Event: Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) convention

Location: Fairmont, Royal York Hotel, Toronto

Dates: April 27, 28, 29, 2012

Focus # 1 — So, what do 300 Canadian journalists bitch about when they get together for their annual conference?

You’d think there’d be a lot of whining about fewer and fewer companies (a number of which sell phones for a living) owning more and more of Canada’s media. And the ensuing string of firings and program cancellations.

Or the Conservative government’s decimation of the CBC’s budget only a couple of weeks ago. A decision which will kill those excellent programs Connect with Mark Kelley and Dispatches with Rick MacInnes-Rae, along with a whole bunch of other CBC programming.

Or maybe the culling of experienced journalists in favour of cheaper younger folk.

No, no, no. To their eternal credit, Canada’s journalists mostly ignored their rapidly deteriorating personal and professional conditions and concentrated instead on trying to find ways to do their jobs better.

Speaker after speaker had the same complaint. Canadian authorities are preventing Canadian journalists practicing journalism in this participatory democracy.

For their own selfish reasons, our lords and masters don’t want us to serve the people. Don’t want us to speak truth to power. Don’t want us to give voice to the voiceless. That sort of thing.

Saturday night’s CAJ awards dinner focused the problem admirably.

The CAJ’s much-uncoveted Code of Silence Award, which reveals Canada’s most secretive government or publicly funded agency, was won by 10 lengths and counting by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.

The government was, said CAJ president, Hugo Rodrigues, the “overwhelming choice” of members.

Not entirely surprisingly, no Conservative government representative stepped up to accept the award.

Focus # 2 — There was a second theme in the three CAJ days that fascinated me.

It was the quite extraordinary acceptance in a relatively short time by these journalists of social media as part of the journalistic process.

It’s not very long since social media (Twitter, Facebook, “citizen journalists” etc.) were scorned as the devil’s disciples by these professional, working journalists.

Social media, they widely believed, were dedicated to the destruction of professional journalism and, as an inevitable consequence, the end of democracy and civilization as we know it.

At the top of the unholy hit list stood the dreaded HuffPost, the great aggregator, the leach draining the lifeblood out of traditional, general-interest mainstream media.

Well, only a few days before the CAJ conference, the Huffington Post won a highly prestigious Pulitzer Prize for news reporting — first ever for an online news organization.

And on Saturday, the Huffington Post Canada’s Managing Editor, Kenny Yum (“We don’t write for shareholders, we write for you”) was a keynote speaker at the CAJ conference.

He assured the traditional journalists in his audience that HuffPost’s journalistic ethics and principles are identical to theirs.

“Our newsroom is a lot like yours. We just print on a different canvas.”

In the question period afterwards there wasn’t a single complaint about aggregators or even “citizen journalists” ruining the democratic process.

Then on Saturday night, U.S. President Barack Obama got into the act with his speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

“There’s no one out there linking to the kinds of hard-hitting journalism that HuffPo is linking to every single day,” he said.

He paused, grinned, and added: “And you don’t pay them — it’s a great business model!”

Don’t think I’ll touch that one.

Conclusion — So what does all this mean?

First, after listening to so many passionate (for Canada) speakers over so many days, I believe it’s imperative for the future of our Canadian democracy that journalists document and make public every significant barrier put up by authorities to the freedom of the people’s information.

Particularly when it’s the federal government setting the example.

Our authoritarian rulers are building soundproof walls around themselves. They seem to believe they have the right to simply ignore journalists — whose bound duty in a participatory democracy is to shine light upon their sayings and doings.

It’s the people’s information. We’ve paid for it. We own it.

Second, social media — whether we older, conventional journalists like it or not — is here to stay. It’s just a different platform for our work. Far more interactive. Far more flexible.

Now we have to combine the best of the past and the best of the present into some sort of journalistic future that serves the people’s right to know with genuine independence, honesty and integrity.

This article was originally published on the Huffington Post on April 30, 2012: Seriously, This Is What the Media Complains About

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