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Top Reporters Offer Military Media Handling Tips

Ryerson’s course on handling media has raised eyebrows

By David South

Now Magazine (Toronto, Canada), November 12-18, 1992

The whimsical Certificate of Military Achievement hanging in the offices of the Ryersonian newspaper at Ryerson journalism school is testament to the warm relationship between the armed forces and one of Canada’s top journalism schools.

But a two-month crash course in journalism for military public affairs officers hosted by Ryerson this summer has left a bad taste in the mouths of some participants and critics.

The course, which involved 18 soldiers, included two weeks of classes in each of print, radio and TV journalism, wrapping up with two weeks of “crisis management” training. The 60 instructures included such prominent journalists as Ann Medina and Pamela Wallin.

According to an administration newsletter, the course netted Ryerson more than $350,000. Organizers say the course was merely an exercise in familiarizing soldiers with the needs of working journalists. But given the often conflicting roles of the military and the media, some fear journalistic ethics may have taken some collateral damage.

“The course had nothing to do with national defence or the armed forces,” says course teacher and organizer Shelley Robertson. “They just wanted to understand the roles of journalists from the other side. The military didn’t ask us to teach what we teach our students.”

Robertson says the course also benefited the participating journalists by giving them contacts in the military.

But according to media critic Barrie Zwicker, the exercise blurs what should be the distinctly different interests of journalists and the military. “It’s similar to press and politicians. By getting close to the politician, journalists can get information they couldn’t normally obtain. The negative side is that the media can get sucked in and lose a larger perspective. The same tensions exist with covering the military.

Managing media

“It’s up to the media to break the rules and try and get the story. The military always wants to hide its victims. If a Ryerson journalist strikes up a friendship with a public affairs officer, will the reporter be true to their journalistic tradition?”

Colloquially known as spin doctors, hype-meisters and flak catchers, public affairs officers perform much the same tasks in the military as their civilian counterparts in industry and government – including managing information that gets to the public or media.

In the past, Canadian soldiers had to go to the US for special training at the Defense Information School at Fort Benjamin Harrison. But, according to Robertson, the armed forces were looking for a Canadian spin.

With 4,600 Canadian peacekeepers now stationed around the world, including a contingent in the dangerous and volatile former Yugoslav republics, the chances for conflict – and casualties – have increased.

Lieutenant-commander Glen Chamberlain, who helped coordinate the course, says the military’s increased profile means that the forces have to become more adept at media relations. “There is a great desire among Canadians to know what troops on peacekeeping duties are up to. We have a wonderful story to tell.”

Chamberlain says he works on journalists’ behalf with stubborn military commanders. “The armed forces are finding there is a real benefit to having specialized PA officers. We want to help journalists to tell our story well.”

The crisis management section of the course offered participants a hands-on approach to managing journalists. The officers were presented with two scenarios – a murder at Moss Park armoury and a highway helicopter crash – and then practised handling a group of journalists investigating the events.

Course lecturer Kevin Donovan, who covered the Gulf war for the Toronto Star, remembers the effectiveness and sophistication of PA officers in the field.

“When I was in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, I walked into a hotel and on the wall were pool reports – news briefs written by US military public affairs officers – that journalists were encouraged to use for stories. There were some journalists going out into the field to cover stories, but a huge number just sat in this beautiful hotel.”

Stop information

Donovan feels uncomfortable about teaching on the course.

“I was asked by Ryerson to give a talk on my experiences in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq,” he says. “My initial reaction was no. I hate the existance of public affairs people with a passion. Their job is to stop information.

“I’m uncomfortable with Ryerson being hired by the department of national defence. One officer in the course got very upset when I told them to make contacts with the media and leak stories.”

Course organizer Clive Vanderburgh admits organizers had concerns about conflicts between the role of journalists and military officers. “There was a lot of discussion concerning the potential for conflict – especially that the people hired to teach might think they were there to help the department of national defence to avoid the media

“But we were trying to give a general understanding of the media’s needs. We didn’t sell the country down the drain.”

Another teacher was Robert Fulford, the well-known writer and lecturer on journalistic ethics. “I don’t have a problem with Ryerson teaching the military,”says Fulford. “It’s a way of spreading journalistic technique to people in the DND. It seems to be a natural extension of the work of Ryerson.

“Canadian journalists are ignorant of the military and could do with getting closer. You almost never find a full-time journalist in Canada who knows anything about them. The more you know about the military, the less you will be manipulated.”

But Gideon Forman, coordinator of the Canadian Peace Alliance, fears Ryerson may be helping the military mislead the public.

“Why do these guys practise handling the media so much of there’s nothing to hide? This is just better packaging for the military so they can get what they want from the public.

