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TV News Reaches Tipping Point: Mortally Ill or Worth Saving?

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Kai Nagata, writer-in-residence at The Tyee and author of "Why I Quit My Job," and Tim Knight, former producer of the CBC's The National and author of "The day I finally lost all respect for The National," are deeply troubled by the state of TV news in Canada. Below is their debate on whether it can be saved. This discussion originally appeared on The Mark.

Tim Knight:

Kai Nagata and I have never met. We're separated by 50 years and 2,000 miles. But we're both TV journalists who care greatly about the people's essential and democratic right to fair, accurate, and unbiased news.

Kai believes TV news is mortally ill and not worth saving. I believe TV news is seriously ill and worth saving.

But only if enough journalists in enough newsrooms get pissed off enough to rise up and demand that TV news regain its honour by returning to its public-service roots.

Kai Nagata:

I have a lot of respect for the work done by people like Tim and the many talented colleagues I worked with during my time in television.

At the same time, I think the problems in TV news highlight a broader crisis. Despite great advances in communications technology, the public conversation is narrower, shallower, and more fragmented than it was a generation ago.

If we're going to salvage TV news, it's only going to happen as part of a broader awakening.

Tim Knight:

First, Kai, a confession.

After reading your J'accuse, I emailed a colleague: "I think Nagata is a self-absorbed adolescent who believes his own ideas are more important than journalism and, in a fit of pique, quit before learning the craft."

On sober second thought, I was wrong. Sure, I disagree with a number of your points. But, overall, I believe your very public resignation could help save Canada's sickly, and often sickening, TV news. You were brave, brash, and far more right than wrong.

Now for my second confession.

Back in the 1970s, I was a reporter for WABC-TV, New York, which started the whole Eyewitness News revolution.

"News doctors" studied our suddenly soaring ratings, worked out that we included a lot of crime, disasters, celebrities, etc., and, since then, have charged heavy money to persuade TV newsrooms all over the known world -- including at the CBC -- to copy. What the cynical doctors never understood was that the essence of Eyewitness News was a revolutionary commitment to abandon the dull, institutional news of the day and, instead, genuinely serve the people. So I've already been part of one TV news revolution.

Now, as I approach my prime, I'm hoping to be part of another.

Kai Nagata:

I think you are part of it, Tim. So am I, and so are the people following this discussion on lightweight, portable screens, over broadband connections.

When I confessed publicly that I don't own a TV, I didn't mean that I don't value visual storytelling. Before journalism, I worked as a video instructor. I'm aware of the medium's extraordinary power to stir emotion, and the imagined sense of community it creates.

The catch is, TV costs a lot of money to produce and broadcast. That's why it tends to concentrate influence in the hands of the few and wealthy.

Best intentions aside, the public interest will inexorably collide with the interests of the huge companies that own the networks, and the economic system they depend on. The same logic now permeates the public broadcaster (CBC). That's not something I felt I could change from the inside. However, there are some interesting things I can do on the outside.

Thanks to new technology, I can now produce a documentary out of a backpack and share it directly with millions of other people. The fancy toys don't make me wise or compassionate, or absolve me of my responsibility to be fair, honest, and transparent. What the technology does is snip the umbilical cord, and free journalists from the gatekeepers in Big Media.

We've reached a tipping point. I think we can be informed and engaged without TV news.

Tim Knight:

Kai, I believe we can be best "informed and engaged" if TV news remains part of a diverse mix of journalistic media, not least of which are thousands of multimedia websites.

TV news in this country -- not just the CBC -- is based on the BBC model of public service ("accuracy, fairness, and impartiality.") The theory is that trained, dedicated, experienced journalists provide disinterested centres from which professionally researched information is broadcast without bias, fear, or favour. (The fact that Canadian broadcast news has deteriorated so sadly over the past years doesn't negate the vital importance of having such centres.)

The big problem with news based entirely on social media is that, at least at the moment, they have no such centres, no institutions to protect fairness and impartiality. In fact, the proliferation of information websites encourages citizens to visit only those sources that confirm their pre-existing biases. When you hear only one side of a story, you live in a narrow, dangerous, fantasy world, ignoring the multitude of different views and voices out there.

As to "the huge companies that own the networks," a brave government (certainly not this one) should break them up to provide more choices and voices or, at least, force them to spend a lot more money on Canadian content including, of course, our beloved journalism.

But in the end, if we're to save TV news, I think it's going to come down to us journalists taking the lead.

Kai Nagata:

I absolutely agree that we have to take the initiative. (The change we need is not going to come from the top down.) But to make that work, I think some of us need to step outside the traditional newsroom.

