Monday, July 12, 2010

Christie Blatchford vs "real" journalism

First, go read this piece by the Globe and Mail's Christie Blatchford from last week.

Then read this excellent dissection of Blatchford's  arguments by Fillibluster.

I find that on a logical and factual basis, there is little need to add to what Fillibluster said in commenting on Blatchford's petulant, nonsensical bloviations, but since I have earned my living in the newspaper business for most of the last 20 years, I feel compelled to comment.

Now, stand back and give me room to swing. You may want to get a drink, this is going to take a while.

To borrow a phrase, virtually every word Blatchford has written is wrong, including "and" and "the."

Sez the Blatch:
"First, journalism is not merely a collective of the self-anointed."
Yes, it is. Very much so. There are no licences, or government permits required to be journalist. Bill O'Reilly calls himself a journalist, Geraldo Rivera calls himself a journalist. Walter Cronkite, Hunter S. Thompson and even Christie Blatchford have never had or needed licences. You don't have to be a full-time employee of a major media outlet -- many journalists, especially in print media, freelance for most of their careers. And being self-published is hardly a disqualifier either. Journalism icon, I.F. Stone published his own work for most of the latter part of his career, as did George Seldes.
For all that it may not be a regulated profession, neither is it just a coming together of people with cellphones, video cameras and blogs as receptacle for an apparently endless stream of unfiltered, unedited consciousness.
Well, perhaps my initial criticism was unfair --even a broken clock is correct twice a day and some of Blatchford jumping off points are factually correct: I agree, journalism is more than a bunch of people with cellphone and cameras, but journalism is often unfiltered and unedited. Most live television feeds for example are, by definition, unedited. That is why we were treated to the moving spectacle of the likes of CNN's Anderson Cooper and even FOX-hole Sheppard Smith freaking out on location in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and demanding to know why something wasn't being done. You want to know who edited the work of Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow when they were at the height of their network careers? Surprise, trick question - they were their own managing editors.

In other words, just as you are not a physician or a lawyer merely because you say you are, much as you may want to believe it so, neither are you a journalist because you and your friends say you are or because your “writings” appear on a website.

This is a completely bogus comparison, physicians and lawyers being regulated professions. You are not a doctor or lawyer until the appropriate professional association and the government say you are. Being a journalist, like being a clergyman or an artist, is a calling, an avocation - not a profession - and there is no set criteria for calling yourself any one of those three. Grandma Moses or Andy Warhol or Banksy can decide they are artists. The pope, Jim Jones and Jerry Falwell are free to declare themselves holy men. Amy Goodman, Paul Wells, George Stephanopolus and Bob Woodward can all call themselves journalists. It is up to their audiences to decide whether they are any good at it, but they are free to identify themselves as they choose.
You will have heard reports of various independent/alternative journalists who claim to have been illegally detained and threatened by the police.

Again the blind squirrel finds a nut. This is objectively verifiable truth.
Four of them, for instance, have formally complained to the office of the independent police review director, and as the insufferable Lieutenant Horatio Caine says ad nauseam on CSI: Miami, let us follow the evidence on that.

Oh yes, let's!

I am all in favour of their complaints, and anyone else’s, being investigated, and I reserve my opinion on how well they were treated by the authorities, or not, until that verdict is in.
Uh, that would be you hedging, Blatchford. If you are "all in favour" then why are you writing this transparent smear piece? Where is this evidence you mentioned?
But let us not pretend that these folks are working journalists or that they are the equivalent. They aren’t, for the most part.
Ooooh, bold statement, other than the "for the most part" weaseling. And nice attempt at a  qualifying statement with "working" -- as any journalist knows, one is always "working" because if there is a news story happening in front of you, you are working, whether it is your day off or not. And no one is pretending, they are working journalists, but more about that later. Now, about that evidence...
Their work isn’t subject to editing or lawyering or the ethical code which binds, for example, the writers at The Globe. The websites on which they appear don’t belong, as do most reputable newspapers in this province, to the Ontario Press Council, a body which hears complaints against traditional journalists and publications.

First, since Blatchford refuses to produce any actual evidence or even name the media outlets involved, let's look at her claims and how she weasels them.
One of the complainants, Jesse Rosenfeld, is a freelancer for The Guardian, one of the world's leading newspapers, which comes complete with layers of editors and a legal department. The attack on him by police was witnessed and described by TVO's Steve Paikin, who was also manhandled by the cops, though not arrested. (Let's see Blatchford explain how he's not a journalist either.)
Another, Amy Miller, who alleges that the police threatened to rape her, is an independent filmmaker (like Michael Moore and Robert Greenwald and many people who film news reports for media outlets overseas) who also writes for The Dominion, a web magazine that covers news from a left wing perspective, but certainly has editors and appears to be at least as reputable as the Toronto Sun or CFRB radio.
The Guardian is a British newspaper and The Dominion is based in Montreal, so neither are members of the Ontario Press Council. Neither are the Napanee Beaver or the Picton Gazette, the oldest community newspaper in Canada, both which I used to work for. Neither is the CBC or any other broadcast media. It also bears pointing out that the Ontario Press Council, while I think it is a very fine organization, is very much a self-anointed  collective and membership in the council and adherence to their codes of conduct and ethics is entirely voluntary.
As to the other two complainants, according to Canadian Journalists for Free Expression:

