Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol 18, No 2 (1993)

The Mass Media and Political Crisis: Reporting Canada's Constitutional Struggles

David Taras (University of Calgary)

Abstract: This article examines media coverage of the Meech Lake and Canada rounds of the constitutional crisis. How media reporting may have influenced the negotiation process, the controversies that erupted over alleged political bias in the CBC's reporting and over the wide differences that seemed to separate anglophone and francophone journalists and the difficulties that television seemed to have in conveying complex issues are the central themes that are explored. It uses Joshua Meyrowitz's work to examine the extent to which television may have created a "shared arena" that intruded on and transformed the constitution-making process.

Résumé: Cet article analyse la couverture médiatique donnée au débat constitutionnel, à l'Accord du Lac Meech et à la crise qui les a entourés. L'article explore certains thèmes comme l'influence des reportages sur le processus de négociation, les controverses à propos des allégations de distorsion dans les reportages de la CBC et les profondes différences qui semblent séparer les journalistes anglophones de leurs collègues francophones, de même que les difficultés que rencontre la télévision quand il s'agit d'expliquer des questions complexes. A l'aide des théories de Joshua Meyrowitz, l'article tente de cerner dans quelle mesure la télévision réussit à créer un forum commun qui s'insère de manière active dans le processus constitutionnel.

The media's coverage of Canada's constitutional crisis has stirred enormous controversy. There have been charges of biased reporting made against the CBC and francophone journalists, questions asked by parliamentary committees about the obligations of news organizations to the country, and investigations by the CBC into its own reporting practices. The prolonged and agonizing constitutional crisis opened many wounds in the journalistic community and provoked an almost unprecedented political debate about the nature and quality of Canadian journalism.

The coverage given to the constitutional struggle may also represent a turning point for academic work on journalism and public affairs in Canada because it raises issues that are of critical importance to scholars. Questions about the effects that modern communications and particularly television have on political behaviour, the mandates and roles of public broadcasters, how journalists see their moral and professional responsibilities, and the problem of how to make difficult and complex stories understandable and compelling to audiences that are increasingly disconnected from political events are prominent features of the debate over media coverage. There is little doubt that the constitutional crisis will be a fertile battleground among contending schools of thought about the responsibilities of journalists and news organizations for years to come.

This article will apply a framework of analysis developed by Joshua Meyrowitz (1985) to explain how media coverage may have affected the constitution-making process. In No Sense of Place, Meyrowitz argues that the real power of television comes from its capacity to reach into and expose behaviour that was once relegated to "back regions." Television creates a "shared arena" by allowing viewers access to political and social settings that were once shielded from public view. Where political leaders were once distant figures, the mysteries of their power enhanced by their remoteness, today's politicians are followed by TV cameras and a media entourage which relentlessly captures and records their controlled messages as well as their unintended gaffes, their brave words as well as the fear in their eyes. Moreover television transports viewers to other places. The poor can see how the wealthy live, Jews and Moslems can watch how Christmas is celebrated, and Iraqi Generals can watch the U.S. Congress vote on whether or not to go to war.

The article will deal with three issues that are central to the debate over how the constitution was reported. First, using Meyrowitz's framework, I will discuss the extent to which media coverage intruded on and structured the negotiations. It will be argued that the instant and powerful nature of the modern media transformed the bargaining process and created new political routines and rituals that scholars, and indeed politicians, are only beginning to understand. Second, charges of political bias that were leveled against both the CBC and against francophone journalists will be examined. It can be argued that in Meyrowitz's "shared arena," journalistic practices have also been opened up to increased scrutiny. Finally, I will deal with the difficulties that journalists encountered in covering the constitutional crisis.

The focus will be on media reporting during the so-called Meech Lake and Canada Rounds, the period from the launching of the Meech Lake initiative in April 1987 through to the agreement reached by the First Ministers in Charlottetown in August 1992. It will not include coverage of the October 26 referendum. The referendum took place under different conditions, was guided by unique rules and procedures, had an entirely different structure, and is worthy of detailed study as a distinct phenomenon in its own right.

The study is based on interviews conducted in Ottawa and Toronto in July 1992 and December 1993 and on documents obtained by the investigator. Twenty persons were interviewed in all; some of them were interviewed twice. Ten CBC employees and officials were interviewed as were journalists from Le Devoir, The Globe and Mail, Maclean's, CTV, and Southam News. All were protected by an ethics procedure that guaranteed them anonymity unless they themselves agreed that their names could be used. Documents were obtained on a confidential basis and decisions about their disposition remain with the news organizations to whom they belong.

