Xtra!... Two solitudes
(And play us)
(And play us)
Brenda takes on
There is a long history of people promoting causes in which they do not truly believe. Their usual excuse? Being "strategic." Gay liberationists of the early '70s, fearing whiffy late-'60s "free your head" stuff would be a tough sell, looked for a strategy with more "popular appeal." They found a ready model: equal rights for an oppressed minority. "Gay rights" subsumed gay liberation, its visions of a world radically transformed set aside whenever deemed too complex (or scary) to serve short-term "strategy."
At first there was some honour in this: It was done consciously. Strategists never feared admit that the rights they sought were not their final goal. That, still, was liberation. Legal rights were meant to secure the ground on which more of us might freely come together, sharing our power to shape the world.
But too many of us -- having been sold a package neatly labelled "rights and equality" for "us" -- soon forgot its more visionary contents: freedom and justice for everyone. Even erstwhile liberationists came to claim each newly won right as a smashing victory -- not symbolic but real; not a step on the road to our goal but the goal itself. And "gay rights" did get won, becoming for many the only goal: Let's go for the whole package!
In the spousal right battles of the mid-1990s, Xtra! took an approach (I think it's safe to say) still consciously strategic: puffing a cause as "news" even as they doubted it was "the height of progressive politics." But in time that tack would lead to unconsciousness. Not just among people reading news in Xtra! but the people at Xtra! who decide what counts as "news" and how it should be told. My letter lauding Brenda Cossman's take on EGALE's penchant for "respectable rights only" had gone on:
Spouse Touts & Doubts
Xtra! issues 371-474
Jan 14, 1999 - Dec 26, 2002
No related stories: 11 issues
On the Tedious Issue front (if not a few others) the agenda of Xtra! and EGALE (now Egale Canada) are clearly the same. Or rather, not so clearly. The paper has never taken an explicit stand. No editorial has ever said "Yes" to same-sex marriage.
All its editorials on the topic from January 1999 to the end of 2002 in fact expressed doubts about the Great Gay Marriage Drive -- if none went so far as to say: Let's not go there. Its news hounds, meanwhile, rushed there with no doubts at all.
Over 104 issues, Xtra! devoted at least 229 pieces to the legal recognition of same-sex coupledom, or to its promoters. The overwhelming majority covered continuing battles for equality of same-sex spousality, in time meaning matrimony, or reported goings-on at Egale. Even minor ones, clearly culled from Egale press releases.
Nearly all were cast as "news." Just six news pieces suggested any doubt about the Sacred Cause. Even pieces noting the potential pitfalls of "equality" did not waver: "participating fully in society" has its "inevitable" costs -- so pay them. (Some paying more than others.)
These stories did not make a case for gay marriage as a good idea. After all, "making a case" is the job of "editorial commentators," not "news reporters." Their writers simply presumed the case closed: it goes without saying that "equality" is a good idea.
Many were "briefs," fewer than 100 words -- even more dependent on the presumption that whatever bit they report is "newsworthy" and the way they report it is "right." One 1999 brief reported no more than "rumours swirling in Ottawa" of a pending bill on "same-sex spousal rights."
A few pieces in Xtra! clearly cast as "opinion" or "analysis" -- features and columns ("essays" in the news section, often as its lead story, I have counted as news) -- do make a case for marriage. Or speak from within the realm of "marriage-like" coupledom as desirable, respectable (as it can sometimes truly be), and worthy of legal support.
Of 11 such feature articles, four were by reporters of gay marriage as good "news," two (one an obligatory year-end wrap-up) by an editor otherwise expressing doubts -- in six editorials. Paul Gallant was joined in doubt there by editor-in-chief David Walberg (four times), managing editor Eleanor Brown (twice, if once taking aim at Egale; also in a critical analysis of "mainstream media" touting gay marriage); and Pink Triangle Press board members Brenda Cossman and Maureen Phillips (once each).