Lisa Walter, 41, an indie magazine writer for Our Times, said she was thrown to the ground and cuffed as she and another independent journalist covered the same group that was being arrested in downtown Toronto on Sunday afternoon, according to her complaint.  She said officers mocked her, saying her credentials were "fake," questioned whether she was a man and the sergeant who ordered her arrest called her a "f-ing dyke" and "a douche bag," her complaint states.

According to McIsaac's complaint, he was covering the same protest as Amy Miller for the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition. He said he was with Miller when he was assaulted and arrested by police. He was taken to a hospital after telling police that he had a pacemaker and then later transferred to the detention centre. The 27-year-old was also released later without being charged."

McIsaac's case may blur the line between journalist and activist in that he was not there on behalf of a news media outlet but was covering events for a website run by an advocacy group, but Our Times is unquestionably a legitimate publication, however since it is a magazine, it - like MacLeans and Time and The Economist - is not a member of the Ontario Press Council either. So much for Blatchford's contention that "for the most part" the four are not working journalists and for her attempt to discount the media outlets they were working for as mere "websites" as though they were blogging out of mom and dad's basement for an audiences made up entirely of their family and friends.

We in the mainstream media make plenty of mistakes and bad calls, even given the safeguards (layers of editors and other sets of eyes reading our copy; lawyers too, in some instances; established standards) that are in place.

Golly, "we" sure do Christie, and by "we" I mean "you" --like the other day when you swallowed hook, line and sinker the story put forth by Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair that masked black-bloc anarchists had disrupted the repatriation ceremony of the remains of a Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan, despite the fact that other eyewitness accounts and video taken at the event show that no such thing happened. But a man in uniform told you the story and so you ran with it.

Why should an alternative journalist (self-anointed, often with a demonstrable political agenda) be automatically assumed to be an infallible truth-teller or always accurate?

They shouldn't, but sworn legal affidavits attached to an official complaint to the official police review are a little different from something some guy said on some blog somewhere. And let me ask you this: Why should a mainstream journalist or columnist (paid by a large corporation, often with a demonstrable political agenda and history of being completely wrong) be automatically assumed to be an infallible truth-teller or always accurate?

Second, the press pass doesn’t grant even traditional journalists carte blanche access everywhere.
Stop the presses! Visually-impaired bushy-tailed tree rat finds second hard-shelled edible seed! For more on this earth-shaking statement of the incredibly obvious, see "No Shit, Sherlock" page 17.
In the midst of a riot, it is not a shield that can be waved to keep either police or rioters at bay. It is neither an avoid-jail nor get-out-of-jail-free card.
Which is clear from the fact that people with press passes got arrested. That isn't the point. Press passes have nothing to do with any of this. The complaint is that people who were observing the protests were arrested simply for being present. The possession of a press pass serves to explain why that person is present and indicates that they are an observer, not a participant. That's why we carry press credentials. Didn't they cover this is in employee orientation at the Globe?
One doesn’t get to cross the yellow tape at a crime scene in order to have a really good look at the dead body even if one has a press pass. One doesn’t get into cabinet meetings because one has a press pass. One doesn’t get to march into the judge’s chambers and sit in on the lawyers’ private discussions that go on there because one has a press pass. Etc., etc.
Media accreditation sometimes allows reporters to go where the general public can’t, such as sports dressing rooms and backstage at concerts and the like; it may give us better seats (as in a courtroom, where there may be a press row, or at a sports event, where there is a press box); it may get us closer to the action or the participants in the action.

Oooooh, she said "period" and even made it a one-word paragraph. I guess this discussion of irrelevancies is over. 

Thus, in the G20 protests, journalists, real or self-appointed, traditional or otherwise, had no special rights to go where we wanted and no special badge of protection against arrest.
No, journalists didn't have any special rights, but in Canada we have this thing called the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that promises certain inalienable civil rights - perhaps you've heard of it? Last time I checked it said something about the police not being to arrest people without reasonable cause.

Third, I would point out that the area north of the Ontario Legislature was indeed designed as a protest area during the summit.
It was never, however, meant to function as a no-go zone, to which the darling practitioners of the Black Bloc arts could retreat unchallenged and un-interfered with by the police to change clothes so that they might blend back with the regular crowd.
Indeed, it might have been better for the police to arrest the vandals and miscreants while they were running amok instead of standing around Queens Park hassling the non-violent protesters. May the police should learn to obey the law, to wit:

Criminal Code of Canada - Neglect by peace officer

69. A peace officer who receives notice that there is a riot within his jurisdiction and, without reasonable excuse, fails to take all reasonable steps to suppress the riot is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.
R.S., c. C-34, s. 70.

