At the outset, when the media reported on the lawsuit that I and two others filed against Mayor Brad Woodside, the City of Fredericton, and Murray Jamer, they did not report the essential facts. Most notably, they omitted our most important allegation: That the by-law provisions that the mayor and city engineer accused us and other members of the public of violating do not exist. More recently, however, I have noticed that the media have done a superlative job of reporting on this issue. The following are four recent articles about it:
- City Settles Lawsuit with Occupy Protesters. Daily Gleaner, Dec. 3, 2013. Page A-1.
- Power to the People. Here NB, Dec. 5, 2013. Page A-2.
- Short-lived Victory in Protest Case. Here NB, Dec. 5, 2013. Page A-6.
- Tearing down Occupy shelter was wrong — mayor. Daily Gleaner, Dec. 5, 2013. Page A-1.
Also, here is a CBC radio interview that I had on Dec. 5 with Terry Seguin, who also did an admirable job of trying to get to the heart of the issue. Of course, we will be able to speak more candidly about the issue on Jan. 6, when full details of the settlement will be released.
A prominent American journalist once said that “it is a newspaper’s duty to print the news and raise hell.”1 To some degree, that value has fallen by the wayside in this age of corporate-owned, establishment-friendly media rife with drab infotainment. As we can see above, however, there are still diamonds in the journalistic rough. It behooves us in this case to wonder why the media did not “raise hell” by reporting the facts 1.5 years ago, but are quite willing to do so now. There are a number of possible explanations, and the full reality of what happened is probably the result of some complex permutation of the factors I propose below.
I noticed in many articles (not only those related to the lawsuit) that some media outlets were eerily favourable to Mayor Woodside during the election season. Some pieces read like campaign advertisements. That doesn’t necessarily indicate pro-Woodside bias on the part of the reporters; it could simply mean that, in their rush to publish, they reported what he said more or less verbatim, without taking the time to check the facts behind his claims. If that’s the case, then they may have done likewise when the lawsuit was filed—reported what he said about it and, when it conflicted with what I said, assumed that he was telling the truth and that I was not. Of course, I take the position that no journalist should ever assume that a politician is telling the truth. If a politician lies, it’s a journalist’s job to expose that fact, so that citizens don’t get swindled.
Another potential factor is that, because the lawsuit was filed during election season, some reporters may have automatically assumed that it was just an election stunt. Some implied as much. The fact that we continued to pursue the legal action more than 1.5 years after the election was over showed that it was not. Of course, we thought that voters deserved to know whether or not their mayor lied to them about Fredericton by-laws before they cast their ballots, and we hoped that the media would report that fact, or at least that allegation, so that they could make a more informed decision. That being said, we would have sued even if it wasn’t election season. The mayor acted outside the law, destroyed our property and suppressed our rights, and we wanted to see justice done.
Then there are potential legal issues. A journalist suggested to me, at one point, that printing that the mayor lied when he accused us of breaking the law could be considered libel, and so his publication didn’t want to go there. In reality, the truth is never libel. If such an accusation is made, a journalist should do his research to see if it has basis in fact. If it’s an unfounded accusation, there’s good reason not to print it. But if claims are supported by the available evidence—as mine were—journalists and editors should not shy away from publishing them.
I have found that the quality of reporting varies widely from journalist to journalist, even between those who work for the same publication. This is another potential factor—some of the journalists reporting on the matter now are not the same ones who reported on it in 2012.
Finally—and, I think, most importantly—we should recognize the semantic, cultural, and technological backdrop before which this drama played itself out. We live in an age when rapidly changing technology is inducing a similarly rapid, and not uniformly positive, change in our culture by affecting the way that we process information. The value of person-to-person interaction is being marginalized by text messages and tweets. Long, public, rational political debates, focused on real issues, have already given way to 30-second-or-less campaign ads, photo ops, and sound bites. When the Canadian media theorist, Marshall McLuhan, said “the medium is the message,” he meant that the medium used to express a message inevitably affects the content of the message itself. Today’s electronic media have certainly affected the messages that are exchanged in our society—in some cases, by robbing them of important content. I discuss this issue in more detail in my article about Tom Flanagan. For the ultimate treatment of the issue of electronic media and our culture, I recommend Neil Postman’s seminal book about media ecology: Amusing Ourselves to Death.
I will conclude by positing that if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. I live by this motto. Even in an intellectual environment that continues to deteriorate under pressure from the inherent biases of electronic media—among other things—I am very glad to see that some journalists still take the time to get it right. I hope to see more journalism like this in the future.
- ^ Wilbur F. Storey, 1861.