Friday, August 18, 2017

Post-Rebel Journalism Needs To Become A Recognized Profession

The ongoing collapse of Ezra Levant's "The Rebel" (no links provided - I will not link to what I consider a hate site) makes one thing abundantly clear to me:  Journalism must become a regulated profession in Canada.

Ezra has cried blue murder every time his company was denied accreditation by government press galleries.  What the ensuing discussion has demonstrated is that we don't have a means of identifying what is legitimate journalism from nonsense.  Frankly, in today's environment, parody sites like The Beaverton could demand accreditation and access to media galleries, and yet they do not by any reasonable definition engage in journalism per se.

Paula Simons has argued that because of charter guarantees, there is no need for the media to be a licensed profession:

I respect Ms. Simons - she is one of the good journalists we have in this country.  However, I respectfully disagree with her position, and I will lay out my reasons for this here.

I agree that a free press is an important and relevant part of a free and democratic society.  However, I think we need to have a discussion as to what that means.  Even going back to the late 1970s when the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was being drafted, the press was largely independent of its owners and the political powers that be.  There was an implicit understanding that an independent press served the public good.

Since then, we have been through a period of time where our news media in particular has fallen into the hands of those who choose to use it for specific political agendas.  Conrad Black consolidated most of our print media under one umbrella with his Hollinger Inc. company.  He also launched "The National Post" to solve what he considered to be the "liberal bias" of the rest of the media.  Several iterations later, and under PostMedia, all of the "mainstream" print media are overtly controlled both in terms of news content, but also editorial content, from a single head office which directs what gets published.  The full-page threat ads at on the front of most PostMedia publications just before voting day pretty much tells us that the company was firmly in bed with one political party.

Launched in 2015, in the wake of Sun News Network's shutdown,  The Rebel presents an interesting issue.  From the start, Ezra has run The Rebel as a hardline, right wing operation.  In fact, one could argue that most of what they published was intended to spark outrage.  They found their allies and audience both within the ranks of Canada's Conservative Party, but also among the so-called alt-right extremists.  Most of their shows were a regular rotation of right wing political figures, religiously inspired conservatives and so on.  That's fine - if you want to run a "talk radio" style show, I'm good with that, just be honest with us.

However, Ezra wanted his people to "report" on events as they happened as well.  Except, he didn't send them in to be observers.  From the beginning, we saw Rebel "reporters" acting as agitators.  They didn't "report", instead, they went out of their way to disrupt what was happening, or to be the voice of the far right.  Early on, we found Rebel "contributor" at a Slutwalk demonstration holding up a sign denying the idea of Rape Culture.

Later, as part of the debate over Bill C-16, we found the same person mocking transgender people by "becoming a man", and thereby feeding the narrative of "predators in the bathroom" using trans rights as an opportunity to commit crimes.

This isn't reporting, nor is it journalism in any meaningful sense of the term.  This is political activism.

For the profession of journalism, The Rebel experiment raises an important and very difficult to answer question.  What does it mean to be a journalist?  Is acting as a political propaganda agent appropriate?  Is distorting the events and issues to suit a particular point of view acceptable?  It is one thing to present material through a particular lens, it is quite another to overtly manipulate the facts of a story to make it look like something else.

Yes, the concept of a free press is an indisputable asset in a democracy.  Do we have a "free press" right now?  One could argue that the concentration of ownership, combined with the emergence of a hyper-partisan political landscape has undermined the "free" press by replacing it with a peculiar form of "balanced" reporting where extremist opinions are presented as equivalent to more reasoned and thoughtful opinions rooted in facts and science.  (e.g.  Putting a climate change denier up as presenting a "legitimate" point of view when there is in fact a consensus among scientists on the matter)  For decades, various people have been raising the alarm over the increasing concentration of media ownership, pointing out that it means that only a small handful of positions are in fact being made available to the public.

I'm sure Ezra would argue black is white that his people were "doing journalism".  But were they doing so in a reasonable and ethical manner?  I would argue that the answer to that question is "no", and on that basis, Ezra's operation (and others which live on the fringes of reason) do not deserve to be called journalists.  It is the ethics of journalism that have been undermined, and in doing so, the public's trust in the reliability of "the media" has been compromised.  A free press is only meaningful if the public actually believes that it is both free and objective.  This neutrality is the unstated assumption in the charter guarantees.  The press was assumed that it would remain for the most part objective, and the forces of the free market would ensure competition.  Neoliberalism, and in particular the trickle-down economics part of it, has dismantled the apparatus of a competitive market.

Ezra's The Rebel has undermined the very trust of the public by declaring themselves to be part of the "free press", and yet clearly acting against the basic principles of being reasonably objective.  I'm not advocating that everyone who works as a journalist must have certain degrees, or that they must be absolutely objective.  Rather, I am pushing for an enforceable, ethical code that will define what it means to be a journalist in Canada.  This will go a long ways to addressing the issues that The Rebel's emergence demonstrate so clearly.  Want access to formal government press gallery?  You must be bound to this ethical standard.  Fail to uphold it, you get booted.  Pretty simple.

The concept of "freedom of the press" isn't an absolute any more than the concept of free speech is.  There are reasonable boundaries that need to be in place.  Now that we have seen how the unscrupulous will exploit the implicit boundaries that a free press operates within, it is time to make those boundaries explicit.

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