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Watching the Watchdog: The Great Firewall of Journalism

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

I've got two new heroes. Their names are Cindy Michaels and Tony Consiglio. Until last Tuesday they were the top journalists and news anchors at a small TV station in Bangor, Maine across the border from Québec.

Then they quit. On air. Using their last minutes as anchors of the six o'clock news to say polite goodbyes.

The closest either came to explanation on air was: "some recent developments have come to our attention ... and departing together is the best alternative we can take."

Michaels, who was the station's news director, later offered some detail. "We both felt there was a lack of knowledge from ownership and upper management in running a newsroom, to the extent that I was not allowed to structure and direct them professionally. I couldn't do everything I wanted to as a news director. There was a regular undoing of decisions."

She added: "We were expected to do somewhat unbalanced news, politically, in general."

Consiglio, who was the station's executive producer, said: "I just wanted to know that I ... was being honest and ethical as a journalist, and I thought there were times when I wasn't able to do that."

So why are a couple of on-air anchor resignations in a nowhere city in another country enough for me or anyone else to add their names to the pantheon of journalistic heroes? It's because of the firewall these two respected -- and paid for with their jobs. That's the firewall between journalists (reporters, writers, anchors, producers, news directors etc.) and management.

The two groups are not of the same ilk, the same tribe. They live in different worlds. They have entirely different priorities. Managers exist to run the corporate side of things and make as much profit as possible for owners. (Public broadcasters like CBC do the same, with career advancement replacing profit motive.)

In the starkest of contrasts, journalists exist to seek the truth and report it as a public service, without fear or favour. The firewall between them is vital in that it protects the gathering and distribution of news from the commercial avarice and/or financial or political influence of managers and owners.

It protects the free marketplace of ideas. It guards journalism as a vital cornerstone of democracy. The firewall is there to keep your journalism honest. Every journalist with any time in the trenches has likely come across some form of managerial pressure to kill a story or angle it one way or another.

For instance, I spent a few months as training producer with then Toronto-based The Real News. Over those months, it became increasingly clear that only those stories syncing exactly with the world view of its boss, Paul Jay, and his financial backers would ever make the daily news feed.

In response, the small newsroom staff wrote a manifesto aimed at starting a union. Main objective was the obvious need for a written firewall between management and journalists:

"To ensure the traditional and vital separation of journalistic church and state, the offices of Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Senior Editor [should] be separated."

TRN never did get a union. And I was fired.

One other personal example. In the late seventies, I was head of CBC TV news in Ottawa when we did an entirely innocuous story about contraception available at some local clinic. Right after it screened, station manager Paul Gaffney berated me for what he called its pro-contraception bias.

I showed him a video tape of the story. He claimed I'd had it doctored to remove the bias. I showed him the station tape which records everything broadcast. He insinuated that it too had been altered to remove the bias. Shortly thereafter, I was fired. These things happen.

Moral of the story is that without the firewall, Gaffney, the manager, would have seen the contraception story before it aired, and likely killed it. My favourite example of the sheer beauty and power of the firewall came up fairly recently at the New York Times.

The great, grey lady had just announced the appointment of a new Chief Executive Officer. His name was Mark Thompson, until then boss of the mighty BBC in Great Britain. Shortly thereafter, the BBC found itself deep in accusations that it had deliberately cancelled a newsroom investigation into Jimmy Savile, one of its biggest stars, accused of serial child sex abuse.

Enter the Times' ombudsman (public editor) Margaret Sullivan. She publicly questioned the appointment of her new boss, asking the classic question: "How likely is it that [Thompson] knew nothing?" She didn't stop there: "His integrity and decision-making are bound to affect the Times and its journalism -- profoundly. It's worth considering now whether he is the right person for the job, given this turn of events."

Such courage! Such integrity! Such respect for the firewall between journalism and management! And last I checked, she still works for the Times.

Point of all this, I suppose, is that sometimes the firewall between journalism and management -- church and state -- isn't enough to protect honest journalism. But much more often, it is. And without that firewall, there would be no honest journalism at all. And journalists like Cindy Michaels and Tony Consiglio and Margaret Sullivan would just do what they're damn well told.

And democracy would be the loser.

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