Eleanor Brown left Xtra! in September 2001, if not of her own will: her departure was a classic, corporate no-questions-asked (or answered) "termination without cause." Her spousal doubts were forcefully expressed the next year -- in an August 8 "op-ed" piece in The Globe and Mail, after the feds appealed an Ontario high court ruling in favour of ten gay and lesbian couples who'd been refused marriage licences.
It was titled: "Stop the 'homo hysteria.' We already have legal protections and committed relationships says gay-issues journalist Eleanor Brown."
Eleanor noted that our relationships are already recognized in common law. Even at our peril: "Many gay men and lesbians have rarely worried about the legalities of spousal responsibility, but Peter Pan must grow up and now faces a steep learning curve."
Ms Brown's former fellow editors at Xtra! seemed not to regard her stand as "news," never reporting it. Nor had Xtra! reported the managing editor of its Vancouver sibling Xtra West! taking a stand in April 2001: "No, no, no, to marriage rights."
Beyond Conjugality, offering radical ideas in 2002 well beyond gay marriage, warranted just two "news" stories in Xtra! -- both focussed not on its ideas but what John Fisher at Egale thought of it. The report was mentioned in one editorial, and in a regretful critique of its minimal coverage by the gay-marriage-gaga "mainstream media."
None of these pieces was noted on the cover. None of their titles made any reference to Beyond Conjugality (the final news story didn't even name it); three included the word "marriage" (one twice). The website address of the Law Commission of Canada, via which Xtra! readers might see the report for themselves, appeared in Xtra!'s pages just once: in January 2001, promoting an LCC "online chat," part of wider consultation that led, a year later, to Beyond Conjugality.
That address, or any further mention of that report, has not appeared again -- even after the paper hosted a public forum featuring one of Beyond Conjugality's principal creators. Xtra!'s own "lively discussion on same-sex marriage" did not make the "news" (or even "opinion") pages of Xtra!
These editors' "opinions" had no visible effect on "news" reported by writers they edit (even when those writers were themselves). Board members are meant, often wisely, to have no effect beyond setting broad directions, in line with the Mission Statement of Pink Triangle Press.
But I won't get into ideals here. In the everyday work of the Press, I suspect, the people working there don't have time to. Much of what gets into Xtra! is profoundly disconnected from the principles that gave birth to the Press in 1975. Not to mention its radical parent, The Body Politic.
Working the Press
From collectivity to collective unconsciousness?
My mid-'90s stint at Xtra!, alluded to in the 1999 letter at the top of this page, was in fact for Pink Triangle Press, working on policy -- mostly on "personnel." Of the 30 staff then there I asked: Were they just doing a job? Or were they inspired, as we had been at The Body Politic, by some deeper vision? Some were. But the daily grind did nothing to foster it. For more see:
Philosopher Roland Barthes once wrote of "tracking down, in the decorative display of what goes without saying, the ideological abuse which is hidden there." Few would judge Xtra! graphically decorative, or its reportorial style decorous; it mostly comes off (maybe in rebellion against its too-sober parent) as a graceless, whiny, wise-cracking adolescent.
Hidden behind, I suspect, is not "ideological abuse" but passive acceptance of much of what gets called "dominant ideology" -- so pervasive as to be invisible. In particular, the ideology of "real-world journalism."
In its working practices, Xtra! is very much Real World: a business with departments, directors, managers, supervisors, and employees. Its parent company Pink Triangle Press has an annual budget of some $6,000,000, with the usual business eye on the bottom line and the margin of (officially not-for-profit) profit.
There are three account managers, one marketing coordinator (also handling "community relations") with an assistant (ad sales reps are, I believe, paid by commission), a customer service manager with a night supervisor and a dozen "customer service representatives" (commonly known as "receptionists"). Some of these people formally work, like president and executive director Ken Popert, not for Xtra! but the Press. Formalities aside, most staff work in the business of running a business.
