Who is a journalist?

Good discussion of the issues by Paul Adams:

It is hard enough deciding who is a journalist without delegating the decision to a judge in the midst of an election campaign — or for that matter the Parliamentary Press Gallery. Last week, a judge ordered that three men from two far-right outfits, Rebel Media and the True North Centre for Public Policy, be accredited as journalists to attend the party leaders’ debate. The judge has not yet given his reasons for the decision, but the Leaders Debates Commission reportedly argued in court that they should not be included because of their history of advocacy, which it argued precludes them from being accredited as journalists.

When you think of it historically, the idea that advocacy is inconsistent with journalism is a strange one. Historically, “advocacy” was no bar to being a journalist; in many cases it was its hallmark. Otherwise, what are we to make of Joseph Howe’s Novascotian, which excoriated the magistrates and police? Or George Brown’s Globe, which attacked slavery and Catholicism with equal vehemence? The motto that Brown chose and still adorns its successor, the Globe and Mail, presents a masterclass in journalistic passive aggressiveness: “The subject who is truly loyal to the Chief Magistrate will neither advise nor submit to arbitrary measures.”

In contrast, the model of journalism that many people, including many journalists, carry around in their heads nowadays, where concepts such as balance, fairness and objectivity reign, is primarily a 20th-century construct. It arose from a combination of circumstances, including the commercial pressures on newspapers in medium and small markets to appeal to readers across the political spectrum, the emergence of wire services catering to outlets of different political stripes, and the invention of broadcasting, which led to a combination of publicly owned and highly regulated privately owned broadcasters. It was also connected with the attempt to turn reporters, essentially a trade in the 19th century plied mainly by members of the educated working class, into a “profession,” supported by journalism schools, which were also a 20th– century phenomenon.

However, the earliest champions of press freedom, such as John Peter Zenger, who fought off a libel charge from the royal governor in the colony of New York in the 1730s (after languishing in jail for a time) were defending advocacy on the basis that it was truthful, even if defamatory. When James Madison composed his draft of the US Constitution’s First Amendment, he conceived of freedom of the press as part of a wider set of liberties such as freedom of speech and religion, which were obviously not bounded by standards of fairness or objectivity.

Photo: Parliamentary Press Gallery, Ottawa, 1914. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 9066.

When you think of it, anyone can speak and anyone can have a religious viewpoint. The real difference between these rights and press freedom is that until very recently relatively few people had ready access to a printing press. In other words, the right to freedom of the press was always circumscribed by sheer logistics. Until roughly the dawn of the 21st century, one of the many differences between you and Conrad Black was that he had access to a printing press and you didn’t. (When Black re-entered the Canadian market in a big way about that time, by the way, he explicitly sought for the National Post to be a “crusading newspaper.”)

This logistical difference between the press and other forms of expressive liberty led to a media tradition that was in fact much narrower than the precepts espoused by Madison and Thomas Jefferson at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, which were then finally transposed into our own Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. The modern media have always imposed limits on the spectrum of views they would tolerate.

If you look at the formal statements of major news organizations such as the CBC or the Globe and Mail, they are replete with boasts that they carry a diversity of views; but they say relatively little about the limits to that diversity. Yet you are unlikely to see a supporter of ISIS get a weekly column or even an occasional op-ed. And Rosemary Barton is not about to add a dash of spice to her weekly panel by, say, adding an alt-right figure such as Faith Goldy. This is true even though we know there are Canadians who hold such views.

The best explanation I have seen of the structure of permitted expression in the media was articulated by an American scholar, Daniel Hallin, at the time of the Vietnam war. Hallin described what he called “three spheres” in journalistic discourse. The first is the sphere of consensus. This includes topics on which the media take the view that consensus is so broad that no opposing view needs to be offered. So, journalists take for granted that slavery is bad, for example, and that democracy is preferable to dictatorship. They feel no need to offer “balance” or another point of view when touching on such topics.

The second is the sphere of legitimate controversy. In the current election campaign, this sphere would include the debate about the size of the deficit and the speed with which it should be addressed, the question of whether to adopt a national pharmacare plan, and whether to build a pipeline. In this sphere, reporters feel a responsibility to maintain neutrality, to “balance” their reports and to maintain a personal disinterest in the outcome of the debates they are reporting on. In this zone, columnists and editorial boards are free to weigh in with their views.

The third is the sphere of deviance. These are ideas such as those I described above, espoused by ISIS or neo-Nazis, which are considered outside the sphere of legitimate discourse, and might also include ideas that are regarded as laughable, ridiculous or simply unfounded. They might be covered as news events but the substance of their arguments is dismissed. Nowadays, this sphere can include people such as climate deniers and anti-vaxxers.