Negotiations in a Shared Arena

Meyrowitz contends that television's shared arena has changed the political environment by placing almost all aspects of the political process under a harsh spotlight. Political leaders are enveloped in a media canopy from which there is no escape or hiding. While Meyrowitz never applied his hypothesis to a particular event or process, the media's coverage of the Canadian constitutional struggle would seem to confirm Meyrowitz's argument. For television was not only the window through which political leaders conveyed messages to their publics but was a vehicle for communication among the parties themselves. The media could be likened to the walls in a squash court (although media scholars might argue that the walls were themselves in motion); negotiating positions would have to be hit against the media walls to keep them in play, test reactions, and give them legitimacy.

The negotiations took place in a shared arena. Participants were expected to state their views after each meeting or event in front of waiting banks of microphones, TV cameras, and scrums of reporters fighting for position. CBC Newsworld was a constant presence. Political leaders were often asked to react instantly, in so-called "real time," to the positions or comments of others, would talk to and see each other leaders through television monitors, and frequently used interviews to reveal information for the first time or stake out positions. Occasionally journalists were used as go- betweens, carrying messages between the parties. The media's presence was deeply interwoven into the fabric of events.

The media cocoon that surrounded the negotiations seemed to alter the dynamics considerably during the tense and gruelling negotiations that took place in Ottawa as the Meech Lake deadline approached in June 1990. Each of the first ministers would appear each day to make statements and answer questions in front of a wall of reporters that stretched 60 to 70 feet in length. Some saw it, as Clausewitz might put it, as a continuation of the negotiating process by other means; an additional opportunity to apply pressure on other delegations and rally support for their positions. What was peculiar, however, was that these news briefings seemed to take on a life of their own. They produced an outpouring of pent-up emotions, a platform for threats, explosions of anger and frustration, and the leveling of charges and countercharges. As one senior journalist described what took place,

It was there that Gary Filmon...said that he was being screwed around and shown nothing. It was there that Bourassa announced his refusal to negotiate. It was there that Clyde Wells said a clause was missing and said at other times he couldn't stand the pressure. It was there that Frank McKenna questioned other premier's sanity, that Don Getty admitted to barring the door, and that Getty said first, there was no will to make a deal, and then that there was. It was there that Mulroney ate shit in front of the whole country about the missing clause.

This entire story was told in those goings in and goings out of unimikes and scrums. It was there that his whole bizarre process was stripped bare and exposed for what it was. (Confidential document)

During the dramatic last day before the deadline for approval of the Meech Lake Accord, Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells who was expecting a phone call from federal constitution minister Lowell Murray watched on TV as Murray announced the federal strategy with respect to the pending vote in the Newfoundland House of Assembly. Murray had in turn been reacting to the events in Newfoundland as he had seen them unfold on television. As Chantal Hébert of Le Devoir has described the shock produced by this new era of television diplomacy,

Although in this current round you can see that people have gotten used to the fact that what they say is instantly into someone else's living room or someone else's capital, this had never happened before. You'd never seen Lowell Murray say screw you to Clyde Wells who hadn't gotten a phone call, but who could see Lowell Murray screwing him on TV.

Perhaps no group was better at using this new "frontchannel" method of negotiations than were the Aboriginal delegations. On several occasions during the Canada round, Aboriginal leaders were able to "participate" in the negotiations because their grievances and concerns had received extensive coverage, even when they were excluded from the negotiating table. Having made their case in front of millions of Canadians, it was then impossible for governmental leaders to ignore the Aboriginals' agenda. The natives' power was enhanced considerably, it can be argued, by the fact that they fit the media's "frame" better than did some of more established players. Their colourful dress, heated rhetoric, and constant availability--not to mention their skillful use of media sources and contacts--had much to do with keeping them in front of the cameras and in the headlines.

