Categories
Our Voices

Big Business is Killing the Fourth Estate

An image of Faye Dunaway in the Movie Network
Faye Dunaway in NETWORK, 1976, Allstar Picture Library Limited. / Alamy Stock Photo

When audiences were made aware of the news of Bell Media’s sudden firing of CTV News anchor Lisa LaFlamme at the end of June, Canadians erupted with collective outrage. Whether, as speculated, her dismissal was the result of ageism and sexism or whether it was a clash of newsroom personalities, Bell’s tepid excuse that it was a “business decision”—a corporate-speak version of a patronizing pat on the head—found little traction. The giant communications conglomerate’s arrogant expectation that  “60 years of trust” would eventually override the public’s memory hangs in serious doubt. LaFlamme was one of Canada’s most beloved and—more importantly—most trusted anchors.  

The issue roiling beneath the anger at Ms. LaFlamme’s dismissal isn’t going away: it isn’t specifically an issue of sexism or ageism, or an issue of race (LaFlamme is a white woman who has been willing to age publicly; Omar Sachedina, her replacement, is a man of colour), although each of these facets of the problem is quite enough on its own.

The crux of the matter is the conflict between what is good for news (and audiences) and what is good for business. 

Who Does Modern Media Really Work For?

What is good for business—traditional business, that is—is anything that will produce profit. The greater the profit, the greater the success. But throughout the pandemic we have become increasingly aware that this approach has its price. While some reap the benefits, more face lives of greater insecurity. But how can we track the success or failure of this system if the very ways by which we share information no longer report on it? It’s not until the cracks start to show, until the harm the system causes is too great to be ignored—too many people of colour shot by police, too many immigrant workers dying due to substandard living conditions and inadequate pay, too many people losing their homes due to a lack of affordable housing—that we question the information we have because it doesn’t match the world we live in anymore. Celebrities, sex scandals, and outrage garner clicks that increase profits. The slow swell of inequity and destabilization is more newsworthy, but unless it can be blamed on a scapegoat, it is not lucrative.

We have watched with growing anxiety the rise of Fox News, the proliferation of clickbait headlines, and the erosion of our core institutions (media, academy, government) as “business” decisions have disrupted their function and challenged our confidence in them.

The fourth estate, our press in Western democratic nations, was conceived as a place of checks and balances for power, which includes systems of power as much as actors within that system. Our business culture is driven by a pursuit of power that is linked to money. The commodification—the Foxification, even—of public information has resulted in a media system where checks and balances are compromised. News media cannot remain accountable to the public good through transparent and unflinchingly ethical information production AND be accountable to the interests of advertisers and corporate owners—at least not sustainably. Information can be entertaining, and its dissemination can even support business, but in order to function as intended, the news media must be free to ask any question, unconstrained by consequences to the interests of the parent company/owner/powers that be. 

Video clip from “Network” (1976) during which the Network CEO explains the true relationship between big business and media to TV anchorman, Howard Beale played by actor Peter Finch. 

People in the media have known about these issues for a very long time. The black comedy Network spoke to the problem in 1976. Following the mass purchases of media outlets in Britain, Australia and the US by Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch in the late 20th century, the news satire Drop the Dead Donkey was born in 1990. The concerns these programs aired (and they are extensive) were then more than validated by criminal violations by both magnates, most notably by Murdoch, with his wire tapping scandal, and then reports of rampant sexual harassment at his wildly financially successful media outlets. However, the warnings have continued to go unheeded. The result is that today we have a fragmented information production system distrusted by an increasingly polarized public sphere, creating an information miasma from which we have not yet begun to emerge.    

The answer to this fracture is a system of information production that people feel they can trust—one that produces stories that share facts and information, question norms, and help us face our problems so that we can solve them before they hurt us. Ethically produced information is not only accountable to ethical standards set for journalism, but it seeks to find ways of telling stories that reduce bias and increase accountability, not only to readers but to the people being written about and to the ways in which we make the information in the first place. Ethical outlets challenge implicit bias in their newsrooms, in the management of their teams, and in the structure of the stories they tell. Ethical information production asks us to break down the things that we take for granted before they do damage—overreporting of minority crime, the subtle shifts of language that betray double standards, the long-held unspoken assumptions that prove, on examination, to be completely wrong. But to accomplish this, ethical media has to be able to challenge the very system that validates “success” or “failure”, the dominant system of power. Which is precisely the object lesson we have witnessed with Bell Canada’s approach to firing Ms. Laflamme. Their inept response speaks to their conviction that they don’t have to tell the story we are demanding to hear. And THAT is what makes it so hard for Canadians to swallow—the knowledge that Bell is not replacing trusted storytelling with more trustworthy storytelling. It is already replacing it with more spin.