“I have problems with public money being spent teaching the military to be more effective with the media, while other organizations have their budgets cut or eliminated.

“Is there a similar program for food banks or women’s shelters?”

Note on story context: This story was researched and written after two key events involving Canada’s military: the first Gulf War from 1990-1991; and the Oka Crisis in 1990, where the Canadian Armed Forces confronted an armed group of Mohawk “Warriors” in Oka, Quebec.

More investigative journalism here: 

Peaceniks Questioning Air-Raid Strategy In Bosnia

Somali Killings Reveal Ugly Side Of Elite Regiment

Study Says Jetliner Air Quality Poses Health Risks: CUPE Takes On Airline Industry With Findings Of Survey

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Undercurrents: A Cancellation At CBC TV Raises A Host Of Issues For The Future

By David South

Scan Magazine (Canada), April/May 1997

The screensaver on an Undercurrents researcher’s computer terminal bears a maxim that might strike a chord in a lot of CBC units these days: “Only the paranoid survive.”

The quirky media and technology show will fade to black at the end of March. Its cancellation raises a host of issues for a CBC deeply troubled by budget cuts, an ageing audience, a dearth of alternative programme concepts and an inability to plan for a future.

In the show’s pilot, Wendy Mesley – Undercurrents’ host and progenitor – set the tone for this accessible look at the relationship among technology, media and society: “Like it or not we are living in a wired world where OJ Simpson, Big Brother, even your bank machine, all converge … we’ll explore all the issues, the undercurrents of the information age.”

To those who loved it, Undercurrents was a program that satisfied a vital public need, and an ambitious concept for a public broadcaster that some say had grown a little musty. The show promised avant-garde production and investigative journalism that critically explored today’s new media and technology culture. Youngish researchers and producers were hired from outside the CBC. They brought with them experience and new ideas from specialty channels, TV Ontario and CTV. Some came straight out of journalism school.

Critical reaction to the first programs was mixed. John Doyle, a critic with the Globe and Mail’s Broadcast Week, lauded Undercurrents when it launched, calling it “a superb example of  solid CBC-TV journalism and original reporting.” Others were less flattering. The Toronto Star’s Greg Quill accused the show of “flirting with infotainment.” At the Vancouver Sun, Alex Strachan wasn’t impressed by a report on a weekend conclave of computer geeks in the California desert for a kind of Hackerstock. “It sounds interesting,” he wrote, “but it isn’t.”

What hurt more was schedulers playing musicial chairs with the show’s slot. Switching Undercurrents from Tuesday at 7 pm to Friday at 7 pm midway through its life left viewers confused and sent ratings plummeting just as network programmers were casting about for places to apply a whopping 30 percent budget cut. As a result, some feel the show never had a fighting chance.

In the end, it was the show’s precarious financial arrangement that killed it. Undercurrents was never funded from the general current affairs budget. Instead, it drew on a special reserve of cash created by the network. When it came time to mete out the cuts in December, the special funding bubble burst. Rather than cut further into the budgets of flagship current affairs programs, executives chose to drop Undercurrents.

Executive producer Frances Mary (FM) Morrison acknowledges that gratitude for her program’s special funding obscured a recognition of its fragility. “That was really our Achilles heel,” she says. “We were just this little orphan that didn’t have its own money. We weren’t adopted into the larger family.”

With the network funding gone, Undercurrents’ budget (rumoured to be over a million dollars per season) was nowhere to be found. Discussions about chasing a corporate sponsor went nowhere because the show needed more money than any sponsor could have provided. “It was never an issue of $100,000 or $200,000,” says Morrison. “It was the issue of our entire budget. [CBC] would still have had to come up with the rest of it.”

CBC TV’s news, current affairs and Newsworld director Bob Culbert and former current affairs head Norm Bolen both say they wanted the show to stay on the air but couldn’t find a way to fund it withou seriously hurting programs like The Fifth Estate, Marketplace and Venture.

Bolen, now VP of programming at the History and Entertainment Network, says it came down to choosing between The Health Show and Undercurrents. The Health Show won because it had a “bigger audience, a broader demographic and was bringing in revenue from sales of programming to the specialty channels.”

Mesley has another theory. “The majority of people who worked on this programme are not traditional CBCers… They can’t bump, they don’t get huge severance packages. Of course, if you want a future, those are the wrong reasons for letting people go.”

With its intensive focus on issues like the abuse of computer-morphed images, surreptitious “data-mining” of consumer purchase records, or media “freebies,” there’s no question that Undercurrents has met a need in this media-saturated world. But controversy over the cancellation centres on the age-old question of CBC and the youth audience.