Constitutional Minister Joe Clark was also adept at rallying support for his positions via the media. When the deal that he had negotiated with the English-speaking premiers in July 1992 was being blown apart in Cabinet, Clark initiated an interview on CBC Newsworld so that he could regain the high ground and put his opponents on the defensive. His appearance and the media coverage that it generated seemed to strengthen his credibility and might even have given him a few more chips at the table. Graham Fraser, the Ottawa bureau chief for The Globe and Mail, describes how instant television coverage has changed the flow of politics:

There was a time when it was possible to think in terms of the civil servant giving advice, politicians making a decision talking about it or making promises, reporters reported it, it appeared in the paper and people read it--a fairly easy loop. We are now in a really complicated information environment.

Increasingly, people involved in this process have Newsworld in their office--they have the television on all day. When constitutional talks are going on, television isn't reporting the event, television is the event.

Another factor in the constitutional negotiations was that leaks and plants, the more traditional methods of tilting the news to affect political outcomes, reached almost epidemic proportions. A typical example occurred in late May 1990 when an Ontario government strategy paper was leaked to Southam News (Bryden, 1990). It described plans to "discredit the holdout premiers" and ensure "that the blame for failure falls squarely on the dissident provinces and not on Quebec." Whoever leaked the document intended to foil the strategy and embarrass Premier Peterson.

Sometimes members of the same delegation would leak different messages to reporters. During the hot-house negotiations that took place in Ottawa in June 1990, for instance, the Manitoba delegation was "at war with itself." One source at the CBC has described how members of the Manitoba delegation played both sides of the street, "We had a junior attacking us for accepting federal spin on the deal while another, more senior was giving [Wendy] Mesley all the details (that the federal government was giving us)."

During the Canada Round the leaking of information and documents reached almost comic proportions. One prominent news manager has described the deluge that resulted from so many delegations all leaking at the same time.

At every session Clark would stand up and review the progress and it would be the same sort of silliness where individual delegations would leak documents, and people would ask Clark (about the documents) and he'd respond. The presumption that everybody made in the process was you couldn't prevent leaks because the Aboriginals were there, and the interest groups were there, so that there was no way the paper would stop, let alone (leaks from) the political strata....It became clear that everything would be transparent on a certain level. The ritual dance was more substantive than it normally is because they knew that within fifteen minutes of a paper being tabled upstairs, there were copies floating downstairs. There were moments of high absurdity...there was an air of unreality to the whole thing.

The major delegations also had "spin doctors" eager to explain the various twists and turns to journalists and ensure that their perspective was given prominence in the coverage. Reporters were continually being pressured and cajoled, cultivated, and charmed.

In addition, the reporting of the constitution was almost a classic case of pack journalism. A tight web of relationships developed among journalists and their sources and a collective psychology based on sharing common experiences seemed to take hold among reporters. One senior media manager has described the "pressure cooker" within which journalists had to operate during the Canada Round,

Essentially they had to put in 70,000 or 80,000 air miles over nine months, travelling from one end of the country to the other, covering one manifestation or another of this.... Even the accoutrements were exactly the same--there was always the same blue curtain, the same guy with the box full of flags, every location was made to look like every other location. The audio-visual technicians were always the same, the wagon-masters were always the same people, and the ministers and their aides were always the same people. Essentially you had a community that pulled up stakes and travelled everywhere together. Over time the linkages that they formed with each other were quite tight--not in the sense that they became friends, but a banter developed. The ministers knew all the reporters, they understood the thrust of their questions, they prepared for the thrust of the questions, they knew who was going to ask the "what did Quebec get today" questions, who was going to ask the "what was the movement on the Aboriginals" question.

There was an Aboriginal pack of spinners, ministers and reporters. There was a francophone pack. There was an anglophone pack....They found themselves, night after night, going to dinner with each other, talking. At each of these events...everybody stood around for hours.... People started trading notes. People were trading information--they were comparing stories...in some cases they would carry messages between delegations....

It is difficult to know how the media environment that both enveloped and intruded on the constitution-making process affected the outcome. But it is probably fair to say that media coverage made negotiations much more complicated and far more difficult than might otherwise have been the case.

For much of Canadian history, constitutional practice was guided to some degree by unwritten agreements and understandings. One can argue that for many decades Quebec had a special place and special powers not enjoyed by other provinces. The system of "alternance" ensured that English- and French-speaking office holders would alternate in the top government positions; tradition guaranteed three civil law judges on the Supreme Court; Quebec had an enlarged role in areas such as immigration, pensions, communications, and foreign affairs and it had the right to opt out of federal programs and fashion its own. Such careful understandings, however, could not withstand the glare of the media magnifying glass.

