CDA says media give new depth to the word ‘shallow;’ Steven Staples disagrees

It’s a media prize that few journalists may actually want to receive. The lucky winner gets a handsome statuette, a gala dinner with Ottawa VIPs, even $2,500 in cash, but the list of nominees for the 2008 Ross Munro Media Award given by the Conference of Defence Associations (CDA) may be a little shorter than usual this year.

Recent controversy around the group’s military funding, and a speech attacking the media by an official of the group recently released, have some reporters thinking twice about the prize. As one put it, “I cannot believe journalists accept that award the CDA hands out each year.”

The award’s co-sponsors, the Conference of Defence Associations and the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, tout the award as recognizing a Canadian journalist who has made a significant contribution to the public’s understanding of issues related to Canada’s defence and security.

A who’s who of journalists have accepted the Ross Munro Media Award and its cash prize since 2002, including Christie Blatchford, a columnist for The Globe and Mail, and Bruce Campion- Smith, The Toronto Star’s Ottawa bureau chief.

But the CDA recently distributed the text of a speech by one of its top officials that, ironically, attacked the media.

Titled “War and National Interest” and reprinted in the CDA’s newsletter, the speech was given in June by the new president of the group’s charitable wing, John Scott Cowan, to the graduating class of the Royal Military College of Canada.  Cowan’s speech appeared to be a tirade against Canada’s journalists for what he said was their poor coverage of the Afghanistan war, in particular, and defence issues, in general.

“[The] media give new depth to the word ‘shallow,’” the CDA Institute’s president declared before a crowd including future military leaders, college officials, and Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

“Unlike 40 years ago when journalists were amongst the best-educated and best-informed citizens, today many of them are neither literate nor numerate, and do us the huge discourtesy of assuming we aren’t either,” Cowan said.

He argued that on crucial decisions, such as whether to go to war, Canadians are uninformed about our national interests, in part because of “the narcissism of portions of the media who report incessantly on themselves” rather than on the facts, as he sees them, he said.

Cowan said the “vast majority” of journalists have chosen to discuss the war through votes and polls. “[Reporters] stick microphones under the noses of whatever slack-jawed gum-chewing vagrants they can find on the street to ask them what they think about oil prices or border security or equalization payments,” he said.

Some members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery were not impressed by the CDA official’s remarks. After reading the speech, one reporter quipped, “What he terms ‘slack-jawed gum-chewing vagrants,’ I might call Canadians whose views as voters, taxpayers and most importantly, citizens, count just as much as the next person’s.”

The media award and the comments made by the CDA Institute’s president reveal a deep-seated contradiction within the defence lobby: it wants to reward coverage by journalists, but deeply distrusts the journalists themselves.

It’s a common, and disturbing, trend in the discourse of defence lobby groups that they feel that the desires of the public should have little bearing on national security. If public opinion doesn’t agree with their view, they blame the media and the government for not “explaining” the issue properly.

For instance, Cowan exhorted the audience to “contemplate the possibility of political discourse not pushed through [the] microcephalic filter of some illeducated but firm-jawed stage prop of a newsreader. We might get political discourse appropriate for a free people making critical decisions about their national enterprise and its role in the world.” (Yet the public understood the pitfalls of the Iraq invasion much better than the many experts who called for Canada to join).

But the fact is, not only does the CDA need media coverage to support its policy goals, it also needs it as a condition of its military funding.

In May, the terms of a fiveyear $500,000 funding agreement between the CDA and the Department of National Defence were released by the government and reported in The Globe and Mail. The agreement requires the group to “attain a minimum of 29 media references to the CDA by national or regional journalists and reporters” and “attain the publication of a minimum of 15 opinion pieces (including op-eds and letters to the editor in national or regional publications).”

It’s easy to understand why some journalists may feel that the CDA’s relationship with National Defence makes it less independent than it appears. The agreement recognizes that “The Conference of Defence Associations’ key objectives are: to consider the problems of National Defence; [and] to support Government efforts in placing these problems before the public …”

The CDA argues that it is non-partisan and its funding does not require it to agree with every government policy, but no one can remember when the CDA’s viewed diverged from that of the military’s.

Reporters are right to question whether to accept an award and cash prize from a group that has a special interest in being quoted in the newspapers and that is funded by National Defence.

I speak with the same reporters the CDA does, and I have always found members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery well-informed and professional. Given the constraints of today’s media environment, with its limited resources and ever tighter deadlines, I am always impressed with how well these men and women do their jobs.

Sure, like the weather, everyone complains about the media. But the group that declares itself “the Voice of Defence” should do better. If the Conference of Defence Associations wants to be taken seriously, it should stop the media attacks and give National Defence its money back. Then let’s get on with the well-informed, objective debate that everyone wants.

This op-ed by Steven Staples was published in The Hill Times on August 4th, 2008.

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