Why I quit CTV news - the paralysis of Canada's progressive voices
Kai Nagata quit as CTV’s bureau chief in Quebec City on July 8. In an essay on his personal blog ( http://kainagata.com) that has attracted wide attention, he explains why he gave up on TV journalism at age 24:
Until Thursday, I was CTV’s Quebec City bureau chief, based at the National Assembly, mostly covering politics. It’s a fascinating beat — the most interesting provincial legislature in Canada, and the stories coming out of there lately have been huge. The near-implosion of the Parti Québécois has kept the press gallery hopping well into summer. If you’re not from Quebec, it’s hard to explain the place the National Assembly holds in the popular imagination — but suffice to say that within francophone journalistic circles it carries more prestige than Parliament Hill. I had the privilege to be working next to several of the sharpest reporters in the country.
The city is beautiful, ancient, and a great place to learn French. As master and commander of my own little outpost, I had significant editorial control over what I covered and how I treated it — granted, within a recognizable TV news formula. My bosses trusted and encouraged me, my colleagues at the station in Montreal were supportive and fun to work with, and my closest collaborator, cameraman/editor Fred Bissonnette, quickly became a close friend.
I was a full-time employee making good money, with comprehensive benefits and retirement options (I was even lucky enough to be hired before Bell bought CTV and began clawing back some of those expensive perks). It was what I would classify as a “great job,” especially for a 24-year old. But there was a growing gap between the reporter I played on TV, and the person I really am and want to become. I reached my breaking point suddenly, although when I look back now, the signposts were clear.
Let me pause for a minute and tell you the reasons for which I did not quit my job. I didn’t quit my job because I had a falling out with anyone at CTV or the National Assembly or in my life outside work. And I didn’t quit my job because it was too hard. It’s true that the position demands responsibility. You have to know what’s happening, what’s important, and deploy your limited resources accordingly (namely, me and Fred). When I went to bed I turned email notifications off on my BlackBerry, but I left the ringer on. After all, when you’re the network’s only reporter between Montreal and the Maritimes, they have to be able to reach you. But I would say, humbly, that I didn’t just meet expectations — I excelled. In everything I was asked to do, I performed consistently at a level above my experience. We made some good TV. So I didn’t quit my job because I felt frustrated or that my career was peaking. I quit my job because the idea burrowed into my mind that, on the long list of things I could be doing, television news is not the best use of my short life. The ends no longer justified the means.
I’m trying to think of the reporters I know who would do their job as volunteers. The people who feel so strongly about the importance and social value of the evening news that, were they were offered somewhere to sleep, three meals a day, and free dry-cleaning — they would do that for the rest of their days. I’m not saying those people don’t exist, but such zeal is scarce. People do the job for all kinds of reasons. A few are raging narcissists. Many have kids to feed and mortgages to pay. Most believe they are fighting the good fight, if indirectly. In my case, I discovered it was something I was good at, I could see the potential to get better, and in the meantime, people were willing to trade me a lot of money to put the other things on hold. But even though I had the disposable income, I never bought a television. I was raised without one, and once I moved out on my own I decided I didn’t want one in the house.
TV news is a curious medium. You don’t always know whose interests are being served — or ignored. Although bounded by certain federal regulations, most of what you see in a newscast is actually defined by an internal code — an editorial tradition handed down from one generation to the next — but the key is, it’s self-enforced. Various industry associations hear complaints and can issue recommendations, or reward exemplary work with prizes. There are also watchdogs with varying degrees of clout. But these entities have no enforcement capacity. Underneath this lies the fact that information is a commodity, and private TV networks are supposed to make money. All stations, publicly funded or not, want to maintain or expand their viewership. This is what I’ll call the elephant in the room.
Consider Fox News. What the Murdoch model demonstrated was that facts and truth could be replaced by ideology, with viewership and revenue going up. Simply put, you can tell less truth and make more money. When you have to balance the interests of your shareholders against the interests of the viewers you supposedly serve, the firewall between the boardroom and the newsroom becomes a very important bulwark indeed. CTV, in my experience, maintains high standards in factual accuracy. Its editorial staff is composed of fair-minded critical thinkers. But there is an underlying tension between “what the people want to see” and “the important stories we should be bringing to people.” I remember as the latest takeover was all but finalized, Bellmedia executives came to talk about “growing eyeballs” in the “specialty channels.” What they meant was, sports is profitable — so as long it keeps raking in cash, we can keep funding underperforming assets like our news division. (The same dynamic exists at the CBC, by the way.)
Certainly it would be a poor move, optics-wise, to make cuts in local news. For some reason, job losses and factory closures in the media sector tend to generate a lot of coverage. But at every network the bean counters are looking at a shrinking, aging audience (fixed incomes are harder to sell to advertisers) and there is intense pressure to keep the numbers up.
