Advancing versus Obstructing

Advancing versus Obstructing

These days, it’s great to see Western media uncovering the misdeeds of the powerful.

But we shouldn’t forget the media wield tremendous power. The media are self-promoting organizations, with agendas of their own.

I practiced journalism for two decades, then taught journalism for a few years at the State University of New York. But I learned more about media power by attending Conrad Black’s three-month-long criminal trial in Chicago. Why? Because it placed me suddenly in the unique position of seeing British, American and Canadian newspaper, radio and television reporters at close hand on a daily basis.

As an unauthorized biographer of Conrad Black – Lord Black of Crossharbour – I was competing directly with many of these reporters, although I faced different deadlines.

Toronto media chased the local bad-boy celebrity story – so gaining and maintaining access to him was all-important.

American reporters weren’t particularly impressed by the modest scale of the alleged frauds Mr. Black was said to have perpetrated – after all, US corporate fraud cases run to the billions, not just the low millions. But generally they did a creditable job keeping track of legal procedure and the facts of the case. Since the trial was in Chicago, and Mr. Black had controlled the Chicago Sun-Times, this was seen in the United States as a local rather than a national story.

British reporters meanwhile treated Mr. Black, once the owner of the Daily Telegraph, as a greedy colonial upstart. How dare he consider himself a real aristocrat with his freshly-minted life peerage and seat in the House of Lords and withering arrogance? They felt he needed to be brought down a few notches, and perhaps get thrown into jail altogether.

I had the impression the various media organizations attending the trial had a good idea what the story was going to be. They had a narrative framework all set, which means they knew how much spin to put on what they saw from day to day.

I was more comfortable with the perspective of Montreal media, such as Radio-Canada (the French CBC) and the daily newspaper La Presse, as they struggled to understand how someone so wealthy and intelligent could sabotage himself to the point of ending up in criminal court. I struggled with this as well.

To tell the truth, the trial felt like a Hitchcock movie. Would it end up like To Catch a Thief or I Confess or The Man Who Knew to Much or The Wrong Man or Vertigo or Psycho or Frenzy? How could I tell? My book came out four months after the trial, both in English (Robber Baron) and in French (Le baron Black), by which time I was able to draw appropriate conclusions. I wrote the book essentially with French Canadian readers in mind, since they had no vested interest in the result, they were therefore more objective, and they were intrigued by the fact Mr. Black had spent a decade living in and learning about Quebec.

According to the mythology of journalism, supported by Hollywood movies like All the Presidents Men, the media are heroic guardians of truth. And yet, when it comes down to actual behaviour, the media advance facts just as often as they obstruct – they reveal as often as they conceal. It all depends on the agenda they are pushing. Values collide headlong with interests, and the result is not always pretty.

Many subjects never get covered by the media.

1) Slush funds are an obvious place to start: major political parties set them up, then rake in illegal donations, sometimes from foreigners hoping to become Canadian citizens. This is a new take on the concept of immigrant investors!

2) Some socialites openly brag about having made personal gifts of a million dollars and more to serving prime ministers.

3) Some government ministers put a price on access, to the point of seeking (extorting) cash donations in brown envelopes, just for an initial meeting to discuss possible government contracts. Access, access – it’s all about access.

4) A Canadian senator told me he was willing to serve as an intermediary between non-profit organizations and government funding agencies, as long as he got a 10% kickback, preferably in cash (for example: $400,000 x 10% = $40,000). This was real work, he claimed, with an air of exasperation (since I was running a non-profit and wasn’t willing to commit to paying him that 10%). He said he had to study proposals, make contacts in ministries, etc. It struck me he was driving a wedge into the system, to advance his own private interests. And to think he was a lawyer! Maybe he was building a wedge fund!

5) Powerful people committing serious crimes (whether financial or sexual) are allowed to slip away, unreported.

Cases like these are common knowledge in the upper echelons of Canadian society, but the media have little motivation to cover them. Of course, the powerful have the means to defend themselves, whether in court or through direct intimidation.

Conrad Black’s biography of Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis was a mind-opener for me, because in this work he documents the mechanisms of political power … the manipulation … the game of advancing versus obstructing – a game Duplessis developed into an art form.

The media often play the game of advancing versus obstructing as well. It is all very Machiavellian.

Sometimes I wonder whether the media only get around to uncovering misdeeds, once crime loses all sense of proportion, and bursts out into the open, there for all to see.

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