"Ten Buffaloes and a Beaver: The Plight of Canadian Research Journalism."
Russell A. Hunt
[as published in Canadian Forum (July 1974), 25-28, and reprinted  as "The Case for Subsidized Canadian Research Journalism" in Content (February 1975), pp. 10-11, 15-17.]


It was entirely to be expected that the whistle on the Watergate scandal should have been blown by journalists. The past few years have seen a remarkable increase in the effect journalism seems to be having on the society around it. Books like Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed, articles like Seymour Hersh's exposure of the My Lai massacre, scoops like the Washington Post's Watergate stories: such things have brought journalism to a peak of importance that it has never occupied before -- not in the eighteenth century, when it was invented; not even during the halcyon days of the muckrakers. And predictably enough, there has been a parallel proliferation of writing about journalism from public documents like the Davey Committee report to the establishment of periodicals like Content, Canada's journal for journalists. But all the fuss aside, all the trendy phrases like "new" or "personal" or "para-" journalism aside, the fundamental thing that's happening is that the journalist is coming to be seen as considerably more important and respectable than he was a few years ago. What is interesting, though, is that, by and large, this isn't happening in Canada. Consider the cases I have mentioned: how many comparable Canadian examples can you think of?

There haven't been many such books here, and I don't think it's because there's no material; I think it's because the present situation in Canada -- especially in Canadian publishing -- poses special and maybe insuperable obstacles to the practice of research journalism.

Let me explain first why this is a serious situation, before I go on to talk about what those obstacles are. After all, Canada poses special difficulties for the cultivator of orchids, too, but it's not a problem anybody gets very exercised about. Orchids just aren't all that important to our society -- and if we must have them, we can always import them, or build a greenhouse. But I think decent journalism is a lot more important than orchids -- and, for obvious reasons, we can't import it.

Without research journalism, governments and businesses and public and private institutions and individuals can get away with things -- things they can't get away with if there's a sceptical, aggressive and hardnosed press around. This case, since Watergate, hardly need be argued. Without research journalists like Jack Anderson and the staff of the Washington Post, Erlichman, Haldeman, Mitchell, Dean & co. would still be firmly in charge in Washington.

Q. E. D.

A second way in which research journalism is valuable is this: it sets a style. It creates a world in which people don't simply accept the statements of governments or large institutions, a world where people believe that it is possible for somebody to come to grips with such institutions and perhaps even beat them: The journalist himself becomes a proof that it's possible to sort through the tangled jungle of a corporate structure, trace the course of a decision through the uncharted wastes of a government bureaucracy, or figure out what a proposed law really says and what its implications are.

Without journalism of the kind I'm talking about, society is subject to the manipulations of anybody who can control the media just enough to prevent problems from becoming issues. It doesn't take a great deal of power to do this and it isn't difficult to establish enough control, as the Irving domination of public information in New Brunswick in the fifties and sixties shows. And the most important result of such a situation is not financial loss -- after all, it's only money -- it's the effect on society of the widespread feeling that nothing can be done, that nothing can even be understood. Such a situation leads not only to political and social apathy but to bad literature, bad art, bad music -- and even bad coffee.

It may be stretching things to say that restaurants in New Brunswick serve bad coffee because Irving controlled the press for two decades -- but it's not stretching them far. When people believe themselves impotent; when people think that government and business decisions are made by wizards in some empyrean realm beyond the comprehension of the ordinary guy, then everything becomes magic. If the tourists don't show or don't come back, if the government decides to install a deep-water oil terminal and refinery in your pasture or use tax money to underwrite the establishment of a union busting sweatshop in your town, if the pulp mill decides to expropriate the south forty and use it as a truck route -- well, it's like the weather. There's no affecting or even understanding it, and it becomes the duty of a man to stand up under it just as he stands up under drought and hailstorm. Thus, obviously, there's no explanation for the failure of customers to return to your restaurant; it's an Act of God, like everything else.

Now that's an exaggeration, but Id argue it's not really a very gross one. The syndrome is there, and it can be counteracted to some extent by journalism.

Let me stop here a moment and define as best I can the kind of journalism I'm talking about, and let me begin by explaining what Im not talking about. I'm not talking about reportage, in the sense of newspaper and newsmagazine reporting. And I'm not talking about the sort of popular history that Pierre Berton specializes in. Nor am I necessarily talking about the "new journalism" the sort of autobiographical extravagasm practiced by people like Tom Wolfe or Norman Mailer, or the journalistic novel (or novelistic journalism) of Brian Moore and Truman Capote.

