By Tobias Ma
From Jan. 10-12, the Gauntlet attended the Canadian University Press’s national student journalism conference, hosted by the Gateway, the University of Alberta’s paper. NASH is a conference for the nation’s student newspapers to share tradecraft, attend workshops and get drunk in hotel rooms, although which of these objectives it succeeded at I will not speculate on. One of the keynote speakers in attendance was Ezra Levant, conservative pundit, courthouse target of many an aggrieved party and the subject of an off-key interview we conducted back in October.
Seeing Levant and his crazy ways again was good fun. He called our roomful of student journalists immature lambs, entrenched in groupthink and blinded by elitism, masquerading as objectivity, that we feel university education entitles us to. And for the most part, we managed to prove him right.
He referred to us as privileged and asked how many of us have worked on a factory floor. The ballroom he was speaking to went insane. Protests blanketed the room. The uproar of boos and rattling tables threatened to spill the opened Budweisers I had smuggled to our table and clenched between my dress shoes. A young lady asked him why she has to pay $30,000 in student loans if she is privileged. I guess it never occurred to her that living in a country where the government will lend you $30,000 in student loans to receive a liberal arts education is a privilege in itself.
Levant smirked and polled us on the hot-button issues of the day. Abortion, same-sex marriage, gun control, the war on terror. The results were overwhelmingly progressive.
“You talk with each other, you eat together, you even sleep together,” he said.
When he started asking us about what he called “the theory of man-made climate change,” another young lady stood up and screamed that climate change is “not a theory.” She had heard enough out of him, she said, and received a round of thunderous applause before storming out, taking a number of colleagues with her.
I don’t agree with Levant on any of his solutions to what he refers to as “the media party,” meaning a homogenous group of well-educated social liberals, usually white, who have led relatively lucky lives and get to run the media. The “media party’s” existence served, absurdly, as his justification for building all five proposed oil pipelines in Canada — he reasoned that if the mainstream media is biased in favour of environmentalism, environmentalists are probably wrong.
But a simple show of hands at last Saturday’s banquet suggested that socially liberal biases, if not already present, will be present in the journalism industry as this next generation graduate and find jobs. Some of these biases will be present in yours truly — I too was pretty similar to everyone there. Except I am not white, and want to see the ascendance of gay rights, abortion and marijuana abuse so that North America becomes weak enough for a Chinese takeover. Jokes.
Judging by the number of people who attended the conference’s workshop on crime reporting, student journalists must consider themselves a tough crowd. After all, journalism is a rough job and people hurt your feelings sometimes when you are nosy or do not have time to brush your teeth when a hot story is breaking.
But within 10 minutes of Levant’s speech he had unravelled the room emotionally, a pathetic showing from a group of people dedicated to becoming dispassionate observers. And not only was booing and walking out on a keynote speaker unbecoming of journalists, it demonstrated we failed to research our guest.
Levant is the country’s premier political troll and as we all know: don’t feed the trolls. The sad part is that we were too politically biased to recognize that he had something useful to say this time . . . which was that the media industry is politically biased. Whether this bias needs to (or even can) be removed is another debate, but everyone should keep it in mind when reading news. Let me give an example.
After the Gauntlet interviewed Levant in October, we spoke to David Suzuki, his arch-nemesis. While I was expecting Suzuki to be polite and Levant to be rude, the opposite was true.
Suzuki gave us nothing he had not polemicized many times before and addressed us condescendingly once the recorder was off. I scoured the Internet to see if any other interviewers had a similar experience and found that he has a reputation for rudeness and owns four houses, including one on an island owned by him and oil company. Moreover, his actual scientific background in climate change is limited.
The relevance of this information in light of his considerable achievements for environmentalist causes is debatable. But I could have run this data alongside the interview out of spite, and I would not have discovered it if he didn’t piss me off.
The Gauntlet’s readers would probably not have cared if I wrote a rant about Suzuki. But the fact that I could have furthered a personal vendetta under the guise of objective reporting is frightening when considering that major news publications could act similarly.
To continue using Suzuki as an example, he was named the Most Admired Canadian by a questionably-constructed 2013 CBC poll. This poll strangely included names like Mike Duffy (famous for his part in the Senate scandal) and excluded the likes of Chris Hadfield, our celebrity astronaut. I’m unsure if the CBC would set up a poll to favour Suzuki, but they have motive. Suzuki is a former CBC journalist, having hosted an environmentally-themed show on the CBC called The Nature of Things for decades. He is also critical of Prime Minister Harper, who has been trying to strangle the CBC for years and is widely hated by journalists for his unfriendliness to the media.
The CBC is generally a credible organization, but I am suggesting that we all treat news, even from supposedly safe sources, with a dose of suspicion and consideration for its presentation’s context.
I doubt everyone at Levant’s speaking event who got mad did so out of willful malice. I think he pinched a nerve that has gotten strained as the media world grows hyper-aware. Even after putting aside the philosophical debate over whether truly objective information can exist, the reach and number of sources of news has increased to the point that readers can choose publications that confirm their own beliefs. And because most newspapers are businesses first and foremost, they seek to create a product out of information. Such commodification can be as subtle as choosing what to report rather than how to report it.
What scared everyone at the conference was the reminder that we are about to join a field of professionals, ideally objective but in reality human, whose control over the perception of information is not always treated with the professionalism and objectivity expected of them.