Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Who Watches The Watchers (Part Two)

The depth and scope of material that was required to be examined for this article has necessitated a part three for a conclusion which brings forward direct examples of journalistic mishandling of news and information. None of the three separate entities looking at the issues surrounding mainstream journalism today has found a reason to acknowledge these issues, and the question remains why?

Where does mainstream journalism stand today? It is a fact that the world is dramatically changing and audiences have at their disposal a myriad of choices. If this was the only reason for a shift in how journalists are now perceived then would it not be logical to simply reinvent their strategy on how they should deliver the information and news to the public? Instead the battle lines between bloggers and journalists appear to be becoming more explosive, and any notion of a symbiotic relationship only a utopian notion.

In Texas, however, there exists a fully realised example of this symbiotic relationship. Since 2009 the Dallas South News has used traditional journalists together with citizen journalists, as well as bloggers to provide news and commentary to its community. Is this simply an anomaly where journalistic egos have not outgrown their stables, or a model worthy to emulate?

Canada, it appears, has taken a different route to come with some form of solution to its industry's woes. No one can deny that there are serious issues to address with major newsrooms combining operations, closing long standing publications, and others deciding to discontinue hard copy print publications in favour of online production. Can all of this be conveniently blamed on the encroaching spread of the internet? Or is there a far more serious underlying issue that is being ignored, and why?

On June 12th 2015 a coalition of professional associations, unions and media organisations, such as UNIFOR, Canadian Association of Journalists (CA), The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Metroland Papers, Postmedia and others launched an advertising campaign called JournalismIs. The goal of this coalition is, in their own words, “highlighting the value and benefits of professional journalism,” proclaiming that “professional journalism is more important than ever.”

The JournalismIs campaign proudly announces that “journalists are thoroughly trained and deeply committed to their profession, and you see the results every day in news stories that are interesting, reliable and always striving for the truth.” Mary Agnes Welch is a former president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press, and spokesperson for the JournalismIs campaign, and with these words has labeled all journalists in Canada with the same golden attributes.

According to Mary Agnes Welch this campaign is designed to bring about a wider conversation on the values that journalists are guided by in their profession. Ten core principles were identified, and they are as follows:

  • An independent voice:
    In a world of competing interests, journalists are committed to the principle of independence, and the pursuit of accuracy and fairness.
  • Essential to democracy:
    A strong and independent media is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy. Journalists hold officials accountable to the people they are elected to represent, and they help citizens and communities to be informed.
  • Relentless
  • Committed to the public interest
  • Getting answers
  • Committed to telling the truth:
    It's about uncovering and reporting the truth
  • Storytelling with a purpose
  • Creating a forum for public debate
  • Telling the whole story
  • A watchdog over the powerful:
    Journalism asks the hard questions. It plays a vital role as a watchdog over those in positions of power and influence.

JournalismIs, at the end of the day, is only an advertising campaign as eloquent as a polar bear on his shrinking ice cap still needing his bottle of cola, or truck racing up a dusty hill accompanied by a voice over of a lion's roar. Unlike most advertising campaigns though it is claimed that there is a desire in “creating a forum for public debate, to giving a voice to the voiceless.” An email was sent to Mary Agnes Welch asking for any comment on an issue of censorship self-imposed by journalists. Ms. Welch ignored the email, ignored the issues raised and ensured that any semblance of 'public debate' was just another punchy slogan.

Setting aside this advertising campaign, one can reach out for a report titled, Does serious journalism have a future in Canada?, written as the 2015 Prime Minister's of Canada Fellow at the Public Policy Forum. The author of this report is Madelaine Drohan, Canada's correspondent for The Economist and former columnist for the Globe and Mail. Here the delivery is more eloquent without any punchy lines, but this report also prefers to ignore one major issue facing traditional journalists.

The Public Policy Forum is a not-for-profit organisation which advises government on policy formation. It is comprised of ex-government staffers, businessmen, and journalists like Madelaine Drohan. Its President, Ed Greenspon, was himself a former Globe and Mail editor and reporter. Can such an organisation show bias in its discussions? How will these professional individuals see journalists as part of a media industry which fights for the advertiser's dollar, or will there be any discussion on the quality and standards of journalism?

Madelaine Drohan in her report, 'Does serious journalism have a future in Canada,' opens with this statement: “Defining serious journalism proved trickier than I expected. The definition that I've come to believe now fits the best is about what it is supposed to do: provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies and their governments. An informed public is control for good public policy and a well functioning democracy, which is why freedom of the press is enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Serious journalism – fair, accurate and independent of special interests – gives Canadians the tools they need to hold their government to account.”

This report took some time to prepare and in an opinion column published in the Toronto Star, “Five things you need to know to save journalism,” only a day after its release, Ms. Drohan summarised her report into five headings. She begins with number one as “It's not just journalism,” pointing to the changes that have hit other industries like music, accommodation, taxi “and even porn video.” Heading number one concludes with “The point is that powerful, global forces that transcend national borders are at work.”

After such an ominous warning those five things we need to know to save journalism continue with number two as “Direct subsidies won't work.” Here most would agree with Madelaine Drohan, why should even a cent of public money be considered to be handed over to millionaires who made their money from the public? Number three is “Journalists are no longer the gatekeepers of information,” somewhat related to the first of the series, and once again pointing a finger at the “powerful global forces.” Four is much the same, “The tech giants are both an opportunity and a threat,” only now those forces are identified, given a fact though still with another warning, “Partnering with tech giants could be their salvation or the beginning of the end.”