Xtra! has a publisher also editor-in-chief, an associate publisher, and three staff in design and production. For more than a year just two people directly oversaw what got into print: an arts and entertainment editor; and a features editor who, after Ms Brown's sudden eviction, also got stuck with news. An associate editor and an intern were hired in late 2002.
Like any media business Xtra! commissions stories, assigns reporters, photographers, columnists and feature writers, pays them for their work -- and then does with that work pretty much what it wants. Not a few writers have been surprised to find what has ended up under their bylines.
Born of collectivist workings (so whiffy!) sustained by hundreds of people working for free, their compensation not cash but the passion of engagement, it now runs, as does any Real World business, on money.
And, like much of that world, Xtra! runs itself ragged -- running in circles. It depends as much as any business on the compliant worker's (and the ideal shopper's) usual state of half-sleep, on "just doing the job," more often than not on auto-pilot. It depends, as does the Real World we're avidly sold by the media -- mass, mainstream, even most cast as "alternative" -- on a self-created state of collective unconsciousness.
I go on about all this here (hardly for the first time) because the disconnections so apparent in the pages of Xtra! have, I suspect, much more to do with its working solitudes than with what anyone there may think (when they have time to think) about gay marriage.
"Real World" hierarchies, rooted in military tradition, are ostensibly meant to create clear lines of command, rational operations, and overall accountability. In fact their "functional" fragmentation leads to isolation, "rationalization" of "operational means" ignoring their fundamental purpose, and the insulation of everyone in that "chain of command" from personal accountabilty for the impact of their enterprise on the wider world.
It makes perfect sense that this is how we are meant to work: It is how the Real Corporate World plays us. As pawns. And suckers.
Have Your Say!
In a September 2002 piece in Toronto Life on the city's gay media, Robert Fulford paraphrased Xtra!'s editor-in-chief on gay marriage: "Walberg believes his readers consider the issue marginal. What fascinates them is a vaguer and more general problem: developing the protocols of gay life."
That fascination is evident even in some of the massive coverage this "marginal" issue got in Xtra! There's evidence of its marginality in letters to the editor. Of hundreds published from 1999 through 2002, just 30 or so spoke to questions of same-sex spousality and marriage. About two thirds tended in favour; in the rest, people clearly opposed or merely in doubt (often buying the "Choice" line) got to "have their say." If not in fully unfettered freedom: Xtra! often had the last coy word.
I did not get an answer to the question in my letter above: "Is EGALE's agenda Xtra's news agenda?" I didn't expect to. The paper generally does not, as its parent paper occasionally did, run responses right after some letters -- wary of a charge often laid against The Body Politic: setting "the correct line." (It took years for Xtra! to risk running editorials.) Replies in TBP were sometimes just clarifications of fact. But they often engaged a letter-writer's ideas -- even if trying to refute them.
The Toronto Sun is famous for following letters with snappy, dismissive rejoinders -- surely not a model to emulate (even as Eleanor Brown was an admitted fan of brass-balled Sun-style "journalism"). Xtra! does not: its techniques are more sleight-of-hand.
The February 8, 2001 issue ran eight related letters -- a rare batch, following on January's joint same-sex joinings at MCC -- evenly balanced between touts and doubts (one was from me, one from just-married Anne and Elaine Vautour). All ran under a single headline: "No Honeymoon From Marriage Critics."
A May 4, 2000 letter "content" with same- and opposite-sex couples deemed equal in law, chiding "attempts to ape heterosexual marriage," got headlined: "Unequal in Marriage..." -- those ellipses playing to the next, unrelated letter: "...Unequal in Porn." Editors at Xtra! love such clever play. Occasional gadfly Charles Fisch once got "Fischy." A letter glad to see painter Paul P on a previous cover, saying it was "about time," Paul making "his mark on the Toronto art world last year," got titled: "Is Paul P So Last Year?"