Through wars, intense polarization of the political sphere in Canada, and pieces on gross inequities in our communities here and abroad, Ms. LaFlamme gained the respect of diverse audiences. As one of Canada’s many “hyphenates” (Canadian-nameyourcountry), and, more importantly, a hyphenate of a country that at one point was vilified by Canadian media during one of the many conflicts we’ve watched in the last 40 years, I, like many Canadians, have grown very cynical and very selective of the news reporters I will listen to. It was while Ms. LaFlamme was interviewing someone on the conflict in Iraq that I realized that her questions allowed for more nuanced understandings of conflict and of the contextual realities of those simply identified as “evil” or “bad” or “other” on other networks. And when she spoke of the conflict in my father’s homeland, the way she spoke of the country and the people shared their lived experience of the conflict they had been involved in. She was still reporting the news, and with it the actions the people involved could not and should not hide from, but she was also able to relay the stories without seeming to paint the people “evil” with a single broad stroke. She was able to speak to bad things being done, sometimes, by good people.

This is the news that we all need—the news that allows us to look at what it means to be human and to do things that might not be right, or seen as right, by others. To open conversation is to allow for understanding. Judgment and vilification create conflict and close off opportunities for dialogue, contact, and peaceful solutions. This empathy was the real gift of Ms. Laflamme’s reportage. And because of this unique ability of hers to convey the complexity of human experience, audiences from diverse groups in Canada were willing to use what she had to say as a foundation for discussion. That is the best that we can hope for from news. And because of this, she was, at the end of her time at CTV, the anchor of the highest-rated news program in Canada.

Ratings aside, Canadians describe her and her work as being marked by journalistic integrity; she’s been called “fantastic” and a “journalism hero”. Yes, she’s won awards and has been graced with the Order of Canada, but what matters is the fact that Canadians chose to tune into CTV to hear Ms. LaFlamme speak about the world so that we could better understand our place in it. Bell’s oafish and disrespectful mishandling of Ms. LaFlamme is, in short, a mishandling of our trust and our support as viewers.

It is, of course, possible, even likely, that Mr. Sachedina will also produce stories of this quality and level of care. I won’t know because I, like many Canadians, no longer trust the way the stories are made at Bell Media: The commitment to ethics over business values, which is needed in order to tell stories that we as Canadians can build community on, has been shown to be grossly absent.

Which brings us back to the problem Ms. LaFlamme’s dismissal underlines. What is the meaning of Lisa Laflamme in this tumult? Is she merely a former employee of Bell Media? Or is she a public figure, a trusted voice of Canadians understanding Canada, who stands apart from business interests? Her work should stand above the needs of the businesses that pay for Canadian communication infrastructure. The anxiety and anger at her dismissal has been born of the fear that the Canadian public is losing a baseline by which to understand ourselves in a collective context.

When do we acknowledge that the fourth estate is crumbling because of a values takeover? Or that this same takeover may be endemic to all of our institutions? The issue is not with business per se but with the fact that business values have infused themselves in all of our institutions, even those that are not best served by them. 

How To Take Back Media 

To get out of this mess, we need to create a conversation led by people – thinkers, researchers, writers, journalists – we can trust. We need media that is made by people who look different and have values and expectations of the world other than those of the dominant culture. We need media made with empathy and respect for the experiences and choices of others —that is committed to investigating itself as much as the world around it, created by people who have been trained to challenge their own ideas of themselves and the way they see their world. Can this kind of media make the same kind of profits as a National Enquirer or a Daily Mirror, or the clickbait stories that have come to replace them as “popular” news? Absolutely not. Ethically produced stories are more labour intensive to make, and they are not pitched to attract sales, but to create thought and consideration of the world we live in. They require more hands and more voices to be made, and they require that those hands and voices be paid respectfully for their work. But what they produce is an information landscape that we can rely on to create the kinds of conversations that create greater security and respect for one another—the kinds of stories Ms. LaFlamme was trying to tell.

