Shifting sands (and ethics) at The Globe and Mail

Shifting sands (and ethics) at The Globe and Mail

The current media debates in Britain are dominated at the moment by discussion of the new book Flat Earth News by Guardian investigative journalist Nick Davies. In an interview with the Guardian for its Media Talk podcast, Davies put in blunt terms what he sees as the near terminal decline in standards at every level of the British media:

“I am arguing that we have become structurally likely to put out stories that are false and distorted… The great mass of journalists in this country [the U.K.] and elsewhere in the developed world now work in a professional cage where they are no longer given the time or backing to do their jobs properly.”

And why has this dreadful situation taken hold?

“The big background change is the nature of the owners has moved from the old patriarchal proprietors like Lord Beaverbrook to these massive corporations like News International. And the priority of a big corporation, understandably enough, is to make money. So it introduces the logic of commercialism and what I’m arguing is in multiple, fascinating and invisible ways that commercialism has overwhelmed and nearly destroyed the logic of journalism.”

So how does Davies’s thesis hold up when viewed through the lens of Canadian journalism? Lately, I slogged through The Globe and Mail’s eight-part series on Alberta’s latest oil boom, titled “Shifting Sands.” On the face of it, you’d think an eight-part series on anything featuring photos by Ed Burtynsky and the work of nine—count ’em, nine—journos on a couple of continents would put the lie to Davies’s thesis. And yet take a look at the opening paragraphs of day one:

Murray Smith remembers what happened on the morning of April 9, 2003, the way other Canadians remember Paul Henderson’s miracle goal against the Russians. For Mr. Smith, then Alberta’s energy minister, the big score was a letter from his federal counterpart south of the border. It was about the oil sands—a resource that had long been underestimated at home and almost ignored internationally. No more, U.S. energy secretary Spencer Abraham wrote. From now on, when the Americans talked oil, they would be counting the reserves sitting beneath the forests of northern Alberta…

The endorsement from the world’s hungriest oil consumer was like winning an Oscar… The world finally was acknowledging what Albertans had been saying for decades: that their oil sands rival any source of crude on Earth… With rising prices and prospects of a Mideast war prompting concerns about the security of the U.S. supply, media giants from CBS’s 60 Minutes andThe New York Times flocked to the tale of an oil bonanza so close to home. Enthusiasts outnumbered the skeptics and the phrase ‘second only to Saudi Arabia’ went from speculation to conventional wisdom. Alberta had become a bankable star in the global oil game.”

An American energy secretary bestows his Good Housekeeping seal of approval, making Alberta “a bankable star,” and suddenly Canadians are supposed to feel like they’ve just won an Oscar?

And while there are, throughout, sincere efforts at providing balance to the coverage (a town in Nova Scotia is suffering due to the adult male population clearing off to work in Alberta, and then there are those pesky environmentalists), at the end of the day the Globe’s discussion is essentially one long paean to the pleasures and complexities of spending all that fabulous new money, money that will eventually buy ads in…The Globe and Mail!

Besides there being almost no discussion of the geopolitical implications of further fuelling America’s capitalist colonial enterprise, the most obvious giveaway came in a Q&A wrap-up wherein a reader from Peru asked the following question:

“I want to bring to the attention of everyone at the G&M concerned with the issue that the factual and real nomenclature designating the ground hydrocarbon resources found in the sands of Alberta are ‘tar sands,’ not ‘oil sands,’ which is a gross misnomer conceived in part to embellish in semantic terms what is otherwise, in reality, a very dirty and cumbersome (not to mention highly polluting) process of extraction and processing of tar leading eventually to oil… For the Globe to use ‘oil sands’ is, in effect, obfuscating the reality behind the process embedded within the tar sands.”

At this point, the Globe’s über-business editor, John Stackhouse (whom I know slightly and who seems like a sensible guy), whose presence in the discussion was hitherto unannounced, leaped into the fray:

“Either term can be considered loaded. We’ve evolved to the ‘oil sands’ label because that’s what they’re about—extracting oil. It’s also become the most popularly accepted term—although some people would no doubt believe that is a result of corporate campaigning. The ‘tar sands’ crowd wants the world to think it’s about extracting tar. If we were to switch to that label, which was popular only before Fort McMurray was a serious oil region, we’d be falling victim to another powerful force.”

For Stackhouse to implicitly equate the environmental movement with big oil in an effort to justify the Globe’s choice of “oil sands” over “tar sands” doesn’t even pass the giggle test. I’ve written Stackhouse to ask him to make sense of this and will publish his response shortly. In the meantime, I leave it to you to rake me across the coals, but don’t forget to reserve at least some of your venom for Nick Davies. After all, he started it.

Media talk: Nick Davies interview [The Guardian]• Shifting sands [Globe and Mail]