The first difficulty was the tendency among journalists, one can say the obsession, to declare winners and losers. During the Meech Lake negotiations, compromise was often depicted as a failure, an act of weakness. Consequently political leaders could not retreat from the positions that they had taken without losing face. Premier Bourassa, for instance, was watched continually by Quebec journalists for any sign that he had abandoned what they saw as Quebec's rights. When he was accused in a taped conversation between Diane Wilhelmy, Quebec's deputy minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, and an unidentified civil servant of having "settled for so little" in negotiating the Charlottetown Accord, Bourassa found himself in a firestorm of media exposure and attacks. In a similar fashion, Alberta Premier Don Getty was hounded by reporters for weeks during the leadup to the Charlottetown deal over whether or he had won or lost on a Triple E Senate. Under such conditions face-saving compromises were exceedingly difficult and perhaps in some cases impossible to achieve.

Second, as every province or societal group could see what every other constituency was getting there was pressure to match what others had achieved. It can be argued that as the negotiations became overloaded with too many demands and too many interests, they became more brittle and acrimonious.

How and in which ways media reporting shaped the texture of the negotiations, altered agendas or conditioned or provoked certain kinds of behaviour is likely to be grist for scholarly analysis and debate for years to come. In this regard the constitutional crisis is a prime example of the new kind of politics described by Meyrowitz, one in which media exposure transforms and reconstructs the political arena. At the very least the constitutional struggle provides evidence to support Meyrowitz's contention that political leaders are no longer able to control many of the images that are conveyed to the public.

Caught in the Crossfire: The CBC's Constitutional Wars
and Francophone Journalists Under Attack

In No Sense of Place, Meyrowitz describes how television's intrusiveness and accessibility have profoundly affected almost all of the major institutions in society. Yet Meyrowitz does not push his analysis further to suggest that media institutions have themselves become vulnerable to increased scrutiny and that the corrosive light that they focus on others can also be turned on them. News organizations can also come under the glare of the political spotlight.

CBC and the Constitutional Crisis

There are few events that the CBC has covered in its long and distinguished history that have challenged its integrity, caused as much soul-searching and brought as much painful criticism as has its coverage of the constitutional crisis. Most of the attacks have centred on the CBC's coverage of the final months of the Meech Lake negotiations but other controversies were ignited and continue to burn.

A number of observers have claimed that during the last months of the Meech Lake negotiations the CBC helped to foster a crisis atmosphere by its sensational reporting, its uncritical acceptance and repetition of the Mulroney government's crisis rhetoric, the sheer magnitude of its coverage, and by its mournful "10 Minutes to Midnight" vision of despair (On Balance, July/August 1990). According to Bob Fife, The Toronto Sun's Ottawa bureau chief, "The CBC got in bed with the government...they got captured by it, and they got fed at 9:30 every night....It was a good deal, surely that was the thinking [at CBC]. When your views mesh, it's dangerous--you're not able to walk away and say `look we're being used here' because you believe the overall purpose of getting the deal through is in the public interest." Rick Salutin has described the haunting, foreboding quality of two shows produced by The Journal in 1990:

guests were shot against darkness, and perhaps a single source of light. The many bridging shots were haunting landscapes of a stagnant river, a wave-beaten coast, a lonely lighthouse, a city in fog, all photographed through filters to give the impression of perpetual twilight, plus repeated images of Canadians walking slow motion, perplexed and ghostly, through their cities' streets. (Salutin, 1990)

Michel Vastel, a well-known Quebec journalist, went as far as to claim that there had been "systematic collusion" between the CBC and the Mulroney government during the waning days of the Meech Lake negotiations (Alberta Report, 1991; Salutin, 1991). The CBC has launched a libel action against Vastel.