These last two examples point to an important feature of the spheres: that they are constantly in flux as a result of social and journalistic controversy. A decade ago, it was not unusual for a news story on climate change to go out of its way to quote what we now call a climate denier as a way to balance a story. Today it is unusual, and when it happens it is referred to as “false balance” in journalistic circles. Something similar is happening with the debate over vaccinations, with the anti-vaxxers well on their way to the sphere of deviance.

The reason that many people were so angry with the Globe and Mail when it afforded Ezra Levant the platform of its op-ed page early in the election campaign was that it appeared to move someone who was well on his way into the sphere of deviance back into the sphere of legitimate controversy.

Although from a libertarian perspective it is easy to criticize the imposition of the strictures of the three spheres as the arrogant pronouncements of a media (and perhaps corporate) elite, it is not hard to see how they play a cohesive role in our society. Most obviously, it is conducive to a peaceful, orderly, happy society that we don’t give platforms to those who question the full humanity of people of colour or of women or who advocate violence in the pursuit of their political aims.

That having been said, the ability of the mainstream media to police and arbitrate those spheres is now under radical attack in two ways. First of all, the internet has destroyed many of the barriers to entry into the media. You no longer need a printing press or a broadcasting tower to publish. You just need a WordPress account and a server somewhere. Any idiot can get on Twitter. (As you may have noticed, many do.)

Secondly — and this could be a related phenomenon — the sphere of consensus is breaking down in many Western countries. It might be too much to say that there is no longer a broad consensus, for example, that democracy is preferable to authoritarianism, but we have seen the emergence of Strongman-envy in the slaverings of Donald Trump and some of his supporters. A survey in the United States last year found that while 84 percent of seniors agreed that democracy is “always preferable” to other systems of government, that was true of only 55 percent of those aged 18-29. The erosion of a consensus about democracy appears to be happening in many Western countries and though there is disagreement about the degree to which this is happening in Canada, it would be foolish to assume we are immune.

Thus, at the same time as the media’s quasi-monopoly on the printing presses and their modern-day equivalents are eroding their ability to enforce ideas of consensus and deviance, the bulwarks of the old consensus are also under attack.

The issue of who is a journalist in this election campaign has mixed up two debates. The first is one about the guild privilege as exercised by the Parliamentary Press Gallery (and other similar organizations) to which the Debates Commission, like Parliament itself, had contracted out the responsibility to decide who could be accredited. This is where the would-be journalists from the Rebel and True North had their strongest case and on which, I am guessing, the judge decided the matter.

The Gallery, which is still dominated, though not as exclusively as it once was, by big traditional media, has spent the last two decades working through the thorny issues of who would get access to the hallowed halls of Parliament as waves of bloggers, start-up internet websites, quasi-lobbyists, hobbyists and, yes, advocacy groups clamoured for admittance to the club. This is an issue the Gallery has had to manage for logistical reasons if nothing else, and the politicians have been happy to let them do it rather than wading into the thorny issue of who is a journalist themselves.

But whatever you think of the Gallery’s attempt to negotiate these shoals, its guiding principle has not been a commitment to that popular contemporary image of journalism as free, open, balanced, objective news coverage. The “tell” could be that the current membership of the Gallery includes a correspondent from the TASS news agency, as it has done since the Soviet era, and also one from the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China.

The much more challenging debate than the one the Gallery, the debate commission and the judge are effectively squabbling over is whether there is still a degree of consensus in our society that makes it worthwhile trying to wall off a zone of legitimate controversy from those who would challenge fundamental values, for example, about democracy, race and gender; what the limits of that zone should be; and who should enforce them. And if we were to decide that such a zone is worth defending, would it even be possible in the age of the internet?

Source: Who is a journalist?

On racism, elections and the media: Paul Adams

Good commentary on the need for more informed media discussion of the substantive issues, and less discussion of the political aspects:

Other than climate change, which is an existential threat to all of humankind, arguably the biggest threat to Western democracies is racism. Politically, liberal democracy is built on the idea of fundamental human equality and the further it strays from that precept the less it is recognizably democratic. Sociologically, societies that are racially complex but racially divided by law or harsh custom are unhappy places where violence lurks and often explodes.

In the United States, the president is the most openly racist in at least a century. He came to political prominence as an Obama birther, launched his campaign smearing Mexicans as rapists, has separated brown mothers from their brown children as a matter of policy and is seemingly intent on winning another minority victory in 2020 by stoking the flames of racial fear among white Americans. In the United Kingdom, a Brexit referendum victory driven in part by fears of outsiders is now also threatening the historic bonds that fasten England to both Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Here in Canada, you do not even have to go to the issue of racist intent to see that Quebec’s Bill 21 — which would ban the wearing of religious symbols such as the turban, the hijab and the kippah for many public servants — would be racist in its effect, hitting mainly people of colour and Jews. And in the last few days, the pollster Frank Graves has released data suggesting that opposition to the immigration of visible minorities is rising in Canada.

