Friday, October 26, 2007

The American PR machine

The American government has stooped to a new ethical low. FEMA held a fake press conference Tuesday morning, where officials posed as reporters.

In an Orwellian move, the organization gave actual reporters only 15 minutes notice -- ensuring they could not make the conference to ask hard hitting questions about fires in California.

The Washington Post published details from the conference before learning it was a hoax.

Is this an attempt by the infamously defunct body (after the Katrina scandal) to regain credibility in the eyes of the American people?

If so, they obviously underestimated both the intelligence of the American people and the capabilities of their press corps.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Press Freedom Index

Reporters Sans Frontieres has released its latest Press Freedom Index, rating 169 countries in terms of the degree of freedom enjoyed by journalists over the past year.

Topping the list is Iceland, while North Korea has lost the dubious honour of last place to Eritrea, an African country which closed the private press in 2001.

Sharing status at the bottom of the pack are China (163rd), Burma (164th), Cuba (165th), Iran (166th) and Turkmenistan (167th).

Recent events like the death of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the military crackdown of pro-democracy demonstrations in Burma and the continued imprisonment of Chinese journalists all contributed to the rankings.

At 18th, Canada's got nothing on the Scandinavian countries that dominate the top spots, but it is the highest ranked G8 country. The USA sits at 48th, just below Nicaragua.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Walrus came to town

The Walrus, rated Canada's, magazine of the year, came to Vancouver on a rainy Tuesday night, bringing raunchy poetry readings, an unlimited martini bar and some of the city's biggest philanthropists, and more importantly, their cheque books.

The Walrus is known in Canada for promoting important public discourse on matters from the country's electoral system to climate change in its arctic.

But there was little talk of quality Canadian journalism when the Walrus came to town. The event wasn't about intellectual accolades or discourse on the state of magazines in Canada. It was about fund raising.

And when it comes to charity events, the Walrus stuck with the tried and true recipe for success, for even the most high brow soirées centre on those classic staples of a good party -- a fully stocked bar and sexy entertainment.

At the middle of it all is the Walrus' Editor-in-Chief and co-founder, Ken Alexander, wearing a thematic green shirt mingling with journalistic types and capital investors alike, promoting the Walrus' upcoming arctic issue. Part editor and part PR spokesperson, Alexander's job tonight is to pamper his sponsors.

Based on the business model of the renowned Harper's magazine, the Walrus has become Canada's only long form journalism magazine dedicated to ideas and culture.

But tonight the culture of the intelligentsia reigns over their big ideas. The entertainment line-up is jammed with some of Vancouver's biggest media big shots from Shelagh Rogers acting out a special play by playwright Jim Garrard to Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane reciting erotic poetry.

The party moves to the Vancouver Art Gallery, where pseudo-celebs sip martinis and view Georgia O'Keeffe originals while waiting for the results of the silent auction featuring prizes that include a weekend in Whistler and dinner at the renowned Lumiere restaurant.

This event makes one thing clear about those who support the Walrus. While they might prefer sexually explicit content and martinis to discourse on the state of journalism, or the difference the Walrus is making in the Canadian cultural zeitgeist, they certainly celebrate the magazine's achievements with their cheque books.

Surprisingly, Canada's best magazine cannot support itself on revenue alone. It won charitable status from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) in 2005. Now it can appeal for funds from foundations and other interested parties.

The Walrus dedicates only a small portion of space to ads, its publisher Shelley Ambrose quickly explains while introducing the evening's entertainment. "We are committed to long-form literary journalism, so you're not going to get features telling you where to shop."

Now the magazine can raise the capital it needs to compete against American magazines that have saturated the Canadian market, staples such as the New Yorker, Time and Harper's, and offer a Canadian alternative to Macleans.

How can an intellectual magazine best raise money from high spending donors? A series of cross- country shmooze fests was decided on.

The Walrus has traveled from Ottawa to Calgary to Vancouver, and the content of each evening's entertainment certainly catered to each metropolis.

While it was not officially announced -- perhaps because of the sheer crassness of discussing money at a fund raiser for a magazine about "ideas, sophistication and wit" -- I am told that despite an intimate turnout, the magazine has raised a substantial amount in Vancouver, thanks to some of the city's richest denizens who have generously sponsored the magazine's event.

And of course, there was plenty of swag.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

How far can an editorial go?

According to the Province, the CRTC has received 268 complaints so far about Bruce Allen's recent show on CKNW that railed against "special interest groups" (ie: immigrants) who ask for special treatment. The outspoken manager of some of Canada's hottest musical acts told the imagined subjects of his rant, "we don't need you here" and "shut up and fit in."

