Looking over the pallid prose that poses as print journalism in this country, it seems to me that most news and feature stories that get published contain a good deal less than meets the eye. We must do better. It is simply no longer enough to arrange facts into logical sequences, or to report events and hope that somehow the reader can judge what to accept.
The essence of the craft of journalism is that it refuses to arrange facts in straight lines but seeks instead to recreate events- and we must recognize that interpretation is inseparable from fact and that the journalist himself or herself becomes part of the action he or she is describing. Ideally, this new-style journalism should employ many of the techniques that were once the exclusive terrain of the poet and novelist: tension, symbolism, cadence, irony and so on. It should pit the sensitive writer-all his or her feelings and intelligence-directly against an event. It is experience in all its complexities that has to be communicated, not just irrelevant housing projects of facts bereft of essence. We must, in other words, look at ordinary things in an extraordinary way, and this does not, incidentally, imply merely reaching for effect by developing an obtuse style.
At the same time, this brand of inspired journalism, though often reading like fiction, is not-or must not be-fiction. It must be as solid in research as the most reliable reportage, though it should seek a larger truth than is possible through mere compilation of verifiable facts, the use of direct quotations and adherence to the rigid organizational style of older formats. Truth, we must realize, is not necessarily the sum of all the ascertainable facts. This “new journalism” requires an act of boldness that will get our craft unstuck from forms of communication developed in and for a social context very different from the present. It must retain its authenticity and, above all, its sense of audience, but it must also win the attention of its readers if it is to have any effect.
What this may mean is that the “reporter” in the traditional sense has become obsolete. “News” has been transformed-sometimes subconsciously-into “interests” and “viewpoints.”
The old distinction between “writers” and “readers” also needs to be redefined.
Readers should write more for other readers-ratepayer groups, the “poor,” the hobbyists, the nursery school teachers and mothers, the police, the trade union movements, businessmen and postal clerks. They should all have their say, in their own words and images. “Unprofessional journalism” it may be, but new voices, new ideas and much more local interest will be the result.
In fact, the very notion of the modern community may be defined as the extent to which people live in and through each other. The instant involvement created by the media, the wide-ranging concern and vicarious participation in events on a global, continental, national, regional and local scale, create in turn a multidimensional community. Viewed another way, we have created a series of overlapping but distinctly different communities.
The terms “media” and “news” have become in many ways synonymous. This is not to ignore many other cultural, entertainment and commercial functions which the media serve today, but to point out that the very idea of “news” is itself a modern notion. The creation of the mass circulation daily newspaper and magazine and in particular the electronic media is, in historical perspective, a relatively recent phenomenon.
All of this casts a heavy burden of responsibility on the modern journalist. There is, of course, a great deal of nonsense spouted about freedom of the press. It seems to me that there exists a kind of genial myth about the members of the so-called Fourth Estate, namely that they speak for the people of this country. The fact is of course that they speak to the Canadian people, not for them. That this should be so seems elementary because most people have nothing to say about who our publishers and editors, reporters and columnists are to be. We can’t admit into our constitutional system room for something called the Fourth Estate which has no democratic base.
It is going to become more difficult to maintain the kind of general-purpose press that can exist only if readers support its credibility. If there is no such thing as objective truth, we must anticipate that, in an age of controversy, the newspaper still aimed at “general circulation” will have to serve up several varieties of truth-or that newspapers of separate identity will arise to do that job instead.
If daily newspapers and magazines are not to become the house organs of a fragment of the upper and middle classes in a society where each fragment is increasingly intolerant of the others, they must make a determined, conscious and calculated effort to keep attuned to middle and lower class morality, culture, impulse and inclination. The press at one time achieved the result by being overwhelmingly middle class; now it is going to have to send into the undiscovered country of the poor and alienated at least as many correspondents as it sends abroad. It is going to have to accomplish by direct effort what it once achieved by osmosis
Canadian publications must develop some kind of coherent philosophy-or, at least, outlook-about Canada’s place in the world, and sharpen their way of looking at the internal and external problems threatening to engulf us. Otherwise, the constant pressure of events will drive readers into either a state of indifference, which is a menace to democratic government, or into a condition of constant anxiety, which destroys both tolerant public opinion and private tranquility. With the age of consensus ending, it is going to be increasingly difficult for journalists to retain the confidence of a reader-audience of dramatically diverse views.
The conflict between those who make and those who report the news is as old as human speech. The press must reach out for a new mandate. It must provide a sense of prophecy for individuals who are losing their grip on the rapidly fading and evolving social institutions. This, in time, will generate a sense of confirmation for the same individuals who read of a change in their newspaper or magazine-and then experience it in their own lives.
Peter C. Newman is a senior contributing editor at Maclean’s, and author of a number of best-selling books like The Canadian Establishment, and True North: Not Strong and Free. His latest, Company of Adventurers, is volume one in a history of the Hudson’s Bay Company.