Not dead, and not for sale

As an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist, I of­ten take on con­tro­ver­sial is­sues, crit­i­cize regimes, and never back down

Kingston Whig-Standard - - FORUM - GE­OF­FREY JOHN­STON Fol­low Ge­of­frey P. John­ston on Twit­ter @Ge­offyPJohn­ston.

It is no co­in­ci­dence that pol­i­tics and so­cial me­dia are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly nasty and prone to mis­state­ment of facts, ex­ag­ger­a­tions, as well as the dis­sem­i­na­tion of out­right lies.

We live in the age of the pol­i­tics of per­sonal de­struc­tion, in which the hurl­ing of vi­cious in­sults on so­cial me­dia is con­sid­ered an ac­cept­able de­bate tac­tic. In­deed, we live in a grace­less age.

In the dig­i­tal world, the art of civil dis­pu­ta­tion has given way to hate­ful rhetoric that tends to de­mo­nize or de­mean those who dis­agree with this idea or that po­lit­i­cal ide­ol­ogy. The ap­peal to emo­tions — fear and ha­tred — has sup­planted ra­tio­nal dis­cus­sion. Per­sua­sion has re­placed facts.

As a re­sult, online dis­cus­sions about cli­mate change of­ten de­gen­er­ate into name-call­ing. For ex­am­ple, those who, for whatever rea­son, ques­tion the sci­ence of cli­mate change are deemed to be so-called cli­mate de­niers, un­fairly evok­ing odi­ous im­ages of Holo­caust de­niers.

Mean­while, some op­po­nents of the fed­eral govern­ment’s ef­forts to cur­b­cli­mat­e­changel­o­gontoTwit­ter to con­tin­u­ously pound Min­is­ter of En­vi­ron­ment and Cli­mate Change Cather­ine McKenna. McKenna is fre­quently the tar­get of sex­ist taunts, which la­bel her “Cli­mate Bar­bie.” The min­is­ter does not de­serve to be treated with such “ca­sual cru­elty.”

Ca­sual cru­elty

Two years ago, for­mer U.S. pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush de­liv­ered a thought­ful ad­dress on the state of Amer­i­can democ­racy. “We have seen our dis­course de­graded by ca­sual cru­elty,” the 43rd pres­i­dent of the United States said of the in­sults and hy­per par­ti­san­ship that have come to char­ac­ter­ize pol­i­tics in Amer­ica.

“Ar­gu­ment turns too eas­ily into an­i­mos­ity,” he con­tin­ued in his speech to a New York City au­di­ence in 2017. “Dis­agree­ment es­ca­lates into de­hu­man­iza­tion.”

Cana­di­ans should heed Bush’s words and re­solve to be civil to one an­other on so­cial me­dia in 2019.

As a jour­nal­ist, I have a good rep­u­ta­tion in cer­tain cir­cles. I of­ten write about is­sues that other me­dia out­lets tend to gloss over, such as the im­pact of con­flict on the devel­op­ment of vulnerable chil­dren. I interview many sources, faith­fully quot­ing them, and never take com­ments out of con­text. My jour­nal­ism is fair and bal­anced.

De­spite my best ef­forts to pro­vide read­ers with fact-based anal­y­sis, many peo­ple on Twit­ter relish mak­ing li­bel­lous state­ments about me and other jour­nal­ists. The ca­sual cru­elty heaped on jour­nal­ists is dis­qui­et­ing.

Lib­eral party tweet

Un­for­tu­nately, the gov­ern­ing fed­eral Lib­er­als have thrown fuel on the fire by boast­ing on Twit­ter about the Trudeau govern­ment’s ini­tia­tive to un­der­write the Cana­dian news me­dia.

“Pub­lic fund­ing and tax sup­port for free in­de­pen­dent news me­dia is the norm, not the ex­cep­tion, in western democ­ra­cies around the world,” a Lib­eral Party of Canada post on the so­cial me­dia site pro­claimed. And the very next sen­tence con­tained in the Nov. 23, 2018, tweet laid bare the Lib­er­als’ par­ti­san ap­proach to the sell­ing of the ini­tia­tive to Cana­dian voters. “Our new plan will help jour­nal­ists of any stripe thrive in this coun­try,” the Grits de­clared.

In a nut­shell, it was in­ap­pro­pri­ate for the party to at­tempt to use the ini­tia­tive to gain po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage.

Sim­i­larly, in­stead of fo­cus­ing on pub­lic pol­icy, the fed­eral Con­ser­va­tives have also taken a highly par­ti­san ap­proach to the govern­ment’s me­dia as­sis­tance plan. For in­stance, Con­ser­va­tive Leader An­drew Scheer struck a di­vi­sive tone on Twit­ter, pit­ting dif­fer­ent in­dus­tries against one an­other in or­der to dis­credit the Lib­er­als’ fall eco­nomic up­date.

