and comment for The National Post. Coyne did not challenge the right of the owners to endorse the Conservatives – or any other political party it preferred to see in power. He simply informed the proprietors he would be writing a column disagreeing with their editorial choice.

But the company was having none of that – and denied Coyne the right to dissent. Coyne reported in a Twitter post the company had felt a dissenting column “would have confused readers and embarrassed the paper.” He also said in his online comment: “To be clear, the owners and managers of a newspaper have a perfect right to set the newspaper’s editorial line as they wish (but) I don’t see public disagreement as confusing. I see it as honest. Readers, in my view, are adults and understand that adults can disagree.”

As a result of the “professional disagreement” Coyne resigned as editor of editorials and comments but remains with the newspaper as a columnist. It will be an interesting media watch to see how that turns out, but I forecast when differences arise between the columnist and the people who understand balance sheets but have little or no understanding of the need for opposing opinions – the moneymen will triumph.

It’s been going on for quite some time now as the printed word in newspaper form has faltered in the accelerated world of communications. In a world full of swirling untested theories and unconfirmed stories newspaper owners, thirsty for ever greater profit, and fearful editors have gradually conceded the once treasured values of vigorous but reasoned debate and the accuracy of reported news.

It has not happened overnight. It started as Alfred Tennyson said it could, as a “pitted speck in garnered fruit that rotting inward slowly moulders all….the little rift within the lute that by and by will make the music mute and ever widening slowly silence all.” When I used that quote a year or so ago I used it as a “canary in the mine” warning that most of us over recent years had offered little resistance to declining standards in just about everything from dress to good manners and, respect for each other.

We all stand guilty to some measure of indifference and neglect. But none more so than those who once brought us accurate reports of news both local and from far away and free-of-anger opinions to which wise publishers would invite and publish with pride. I fear their silence, muted by order, lack of editorial conscience or fear of reprisal and economic distress.

And I’m glad I lived and worked in what an unknown Irish writer once described as a “more spacious world.”

(For an excellent detailed analysis of the Postmedia affair check http:the tyee.ca/Mediacheck/2015/10/19/Postmedia-Election-E for Paul Willcocks “Who, or What, is Behind Post Media’s Election Endorsements?)

5 comments

  1. Aint that the truth.! You only have to look at countries that espouse land of the free. But they are not allowed freedom of speech. Its kinda scary. Its not always allowed in North America. It is a shame what big businesses can do. Enjoy your publications Helen Dix

  2. Good column dad.‎  From: Jim Hume:Sent: Sunday, October 25, 2015 3:54 PMTo: markhumester@gmail.comReply To: Jim Hume:Subject: [New post] Sounds Of Silence

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    /* @media only screen and (max-device-width: 480px) { .post { min-width: 700px !important; } } */ WordPress.com

    theoldislander posted: “It is the silence that bothers me. The silence of once feisty newspaper editors to challenge what they feel are unwise commands from their corporate owners, the men – and women – who live in far-away places, have little or no knowledge of the communities “

  3. I think the election result speaks to the effectiveness of ordering editors to direct citizens how to vote. See my comments on your column of a week ago.

    When I worked in newspapers proprietors were reluctant to issue such orders; they sometimes offered suggestions; we were free to ignore them. Proprietors in those days did not want sycophants running their newspapers.

  4. Thank you for saying it. I was stunned to read my Saturday before the election National Post! More than anything your latest musing explains why they are no longer available to TC readers. Can you circulate this more widely to those still labouring in your profession?

  5. The Postmedia newspapers who endorsed Harper resulted in many unhappy readers cancelling their long-time subscriptions. And Postmedia wonders why their revenue is declining. Absolutely clueless.

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