CBC management argued that the network reacted as a national broadcaster had to during what it thought to be a time of crisis--it opened up its arsenal of weapons; extensive coverage, a large commitment of resources, and its considerable journalistic expertise. During the dramatic week of June 4-10, 1990 the CBC produced 882 minutes of live coverage excluding the time allocated for The National and The Journal pre-empting regularly scheduled programs 20 times. This compared to only 528 minutes on CTV (Switzer, 1990). Anchor Peter Mansbridge was brought on location and 25 journalists were assigned to the story. The CBC had enough personnel so that it could mount an around-the-clock vigil to protect its positions opposite the podium where the first ministers came to give their briefings. Consequently Wendy Mesley and Don Newman had the best opportunity to ask questions. Vice-President Trina McQueen has explained that the CBC's ground rules required that no story could go on air unless it had been triple-checked and that information had to be confirmed by sources from at least one delegation that was favourable to the accord and one that was against it (McQueen, 1991). Veteran reporter Jason Moscovitz describes the dilemma that the CBC faced during the Meech Lake negotiations: "You have a prime minister who keeps saying it's the end of the world if this thing doesn't go through. I think that the prime minister deserves to be covered." CBC-TV's Ottawa bureau chief Elly Alboim believes that by treating the Meech Lake talks as so overwhelmingly important, the popular perception was that the network "ended up subscribing to the deadline-world-is-ending thesis of the role of the dice." Alboim doesn't believe that the CBC had subscribed to doomsday forecasts. He is convinced, however, that viewers now look to television to validate their views and that when television does not reflect the attitudes of viewers--in this case by not criticizing an accord that most Canadians no longer supported--then anger is turned against television. As the CBC dominated coverage, it, according to Alboim, became a lightning rod for criticism.

It is interesting to note that polls conducted by Angus Reid in June 1990 in the wake of the CBC's massive constitutional coverage found that 63% of those surveyed viewed the CBC's reporting as having been balanced as against only 17% who saw it as biased. A larger number, 30%, claimed that media reporting in general had been biased and irresponsible (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1990).

The CBC had come under such fierce attack, however, that it established an oversight group made up of network vice-presidents headed by Michael McEwan to monitor its coverage (House of Commons Standing Committee on Communications and Culture, 1992). When the Canada Round began in September 1991, the CBC issued guidelines to its reporters restating the journalistic principles that normally dictate the CBC's political reporting. The guidelines emphasized that those advocating partisan positions had to be presented as such and that a full range of views had to be reflected in the coverage. One paragraph, however, did cause discomfort among some journalists in Quebec newsrooms. The guidelines instructed reporters to "reflect Canada as a nation and evoke the social, economic, cultural and political benefits of nationhood" and to "explore as well the costs and consequences of the changes being proposed" (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1991). Some reporters felt that these were in effect federalist marching orders (Seguin, 1991).

CBC president Veilleux and chairman Patrick Watson were put under close scrutiny when they appeared before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Communications and Culture to explain the network's coverage and journalistic policies. Some MPs were incredulous that the network's guidelines on objectivity and balance did not allow it to do more to promote national unity (House of Commons Standing Committee on Communications and Culture, 1991).

Perhaps the most damaging criticism, however, has come from John Meisel, one of Canada's most distinguished scholars and a former chairman of the CRTC. Reacting to a talk given at an academic conference by CBC-TV's Ottawa bureau chief Elly Alboim in which Alboim argued that the prime minister's "sole motivation" was "to establish that he could do in Quebec what Pierre Trudeau could not" (Alboim, 1988), Meisel (1991) accused the CBC journalist of having undermined Brian Mulroney's efforts during the opening rounds of the Meech Lake negotiations in 1987 by giving play to the deal's critics. According to Meisel, the CBC "contributed to the process that ultimately scuppered constitutional reform by seeking out and encouraging attacks against the Meech Lake project by people who could be expected to attract a lot of public attention." Meisel's charges provoked a firestorm of reactions from leading journalists who either leapt to Alboim's defence or joined in a frenzy of criticism. Alboim argued in turn that it is the role of journalists to seek and present opposing viewpoints rather than "sit in an office and wait for press conferences" (Malloy, 1991).

Rumour had it that when CBC president Gérard Veilleux attempted to dismiss Alboim, considered by many in the profession to be one of Canada's most talented news managers, he apparently faced open rebellion from the networks' leading journalists, including Peter Mansbridge and David Halton. Although an internal CBC investigation cleared Alboim of the allegation that he had manipulated news coverage of the Meech Lake deal, there is speculation that Veilleux demoted Trina McQueen from the position of director of TV News and Current Affairs at least in part as a retaliation for her defence of the bureau chief (Winsor, 1992).

