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Footage of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol appears on Big News (streaming on CBC Gem), a new hour-long documentary examining the state of things in the American news business.

Courtesy of CBC GEM

There are only two useful definitions of what “the news” means, and they co-exist nicely. First, “the news” is something you didn’t know about before now. And second, “the news” is what the editor says it is.

This doesn’t arise in Big News (streaming on CBC Gem), a new, hour-long examination of the state of things in the news business. Made by CBC News, it aims to “deconstruct the media’s role in the deep polarization of society.” By that it means American society. It begins with the assertion that people have lost faith in politicians, in the police, in science, in each other and in democracy itself. And it blithely asserts that “what ties it all together is the news media.”

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Visually it opens with footage of the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Of course it does. This being a TV doc about, mainly, TV news, that’s the presumed starting point for everything. Yes, visually it’s got a lot of oomph. (Later, TV news is criticized for putting too much emphasis on visual oomph. Pot, kettle, black.)

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As a serious examination of things, Big News isn’t worthless. It has some first-rate commentary and it attempts, often successfully, to find a strong thread of meaning that connects U.S. media, politics and social issues. It does however have a wobbly quality and claims that I don’t buy at all. The first thoughtful analysis comes from Canadian Sue Gardner, who was the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation and before that a CBC News executive. A self-described “internet do-gooder,” Gardner posits that the 1920s were like now – people distrusted media and out of that came the BBC, and that’s both a good thing and a model for going forward.

While I respect Gardner’s views on many things, her BBC model is dubious. The BBC was for decades bedevilled by the aloof moral tone favoured by its first director-general, John Reith, whose approach was shaped by his military experience and Scots-Presbyterian beliefs. The idea that the public is now ready for a dour, Reith-ian style of news is far-fetched. Besides, Reith essentially favoured news and programming for the bourgeoisie and it was decades before the BBC reflected the class complexity of Britain.

From that unconvincing assertion the program moves to a potted history of TV news. Once there were three main networks. Once there was the fairness doctrine, which demanded that multiple points of view be represented on the airwaves. With the arrival of cable news and the end of that doctrine, along came the likes of Rush Limbaugh and one-sided, attack-based news broadcasting. We knew that.

Former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson says “opinion TV was the new thing” at the time Fox News was launched. Which is true. We get footage of Bill O’Reilly shouting at guests, then of the crowd at Trump rallies chanting “CNN sucks.” Journalist and author Matt Taibbi makes the useful point that Donald Trump adopted the persona of a professional wrestler and his built-in opponent in the room – or wrestling ring – was the media. Taibbi also says that the combative style of cable news influenced behaviour by politicians and, in turn, TV shaped how the public sees political discourse.

One informative segment has Daniel Dale, now with CNN, saying that his fact-checking methods of reporting on Trump originated in his experience covering former Toronto mayor Rob Ford for the Toronto Star: “Ford was not the same as Trump but similar.” This connection between Ford and Trump is not made often enough.

The program isn’t sufficiently emphatic about the U.S. media’s reluctance to refer to Trump’s falsehoods as “lies.” But it does connect the shambolic nature of U.S. cable news to the country’s inability to get to grips with the pandemic last year. There is also some clear-headed reflection from Ali Velshi, another Canadian who is part of the U.S. cable news ecosystem.

In the end, after linking the mess of cable-news partisanship to almost everything, the program asks the open-ended question, “What can we do?” The answers are unhelpful. Velshi says “don’t consume garbage” and Carlson says we should listen to other people’s views.

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The answers are of piddling significance given the catastrophic picture the program paints. And it concludes with another assertion by Gardner that the BBC model of the 1920s is the only hope left. Well, no, and no again. That BBC was, in the words of the late AA Gill, made for “crepuscular drawing rooms.”

The next time CBC News sets out to make an hour-long program about the news business, with or without the declaration that the news media is responsible for the polarization of a society, it should look at the Canadian news landscape. That’s where CBC itself does the job of polarizing.

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