What I am talking about is the sort of article or book, based on long, hard, original research and written in understandable terms, that can discover a problem and make it into an issue in one motion. I'm talking about the kind of book that takes a year or more to research and wears that research so easily that you'd never notice it -- until you started trying to practise that sort of writing yourself. I'm talking about books like Richard Harris's Decision, Ian Adams' The Poverty Wall, Frances Fitzgerald's Fire in the Lake, Alfred McCoys The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia. It's a form of writing that comes out of a tradition reaching back as far as Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift, and it includes Mark Twain and George Orwell, James Agee and Edmund Wilson.

Such journalism is time consuming and soul draining. It takes five times as much research as you ever figure on when you start, and it depends for its effect on not letting anybody see how much work it is. Interestingly, it is a print form. It can't be translated into the electronic media. Its effect is dependent on its being presented in permanent or quasi permanent form, in a book or a respectable (at least respectable looking) periodical. The electronic media. simply can't do the sort of thing I'm talking about, for a couple of reasons.

One reason they can't is that they're transitory. Ever try to tell a friend about the damning interview with the Minister of the Environment you heard at 8:00 in the morning, or the exciting programme on the James Bay project that was on last night? It can't be done. If it were a book or a magazine article, you could hand it to him, read passages from it, keep it around for reference. But, unless youre a lot quicker with a tape recorder than I usually am, once that programme is over, it's over. There's no way it can snowball over an extended period of time the way Unsafe at Any Speed did. Another reason the electronic media, can't handle the sort of journalism that I'm talking about is that they are temporal media and thus can't be organized in very complicated ways or deal with really complicated subjects. And they simply haven't the time to be as long-winded as an author can be (for one thing, most people read a lot faster than they talk). In an hour's television or radio time, there is room -- assuming someone is talking every minute -- for about forty pages of prose. That's not much room for developing the kind of case that Decision or Miami and the Siege of Chicago requires.

Not only is research journalism a print form, it's restricted to a certain kind of print. It's very difficult, for instance, for newspapers to do it -- not always because they're lazy, either. The Globe and Mail, for one, does make some attempt to present something that looks a lot like research journalism on a fairly regular basis. But there are fundamental elements in the nature of a newspaper which make it almost impossible. Most papers simply can't -- or claim they can't -- afford it. Equally important, their columns are narrow, their stories appear in a context of hard news and advertisements, and most of all everything about the format of a newspaper suggests that what it presents is for today only and will be replaced tomorrow by something else. Under circumstances like that, there's not much chance that your story representing six months' research into the working conditions of fruit pickers in the Niagara peninsula will get the attention it deserves. (How prestigious would the novel be if novels were only published in newspapers, and not in book form?) That this is so is one of the reasons the Globe Magazine existed -- and a reason for lamenting its passing.

And if a newspaper format is a handicap for a research journalist to labour under, the underground press is the kiss of death. This is not because it doesn't and hasn't printed good journalism; nor because the people involved don't care about what they're doing, but for two much more fundamental reasons. One is that good journalism is at its best in persuading people who have already made their minds up, or who simply haven't thought about the matter, to take another look. The underground press, by and large, preaches to the converted. Hunter Thompson may be a dynamite journalist, but anybody who reads Rolling Stone regularly can be counted on to share, in advance, his fundamental position on, say, Hubert Humphrey; everything after that is rhetoric.

A second reason has to do with the crucial importance of format in presenting such writing. The entire history of underground publications makes clear that the amount of sheer, grinding, unrewarding hard work involved in designing a workable format and presenting clean, error-free copy is just not going to be done on any continuing basis.

There are, then, only two places where the kind of writing I'm talking about can be published effectively -- in books and in more or less established and certainly conventional looking magazines. In Canada, that means Maclean's, Saturday Night, maybe Canadian Forum or -- out on the fringes of respectability -- things like Last Post and Canadian Dimension. Most national or regional magazines, after all, aren't really interested in quality research journalism. No one expects sensational exposés or even in-depth, critical backgrounders in Chatelaine or the Atlantic Advocate -- or, of course, in Time or The Reader's Digest.

Which brings us to the crux. By this point it should be beginning to be clear why there's not much Canadian research journalism. One reason is that, by and large, it is impossible for a serious research journalist to make a living from his profession in Canada today. (Yes, I know, it's almost impossible for novelists and poets too. On the other hand, its also a lot easier to be a part time novelist or poet.) In a country with a reading public five or ten times the size of Canada's (choose your own example) writers are generally able to find ways to support themselves while working on a project and can live on royalties or magazine payments afterward. Richard Harris, for instance, was supported by The New Yorker magazine, in which his work on the Supreme Court nominations was first published, while he did the research for it. There is at present no magazine in Canada with the financial resources to be prepared to underwrite a project like that. Nor is this because our magazines are profligate or bad managers. Magazines all over the world are in some trouble, and of course Canadian magazines share the problems.