Morrison and Mesley both say they intended the show to appeal to a younger-than-usual CBC audience. But CBC executives weren’t convinced it was an audience the network could, or should, go after. According to Culbert, a youth mandate was something the production team brought to Undercurrents. “It started as a media ethics show targeted at a classic CBC audience. Nobody sat around one day and said ‘let’s invent the show that will go after younger viewers.’”

Bolen expresses a profound lack of faith in the under-30 audience. “People under 30 don’t watch information programming, okay? Let’s get that straight. I sure wouldn’t spend the rest of my life trying to get an audience that doesn’t watch a certain genre of programming. This is a business where you pay attention to reality. People under 30 watch trashy American sitcoms, which I’m not in the business of doing, and which the CBC isn’t in the business of doing.”

“I think that’s bullshit,” says Reid Willis, producer and director of CityTV’s Media Television. “People under 30 are interested in what’s going on in the media. The 20 to 30 group is more media savvy than the generation that preceded them.” But Willis thinks the lack of information programming pitched at a young audience is down to a lack of interest from advertisers.

Mesley and Morrison remain convinced Undercurrents did appeal to a younger audience, but felt it was sabotaged by the schedule shuffling. In the show’s first slot, Tuesdays at 7 pm, its average audience was 499,000. The biggest night came on Sunday, October 22, 1995 when a repeat aired at 9:30 pm got an audience of 865,000. But Undercurrents’ debut in the 96/97 season in its new 7 pm slot on Fridays was demoralizing for the crew. Morrison reports the audience for the season opener at 438,000 and 434,000 for a strong programme the following week.

She says the numbers built as audiences found the programme’s new location, peaking at 678,000 on December 6. According to CBC audience research figures, average minute audience for the 96/97 season to February 2 stood at 518,000 viewers.

“Friday at seven was not a good place for Undercurrents,” claims Morrison. “It’s an older audience. In fact the audience for Air Farce [which followed Undercurrents at 7:30] is quite old, surprisingly old. I was actually astonished to find out how old that audience was.”

CBC audience research bears Morrison out, reporting that the 18-34 demographic for both Air Farce and Undercurrents has been identical this season – a mere 14 percent of the total audience.

Fridays at seven is also a heavily competitive slot packed with overhyped American tabloid TV shows like Entertainment Tonight, Inside Edition, Hard Copy and A Current Affair. Morrison says focus groups told her that audiences in that time period surf around looking for stories they like and then switch around with no loyalty to a particular programme.

“People build a menu. We took a leaf out of the tabloid book in terms of our presentation in order to survive in the seven o’clock environment.”

Undercurrents’ jerky camera work and flashy graphics didn’t endear itself to everyone, a fact the show’s producers recognized early on. “I can point to stories where we sabotaged ourselves with stylistic extremes,” admits Morrison.

But Mesley bristles at accusations the show was all style and no content, or a clone of Media Television. “We are the antithesis of Media Television. Obviously everyone has adopted their style from rock videos.  But they get nearly all their video as handouts. We are not saying, ‘This is hip.’ We are not saying, ‘This is the latest consumer thing you can add to your collection.’ We are saying ‘Think about this.’”

Undercurrents’producers express pride in the show’s innovations. They cite its lead role in web page design at the corporation., its efforts at promoting a more playful visual presentation, and its success in promoting an acceptance of media stories elsewhere in news and current affairs. But what seemed to enliven everyone interviewed for this story was a love of the public broadcasting ethos, where stories are told because they are important, not because advertisers say they are important. Many of the young researchers and producers at Undercurrents had done time at the privates, and appreciated the freedom and extensive resources offered by the CBC. But they felt they had come to a CBC whose values were in peril.

“It will be like C-SPAN here,” quipped an Undercurrents freelancer who has done time at the specialty channels.

Others who thrived in the upbeat atmosphere at Undercurrents say they’re not too keen to look for work elsewhere in the CBC. One such is 25-year-old researcher Bret Dawson. “It’s not a happy place,” he says.

It’s not clear what, if any, programming will replace Undercurrents. If the current trend prevails, it looks like any new programming will have to survive on a smaller budget, generate outside income and prove it can draw in viewers in short order. Under those conditions, people at Undercurrents and elsewhere wonder how long CBC’s commitment to innovative new programming  can hold out.

CBC TV’s Undercurrents host Wendy Mesley. Scan Magazine was published in the 1990s for Canadian media professionals.

In 2021 Wendy Mesley commented on the story in a Tweet.

More from Scan Magazine:

The Big Dump: CP’s New Operational Plan Leaves Critics With Questions Aplenty

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021