What exactly is the “mainstream media” (aka MSM)? According to that paragon of media sensibility, Keith Baldrey, the MSM is the mass information apparatus that upholds standards and supports democracy. It apparently does not include bloggers and “citizen journalists”, who are part of an emerging trend called “alternative media”:
Without so/called “mainstream media” Democracy would be imperilled. Idiot bloggers and “citizen journalists” Have no standards. #bcpoli
— Keith Baldrey (@keithbaldrey) March 20, 2015
Less credulous minds see things differently. In “What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream”, Noam Chomsky argues that mainstream media is defined by the corporate interests which financially underwrite the vast majority of Western media organizations. This ownership ensures that “[p]eople who have independent ideas or who think the wrong kind of thoughts are cut out”. Chomsky argues that direct, day-to-day control of news and entertainment by capitalist censors is beside the point (though it sometimes is); what matters are the systemic restraints that ensure mainstream media organizations instinctively remain – in the long run – within the narratives of the corporate worldview. For example, the careful, hierarchal selection and promotion of employees – from news reporters to general editors and producers – helps guarantee that “the product of the media, what appears, what doesn’t appear, the way it is slanted, will reflect the interest of the buyers and sellers, the institutions, and the power systems that are around them. If that wouldn’t happen, it would be kind of a miracle.” As a result, the “standards” of the mainstream media pitch democracy as a contest between one elite group and another, chosen by a passive audience that normally sticks to the sidelines. Democracy, in other words, is highly attenuated and ritualistic, and is profoundly hindered by a corporate media that reflexively elides any challenges to the status quo. In British Columbia in particular, and Canada in general, it’s difficult to see much beyond the corporate ownership of our media. There is no non-corporate, non-profit “large tent” print news service in sight. And while the publicly-owned CBC has some relevance on the radio and Internet, its impact on television – aside from hockey – is negligible. Moreover, its reputed left wing bias is increasingly suspect. That leaves us with an overwhelming degree of corporate ownership over our mass media, particularly in terms of television, radio and print news:
As Ross Howard, a journalism instructor from Langara College, laments, “My God, we have the most narrowly-controlled print media, probably among western democracies. And we’re getting dangerously close to risking the loss of the independent watch-dogging role by journalists.”
So what can we do if we are interested in “independent ideas” or “the wrong kind of thoughts”? Luckily, despite the mainstream voices that still dominate news aggregators and social media, the rise of the Internet and alternative media provides a plethora of “fringe” voices, and provides Canadians with a more complete understanding of their world. True, these voices are usually small, disparate and hard to find, but what else can we turn to in a country without a single progressive daily newspaper, or with many cities offering two daily newspapers, both owned and editorially controlled by the same corporation?
The following is an annotated list of alternative media sources that I regularly peruse. Indeed, since I no longer subscribe to The Vancouver Sun, The Province or The Globe and Mail, these alternative sources are essential to my understanding of the world. I hope the list offers some new ideas and inspires you to think outside the claustrophobic Canadian media box.
Jesse Brown made his name by breaking the Jian Ghomeshi story, albeit via the Toronto Star. Nevertheless, the notoriety gained from this story helped him establish Canadaland as the go-to site for Canadian media analysis. Brown is an engaging interviewer and raconteur, and his ability to excite the very thin skin of mainstream journalists is very commendable. Despite his central Canadian sensibilities and a quaint belief that the CBC still matters, I look forward to his weekly podcasts (which are available on podcast apps in all smartphone OS’s). I always learn something new about Canada’s media and political landscape, and I would make his podcast show my number one recommendation for a new alternative media experience.
In the past I found its stories to be uneven and loaded with boilerplate socialist rants, but in the last few months I’ve enjoyed many of Rabble’s stories, including this cogent account of the Laura Robinson saga.
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
If you want a progressive alternative to the many right wing think tanks so beloved by Canada’s MSM, the CCPA is a good bet. Its articles are occasionally obscure or very local in nature, but the CCPA does a good job of analyzing Canadian politics with credible empirical (i.e. StatsCan) data. The same cannot be said for the Fraser Institute.
