The recent election of Bill Vander Zalm as Premier of British Columbia and its coverage in the daily newspapers makes for an interesting exercise in a study of media bias. The attitude of the press is shown not merely by what is said, but what is stressed, and what is omitted.
The B.C. newspapers obviously had a greater interest in the election, and covered it in greater depth. But they did attempt to give the views of those who liked Vander Zalm and those who disliked him. Some people saw him as popular, handsome and a man of charisma, but others saw he smoothest and slickest of politicians who was aware of his charm and used it. It was obvious from the remarks of the leaders of the B.C. Federation of Labour and Teachers Federation that they would prefer other candidates.
Despite any criticisms, however, a fairly clear picture emerged of the man and his values. Here could be seen a man who enjoyed hard work, a family man, a man who wanted Christian values in government. He declared himself to be right wing in his work ethic, ideas of law, order and morality, and in his views on the need for guards for free enterprise. On social issues he said he was left wing in being determined to work for the handicapped and disadvantaged. He obviously dislikes bureaucracy and red tape.
His stand on abortion is unequivocal: “I am pro-life, and make no bones about it.”
Little of this picture emerges from the accounts in the Toronto press. The Globe and Mail on July 29, described him as “grace without grace’ and “rigid.” In addition the reporter stated” “Mr. Vander Zalm’s surfeit of certitude about most aspects of life make him least broadly sensitive of the main leadership candidates.” On August 7, Bill Cruikshank said incorrectly that Vander Zalm is a “fundamentalist Christian,” in spite of the fact that his faith as a Roman Catholic is well known.
The Toronto Star contributed little to those who were interested in learning about B.C.’s new premier. Tim Harpur called him outspoken and ultra-conservative but most of the Star coverage, such as it was, was given to what was termed “Ontario bashing.” Apparently Vander Zalm had said that B.C.’s interests had been seen as subservient to those of Toronto, and the West wanted a better and fairer deal. The Star did, however, add that Vander Zalm would work to end the bitterness felt in British Columbia.
The booby prize for inept reporting on a major political newcomer must go to Allan Fotheringham for his column in the Sunday Sun. In his attempt to belittle and ridicule the man he called Zalm and Zap he became merely juvenile and silly. One of his main concerns was the way Vander Zalm is dressed. “Vander Zalm…likes to wear cream-coloured suits with dark shirts, thus making him appear either a junior don in the Mafia or one of the promising newcomers on the TV evangelical circuit…In fact, the Zalm will market-test his new costume at the Edmonton bun toss this weekend. It will feature a daring blue suit with a daring white shirt.”
Fotheringham’s opinion of the new premier is that he “doesn’t know the intricacies of government from tiddly-squat’ and that he “will realize he has to have someone to hold him by the hand in the early going.” Somehow, however, clothes seem to have a symbolic value for this columnist as he harks back to the subject once again.” “The Zap, who likes to boast of how he started out at 17 with a $3,200 loan and is now a lowly millionaire who can afford cream-coloured suits, epitomizes all those who think unions are filled with lazy clots who couldn’t make it if you gave them a hoe and told them to weed the tulips.” Equally Fotheringham appears to dislike the Protestant fundamentalists who “revere” the new Roman Catholic premier because he is sternly pro-life.
We learn very little about Vander Zalm in Allan Fotheringham’s column; we learn a great deal about Fotheringham and his biases.
The Ontario press has short changed its readers who have the right to know what kind of man will represent British Columbia when all provincial premiers meet.