Persistent media bias against public spending

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Media critic Brooks Kind swung into action last week after hearing an on-air comment by a CBC Radio news reader in Halifax. During a news update with Information Morning host Don Connolly, newscaster Sandy Smith mentioned the Nova Scotia NDP government’s decision to get into the road paving business.

Kind fired off this e-mail to Smith:

Yesterday on the lead-in to Infomorning you described the Dexter government as “extending its tentacles” into the road paving business. Doesn’t the use of such a dramatic and tendentious metaphor to inculcate a bias against government involvement in road paving violate CBC Standards and Practices? Wouldn’t your audience be better served by reporting on why the government got into the paving business in the first place, and by taking a critical look at the practices of Dexter Construction in keeping rates uncompetitively high?

The next day, an e-mail from Smith acknowledged that he shouldn’t have used the words “extending its tentacles.” Smith added that the rest of the CBC coverage was not only fair and balanced, but also provided context for the paving story.

Media bias and political power

In the overall scheme of things, Kind’s complaint may seem minor, but it does point to a persistent media bias against public institutions. Yes, the mainstream media do have a role to play in calling attention to abuses of power and the wasting of taxpayers’ money on the part of politicians and bureaucrats. But, over the last three decades, relentless news media propaganda against public institutions has coincided with the steadily rising power of big, multinational corporations.

As social critic Ursula Franklin points out, corporations have transformed their struggle for commercial and economic dominance into a new form of warfare called globalization. The Wikipedia entry on Franklin summarizes her ideas this way:

This economic warfare defines the enemy as all those who care about the values of community. “Whatever cannot be merely bought and sold,” Franklin writes, “whatever cannot be expressed in terms of money and gain-loss transactions stands in the way of the ‘market’ as enemy territory to be occupied, transformed and conquered.” A main strategy in this kind of warfare is the privatization of formerly public domains such as culture, health care, prisons and education to generate private profit. Franklin contends that the new economic warlords or “marketeers” aim, for example, to transform “the ill health or misery of our neighbours into investment opportunities for the next round of capitalism.” She argues that marketeers have become occupying forces served by “puppet governments who run the country for the benefit of the occupiers.”

Mainstream media reporting does not seem to have noticed this fundamental shift in political power. The obsessive media focus, for example, on deficit spending and public debt is one of the main pillars of pro-corporate propaganda against the welfare state. Unfortunately, most journalists seem unaware that they are spreading propaganda. For them, government deficits and public spending itself have become political evils even if they are sometimes necessary ones. See my earlier post Media cheerlead for government cuts.

The media bias is everywhere — a constant drumbeat against politicians and political institutions. Last Sunday, for example, a Halifax Chronicle-Herald headline informed readers that “Bluenose MPs beat national average on expenses.” In his regular political column, reporter David Jackson summed things up this way: “In total, Canadians paid out a whopping $133 million to cover our federal representatives’ parliamentary and constituency duties.”

Yes, $133 million is a big figure. But the adjective whopping grossly overstates its significance. This year, total federal spending will be about $276 billion. So, the expenses for members of Parliament represent a minuscule .05 per cent of federal spending.

Besides, the real question — a question that Jackson does not ask — is whether constituents and taxpayers are receiving good value for that $133 million. The default position for mainstream journalists and the right-wing, pro-corporate think tanks they like to quote is that politicians are profligate and so, if they’re spending a “whopping” $133 million on their expenses, a lot of it must be wasted.

Jackson begins his commentary with these telling paragraphs:

Defence Minister Peter MacKay was raked over the coals last week for staying at a couple of pricey European hotels last year, but the MP’s office expenses compare favourably to those of his Bluenose colleagues.

MacKay ranked ninth among the 11 Nova Scotia MPs ringing up $394,334 in 2010-2011 expenses for staff, travel to Ottawa and elsewhere in Canada, office expenses, advertising, mailouts and hospitality, according to a report all MPs file.

Jackson clearly believes that the less MPs spend, the better. Thus, MacKay compares “favourably” to his Nova Scotia colleagues. But how well did MacKay serve his constituents? And, does that even matter?

Today’s Herald editorial pounds away at what has become a favourite journalistic theme (again in line with the message from pro-corporate think tanks). In bemoaning the size of the Nova Scotia deficit, the Herald concludes: “Fundamentally, Nova Scotia needs a more dynamic and competitive economy that is better at generating jobs. And that will require more than some budget fine-tuning. We have to finally tackle the unsustainable cost of having too many layers of government for our size.”

Translation: We can no longer afford all those politicians draining the treasury while stifling private-sector dynamism and competition. The fewer political representatives we have, the better!

About Bruce Wark

Bruce Wark is a freelance journalist and retired journalism professor who lives in Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada. He taught the history and ethics of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia for 15 years. Before that, he worked for 19 years at CBC Radio news serving as a producer in charge of such network programs as World at Six, World Report and The House. He also produced Media File, a national program that looked critically at the performance of the news media. Along the way, Wark also worked as CBC Radio's legislative reporter in Ontario and as its National Reporter in Canada's Maritime provinces.
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