Friday, February 17, 2012

Vikileaks and the death of the journalist as news gatekeeper

I was in Las Vegas for a work trip and tuned-out of all news from back in Canada, so it was only Friday that I returned and caught myself up on the “Vikileaks” drama, and it was fascinating to read some of the commentary and follow the tweets on the topic, particularly those from hill journalists and political sorts.

I won’t pass judgment on whether or not the information about Vic Toews should have been published or not, except to say it’s not how I would chose to do politics. Which I guess is passing judgment, so there you go. This sort of thing is par the course in modern politics though, and for the Conservatives, who have taken it to new levels, to now wring their hands is silly. And, for the record, it is only an ethical question, and we are talking about publicly available information and documents.

What really interests me though is the reaction of the proverbial “main-stream media” to the Vikileaks story, with an Ottawa Citizen piece attempting to trace the IP address of the “@Vikileaks30 leaker” spurring endless speculation and demands to identify the person or persons responsible. It should be noted that had @Vikileaks30 given their documents to a journalist who chose to publish a story based on them, then the media would be reminding us how important it is to protect the confidentiality of their sources. Even competing outlets wouldn’t try to unmask another journalist’s confidential source. That’s just not cricket, old boy.

What the media reaction to @Vikileaks30 really shows though is how angry, and perhaps frightened, they are about losing their traditional role as the gatekeepers of news, the people that get to decide what we, the unwashed masses, need to know and what we don’t need to know. Journalists are used to being in the know, to having the inside details, the scoop. It helps make up for the low pay, long hours and heavy drinking.

Journalists made judgment calls every day on what is news and what isn’t, what people have a right to know, and what isn’t relevant. It's part of the job in one sense; there's always more news than column inches or air time. And they see it as a public service. But no one elected them as the arbiters of good taste. They’re accountable to no one but their publisher and the shareholders. It’s a lot of trust, and a lot of responsibility.

The internet, blogging and social media are changing all that however. Now you no longer need a printing press or a television or radio station to publish information to the masses. Anyone with an Internet connection can publish anything they want, and potentially find an audience. And the market will, in a way, make its own judgment on its news worthiness. If people find it relevant, they’ll share or re-tweet it and the news finds a wider audience; if they deem it inappropriate it will wither and fade away, perhaps after first being soundly condemned.

What it means, though, is that the role of the traditional media as gatekeeper is drying, if it’s not already dead. With their breadth of reach and size of audience, the regular media is still the fastest way for news to be disseminated to the wider public. But thanks to social media, even if the press deems something “un-newsworthy,” if it gets enough traction online they eventually have no choice but to cover it anyway.

Whether or not you think publishing details of Vic Toews’ divorce as a form of protest against privacy-invading Internet snooping legislation is appropriate, what this drama shows about the eroding power of the media gatekeeper is very much a positive, in my opinion.

But back to the moral media tut-tutting around this story. Here’s the National Post editorial board weighing-in, for example, with a reflex attack on the always handy partisan scarecrow:

… their partisan opponents wouldn’t care. Rightly or wrongly, to embrace, promote or even acknowledge Vilikeaks — as a remarkable number of opposition MPs have done — is to accept yet further debasement of the Canadian political conversation. There is no way around it. The ends may justify the means in some people’s minds, but all politicians’ private lives are less private today than they were on Monday.
The media’s role in this is more tricky. The content of the Vikileaks tweets has been widely known in Ottawa since the events occurred. Yet not a word of it was breathed in the mainstream press, in accordance with the basic Canadian understanding described above.
But now it is all over the news — if not the particulars of Mr. Toews’ situation, then the fact that someone is publishing those particulars at a Twitter account called @Vikileaks30.

Attacking evil partisans is always easy for journalists, or in this case anonymous editorial writers, but the fact is the Post’s statement that “not a word of it was breathed in the mainstream press” is easily and demonstrably wrong, as a simple search of any newspaper archive service shows.

* May 17, 2008, Mia Rabson in Winnipeg Free Press

Sources suggest Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants Toews to step down because of concerns about issues in his personal life -- he's currently in the midst of a divorce. An appointment to the bench makes sense because of Toews' background as a former Crown prosecutor in Brandon and lawyer for the Manitoba government.

* May 17, 2008, Don Martin in Calgary Herald

But the 55-year-old Toews' public face of self-righteous morality is now clashing with his troubled private life. An MP dubbed the "minister of family values" by Liberals is embroiled in a messy divorce after fathering a child last fall with a much younger woman.
That's his business, frankly, yet it might explain why Mr. Toews was demoted to the Treasury Board and immediately cloaked by invisibility, stewing in question period silence while his junior parliamentary secretary juggles tough questions on election financing irregularities.

