The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: journalism

Serious Elegance

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You can read this post on National Newswatch here

EVERYONE IN THE ROOM SENSED THAT PAUL MARTIN would be prime minister soon enough. There was an excitement in the air as my wife and I attended a London, Ontario event where Martin, as finance minister, was scheduled to speak on healthcare.

His arrival was met with enthusiasm and he quickly warmed to his audience. Partway into his address a door closed at the rear of the hall and someone quietly entered. People whispered to one another, “It’s Jeffrey Simpson.” While the audience might have appreciated that one of the country’s best-known journalists would attend their event, the effect on Paul Martin was immediate. The finance minister is known as an engaging speaker, but his connection with his audience that evening dissipated as his eye continued to follow Simpson’s progress up the side of the hall. He was more careful, not as bellicose or partisan. While the journalist jotted down a few items in his notebook, it was clear to everyone that his presence had changed the dynamics.

The ultimate moral of this recounting is how experienced journalism can affect our politics. This wasn’t some frantic or wannabe reporter using social media to raise his profile. He was instead an objective witness to events and his insights served to remind the political establishment that accountability still mattered and that a reckoning would surely result the moment political figures ignored that responsibility.

When the Globe and Mail announced this week that Jeffrey Simpson was signing off following a stellar career as a columnist there were the expected plaudits. Starting at the Globe in 1974, he soon became a national affairs columnist. He was no wide-eyed idealist, having earned degrees from the London School of Economics and Queen’s University.

There was a kind of serious elegance about him that easily translated to his writing style. The gravitas he exuded served effective notice to the political elites that he saw through their trappings and partisan rhetoric. And he was recognized by his peers as someone who could spend hours researching a topic and just as long in crafting his words that ultimately became his columns. He was awarded all three of Canada’s noted literary prizes, awarded numerous honourary doctorates, and became recognized as one of the country’s leading thinkers on public policy.

So, yes, Simpson has enjoyed an accomplished career, having authored six books in the process. But it was his effect on the Canadian policy establishment, including the politics that so often diffused it, that might prove his ultimate legacy.

Simpson’s 42-year career coincided with massive changes in the news and publishing industries – a transformation that has redefined journalism in the process. Yet his columns remained remarkably sanguine when it seemed as though everyone else was heading off in all directions attempting to catch the latest trend. Knowing effective policy and good politics to be the essence of a healthy democracy, he couldn’t bring himself to pander to the flightiness of the age.

In his The Way of the Modern World, author Craig Gay recounted the effects of modern journalism’s infatuation with the immediate:

“By focusing exclusively on the events of the day, journalism all but severs the connection between time and eternity. It makes the world appear to be nothing but an endless jumble of events through which it is difficult, if not impossible, to discern anything beyond the relatively base motivations of lust, calculated self-interest, and the will to power. In short, journalism is not able to communicate wisdom.”

To his credit, and that of the newspaper that understood his value, Simpson refused to walk down that path. Instead he did as he always did – engaged his readers with serious insight. In so doing he became the embodiment of esteemed journalist Bob Woodward’s observation: “I think journalism gets measured by the quality of information it presents, not the drama or the pyrotechnics associated with us.”

This year has seen the retirement of a number of dedicated columnists who believed that their craft deserved proper and serious context. But as a nation says farewell to Jeffrey Simpson, it is aware that it is losing a refined writer who dealt with them as citizens of the mind as well as passion. Ultimately, it will be his sage observations of accountability and watchfulness that will be missed the most in a political and bureaucratic world all too willing to spin on a dime if it would curry more public favour and influence. We wish him a well-deserved and contented retirement, but our journey from this point forward will be all the more difficult without his elegant writings of public responsibility.

An Empty Spot On the Bench

TV Bill Moyers Journal

WHEN EFFECTIVE ADVOCATES FOR DEMOCRACY ultimately leave the stage through retirement or death, it’s not always true that their absence is noted. Lose a Mandela, Vaclav Havel, or a Maya Angelou and almost immediately the tributes and stories flood the airwaves. Yet every year we lose many of democracy’s greatest champions without even knowing it, often not even recognizing their names. A candle goes out and we merely transfer our interests to another.

The voice of Bill Moyers finally went silent on PBS news stations a few weeks ago, leaving a significant vacancy in our overall struggle for a fairer and more equitable society. Moyers was sage, highly knowledgable, and intensely courageous for those things he devoutly espoused. Some regarded him as a throwback to the past days of journalism, where truth mattered more than mere opinion, and depth of research took precedent over Google. But time is revealing that such a journalistic practice wasn’t necessarily a bad thing in a world of instant opinions and shallow coverage. Moyers had a way of relentlessly reaching for that better part of our minds that related news with value instead of sensationalism and inspired images in our brains that were planted there by reason as opposed to hyperbole.

