This essay was written in 2016, when the Edmonton Journal cut its staff so severely, part of the Postmedia move to ‘consolidate’ newsrooms across the land. I didn’t publish it then; an acquaintance who works in journalism pointed out that it was a raw moment for everyone ‘in the field’ and not the time for commentary by someone like me. Let’s see how it looks now, in light of changes since then.
Here’s the news from two years ago:
Here are my – still-unsolicited – thoughts on that, as a non-journalist.
Sometimes, i feel sad that i left Japan after only one year. Then i remember my contract terms – good, but also very circumscribed. I could live well within those bounds for a year. When the bounds felt too tight, i signed off. Some people i met and worked with there didn’t take their contracts entirely seriously; they signed on, but pushed the boundaries, justified it by pointing out the oppressive nature of placing such restrictions on our ‘free speech.’ Me, i couldn’t be that person. If i signed the contract, i had to mean it.
So, no working for private ‘juku’ cram schools on the side, though i contemplated it. And no public holding forth of my opinion on matters political – no getting involved with protests against Monju reactors, just for one instance.
I decided i could sign that clause because i knew, i was coming to Japan as a guest and a stranger, without knowledge of the protocols and the relationships between people and communities.
I understood, i was embedded on behalf of the Japanese Ministry of Education, and they hadn’t hired me to pass judgment on their culture, industry, healthcare system, gender politics or anything else. I could handle that for a year. I had a lot to gain, and my public silence about matters in which i had no grounding was no injustice.
I hadn’t been hired to be a journalist, so what ethical dilemma did i really face? I did not sign on to renew my contract, because i know my nature, i’d be sure to begin to chafe, the deeper i got connected to the place, the people, the language and the goings-on. But for one great year, as a student of culture and a teacher of English, i had no problem signing a clause agreeing to toe the line in public.
Is that something journalists should ever have to sign?
In this age of the embedded journalist, with more and more concentration of ownership for the major players in the news field, do career journalists get access to those major players without signing on to toe the line?
I don’t know.
I do know that it wasn’t paid reporters who put themselves on the line for the MMIW inquiry. It was community people using social media, families of the disappeared, who kept putting the word out, for long lonely years, while mainstream media toed the political line, and kept it plausible that our then-prime minister could say it isn’t really high on our radar in 2014.
Our 2015 election brought to the PMO, by contrast, a man who had been listening to the grassroots calls for justice; a man who seems more swayed by social media, more in tune with this new pulse in the land.
And it is our pulse; people have turned to online, social media, because it’s fleet, interactive, and presents a variety of viewpoints – which also makes it sprawling, unruly, often downright ugly.
There is a need for disciplined, skilled reporters, who will follow a story, who care about fact-checking, who will invest in getting it right and honestly exploring biases.
But when the mainstream media presents as a monolith, with one point of view, and that point of view doesn’t include me, my community, and our values? Of course i’ll look elsewhere for representation, the second there’s an option. And apparently, i’m in the majority in that.
Or perhaps, more accurately, in the plurality.
These days, in the free-for-all hurly burly of the internet, whatever your particular background, you can find connections to people like you, who are more likely to share your ethnic, religious and political worldview. So, why would you pay for the privilege of reading a narrow viewpoint, especially if you find it has consistently, over the long term, excluded, under-reported, or misrepresented you and yours?
For better or worse, we are in the midst of the time of the citizen journalist, uncredentialled, unedited, untethered. Potentially unreliable. But, as an Indigenous woman growing up in Canada, i’ve not found the mainstream media reliable in its coverage of my community, anyway.
Nor have i seen it represent for the communities who don’t buy wholesale into the primacy of the auto-culture. And i’ve seen less and less questioning of the official line in many facets of life from our mainstream media.
These are not “English teachers” on a cultural exchange, these are the vaunted Free Press, meant to be broader, deeper sources for informing, educating, engaging the citizenry in meaningful discussion of the issues of our day – politics, religion, rights, and conflicts.
A free press, with lively, multi-faceted, informed debate, is meant to be a pillar of democratic life.