At one level, this might not seem very different from the other controversial issues journalists cover as a matter of routine: economic inequality, tax levels, education spending and so on. However, I think it presents unusual challenges that the media may not be entirely prepared to cope with.

It is the conceit of modern mainstream journalism that it stands outside of ideology. It is neutral, balanced, objective. If someone wants higher taxes to fund social programs and someone else wants lower taxes to stimulate the economy, reporters quote both sides of a debate, excavate some relevant data, and leave it to the readers to decide the argument. This is a powerful idea and has some merit. Many of us consume the news to inform us as citizens and not to be told what to think or do.

On the other hand, it can lead to the laziest conjuring trick in the journalist’s kit: what is sometimes called false balance. For a couple of decades, this was most obviously a problem with the coverage of climate change. Even as the evidence of human-caused climate change grew and the scientific consensus became close to complete, many journalists ran back and forth, got quotes from credible scientists, balanced them with a quotes from increasingly isolated and eccentric, often industry-backed “climate skeptics,” threw in a little data and let the readers decide. And in this way they failed the journalist’s responsibility not just to be fair, but to be rooted in evidence (as indeed scientists should be). Only very recently has this trend been significantly corrected.

In the case of racism the challenge is further complicated by the way in which it is being metabolized politically. Frank Graves’ most interesting finding was not that opposition to non-white immigration has recently risen. In fact, as he points out, it has sometimes been this high in his data in the past. What’s most striking is the degree to which it has become a partisan issue. Just six years ago, roughly half of Conservative supporters said too many immigrants were visible minorities; today the figure is over two-thirds. Meanwhile, among Liberal supporters, the trend has been the opposite. Six years ago about a third of Liberals were concerned about visible-minority immigration. That figure has now fallen to less than one-in-seven.

The supporters of our two main parties are polarizing around the issue of race and we are in an election year.

I don’t think even his harshest critics would claim Andrew Scheer is a Trump-style racist. In the immediate aftermath of the New Zealand massacres a few weeks ago, his first reaction (or that of his staff) was to tweet out condolences, somehow neglecting to mention that the murders took place in a mosque and the victims were Muslims. After some hours of barracking for those omissions on social media, including from some prominent conservatives, he did a very un-Trump-like thing and issued a new statement that got it right.

Scheer does not appear to be personally racist, but he needs the votes of people who are. He is not a white nationalist, but he shared the “yellow vest” platform on Parliament Hill with Faith Goldy, who was let go by The Rebel for her sympathetic coverage of the anti-Semitic and anti-black Charlottesville demonstrations, has given an interview to the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer, and who was recently bounced from Facebook — not an easy thing to accomplish — for her views. Let’s just say she is not the sort of person in whose company Preston Manning would have wanted to be seen when he was a party leader.

Naturally, the Trudeau Liberals, mired in political troubles of their own making, and with a political base that may be getting more liberal on race according to Graves’ numbers, is using this as a cudgel. Trudeau has taunted Scheer to denounce white supremacists. Scheer’s reaction has been rather delicate, denouncing the sin of white supremacy but appearing reticent to name the specific sinners.

The danger in all this is that it invites journalists to rely on another bit of professional sorcery: that is, converting any matter of substance into a political issue. Instead of trying to understand the place that race and racism has in our society, our discourse, our policy and our laws, we are tempted to convert it into a political spectator sport. At best, that means running back and forth between Trudeau and Scheer chronicling jabs and counterpunches. At worst, it means that any serious discussion of race and racism with be replaced with public disgust at “smears,” “name-calling” and “negative campaigning.”

We need much more journalistic work to understand the roots of more overt racial hostility in Canada, and their connection to economic conditions, patterns of immigration and embedded cultural impulses that may have been dormant or suppressed. We need to understand the role of the internet and social media culture. We need to distinguish between overt racists, unconscious racists, and those who are not actively racist themselves but who are willing to tolerate those who are. More than anything, we need to understand the experiences and perspectives of those who are the targets of racism.

We need to understand better how our political system has allowed people like Goldy to walk onto a political (and media) stage where not long ago they would have been unwelcome. We need to be careful about unthinkingly labelling Scheer a racist, but also to understand the political dynamics that are shaping his party, its policies and its rhetoric.

We also need to pry apart the Trudeau government’s rhetoric and its policies (most notably on refugees). We need to understand better why the Liberal party’s supporters have grown so quickly so much more liberal on race, and to what extent this is real and to what extent just an artifact of partisan polarization.

