Where Did Journalism Wente?

Tuesday morning, venti Pike Place in hand, I sat in my local Starbucks as I do most days. I plugged in my earphones, connected to the WiFi and tuned into CBC Radio’s Q with Jian Ghomeshi, then opened up my various inboxes and feeds to try and catch up on what I missed whilst asleep. A normal day would typically progress as such: discover nothing happened, post clever tweet, ‘Like’ friends Facebook post, confirm that the Leafs still suck, reply to my mother’s suggestion that I get a real job, order second venti Pike, write something for my blog that 42 people will perhaps read, poke at freelance projects. You know, a Tuesday.

And if it wasn’t for a message in my inbox from colleague Ian Orti with a link to Margaret Wente’s op-ed on Quebec students (or rather, as Peggy calls them: the baristas of tomorrow) my Tuesday would’ve merrily skipped along, ending in beer and whiskey, eventually becoming a Wednesday where the whole thing would repeat itself. Instead, I quickly wrote a response to the offending Wente column, posted it, the thing went viral, Maisonneuve picked it up, I went on CJAD radio, and for a few days my parents left me alone about the freelance life without a wife or children. It was a good week.

But that was Tuesday, and my 15 seconds of notoriety was fleeting. By Friday night my folks were again asking about the absence of wife and grandchildren. Whiskey and beer supplies were dangerously low. Wente continues to write. So here I sit Saturday morning, same Starbucks, same venti Pike, and unfortunately stuck reading the same newspapers that employ the likes of Wente to lazily write hypocritical and poorly constructed pieces that negligently fit into the modern paradigm of what passes for journalism in 2012.

A friend sent me a piece by Wente from early April, in which she celebrates her Boomerdom and notes that she left university debt free, got a job quicker than an arts grad can whip cappuccino foam, a bought a house in the Beaches with a small loan from her mother that is now worth a small fortune. Easy-peasy. And yet just a short month later, she was condemning students for just wanting just a fraction of the same advantages she had. And it led me to wonder, how does this tripe make it past the editing process? How, in this day and age, are we subjected to newspapers that fail to subscribe to the simplest virtues of journalistic integrity?

This has bugged me for a while actually. The first section of the newspapers to stop checking sources, or covering stories with any sort of journalistic acumen was Sports. What passes for journalism now in the Sports pages is simply rumour sprinkled with ego and a few scores, a masthead that has more interest in themselves than the story. It’s gonzo journalism gone backwards, and somewhere Hunter S. Thompson is rolling over in his grave and trying to drink and shoot his way out. In the past quarter century, Sports journalists have missed the Alan Eagleson story, the Graham James story, the Jerry Sandusky and Penn State story, the PED story, the concussion story, the depression story. The whole story really. Of course, it’s just sports.

The Arts section went next, and though it was always in danger of becoming irrelevant its devolution is disheartening. Book sections, if they haven’t disappeared all together or focussing on wizard werewolf zombies from Seattle, are mostly writers either reviewing their friends or attacking their enemies, and what is being reviewed appallingly ignores female writers all together. Music reviews serve little purpose, as it’s easy enough to hear the album for free online and make ones own conclusions. It has, in fact, become the Entertainment section. A wealth of valuable column inches has been bequeathed to chasing down Justin Bieber’s latest thought, Charlie Sheen’s insanity masquerading as artistry, or which Hollywood starlet has adopted a child of colour. Within the next few years, what was once the Arts section, will simply be a daily full page spread of Kim Kardashian’s breasts, with her posterior appearing in a special Saturday pull-out section.

Eventually, as we’re seeing now, much of the rest of the newspaper has fallen victim to the same lazy whims of the Sports and Arts sections. They all attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator, print versions of TMZ wrapped in a Tim Allen sitcom and a Maroon 5 album. But I held out hope that the Op-Eds would remain free of the systematic devaluation of a once sacred and important entity. I suppose journalism always had some sort of agenda, but the manner with which The National Posts and Sun and Fox News of the day have transformed journalism into a propaganda machine for an ideology that has destroyed the last bastion of journalism, the one good reason remaining to buy a paper, to support a dying industry, and that was to read informed and intelligent arguments for or against issues of interest and importance.

It’s an intriguing coincidence that this was the week that Conrad Black was released from prison. The man partially responsible for the ideological shift of the newspaper was feted by journalists all over Canada upon his release. His former child, The National Post, could not have been more celebratory upon Black’s release. Ms. Wente, too, was exuberant about his freedom. Interestingly, both employed the advocacy of Margaret Atwood in attempting to convince all Canadians (left, right, centre, Wildrose) that Black is a good man, because if Peggy A. thinks something’s okay, then we should think the same way. We’re that simple. And it’s within that false assumption that we are a simple people, a people happy with Bieber columns and Peggys, with being simultaneously insulted and coddled by an industry that has lost its ambition, that has put mainstream journalism in danger of becoming irrelevant.

In its welcoming op-ed for Mr. Black, The National Post’s editorial board claims without the advent of Black’s right-of-centre newschild “the Canadian media scene would resemble the stale left-centre ideological oligarchy that Mr. Black revolutionized back when the National Post came into being in 1998.” But I would argue that since 1998, journalism in this country has swung to the right because of Black’s influence. This is why Christie Blatchford questions the validity and virtue of Jack Layton’s dying declarations without being vilified by all wings for doing so. This is why Wente and many others have condemned the student protest without being informed, without the appearance of a lack of bias, nor the respect for the readership to be transparent, and without being held accountable for that lack of journalistic integrity. This is why Rob Ford’s mayoral tenure has devolved into a poorly written sitcom. This is why Don Cherry still has a pulpit from which to spew every Saturday night from October through June. This most importantly is why Stephen Harper lives at 24 Sussex, and not someone with a soul.

While much of today’s newspapers are murdered trees wasting column inches on fluff and pageantry, the political and moral ideology of our fourth estate has taken this country to the right, and we’re seeing a suffering as a result of that shift in the plight of our students, in the exponential growth of personal debt, in the hostile job market, in the pillaging of our environment, in the systematic deconstruction of our arts, and in an overall challenging economy. Until the same ideology and resiliency we’ve seen in Quebec students infiltrates the journalism community, we’ll be forever at the mercy of the Wentes and Blacks, and more importantly to the catastrophic repercussions of their influence.