WINNIPEG – Sitting in the Crystal Ballroom of the Fort Garry Hotel, I could hardly believe the words I was hearing.
Here I was at the conclusion of the Canadian Association of Journalists’ national conference, a weekend in which we could take pride in our often-maligned profession. There were lectures and panels devoted to highlighting journalistic ethics and integrity, workshops teaching cutting-edge investigative techniques and awards presented to the best Canadian journalism had to offer.
All was tarnished by what transpired on Sunday afternoon. The CAJ marred the festive occasion by capping its conference with a keynote speech from American Amy Goodman, a well known leftist — some would say radical — who specializes in blurring the line between journalism and advocacy.
Many members of the public are cynical about the media and have given up any expectation that journalists can still serve as objective observers. By celebrating an ideologue such as Ms. Goodman, the CAJ did little to dispel suspicions that the media, including the Canadian media, have a problem with bias.
“I do think that Osama bin Laden should be tried for war crimes,” she told the hundreds that filled the hall. “But I also think that Henry Kissinger should be tried for his war crimes.”
Ms. Goodman, who hosts Democracy Now!, a liberal radio show on the independent Pacifica network, made Winnipeg the latest stop on her Un-Embed the Media! tour, a vicious attack on the U.S. government and the mainstream American media. In her speech before the Canadian journalists she compared the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to U.S. military operations overseas, categorized news organizations such as NBC and CNN as “extreme” and even charged that the U.S. public media outlets, such as PBS, were beholden to corporate America.
However, she saved her most scathing words for what she called the “so-called terrorism experts” who frequently appear on U.S. cable networks.
“I say it takes one to know one,” she said, to rousing applause from the audience.
Ms. Goodman’s mantra is well known and typical of the demagogic nature of the extreme American media, on both sides of the deep ideological divide: She is to the left what a Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly is to the right.
What was really troubling about Ms. Goodman’s appearance was not her words, but rather the decision of the CAJ to feature such a divisive figure at its most important gathering.
First, what she said had nothing to do with Canada or Canadian journalism. To a Canadian journalist it amounted to nothing more than plain, old-fashioned America-bashing.
Second, it was completely one-sided. Even if her speech was somehow warranted, it should have been balanced by someone of an opposing viewpoint to have a real and fair debate on the matter. Instead, we were subjected to sheer propaganda.
Third, and most important, it was completely out of touch with the theme of the rest of the weekend, which focused on good, solid investigative journalism.
A conference organizer, approached after the speech, admitted he had expected Ms. Goodman to be provocative but decided to invite her nonetheless because of her large listening audience in Canada. He added that the issue of bias in the media was an important one to be raised.
Indeed it is. But if the CAJ was determined to seriously tackle the issue, it could easily have invited someone far less compromised; perhaps someone like Bernard Goldberg, a veteran CBS reporter, who wrote a book on how the media distort the news. Better yet, it could have invited one of many qualified Canadian journalists to talk about the topic and its impact on Canadians.
I am not naive enough to think no bias exists in the mainstream media. Bias is inherent in the human condition. The myth of the completely independent, objective, non-biased journalist died long ago.
I do, however, feel we still have an obligation to strive for fairness and that starts with giving everyone a fair shake, regardless of our own political leanings. This should especially hold true at a conference representing, organized by and held for journalists. I hardly think the answer to bias is creating even more bias.
For me, this past weekend should have been about the crafting of my interviewing skills with Jan Wong of the Globe and Mail, about learning the art of undercover reporting with Robert Cribb of the Toronto Star and about exploring the world of TV documentaries with Harvey Cashore of CBC’s The Fifth Estate.
It should have been about celebrating Canadian journalists, not beating up on our American colleagues. It reflected badly on all of us.