Saturday Night – a magazine dedicated to providing in depth analysis and reporting on Canadian issues and policies – closed shop on Oct. 20th. The Walrus magazine, a similar take-no-prisoners journalistic crusader, is seeking charitable status to stay afloat. Meanwhile, controversy abounds at other Canadian magazines: Kim Pittaway, the editor-in-chief of publishing powerhouse Chatelaine, and Calgary-based Avenue Magazine’s editor, Janice Paskey, both stepped down from their positions reporting that they were uncomfortable with what they perceived to be editorial interference; and Maclean’s, Canada’s flagship news magazine, named respected former National Post editor, Ken Whyte, as both editor and publisher – two jobs historically considered a conflict of interest to hold at the same time. Should we care? We might care more after watching George Clooney’s new directorial gem, Good Night and Good Luck, based on the true story of how CBS TV journalist Ed Murrow’s brave reporting brought down the ’50s evil empire known as Senator Joe McCarthy. (Clooney’s brilliance is in palpably portraying the gut-wrenching terror of taking on powerful institutions.) Like The Insider, the Russell Crowe movie based on the true story of how CBS almost pulled a 60 Minutes investigative report on the tobacco industry for fear court suits threatened by the multi-nationals would bankrupt the entire network, never mind the show, Good Night and Good Luck illustrates just how fragile democracy and consumer protection are in the absence of strong-willed and financially powerful media capable of fighting court battles, never mind making up for lost revenues from the advertisers who – and this is their right – turn tail from controversial subjects.
And therein lies one of the major issues that bedevils the media: to be strong enough to fight big business, government, unions and other interests – and thrive as a business – you need advertising support. But fear of losing that support can cause you to make editorial compromises that in turn jeopardize other democratic freedoms and consumer rights. That’s why an informed, involved, readership that cares is an essential part of a winning formula – with editors and publishers who constantly question editorial strategy (and each other’s take on it) – to create strong, influential, independent and well-read media that protect us all. Good Night and Good Luck is a reminder of this. Murrow wouldn’t have received network permission to raise the questions he did, if he didn’t have the strength of loyal viewers backing him. And though it’s about a TV program, messages delivered to Murrow in the movie, such as: advertisers don’t want controversy and will pull their ads; and people want entertainment (not issues), are comments every magazine editor hears from publishers and advertising representatives. The battle lines aren’t new, and are, in fact – when they work best – what remind journalists to make sure they get all their facts right before publishing stories that could ruin businesses, governments, or peoples’ reputations. A good publisher saying: “Are you sure?” – as the legendary Katharine Graham did at the Washington Post during the Watergate saga – can be as important to the reporting process as the journalists chasing down corruption. But so should editors fear giving into publishers and ad reps who are trying to create fairyland environments for their advertisers to the point they worry more about what advertisers want in the magazine than what readers do. And while there are successful examples of editors also acting as publishers, we should be aware that there are also dangers. For one, it’s awfully hard to have an argument with yourself when conflicts between advertising and editorial occur. Or as Charlotte Empey, the former editor-in-chief and publisher of both Homemakers and Canadian Living magazines put it: “Brainstorming with yourself isn’t very much fun.” I, biased journalist that I am, think if everyone reflects on what it is readers want from a magazine – entertainment, service stories to help them through their days, stop-the-presses investigative pieces, and entertaining and informative ads, then everyone should be in agreement on delivering just that, and nothing less. Most importantly we should remember that a powerful product is never going to be delivered – in the face of conflicting interests – unless magazine consumers demand it. In the end, should we care about the demise of strong issues-oriented magazines such as Saturday Night or the pressures on women’s magazines to avoid controversial issues? It depends, gentle reader, on whether you believe a strong media, with newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV working in tandem, is necessary to protect our rights and freedoms and give us the ability to make informed consumer and policy decisions. But if you have doubts, go see Good Night and Good Luck.
DIANNE RINEHART has worked as a senior reporter and editor, as well as a freelance writer, for news organizations, newspapers and consumer magazines in Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver and Moscow.
Rinehart currently writes a twice-weekly political and social affairs column for the Hamilton Spectator, which also appears frequently in the Vancouver Sun and regularly in the Montreal Gazette.
Most recently, she was editor-in-chief of Homemakers magazine, where she assigned and published articles that won the B’nai Brith and Amnesty International Human Rights Media Awards, as well as many others which were nominated for National Magazine Awards. This year she is teaching feature writing to second-year students at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism.