News and Dissent: The Press and the Politics of Peace in Canada

Robert Hackett

News and Dissent is an important study of journalistic practices in Canada. Robert Hackett's account of how the peace movement was covered by Canadian print journalists blends theory with case and raises significant questions. Hackett reviews the theoretical literature on news production, contrasting liberal-pluralist perspectives with those of critical scholars. His discussion of "hegemonic" approaches sets the stage for the analysis of three case studies--the reporting of human rights in the context of the Cold War, the American raid on Libya in 1986, and Vancouver's annual Walk for Peace--that test the validity and vibrancy of this perspective.

Hackett's study is driven to some degree by Todd Gitlin's classic work, The Whole World is Watching, which examined the coverage given to peace activists and the peace movement by the American media during the Vietnam War. Gitlin argued that the ideological "frames" used by the news media both propelled the peace movement into prominence and later divided, undermined, and trivialized it. Hackett picks up where Gitlin's argument left off--transporting the argument into a different context, a different time and place--but supporting its power and cogency.

Hackett's contention is that "the State exerts a field force over media representations of public affairs" (p. 271) and that there is a "hierarchy of access" (p. 270) among sources which ensures that established interests and perspectives are reinforced. In Hackett's words, "the press must be regarded as a site of contestation which is `structured in dominance' " (p. 281). He describes how the routines and demands of the news media--their need to portray personalities, conflict, deviance, the immediate, the sensational, and the highly visual--flow against the grain of the methods and processes employed by social movements: the stress on long-term building, the broad sweep, and interconnectedness of social change and the often slow evolution in consciousness and attitudes.

It must be said, however, that at least one of the case studies, Vancouver's annual Walk for Peace, does not fit neatly into the hegemonic framework described by Hackett. Far from opposing or downplaying the walk, many local journalists, especially in the early years, acted as cheerleaders, identifying strongly with the objectives of the marchers. Newspaper headlines celebrated the event, casting it as a kind of civic festival. Hackett argues that this kind of framing threatened to depoliticize and trivialize the peace movement and that, over time as the march became more routine, coverage became increasingly detached and critical. What is interesting is that this case study, while used to justify the saliency of the hegemonic explanation, could just as easily be used to prove the usefulness and validity of other approaches. Hackett points out that there were sharp differences in approach among journalists and news organizations and that the celebratory nature of the coverage was meant to appeal to readers and audiences. Advocates of the journalistic /professional independence approach or the organizational and audience perspective could find much grist for their mills in the evidence presented by Hackett. In fact, critics of the hegemony approach contend that hegemony can become a self-fulfilling prophecy in which clear evidence of the validity of other perspectives is dismissed because hegemony supposedly carries within it inevitable contradictions.

Hackett reminds his readers that there are "openings" (p. 278) and "opportunities created by contradictions" (p. 280) within the media's ideological frame which allow social movements to use the media to their advantage. The routines of balanced reporting that allow advocates of social and political change to be "one of the `two sides of the story' " (p. 279), the measure of independence that some journalists achieve within their organizations, and the tactics used by movements can all be used to garner positive publicity. Still, there are sharp limits to what social activists can expect.

Hackett's conclusions are more optimistic than those of Gitlin. While Gitlin seems to suggest that movements are almost bound to experience transformations and even self-destruction as they try to fit the media's frame, Hackett argues that movements can succeed to some degree if they are realistic and organized and cleverly exploit the fissures created by the media's contradictions. This fine work offers hope for activists and much intellectual sustenance for scholars. There is little doubt that News and Dissent will be a landmark in the ongoing debate over the forces that shape news production.

Common Cents by James Winter follows a similar line of argument but it is much more of a hard-hitting political and polemical tract than a theoretical or scientific study. Winter analyzes media coverage of the Gulf War, the free trade debate, the Meech Lake Accord, the Ontario NDP government's first months in office and the confrontation between Mohawk warriors and the Canadian army at Oka. He draws the conclusion that there is a pro-American, pro-business, and pro-Conservative bias in the Canadian media. Winter marshalls a great deal of evidence in making his arguments and writes with considerable sensitivity about the plight and suffering of the voiceless and powerless. Students can benefit from the perspective that he brings and the important issues that he raises.

Yet Winter's fierce attack on conventional media reporting also leaves many unanswered questions. There is little discussion of how journalistic decisions are made, of the conventions of news production that expect journalists to treat statements by political leaders with suspicion and to refute their claims, of the complex interaction between journalists and their sources, and of the role and power of audiences and readers. Winter's analysis does not probe beneath the skin of Canadian journalism. There are few nuances and no real effort to link his evidence to theories in a detailed way. But this may not have been the author's intention. The purpose seems to be to launch an attack against practices that Winter wishes to expose as unjust.

Common Cents is an important resource. The irony is that the emotional and ideological force behind Winter's critique, which is the book's great strength, is in another sense also its greatest weakness.



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