Making Headlines: 100 Years of the Vancouver Sun
October 28, 2013
Review By John Belshaw
The Vancouver Sun turned one hundred in 2012. To mark this event, reporter Shelley Fralic compiled a (roughly) chronological account of goings-on in the city and at the paper itself. It is not so much a life-and-times approach as a run-and-gun account of the town rag and the ink-stained wretches who produce it. There are critical assessments of the newspaper business in Vancouver; this is not one of them. Making Headlines is a self-described “celebration,” a souvenir that will find a place on many British Columbian shelves because of the memories it evokes. There are some very good photos, some of which are gratifyingly unfamiliar. The writing is tight enough and suitably journalistic. Fralic has a natural nerdly understanding of the way technology (re)shapes process and product over a century.
As accounts of the past go, however, this one is extremely problematic. Some warts are revealed and some of the underlying assumptions of the newspaper are laid bare, but Making Headlines reinforces rather than challenges many outdated notions about news, journalism, and society. The title of this volume is apposite: the newspaper manufactures news. Stories don’t “make” headlines, journalists do. If we can agree that newspapers do write the first rough draft of history, ought we be shy of saying, well, you got that badly wrong, didn’t you?
By way of example, take the Doukhobor story, a long and complex one that wends its rather sad way from the 1920s through the 1970s. The press generally approached the Sons of Freedom with the kid gloves off and a taste for the sensational; newspaper accounts shaped public opinion on the sect and tailored the list of options available to authorities. In short, the press is culpable for many things that went amiss. To retell it, as Fralic does, as though it all starts and ends in 1961with Simma Holt is to do a great disservice and to perpetuate harm (91).
Or take Fralic’s hubristic praise of the team that covered the “Missing Women” case, though only after an arrest was made. Descending on the police like jackals in 2002 is nothing like getting out into the alleyways and doing the journalistic digging that might have led to a break in the case a decade earlier (168-9).
Fralic is better when it comes to gender issues. She is realistic about historic contexts and she draws attention to the glass ceiling (placed just above the windowless basement) confronted by female journos. If, however, “the 1950s was the era of the housewife” (71), who made it so? The Sun depended on advertising revenue from the consumer goods industry that filled homes with all mod cons, including washers, dryers, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators. Despite the enormous wealth that thus flowed from serving up visions of ideal feminine domesticity, the newspaper’s “women’s department” couldn’t catch a break: male journalists referred to it, “derisively, as the ‘ovary tower’”(100).
There are, as well, errors and a serious oversight. The Lions Gate Bridge was not under construction in 1912 (16), “situations wanted” is not advert-speak for “a place to rent” (17), and Pierre Trudeau was no more a “Frenchman” than Joe Clark is an Englishman (164). Landy didn’t “inexplicably” do a shoulder check on Bannister: he had been doing them rhythmically over the final 100 yards — which telegraphed to Bannister (and photographer Charlie Warner) exactly when to sprint (78).
On Warner’s iconic “Miracle Mile” photo, Fralic smartly reports the conflict it engendered. Warner said he owned the iconic picture because he was off-duty when he snapped the shutter; the Sun disagreed and kept the rights and revenues. Too bad this parsimony is reproduced throughout Making Headlines: photographs are, with few exceptions, not labelled with the name of their creator.
The daily newspaper is as integral to the idea of the modern city as property taxes. It is a sponsor of civic culture and commerce, ostensibly above the fray and grubby materialism in its pursuit of the truth. Fifties-era publisher Don Cromie was at the helm when the Sun proclaimed itself “a Newspaper Devoted to Progress and Democracy, Tolerance and Freedom of Thought,” all of which would have come as a surprise to readers whose sexual orientation, ideology, ethnicity, aspirations, or creed were regularly criticized, chided, ignored by the Sun. Newspapers are, generally and universally, pulpits for perspectives that range from the relatively benign to the downright malign. In short, the print media is part of the society on which it reports, and notions of an arm’s-length relationship are simply too foolish to entertain. This book reveals a Vancouver daily happy to stir the pot and then, when everyone is suitably agitated, offers up a “Here, let me hold your coat.”
Making Headlines: 100 Years of the Vancouver Sun
By Shelley Fralic with Kate Bird
Vancouver: The Vancouver Sun, 2012. 183 pp, Illus. $36.70 cloth
BC Studies, no. 178, Summer 2013.