The ramifications of the Alboim incident are quite considerable. There is fear that journalists now feel a "chill" that prevents them from discussing their work at conferences and public forums. This means that journalists may become increasingly distant and even cut off from the audiences and readers to which they are ultimately accountable. Moreover there is also anxiety about whether journalists will be able to continue to exercise their independent judgement in deciding how news stories will be covered. Many see this independence as the cornerstone of professional journalism.

Francophone Journalism Under the Spotlight

The different ways in which English- and French-speaking journalists have reported the constitutional crisis also aroused considerable anger and suspicion. Specifically there are charges that the Quebec media created its own agenda, became a powerful participant in the political process, and exercised extraordinary influence over attitudes in Quebec. Keith Spicer, the chairman of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) and chairman of the Citizen's Forum on Canada's Future, raised the spectre of media "ayatollahs" who manipulated coverage in order to discredit the constitution-making process (Seguin, 1992). Historian and broadcaster Laurier Lapierre has lamented the existence of the "notables," a journalistic and intellectual elite that is unable to accept the "goodwill, the passage of time and the usual trade-offs that make for a democratic political process" (Lapierre, 1992). Ovide Mercredi, the Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations at one point accused all francophone parliamentary reporters in Ottawa of being separatists (Saulnier, 1992).

At a conference sponsored by the Fédération des journalistes professionnelle du Québec held in April 1992, Dorothy Dobbie, the co-chair (with Gerald Beaudoin) of the Special Joint Committee on a Renewed Canada declared that "journalism and nation building should be the same task." She complained about "members of the media who have no sense of their country" (Off, 1992).

The litany of accusations made against francophone journalists includes charges that excessive and sensational coverage was given to extremist views in English-speaking Canada, that Lucien Bouchard's defection from the Mulroney government was treated as an act of heroism and worthy of celebration, that there was an obsession with finding examples of Quebec's humiliation, regardless of how obscure the incident (for instance, the anger among francophone reporters when the English-language version of the Beaudoin-Dobbie Report was made available 15 minutes before the French version), and that a constant vigilance was maintained over Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa to ensure that he did not betray what journalists saw as being in Quebec's interests. But it was the general tone of the coverage that caused the most concern especially during the Meech Lake Round. It was felt by some that opposition to the Meech Lake Accord by English-speaking politicians or critics was presented too often by Quebec journalists as an attack against Quebec. Quebec's dignity was portrayed continually as always being under assault. As Susan Delacourt of The Globe and Mail has described the tone that underlay much of the reporting, "The issue [to Quebeckers] is about whether they feel wanted or not. So they [Quebec journalists] weigh up every story. They think in terms of rejection, acceptance or humiliation."

Meyrowitz has described how television has allowed different groups in society to see each other's back regions. During the Meech lake negotiations audiences in Quebec could witness for themselves the unleashing of anti-French passions in places like Thunder Bay and Sault St. Marie or at rallies held by the Reform Party.

The coverage that generated the most controversy was the play given on French-language television to the so-called "Brockville incident." A 10-second television clip showing the desecration of the Quebec flag by English-language extremists was shown repeatedly during the closing rounds of the Meech Lake negotiations even though this incident did not reflect the attitudes of English-speaking Canadians.

At least as inflammatory was the coverage given in February 1992 to scenes of an Inuit leader holding up a map of Quebec which showed half of Quebec under native control as a result of proposed land-claims settlements. Although this was clearly an instance of grandstanding, an obvious playing to the cameras, reporters were unable to resist the bait. This dramatic visual became a symbol for Quebec nationalists of the threats supposedly posed by the Aboriginals to Quebec's territorial integrity and the dangers of negotiating Aboriginal self-government.

What may have been the most glaring instance of political agenda-setting by the Quebec media occurred after the Clark proposals which launched the Canada Round were presented in September 1991. Robert Bourassa found himself surrounded by a scrum of francophone reporters who accused him of betraying Quebec because he did not seem to be insisting on the reinstatement of Quebec's veto over future constitutional changes. According to Bob Fife, "These guys acted like they were the conscience of Quebec....They literally ganged up on him. Why Bourassa would allow himself to be bullied I really don't know." Chantal Hébert saw the event differently, "Robert Bourassa is not complaining about the way the press is working in Quebec. What is the best deal for Quebec? That's where these people start from. Bourassa sets lines in the sand and the media asks what happened to the line in the sand."