Human beings don’t always like good nourishment. We seem to love white sugar, and unless we understand why we feel nauseated and disoriented after binging on sweets, we’ll just keep going. People like low-nutrition TV, too. And that shapes the internal, self-regulated editorial culture of news.
Take newsroom esthetics as an example. I admit felt a profound discomfort working in an industry that so casually sexualizes its workforce. Every hiring decision is scrutinized using a skewed, unspoken ratio of talent to attractiveness, where attractiveness often compensates for a glaring lack of other qualifications. The insecurity, self doubt and body-image issues endured by otherwise confident, intelligent journalists would break your heart. And clearly there’s a double standard, a split along gender lines. But in an environment where a lot of top executives are women, what I’m talking about applies to men as well. The idea has taken root that if the people reporting the news look like your family and neighbours, instead of Barbie and Ken, the station will lose viewers.
The problem with the CBC
Aside from feeling sexually attracted to the people on screen, the target viewer, according to consultants, is also supposed to like easy stories that reinforce beliefs they already hold. This is where the public broadcaster is caught in a tough spot. CBC Television, post-Stursberg, is failing in two ways. Despite modest gains in certain markets (and bigger gains for reality shows like Dragon’s Den and Battle of the Blades) it’s still largely failing to broadcast to the public. More damnably, the resulting strategy is now to compete with for-profit networks for the lowest hanging fruit. In this race to the bottom, the less time and money the CBC devotes to enterprise journalism, the less motivation there is for the private networks to maintain credibility by funding their own investigative teams. Even then, “consumer protection” content has largely replaced political accountability.
It’s a vicious cycle, and it creates things like the Kate and Will show. Wall-to-wall, breaking-news coverage of a stage-managed, spoon-fed celebrity visit, justified by the couple’s symbolic relationship to a former colony, codified in a document most Canadians have never read (and one province has never signed). On a weekend when there was real news happening in Bangkok, Misrata, Athens, Washington, and around the world, what we saw instead was a breathless gaggle of normally credible journalists, gushing in live hit after live hit about how the prince is young and his wife is pretty. And the public broadcaster led the charge.
Aside from being overrun by “Action News” prophets from Iowa, the CBC has another problem: the perception that it’s somehow a haven for left-wing subversives. True or not, the CBC was worried enough about its pinko problem to commission an independent audit of its coverage, in which more consultants tried to quantify “left-wing bias” and, presumably using stopwatches, demonstrate that the CBC gives the Conservative government airtime commensurate with the proportion of seats it holds in the House of Commons. Or something like that.
Jon Stewart talks about a “right-wing narrative of victimization,” and what it has accomplished in Canada is the near-paralysis of progressive voices in broadcasting. In the States, even Fox News anchor Chris Wallace admitted there is an adversarial struggle afoot — that, in his view, networks like NBC have a “liberal” bias and Fox is there to tell “the other side of the story.” Well, Canada now has its Fox News. Krista Erickson, Brian Lilley and Ezra Levant each do a wonderful send-up of the TV anchor character. The stodgy, neutral, unbiased broadcaster trope is played for jokes before the Sun News team gleefully rips into its targets. But Canada has no Jon Stewart to unravel their ideology and act as a counterweight. Our satirists are toothless and boring, with the notable exception of Jean-René Dufort. And on the more serious side, we have no Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow. So I don’t see any true debate within the media world itself, in the sense of a national, public clash of ideas. The Canadian right wing, if you want to call it that, has had five years to get the gloves off. With a majority Conservative government in power, they’re putting on brass knuckles. Meanwhile, the left is grasping about in a pair of potholders. The only explanation I can think of is they’re too polite, or too scared. If it’s the latter, I think it’s clear enough why.
Coming out of the closet
I have serious problems with the direction taken by Canadian policy and politics in the last five years. But as a reporter, I feel like I’ve been holding my breath. Every question I asked, every tweet I posted, and even what I said to other journalists and friends had to go through a filter, where my own opinions and values were carefully strained out. Even then I’m not sure I was always successful, but I always knew at the CBC and subsequently at CTV that there were serious consequences for editorial. Within the terms of my employment at CTV, there was a clause in which the corporation (now Bellmedia) literally took ownership of my intellectual property output. If I invented a better mouse trap, they owned the patent. If I wrote a novel, they got a cut. Rhymes on the back of a napkin? Bellmedia is hip to the jive, yo. And if I ever said anything out of line with my position as an “objective” TV reporter, they had grounds to fire me. I had a sinking feeling when I first read that clause, but I signed because I was 23 and I wanted the job. Now I want my opinions back.