And finally, those of us in journalism need to examine our own role. Journalism should not be indifferent to the health of our democracy; when journalism is done well it is a pillar of democracy as well as dependent on its liberties to thrive. We are still far from the point where we have an open racist sitting and chiming in on the “At Issue” panel with Rosie, Andrew and Chantal. But Ann Coulter, the American commentator who sees non-white immigration as a form of genocide, has often been interviewed on Canadian television. Gavin McInnes, founder of the sometimes-violent “Proud Boys,” has appeared on the CBC News Network to defend a bounty on the scalps of Mi’kmaq people in the 18th century as reasonable public policy for the time.

Racism raises complex journalistic issues that are not as simply solved as banning people from the airwaves. It may be that in the world of the internet and social media, journalists no longer have the ability they once did to police who inhabits the public square. They need to report on racism without fuelling it or giving it a platform. But with racism, as with climate change, journalists should not be confused about which side they are on.

Source: On racism, elections and the media

For tthe full Ekos report: click here

How Marois made a prophet out of Pierre Trudeau and other Charter articles

A round-up of Charter-related articles, starting with Paul Adams reminding us of the blind end of ethnic and identity politics:

…. progressives are reluctant to give Stephen Harper credit for much of anything. But one bit of data in a recent Ipsos Reid poll has startling implications: the Conservatives are in a comfortable first place among foreign-born Canadians.

I defy you to find another developed country where a conservative party — and one with a populist past to boot — can claim such an achievement.

Whether it was moral insight or political advantage that led Harper to turn his back on the Reform Party’s red streak of xenophobia doesn’t really matter. He made a choice that was immensely important to that young woman in the supermarket, whether we wish to acknowledge it or not.

Marois and Drainville have made a different choice. And they’ve made a prophet of Pierre Trudeau, the man who predicted Quebec’s political nationalism would lead inevitably to an ethnic dead end.

How Marois made a prophet out of Pierre Trudeau | iPolitics.

And good commentary from Emmett Macfarlane of University of Waterloo, noting that judges also have an ideology and biases, similar to the arguments I make in Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias: Resetting Citizenship and Multiculturalism with respect to public servants:

It is a myth Ms. L’Heureux-Dubé herself helped propagate when she was interviewed before the House of Commons standing committee on justice in 2004, which was examining reform to the Supreme Court appointments process. Asked about the role ideology might play in judging, L’Heureux-Dubé stated: “We talk about ideology, but very few of us [judges] have any. You may not perceive that, but we look at a case by first reading and knowing the facts and then reading the briefs, and then we make up our minds.”

A generous interpretation of these comments would not take them as literal – everyone has an ideology, it is what allows us to make sense of the world around us – but rather as a suggestion that judges can simply separate themselves from ideology and apply the law (as a thing somehow autonomous from politics) in an objective fashion. But would anyone seriously believe that if Ms. L’Heureux-Dubé were on the Court today she would refrain from upholding the Quebec Values Charter as constitutional?

It sometimes appears that judges would like to have their constitutional cake and eat it too. By supporting the notion that courts can reach the “correct” answer on where broad constitutional phrases like “freedom of expression” begin and end – often settling controversies about which reasonable people might reasonably disagree – by somehow detaching themselves from their political ideology, we are presented with a caricature of judges as infallible oracles.

 Secular Charter case shows Supreme Court judges can be ideological – and wrong

And some general updates on the debates and discussion in Quebec, starting with hospitals wanting a general exception:

Charte des valeurs: les hôpitaux veulent une exemption

Lysiane Gagnon noting how the proposed Charter has created a feminist rift between radical and liberal feminists:

In Quebec, a feminist rift over secularism

Gerry Weiner, former multiculturalism minister during the Mulroney government who negotiated the Japanese Canadian redress agreement and led the development of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act, is harshly critical of the proposed Charter:

“In the name of separation of church and state, the charter presents the government with a way to abandon the previous policy of tolerance and respect for minority communities that has been an integral part of Quebec for many decades.

“Instead the charter proposes a policy of uniformity, a policy of enforced assimilation, and a contempt for minority values—vilifying them as outsiders and not a part of the real Quebec,” he told his audience who during WW II were vilified and interned in war camps as being dangerous outsiders, where not a shred of intelligence justified such an action.

He noted that he is worried that this is a policy that will divide the province, “that it could strip away decades of building a caring society, of returning us to the Quebec of my youth filled with hate, discrimination, and indifference.  It had taken many decades to become what we are today, with a wonderful quality of life.”

Weiner says Quebec charter to break up Canada