Few could doubt the extraordinary influence and prestige that journalists seemed to have in Quebec. Whenever there was an important development, Quebec politicians seemed to wait with considerable suspense to see how journalistic opinion leaders were reacting before they themselves took a position. Perhaps the supreme example was Le Devoir publisher Lise Bissonnette's one-word editorial--her famous "non"--in response to the conditional agreement reached by Joe Clark and the English-speaking Premiers in June 1992. Her strong statement seemed to harden opposition to the deal and leave the Quebec government with little immediate room for manoeuvre.

Quebec journalists argue that their responsibilities differ from those of English-speaking journalists because they serve readers and audiences that have different needs. As the virtues of confederation are not taken for granted in Quebec, all political options, including sovereignty, must be discussed and evaluated. According to Susan Delacourt, "To francophones the phrase `national unity' is loaded with connotations and implies a federalist point of view. They have to balance between federalism and sovereignty. They have to offer their readers an informed choice. For us [anglophones] it's do nothing or accept new options--for them they have active choices."

Lance Bennett (1990) among other scholars has suggested that the range of opinions in news reporting and editorials is "indexed" to the range of views that exist among the political elites that are being covered. One avenue for future research would be to analyze whether such indexing could be found in the reporting of the constitution by Quebec journalists. It might explain why Quebec journalists pitched their stories differently from anglophone journalists--as their work reflected the different constellation of views and the fierce debate that was being waged in Quebec.

The Age of Missing Information?

Bill McKibben, in his book The Age of Missing Information (1992), argues that despite our heavy television viewing and the fact that television has become virtually a companion to many of us, what we learn from television has a vapid and elusive quality. We get images and sounds of considerable power but presented in packets of information or infotainment that provide little depth, little sense of how the world actually functions. Television may dominate the "moment" with its commanding presence but it cannot deliver a meaningful learning experience.

While McKibben's criticisms of TV are hardly new to media scholars, the constitutional crisis would seem to suggest once again that there is an astonishing disconnectedness between media reporting and public awareness. The convulsions produced by the failure of the Meech Lake Accord and the almost saturation coverage given to the Meech Lake drama by the country's major news organizations seemed to produce a profound malaise; throughout the Canada Round Canadians seemed to know little about the constitutional crisis and cared even less.

Seventy-three percent of those surveyed in an Environics poll taken in the wake of the Clark proposals in October 1991, found "nothing" in the package that attracted their attention. Only 10% of Quebeckers expressed interest in the provisions on "distinct society" even though they had aroused heated passions and had been portrayed as the symbol of Quebec's acceptance by English-speaking Canada (Environics Research Group, 1991). More perplexing perhaps was a survey conducted in April 1992 by the Centre de Recherches en Opinion Publique which revealed that 31% of respondents believed that a sovereign Quebec would remain part of Canada. An even higher number, 40%, thought that if Quebec were to separate they would remain Canadian citizens (Gagnon, 1992).

There are several explanations about why basic information about the country's political crisis did not seem to reach or interest large numbers of people, did not seem to penetrate a fog of indifference, inattentiveness, and misperception. First, it can be argued that the prospect of Canada's breakup is so monumental, the issues so painful, that large numbers of people preferred not to think about the consequences. Many Canadians were unprepared psychologically to deal with events that had such dire consequences. A corollary argument was that the public had been "burnt out" by the emotional agony of Meech Lake; news consumers had reached their threshold and were now simply too numb to absorb the details of a new round of bargaining. Undoubtedly the ravages of the recession also took a toll; people may have been too consumed by worries about their economic survival and prospects to pay much attention to constitutional wrangling. Even the journalists who covered the constitution sensed and were demoralized by their audience's fatigue. As the CBC's Jason Moscovitz has described the frustrations that he experienced during the Canada Round,

The difficulty in personal terms of reporting this round--I've been doing this story all my life--and this one time that I had such great difficulty doing it because I knew that nobody wanted to listen to it. How hard it is to do a story that your audience doesn't care about.... The whole world was turned off this story.... As a professional, it's just awful, [you get an] awful feeling doing a story that you know that nobody wants to hear.

A second argument is that the constitution was simply too complex to be understandable to the average citizen. Issues pertaining to the amending formula or the notwithstanding clause or the number of E's in a reformed Senate were so abstract that few people had the "handles" necessary for grasping what was being talked about. It was as if the country were treated to a lesson in advanced physics with most people left glassy eyed and wishing for a reprieve.

