By Claude Adams
In the early 90s, while covering the Yugoslav civil war for Christian Science Monitor TV, my crew and I decided to pose for a snapshot with a group of Croatian soldiers near the front line. As you can see from the photo above, we were disturbed by sniper fire overhead just as the photographer snapped the shutter. You might say it was our Robert Capa moment, except we survived.
My producer, Tony Hillman (wearing sunglasses), looks appropriately distressed as he dives for cover. I, on the other hand, have the look of someone about to take the big drop on the Behemoth roller coaster at Canada’s Wonderland. Just this side of wet-your-pants jubilation. I still shudder when I look at this picture, and consider how close we all came to injury or worse. If it had been a mortar instead of a sharpshooter . . . And why the hell am I not terrified?
Posing like an idiot on the front lines of a war is one of the few things Rosie Garthwaite doesn’t warn against in her book How to Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone (Bloomsbury, 303 pages.) I suppose that’s because it should be so obvious. But reporters are known to forget how perilous their work really is after some time with the troops. So it’s useful to be reminded about the small lapses that can get you killed or mutilated in an absent-minded moment.
Garthwaite is a war-hardened Al Jazeera reporter. She mentions, in her dedication, the “act-first-think-later adventures” that prompted her to write this book. She clearly believes that paying attention to the little things can make all the difference between life and death. Unlike Sayed Hashim, the Afghani army captain, whom she quotes. Sayed subscribes to Koranic wisdom, that “the date for our death is written; we cannot change it.” So don't bother packing penicillin or topographical maps; if Allah decides your time is up, no amount of fussing will help.
If you are skeptical about Islamic fatalism (as I am), here is just a small sample of Garthwaite's less obvious prescriptions for increasing your odds of coming home intact from a war. Or doing the least amount of harm in a disaster zone.
1. When working in the Middle East, try to memorize at least one paragraph from the Koran. It may impress your kidnappers enough to keep you alive until the ransom arrives.
2. In some developing countries, it’s unwise to rent a room higher than the 3rd floor, because old fire engine ladders don't reach beyond that level.
3. Carry a few packs of Marlboros to pass around to the jihadists as they discuss your fate.
4. Always pack a sharp, bendable saw or large penknife, in case you have to amputate a colleague’s limb (or your own.)
5. Carry clean plastic cling wrap to cover burned flesh.
6. If you smoke, you’re more likely to get sick in a cholera zone, because you are constantly bringing your hand to your mouth.
7. Don’t hand out doughnuts to starving kids. They only lead to digestive complications.
8. On the other hand, don’t be squeamish about food in war zones or famine areas. As Dr Carl Hallam explains, maggots from a local fishing tackle shop turn pink and appetizing, like prawns, when you add some beetroot. “Food,” he says, “is fuel.” And bugs are protein. "Yuck" is not a word in the survivalist's lexicon
9. And here's my favorite: If you're a woman in a war zone, wear a bra to bed in case you have to make a run for it.
Many of the things she recommends are arguable, and Garthwaite has the good sense to present both sides of the argument. Some experts, for example, suggest that if you are a hostage, don’t try to escape unless you are certain you can get away.
James Brandon, himself a one-time hostage in Iraq, rejects this idea. “I would rather die in an escape attempt than be slaughtered like a sheep with my final moments immortalized forever on YouTube.”
And then there’s the eternal debate: Should the reporter try to blend in with the locals, or should he/she wear clothing that marks them as an outsider. (My answer: It depends on the country. In Haiti in the turbulent 1990s, foreigners were safe from almost all violence. In the parts of the Congo, on the other hand, if you were foreign-looking you were often a prime target.)
Garthwaite’s book is a handly complement to every reporter’s own personal safety code. For example, in conflict areas, I always found it advisable to keep a thin layer of dust on my vehicle. This makes it easier to spot any signs of tampering with the engine, or the placing of an improvised explosive device.
Also, I like to keep away from gungho bang-bang junkies. Once I was driving through Bosnia with a British freelancer who'd hitched a ride, and we heard the unmistakeable sound of mortars in the distance. “Let’s go,” he said, pointing in the direction of the noise. I dropped him off and went the opposite way, looking for a UN base and some intel about hostile forces in the area. Some may call this timidity: I call it common sense.
