Monday, July 11, 2011

The Kai Nagata Affair - Thoughts on a Career in Journalism

An article by Kai Nagata, until last week CTV's Quebec City bureau chief (at the ripe age of 24, no less) outlining his reasons for quitting his job has now gone viral. Kai explains that he left his coveted post because, among other reasons, much of TV journalism is governed by the trivial and presented by the unreasonably and unrealistically attractive. He complains that it is formulaic and shallow, that some reporters are "raging narcissists" and that the news environment has been sexualized.

That all this has been true and well-known for many years seems to have escaped him somehow. Perhaps he should have done some more research before entering such a disillusioning profession. But Kai should have also realized that most of the people working in television journalism know much of this already, and have had to come to terms with it to carry on. Instead of throwing in the towel and leaving the field entirely to the shallow and self-centered, these people are trying to do something worthwhile with the privileged positions they occupy.

I well remember my first job in journalism in the mid-70's, at a weekly tabloid in Montreal. To call my editor a curmudgeon would be an insult to all curmudgeons. He was literally a cigar-chomping tough old SOB who threatened the two youngest male journalists on staff -- one of whom was me -- with firing each week depending on how lively our copy was. The environment proved to be so stressful that many mornings I would start my working day upchucking my breakfast in the washroom before lurching to my desk.

I ended up quitting that job, and thinking, like our young friend Mr. Nagata, that journalism was not for me. But after several months of UI and odd jobs, including one freelance gig with my former employer, I realized I was deceiving myself. I had learned a skill, a rather unique and valuable one -- reporting and writing -- and what was I to do with it? I could try and likely starve as a writer, or soldier on in the news business and become a witness to history. This is what I chose to do.

After starting in private radio at CJAD in Montreal (at a job I discovered years later that my dear old boss had recommended me for) and then moving into TV and Radio work at the CBC in Montreal and Vancouver, I witnessed and covered the first Quebec referendum, a number of key elections, several hostage-takings, major fires, major crime cases and the Exxon Valdez disaster. I also interviewed a number of Premiers, Prime Ministers and well-known celebrities. Was it all meaningful all the time? No, of course not. But as one of my news directors said, it sure beat selling shoes or working as a bank teller.

After coming to BC, I moved into the teaching side of journalism -- and am gratified and proud to have helped shape the careers of several foreign correspondents for major networks; who have covered stories as important as the Arab Spring and the death of Bin Laden and, in the field of sports; several Olympics, Stanley Cups and World Series.

Yes it is true that much of what passes for journalism today is celebrity-driven or influenced by corporate agendas, and that influence may be greater now than it has been for 50 years or more. But has that stopped mainline journalists from uncovering many ground-breaking stories like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq, last year's Gulf Oil spill and others?

No one said journalism would be always meaningful. It is up to us to make it more that way all the time. And in an age when media platforms are ever-changing and evolving, now could be the most exciting time to be part of the mix, rather than walking away from it. Here's hoping Kai Nagata will do as I did, and reconsider his career path. He sounds like a fellow who could help make a difference.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Vancouver Riot - Where are We One Week Later?

OK, we've all had some time to cool down a bit now, but most Vancouverites and BC residents, and even most Canadians, have been pretty upset in the wake of last week' Stanley Cup Riot II - the Sequel.

As I said earlier (see the previous post), the unruly outburst of car-burning, window-breaking, bottle-throwing, looting, stabbing and fist-fighting that engulfed downtown Vancouver after the Canucks lost Game Seven in this year's Stanley Cup Final was fueled by mass stupidity and drunkenness from a lot of upset fans (and maybe the odd, but very odd anarchist) and delusional planning (or lack thereof) by Vancouver Police and city hall.

We on the lower mainland of Canada's west coast also fooled ourselves into a sense of complacency with the silly notion that it couldn't happen again here -- that there was no way there could be a repeat of the riot following the Canucks last trip to a seventh game of a Cup final in 1994. We had been a model of "world class" behavior during the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, we believed, and the crowds had been more or less behaving themselves for most of the mass gatherings at the city's live viewing sites throughout the playoffs.

But we forgot that the Olympics was a special case, attended by much more of a family and foreign audience intent on celebrating a much friendlier form of competition than the blood-sport final between the Bruins and the Canucks, which we were "supposed to win". And the Olympic celebrations were also supervised by several thousand security personnel, not the few hundred city police officers who were so overwhelmingly outnumbered the night of the riot.

After the riot, there were many reactions and overreactions. First the police and the mayor blamed the whole thing on a small group of "hooligans and activists". But faced with the mountain of online video showing rioters clad in expensive Canucks' garb they eventually had to backtrack a bit.

