David Hains, “Lessons from Rob Ford’s City Hall”:
As much as you’d like to hope that City Hall is too big and important an institution to be filtered through one man, that is not the case. Time and again, our public conversations have been distilled through Rob Ford’s ideology, preferences, and id. Rather than discussing important issues, like the funding crisis at Toronto’s social housing agency, we heard about the chief magistrate’s homophobia, racism, and misogyny. Would he apologize this time? What did he really mean, though? What would he say to Joe Warmington?
I think that there’s a sense in the press that they don’t want to start something. They want to respond to something. I think that’s a misunderstanding of what the world of the press should be. I think the Toronto Star is the exception to the rule I’m about to describe, but I think, generally speaking, the Canadian press has strayed from its basic connection to its audience. We should be running toward things that have not broken yet. News should be what people don’t know about yet. Everybody is just sort of chewing on the same bone. To be in a completely responsive mode is not responsible journalism.
It’s been incredibly vindicating to see Jesse Brown come along and make these criticisms of the industry. Not that we haven’t been yelling our heads off, but there are an awful lot of media people who will only take it seriously if it comes from the the right sort of white guy. (I don’t think they even realize they do this.) If you are one of those media people, go play outside. Everyone else, keep reading:
Over the years we “Scoobies”—a cadre of amateur City Hall-watchers—often watched members of the media stampede, en masse, out of the council chamber after the mayor or his brother, while the everyday business of government carried on without them. I eventually dialed back my liveblogging because the various City Hall journalists had become a virtual chorus, tweeting the same soundbite in unison like synchronized stenographers.
Many journalists took umbrage at the criticism we Twitterati frequently lobbed at them for giving the Fords a soapbox. I’ve had this debate over and over:
Journalists have an obligation to cover newsworthy events, and like it or not, Ford is news.
It’s not like the media passively relays things to the public. Media actively shapes the narrative. They can tell a different story.
Frontline reporters don’t get free rein to cover whatever we want. They have to work with their editors.
But what if papers took a chance on something new and tried to get people excited about the other important stuff that gets ignored?
They have to think of their subscribers and advertisers, too. There’s few enough people paying for news as it is—editors don’t want to take that risk. How many papers and magazines do you subscribe to?
None, because I’m broke. Besides, why should I give the Star/the Globe/the Post money when it also goes to nightmare garbage people like Rosie DiManno/Margaret Wente/Christie Blatchford?
Like it or not, it’s the major dailies that have the resources and credibility to break big stories and do serious investigations.
But ultimately they don’t have my interests in mind. They’re only truly accountable to their advertisers and sponsors and subscribers. Old people making over $150K and all that. Ugh! Capitalism ruins everything. Fuck it. We should rise up and seize the means of production and create a moneyless utopia like they have in Star Trek.
(Lather, rinse, repeat.)
In effect, the passivity of the media can create a sort of positive feedback loop. For example—they want to report on newsworthy candidates. Why not report on Fringe Candidate A? Well, they sound fascinating, but they’ve gotten no press coverage, so they must not be “newsworthy”. Now, Fringe Candidate B has all these articles about him; he must be A Thing! “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.”
See also the related phenomenon of the Outrage Cycle. For example: media outlet publishes something staggeringly out-of-touch. People react on social media and it goes viral. Media treat the reaction itself as newsworthy. Everyone pitches thinkpieces on the reaction, and then responses to the thinkpieces, and everyone gets paid (well, except the social media users) without having to deal with any actual news whatsoever.
I absolutely believe we deserve better from our media. It may be an impossible demand for a very stodgy and starving industry. But it is not too much to hold ourselves to. We might be tweeting for meagre Paypal donations from an audience much tinier than any newspaper’s; we might never build up the cred a Young White Guy Journalist gets just for showing up. But we are still creators and critics of media. We don’t have a lot of resources, but we have much more freedom.
So I think we owe it to ourselves to engage with civic affairs in a more and challenging way. We should be constantly pushing ourselves to pay attention to those boring things that we know are actually pretty important. There’s great stuff hidden in illegible spreadsheets in quarterly variance reports or in obscurely titled motions. It’s also worth dropping in on the less sexy committee and board meetings.
And, if we are going to properly address the ugly bigotry that this past election forced almost everyone to acknowledge, we have to teach ourselves to relate to viewpoints much different from our own. I would dearly love it if the mostly white, mostly male voices that dominate the media could somehow step back and let someone else take the stage—but journalism doesn’t work that way. (Honestly, I don’t think the traditional newsroom will survive long enough to diversify, but maybe that’s the clinical depression talking.)
By all means, don’t stop criticizing them! Criticize away! (You just might be saying what they’re secretly thinking.) But we also need constructive, positive action. One way to help: support and promote alternative outlets that you believe in. A few publications I like: The Tyee, Torontoist, the Ethnic Aisle, Shameless—and, outside Canada, women-run sites like The Toast and Autostraddle.
But also position yourself as a news maker and not just that lumpen substrate news is made of. You can submit to all the publications I just listed. Report on meetings no one else is at. Ask for money, because fuck Stephen Poloz. Take a break from snarking on some fucking useless pundit and find your own voice, because frankly I’d rather listen to you. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a “real journalist”. The industry is too small for insiders to name names, and someone’s got to do it.
Edit: You like this shit? Pay me for it. Proceeds go to Wasabi’s Dentist Appointment Fund.