How can we do this when the cost of launching a media source REQUIRES accountability to a system whose interests conflict with the demands of ethical information production?

There is a solution. It’s not perfect. It’s small. It lacks the audience breadth and access that Ms. LaFlamme achieved. But it’s here, a tiny heartbeat fighting to grow. Independent news agencies such as LiisBeth, The Narwhal, The Greenline, rabble.ca, and yes, full disclosure, my own publication Peeps, among many others all fight to get readers information that does NOT place business accountabilities first. Rather, they place sound, reliable, well-researched, and nonpartisan (in most cases) information production at the centre of their daily work. Among these publications, you’ll find that many of them (all those listed in this publication) were started by women, notably many of whom are women of colour. It should be no surprise that those who receive the least representation in media are looking to create space for our voices. But what women founders of new media outlets lack most is policy support, access to capital, plus marketing and exposure that generates large audiences which, in turn, bring fresh ideas and emerging female journalists into the centre of the Canadian conversation. What these pioneers also need is an audience that is willing to look for us rather than have us served to them by Apple News or commercial broadcasters: an audience willing to invest in the development of this work and the ways we make it.

The most distressing lesson we take from Ms. LaFlamme’s dismissal is that even when we do get the audience, depending on the whims of telecom giants, it might not be ours to keep no matter how many people want to hear what we have to say.

Publisher’s Note:  Please consider defunding profit first corporate news media outlets by shifting your subscriber dollars to indie outlets. You can find a partial but long list of outlets here.  

Related Reading

Will Next Generation News Media Ownership Be Gender Balanced?

The new $645M Canadian government news media fund mostly bails out crumbling traditional media and fails to advance diversity. Despite facts that start up companies rushing in to fill the gap are largely founded by men–and white people. Is this going to help us build a more inclusive democracy?

Read More »
Categories
Activism & Action

Feminist Entrepreneurship—Changing the Face of Capitalism, One Enterprise at a Time

Vancouver-based Lunapads recently became a 2016 Canada Post E-Commerce Innovation Award-winner in the category of Community Impact. Lunapads opened for business in 1993. The company survived the rollercoaster startup phase and today it is a successful, seven-figure feminist enterprise with thousands of customers worldwide. It also boasts two innovative social impact programs, One4her, which improves access to education for Ugandan girls, and G Day For Girls, a global social movement involving “rite of passage” events that celebrate and empower girls aged 10 to 12 who are transitioning to adolescence. Lunapads is a She-EO venture, and  is on BCorp’s Best for the World list which highlights the top 10% most highly ranked B Corps globally.

LiisBeth had the opportunity to meet with the company’s Co-founder, Creative Director, and feminist entrepreneur, Madeleine Shaw on Sept. 23.

LiisBeth: Tell us about Lunapads.

Shaw: Okay, Lunapads is a for-profit, Vancouver-based social impact business. We’re a founding Canadian B Corp. We specialize in natural menstrual products and also products that meet bladder leakage needs. We are all about helping individuals have healthier, more positive experiences and outlooks about things their bodies do, getting rid of the shame some people feel when it comes to topics like menstruation, postpartum needs and leakiness.

LiisBeth: We want to learn more about you as a feminist entrepreneur, which you so totally are! First, what does feminism mean to you?

Shaw: Feminism, to me, is just about a movement that strives to achieve social equality. For me, I came to feminism at around age 17 or 18 as a way to try and make sense of gender oppression I had experienced personally. Learning about feminism opened my eyes to the fact that inequality is something many people experience and that gender equality does not exist in our culture. Girls, women, trans, non-binary people are particularly oppressed under a patriarchal power dynamic. To me, feminism just addresses all of them. It’s a lens through which one sees the world. It helps you see and understand inequality, the power dynamics behind it, and encourages active participation in changing that.

LiisBeth: How did your feminist outlook affect your career decisions?