He commenced his odyssey with PBS in 1971 and immediately reflected gravitas in a world of rapidly changing media coverage. From that point on he was pressured relentlessly to move his programming instincts to the right of the political spectrum. Each time he refused, not because of personal bias but through his reasoning that the average listener wasn’t so much a partisan as a reasoning individual looking for an objective voice in a turbulent world. And he gave it to them, travelling to countless communities across the country to speak with average people and organizations, giving them a voice as the political and financial elites quietly retreated in their newfound opulence.

Moyers could do it all – eloquent speaker, gifted writer, broadcaster, documentarian, journalist and magazine contributor. It’s not as though the media industry hasn’t taken account of him. He has won 35 Emmy awards (including a lifetime achievement Emmy), a lifetime Peabody Award, is an inductee into the Television Hall of Fame, and numerous others. He accomplished all this by reaching the country through public television, with a venue far smaller than the major networks.

Everyday he reminded citizens that major issues like climate change, unemployment, financial injustice, political ineffectiveness, and global challenges, are important enough for them to keep themselves focused. As he put it recently:

“Ninety-six percent of people believe its important that we reduce the influence of money. Yet 91% think it’s not likely that its influence will be lessened. Think about that: People know what’s right to do yet don’t think it can or will be done. When the public loses faith in democratic ability to solve the problems it has created for itself, the game’s almost over. And I think we are this close to losing democracy to the mercenary class.”

Hmmmmm. Sounds a lot like Elizabeth Warren, and like that eloquent woman Senator, Moyers concedes that, “Democracy is a life, and requires daily struggle.” There have been many lovers of democracy who have been people of conscience, but Moyers has done it all with personal dignity, a healthy respect for institutions and the individual citizen, and a deep understanding that having an opinion isn’t the same thing as wielding truth.

Our next post will explore how our democratic landscape is changing as the voices of objectivity, respect, and reason slowly move off the scene. The disappearance of Moyers from the public airwaves comes at a time when that voice of veterans and nation builders that flourished following the Second World War pass off everyday one by one, leaving significant holes in our citizenry and our journalism. Those of us who remain surely possess passionate beliefs like those who have preceded us, but do we have the patience, the tolerance, the respect, and the willingness to sacrifice for the greater good? Who are the next Bill Moyers? And will they come forward?

Off in the Wrong Direction

citizen-journalismIn his 1999 biography, famed anchorman Walter Cronkite writes of being on assignment on D-Day in 1944 and, encountering the “redoubtable” Canadian journalist Charles Lynch.  Journalists like Cronkite had to wait to file their stories by radio or wire later in the day, but Lynch opted to do it the old-fashioned way by using three homing pigeons.  He typed out his first dispatch on the special light paper provided by his employers, Reuters News Service, and tucked it into the special capsule affixed to pigeon number one.  He went through the same routine for the remaining two birds.  The pigeons lifted into the air, circled twice, and then flew off, not in the direction of England, but Berlin.  Flustered, Lynch labeled them “feathered turncoats”.

There is something symbolic in that story, I think, considering how today’s political media frequently files stories that have the opposite effect to what was intended.  Such coverage is turning people off democracy, not engaging them.  The view of some that journalism should be an arena of objective truth devoid of opinion has virtually never been the case; there must be room for the writer’s own leaning to show through.  As John Burns of the New York Times put it: “I have to be accurate; I don’t have to be impartial.”  That pretty well sums it up.  Especially in political coverage, commentators, in all media venues, only carry true weight when the former outweighs the latter – objectivity should always be more vital than slant.

But times are changing and political reporting has suffered on two related fronts.  The first is the growing bias within political coverage that gives the writer or media commentator a certain “inevitability” in their reporting.  Some columnists are so predictable that you know the slant their piece will take just by seeing their names associated with it.  They reserve their rancor especially for political leaders and in plying their trade they sadly play to their select readers, listeners or watchers – just like politicians themselves.  Media personalities end up mirroring the very thing they despise in politics.  This isn’t true for all, naturally, but the increasingly biased nature of political reporting has raised similar suspicions in citizens as they feel towards politicians, and politics in general.

Recently deceased author and provocateur Christopher Hitchens, when asked by a student why he chose to write, answered, “I became a journalist because I did not want to rely on newspapers or television for information.”  More and more of us are developing a similar aversion to modern political coverage.