Speaking of the criminal code, Blatchford might want to keep this one in the back of her mind:

C.C.C. - Spreading false news
181. Every one who wilfully publishes a statement, tale or news that he knows is false and that causes or is likely to cause injury or mischief to a public interest is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.
But back to her so-called arguments:

Fourth, since with the wisdom of hindsight it is now apparent that everyone knew that the anarchists/Black Bloc types would try to wreak havoc on the city, why are the organizers of the legitimate protests not being questioned about their accountability? They too presumably knew – as did police and security forces – that their peaceful demonstrations likely would be disrupted; what steps did they take to stop such a hijacking?

So in hindsight why didn't the organizers demonstrate their foresight and stop the black bloc from joining their protest? How would they have done that? If "everyone knew" why didn't the downtown merchants board up their windows for  the weekend? Why didn't every single resident south of the 401 leave town for the weekend? 
The protest organizers were not being paid a billion dollars to provide security, the police were. It is not the responsibility of the protest organizers to vet everyone who joins a demonstration. It is the job of the police to stop crimes in progress.
I think better questions might be "Since the police bragged about having infiltrated the Black Bloc and having monitored their communications, why didn't they stop them from running amok?" and "Does Christie Blatchford not realize that organizing a political protest is akin to herding cats and that the organizers have no authority to make anyone do anything -- is she really that stupid or is she just being incredibly dishonest?"

Fifth, in Toronto Star lingo, since “the sweeping powers” granted the police via the “secret” law saw them, according to Toronto Chief Bill Blair, arrest exactly one (1) person under the temporary regulation to the Public Works Protection Act, isn’t the angst-ridden, hyperbolic debate rendered, as someone brighter than me remarked recently, nothing but an intellectual exercise?
"Toronto Star lingo?" Really, Blatchford? Well, I suppose this will let you play victim for your conservative audience if the scribes at The Star decide to hit back or fact check anything you write. From now on any and all criticism of the Globe or yourself can now be attributed to people at The Star not being able to take a little joshing, right?
And I guess if you haven't been arrested, just searched, yelled at, possibly beaten or otherwise abused under a law that doesn't actually exist, well your civil rights haven't really been violated.  I guess us angsty, intellectual eggheads should stop worrying about the rule of law and abuse of authority in civil society and just shut up, is that it?
It would quite one thing if the 1,000 folks who were detained on G20 weekend were detained under the temporary regulation. The discussion would be meaningful.
But when it’s all said and done, it will turn out that most of those detained were arrested for breach of the peace or to prevent a breach of the peace, which is an arrest authority, not a criminal charge.
So discussion of abuse of that arrest authority is meaningless?
In my view, it’s a vile authority too, generally speaking easily misused by police, and it may have been misused here as well.
So giving the police the authority to arrest people for breach of the peace is vile and you agree that such authority may have been abused, but talking about that is meaningless?
But the point is, it wasn’t under the new secret sweeping power, which was only partly secret and not very sweeping. It was under long-established common-law police authorities, such as arresting people for breach of the peace or to prevent a breach of the peace that has yet to take place, that most people were picked up.
You want to be angry about something, be angry about that.
We are, that's why people are complaining to the police review board. But we can be angry about more than one thing at a time. Don't you even read your own paper?  And "partly secret?" Is that like "sort of confidential" or "a little bit pregnant" or "slightly illegal" -- or is it sort of like "kind of a hack as a writer?"
Finally, how amusing it is to see Toronto, press and public alike, whip themselves into a frenzy of outrage over alleged police inaction and then alleged police overreaction, when all of this, in terms even more stark, happened in Caledonia, Ont., from 2006 onwards, and no one gave a fig.

Plenty of people, especially in Caledonia and on the Six Nations Reserve have been giving more than a fig for quite awhile, since well before 2006. I used to work there and trust me, the dispute goes back a lot further than that. You and the rest of Toronto just haven't noticed because it didn't happen in Hogtown.

Honestly, the Globe should be embarrassed by this ill-considered, poorly-written screed of a column.
Blatchford just doesn't get it at all. The point of the complaint is that the police were unlawfully attacking, abusing and arresting people for being observers at a demonstration that they forcibly (and quite possibly illegally) broke up. Their status as journalists strongly supports their contention that they were observers, not bystanders. Blatchford's attempt to smear them as some sort of lying amateur wannabes just because they don't work in her office is dishonest and dishonorable. Real journalists everywhere should be disowning this police mouthpiece as a colleague.

crossposted from the Woodshed


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Unknown said...

Nice posting about journalism, thanks for sharing with us. Your blog is great and helped me knowing about the Media Credentials and journalist work. Thanks again!

Amy said...

Thank you for this piece.