Finally we are taken to the last thing we should know, “The audience has changed.” Is there room to disagree with this claim, not at all. Today's audience does seek convenience that new technology provides, but it has also changed to questioning those who provide the information. Here the report claims that “Audiences want a relationship” and that an audience has a “desire to be involved in the creation of journalism in ways that were imaginable before the advent of the Internet.”

Throughout 'Does serious journalism have a future in Canada?', whether in this abbreviated forum or in its original long form, two major themes waffle through the air. First there is the Internet and the “powerful global forces” which are either to be seen as harbingers of the end for serious journalism, or a mistress tempting journalists with an alternative. Then the attention is turned to trying to explain how the advertising dollar has been seduced away from traditional media. Nowhere in this report does the author bring into discussion the one serious and gravely important issue, the loss of trust by the audience in “serious journalism.”

So we started with JournalismIs its punchy core principles, or the ten commandments of Mary Agnes Welch. Then a fellowship, a report, and the five things we need to know to save serious journalism according to Drohan. Now we find the third amigo in this troupe, MP Hedy Fry, of the Canadian Heritage Committee. Apparently the Commons Committee will embark on an expansive study of “how Canadians and especially local communities are informed about local and regional experiences through news, broadcasting, digital and print media,” in the words of Committee Chairperson MP Hedy Fry.

The Commons Heritage Committee has already begun hearings with a total of six roundtable gatherings planned, where experts are invited to debate journalism's woes. Media and journalist representatives will be at the head of the line, followed by business and some government staffers thrown in for the measure. All of this expertise will be a one sided view from penthouse windows, and as far as ground floor representation or comment, don't expect any. When all the debates are finished a final symposium is planned for this coming Fall when 'the plan' might be thrashed out.

Once again tax dollars, the public's money, is being spent and the question remains why? It matters little which of the three amigos you look at, each has ignored the major issues, yet this Commons Committee is the biggest slap in the face of reality. Government itself is one of the major problems journalism faces.

According to the ten commandments of Mary Agnes carried on her tablet, the first and second proclaim the importance of an “independent voice” which is “essential to democracy.” Yet government's interference with journalism is there on a daily basis and one of the major reasons why the audience has lost trust in journalists.

Hedy Fry's roundtable hearings or debates with invited experts, included Postmedia's CEO Paul Godfrey. Does Fry know anything about Mr. Godfrey or would she prefer not to talk about it? Regardless she should read Bruce Livesey's article, Postmedia empire falters while CEO Paul Godfrey earns millions National Observer, November 27, 2015. True this article was not edited or sanitised by friends of Mr. Godfrey but it cannot be ignored as Godfrey has requested public tax dollars to prop up his troubled business.

Paul Godfrey is a very powerful and astute businessman and according to the author of this article, Bruce Livesey, he has been able to circumvent Canadian tax law. In Canada tax laws discourage foreign ownership of Canadian media companies, yet “Godfrey managed to get around this by issuing separate shares to Canadian shareholders,” and had the Conservative Government of Stephen Harper sign off on the deal. Yet the real control of Postmedia remains in American hands by way of two hedge funds, Golden Tree Asset Management LP and Silver Point Capital LP.

Government influence over mainstream media has polluted true freedom of the press far too long. Whether through backdoor power politics of Mr. Godfrey who then influences his newspapers and their editors on the direction of editorial content, or the equally corrosive political alliance of Torstar publishers who do the same on the other side of the table, leaving objective commentary behind and reporting only a farce.

Today, journalism is not only pushed and pulled by politics. Big business, which provides the advertising dollars, has increasingly flexed its muscle of influence over media. Whether you are to believe the allegations surrounding Dan Murphy, a longtime staff cartoonist for the Province newspaper, and his skirmish with Enbridge Inc., big business today translates a big influence. Former National Post editor Ken Whyte had said that it is commonplace for advertisers to demand favourable editorial content for their money. “Before newspapers might have stood up and said we will let that million dollars go, we won't prostitute ourselves. Now they'll see they will be way short on their budget and need the money.” (Bruce Livesey, Postmedia empire falters while CEO Paul Godfrey earns millions,, November 27, 2015)

Journalism has succumbed to influence from both politics and business years ago and any discussions about journalistic woes without acknowledging this becomes a farce. Today's audience has few illusions and therefore its trust is shaken dramatically. JournalismIs, the Canadian Heritage Committee, and Madelaine Drohan's report all speak of community news as one of the pillars of democracy. So what happens to all the journalistic integrity, those ten commandments, or those five things we simply must know, when intentional censorship becomes the issue? This is not Paul Godfrey demanding obedience and favourable editorials for his chosen political party. Nor is it an oil company versus climate change and the idea of millions in advertising dollars.

A free press is an essential component of democracy. This concept has been enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in the US Constitution and in every free and democratic nation. It is the right of the public to be informed of issues relating to elected government and daily occurrences in their communities. Censorship of the press is an unthinkable possibility in any democratic nation, as far as self-imposed censorship by the press, that cannot be permitted. That being said, it is impossible to fathom any reason why these three: Mary Anges Welch of JournalismIs, Madelaine Drohan of Public Policy Forum and MP Hedy Fry heading the Canadian Heritage Committee had decided to ignore such a crucial issue.

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