Lessons from a panel on the future of journalism
By Justin Dallaire
In January, I was part of a panel hosted by Why Should I Care?, a civic engagement group that encourages thoughtful, non-partisan discussion around issues affecting local communities. The sizeable crowd that had gathered in Toronto’s dingy Wallace pub was proof that the subject at hand, “the state of journalism and where we go from here,” weighed on many people’s minds—that is, on the minds of many ordinary, non-journalists. It would have been a wonderful experience, had things not gone astray.
As the editor of the Ryerson Review of Journalism, a publication few people outside the industry have encountered, I was flattered to share the podium with David Gray-Donald, then a freelance journalist and board member of The Media Co-op, and Susanna Kelley, a veteran political and investigative reporter and current editor-in-chief of Ontario News Watch. Worried about how I could contribute meaningfully to the conversation, I reluctantly accepted the invitation, prepared a heartfelt speech and came ready to discuss everything from new funding models to fake news and echo chambers. Not that it mattered. In the end, the conversation drifted into territory that left me feeling woefully unprepared.
It started with Gray-Donald grudgingly admitting that Breitbart, the far-right American news outlet and the enemy of truth as we know it, was doing something right: it was winning the culture wars. During the American election, no progressive media outlet had succeeded at being so damn convincing. None had effectively mobilized as many people. Breitbart, he suggested, was doing something others should emulate, if only in a more truthful, socially progressive, love-your-neighbour kind of way.
His comment later prompted a middle-aged man, who, judging by his confident, rabble-rousing smile, is a regular at these gatherings, to thank Gray-Donald for his honesty. The man was a Breitbart supporter. I knew then that it was he who must have yelled “fake news!” as Kelley offered evidence against one of Trump’s many claims about the media. After expressing his gratitude, the man asked his question: are there any Canadian Breitbarts I can follow? I forget which one of us responded, but we were all thinking it: “The Rebel.”
Offhanded comments revealed others in the crowd likely harboured similar feelings. One man questioned Gray-Donald’s assertion that Canadian mining companies have been involved in atrocities overseas. That, he reminded the journalist, is a matter of opinion. And more than once were we, as journalists, called on to account for the media’s liberal bias. What could we say? As panelists, we represented a spectrum of opinion that ranged from the-media-is-fine-as-it-is to the-media-is-not-nearly-progressive-enough.
I was aghast. Could this really be happening at a panel about journalism—in Canada? The nightmare unfolding south of the border had morphed, it seemed, and swallowed us whole. It was a sobering glimpse of the challenges that lie ahead. More than any other panel I have attended, this one revealed the political and cultural shifts affecting our craft.
Of everything that was said that night, though, it was Gray-Donald’s suggestion that news outlets should, in essence, replicate the Breitbart model that bothered me most. Acting with integrity, journalists have every right to renounce “neutrality” in the name of saying what is fair and accurate. But we must refrain from turning the press into a weapon, to be deployed by both parties in our contemporary culture wars. Journalism is not a political tool. Its power is in its ability to neutralize threats, not create and support them.
That night at the Wallace, I could have given in to temptation and had it out with the Breitbart supporter until we arrived at an agreed-upon definition of facts. I could have hurled insults at him, or bombarded him with arguments so outlandishly false that his head would have spun. That would have been the easy thing to do. Instead, without thinking, I had done exactly what young reporters are trained to do: I listened, with honest open-mindedness, in order to try and understand the man’s worldview, as much as I disagreed with it.
If journalists aren’t going to listen, who will?