I also learned, the hard way, not to put too much faith in even the best body armor. Once, in Serbia, while on patrol with a company of militiamen, I started boasting about my $1500 state-of-the art Kevlar and ceramic-plated vest. One of the militiamen cut me short and asked if I wanted to perform a simple test. He stood the vest up against a sandbag, walked a hundred yards away, and then shot off a round from his NATO-issue sniper rifle. The bullet blew a fist-sized hole throught the Kevlar and the ceramic. “Boom, you are dead!” the militiaman laughed. (I had to be very creative with my expense account for that assignment.)
Western news crews are responsible not only for their own safety, but also for the safety of their local hires. The recent killing of a “fixer” with an American TV news crew in Libya illustrates what happens when rules are not enforced. The Libyan fixer was killed not while accompanying his team around, but rather while driving to the front on a day off with two armed rebels. He broke one of the inflexible rules of war zone security: Never, ever, travel in the same vehicle with armed combatants in a conflict zone, unless you are an embed with special protection. His American employers should have made this rule part of their contract with him.
But rules are broken, and the best-trained professionals have moments of carelessness. Over the years, Tony and I often chuckled when recalling that anxious moment in Croatia. But the laughter carried an undertone of dread. Because we understand the arbitrary nature of what happened. If that sniper had had a clearer shot, if the wind had shifted, if it had been artillery instead of a lone gunman, if a whole lot of other factors had been in conjunction, the image captured by that freakishly-timed click of the shutter could have been an ugly one. So we were careless, but also lucky. Maybe there is something to that fatalism in the Koran. Maybe it was just our day.
Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission is overseeing something called the Missing Children Project--a bold attempt to track and record the fate of every indigenous child who passed through the notorious residential school system. It's a kind of census of calamity. What follows is the framework of one story. I'd like to collect many more. If you have personal knowledge of a child who died while attending a residential school, and whose true story has never been fully told, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or post a comment to this blog. In so doing, you will be adding to the documentation of a sad chapter in Canada's history.
Jack Lacerte was barely three years old when it happened, but he has a vivid recollection of the day back in 1937 when the two priests knocked on the door of his home in Fraser Lake, B.C. The black-robed clerics wanted to speak to Jack’s dad Philippe, a caretaker at the local residential school.
Two days earlier, on New Year’s Day, four young homesick boys had left the Lajac School without permission. The youngest was seven years old. The eldest, nine. It was dark, and 20-below zero, but they missed their parents so they sneaked out of the school and started walking home, across the lake. By midnight, police later said, all four had frozen to death within a kilometer or two of their destination. But their bodies would lay in the snow for more than 16 hours before police and local townspeople even mounted a search party. (See photo above.) Their names were Andrew Paul (8), John Michel Jack (7), Justa Maurice (8), and Alan Willie (9). A fifth boy, Paul Alex (10) left the school with them that night, but returned on his own.
“Indian Affairs is sending investigators to look into this tragedy,” the priests told Phillip Lacerte, standing in the doorway. “They’ll be asking questions. You knew the boys. We want to make sure you have the story right. We’re here to tell you what we want you to say.”
Jack says his father objected. He told the priests he was raised in a Catholic school in Quebec, that he couldn’t tell a lie. The priests said he had 24 hours to consider his refusal to co-operate. But Philippe was adamant. He couldn’t take part in a cover-up. He realized that what he had to say about the treatment of the children at Lejac would reflect badly on his black-robed superiors. So he took a stand on principle, but it carried a bitter price: That same day, Philippe Lacerte the school terminated his job, and he and his family were thrown out of their home on school property. All records of his employment at the school were erased. Jack Lacerte says his father sank into depression, and became an alcoholic. He died in a work accident in the 1950s.
Meanwhile, the full story of the Indian boys—why they ran away, why it took nearly a day before anybody started to look for them—has never been told: One more grim, shameful and incomplete chapter in the history of Canada’s residential schools.
