Thursday, February 18, 2016

On Ezra's Dustup This Week And Ethics In Journalism

Okay, Ezra won a battle this week with Alberta's NDP government.  They tried to toss him from press events held by the government, and he made enough of a stink about it to get the government to back down.  In the last few days, we've seen all sorts of media personalities start blathering on about how the government was being heavy handed, and that Ezra's team has a right to be there just as they do.  After all, how do you define "journalist"?, they argue.

Let me be abundantly clear here:  I don't like Ezra Levant.  I never have.  He conducts himself as a public spectacle, and has been abundantly clear that he has no respect for anyone who dares to disagree with him.  That's his choice, I don't have to like it.

However, in reading Andrew Coyne's diatribe on the matter (which is really just a thinly veiled attack on the CBC), it occurred to me that all of the arguments made supporting Ezra Levant fail to acknowledge the moral and ethical issues that the field of journalism in Canada has largely ignored for most of my adult life.


I grew up in a time when journalism was largely governed by what I will call a "gentleman's agreement".  Reporters largely tried to stick to the "facts" of a story, and if you wanted reasoned analysis, the editorial pages would usually contain fairly carefully thought out critiques of events of the day.  Even there, the editorial pages were generally philosophically neutral.  On some issues, they would lean one way, and other issues you would see a different stance entirely.

Things started to change here in Alberta around about the time that the Toronto Sun bought up the then struggling "Albertan" newspaper in 1979-80.  The Calgary Sun was the first newspaper to take on a specific editorial slant, and deliberately promote a particular political perspective.  By the time I graduated from university a decade later, the Calgary Sun was unabashedly supporting the emerging "neoConservative" politics made popular by Thatcher and Reagan.  However, they largely kept that to their editorial pages even then.  While their news articles were generally factual (if lacking in depth), their editorials gradually started to assert their facts, rather than base themselves upon the facts of a situation.

There were a few obviously politicized publications out there at the time.  Magazines like Alberta Report, made no bones about their perspective and leanings, and although I profoundly disagreed with them, at least Alberta Report still largely stood by the "gentleman's agreement" of the past.  Under Ezra Levant, the "Western Standard" (the successor to the Alberta Report publication), became a considerably more radical publication, relying on whipping up hysteria rather than reason and argument.

At the same time, Canadians started to witness the consolidation of media.  The Asper family gradually built up the Canwest Global media empire by gluing together the old Thompson and a number of television and radio assets; Quebecor continued to expand its holdings in the Sun Newspapers chain, adding an array of local community newspapers, and so on.  This not only changed the business of news, but it meant that local editors were suddenly beholden to head offices that were often far away, and those head offices started dictating editorial content to the newspapers.

Here's where things go off the rails.  At this point, the ownership of these outlets is highly concentrated, and in the hands of a few very wealthy power brokers who saw it as being in their interests to promote a particular kind of politics.  They had seen in the United States the influence that Rupert Murdoch was able to exert with his obviously slanted Fox News and followed suit.

Now, here is the crux of the problem.  Media has become largely the instrument of a small cadre of very wealthy people.  No longer does the gentleman's agreement about what constitutes good reporting, or even reasonable editorial opinion writing hold.  While there is a professional body, the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) which publishes a code of ethics, there really is no requirement that anyone belong to it.  Journalism is not a regulated profession in this country.

Anyone who has followed Canada's politics, especially since Sun TV was shut down, should be fairly cognizant of the fact that Ezra's "The Rebel" has a long standing pattern of twisting things to suit their own ends, and generally acting more as agents provocateur rather than as purveyors of reason.  Ezra and crew are perfectly entitled to their opinions, and to publish them through whatever means they think will serve their ends.  However, their willingness to play "fast and loose" with the facts calls into question their professionalism and integrity.  By standing up for them as so many in the media world have, journalism in Canada has called itself into question.

Ezra's demand that "The Rebel" be treated as "journalism" is a testament to how the field of journalism has failed to address the very real question of what are the ethical (and possibly legal) boundaries of being a journalist are.  They are in the very difficult place of having to welcome to the fold someone whose history and tactics are far removed from the days of a "gentleman's agreement" world.  I would suggest to the media in this country that now is the time to take yourselves seriously and start setting out what it means to be a journalist.  If that includes the kind of tactics that Ezra has made his hallmark, then the rest of us will know how seriously to take you in the future.  

1 comment:

jkoblovsky said...

I think Ezra is a symptom of a growing problem in Canada and what we call "journalism", and how politicians are seemingly taking advantage of an ethics crisis in legacy media to avoid accountability. The focus for many in media is more about the money, and less about the quality of news. It's a problem. The CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais hinted at that this past week blasting media execs, but as with everything at the CRTC, they always get things ass-backwards.

Journalism ethics at least in the broadcasting world is supposed to be regulated, yet the CRTC refuses too follow up. I recently wrote about that. There's no question this past week has put journalism ethics at the forefront on several levels, with Ezra and with Blais comments. I think it needs to be addressed, especially with those who are working in this industry and see what direction is going in. Hopefully those who have ethics and write quality non-partisan material will either revolt and change the industry from within, or leave and form a more independent organization that can force that change through competition. Either way, democracy suffers when the fourth estate is acting like a bunch of greed grade two students who don't care about anything other than their own toys.