Building a better magazine law

If Shania Twain’s music is Canadian, why not Vanity Fair s content?

Marketing Magazine, March 1, 1999   

I feel bad for Sheila Copps. Getting stuck with the federal cabinet’s Heritage portfolio looks like a rotten assignment. Maybe she asked for it; perhaps she’s the kind of go-getter who identified the job nobody wanted and volunteered for it. Her strategy now that she’s ensconced, though, suggests she’s eager to get shifted to something more politically advantageous. How else to explain Bill C-55, the legislation meant to restore our nutty cultural protectionism after the World Trade Organization told us our efforts to block split runs of American magazines were ill-conceived, anti-democratic and just plain wrong?


C-55 aims to prevent a “crime” that nobody is committing. It’s like outlawing the practice of hovering a meter above the sidewalk. Nobody’s capable of doing such a thing, nor are they trying to. But now there’s a law saying they can’t. And it’s got no political downside. Anybody asks you what you’ve done for cultural sovereignty, proudly point to C-55. The law’s explicit exemptions for the only two existing split-run publications would only be confusing. (The Canadian editors of Time and Reader’s Digest are both politely overlooked. Incidentally, the “threat” that started all this — the putative Canadian Sports Illustrated — must have seemed entirely reasonable to Time Warner; it’s doing fine with Time Canada and nobody seems to mind.) Bill C-55 is the classic definition of neurosis: doing the same stupid thing repeatedly and expecting a different result each time.


The government already has a better model for dealing with this magazine conundrum, although it hasn’t thought to apply it yet: the rules that determine what counts as “Canadian content” in the music business. Céline Dion’s inescapable anthem about a British ocean liner that sunk in the North Atlantic counts; Shania Twain lives in upstate New York, most of her material is written and produced by her husband, Mutt Lange. (British? American? Both? I don’t know.) All that matters is that it’s Canadian content. Why not apply the same twisted reasoning to magazines?


Graydon Carter edits Vanity Fair, which ought to make it especially Canadian given Carter’s having been reared in our nation’s capital. Bonnie Fuller’s editing Glamour these days, having moved on from Cosmopolitan. She used to work at Flare. Now, she’s left Cosmo, it’s American again. See how this works?


If it’s okay for Canadian newspapers to run American wire service copy and reprints from U.S. newspapers, then why not allow magazines employing Canadians to count as Canadian? That would make them an acceptable — maybe even laudable — venue for the clients of Canadian media buyers. Why punish advertisers or buyers with some witless tax just because they know where to find their target audience?


We can foresee a problem with this, though: declaring a publication Canadian just because its editor was born here offers an unfair advantage to certain books. And it’s sure to generate complaint from others. We can level the field by including contributors in our calculations.


Let’s take The New Yorker as an example: the Feb. 15 issue includes a book review by Malcolm Gladwell, who’s Canadian. That’s one chunk of Canuckitude. The same issue also contains an Adam Gopnik article about France; that makes it twice as Canadian. And if, as often happens, you get an issue boasting a Gladwell story, a Gopnik feature and artwork by Barry Blitt, well, then the government would be paying advertisers to buy lineage, or at least giving them a hefty tax break for selflessly underwriting Canadian cultural effort.


The same rules could apply to editions of Newsweek containing stories by Rick Marin, issues of Harper’s that offer work by Paul William Roberts or any GQ containing writing by Guy Lawson, Mordecai Richler or Jake Richler. The current issue of Rolling Stone has a piece in it by John R. Quain (Ottawa-bred, like VF’s Carter), so that’d count as well. Add to that list Details from a couple of months ago, which had a short disquisition by Barenaked Ladies drummer Tyler Stewart on how to amuse oneself in Toronto. Of course, if any U.S. publication covers a Canadian subject, place or person, it would automatically count.


As long as The Globe and Mail continues to try to claim Calvin Trillin as de facto Canadian in its literary quizzes by virtue of his owning a summer place on the East Coast, we can include him too. His presence thus opens up monthly media-consumer guide Brill’s Content, for which Trillin writes a column.


I haven’t worked out the mathematical formula for determining all the finer points of “relative Canadianness” in this plan. But I’m sure there’s some bright little spark in the Heritage Ministry just itching to devise one. And however this finally works out, you know it’ll make more sense than showing up in front of some WTO tribunal with a bonehead law that’s supposed to make a culture appear out of thin air by bureaucratic fiat, just so they can tell us again that it can’t.