I’ve just started to read this site. Though it’s sometimes an aggregator of other news sites, and some of its best content is hidden behind a paywall, iPolitics offers a wide range of interesting stories from Ottawa. I wouldn’t call it progressive, but I think iPolitics aspires to a “big-tent” reputation. Fair enough.
Perhaps Canada’s greatest alternative media success story, The Tyee offers a broad range of stories on British Columbia issues. Like many of the other sites, I find certain stories unappealing, but the writing and level of detail are consistent enough that I support it with an annual contribution. The Tyee’s in-depth coverage of BC education issues is laudable, and I’m happy to see the return of Will McMartin and his analysis of economic policy.
The Georgia Straight
The Straight’s editor, Charlie Smith, demonstrates a healthy disdain for BC’s corporate commentators (especially the aforementioned Keith Baldrey) and provides some good articles on Vancouver and BC politics. Just watch out for the sex advice columns.
The Common Sense Canadian
This site’s best-known commentator is Rafe Mair, and it features stories from both sides of the spectrum. Its (non-corporate) conservative contributors have written some excellent pieces on BC’s not-so-hidden debt problem. Also look for its analysis of environmental and energy policies.
Norm Farrell’s blog proves just how unfair Baldrey’s dismissal of bloggers actually is. Farrell’s work on BC’s oil and gas revenues has been splendid, and contrasts favourably with BC’s status quo commentators like Baldrey, Michael Smyth, Vaughn Palmer and (most pointedly) Tom Fletcher.
- Farrell’s site is a mess, I’ll grant you, but he’s apparently upgrading his website in the near future. Scroll down to the archives to find what you want.
The master of the FOI request, Bob Mackin has stirred up quite a few hornet nests in the last few years. Given the BC government’s atrocious record of deleting emails and hiding information, Mackin plays a vital role in keeping the government’s feet to the fire. If only the corporate media in BC worked as hard as Mackin does.
This is a recent discovery via Canadaland. It’s basically a blog written by a Vancouver-based employee of the South China Morning Post, Ian Young. He appears to have a high degree of freedom; the SCMP, after all, wants to sell copy and advertising to people in Asia, not Vancouver. Young’s insightful and provocative pieces on the Vancouver real estate market (like this) would likely never be posted in a PostMedia paper.
Vice News is the news division of Vice Media, and offers an eclectic and fascinating mixture of global news stories. Vice News features a large reporting staff who go places and cover stories that are often ignored by other international media companies. In many ways, it’s what CNN should have become. Vice is so adept at creating interesting content that Canadian media giant Rogers has signed a contract with Vice to create original content for Rogers’ mobile, Internet and TV holdings.
I pick and choose my stories carefully on this site, but it refreshes frequently and there’s always something of interest. Consider it Vice News Light.
McClatchey News was one of the few American news groups to consistently oppose the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Its website always has engaging articles on US and international topics.
It’s been around forever, or so it seems, and it’s a standard bearer for American progressive journalism and opinion. I subscribe to the print edition, which I find superior, but the website certainly wins for its sheer volume of stories.
Very similar to Mother Jones; always reliable though a little predictable.
The New York Review of Books
Probably my favourite print magazine of all time, the NYRB offers a number of beautifully written free articles every month on its website. I subscribed to the magazine for years, but gave up after I moved back into the classroom. I simply didn’t have time to read all the stories! [Unfortunately, it seems very difficult to purchase individual editions of the NYRB in Canada. Chapters Bookstore no longer seems to carry it.]
I’m not sure I believe everything this guy writes, but I do enjoy his bravado and gonzo style of journalism. He talked about voter suppression in the US long before it became fashionable.
Despite Dyer’s unnerving fondness for predicting the future, and a frustrating distaste for supporting evidence, I enjoy his far-ranging examination of the world. Rarely does he accept the “accepted wisdom”.
The Guardian’s fearlessness regarding Rupert Murdoch and Edward Snowden has made it an essential site for British, US and European news. If Canada had a daily newspaper like this, I’d subscribe to it in a matter of nano-seconds.
Do you have any suggestions? Are there other alternative media options you would recommend? I’d love to hear from you.