Kai Nagata’s July 8 blog post (on why he quit as CTV’s Quebec City bureau chief) has been making the rounds in media circles. If you’re interested in journalism and politics, or you just generally give a damn about public discourse and democracy and the responsibility of the press, read it now. When you’re done, you can read his follow-up post.
This isn’t an unconditional endorsement of his blog posts, but I do admire Nagata for his eloquence, his thoughtfulness and how he hits some of the issues pretty close to the bullseye. He has put into words a lot of the things I feel about the media dynamics in Canada — things I didn’t know how to verbalize, or I felt I had no authority to say. Not only has he written a damning account of the Canadian media’s failures as the fourth estate (I think there are lots of successes too… maybe more than there are failures… but, yes, there are failures), he put his money where his mouth is. Speaking as a fellow 24-year-old, I can tell you it would not be easy to flip my superiors the bird, pack up my pick-up truck, and watch a promising career crash and burn in the rearview mirror — but this is where it becomes clear that a promising future is only useful if you want what it’s promising. I think it is the job of the media to promote understanding — to provide citizens with all the aspects of the issue, so that they can make their own informed decision. If I found myself in a job where this was no longer my mandate, I only hope I would have Nagata’s courage to stand up for journalism. (Although I hope I would be a little more humble about it.)
The things Nagata is describing are particularly prevalent in television news, which works within the confines of shorter items and pretty pictures. I think the trend is also more obvious at the CBC these days, as the organization moves towards boosting ratings by being more like the other guys (if you want a long-time but now former CBC-er’s take on the process of dumbing down the media, please drop in on Andy Clarke. I have a hunch he and Nagata would get along.) And, of course, there is the newest entry into our media landscape: SUN TV. Enough said.
This may all come across as a criticism of mass media in Canada, but it is also a criticism of Canadians. The media have many interests, but one major interest is giving the people what they are asking for/willing to accept, because if you don’t have an audience, you don’t have advertisers (or a legitimate claim on continued funding from the government). So when you see wall-to-wall coverage of Will and Kate in a dragon boat race, just remember we are getting the media we deserve… and it will go on like this until the audience stands up and asks for something different. I think I would also be remiss to leave out the fact that this issue doesn’t just apply to covering federal politics. It covers all levels of government, from the echoing halls of Parliament to the sleepiest town council chambers. It also applies to covering international affairs and multilateral agencies, like the UN or IMF. These are all annals of power, and they all need a watchdog. If not journalists, then who?
That said, I don’t think Nagata’s manifesto applies to all of the media in Canada. There are certainly smaller media outlets that make it their mission to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” or whatever journalism adage you want to employ (like The Tyee). There are also admirable reporters at the big media outlets who aren’t trying to make any friends (Terry Milewski comes to mind). And there is the point that journalism is about more than holding power to account — some of the best journalism I’ve consumed or produced has been simply about telling a story or sharing a viewpoint, because the more we know about the world around us the better equipped we are to interact with it (I’ve been talking about this New York Times Magazine article for weeks).
But, the general direction the mass media discourse is heading isn’t pretty, if you want to see journalists elevating the debate instead of letting it get lost in the sound and fury (and fascinators). Just months ago, thousands of Egyptians took to the streets in Tahrir Square to demand the very rights that Canada’s major media outlets are squandering. So whatever your political stripes or ideological leanings, if you value accountable government and public discourse, I think you’d have to agree that Canada needs more Kai Nagatas up in here… as long as they’re willing to work to change the system, instead of quit it altogether.