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Stories undone: You don’t know that you don’t know, and more

Bilbo Poynter

You Don’t Know that You Don’t Know, How Canada’s Corporate Elites Make Money, and Private HealthCare

Noam Chomsky once wrote in Manufacturing Consent that people don’t know that they don’t know what’s going on; such is the illusory effect, but real power, of institutions such as the mainstream media. Chomsky says that this works on a massive scale through the concentrated ownership of the media by multinational corporations involved in the war economy and resource extraction, which then set the agenda about what we think of as news (think “trickle down” reporting).

It’s a theme picked up in the rousing second act speech by the Al Pacino character in the 1999 movie the Insider. Pacino was playing Al Pacino playing the real-life investigative journalist Lowell Bergman, then a senior producer with 60 Minutes. Bergman (in the film at least) brings to light how the possibility of being sued by Big Tobacco company Brown and Williamson, then the subject of a 60 Minutes investigation that hadn’t aired yet, while the multi-billion dollar sale of CBS to multinational Westinghouse was in the works influenced the news department senior management – who themselves stood to financially benefit from the sale – to kill the story. Bergman (the real one) would in fact leave CBS soon after, in part due to the chain-of-events depicted in the movie.

Chomsky’s general points, and Pacino-Bergman’s specific one are, perhaps,  both at play when we consider the effect money has on shaping the news, and yet the trick is knowing when corporate dollars directly pull the strings, and when self-regulating behavior and status quo attitudes pervade newsroom thinking ultimately determining what we see, read, and hear.

Think about this: most of Canada’s wealth comes from resource extraction. Canada’s homegrown corporate elites come from businesses that take minerals out of the ground, make paper from the trees and so on. They also grow and look for opportunities elsewhere.  These companies sponsor our events and cultural institutions, place full page ads in Canadian magazines and bring us our business news segments on TV.

So, it was not your average company press release when Vancouver-based Radius Gold released a statement distancing themselves from the shooting of Guatemalan anti-gold mine crusader Yolanda Soquel Velez in June. The statement went over Marketwire, which is widely seen by editors and market watchers for all of the major news organizations, but the only article in the Canadian media that I’ve seen about the targeted shooting was in the Vancouver weekly, the Georgia Straight. And yet the bitter and at times deadly struggles to stop Canadian-owned mining and logging projects from going forward in remote and indigenous populated areas in places such as southern Guatemala and Peru hasn’t really penetrated our national media. Why is that?

The company’s release calls online articles linking them to the shooting “inflammatory” and “ridiculous” – so is it too much for national news organization to ask Radius what they know about a situation that is directly connected to their business interests and is clearly escalating into violence? Canadian mining companies are heavily invested in foreign projects. It’s a global industry dominated by Canadian companies, worth billions each year. And yet the only dedicated coverage of the mining industry in Canada comes by way of trade publications.

I’d like to see more stories on the role the private medical industry (clinics, pharmaceuticals, medical supply) is having – if any – in driving health policy in Canada? An obvious place to look is to what extent the industry may be lobbying government? PostMedia reported last year that healthcare wasn’t one of the main issues lobbied for in Ottawa – but what about the provinces?  How has private medical delivery grown in Canada? And over what timespan?  The Canadian Medical Association suggests the growth of private medical services has mushroomed in recent years, but this growth isn’t being tracked by anyone in Canada. Now a provincial government audit of two private clinics in British Columbia found evidence of double billing – charging patients fees covered under Medicare – at the clinics and now there are fresh calls to audit all of the private clinics in B.C..

We tend to think that because healthcare in the U.S. is a market-driven industry, worth billions, that any pressure to open up health care delivery to private interests in Canada must be coming from south of the border; but there is a homegrown industry that spans the spectrum of for-profit health services.  Maybe we should start with what exactly defines private health delivery in Canada anyway? Does contracted out laundry services in the hospitals count? A surgical clinic? What about a members-only health centre geared toward executives?

This seems to me to be particularly relevant as we get closer to the negotiation of a new health accord between the feds and the provinces, and the private industry is once again challenging the constitutionality of the Act before the courts.

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