Canadian journalism and the mote in our own eye

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Can we declare a moratorium on Canadian Schadenfreude over Rupert Murdoch and his British tabs? They deserve what they're getting and more. But it tends to conceal the mote in our own eye.

What mote is that? Jonathan Schell in the The Nation (and reprinted in the Star) says the Murdoch papers "replaced" the noble aims of journalism with "titillation and gossip." Try not to think of Canadian coverage of the royal tour last week when you read that, I dare you. It was all T&G all the time. The CBC was the worst and it lacks even the excuse of needing to maximize profits for shareholders. Now, with the royals departed, it's still hard to find much on CBC news.

What about the Murdochian impulse to control politics along a right-wing axis? Well, the National Post was clearly created in 1998 to push Canadian journalism rightward and has had smashing success. In last May's election, every daily in Canada, except the Star and the smallish Le Devoir, endorsed Stephen Harper. Even in the last U.K. election you didn't get such uniformity.

I repeat: In a pissing contest, the Murdoch tabs win. They piss farthest and foulest. But we're only talking quantity at that point.

I don't consider these traits a failure of "journalism" because I don't think of journalism as a kid going to school and taking exams. Schell says: "Journalism's essential role in a democracy is to enable people to fulfill their roles as citizens." How does he know -- did God tell him? I hate essential roles. They're usually moral one-upmanship.

Journalism is a mixed bag that includes Murdochs. It arose in the 1700s partly to help owners of printing presses offset their heavy investment. It gravitated to titillation and gossip because it's hard to find enough to put in a paper every day. Similar impulses led to political posturing. Freedom of the press was invented, said Canadian historian Harold Innis, to conceal the monopoly power of those who owned the presses. At most, as Gandhi said about Western civilization, it would be a good idea, worth achieving some day.

Journalism isn't an inherently virtuous activity like medicine or teaching, that can get distorted. It's more like government: it's there, probably won't go away, but can act in various directions, depending on lots of things. People have different motives and visions and there are always conflicting approaches.

Toronto's first mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie, was a newspaperman all his life. He got into it to give a voice to the "hardworking farmers and labourers," since none of the many other papers in the colony did so.

The Star is an interesting case. It was begun by striking newspaper workers in 1892 as an alternative to the five other Toronto dailies, and run for 50 years by "crusading" editor Joseph Atkinson. It may be the only paper anywhere with a specific set of goals, along the lines of social justice and equality, built right into its corporate legal structure. That's like acknowledging journalism is an area of moral contention, where values clash and are constructed, rather than some city on a hill that everyone pointlessly genuflects to. Of course even then, "the struggle continues," as they say, since verbalizing a set of values isn't the same thing as embodying them in your paper (or life) each day.

There was a redeeming moment for Canadian journalism in the week of the mote. His name is Kai Nagata. He's 24 and was CTV's eastern Canada reporter till he quit last Friday with a detailed explanation. He gave it a shot but it wasn't what he had in mind. He objected to the pressures to look a certain way on camera, the trivialization (he was especially disgusted by CBC's royals coverage) and the anti-social drift of Canadian politics. He'd hoped to make his contribution as a citizen but couldn't see it happening at CTV. He didn't know what would come next and had some fear, but will try to find a better route. He just wasn't willing to piss his life away in that kind of journalism.

That's what gives a person hope, not the (probably temporary) fall of the House of Murdoch.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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