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Watching the Watchdog: The Elephant in the Newsroom

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Tim Knight writes the regular media column, Watching the Watchdog, for HuffPost Canada.

What: The Canadian Journalism Foundation (CJF) monthly debate

When: Thursday, October 18, 2012
Where: TMX Broadcast Centre, Toronto

The CJF exists "to preserve, provoke, and enhance excellence in journalism."

Its Motto: Accountability. Diversity. Courage. Independence.

CJF monthly gatherings are attended by some of the most illustrious Canadian journalism executives around, along with working journalists, some J-school students, and the occasional politician and captain of industry. In solemn conclave together they get to fulminate on our honourable and deeply troubled profession.

Last Thursday, CJF's full-house gathering was titled Gutenberg's Last Stand: Reinventing the Modern Newspaper.

Heavyweight panelists were Lou Clancy, editor-in-chief Postmedia News, Charlotte Empey editor-in-chief Metro English Canada, John Stackhouse, editor-in-chief the Globe and Mail and Michael Cooke who is merely editor of the Toronto Star. Another editor-in-chief, Scott White of Canadian Press, was moderator.

Sitting up there behind the speaker's table were arguably the five most powerful and influential members of the Canadian journalistic establishment. Yet at this critical time for Canadian journalism, their evening turned out to be flat, insipid, entirely uninspiring. Instead of a call to arms, or schemes, however idealistic, to keep newspapers alive, the evening was filled with cautious, self-congratulatory newspaper editors-in-chief (and one simple editor) mostly extolling the virtues of their particular organizations.

Just about the only sparks came (you really had to be paying attention) when Globe and Mail's editor-in-chief Stackhouse, and Star editor Cooke, attacked the CBC for committing the sin of doing all that journalism while subsidized by the Canadian taxpayer.

The two were also less than enthused about aggregators like Huffington Post, for which I have the unpaid honour of writing this blog. Trouble was, this evening bringing together these high and mighty editors-in-chief (and one simple editor) to discuss and debate the perilous future of our newspapers -- a subject absolutely vital to the survival of our democracy -- was dull when it should and could have been dynamic.

Because this month has been of extraordinary importance for journalists:

The CRTC refused to allow Bell to take over Astral Media which would have given the telephone company some 45 per cent percent of Canada's English TV viewership and 35 per cent of the French. Finally, the wimpy CRTC supported the citizen rather than owners, and showed some cojones.

Newsweek magazine announced it's to stop killing trees and go all-digital, thus foreshadowing, perhaps, the future of all printed journalism.

The CJF's very own poll (through Ipsos Reid) revealed that most Canadians still watch TV news for their information. Eat your hearts out, newspapers, Twitter and Facebook.

The Globe & Mail announced a paywall starting Monday, October 22. Maybe paywalls will save newspapers. Maybe not. Something has to.

Hubert Lacroix, he of questionable qualifications and less accomplishment, was very quietly re-appointed President and CEO of CBC.

And you could still hear echoes of the scandal over the Globe and Mail's ham-handed handling of accusations of plagiarism against famed Globe columnist, Margaret Wente, and its subsequent cover-up with bureaucratic obfuscations.

Wow! What a wonderful time to scrap the agenda (whatever it meant), and re-focus everything onto this remarkable day's events to take full advantage of all those experts sitting behind the obligatory table and all those other experts facing them from the audience.

No such luck.

Outside of the introduction to the evening by the CJF's chair, Bob Lewis, there was virtually no mention of Bell/Astral, Newsweek, the continued primacy of TV news, or one Hubert Lacroix. The Globe's paywall was discussed but nothing new emerged, and the Wentegate scandal didn't come up at all.

Instead, the allotted time and subject droned on as scheduled. With all the panelists doing their self-serving thing. Not a challenge among them. Not a disagreement. Not even a snide aside. Eventually, the editors-in-chief (and one simple editor) finished their remarks and the floor was opened for audience questions.

Sitting in the audience, I was certain that -- plagiarism being a mortal sin in our honourable profession -- someone would raise Wentegate. There were simply too many righteous people accusing the Globe of betraying the public trust by not adequately following up a blogger's detailed accusation that Globe columnist Wente was, more or less, a serial plagiarist.

Indeed, only three weeks earlier, in my own HuffPost media column, Watching the Watchdog, I added to those accusations, particularly mentioning the Globe's Public Editor, Sylvia Stead, and John Stackhouse, its editor-in-chief (sitting up there at that table last Thursday).

I wrote:

Their job is to ensure that the newspaper's journalism serves the people. That it's honest, fair, balanced and unbiased. That the people can trust it. For without the people's trust, a newspaper is no more than a bunch of advertisements interrupted too often by some stranger's opinion on the doings of the day.

Stackhouse and Stead haven't done their job.

By not doing their job -- and not doing it publicly, in front of the people they're supposed to serve -- they've betrayed a trust.

To preserve their own honour and the honour of the national newspaper they serve, Stackhouse and Stead should offer their resignations."

In this room crammed with journalistic movers and shakers, assorted journalism groupies and a bright, shiny sprinkling of J-school students, surely now someone would bring up Wentegate. And demand an explanation from Stackhouse (who undoubtedly spent hours with experts working on how to answer when Wentegate questions inevitably surfaced).

Maybe someone would even ask delicately if Stackhouse had offered his resignation because of the scandal.

I waited.

Nobody mentioned Wentegate. Or resignations. Much stuff about social media and something called "monetizing" ensued, but no Wentegate. I didn't want to be seen as a hot-dog, as self-aggrandizing, as trying to draw attention to my HuffPost column. I do have my limits. So I kept waiting.

Surely, some would have the guts to mention the elephant looming over the room?

Surely, someone else would bring up Wentegate and, in particular, an editor-in-chief's ethical responsibilities when journalistic plagiarism is committed? And cover-up is alleged? Surely, someone there would live up to the CJF's proud motto: Accountability. Diversity. Courage. Independence.

I waited too long.

I was starting to get up to take the microphone when the moderator ended the formal part of the evening and we all politely adjourned for sandwiches with cut-off crusts, traditional cheap wine and weak beer. While I was quaffing and brooding, one of the evening's organizers passed and smiled at me. "You behaved yourself," she said sweetly, approvingly.

I assumed she meant I showed both discretion and good manners by not spoiling such a pleasant evening by bringing up the Wentegate unpleasantness. And not mentioning that I'd written in my HuffPost column that one of the evening's important panelists should have offered his resignation because of the scandal.

In retrospect, I should have ignored the closure, seized the microphone, insisted on being heard. After all, how often do any of us get the chance to publicly question the journalistic ethics of the editor-in-chief of Canada's national newspaper? Surely, Wentegate and the Globe's professional responsibilities needed thorough exploration?

Surely, if nothing else, Stackhouse deserved his chance to explain? I blew it. I am guilty of the grave sin of omission. So I apologize.

Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.

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