Tuesday, October 2, 2012

After Dark, October 2, 2012

Self-inflicted wounds
The internet was supposed to kill print...think again
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

(Patience...this IS about theatre...eventually.)

Scratch a media pundit and they will bemoan the replacement of print journalism by the anarchism and - woe is us! - lack of FACTS of the internet. Where they see chaos, others - especially the young - see a joyful noise - a new world that requires us to use judgement towards what we are seeing.

In Canada, in the last two weeks, we have come to look askance at information and thank Christ and finally! Messes in "real" press didn't start this year. Lies were being printed in newspapers as far back as the Hearst empire and to the great broadsheets of England before that. More recent examples of big media failures are easy to find: how the press colluded with the Bush Whitehouse to drag America into a nonsensical and bloody war in Iraq. Elsewhere - and at another time - new media (The Drudge Report) and "reformed yellow" media (The National Enquirer) were breaking big stories that didn't even appear on the radar of the soi-disant serious press. Yes, the Monica Lewinsky story was risible, but it stopped the world - we all paid attention; it was not only a Republicans v. Democrats story, it was - around the world - a barometer of values.

Any journalist or columnist who tells you that they are not cautious when it comes to the parent corporation is lying to you

Slowly, clearly, steadily a disconnect was born. The ivory towers of print (not to mention television) started to look like houses of cards. On one side, people were taking their news from Fox (and now Sun). On the other side, The Daily Show became a trusted source of information. Meanwhile, we Canucks were relying on organizations like Canwest Global (for whom I worked at the Gazette), Quebecor (for whom I worked at the Mirror) and were absorbing opinions from Lord Connie via that harridan to whom he is married. No one had to tell me that I had to be cautious when I wrote about Global Television when I worked for the corp. When the Mirror sold out to Quebecor, we didn't receive a memo telling us that making fun of Le Journal de Montreal and TVA was over, because we didn't need to get that memo. It was the nature of the beast. Any journalist or columnist who tells you that they are not cautious when it comes to the parent corporation is lying to you, or, perhaps more sadly, to themselves. So, yes, after working for one print outlet or another for 20 years I can tell you there is very little that is holy about the profession.

Most unholy, though, is the fact that at the big news outlets, seasoned journalists are hanging on by the skin of their teeth with only a union contract between them and the EI office. However, among those seasoned journalists are more and more hacks - also protected by those contracts. Because of austerity measures, newsrooms are packed with pre-retirees rather than young, enthusiastic and brilliant writers (many of whom you will find as you wander around this website).

Unholier yet is that in two instances this last week, we have seen that the very structures of big media seem to be one big fucking mess.

A columnist at the Globe and Mail, clearly in the wrong when it came to an issue of plagiarism, was to be disciplined by the paper. This is as it should be. I don't know Margaret Wente, but I don't want anyone who has made a mistake sent to the breadline. But here's the big press disconnect: Ms Wente was allowed to write a defense of her stupid conduct where she was permitted to smear the blogger - Carol Wainio - who had called her out. It showed - as this excellent piece suggests - a disdain for new media not only by Ms Wente but also by the Globe and Mail.

We learn the Facebook lesson.

I will not repeat what happened at the Montreal Gazette (you can read my column from last week). But there is a followup. In a Twitter rant, the Gazette A&E editor got angry at CharPo writer Joel Fishbane because of a terrific column he wrote. Then the same editor got pissy with the Quebec Drama Federation for spreading the story of the Gazette's lack of coverage of theatre. But here's the absurd part: it was the Gazette's own theatre critic who had told QDF this was the new policy.

So what are we - in the undercovered arts - to do when the media we have relied on for coverage are not only being whittled away but what seems to be left is almost hilariously inept?

We learn the Facebook lesson.

In my circle, on FB, when someone posts a link to an article, it is usually to submit it to vetting. The person posting will say something like, "Is this true or is it like a story in The Onion." Before long, 10 "friends" will post other links to other stories which prop up the original piece or debunk it. A conversation ensues.

Twitter is a conversation (sometimes an enflamed one), as is Facebook. Bloggers are, for the most part, thrilled by discussions in the comments section under an article. This, at last, is the coverage theatre has wished for since I began as an actor in highschool four decades ago. A reviewer says a show is crap, and 10 people rise up to discuss it. We've had reviews on our websites that have had dozens of comments (read the juicy comments under this review). We've had op-eds that have led to fascinating discussions about the fragility of culture. In one important instance a firing at a theatre brought not only a flurry of comments, but artists sat down to write articles about it. I am talking, of course, about the Factory Theatre crisis. But before Factory there was, of course, The Healey Affair which also brought whole articles to this web site.

And this is where we are now - a tortured theatre story that has an unequivocally happy ending. After the Stürm und Drang over Healey's Proud, a hit has been born. It stands on its own - a play praised by all (except, suspiciously, the Sun reviewer).

But the play - the cause - was birthed on Twitter, on Facebook, in thousands and thousands of words on blogs and subsequent thousands of words in comments sections. Yes, the Healey story did show up here and there in traditional media - but it was jammed between relentless Cirque du Soleil and Canadian Idol and Canadian Big Brother and Honey Boo Boo and iPhone 5 stories. It got lost somewhere between theatre writers who knew it was important, and arts editors who, last month, were editing the sports section.

I think the bottom line - MY bottom line - is: judge the online media; judge it harshly; compare it to media of all sorts. If one outlet fails, move on to another. In the same way we have all built bonds of trust with big media and even bonds of admiration and affection for its journalists - over time - we must also give time to new media to prove itself.

Trust me. It will.

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