You may have missed it, but Sonya Duhé, who was announced on March by Arizona State University as its incoming dean of the School of Journalism, was abruptly canceled following allegations by a few former students that said she has a history of making racist and insensitive comments.
This is just one in a long line of people that have been accused and cancelled across a spectrum of companies, agencies and disciplines over the past few years – a trend that is clearly accelerating. Note that people are being punished by accusation. No trial. This is also known as an extra-judicial proceeding (outside the law), or vigilantism. You know… the lynching guys.
We have spoken many times about the value of independent speech. In North America, back in the day when it mattered, all people were seen to have the right to say what they wished without fear of reprisal. Now, most of us that deal with print media are asked to fear reprisal on a daily basis.
But what’s really going on? The fact is, back in the ‘80s the Supreme Courts of both Canada and the U.S. found a “limited right” of free expression for commercial speech. This, of course, simply opened the floodgates, and the freedom of speech went to whomever paid the most. And that move to whomever threatened the most.
Commercial speech is not always advertisers. It can also be associations or gangs, real or imagined. For example, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, founded in 1985 by PETA activist Neil Barnard, reportedly has less than five percent physicians among its members, and uses its claims of the medical superiority of a vegan diet to form public opinion among young people. Many other so-called committees, associations, organizations and groups are similarly misrepresented in terms of number, influence, qualifications and backing.
The idea of the cancel culture co-evolved politically as it grew in advertising, leading to the by-now cliched model of demanding editorial control over a publication or pulling advertising and riding it to death.
Let me be clear. I know this stuff. I came to Canada from the U.S. in November 1994 to save a magazine, Canadian Sportfishing, a consumer magazine, from death. That was my job. I saved magazines from death in the U.S., and got commissioned to come to Canada.
Canadian Sportfishing had followed the Pied Piper of commercial speech. It had overstated its circulation and freely plugged its favoured advertisers. And it had lost multiple-times five figures in 1994.
I took over, and the next year the magazine showed a six-figure profit. Easy Peasy? Not really. My wife says my biggest mistake in business is that I make it look too easy. Whether that is true or not, the owners decided after three years that the advertisers wanted it back the way it was, a trained chimp could do what I do and they refused to pay a promised bonus, which is a no-return conversation for me. I left and the magazine was dead in two years.
Credibility matters. This is not just a moral statement; it is a business plan. If you can’t believe a thing you are told about a product or service, you will soon quit paying for it. This is what happened to virtually all North American trade magazines in 2008/2009. Commercial interests had taken over editorial, credibility vanished and titles shrank to skeletons and died.
Let’s try an analogy. Biden is going to win in November, right? All the polls say so. Of course, all those same polls said Hillary would win in 2016, right up until 10:00 on election day. But the polls were wrong.
Are all polls, then, wrong? No. Good polls can poll what they poll. It depends on the skill of the pollsters, the sample size, the randomness of the sample, sampling bias, etc.
But here’s the trick. Television news outlets need a horse race to get viewers. No disaster; no viewers. No viewers; no ads. No ads; no channel. But you can put bias in polls by polling only certain cities, polling more heavily in certain age groups, polling Cosmopolitan instead of Sports Illustrated, etc. And you can create a race where there is none, so it’s arguable that polls and bias have caused the decline in viewership of such channels as CNN.
Those are facts. Now, virtually all trade magazines failed in 2008/2009. Your agencies and consultants will tell you it was the internet. It wasn’t. Magazines lost value because they lost value – people stopped paying attention. The Supreme Courts passed the hammer to special interests. The credibility of journalists went from the top to the bottom (clergy to lawyer). That’s an interesting one, since lawyers get paid to represent sides, not truth, and I think society is losing. So did Shakespeare and Mark Twain, just to insert myself into good, if dead, company.
Another interesting fact is that one of the oldest texts in existence admonishes all people to not bear false witness against neighbours. I’m not saying the former students were lying about the racism of Duhé, but it would be worth checking, wouldn’t it? That would be called trying a case in court, or justice. Justice is based on old concepts of law and just-ness. Guilt by accusation is based on mob rule and lynching.
I have tried to get my competitors in print to endorse any old set of standards, just so we can have a public discussion, and they refuse. There is a good reason for this. They would lose. I know what I am doing, and I can walk the talk.
For example, I can say “content created to serve the private interests of those paying for its publication is not journalism,” because that is from the Canadian Association of Journalists Code of Ethics. Or I can say, “Advertising” and “advertisement(s)” are defined as any message (other than those excluded from the application of this Code), the content of which message is controlled directly or indirectly by the advertiser expressed in any language and communicated in any medium (except those listed under Exclusions) to Canadians with the intent to influence their choice, opinion or behaviour,” because that is from the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards.
I can say other publications are not magazines because Canada Post and Heritage Canada agree that “To qualify as a publication your item must have a minimum of 30 percent news and editorial, because it’s in their regulations.”
Since all material under the influence of advertisers is an ad, no matter of how it’s concealed, and since anybody can count column inches that chooses to, I can say our competitors are not magazines and not eligible for Publications Mail or Heritage Canada subsidies.
And I can say that the Society of Professional Journalists says, “Journalists should: Expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations,” because if I don’t say it, I am in violation.
So I request that trade magazines must comply with known and published standards, not to be haughty or a citation-citer, but because failure to defend our credibility is a bad business plan, and it shows.
What W.I. Media can promise its advertisers is that we don’t need to inflate our circulation and are proud of our relationship with the market – your customers. They know and trust our products and say so in surveys that we conduct according to the most stringent objective standards.
Our competitors, of course, say we don’t know what we are talking about. Fair enough. Simple standards of proof can apply. I have cited sources and can cite more. We have a long history of success, even under direct and unfair attack from a few remarkably unbrilliant advertisers that want to rule the world. I have said we know what we are doing. One of our financial sources, on a call-anytime basis, is president of five banks in the U.S. One of our IT sources, on a call-anytime basis, is team leader of cybersecurity for a fleet of power-generation stations. One of our sources on science is chairman of the physics department at the University of Calgary. He’s my brother. He may not pick up when I call, but I’ll catch him sooner or later.
We know information resources have to include more than whoever pays the piper. Information is life. Accurate information is wealth. Faux information is taking previously published, copied new-product releases and spamming your customers’ mailboxes.
The rise of cancel culture and the injuries to business are now both inextricable and visible everywhere you look. The latest fatalities are Eskimo Pies and Aunt Jemima, if you are watching the news. We have a bunch of snot-nosed nerdlings trying to discern the etymologies of brands while expressing their rights to legalized dope. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so damaging.
Anyway, you have a right to be right; we are here to help. If anybody can find anything wrong with anything above, let’s hear it. Fact matters. I’m supposed to be nice, but that requires a minimum of two.