Steve Lafleur: The case for keeping the CBC

We need more media, not less
Adrienne Arsenault, Rosemary Barton, Andrew Chang and Ian Hanomansing (left to right) are named the new hosts of "The National," at a news conference in Toronto, Tuesday, Aug.1, 2017. Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press.

I’m a supply-side guy. Not necessarily in the monetary policy sense (that’s not my area of expertise). But many of our key problems from housing to energy stem can be solved by producing more units or more gigawatts. It’s not just that we need more, it’s that we need more variety. People have different lifestyles, preferences, and locations. Hydro-powered condos in Downtown Toronto aren’t going to work for everyone. 

I view the news media through the same lens. The economics of traditional media have been under severe pressure with the rise of Google and social media, which have captured a lot of the advertising revenue that media outlets used to count on. That has decimated local reporting, thinned out newsrooms, and created a vacuum where misinformation thrives. We need more, better-staffed newsrooms in more places. And that includes CBC.

I understand that a lot of people aren’t wild about legacy media right now. The internet has allowed for a proliferation of new sources of information, many of which are very good. And a lot of people don’t feel represented by the type of people who work in newsrooms or write opinion columns. But as imperfect as it may be, we’d miss legacy media if it was gone. 

Make no mistake: local news is disappearing in some parts of the country. Since 2008, 470 news outlets in 335 Canadian communities have folded. While Canada’s biggest cities still have several local news sources, newsrooms are getting thinner. Canada’s biggest print news organization announced another round of layoffs, and even the biggest media markets aren’t being spared.

Pressure on ad revenue isn’t the only challenge facing private news outlets. Canada’s size also makes it hard to provide coast-to-coast media coverage. I don’t think it’s possible to truly understand the scale of the country without spending some time out west. Winnipeg is about two thousand kilometers from Toronto. Vancouver is another 2300 or so kilometers further. And there are a lot of towns in between.

Keeping boots on the ground in sparser—especially northern—parts of the country isn’t cheap. Private news media probably isn’t viable in some parts of the country where CBC operates. Some parts of the country don’t have reliable internet and cellular coverage, let alone local media. Eliminating or privatizing CBC would effectively end news coverage in many communities.

One of the ironies of Canadian life is that despite the size of the country, most of us live in a few large metro areas. Influencers and decision-makers are even more concentrated in the core of those cities. New coverage seems relatively fine if you live in Yorkdale or Yaletown. It’s understandable that a lot of people don’t see the problem.

A recent experience really brought this home for me. I was driving through western Ontario. I stopped to get gas somewhere. I honestly can’t remember precisely which town it was. I saw a sign protesting a proposed local project (waste disposal, I think). I was bored, so I decided to Google it. I didn’t find anything. There didn’t appear to be any local media in the town. All I had to go by was a sign. It’s hard to hold local officials accountable without information. And the truth gets easily distorted when news spreads by word of mouth, or on Facebook. 

While the CBC isn’t a substitute for having a local newspaper, it at least helps fill in gaps in regional, national, and international news. They may not have the budget to cover local issues in every town, but at the very least they provide some level of news coverage where none might otherwise exist.

One of the reasons that CBC is such a flashpoint is perceived bias. I don’t think this is entirely unreasonable (the CEO’s recent comments did not help). I think it would be fair to say that CBC has a leftward valence compared to other Canadian news media. But I think it’s important to distinguish between news and opinion. News coverage tends not to vary much by outlet. 

Right-leaning U.S. print outlets like the Wall Street Journal have editorial pages with distinct conservative perspectives. More left-leaning outlets like the Washington Post tend to publish more liberal perspectives. The news coverage, though, isn’t much different. Well-staffed newsrooms have editors, fact-checkers, and copy editors. They also have legal departments (and longstanding reputations at stake). This all ensures that the content is defensible and accurate to the greatest extent possible. There may be some bias involved in deciding which stories get covered at the margins, but you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference in straight news coverage between the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. Or, for that matter, the Star or the National Post

Opinion writing is a very different beast than straight news reporting. The opinion page is where you see the difference between publications. Often that brings out polarized reactions. But we shouldn’t toss out the baby with the bathwater. The news is good and useful whether you like the opinion side. And, frankly, a diversity of opinions is good. Even if you don’t agree with the CBC’s editorial direction, it’s good to hear a variety of perspectives.

Now, CBC isn’t beyond criticism. One big mistake was allowing CBC to compete with private media for advertising dollars. I used to like the idea of CBC advertising to reduce the overall subsidy level. This was short-sighted. The CBC took in roughly $420 million of advertising revenue in the 2021/22 fiscal year. That’s money that might have otherwise been spent advertising through other media outlets, many of which are struggling to remain viable. 

CBC should be a complement to rather than a substitute for private media. Given the tough economics of media today, letting it compete for advertising dollars with other media outlets makes little sense. It’s a practice we should end. If we’re going to call that defunding CBC, fine. I am in favour of that. But if we’re talking about effectively ending local news coverage in parts of the country and hollowing out an already depleted Canadian news media, that’s an entirely different story. 

We’ve got to get away from thinking in zero-sum terms. This has been a depressing tendency of political discourse over the last decade or so. There is no reason why legacy media, public media, and online media can’t co-exist. Each brings good things to the table. Rather than talking about how to scale back one or the other, we should be focused on how to make them all work. And that includes CBC.

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