Monday, November 4, 2013

My Log 389: Propaganda (4): Why I never had a career in journalism: I just wasn’t one of them. Randal Marlin’s book stimulates some more thoughts

Never, ever, think outside the box
Never, ever, think outside the box (Photo credit: Mrs eNil)
JOURNALISTS (Photo credit: drinksmachine)
Throughout my many years in journalism I held some beliefs that I would, if pressed, recite like a mantra.
*Editorial writers are paid liars for the boss
(When I became a senior journalist, offered promotions to pseudo-management positions, it was always understood I would never write editorials. In the end I never accepted any of these offered promotions, believing that the position of Reporter was responsible enough in any newspaper. I was once given the status of Associate Editor, which came automatically with my position as a senior writer, but I didn’t know until I signed a letter of worker protest that I was considered to have joined the management. I let my signature stand, and the devil take the hindmost, which happened, I guess you could say, a few months later when I quit the paper).
* Promotion is a method of  worker-control: if you refuse you’re unreliable
(It was not until I was moving crab-like towards my inevitable quitting of the job, that I realized how venemous my boss was towards me because of my persistent refusal to  accept promotions. Suddenly I realized that my refusal had been meant my boss had no effective way of controlling me, and that is the last thing a boss wants of anyone under his command. When all this sank in, I quit, as I had done previously from five  other newspapers, scattered around the Commonwealth.)
*Advertising, especially display advertising, is all lies
(At one point in my family life, when my children were young, I was in the habit of lining them up before the TV set and we all chanted “Lies, lies, lies!” as advertising droned on. I really think this is the most effective response to advertising, better than any code of ethics. Strangely, Randal does not mention this technique of resistence in his magisterial review of the field!)
* Every newspaper, all advertising, whether subliminally or directly, is always engaged in propagating capitalism and its system.
( This is the great hidden pressure on every citizen, that every advertisement, every issue of a mainstream newsaper, is in its very existence a subliminal appeal, instruction, or encouragement, to the viewer to believe in capitalism. Thus, we are surrounded, inescapably,  by the propaganda of capitalism. Thus, I imagine, it follows  from all of these that I never really believed in the illusory, self-accepted status of journalists as the defenders of freedom of expression.)
* And lastly,  I will never vote for anything but a leftist party.

Having read these, it will come as no surprise to most of my readers to find that I scarcely thought it worth reading the chapters on advertising and public relations in Randal Marlin’s  epic work Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion (published by Broadview Press, Peterborough, Ontario, pps 368,  $32.95.), the  excellent book that has triggered these typically rambling and unstructured reflections on my working life in the media.  Perhaps I could add one to the list of mantras listed above:
It would be:
* Journalism may not be a particularly honorable profession, but it is a notch above Public Relations, which again is a notch above Advertising.
(I associate Advertising men as the crassest of seekers afer wealth. And I associate Public Relations with those pathetic washed-up journalists, come through desperation to representing the national Turkey Federation or somesuch, who are always to be found hanging around the local Press Club bar.)
I imagine it also follows, and scarcely needs to be emphasized, that I have always regarded talk of the Ethics of Advertising, and the Ethics of Public Relations (and the Ethics of Journalism, come to that), as at once a cruel joke and a monstrous hoax perpetrated on the public in an effort to obscure their real purposes, and to camouflage the constant lying that lies at the heart of their work.
Randal, of course, is bound to take them seriously, since his field of expertise is the Ethics of Persuasion, and all three  professions (I hate using the word in this context) are certainly in the business of persuasion. I remember in my first years in The Montreal Star in the late 1950s hearing an expert talk at a luncheon club meeting about the arts of salesmanship, beginning with what he called the “needs creation” aspect of the sales pitch (which means they have to create a need that doesn’t really exist), moving on to the “needs satisfaction” area of the pitch (meaning they have to satisfy the imaginary need they have just created: and these guys are pedallig Ethics!). I thought this both hilarious and revealing, and hastened back to the office to write a wry account of the talk (using those skills I had developed over the years in seeming to say something without actually saying it). The fate of my noble effort was the sub-editor’s spike. Reflections on the falsity of salesmanship did not deserve a place in a newspaper that depended on advertising for its living, however amusing they might be.
Similarly, after my eight years of relative freedom writing from London, I returned to Montreal to take up a position as a reporter on the staff, and one of my first assignments was to describe the opening of a huge new shopping centre in the north end of Montreal. Having become accustomed to the lower key of everything in British life, I was amazed by the scale of the architecture, this temple to commerce being placed in a building almost worthy of a cathedral.  Fidel Castro had just made a speech in which he criticised the western world for its commercialism, and I worked into my article that it could have been this new shopping centre that he had in his sights. The fate of this article, like the other written a decade before, was the sub-editorial spike. “It would be in bad taste,” growled the editor-in-chief, “for us to criticize advertising, since we make our living out of it.”  (I could have gotten away with writing something like that from London, but there my bosses were not likely to meet the offended parties over lunch at their clubs. A melancholy reflection on the flexible devotion of the newspaper to freedom of expression.)
So, Randal, you will have to forgive me, old man, if I skip over your chapters on advertising, public relations and their supposed Codes of Ethics.
I did make a note of one interesting thing you wrote, on page 195 of your opus. 
“In Ancient Greece the orator directly confronted an audience, and persuasive skills were directed to winning it over, along lines described in Aristotle’s  Rhetoric.
(My note: good old Aristotle, glad you could get him in there!  He hadn’t reappeared for sixty pages, and I was missing him!) Today large-scale comunication is mediated through print, radio, TV and the Internet.”

