Featured Story The Passing Show

Too much American news is not good for our health

Norris McDonald
Written by Norris McDonald

Canadian news editors have to start asking:

What does it mean to Canada?

In the late 1960s and some of the Seventies, the academic world was in an uproar. Someone took a close look at the number of professors and lecturers employed by Canadian universities, particularly in the social sciences, and determined that many, of not most, were Americans.  There was concern that Canadian undergrads would be bombarded with too much American literature, research and thinking.

I was a university student then. I studied at what is now Concordia University in Montreal and was very aware of the controversy. The sociology department there had a half-dozen Americans and all were from the University of California at Berkeley.  Being older, I was often invited to faculty parties where, on occasion, the “Berkeley Gang” would discuss an upcoming faculty opening. “Hey, let’s get so-and-so to come up,” one would say and plans would be made to have them apply. So not only was this particularly department top-heavy with Americans, it was populated almost exclusively by “profs” from one school.

In the end, a concerted effort was made by Canadian universities to “hire Canadian.” Now, if anything, the pendulum has swung too far the other way, with op-ed articles asking, “Are there too many Canadians teaching at Canadian universities?”

The concern about American influence, though, continues, this time when it comes to the dissemination of news and information. Because of the World Wide Web and cable television, Canadians now have access to just about every U.S. newspaper and magazine out there and can watch every cable news network as well as individual stations in some of the bigger U.S. cities.

This can’t help but have an effect.

Several years ago, I was on a business trip to Vancouver and rode in an airport van to my downtown hotel. The driver was in earnest conversation with another passenger about the merits of the U.S. Affordable Care Act. I was fascinated, because this driver knew his stuff: everything you would ever want to know about health care in that foreign country was on this man’s lips.

After awhile, I couldn’t stand it any longer. “Excuse me,” I said. “I don’t mean to be rude but why do you care so much about something that has nothing to do with you?” He answered that he thought the president, Obama, was doing a good job for the people of the U.S. and that particular piece of legislation was proof.

“What about Canada?” I asked him, “Health care is a provincial responsibility here. Do you know the difference between universal health care in British Columbia and universal health care in Nova Scotia?” He said they were one and the same, because “this is Canada.”

“No, they’re not,” I said. “There are big differences.” As I left the van, I said: “You should look them up.”

Of course, the reason that fellow didn’t know about differences in health care from province to province is that Canadian media don’t tell him. They’re too busy explaining to Canadians the merits of a U.S. social program that guys like him hear so much about that they commit it to memory.

Now, there’s always been coverage of American news stories in Canadian media. There’s a natural interest in U.S. politics at the presidential level, natural disasters (California bushfires, for instance) and stories that have a direct bearing on Canada-U.S. relations, like border issues. But in recent years – and perhaps this is because of the 24/7 news cycle – an awful lot of marginal U.S. stuff is making it into the paper and on the air in Canada.

If there was an even split, there wouldn’t be a problem. If Canadian media were on top of the critical stories in our own country, there wouldn’t be all that much room in print or on the air for American news. But that takes effort seven days a week, not just five. As an example, I give you the lobster fishery dispute in Nova Scotia. That started percolating a week ago Wednesday, the fights and fires started by the weekend and national media didn’t pull out all stops on it till Monday. That is just not good enough.

When I was on the Toronto Star in the 1970s, there was an expression in the newsroom: “What does it mean to Metro?” Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But space in the paper was at a premium and the editors had to be able to explain the reasoning behind the decision to put a certain story in the paper. So, “What does it mean to Metro” wasn’t all that silly after all.  Today, more Canadian news editors and TV lineup editors have to start asking the question, “What does it mean to Canada?” And the reason they have to start asking that is because Canadians are getting to a point where they know much more about another country than they do about their own.

Quick now: how many justices sit on the Supreme Court of Canada? Are there more women than men? Name two. Hell, name one.

Can’t do it, can you? And that’s because we don’t pay much attention to our Supreme Court because our media don’t pay much attention.

But a startling number of Canadians, if asked, can tell you who Ruth Bader Ginsberg was. And the coverage of that woman’s death and the aftermath was beyond the pale. My own paper – yes, I still have the Toronto Star logo tattooed on my butt even though I’m retired – published three-quarters of a page about the late John Turner, a former prime minister of Canada, on the day he died and gave Ruth Bader Ginsberg three complete pages – that’s correct: three full pages – when she passed.

There is something seriously out of whack when that sort of thing happens.

Television is the worst. On my cable account’s news range, I have CNN, MSNBC, FOX, CBC Newsworld and CTV News Channel. If something big happens, like Thursday night’s debate, you have CBS, ABC, NBC and PBS weighing in, too. Now, if the CBC’s Paul Hunter and his wife, CTV’s Joy Malbon, spent time before that debate examining what this election means to Canada, I would stand up and cheer. But they didn’t do that. CBC had two complete hours of coverage before the 9 p.m. start and I didn’t hear the word “Canada” once, except for a discussion with three American citizens living Up Here and they talked about what was happening, and what would happen, Down There. Really? Al Sharpton? Really? They duplicated just about everything the American networks were doing and I say what’s the point?

(An aside: Has the CBC, or any Canadian network, ever devoted two complete hours in advance of any prime ministerial debate? Two hours? Never. I repeat, there is something seriously out of whack here.)

We know Trump and what he’s done and is capable of doing. But what about Biden? He might turn out to be worse. We already know he’s going to cancel the Keystone oil pipeline because he’s said so.  But his TV ads indicate he’s stealing some of Trump’s positions with his “America First” policies, which could turn out to be negative for Canada. But I don’t know that. I depend on the Hunters and the Malbons and the Star’s Edward Keenan and others to examine that and explain it to me.

Our media were so enamoured with Obama, who came to Canada on a State Visit once, early in his mandate, and then never returned (except for G7/20 meetings), that we never really knew where he stood vis-à-vis our country. He talked negatively about Canada on more than one occasion, mostly having to do with the Keystone pipeline, eventually killing it. He didn’t sign off on an American Customs & Immigration Centre on the American side for the Gordie Howe Bridge, which was finished on the Windsor side during Stephen Harper’s tenure, and never even started on the U.S. side when Obama was president. There are other examples. Yet for all that, he got a standing ovation at a Raptors game in Toronto after he left politics.

This is not to say that Obama isn’t a good man and wasn’t a good president. But believe me: he talked nice but he was not Canada’s friend. Not that he had to be, of course. He wasn’t our president.

Yes, we are all interested in U.S. presidential elections. It’s good sport. In fact, I used to have a friend – he died four years ago – who called U.S. election day “my Super Bowl.” But in the end, the people of the United States are electing their president, not ours. Our media have to take a step back and think long and hard about this.

To repeat: When it comes to the United States, “What does it mean to Canada?” should become the question in every newsroom in this country.