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The vilification of journalists is a real thing, not fake news

Par Brendan Kelly

Remember when people used to respect journalists?
Yeah I know, I have a hard time recalling that bygone era too. But I know it happened. 

Back in the day, Hollywood made hit movies about investigative journalists, like the 1976 classic All the President’s Men, inspired by Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s investigation that broke open the Watergate scandal and eventually brought down president Richard Nixon.

I know there are two more-or-less contemporary films, Spotlight from 2015 and The Post from 2017, that are also about investigative journalists but the fact is that both of those films are basically homages to that earlier era of journalism and films about journalism.

The fact is that we journalists are not the heroes any more but, rather, usually the villains. Many believe we can thank Donald Trump for that but the reality is that those not-so-warm-and-fuzzy feelings about journalists started long before the arrival of the Orange Monster in the Oval Office. Trump just accelerated the vilification of the media BIG TIME.

For the past couple of decades, many have become disenchanted with journalism, always complaining that we only highlight the negative, the sensational, and the ugly. That point of view has led editors and producers to desperately try to come up with “good-news” stories, often a kind of hopeless endeavour because, sadly enough, good news isn’t always that enthralling to read about or watch on TV. It’s like writing a song about how happy you are. Sure there are some good happy-go-lucky tunes – Happy Together – but there are way more brilliant songs about how your lover just walked out on you.

Still the antipathy towards journalists has gone positively nuclear since Trump was elected south of the border and it’s the result of a deliberate strategy on the part of Trump to create antagonism toward journalists in general and liberal journalists in particular.

As I write these lines, demonstrations continue across North America to protest the death of George Floyd, an unarmed African-American man who was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. For days now, journalists have routinely been the target of police violence. While covering a demonstration in Los Angeles, Pulitzer-Prize-winning photo-journalist Barbara Davidson was shoved from behind by an officer and fell and hit her head on a fire hydrant. Luckily she was wearing a helmet and was not seriously hurt.

A TV reporter in Kentucky was hit by a pepper ball that a cop shot directly at her. Minnesota State Patrol officers arrest a CNN team live on air.

In short, journalists are being targeted the way they are in dictatorships elsewhere in the world and it’s impossible not to believe this is happening at least partly because of Trump’s belligerent approach to the media. He’s happy to insult them live on TV, especially if they are black and/or female, but white males don’t get a pass either if they’re too critical of him.

The scariest thing about the whole ‘fake news’ discourse is that it allows people, usually right-wingers, to simply refuse to acknowledge anything reported by journalists. So the New York Times can do a comprehensive year-long investigative report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and the Trumpites simply toss the paper in the garbage and say it’s fake news.

The good news for the Canadian media is that the climate for journalists isn’t nearly as toxic as it is south of the border. But we should remain vigilant and try to make sure politicians understand that a free and feisty press is part of the game in our democracy.

That’s why I was so dismayed when Premier François Legault took a couple of pot-shots at the Montreal Gazette, my employer, at one of his 1 p.m. press conferences during the COVID crisis. Let me be ultra-clear here. Legault isn’t remotely on the same level as Trump and to be fair, he often spoke up in support of journalists at his pressers.

But that day at La Grande Messe, discussing a recent poll that showed that anglophones were more worried than francophones about contracting COVID, Legault suggested it was the Gazette’s fault.

“It’s a question of information” he said. “I’m trying to do my best in French and in English so I don’t see why the result is not the same for francophones and anglophones. I guess maybe The Gazette has a certain responsibility.”

Worse he went on to make fun of our health reporter Aaron Derfel, who was the guy who broke the story about the horrifying situation at the Herron residence in Dorval.

It was super uncool on the part of Legault and I just wish there had been more of an outcry from other journalists to underline the principle that presidents, prime ministers and premiers shouldn’t be attacking the media. If you go into politics, part of your job is having to deal with sometimes tough media coverage.


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