There are also problems that are peculiar to the Canadian magazine, that are aggravated by the sort of context they operate in. Advertising, for instance, is almost impossible to attract when the companies that might advertise are mostly owned outside the country, and when they have a flood of advertising media, from American magazines to American television networks, right at hand.

The result of all this is that there are now only two magazines in Canada prepared to pay a reasonable amount for an article in the field of research journalism, and there is no way for a serious research journalist to survive on the level of payment involved. Nor do book royalties help. A worthwhile book will almost certainly take a year to write; and in Canada a book that's moderately successful will earn in the neighbourhood of $5,000 for its author -- something a good deal less than a princely income, especially compared with a book on the U.S. market, which, comparably successful, would bring in $50,000. And even talking about such modest levels of income presupposes that all the research our journalist undertakes pans out which, of course, it's not likely to do.

Let me propose an example of this economic bind. Suppose you're a journalist and you have a hunch that a lot of the people who are making decisions in your provincial department of the environment have backgrounds in, and active connections with, the resource industry. You have to entertain the possibility that youre wrong, that the fruits of your labours will be the gratifying discovery that everything's on the up-and-up in the environment department. In other words, after perhaps three or four months' digging around the Provincial Secretary's office and the Registrar of Deeds' office, you may have nothing more than a stack of unsalable biographies of bureaucrats. What this means -- and the eventuality you have to plan for -- is that the next project is going to have to pay not only for itself but for the months wasted on a wild goose chase.

It's not likely that a writer is going to be eager to try to support himself entirely by writing in such a situation. Consequently, then, he's going to find that other things than research journalism are going to occupy most of his time. For instance, he has the option of holding down another job. If he's lucky it might involve journalism -- he might work for a paper or for the CBC. Or he might teach; that allows some free time for research and writing. But in either case the journalism becomes a sideline -- and the sort of journalism I think is important cannot be a sideline. The result is that the writer sticks to small, easily researched articles or items that are reactions to news events. He takes to merely dreaming about the book hell write someday about how senators are chosen, or the way poverty feels in Kent County, New Brunswick, or the labour movement in Cape Breton.

A writer who finds himself in this bind can easily wind up spending most of every day scrambling out short, easy pieces of hack work. The woods are full of writers who are in this position, who are forced by circumstances to do work unworthy of them and who often lavish on such work an excess of talent that's so disproportionate that it's embarrassing to contemplate. And of course the long-run danger of this position -- for Canadian writing as much as for the individual writer -- is that the writer is likely to forget he's producing hackwork and start taking it seriously, thinking it's the best he can do.

An interesting reflection at this point is that for writers in other forms -- novelists, for instance, -- the obvious move, at the point where that book begins to gnaw at you, is to try to get a grant to do it. And in Canada getting that grant has usually been comparatively easy -- mainly, I suspect, because governments and grant giving bodies recognize that the size of the Canadian reading public is too small to make any kind of writing an economically viable profession. But consider that writer who wants to do the article on the way senators are chosen. How likely is his book to be underwritten with public funds? For obvious reasons, its not likely at all. And for equally obvious reasons, it would be folly for him to accept such money and then do such a book.

Another possibility is that the writer can go down the road, writing about American subjects for American magazines and American publishers. After all, the money is there. There is ten times as large a reading public; therefore ten times as much royalty money, ten times as much chance of substantial advances from a magazine. But of course that doesn't solve the problem of Canadian journalism. It's not, after all, very likely that you're going to sell that article on the effects of government programmes on the Eskimos to Harper's.

The result of all this? The really important books don't get written because the authors who should be writing them are prevented from doing so by a system that promotes other forms of literature than journalism, and actively discourages good journalism. It's the same sort of system that produces those perfume-flavoured tomatoes you find in cellophane tubes at the supermarket. Nobody, at first, thinks they're good tomatoes, but they sure are convenient. They pack well, they keep well, they travel well, and they look a little like tomatoes. And after a while, you forget what real tomatoes were like. If you're young and adaptable, you may even come to prefer the plastic ones when given a choice.

As of now, the situation is pretty gloomy. We may get a few books written by devoted amateurs; we may get a few written by people with axes to grind.