“Justin Trudeau is hand­ing out money to jour­nal­ists who will cover him in an elec­tion year — but he can’t come up with any­thing for oil and gas work­ers,” the Leader of Her Majesty ’s Loyal Op­po­si­tion as­serted in a Nov. 22, 2018, post on Twit­ter.

That same day, Con­ser­va­tive MP Mark Strahl also took to the mi­croblog­ging web­site to dis­credit the govern­ment’s as­sis­tance pack­age. “While the Eco­nomic Up­date didn’t in­clude a plan to bal­ance the bud­get, it did in­clude PMJT [Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau] try­ing to buy off the me­dia with $600 M [mil­lion] in fund­ing in an elec­tion,” Strahl wrote.

Tor­rent of abuse

In re­sponse to claims on so­cial me­dia that the news me­dia could be bought off, I, in my ca­pac­ity as a colum­nist, of­fered my take on the de­vel­op­ing con­tro­versy.

“I do NOT be­lieve that Cana­dian jour­nal­ists can be bought,” I wrote on Twit­ter on Nov. 23, 2018. “Such sug­ges­tions are of­fen­sive and stupid,” I con­tin­ued. “How­ever, I think the fed­eral govern­ment me­dia bailout is ill-con­ceived & a very bad idea.”

Many Cana­dian Twit­ter ac­counts re­sponded to my posts that day by ac­cus­ing me and all Cana­dian jour­nal­ists of be­ing bought and paid for by the Lib­eral govern­ment. When I re­sponded that I couldn’t be bought, a num­ber of ac­counts replied that if I could not be bought, at least I could be rented.

To be frank, I was of­fended by the in­sults. As an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist, my motto is “Not dead, not for sale,” which is a line lifted from a song by Stone Tem­ple Pi­lots. I of­ten take on con­tro­ver­sial is­sues, crit­i­cize pow­er­ful regimes, and never back down — re­gard­less of the con­se­quences.

In a sep­a­rate post on Twit­ter that same day, I stated that the so-called fed­eral govern­ment bailout of Cana­dian me­dia “cre­ates the im­pres­sion that govern­ment pays the piper and there­fore calls the tune.” In other words, even though there is no ev­i­dence to sug­gest that the plan will in­flu­ence re­port­ing, the per­cep­tion of bias, how­ever skewed, would per­sist as long as me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions re­ceive govern­ment sub­si­dies.

In that same tweet, I added that the fed­eral plan “does noth­ing to ad­dress the crux of the prob­lem: tech­no­log­i­cal dis­rup­tion.”

Turn the other cheek

It would seem that so­cial me­dia is chang­ing the way our brains work, short-cir­cuit­ing im­pulse con­trol. There is so much nas­ti­ness on Twit­ter that many de­cent peo­ple no longer of­fer com­ments on news sto­ries for fear of be­ing in­sulted. And the anger un­leashed by so­cial me­dia is prob­a­bly be­ing ex­ploited by for­eign ac­tors de­ter­mined to un­der­mine lib­eral democ­racy by am­pli­fy­ing so­cial di­vi­sions.

It is plain to see on Twit­ter that out­rage is more pop­u­lar than good news. And that’s a pity. Be­cause if we over­look the good news sto­ries, we’ll miss out on op­por­tu­ni­ties to build on those suc­cesses and change the world for the bet­ter — even if the changes are small and al­most im­per­cep­ti­ble.

If you want to change the world, start by be­ing po­lite to oth­ers on so­cial me­dia. In­stead of slag­ging some­one with whom you dis­agree, find a way to re­spond po­litely — even if they in­sult you. We need to bring ra­tio­nal dis­course back to Twit­ter. We need ci­vil­ity, and we need it now.

Jour­nal­ism can and of­ten does il­lu­mi­nate im­por­tant is­sues and sto­ries. In­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ists dig deep to un­cover wrong­do­ing, such as sex­ual abuse within the hu­man­i­tar­ian sec­tor.

It is not an ex­ag­ger­a­tion to sug­gest that jour­nal­ism, at its best, helps to shape com­mu­ni­ties. And ded­i­cated, hard-headed jour­nal­ists bring you the es­sen­tial sto­ries — the good, the bad, and the ugly.

You may pre­tend that jour­nal­ism doesn’t mat­ter, but you know bet­ter.


Fed­eral Min­is­ter of En­vi­ron­ment and Cli­mate Change Cather­ine McKenna spoke dur­ing an open house to an­nounce the ex­pan­sion of the Napanee Plain Al­var Na­ture Re­serve on Wednesday, July 25 in Napanee.

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