Shaw: It actually helped me to opt out of the mainstream business working world. Just to back it up, while at university I started taking women’s studies courses. The reason I became interested in women’s studies is because of what I experienced during frosh week at Queen’s University in the mid-80s. I was pushed down onto a muddy field along with all the other first-year girls and the football team did push-ups on top of us. It was like this fake rape simulation going on. I was 17, I was thousands of kilometres away from home. I was shocked and appalled.

Then, the following week, I went into my first English 100 survey class. I wanted to be an English major because I loved reading. But when I looked at the syllabus, I found there was not one single woman writer on the entire syllabus for the entire year. Not one word written by a woman. Not one in the entire history of English literature. My mom has a Master’s degree in English and has kind of schooled me that this was not perhaps an accurate reflection of who is out there. I just thought, “Oh my God, here’s one of, what is supposed to be, the better higher institutions of learning in Canada, and this is their version of reality? I can’t take it!” I went down the hall to women’s studies and more-or-less never looked back.

Later, I got involved as a student leader doing mostly anti-date rape, anti-sexual violence-type campaigns like Take Back the Night and No Means No, and organizing screenings for documentaries like Killing Us Softly. I wanted to create change.

With respect to business, initially, as a university student, I hated the idea of business. I thought that was the last thing I would ever do. I thought it was an inherently exploitative activity that was sort of hand in hand with patriarchy. Capitalism was how patriarchy funded itself basically, right? That was my belief system in the early days. As a person of privilege, I didn’t understand where money actually came from, that people needed jobs and the economy supported families. Later, I started to consider that maybe capitalism wasn’t an inherently broken system but instead an inherently neutral system that had been kind of politically hijacked by a certain kind of person influenced by patriarchal values. Capitalism as a system wasn’t the problem. The values of those in power who had the opportunity to shape and leverage it is the problem.

So, I got excited about the idea of entrepreneurship. I thought, if I can find and create my own business and make it on my own terms with my own values then number one: I don’t have to go up to the 26th floor of some corporation who makes things or extracts things that I don’t believe in and whose practices don’t align with my values.

As a confident feminist, I also figured l probably wouldn’t survive for even a matter of months within that kind of a power system. I’m just a very independent, creative spirit. Entrepreneurship for me was an expression of leadership and creativity that my kind of rebellion. Fuck that! I don’t need to be that [corporate] kind of person. I don’t need to have the big title and the big… whatever. I get to have what I want on my own terms. So when I was 25, I started my first business. I’m 48 now. The idea that I could start my own business was a revelation to me. I was like, “Whoa! This is so exciting!”

LiisBeth: What was your first business?

Shaw: My first company was called Everywhere Designs. As a child, I always loved sewing and textiles. I guess I at first tried to be a feminist fashion designer by making clothes that were comfortable and that I felt celebrated women and that were sustainable, local and just alternatives to mass-marketed, super-sexy kind of things. I love colour, and I wanted to play with making my customers feel more alive and a little more vibrant. Just a way of expressing yourself in an interesting and creative way. So I purchased the small garment manufacturing business that had been making Lunapads, opened a little boutique and did a lot of customer work. Tons! I’ve made so many wedding dresses. Oh my goodness!

Lunapads grew out of that. I was on my own for about seven years when I met my business partner Suzanne [Siemens] in 1999 at a community leadership course. When we first met, I thought she represented the path of the capitalist dark side that I feared. She was corporate. An accountant. But that path almost killed her. She was looking to apply her talents to something that mattered to her. We have now been partners for 16 years.
LiisBeth: As a women’s studies graduate, where did you go to learn about building a company?

Shaw: The venture program at BCIT, though it’s called something else now… Now there’s entrepreneurial education programs everywhere. Back in the day, not so much. It was one of the few. I just loved it. They were great. I think there were maybe 12 or 15 people in my whole class.

LiisBeth: Were there women in it?

Shaw: There were one or two others.

LiisBeth: How has feminism influenced the way you operate your company?

Shaw: For starters, when we hire someone, we always look for a strong fit with our values before anything else. Feminism is one of our corporate values, so if somebody does not identify that way, then they’re going to have trouble fitting in.

LiisBeth: What’s the gender balance of your staff?

Shaw: If you go by the numbers, it would be 90 percent who are women-identified and 10 per cent genderqueer-identified.

LiisBeth: Have you ever had men apply for jobs in the past?