* * * *
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has a profoundly difficult mandate: to bring some kind of emotional closure to the survivors the 130 Indian residential schools. There are approximately 80,000 of these survivors, many of them past the age of 60, and almost all of them carry the psychic (and sometimes physical) scars of their experience. They have received compensation, and counseling, and an apology from the government and the churches.
But the TRC’s most challenging task may involve not the living, but rather the dead. Its Missing Children Project, headed by Ontario historian John Milloy, is seeking to create a comprehensive record of every child who never returned home. What are the numbers, 5000? Or, as some suggest, as many as 50,000? Did they die from TB or malnutrition? Where are the medical records? Did they die while fleeing abuse at the hands of their teachers? Where are they buried? Or if they survived, did they return to their homes, or were they passed on to foster parents?
Why should we concern ourselves with things that happened 70 or 80 years ago? What relevance do events like the Lejac incident have today? Milloy sees his project as a fundamental historical settling-of-accounts. For Canada’s aboriginal peoples, though, it’s much more than statistics. Says native activist Maggie Hodgson: “It is so important to know how we came to this place of collective grief. If we have these figures, then our people can begin to talk about their own holocaust.”
The challenges of the Missing Children’s Project are many: the problem of lost (or destroyed) records, the failing memory of the survivors, the missing graveyards and the unmarked graves, the agonies of the families, like the Lacertes, who were indirect victims of the schools policy. Was this a genocide, as some suggest, or a monumental act of carelessness, as Milloy characterizes it?
Who am I?
A year ago I did a long investigation for Reader’s Digest magazine on the inadequacies of the compensation package that the Canadian government gave to the survivors of the residential schools. I got to know the players, and in my interviews with them, one question kept coming up: What happened to those many thousands of children who didn’t come home? I promised myself that I would try to answer this question, and I got to know people like John Milloy, and Maggie Hodgson. And people like Kevin Annett, a defrocked Anglican minister who claims the schools were part of was a deadly conspiracy. That’s an extreme view, which I don’t subscribe to, but many of Annett’s questions have not yet been satisfactorily answered.
Why should you care?
The residential schools are one of the darkest parts of 20th century Canadian history, and what they produced are at the heart of the country’s aboriginal problem. We’ll never understand the alienation of a million aboriginal Canadians, until we understand that impulses that created and maintained these schools, and what they did to several generations of children, whose deaths live in us all.
See a version of this story in Vancouver magazine
By Claude Adams
July 11, 2011
This is a story about a dog who died and then came back to life and ended my career in local television news. When I put it that way, it’s funny. People can’t help giggling when they hear it. And I often end up laughing too, that edgy scratchy laughter that comes at one’s own expense and leaves little welts on the soul.
But the larger context of the story is sad. Sad because it relates to issues at the heart of journalism, especially the local TV kind. But I’ll get to that later. First, some background, and then I’ll share the funny part.
For the last eight months or so, I’ve been working as a casual writer at the local CBC supper hour television news. Casual means they call me in when a regular writer is sick, or on holiday or otherwise unavailable. Which means I go in for an eight-hour shift about eight or 10 times a month.
It’s called a writing job, but in fact it’s both much more (and much less) than that. We write the introductions (intros) to reporter’s stories that are read from the teleprompter by our two anchors. We write voice-overs: the 15-second scripts of local, national and international stories that the anchors also read. We edit the video images of those stories. We spend a lot of time writing “supers” (the names of the people in the reporter’s stories that flash up on the screen), and location tabs (the cities, or street addresses, where the particular stories take place) and other things. When you see the flashing tabs on the screen that say “Live” or “Breaking News” or “File Pictures,” or the reporter’s name, that’s the writer’s job. When you see images of rioting in Bahrain, or a pub fire in Victoria, it’s the writers who edit those pictures together online, and who write the words spoken over them, and who make sure those words and images are “pushed” into the computerized system that drives the newscast. We are required to be adept at highly sophisticated software programs with names like iNews and Instinct.
To do this work, in short, you need to be a lot more than a writer. You need to be an editor, a technician, a keyboardist extraordinaire, an expert in the style and spelling of place names and titles. And you have to work fast. Sometimes very fast. So fast that, often, you force yourself to forget about good writing; just throw down the words, make sure the facts are approximately correct, and “get it out.” (You’ll notice that among the many economies in TV news copy is the elimination of verbs: “A raging fire in Surrey. Three firefighters with smoke inhalation. A devastated neighbourhood. The full story at 6!”)