A third explanation is that the media, particularly television, failed to educate the public, failed to tell the story in the way that it needed to be told. Too much of the constitutional reporting on television was presented as a series of breathless "moments," popping up without explanation, appearing fragmented and out of context. The CBC's The National and The Journal experimented tirelessly with various methods of engaging and re-engaging the audience. They did in-depth reports, used graphs and charts, did numerous specials, and devoted unprecedented amounts of airtime to covering the constitution. In the end, however, they fell remarkably short in explaining what the constitutional proposals would mean for the country.

The focus was inevitably on the drama of whether or not there would be a deal and on the machinations and strategies of the various players. There were few attempts to explain the motivations that lay behind the politics of the moment. Why a veto for Quebec over future constitutional changes was seen as critical by so many in Quebec, the consequences of not having a strong economic union, the pros and cons of adopting a system of proportional representation for an elected Senate, how Aboriginal government would work, and the reasons why Senate reform was seen as a necessity by some of the small provinces were not dealt with to a sustained or systematic way.

Quite typical was a three-part report done by Joe Schlesinger that appeared on The National in June 1992. The report, entitled the "Constitution industry" was supposed to be an inside look at the people and machinery that had become part of the process. Yet Schlesinger said nothing about how much the process had cost Canadians, the size and makeup of Ottawa's constitutional bureaucracy, the small army of advisors and influential experts that appeared at conferences and commented in the media, or the structural problems created by Quebec's "reach out but don't touch anyone" bargaining strategy. Instead Schlesinger merely recounted the events that had taken place; reports that contained shots of the comings and goings of political leaders and of delegates speaking at the constitutional conferences staged by the Beaudoin-Dobbie joint parliamentary committee. Schlesinger's commentary was laced with references to "a bulky, complex and unfinished package," "a mess devoid of philosophy," and a "hodge-podge" without explaining in any concrete way why he had come to these conclusions (Cuff, 1992).

The TV networks may have feared that more detailed reporting would lose viewers at a time when viewers were simply not interested in the constitution and at a time when the struggles over audiences had become especially viperous. But it may also be that TV's inherent limitations, the accepted routines of TV reporting and the constraints of time, budgets, and resources prevented bolder steps from being taken. The CBC's Carol Off put it bluntly, "The current constitutional debate is certainly one of the biggest tests of their trade that Canadian journalists have ever faced. A complex issue often reduced to political optics and thirty second sound bites--or to raw emotion. Unfortunately, no one seemed to have any clear idea how to do things differently" (Off, 1992).

Conclusion

Examining the media's reporting of the Canadian constitutional crisis offers many avenues for research. As the constitutional struggles analyzed in this article took place over a five-year period, many characteristics of media reporting were exposed. Unlike case studies which dwell on the coverage given to a single event or incident: a riot, a trial, a strike, an election--episodes that are fleeting and perhaps idiosyncratic, this case study encompasses an enormous landscape of activity. Issues relating to the differences in coverage by public as against private news organizations, the gulf that separated anglophone and francophone journalists, the interplay between journalists and their sources, the social/political control imposed in the newsroom, and the effects of media reporting on the negotiating process and on public opinion were all illuminated by controversies that erupted during the Meech Lake and Canada Rounds. The many episodes explored in this case study will allow scholars to identify repeated and consistent patterns of behaviour and examine some of the more nagging questions that have plagued Canadian journalism.

Perhaps the critical question that emerges from this study is the degree to which media reporting, and more specifically television coverage, transformed events. Despite hundreds of studies on media agenda-setting, scholars are still perplexed by the potency of television as a political force. Preliminary evidence presented in this article suggests that Meyrowitz's notion of the shared arena may offer scholars a fruitful avenue for future research. There can be little question that the media invaded the negotiating process and influenced the conduct of the negotiations. More work will have to be done to determine the extent to which media coverage altered public perceptions.

Yet this study also encountered evidence that conventional television reporting cannot reach and educate its audience when the issues are too painful or too complex to be easily understood. The dilemma was stated poignantly by Jonathan Schell who wrote, "Television is powerful because it can dominate the moment. It is weak because it cannot outlast the moment" (Rosen, 1991).

Note

1
I am grateful to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for the funding which made it possible for me to travel to Ottawa to do the interviews that were necessary for this study. All information and quotations not cited were obtained from interviews conducted or documents given to the author.

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