Register Monday | June 17 | 2019

Blue Metropolis day 4

You saw what was going on in there,” remarked Linda Polman, journalist and publicist from Amsterdam. “Everyone was defending their own turf.”

Following her participation in a round table discussion on “Writers in Peril,” I had asked for a moment of her time; what I got was something much more: her full attention, and for what seemed like all the time in the world. Never mind that she had a book signing to attend…

The discussion inside – also featuring Sergio Ramirez, Margaret MacMillan, and exiled Iranian journalist Nikahang Koswar – had shifted at some point to the idea of blogging and the so-called citizen journalists that feed us information from the more repressed corners of the world. So while their debate raged on about the “professionalism” and degrees of trust for newspaper writers over bloggers, I remarked that she was the only journalist (of the four present) that raised the idea that newspapers don’t necessarily want to tell the whole story, nor do they have the time or money to do so.

“Yes, there are always filters,” replied Margaret MacMillan. “But there are some filters I trust more than others.” It was a straight shot back.

“I don’t mean so much the unfiltered news, but rather that there’s so many things that newspapers don’t tell us, simply because there is no money or no room for it.”

Polman’s comments immediately brought to mind the texts I had read of Walter Lippmann, the American journalist who penned “Public Opinion” in 1922. In it, Lippmann reflects on the concepts of journalism, noting how it is practically impossible for the profession to relate the full scope of a situation to its audiences. Journalists are still flawed human beings, only capable of seeing the world through the window they’ve grown up looking through; most newspapers aren’t willing to risk alienating readers by publishing anything too investigative, in-depth, or stories other than the black-and-white, conflict-and-resolution variety; and there’s only so much that can be told within the physical and economical confines of a daily press. So the newspaper focuses not on the issues behind a workers’ strike, but rather the happenings of the strike itself and the interference it has on our lives. And so we trust it to provide us with news.

“Journalists don’t like to criticize themselves,” Polman shared with me afterwards. There’s always this defense of newspapers as sources of quality, “but I don’t think there was much quality to begin with,” she laughed.

And though she’s been accused by colleagues of “dirtying the nest” and scolded for her self-criticism, the Dutch writer is optimistic and says that history is moving in our direction.

Sure, blogging is questionable and certainly does raise issues of quality controls, but in many ways we only have these concerns because of the structures by which we are accustomed to getting our information. So in that respect, when citizen journalists come along, there’s an automatic assumption that the product is less true or less reliable. This elitist, top-down model is in many ways threatened by the grassroots, bottom-up style of citizen reportage.

And, in Linda’s words: “Journalism is more than a job. It’s like a mission.” I think that’s really the key here, that it’s not just another paycheck to take home but rather to realize the considerable influence we hold over people’s impressions and understandings of the world, and to use what power we have to suggest new ways of seeing and learning.

Finally, I can’t neglect some of the interesting points that were raised during the panel discussion itself, notably the dangers faced by journalists who continue to work in certain dictatorial regimes. In truth, I believe much of the repression comes from a lack of understanding on the part of the authorities; for instance in Cuba – where the internet is basically restricted to anyone other than tourists, the elite, and certain professionals – I observed that their concern over what people were reading on the internet and its apparent risk to the revolution was more that the authorities simply didn’t understand it. As Sergio Ramirez noted, “It’s very difficult to control the bloggers, and people in Cuba who can access the internet do follow them.” And while the high-profile blog writers might be of the anti-Castro variety, I think that many Cubans have some degree of support for their government and do take into account that the problems they face aren’t necessarily a direct result of their leaders’ actions. So let them tell the world; in any case, the silence sure isn’t making the world look upon the situation favourably.

Indeed, as Margaret MacMillan noted, “even poets were once regarded with great suspicion, because the authorities couldn’t understand what they were saying.”

Even more relevant was the next point raised, that writers in repressive situations are perhaps better journalists because of the dangers they face and the urgency of their words. There is potentially a danger of having too much freedom and living in a world where everything is permissible, as one panelist observed, “because you have no pressure to write.”

While MacMillan continually voiced her particular concern over the death of newspapers (“the danger now is that the newspaper business is collapsing”) and not the censorship of editors (“I think the greater danger is self-censorship”), Polman argued that the gradual commercialization of journalism is taking the independence of the profession from its journalists. The danger of this “slow” transition and so-called “democratic” context, the latter observed, is that many don’t realize the loss of our press freedom – or if we do, we certainly don’t protest against it.

Think about when Stephen Harper’s office, early after its first win in 2006, decided to literally close the doors of cabinet meeting to reporters. These days, the only reporters invited to ask questions at press conferences are the ones who have proven themselves to be less critical. And at the Summit of the Americas last weekend, the PM basically traveled with a delegation of media: one reporter from Canwest, from CBC, from Canadian Press, and one photographer. What does this “embedded” role say about a journalist’s ability to report with accuracy or without bias? And the hints of repression we’re seeing from the Harper administration isn’t necessarily producing better journalism – we protested it for a brief time, though things have continued as normal.

Apparently, we’re lucky to have both the “freedom” of such democracy without the sense of “urgency” that would inspire a press journalist to protest or write better. And if there’s no room in our daily press for this kind of critical observation – or if our criticism of said subject can just barely outlast its initial media hype in our round-the-clock news model – I’m beginning to wonder what all the fuss is about preserving these newspapers…

“I don’t think there’s absolute freedom,” remarked Nikahang Koswar. “I see a guided freedom. You’re driving a car but you can’t leave the car – the car being the newspaper – and it’s their way or the highway.”

P.S. Don't forget to check out my Flickr page of photos.