So, while i have sympathy for the good people who find themselves suddenly, brutally, cut off from their jobs, what’s to mourn in the demise of an overly monolithic perspective? Has our larger community lost a lot? Or has a space appeared for the development of truly responsive, independent local news media?
Picture something grassroots, nimble, invested in our own community, and accountable here, to us, ahead of to corporate bosses.
Picture the best of our the local reporters and writers empowered to investigate on our behalf, answerable to editors, yes, but not to corporate sponsors. Picture them protected by freedom of speech, which has nothing to say, in this current squeeze, to counter the power of the cutback.
‘No one is being censored, are they?’ Postmedia’s Journal might say, ‘It’s just money.’
Is this even the same paper that long ago, in the Alberta Press Case of 1937, successfully fought the government’s attempts to stifle it, to dictate its point of view and make it into the mouthpiece of power? That Edmonton Journal won the only Pulitzer Prize ever awarded outside the USA, apparently. More importantly, they won a battle for free speech that had to be fought all the way to the Supreme Court.
How can those journalists ‘downsized’ today make any argument at all that they’ve been muzzled? Post Media bought the Edmonton Journal in March 2015, and promptly dictated that the Journal endorse the Tories in the May election – Alberta Election Endorsements If Journal staffers didn’t protest the corporate takeover then, how much of a leg have they to stand on now?
All respect to the fine writers who were just cutback from the Edmonton Journal, but did anyone comment that, for as long as the Tories were in power here, the Journal ran Tory blue banners? And when Rachel Notley’s Orange Crush brought the NDP to power, lo, the Journal’s banners turned orange.
I’m hopeful that those journalists cut from all the Post Media organs find themselves, not defeated, but unfettered. I hope they can take what they gained while working inside that structure, and apply it in service of journalism as a calling, not to wear the colours of the ruling party and keep their radars clear of unpalatable news and views, but to tell the stories of our communities. I hope they can make a living doing it.
I’d love to find a way to return as a writer to Japan. Without the funding of a government-sponsored exchange, i’m on the hook to convince arts granters that i, as a particular writer, have something particular and relevant to offer in return for arts granting sponsorship. I don’t know if i can do that, only time will tell.
And i don’t know how these many unceremoniously cut loose writers are going to fund their careers, either, in this moment in which we find ourselves; but i sure hope they do. We need skilled, dedicated chroniclers of our communities, to share what’s going on.
So, for all the newly unfettered journalists in these parts, and for our plurality of communities who need to know, with truth, dignity, clarity and integrity what is going on, in the words of the famous American journalist, Edward R. Murrow,
Good Night and Good Luck.
Two years later, I have to mention the excellent work of longtime Journal columnist Paula Simons, who has ridden through the merger and seems as cantankerous and reporterly as ever; and the welcome voice, in the classic reporter style, of Elise Stolte, her colleague at the (cringe though I do to write this as one entity) Sun/Journal (seriously; they may have both shared boundaries as to what they didn’t cover, but in my youth, Sun and Journal were at least two ends of a certain spectrum of news coverage.)
I note the passing of American journalist Robert Parry who covered some of the most contentious international events of his day. And I salute our own Karin Wells, whose work includes reporting on this. Will there be mainstream media reporters who will keep making the links between rape of the land and rape/murder of women?
I’m amazed at the flourishing Indigenous media, and the strength of Connie Walker, Angela Sterritt, and APTN; there’s the enduring presence of AMMSA and then there’s the mighty Rick Harp, whose Media Indigena podcast does very much the style of specifically centred, in an Indigenous centre, newsmagazine analysis that we’ve never seen in the mainstream Canadian press.
It would seem that podcasting, funded via Patreon and other crowdsourcing engines, is the new version of what the old Newspapers used to be: directly connected to a target community, supported by subscribers who are convinced of the validity of the viewpoint of the podcaster.
Is this new recipe producing high-quality, factual journalism? Depends who you ask. Then again, it was ever so; the difference is, the platform has been blown wide open.
Ish. Depending what happens with Regulation of the Internet. Take notes. Watch and listen and read. These are interesting times.
All My Relations