There are two regular writers on every shift, along with a show producer and a lineup editor. One or two anchors, a sports guy, a meteorologist with a sense of humor. And maybe six or seven reporters. Every weekday, they produce a 90-minute news show. It’s an impossible task, but it’s one of those impossible things that happens every day, without fail.
I just said “without fail.” But of course, that’s a lie. In real terms, the failure of local TV news is structural, spiritual and immense. But that’s the serious part of this story, and I need to tell you the funny part first.
Last Thursday, I get a phone call at home just before 10am. Can I come in right away? A regular writer has called in sick.
I say yes and shower and my wife drives me to the Skytrain and I’m in the newsroom at 11:30am—75 minutes after the start of the normal shift. It will be a short compressed day. I sit in my cubicle and log in. On my computer screen appears the projected lineup for that day’s show. Oh-oh. This will be a tough one.
Here’s what my day looks like:
1. A 30-second “sting” about the running of the bulls in Pamplona.
2. A 30-second voice-over on the premiere of the final Harry Potter movie in London.
3. A 40-second voice-over about the rescue of a lost hiker in Lions Bay.
4. A voicer on a seniors home in Abbotsford targeted by a robber.
5. A voicer on a plane crash in Harrison Bay, with two dead.
6. A voicer about the coroner’s report on a UBC student who died of a cocaine overdose.
That’s the easy part, I tell myself. I can handle these half dozen stories. But it will mean passing up lunch. Because I’ll have to find all the videotape for these stories, assemble the tape, edit it and then write the six scripts to fit the time allotted to them. And make sure everything is properly ingested by the voracious computer monster that delivers the show to our handful of viewers.
But there is more. I was also the writer assigned to three reporters’ “packs.” These are the full stories, prepared by individual reporters, that would appear on the night’s newscast. The three stories have names assigned to them. One is “War Over”—a 2-minute story on an Abbotsford couple who lost two sons in Afghanistan, reflecting on the fact that today is the last day of the Canadian combat mission in that country. The second is “Stranger Tattoo”—an offbeat feature about a foreign student in Vancouver who approaches strangers on the street, and asks them to tell the stories of their tattoos for a blog and a book she’s writing. (Hey, it’s local news.)
Both of these stories (I’ll tell you about the third one in due course) will require me to huddle with the individual reporters, approve their scripts, make changes if necessary, make sure I have all the names and titles of the people they interview, write a snappy anchor’s intro, and input everything into the computer. These stories will appear on the 6 o’clock segment of the show. But that’s only part of it. I also have to prepare 30-second voice-overs for both these stories, for the 5 o’clock segment of the show.
I swallow hard, glance at the clock (it’s already 2:30pm—two and a half hours to airtime.) I’m hungry, and my bladder is sending out worrying signals. But I’ll eat and piss later. There’s work to do.
I take a quick look at the last item on my agenda ( the third story.) No big deal. It’s a story that will be fed in from CHEK-TV in Victoria by 5:15pm for a quick turnaround into our 5:30 show. It’s labeled “Hot Dog”, about a police dog left in an SUV for three hours. One of the “shocking treatment of animals” stories. It sounds straightforward. I have a 17-minute window to make sure the story is in our computer, and to write the intro for it, and to insert the proper "super" information. No problem. (I can hear you laughing. Haha. Maybe you know what’s coming.)
The next two hours are a blur. I work my way furiously through seven voice-overs while the other writers, editors, producers and reporters enjoy lunch and toilet breaks. By 5 o’clock, I stretch, take a much-needed visit to the urinal and congratulate myself. I tell myself I’ve done pretty well for the new kid on the block. Just need to wrap up one more voice-over, then tackle the “Hot Dog” story, and my workday will be done. Another $230 in the bank, and I’d proven something to myself.
