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.

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