Editors also love to edit. A letter I sent just after Paul Gallant's Feb 7, 2002 piece "Marriage is Dead! Long Live Marriage!" on (if not apparently) the Law Commission of Canada's Beyond Conjugality, saying he made good points but missed the key one -- that the LCC had not advised simply "widening the scope of marriage to include more people" -- also missed mine: it was edited to make it seem I myself advised that.
That may have been accidental; it would be overgenerous to grant that a further edit might have been. I had written: "Words frame what we think -- and it's time to stop thinking 'marriage.'" I'd cited two examples from Xtra! -- "Marriage is Dead! Long Live Marriage!" and a later piece also (not apparently) on Beyond Conjugality, titled "Sex out of marriage" (huh?). Both citations got cut.
"Marriage" might have been apt, even useful, in that letter's title on the page. It got instead: "It Isn't Exactly What I Would Have Said." It was hardly the first time that exactly what I had said was not what I would be seen to say in a letter cleverly edited by Xtra!
The 30 or so letters noted above do not include mail from Eagle. Six times in four years, those Ottawa lobbyists chided their chief press agency (on the spousal front at least) for falling down on the job.
They fended off charges of being wimps on age of consent (content to see all kids "equally" fettered); they defied Eleanor Brown's accusation of "arrogance" at their "refusal to speak to a news reporter." On same-sex-spouse reporting, John Fisher sent this, run in the June 3, 1999 issue:
John generously allowed there was a mind to make up. After Gareth Kirkby at Xtra West! made up his in April 2001, giving gay marriage a clear "No," John would allow that "the Xtra magazines are of course perfectly entitled to whatever editorial stance they wish" -- if warning that they "cannot reasonably expect to be immune from community criticism if they advance positions that deny some of us equality."
To Jane Rule's "No" on John's brand of equality, leading to snooping census takers, he used a less lawyerly line: "She's certainly entitled to her opinion." That is, as we all know, just a nice way to say: "Buzz off."
Opinion and our "entitlement" to it, our "right to have an opinion" -- even our obligation to have one, an instant one, on every possible issue of the day -- is among the media's most played "stupid pet tricks." (I'm borrowing an Xtra! headline once applied to right-wing "loonies.")
They love what I've called, in the record of Xtra! coverage linked to below, "involvement devices," saying there it's "a term from PR: those 'Have your say!' bits that, like 'public opinion' polls, are designed to ensure that 'your say' will likely have no effect -- beyond making you feel 'involved.'" To wit:
Have your say! Subway promo, summer 2002, for "vote2day.com" -- an online "opinion poll." War or Peace? Spycam "security" or public freedom? Life or death? Just say it! Right now! Yes? Or No?
I confess: I did not rush off to "vote2day.com". Not even to see how "the public" voted. The "Yes / No" frame, a media fave, is never anything more than a frame-up. Complex questions (War? Peace? Life? Death? -- could we get more complex?) are cast as having quick and easy answers. So: What's yours? You have a right to your opinion! Just as You always have a choice! Can't make a choice? Come on! What kind of consumer are you?
Quite possibly one smart enough to know that big questions don't often have easy answers; that finding answers, even tentative ones, can take long thought, hard work, and our true involvement in issues that matter to us -- as citizens, not just "consumers."
OK then: Your thoughts we'll file under "Not sure." Or "Don't Know." Or "No Opinion." Congratulations! You're involved! Of course, we'd rather you said Yes or No. Not feeling well-informed? No matter: just tell us how you feel. Anxious? Irate? Got a grievance? That's great! It makes for grabby headlines and "good TV."
And what will that mean? What effect will you have? Don't worry dear: none at all. Our thanks to you for being so helpful! Bye now! Gotta run! To get more opinions....
None of Xtra!'s involvement devices is quite that egregious. At least right now. In the mid-'90s its "Tel Xtra," a "free-phone-in poll," nearly was. Its questions allowed a "choice" among fixed answers; its "results" were reported to the percentage point -- then promptly forgotten.