This did bring to mind the occasion on which I got my idea, as a teenager, of what I still think to be seemly politics. Our governing Labour Party in New Zealand had, of course,  right-wing and  left-wing factions. Naturally, I supported the leftists, one of whose leaders after the war mounted a campaign for nationalization of the banks. He undertook a nation-wide tour, an Aristotle de nos jours, and in my home town he drew a capacity audience of at least 1500 who sat quietly and respectfully through his presentation in a theatre packed to the gills, before going home to consider his arguments: just how politics should be conducted, I thought (and still think). Much superior to this modern  “mediation” through electronic media.
Incidentally, I had some experience of this “mediation”, too. I first became a contributor to the CBC in the mid to late fifties when I wrote a talk about the writer Jean-Paul Sartre, one of my favorites,  which was accepted by the dedicated and deadly serious radio producers of that day --- who also produced farm forums, adult education programmes on the radio and such other improving and laudable stuff that filled the airwaves in the 1950s. In those early days, I could talk for fifteen minutes without interruption. Later I made a monthly contribution to a programme called Critically Speaking, my particular field being criticism of radio programmes (because I never had a TV until my employer provided me with one on my arrival in London in 1960). Eleven minute talks, if I remember correctly. From London, later, I was an occasional commentator to programmes dealing with British politics, the length being usually six or eight minutes.
Only years later when I was writing a rare commentary on something or other for the CBC, did one of the new-breed producers interrupt my flow to tell me, “You’ve been talking for two minutes. You’ll be losing your audience. We need some sound effects here, if possible.!”
This is the new “mediation” of communication, and it kind of explains my dismay when I hear that youngsters are studying “communications” in universities. In fact, this modern “mediation”  is worse than so far stated, because, while chatting to a TV producer one day as we waited to get into a studio, I was told that the average sound-byte on TV had been reduced to six seconds!  I could scarcely believe my ears, but I knew it to be only too true because not long before I had given a 45-minute interview to a CBC sound producer for a piece on the historic creation of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement ten years before. She had congratulated me on the coherence and relevance of what I had to say, and thanked me for it by including all of half a sentence from the interview in her programme. I vowed never again to be interviewed by the CBC. Why waste one’s time?
Perhaps my distaste for this modern world of “mediation of communications” as it is now called, explains why, when I finally quit daily journalism in 1971, hoping to be able to continue to feed my family of four children, and expecting to make most of my living from the CBC, they hired me only twice in the following forty years.
Presumably because I’ve never mastered the art of the six-second sound byte. Or also, maybe, because I’m just a teeny bit bloody-minded.
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