But unless something changes fairly rapidly, we're not going to get very many books of the quality we need to keep our culture open and vibrant and our politicians and institutions on their toes. And it seems likely that we will continue to lose our best writers to the "international" -- read American -- market. The journalists who ought to be devoting their talents to the pruning of Canadian politics and society will be found writing for Holiday, Harper's and The New Yorker.

In a sense, of course, all this is just a special case in a more complex general situation: the disastrous position of Canadian publishing as a whole. And that, in turn, is a special case in an even more general issue: the survival of Canadian culture.

How much easier it would all be if non-French Canadians spoke, not English, but Canadian. There'd be no constant temptation to judge Canadian literature, drama, and popular culture by U.S. standards, and come up with the almost inevitable verdict that it's third rate, like a beaver in a group of buffaloes feeling inadequate because of his lack of skill in stampeding.

But English Canadians dont speak Canadian; they speak English. Every element of Canadian life that uses language is susceptible to import and export -- to and from a nation ten times as big, and a nation with different problems and different virtues. And the result, of course, is that the beaver gets lost in the crowd of buffaloes, and ultimately comes to think of himself as a deformed and inferior buffalo.

A common way of minimizing this danger in most forms of literature has traditionally been to subsidize writers. The Canada Council and other granting bodies exist at least partly because of the recognition by our society that literature and art cannot be required to justify their existence in economic terms -- that one of the results of asking them to do so would be their absorption into a large market. And unless you hold the morally bankrupt position that nothing deserves to exist unless it pays its own way, it's hard to object to public subsidy of the arts. Given our climate, it's hardly surprising that Canadian letters has always been something of a hothouse flower.

Our hothouse, however, has been constructed in a rather peculiar way. Certain kinds of writing -- until recently, for instance, playwriting -- have been left out in the Arctic dark to survive as best they might. And research journalism is most certainly still out there, huddling close to the ground in order to survive with the lichens and occasionally resorting to cannibalism.

The reason it's still out there, of course, is clear; journalism that's subsidized is almost automatically suspect. Who steals my purse steals trash -- but who fills my purse steals my good name. Look what happened to Encounter after it was made public that it was partially financed by the CIA. Look what happened to the Irving press in New Brunswick after people found out it was the Irving press.

But it is equally clear that something must be done, that we need such journalism badly enough to justify an attempt to find a way to bring it into the hothouse. Government money and government interference clearly can go a long way toward solving such problems. It is largely government interference and public money that allow Canada to have its own literature and even its own pop music. That journalism is likely to be more politically sensitive than either of those is not a conclusive argument that the problem can't be solved. Consider same analogous situations.

The CBC, for instance, bloated and smug as it may be on the whole, has managed to produce a radio arm which shows remarkably little evidence of manipulation or repression or corruption from Ottawa. It is, in fact, within the limits of the form, one of the most consistent sources of quality journalism in Canada. And there are other examples of government agencies in Canada that have managed to remain relatively insulated from the pressures of politics.

Another model that's interesting here was set up in the Davey Committee report on the mass media. In it, there is a scheme for a press council. One of the aims of such a council -- and one that seems likely to be accomplished by the report's method of setting it up -- is to keep the press from becoming a political football. Part of the way this would be accomplished would be by the method of composing the Council -- it would be, according to their scheme, composed of a leading jurist as chairman, a majority of members elected by associations representing various publications, and representation of publishers, journalists and editors, along with a number of lay members appointed by the Council as a whole. Now that particular method is certainly not the only method of creating a body insulated from political pressure, and it's probably not the best one -- but its existence (such bodies exist, the Davey report states, in Great Britain and fifty other countries) suggests that it isn't impossible to do it.

There's another element of the Davey report proposal that is interesting -- the notion that while there would be a national press council, there would also be local and regional bodies, so that local problems would be solved locally. This, too, might be applicable to the body it seems logical for us to set up.

It seems to me, then, that Canada, in desperate need of some way of subsidizing serious journalism, ought to set up a semi-autonomous crown corporation after the model of that press council and give it the kinds of powers of disbursement that the Canada Council has. Such a council would have to be free of political pressure and responsible to the public only over the long haul. It would have to be composed of people who were competent to judge the merits of projects, writers, magazines and publishers, and it would have to be composed in such a way as to represent a broad spectrum of the public and the working journalistic community.

It would have the power to give interest-free loans to publishers -- both book and magazine. It would have the power to give outright grants to publishers, and to support the publication of specific items, such as the Canada Council does now. And, most important, it would have the power to award a grant to an individual journalist to support him while he works on the kind of story that The New Yorker supported Richard Harris for.

If we don't do this, or something like it, pretty soon, our beavers will have all been convinced that extensive plastic surgery and a course in stampeding are their only alternatives.