Arguing his editorial was racist and just plain uninformed, activists and politicians have called for him to be fired or resign from CKNW and his position in the planning of the 2010 Olympic games.

Allen's since "clarified" himself on Christy Clark's radio show and in the form of a rebuttal released today. His programmer has defended him, and now it looks like VANOC will too.

Since I reported on the controversy, I've received several emails in support of Allen, to the tune of "thank god someone's saying what I'm thinking." But last I checked, the Facebook group calling for Allen's firing boasted 4,484 members, while groups supporting him barely approached 1000 members in total.

I'm not comfortable in either camp. But I hope those taking a side are thinking through the consequences of their positions, and have at least listened to the pieces in question.

Arguing Allen's not fit to represent us at the Olympics is one thing. Trying to muzzle a man who neither libeled nor advocated violence is a whole other ballgame.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Censorship at the Emmys

Since the Janet Jackson Superbowl incident, media broadcasters have been granted the ability -- backed by a degree of public approval -- to censor live shows.

Unlike the controversial "nipple" incident, however, Sunday's Emmy censorships were invoked for political and religious reasons.

Sally Field was censored during her acceptance speech for decrying the war in Iraq.

She said: "If mothers ruled the world, there would be no Goddamn war in Iraq," but the television audience heard only: "If mothers ruled the world, there would be no God..." before she was cut off- which significantly misconstrued the crux of her speech and left the audience in awe of what she could have possibly said.

And comedian Kathy Griffin was censored on the Fox network during a speech in which she declared "Suck it Jesus. This award is my God now."

If we enter an era in which broadcasters decide what to air in the name of good taste we are treading a dangerous new ground toward limiting free speech, further blurring the already artificial line between reality and what the media depicts as reality.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Reporting under censorship

In a recent piece on the online independent newspaper The Tyee, Claude Adams argues for the hypocrisy of former Toronto Star publisher John Honderich's denunciation of press freedom in Rwanda, only after having left the country.

Adams reports that, while in Rwanda, Honderich was well aware of the censorship -- both self- and government-imposed -- routinely restricting journalists.

The bigger questions brought up in his piece concern all journalists.

"To what degree should the fear of offending a host government prompt volunteers to soft-pedal professional and ethical standards in the course of their work? When is it okay to bite your tongue for the "good of the project," and when do you stand on principle, even at the risk of being shut down?" Adams asks.

His questions spring from his experience in the Canadian Rwanda Initiative, which he worries isn't teaching aspiring reporters to stand up to Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

He goes on to relate how some of the Rwandan journalism students he met aimed to switch to PR or NGO work because of the frustrations of reporting in their country.

That sentiment isn't unheard of in my own school, but reading Adams' analysis of the plight of Rwandan media sure puts Canada's imperfections in perspective.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Journalism ethics: The old oxymoron

In a recent op-ed in the China Post, Joe Hung revisits an old argument in journalistic circles after two cable TV networks were disciplined for airing fabricated video footage, forcing senior staff to attend journalism ethics lectures.

“Most practicing journalists, including editors, consider school inculcation to be of no use and a sheer waste of time,” Hung writes. “Some academics, however, insist that professional ethics have to be taught, though they lament there are few qualified instructors and little literature in this specific field of study to draw on.”

The first half of Hung’s characterization has a measure of truth – an editor told me recently that journalism ethics is nothing more than “get it first, and get it right.”

But his lament is dated, not to mention inaccurate, as he asserts that the only graduate journalism ethics class is taught at his alma mater, Southern Illinois University.

Not so, as I’m about to realize as I take the class next semester at UBC.

But, more importantly, Hung’s analysis is rooted in an old mindset that sees journalism as just the making of a daily paper.

In today’s multimedia, instantaneous, user-generated, global world of journalism, there’s a lot more to think about than getting it first and getting it right. We’re revisioning journalism, and thankfully we’ve got forums to do it.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Online transparency

In an experimental move last week, Google News added a feature that allows story interviewees to post their comments alongside stories from news organizations around the world, ushering in a new era of transparency in reporting.

Although this move may sound like the solution to inaccurate quoting and journalists with their own agendas, it also undermines one of the core reasons journalists exist -- to filter through the spin of interviewees with their own agendas.

The comment section will be heavily regulated, requiring interviewees to email Google with contact information and proof that they were part of the story. But it could still become a mess of public relations spin and irate subjects lashing out at journalists.

It also appears as though Google might have its own agenda in implementing this device -- ousting its main competitor Digg, with its user-powered aggregation system and comment section as the web's most democratic site.