In the aftermath, many of us were so outraged we didn't notice that we fell into another kind of mob psychol0gy -- the lust for revenge. We had to make the rioters pay, and especially those who had been so ridiculously foolish as to photograph themselves engaging in the mayhem and post the evidence on Twitter or Facebook. And we blasted the same social media outlets displaying that evidence and called for the rioters' heads.

Tearful apologies followed on TV from sons and daughters of well-off parents who had "gotten carried away with the moment". Before she edited her own online apology after receiving a host of vitriolic comments, one young woman blurted on her blog that before she allegedly looted from a clothing store "at the time everything just seemed so right". The next day her mother said she had been victimized by hate speech by those who disagreed with her.

On some radio talk shows, hosts began to ask whether the social media backlash had gone too far -- the same hosts who had been advocating the book be thrown at the rioters a few days earlier. Other talk shows questioned whether any of the apologies could possibly be considered sincere.

We have also been treated to vows from the mayor, the police chief and the Premier that the rioters would be brought to justice to face the full brunt of the law. Ultimately, this will be the most interesting part of the story. How can we ensure hundreds of these people serve hard time in jail when others who kill children in hit-and-run accidents or who carry out vicious crimes seem to rarely get the same treatment?

It was also revealed that neither the city planner, known as a micro-manager par excellence, nor the mayor had even read the report or its recommendations following the last riot. And the next day the police chief attacked one of his main critics, who supposedly had written that report, as not having written it and for grandstanding in the media.

On and on we go, and nearly a week later it's almost taken on an air of farce and unreality, but more than that a kind of collective immaturity. The rioters didn't show any maturity or judgment - that we know. But we're starting to notice that maybe the rest of us need to do a little growing up as well. Or maybe it's that our collective maturity has sunk to a new low, because we're so used to either posting or reacting to all that edgy stuff on Twitter or Facebook.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Vancouver's Riot - Stupidity Meets Delusion

Every now and then history repeats itself because of a mindless combination of mass delusion and hysteria. The Vancouver Stanley Cup Riot, 2011 version, is the most recent painful example. In the two months of ludicrous playoff hype leading up to Game Seven last week, we saw media outlets falling all over themselves to lavish attention on and reward the most outrageous acts of crazed fan worship. The more insane, the better, down to the example of the construction worker going to work as Lady Gaga just to show how far he would go to win a pair of tickets.

People were encouraged to literally lose their minds to show their devotion to the Canucks, as if that could have any influence on their quest for the Cup. This was going to be "our year", a time when all the pent-up frustration of Canuck Nation was going to find its ultimate release. The playoffs assumed greater-than-epic status. Victory would be Vancouver's ultimate catharsis.

In their attempt to milk this bandwagon for political advantage the city's mayor and the new Premier decided to invite everyone downtown to celebrate the team's great run, just as they had during last year's Olympics. But the two events were not comparable. The Vancouver Games were a celebration of Canada's victories under the banner of the Olympic spirit, and many of those gathering to celebrate were families and tourists. The events were also conducted under the watchful eyes of thousands of police. But the Stanley Cup playoffs, and especially the final, were an alley fight -- a tribal, brutal competition, more like a battle to the death, which, in the minds of fans, the Canucks had to win.

Adding fuel to the fire were countless claims filling sports-talk radio waves following any Canuck loss, even in some cases voiced by hosts and so-called experts, that the Canucks were somehow being cheated by the refs. The Hawks or Preds or Sharks or Bruins were getting away with murder every game. If not that, the excuse was too much travel, or some NHL head office anti-Canuck bias or some other imagined conspiracy. The fury following any loss was fanned by these flames, feeding the feeling that the team itself was never really at fault for losing -- if things went against them, it was because they - the big they, the outsiders - were all against us.

So what would you expect to happen when all this came to its conclusion, especially again, when fans were urged to come out in greater and greater numbers (but... wink,wink.."celebrate responsibly")? They lined up all day around liquor stores and bars, so that by game time the vast majority were tanked, to put it politely. And the city officials and police brass, with their wishful but delusional ideas that no major force was necessary to handle the crowd, weakly smiled and said all would be well.

Well we know now it was not. Thousands of police were needed that night, not just a few hundred. A small group of anarchists may have sparked some of the initial car fires or broken the first few windows, but the full-blown riot only got going when surly drunken fans who, denied their victory and fueled by a sense that no one would stop them, were hell-bent on releasing their frustrations and proving that they could win at something. In this case, it would be rioting.

