The Winnipeg Free Press, our daily source of print journalism, has just ended a two week strike. Did I miss it in the least? Nope. I stopped reading the Freep (as we call it) in the early ’90s.
Working under the collective name “Average Good Looks,” a couple of local artists, Noreen Steven and Sheila Spence, created a billboard project featuring images of queers. One of the tag lines was “Homophobia is killing us.” And in the ’80s and early ’90s it was true. Men were still being beaten to death in the cruising area of Winnipeg. And because AIDS was still largely seen as a gay disease, governments, mainstream media, and even the Red Cross dragged their feet, limiting research, stalling prevention education, making services for people with AIDS hard to obtain and allowing the virus to be spread through our blood banks.
Now the Winnipeg Free Press wasn’t any more fear-and-hate-mongering than most news providers of the times. I remember a friend telling me that the Globe and Mail refused to print AIDS as the cause of death in their staff-written obituaries until well into the epidemic. But the Free Press was particularly heinous in its reportage of the billboard project. Or rather it gave ample inches of print to homophobes and ran very few measured responses by members of our community.
Admittedly this is all ancient history. The world has changed and so has the Winnipeg Free Press. Like almost every news source in North America, it had to. There are many progressive, intelligent journalists working at the Free Press who have made it better. But the mainstream media still hasn’t truly embraced stories that affect our gay lives. A prudishness remains towards issues of sex and sexuality. And there is the perception that we are now just like everyone else, therefore there is no reason to tell our queer stories as distinct from those of other Canadians.
Just in case I was wrong about all of this, last week I went to the Freep search engine. I did so guiltily — I didn’t want to violate the strike. I had already successfully resisted going to the management-written site, even when they mistakenly posted articles after the federal election about different candidates winning. In the Winnipeg South race, they declared both Loewen and Bruinooge victorious. Hilarious! All stories were obviously pre-written and they — whoops! — posted ’em all! But I digress…
Putting my labour politics aside, I typed in “gay” to see what the Free Press had for me. And there it was, the top queer story: how William Shatner snubbed his co-star George Takei (Sulu on the old Star Trek) by not showing up for his gay wedding. Not exactly hard hitting journalism. The leading gay news of the day was nothing about our ongoing battles for civil rights around the world. Not a story about the rise of unexpected cancers in long-surviving AIDS patients. Not a story about the fertility industry and its treatment of lesbians. Nothing about the long-term effects of the antiviral cocktail or the community impact of gay divorce or what happens to us as gay seniors.
To be fair, this was a story posted by management during a strike. It came straight off the news service. But that’s the source of more and more of our print stories, with or without a strike. The same prefabricated pieces run in every other daily in North America. This is another contributing problem to the quality of queer journalism, and journalism period. Cost-cutting has led to the publication of a great many stories that are so-called general interest, lowest-common-denominator, and often American. Basically they fill inches and have little or no resonance in the communities in which they are printed.
For a society that is all about information, we invest very little into rigorous investigation, particularly of anything beyond the mainstream. So the state of journalism as a whole is lacking and is worse as it applies to queers.
The Winnipeg Free Press of recent years is better than most in this regard. In part, this is why the workers went on strike. The owners of the paper wanted to institute multimedia journalism: reporters would be expected to take photos and shoot video for the web as well as writing stories. Journalists would be hired for their triple-threat skills instead of their ability to find and synthesize information, instead of their ability to make creative associations and craft intelligent argument, instead of their ability to make us think differently, more broadly and with greater clarity about our world. Research and writing would take a backseat to multi-tasking.
Fortunately, this isn’t going to happen at the Winnipeg Free Press. The workers prevailed! Thank goodness.
But the Freep still doesn’t motivate me to read it. Sure, it’s changed since the late ’80s and early ’90s. Homophobia is no longer tolerated at the paper. And many of its journalists buck the news-as-entertainment trend that prevails far beyond Winnipeg. However, I need journalism that is relevant to me. That is why, when I want stories that affect me and the perverts I love, I don’t turn to a local daily. When it comes to journalism that makes a difference to me as a gay person, there’s still a long way to go.