In one, people were asked what they would do if a man they picked up and brought home said he was HIV-positive. Fully a third said: Kick him out. No comment. Next question. Tel Xtra fell not to ethics but mechanics (ever a sign of auto-pilot operations): a crash of the Press's phone-sex-chat routing computer, which had hosted it.
"The Steps," Xtra!'s version of the classic "streeter" grab-and-run "interview," sometimes asks questions (like "How do you beat the winter blahs?") requiring a few more words than "Yes" or "No." If not many: that wouldn't fit the format. Some are leading (a recent one: "Do panhandlers bother you?"); even they can yield answers beyond the banal (that time two "No"s, one "Not really," one "Depends on their age" -- favouring older folks; a few of her young panhandler friends do better than they would working a part-time job).
Occasional "Say your piece about this story" boxes and the letters-page online "Koffee Klatch" ("Talk amongst yourselves") do invite more: onto xtra.ca. A few comments there do generate others; some people do talk amongst themselves. Whether Xtra! heeds anything they say, I can't say. But I may check what came in on its question running in every issue from February 21 to December 12, 2002: "Do you want to marry?" Just to see....
What is it for?
Never stop asking
I'm told I never do -- tedious as it can sometimes be. For a related rant (and my reason for so often putting "journalism" in disowning quotation marks) see a paper I presented at a conference of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (Canada) on May 10, 1997:
The tendentiouness of some questions ("Koffee Klatch" has also asked: "Would legalizing same-sex marriage hurt gay culture?") might raise a critique -- if not the most crucial one: What purpose are these devices meant to serve? Is it to get people talking? To shape public discourse? To foster thought, civil engagement, true citizenship? Or just to make people "feel involved"? And provide cheap filler?
Maybe they're no more than what (it goes without saying) media simply just do. Everybody does "streeters," we should too. And polls. Even The Globe has horoscopes; so do we. Contests! Prizes! Shopping guides, of course. Even a "Life & Style" trade show.
There may be nothing wrong with any of these devices; they may indeed do what's desired. But no one can know that until they have asked: What do we desire? What do we want to make happen? Will this help it happen? In short: What is it for? And: Is what this is for what the spawn of The Body Politic was meant to be for?
I've come to believe that what "alternative media" -- of whatever particular cause if radical, or even just "progressive" -- might best be for is this: Helping people get a handle on the media.
We live immersed in the media's Real World -- however it may differ from the world we know in our everyday lives. Our perceptions are shaped by what media tell us or don't tell us, and by how they tell us what they do. They tell us what to think about. Their words affect how we think; even how we are able to think. If we don't know that, and don't know how they do it, "freedom of the press" can put the rest of us in fetters.
The alternative media should not just refuse to play the stupid pet tricks of "real-world journalism." They should expose them, teach us to see them, give us the skills that can help us resist being tricked. Their media job, their goal -- their "what's it for" -- should include media literacy.
In the late 1970s, Ken Popert worked for just such a medium of media literacy. It was called Content, teaching people to read (as Ken called his once-regular and often insightful column in The Body Politic) "between the lines." We could pay Ken an honour, if maybe one he might not in the moment always appreciate, by reading between the lines of the media he now oversees.
I've got pretty far here, I admit, from the question of "gay marriage." But these questions -- how we think; how we can help each other think; the way systems designed to keep us from thinking actually work -- are far more fundamental. They'll be with us long after the gay marriage question, and maybe even marriage, is gone.
I have put these deeper questions, and their record on that "marginal" one, to people at Xtra! Their response will likely be one often cast as suspect by the media -- if one that media people's presumption (and simultaneous denial) of their power ensures they rarely have to utter themselves: No comment.
We'll see. I'll keep you posted.
Go on to:
On the question of same-sex coupledom,
the record of one gay paper reflects a hidden agenda.
(If not the one you might suspect)
Or go back to:
Ideas in play (List of contents)
Spouse touting (Introduction)
Gay marriage? Wrong question (Lead page)
My home page
This page: http://www.rbebout.com/getfree/xtra1.htm