There would have also been a riot if the Canucks had won. The crowd would have felt entitled to loot and reward itself for victory instead of rewarding itself with consolation prizes after the Bruins won, which is what they ended up doing.

So to blame the riot on political ideology, the alienation of youth or some weighty philosophical cause is to greatly miss the point. It was all much more basic than that. To many people with common sense much of what happened seemed predictable. We can only hope that the next time the Canucks get on a great playoff run, the hype is a little less intense and any planned celebrations are grounded in hard reality, not mistaken fantasy.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Finally, a Lame Official Answer on Whether the Canadian Embassy has Helped Wounded Protesters in Iran

From Foreign Affairs Canada:

Dear Bill Amos,

In response to your concerns regarding the situation in Iran, we would like to share the following with you:

Reports on Saturday that the Canadian Embassy in Iran was turning away people seeking sanctuary are false. The Embassy was closed Saturday and there were no Canadians at the Embassy when the protests began.

We have been advised by other embassies in Tehran that they did not provide shelter to injured Iranians, as has been alleged.

Embassy staff has made every attempt to ensure services, particularly consular, remain unaffected by the situation.

Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, including the Canadian Embassy in Tehran, continues to provide consular assistance to Canadian citizens in-person, on the phone and through email.

In case of emergency consular assistance regarding Canadian citizens in Iran, please contact the Embassy of Canada in Tehran at 98 (21) 8152-0000 or the Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada’s Emergency Operations Centre by calling collect to 613-996-8885 or by sending an email to

Hardly impressive.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

An email appeal to clarify our Embassy's duties in Iran

Dear Prime Minister Harper and Minister Cannon,

As a concerned Canadian, I urge you to immediately clarify whether our embassy in Tehran is or is not helping wounded and injured protesters in Iran, and if we are not, to immediately change course and do so. The situation is clouded in confusion and many Canadians are demanding accurate information about what our country is doing to help these courageous Iranians who are exercising their democratic and human rights.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Our Shame in Tehran

All day long twitterers and Facebook users have been trying to determine if the Canadian embassy was going to join embassies from Australia, Belgium, Britain, Poland, Norway, Mexico, The Netherlands, Germany, Finland, Ireland, Portugal, Italy, Slovenia, and Switzerland and provide much-needed aid to injured and wounded protesters in Tehran.

There was never a clear answer, and it turned out the embassy was never open on Saturday. It was early Sunday but had no medical personnel on hand to provide any meaningful help. In fact, quoting -- "Foreign Affairs says that Canadian embassies do not normally offer asylum to individuals abroad but will provide temporary safe haven if there is an immediate threat or injury."

Other twitterers who actually contacted the embassy said Canadians could get help, but not Iranians. By Sunday morning Tehran time, the issue became moot as access to most embassies apparently was blocked by the Basij -- the self-styled Iranian militia.

The whole issue reveals how lame we have become as a democratic nation. Canada, once a beacon for other countries, is now a bystander, that may or may not be of any good to those courageous enough to stand up to tyranny who may be desperate for aid. It makes this Canadian feel quite ashamed.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Defence of Luongo

Let me preface this by saying I am a long-suffering Chicago Blackhawk fan, since I was entranced by watching flickering black-and-white images of Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Glenn Hall work their magic at old Chicago Stadium. So when Roberto the previously half-divine goalie let in seven goals the other night, propelling my team over his, I felt very satisfied.

But, today's Vancouver Sun headline -- "The Case for Letting Luongo Go" -- and all the bleating from wounded Canuck fans about trading him, does him a grave injustice. All the third period of game six between the Hawks and Canucks proved was that Luongo is still not a mature playoff performer, and the high-risk decision to make him team Captain was probably a mistake.

In that period, he let himself get flustered by being run by Byfuglien and other Hawks -- which should be expected in a deciding game -- and probably let himself get even more frustrated over the irritations of imperfect or incompetent refereeing. Rattled, he began shrinking back into his crease, making himself more vulnerable to the Chicago snipers. And so the Canucks bowed out.

But, if he is as smart as he has shown himself at times to be, that may have been the best lesson he could ever learn. A hard one for the fans to swallow, no doubt, but he should be given the chance to show he's learned it, not run out of town. It should be noted that the Canucks, who, remember, didn't even make the playoffs last year, wouldn't have been there without him.

And this sudden Luongo-baiting also reveals more of the fickleness and impatience of Vancouver fans. They didn't take Chicago seriously as an opponent, now they're mad at their idol, who has only proven to be human after all.