The second troubling trend has been the move towards the incidental as opposed to the  essential.  The greatest challenges of our generation are facing us head-on, but what we read is mostly of scandal and partisanship.  These are newsworthy but not at the levels of saturation they presently attain.  Journalists counter with the reasoning that such things are what Canadians desire to hear about.  There’s truth to this, but covering such things is, more often than not, the easy side of coverage.  Much harder is the ability to resonate with readers about the things they need to hear about the fate of their nation, of the citizenry, of their communities. Senate accounts, mayoralty scandals, and blinding partisanship are everywhere, but what Canadians require are members of the Fourth Estate to discern, research and unfold the deep failures of certain policies – climate change, aboriginal injustices, economic erosion, immigration, unemployment, lack of research and innovation funding, declining democratic tendencies –  and to highlight possible solutions.  Surely this isn’t too much to request.

Democracy and financial equity are in decline around the world and we require serious journalists to confront serious challenges.  The media is always at its best when it labours under a sense of collective responsibility towards its audience and their importance to the hope of tomorrow.  We don’t need more of what author David Baldacci was referring to when he wrote:

All you have to do to win a Pulitzer Prize is spend your life running from one awful place to another, write about every horrible thing you see.  The civilized world reads it, then forgets it, but pats you on the head for doing it and give you a reward as appreciation for changing nothing.”

That’s just the thing – we need to change and that can only come when the modern media digs deeper, not merely in Senate expense accounts or a leader’s speaking fees, but in policy, approaching economic danger, the threat of a politics without meaning, citizens without hope, and journalism devoid of urgent insight.  We experience great difficulty in creating such instincts in the country as it is; should the media remain distracted, we shall never be prepared for what is about to come upon us.

While still an MP, I had the good fortune of having the occasional lunch or a phone call with esteemed journalist Jim Travers, whose death a few years ago left a void that has yet to be filled in official Ottawa.  He presented me with a small book just prior to his death, along with a personal note that I still cherish.  He said that no journalist is unbiased, but that there were those were biased and fair.  He feared that the penchant for journalism to chase the scandalous instead of the serious would leave democracy impoverished – their messages heading in the wrong direction.  Even from the grave he reminds us how we suffer when we lose much of the conscience of an effective Fourth Estate.

A Case For Citizen Journalism

For the last number of months I’ve been writing a bi-weekly column for the London Free Press pertaining to what I feel are pertinent points for citizenship and the need for a more open public space in London. Some might not agree, but I feel the paper is to be commended for publishing pieces that might not fit the standard news criteria but which speak to community as a whole and how it innovates.

Following my recent piece on citizen engagement I received some helpful material from a local citizen attempting to make a case for citizen journalism. He wasn’t interesting in being given credit or in being identified, but his thoughts are important enough I think that they should be given an airing. The following ideas are his, with some editorial reworking by me.

Modern journalism can help empower a community or it can help disable it. At its heart, good civic journalism has an obligation to public life – a responsibility that goes beyond just telling the news or unloading lots of facts. The goal should be to produce the kind of news that citizens require in order to be educated about issues and current events, to make civic decisions, to engage in civic dialogue and action. Ultimately such material should resource the average citizen to exercise his or her responsibilities in a democracy.

A new breed of civic journalists is required who believes that it is possible to create good news coverage that motivates people to think, perhaps to act, and not simply to entice them to watch, ogle, or merely stare. And, in fact, such writers would believe it’s their responsibility to further such journalism.  Such journalists, besides being observers, can’t be totally disinterested watchers; each understands that their reporting has a stake in the health of the community.

Newspapers shouldn’t merely be mirrors of city events but active agents in public life. The behaviour and attitudes of journalists begets the outlooks of others in the public arena.

More newspapers, like the London Free Press, could become advocates for the overall economic prosperity of our community but taking on the following purpose:

  • Position the paper as an economic champion for the city
  • Demand action from politicians at every level
  • Demand action from the business community
  • Uncover the roadblocks. Seek solutions and lead in their discovery
  • Align with economic partners at Western, Fanshawe, Tech Alliance, the Chamber of Commerce, the London Economic Development Corporation, and the community to push forward a prosperity agenda for the city
  • That agenda can expand to include other sectors: health, culture, technology, education, etc.

The newspaper would not be a cheerleader but rather establish a rallying point (a community meeting place) for ideas and propose realistic action. In championing downtown renewal in the late-1990s, the London Free Press didn’t just report on the day-to-day problems in the core; it demanded change, celebrated the small and big steps forward. In some ways it stepped out of character, becoming bold and brave, innovative and inclusive. The renewal of downtown agenda also benefited the newspaper itself – it stood for something, articulated a vision, and actively participated in the community, endeavouring to bring it into the story.

