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FYI

Media Beat: Cecil Rosner's 'Manipulating the Message' Reveals How the News is Spun

The new book by retired Canadian investigative reporter Cecil Rosner offers an instructive read for journos of all stripes.

Manipulating The Message book cover

Manipulating The Message book cover

Dundurn Press

Dundurn Press recently published retired Canadian investigative journalist Cecil Rosner’s book Manipulating the Message, which spins an easy-to-read and exhaustively researched assessment of the news industry today.

It’s also an instructive must-read for anyone in media as its rich vein of footnoted source information hammers home the message that impartial news today is a luxury fast in retreat. In Canada, Rosner reports that news journos are outgunned 14-1 by spin artists employed to pitch, bend and even fabricate truths for their corporate masters.


The tsunami of corporate and governmental spin storming the gates of legacy news media is more virulent than ever, and the wealth of revenue once earned by mainstream media brands has slowed to a trickle as an exodus of former stalwart clients has left the barn to sell their messages as is on considerably less expensive digital platforms. It’s a battle the old guard is fast losing.

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Underscoring this ruinous transfer of wealth to digital verticals, Bell Canada president and CEO Mirko Bibic stated last year that the company expected its news operations will incur a minimum $40 million in annual operating losses. News departments everywhere are bloodying the books over once ginormously profitable media companies, and the result has been bankruptcies, mergers and mass layoffs.

The romance of journalism as a career has gone with the wind in modern times.

From Rosner’s book, the findings attributed to Statistics Canada, he writes: “There are fewer than 12,000 reporters in Canada compared to 160,000 employees in advertising, public relations, and (the) communications industry. For every journalist trying to figure out the truth, thirteen people are influencing that journalist’s perception of reality. It isn’t a fair fight.”

But Rosner’s book isn’t about vain glories. It’s about the debasement of truth and the pernicious growth of bullshit masquerading as fact.

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The fake news industries churn out spurious news releases, thwart access to information and spew bafflegab with a straight face when serious questions are asked of people in high places. How many times have we seen politicians talk over direct questions, misdirect their answers or sing from a pre-assigned hymn book like cuckolded fowl?

Or been sucker punched by clickbait headlines?

Rosner attributes the first PR company to one Ivy Lee, a former American journo who, in 1904, “invented the press release” and managed to pre-empt nasty questions being posed to one of his clients about a train disaster that killed more than 50 people. Lee convinced the Pennsylvania Railroad it would be better to provide newspapers with answers to questions and take control of the narrative by issuing a prompt statement that set out its version of events. “The Pennsylvania Railroad Company is leaving nothing undone to get at the cause of the accident,” the press release stated. And so began the massaged message that has become the fallback posture for anyone and everyone caught in a pickle jar and wanting an easy way out.

Corporate Goliaths, over time, have taught us that pigs can fly. From Vietnam to Watergate to the invasion of Iraq, corporate venality, plutocracies, and judicial malfeasance have flourished.

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Rosner walks the corridors of power, corporate and political, and checks off the flattery of informed sources and pillars of impartiality and calls them out. Think tanks, the Fraser Institute, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the go-to media flacks that are billed as impartial former this and that. And he calls out his own kind for flattering the effluent pipe of media releases that too often get brazenly reported on without attribution.

Opinion polls earn a chapter, and how often have we heard about a new study screaming for attention without having been given the benefit of knowing who funded the research and to what end? Rosner's on the case here too.

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Rosner’s approach is systematic, and he doesn’t wield a hammer or scream from a megaphone. He explains and cajoles journalists everywhere to be more inquiring, to unmask the masked and to be vigilant in not swallowing the hook and not taking the pitch without furthering an investigation. Deadlines and resources may be tight, but doing the right thing is what counts.

There’s an instructive and colourful story about how the Fyre Festival boondoggle was floated with a marquee of handsomely paid influencers. According to Rosner's findings, the influencer market (read 'shills') is now a $16B a year industry.

How Powerful Forces Shape the News is the subtitle of Rosner’s softback. It runs just over 200 pages, plus footnotes, acknowledgements and an index.

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