* May 23, 2008, Joan Bryden in Waterloo Region Record

As well, Tories have been whispering that Treasury Board President Vic Toews, embroiled in a messy divorce, has fallen into disfavour with Harper.

In June of 2009, Vancouver Sun columnist Barbara Yaffe even wrote a column headlined “U.S. 'affairs' so much more interesting.”

And last year, then-Justice Minister Vic Toews split with his wife of 33 years after having fathered a child with a political staffer. A Winnipeg newspaper called it "messy personal stuff.
Toews since has been re-elected and appointed Treasury Board president. His website features nothing personal beyond "Vic enjoys roller blading and jogging. He resides in Steinbach.

In fact, here’s a May 21, 2008 story from the National Post with Toews reacting to a story about his divorce proceedings, in, you guessed it, the National Post (I guess the op/ed writers missed this one):

Mr. Toews, appearing at a news conference for a joint federal-provincial program for aboriginal youth sport, was also asked about a report in Saturday's National Post indicating he is currently involved in a messy divorce after fathering a child last fall with a much younger woman.
"I don't talk about my personal life," Mr. Toews replied.

Perhaps Vic, but the media sure does an awful lot. It seems obvious that the media tut-tutting has nothing to do with publishing such personal details; it’s just the feeble protests of the dying news gatekeepers.

UPDATE: An earlier post along these lines that has relevance to this one: On Adam Giambrone, morality vs. privacy, and the media as gatekeeper.

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Steve V said...

I want to chime in here on the media arbitarily deciding what is "newsworthy", based on some subjective code that the public has had no input in cultivating or sanctioning. While I support the notion of private lives remaining as such, there is some caveats which this hard and fast rule fails to identify. As I understand it Toews has promoted himself as a family man to voters, formally, in literature. As well, Toews has made moral pronouncements, that directly conflict with the known reality that journalists have been squeamish to delve into. I hate vikileaks, didn't follow it, but beyond that, the media were obligated to put it out there, because the voters were being sold a load of goods. Whenever a politician makes a claim, a comment, journalists scrutinize those pronouncement, if there is a disconnect, they routinely report and admonish. How is then, that under the guise of "personal", one can present a falsehood with no CHECK or clearing of the public record. It is here that we have had a terrific failure, and it speaks to the danger of having a small body decide what is good for the rest of us. Truth is, journalists largely failed, they didn't protect or hold to a higher standard, they failed to call out complete and utter bullshit fed to the Canadian people. THAT'S THEIR JOB, or at least it's supposed to me.

Hate vikileaks, but glad this stuff is out there and it should have been discussed when the dishonest labelling was being peddled.

Anonymous said...

Why do you hate Vikileaks when it is pretty much the last bastion of accountability left? The gatekeepers are asleep on the job.

Skinny Dipper said...

Call the internet the new "Protestant" Reformation. Around the same time, the invention of the printing press made it possible for Bibles to be mass produced. Before that time, the Catholic priests read the Bible and interpreted its meaning to the masses. Once those pesky new Protestants got hold of those Bibles, people could interpret the meanings from them without the need of a priest.

Today's news sites are losing some ability to determine what is newsworthy. As other sources of news become available, and as people can post typed or video comments, we'll be able to decide what is important. Ten or twenty years from now, we'll be able to watch television/internet and place comments next to a video debate taking place among journalists. Not only that, the control of the debate may be decided by an outside organization.

Skinny Dipper said...

I should correct myself by stating that the control of the on-line debate discussion may be controlled by an outside organization that may overlay its text/video discussion over a video debate. It might include real-time thumbs-up/thumbs-down decisions by the viewers. There might be Twitter-like comments on the side as the viewer will be able to determine the size of the original video.

leftdog said...

Excellent observations on this whole situation. Hat tip. I'd been wondering why the Ott Cit is being so weird in all of this. Thanks.

Just the facts, please said...

Excellent analysis.

rockfish said...

Gatekeepers are less than asleep than they are protecting self-interest. Faceless editorial boards rein in the reporters who are trying to get government members to answer questions, to get general information from various departments -- even kitchen-table sort of notes that will fit in positive stories but are being held back because of Harper's control-the-message mania. Vancouver has been ill-served by having single ownership of its two daillies, with editorial boards shucking real estate and always eager to jump on an issue that comes from the right or after the horses left the barn. Those who've trained as journalists discover that the message is the media, and they have no role in either.

James Piper said...

"They’re accountable to no one but their publisher and the shareholders..." and to the libel laws even if it's more libel chill.