London is just one of many communities in Canada attempting to find its place in the modern and ever-evolving global economy. Such strains can pull communities apart at the seams, making their cohesiveness more difficult than ever. Citizens require illumination, resources, urgings and encouragement to enter the fray to keep the quality of life they have been used to. It’s a task made all the more difficult if the main media within a city refuse to help in providing citizens with tools to come together and make responsible choices regarding their own future and that of their children.

The above are ideas that this concerned citizen is putting forward for community papers to consider. I’m honoured to encapsulate his reasonings in this blog. His ideas basically fall into four main questions that citizens, their governments, and their newspapers should consider. How might journalism best serve the public? What does civic purpose mean in journalism? What should the power of the press be used for? What’s the best way for the profession to serve the community? Four worthy questions that deserve some kind of response.

Newspapers themselves require encouragement from their respective communities regarding their importance. They need to be summoned to the grand citizen engagement effort if they are to remain relevant, for, as author Richard Kluger put it, “Every time a newspaper dies, even a bad one, the country moves a little closer to authoritarianism. When it is gone, the community itself is denied a devoted witness.” We as citizens need help to redefine our communities. Newspapers require assistance to discover new readers. Citizen engagement is the meeting ground between these two important realities.

A Little Bit of Silver

Last week I was responding to some Facebook emails and attempted to answer one query concerning public accountability. In mentioning to a person I had never met that I was going to miss Toronto Star writer James Travers and his sage insights on politics the young man I was corresponding with replied back simply, “Who?” It turned out that he had never heard of Jim or read any of his columns. I suddenly felt a little isolated.

America has been going through something similar, with the death of veteran Washington Post columnist David Broder. Cautious and objective, he had been the dean of Washington journalism and yet his passing merited barely a mention on the social media sites. Like Jim Travers, tributes had poured in, but mostly from former colleagues and political types. Facebook and Twitter had little.

Both of these columnists had a distinctly measured and cautious tone in their writings and they wrote about what citizens should find important. The new social media, for all its advantages, often swirls around what the writer thinks is vital (a special event, a new or severed relationship, links to other stories), and they have no editorial filter to get through in making sure their stories are truly accurate. It’s a remarkable venue, but it’s largely subjective compared to the more impartial recounting of these two great columnists.

I suppose that in many ways Broder and Travers were throwbacks, two talented writers stretched between the new and old media. Nevertheless, they were solid craftsmen of their trade who refused to go along with something new just because it was in fashion. One former presidential candidate in the U.S. said about the media that they were like blackbirds on a telephone wire. One takes off, then another, and finally the entire flock is heading in the same direction. When media outlets manically followed one another to this or that occurrence, writers like Travers and Broder just let them go, instead remaining behind and fulminating over the long-term trend of the political structure.

Modern digital media still operates the same way, only there’s no such thing as a telephone wire in their universe. Instead, it’s Tweets, YouTube videos, messages, cell phones and satellite coverage. It’s a rabid chase to the next development, each rushing to the scene to get out the first digital image. It is compelling and immediate stuff, but it’s still the same pattern of the flock chasing after one another.

In the world of American and Canadian politics there is no end of stories, but, as Jim Travers clearly reminded us, there are few anymore who take the time to ask, “What does this all mean? Is it true and is it relevant?” We are slowly losing the philosophical observers in journalism as they give way to the story chroniclers. Healthy media in any country requires both.

Modern media has provided a clear glass through which we observe our world in real-time and graphic images. Travers and Broder coated some silver behind it and turned it into a mirror, encouraging people to reflect on what their responsibility was to those issues. Whitelaw Reid, editor of the New York Tribune, observed, “To say that newspapers are getting worse is to say that the people are getting worse.” Jim Travers likely would have agreed with that. He continually expressed his frustration at the pettiness of politicians and the system and often wondered when citizens would wake up and hold the system accountable. And his was frustrated with journalism that it wouldn’t take that responsibility of citizen education seriously enough.

What a difference a bit of silver makes. Travers and Broder witnessed the same events as others, but to them the story wasn’t truly delivered until its meaning was explored. And in that reflection they attempted to get us to spot ourselves, to witness personally our own responsibility to the times.

In their obituary concerning David Broder, the Globe and Mail spoke of how he was “respected for tenacity and objectivity.” He surely was, as was Jim Travers. But they were also human and keen observers of the human condition. If journalism couldn’t improve the accountability and responsibility of humanity, then it clearly had along journey to travel. These two great columnists were already well down that path at the time of their passing, aptly reminding us that if the philosopher-journalists fade into history, all that is left is the feverish recounting of today’s events. In a world of stressed blackbirds, silver has indeed become a rare commodity.



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