Shaw: Never. We hire them as contractors. We absolutely have amazing business relationships with them. And our accountants are men and our tech guys are men. We have never had any men apply, so it would be hard to hire them. Let’s start there.

But we’re certainly open to it. It has just happened that way, and I think it’s partly driven by the type of products we make, which is not to say that all women menstruate or all demonstrators are necessarily women. We hire feminists.

LiisBeth: What kinds of policies would we see in a feminist company’s employee handbook?

Shaw: We have explicitly written policies around trans inclusion. We offer both maternity and paternity leave. We have a glossary of different terms so people understand what a gender as a spectrum is or what this gender means or what genderqueer means.

We expect and train people to use gender-inclusive language when dealing with customers. For example, if you’re in our social media marketing group, you don’t say, “Hey ladies! Hey girls!” If you are addressing a group of people who do identify that way exclusively, then that’s fine, but if you’re trying to address the wider community of Lunapads, then we’re very particular about using gender-inclusive language.

LiisBeth: Have you gone as far as changing your pronoun language in your marketing material?

Shaw: Yes. When we are speaking generally of our customers, we don’t use the language of “girls” and “women”; we use the words “community” or “individuals” or “people who menstruate.” We’re also working on our imagery. We just did a photo shoot with some trans people so we can be representative visually, and not just verbally, in the copy.

LiisBeth: Let me ask about another area of decision making in procurement. When you’re sourcing suppliers, do you look for women-owned enterprises to deal with?

Shaw: It’s challenging, especially when you’re dealing with textiles, but it’s true in many things. I would say that we look for sustainability first when it comes to supply chain, because we’re trying to work with environmentally sustainable fabrics. Because we’re B Corp, we look for B Corps, so we know their values match with ours. It may not be a specifically woman-owned or feminist organization, but it’s one that has been evaluated for its overall social and environmental impact.

LiisBeth: What about decision making and operating? How flat? How hierarchical? How has, let’s say, feminism, influenced your management practices?

Shaw: It’s interesting because I remember as a university student doing feminist organizing, I actually experienced a lot of frustration in that environment, where it almost felt too collective and too inclusive sometimes, to the point where things just didn’t get done. I would say that we’ve been through some interesting iterations. They say that a company’s culture is a direct reflection of the issues leaders themselves are working through, which is interesting.

A few years ago, we made the conscious decision for my partner Suzanne to be the point of the arrow, which implies this hierarchy.

Can we still be a feminist company and have somebody who is the boss? My answer to that is: I think yes. We’re still living in patriarchal times. There’s no doubt about it. We’re all, to some extent, still carrying around that baggage, but I also believe in efficiency, and I believe that not every decision needs to be collective. It just doesn’t. If you’re going to scale your business it can’t be.

LiisBeth: Feminism is everywhere today. And historically, feminists have an uneasy relationship with capitalism. Where do you see this all going?

Shaw: Let’s start with feminism. I feel more and more like we’re in the age of feminism, finally! People are recognizing the untapped resource of women, in particular from an economic perspective as taxpayers, as workers, and also at the same time we’ve got the climate collapsing due to values-free business practices that are exploitative.

When it comes to feminism and capitalism, I personally believe that the success of the feminist business revolution will be to change capitalism and, I hope, also work to address climate change because it’s our biggest opportunity.

We know the system of patriarchy needs to change, but within that we’ve got the capitalist system. It’s so essential and yet it’s been seized by a few and used in a twisted way. That’s why I believe things like feminist entrepreneurship can make a difference, where we can really take a kick at creating alternatives within the capitalist system.

The act of doing business can be really positive if you do it right. I think that the combination of feminism and capitalism, powered by creativity, can change the world.

Related Articles

Silicon Valley’s Quest to Make Periods Cool: Feminine hygiene is getting a millennial-savvy update–could it leave some women behind?

(Publisher’s Note: Lunapads are available at retail stores across Canada including Whole Foods and London Drugs. In the US, Lunapads Performa Pads have just launched at 200 select Target stores, as well as online at Target.com. Our complete collection is available at www.lunapads.com; Liisbeth community members are invited to use promo code lunalove to receive 15% off orders over $35 untilDecember 31, 2016.)

Related Reading