The lineup editor drops the Hot Dog script on my desk. I look at the clock. Holy Jesus, what happened to the time? It’s 5:15, and this story is slated for 5:36 in the lineup. This will be tight. I start to write the intro. There’s no time to scan the reporter’s script. Poor dog. Who would leave a mutt in an SUV, in sweltering heat, to die a cruel death? Given the short time frame, I write what I think is quite an evocative intro, a eulogy to 10-month-old German Shepherd who would not live to do the heroic police work he’d been trained for.
I type the 100 words into the computer, include the “super” information, and am delighted to see that there’s a minute to spare before anchor Tony Parsons has to introduce the Hot Dog story. Another deadline achieved. Then, he reads my words exactly as I have written them, throws to the reporter’s story . . . and my world freezes.
“The dog didn’t die,” somebody shouts over my shoulder.
“Yeah, he survived,” somebody else says.
“Who wrote he died?” It’s a Greek chorus of recrimination.
There’s a funny hollow sensation in my ear.
“I wrote that, it’s mine,” I say, raising my hand like a schoolboy caught passing notes.
“Somebody write a correction for Tony. NOW!!” I recognize the voice. It’s Wayne, the executive producer. He’s hovering just a few feet away. I look at him but he studiously avoids eye contact.
A minute later, Parsons, a consummate pro, veteran of a million newscasts, with a voice that can make even a mistake sound like music, intones on the air: “We apologize. The dog, of course, didn’t die.”
Then, (I think) the entire newsroom goes silent. For minutes I hear and feel nothing except a faint pressure in my ears. It’s the kind of dead silence I remember in Bosnia during the war years, just after a bomb exploded. Sucks the air and all noise out of the environment. Then the silence breaks when somebody shouts “Dog-killer” across the room. There is laughter. I laugh back. I recall the famous National Lampoon cover photo with the headline: “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine We’ll Kill This Dog.”
Half an hour later, leaving the newsroom, I wonder why we would carry a story on a newscast about a dog who DIDN’T die; who, in fact, was in pretty good shape when they opened the SUV door. I hate the damn dog for surviving. He will grow up and never know how he’s contributed to my humiliation.
The next morning, I’m fired. “You’ve broken a trust,” the executive producer (that’s Wayne) tells me after calling me into his office. He doesn’t even bother to shut the door. “How can the anchors ever trust anything you write after this?”
I blink. “It’s a damn dog, Wayne, for heaven’s sake. A mistake made in the heat of the moment, at the end of a crazy shift. I was called in late to fill in for somebody, thrown into a very hectic show . . . ”
“In any case,” he interrupts me, “we feel you’re not suited for this job. You’re too slow. There’s nothing wrong with your writing, but we need somebody who is fast and who can handle the technology. I’m sorry. In fact, we’d like you to leave right away. Invoice us for the day’s work.”
I have the feeling there’s some deep subtext here. I’m a 62-year-old hack with white hair, working among a bunch of kids. In fact, three of the people in the newsroom were my students when I taught broadcast at UBC. I’m doing this job because I need the money, and because it’s a connection to the profession I love. Nobody has the temerity to ask me what the hell I’m doing here. I’m the ancient mariner, taking up an entry-level space.
Hell, years ago I invited Wayne, the exec who’s just fired me, to talk to my class about local news. I was a visiting professor. He ran a local newscast that hardly anybody watched. Now, here I am, an anachronism near the end of his string, trying to defend a wretched piece of copy about a puppy.
We have a few more words, back and forth. He mostly keeps his head down; he clearly doesn’t like saying these things. I clearly don’t like hearing them. (Note: This is the first, only and last time anybody in this shop has criticized my work.) I’m particularly stung by the comment about breaching trust with the anchors. I’d rather hear it from them. Breathes there an anchor with a soul so dead who wouldn’t laugh off a silly mistake about a dog? But it’s not to be. My time here is up.
On the way out, I shake hands with Drew, the lineup editor, and say good-bye. “I hate to sound selfish,” he says, “but are they bringing somebody in to replace you today?” (Somewhere, in some parallel universe, I’m lying in a fetid trench, my legs blown off, shrapnel in my gut, and the platoon sergeant looks at me and barks: “Where the hell are the reserves?” In the distance, a German Shepherd is barking.)
So this is how it ends. But I’m told that everything in life, the comedy and tragedy alike, carries a lesson. In the wreckage of this fiasco, there must be something useful to extract.