What's a journalist? Journalists are people you trust to go out and experience something you don't have time to check out yourself. They come back and tell you about it as best they can. They are also fallible human beings, with their own traumas and assumptions, good days and bad days. This fallibility is only a problem if they're not up-front about where they're coming from, or fair, or accurate. TV news is already a "fantasy world." It absolutely works to confirm "existing biases."

That's because it's centralized, hierarchical, and bound by free-market logic. But don't forget that the market for the product is us -- the public. Think about how many people's news needs simply aren't met by TV. I believe that the proliferation of alternative models and independent sources is the best hope we have of putting pressure on the big networks to do better.

But they're not obliged to evolve. Either way, people will choose whether they want to participate in a real conversation with other citizens they trust, or be talked at between ads.

Tim Knight:

Sure as hell, Kai, any salvation for TV news isn't going to come from the top. That's where the sickness starts -- in the executive offices of the big networks where people agonize over ratings. Nor will the toothless, management-friendly broadcast unions be of any help.

No, Kai, we journalists are the only people who can save TV news, restore its soul, revive its honour.

Journalism, in a democratic society, is a craft, defined and protected by centuries of struggle. Journalists literally represent the people, are the irreplaceable messengers serving and guarding the people's democratic right to know. It takes years of training and experience to produce a first-class journalist.

It would be unfair to point out that some kid in his mother's basement, who's mastered Facebook, Twitter, and blogging, simply doesn't qualify as a journalist -- so I won't.

TV news has been around for some 70 years. Often, it's been great. Sometimes, it's been lousy. Right now, in Canada, it's mostly lousy. But that's no reason to kill it. Instead, let's use its platform, its experience, and the dedication to public service of so many of its remaining journalists, to reform it.

And you can continue to click into as many social media outlets as will make you happy.

Kai Nagata:

I'm that blogger, Tim. I'm literally writing this entry from my dad's basement. And right now, the Quebec government is mulling a certification regime that would separate "professional journalists" from kids like me.

The thing is, there are other people devoted to the collective interest, who are vital to this public conversation, who have even less journalistic training and experience than I do. Priests, rabbis, imams. Teachers, doctors, poets, urban planners, farmers, elected officials. Grandparents. These voices are extremely important, and we need mechanisms that help them share their ideas and propose solutions.

Unfortunately, the mechanics of broadcasting don't naturally facilitate conversation. The voice-from-on-high model only works when the voice is altruistic, disentangled, and brave. You describe a 70-year tradition -- sometimes a proud one. But what did people do before? I look back to the 1930s and see an explosion of progressive, collectivist awareness, fuelled not by TV but by Chautauquas, church picnics, and political rallies. People needed to find ways to get through the Great Depression. I don't know what would have happened had they stayed home watching television.

I'm not knocking the decades of service you put into this medium. Perhaps TV news is still a healthy part of a varied diet. But there are stronger levers now that can lift bigger boulders.

Tim Knight:

You say the existing TV news channels, poisoned by the concentration of ownership and the sordid fight for ratings, are failing us. I agree. As does damn near every one of our erstwhile colleagues.

So, in light of so many sad conversations with said colleagues, I suggest the time has come for the journalists who now produce our TV news (and the journalism-school students who will follow us) to put up or shut up. To meet, plot, and retake ownership of our news from the cynical establishment.

What if we in Canada, and eventually around the world, start Howard Beale societies (named after the mad news anchor in the movie Network )? Our motto would be his: I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!

What if we all revolt?

I believe that only a journalists' revolt can save Canadian TV news and protect the people's sacred right to fair, disinterested, honest, public service information.

That cause is so important -- so vital to democracy -- that just about every week while serving it, somewhere in the world, a journalist is killed in the line of duty.

Gandhi warned us: "We must be the change we want to see in the world."

To that end, a righteous journalists' revolt needs a righteous anthem:

"Rise up, rise up,

Oh rise and show your power.

Rise up, rise up..."

Kai Nagata:

Gandhi's words have been stuck in my mind lately, too.

I hope you're right, Tim. I know every network has the people and tools it needs to serve as a powerful instrument for change, for refocusing its craft toward serving the public good.

I hope it happens. I wouldn't want to believe we're past the point of no return. The film Network, I'm afraid, suggests we are. It ends with Howard Beale dead, assassinated by his own employers.

It's just a movie. Still, the real-life scenario you're describing sounds like a fight, and, personally, I'm doing everything I can to avoid fights. I chose to walk away, and to pour my energy into something else. Until this revolt happens, my days will be spent seeking out collaborators and finding ways to get information into people's hands, without TV.

I'll take all the guidance and help I can get.

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