I’ll say off the bat that my views don’t completely mesh with any one political party. I’m not a partisan operative and I never was. Fiscally, I believe a government should be conservative. Caution seems like a good thing in stewarding the public purse. At the same time, I believe we should be taxed according to our capacity and that revenue invested, sometimes massively, in projects for the public good. Under those criteria, I see no sense in buying stealth fighters more than a decade after the Cold War, or building bigger prisons when crime rates are decreasing. If we have that kind of capital to spend, it should go on high-speed rail or renewable energy infrastructure.
On what we call the “social issues,” I think a government ought to err on the side of keeping its mouth shut. If a woman needs to get an abortion or a gay couple wants to get married, one minister’s opinion shouldn’t be relevant. If a theatre festival wants to explore homegrown terrorism or an arm’s-length agency criticizes a military ally, there better be a damn good justification for yanking their funding. And when science debunks ideology, reason should be allowed to prevail in determining public policy.
A caution: there are a number of small-c and big-C conservatives that I like a lot. My grandfather, for example. Or any number of federal staffers and MPs. But those blinded by tribal partisanship might not like what I have to say.
Right now, there’s a war going on against science in Canada. In order to satisfy a small but powerful political base, the PMO is engaged in a not-so-clandestine operation to dismantle and silence the many credible opponents to the Harper doctrine. Why kill the census? Literally in order to make decisions in the dark, without the relevant data. Hence the prisons. Why defund scientific research? Because whole branches of the natural sciences are premised on things like evolution, a theory the minister responsible made it clear he doesn’t understand — and likely doesn’t believe in. Why settle for weak platitudes on climate change? Because despite global scientific consensus, elements of the Conservative base don’t believe human activity could warm the planet. Centuries of rational thought and academic tradition, dating back to the Renaissance, is being thrown out the window in favour of an ideology that doesn’t reflect reality.
Meanwhile, we’re wrapping up a real war, one that invites us to take stock of where we stand in the world ten years after it began. When I joined the infantry reserve, I asked about the possibility of volunteering for a peacekeeping mission (a practice this country invented). I was told by the warrant officer I spoke to that with all available resources tied up in Afghanistan, indefinitely, I could forget about wearing a blue beret. One Conservative campaign ad told us Canada is a “courageous warrior,” and yet we lost our seat at the UN Security Council. The Canada whose values I thought I was signing up to promote and defend is increasingly unrecognizable from an international vantage point.
We have withdrawn from humanitarian projects because aspects might offend evangelicals back home. We have clung so tightly to our U.S. allies overseas that we figure on lists of terrorism targets where we didn’t before. We are deporting people to be tortured and closing our borders to the family members of foreign professionals. We have become, in Mr. Harper’s characterization, an island. A sea of troubles lapping at our shores. In other words, we are closing the harbours when we most need to be building bridges.
On climate change, the conclusion I am forced to draw is that the current federal government has completely abdicated its responsibility. The message to my generation is: figure it out yourselves. The dogmatic refusal to accept that people have created this crisis and people must do what they can to avert it reminds me of the flat-earth crew. Except this time, we really are going to sail off the edge. We need to be recruiting international scientists, funding research, stimulating the green economy, legislating disincentives to fossil fuel use, and most importantly, reaching out and building alliances with the countries who are already taking a proactive stance. As an Arctic nation — a country of inventors, diplomats and negotiators, we should be taking the lead in brokering global accords that might save the world as we know it. Instead we are closing ourselves off, alienating our neighbours, and looking inward, to our past achievements. In the interests of short-term political gain, and medium-term profits for energy companies, Conservative politicians are abandoning my generation and any that hope to come after.
Meanwhile, the people who are supposed to be holding decision-makers to account are instead broadcasting useless tripe, or worse, stories that actively distract from the massive projects we need to be tackling instead of watching TV.
What I need is to better myself spiritually, physically and intellectually so I can effect meaningful change in the world around me. I don’t know yet where this impulse will take me, but I know I can’t go back to working parallel to the real problems, hiding my opinions and yet somehow hoping that one viewer every night might piece together what I wanted to say. I thought if I paid my dues and worked my way up through the ranks, I could maybe reach a position of enough influence and credibility that I could say what I truly feel. I’ve realized there’s no time to wait.
If storytelling turns out to be my true passion and the best use of my skills, then I’ll continue down that path. If elder care, academia, agriculture, activism, art, education, Budo or as-yet unforeseen pursuits turn out to make the flame burn brighter, I’ll make the switch, or do them all. I’m willing to work with anyone of any religion or political stripe, if they’re sincere about doing what it takes.
I’m broke, and yet I know I’m rich in love. I’m unemployed and homeless, but I’ve never been more free.
Everything is possible.