I started this essay with the idea of writing a critique on the nonsense that passes for local TV news. But I can’t get away from that poor overheated dog. He overwhelms me. I don’t deny my culpability, but how did a highly-trained journalist with 42 years of experience both overseas and in Canada find himself in a newsroom, sweating bricks, writing about a dog that was left in a SUV for 3 hours? (There’s a lead for a producer who wants to pursue a good human-interest story about the job market in Canadian journalism.)
What management wizard put me in that chair, and assigned me that work, in a pressure-cooker deadline situation?
Would I have made my fatal mistake if, a) I hadn’t been called in on a short shift, b) I had taken an earlier toilet break, or c) I had had the time for lunch?
How is it that a news anchor, who’s job it is to read words from a teleprompter, and who is paid an enormous salary to do that and only that, was not given the time or the opportunity to read his copy before he went on air? One glance would have spotted the error. (I would understand reading raw unedited copy if we were talking about an earthquake, a hockey riot, or a serial killing, but a fluff piece about an undead dog! )
Animal stories are, along with murder, fires, sex, celebrities and weather, the staples of television “action news” fare, if you believe the style-over-substance gurus at Frank N. Magid Associates who have advised the CBC and other networks for decades. If the stories aren’t powerfully visual (i.e. the bulls at Pamplona, Anthony Weiner’s crotch, Lady Gaga’s meat dress, police car lights flashing over a corpse on a darkened street, etc.), they probably won’t make the local news. It’s got to sizzle to get into the 6 o’clock lineup. Media scholars call it the victory of "information mechanics" over journalism, entertainment trumping news.
That’s why, for example, during the Stanley Cup playoff series in Vancouver, a hugely-important story about the record-breaking debt load of Canadian families was pushed aside for drivel about how much people were paying for Roberto Luongo jerseys, and the adventures of the Green Men. The daily battle for ratings requires an embrace of the flashily trivial. These stories are known in the trade as “talkers”—the things people are discussing around the water cooler. Once, long long ago, it was TV news that set the agenda of public discourse; today local news is an income generator that sniffs the wind and follows the public appetite. It's called pandering. That’s why you see so many “news” stories about new iPhone apps, and the new KFC bunless chicken sandwich. (Yes, I wrote that voice-over too.) News directors get instant updates on how many people are watching; the Suits will tell you those rating numbers don’t dictate content. Trust me. They do.
And that creates a working culture that disrespects the talents and the professionalism of the many fine reporters, producers and writers who work in the newsroom that I was asked to leave. (To be honest, they rarely make bone-head mistakes like the one I made.)
Hunter S. Thompson said it better than I can: "The TV business is uglier than most things . . . a cruel and shallow money trench . . . where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs.”
That’s how the dog story came to land on my desk at 5:15 p.m. on that fateful day. Only one of us would survive the encounter. It wasn’t me.
POSTSCRIPT, July 28: Everything has consequences, of course, and so did my decision to post this blog. On the upside, the story was picked up by a B.C. magazine, and will be published in a somewhat shortened form soon. My experience was also highlighted in a column in the Vancouver Province newspaper, a column that took the CBC to task. On the downside, it may have cost me a full-time CBC radio job in another city. I was a leading candidate for a hosting position, but the manager crossed out my name because of my "unwillingness" to take responsibility for my dog story mistake (I thought I had, but never mind) and for supposedly unkind things I said about Wayne. The fact that I'd criticized CBC local news was "not" an issue, I was told.
For more on this story, here's an essay on OpenFile Vancouver.
By Claude Adams
February 4, 2009. At his home in West Vancouver, Glen Cooper is fast sleep. The phone rings. “Hello?” It’s a bad connection from the other side of the world. “Hello?” It takes a few seconds, but then Cooper hears the broken English, the sharp hectoring voice. “Damn it,” he snarls, “it’s the middle of the night”—but the caller has launched into the familiar harangue: Where’s the money? Time is running out. Any news about prisoner releases from Guantánamo Bay? And, as always, the implicit threat: We have her…
“Her” is Beverley Giesbrecht, Cooper’s closest friend. If she herself were on the line, he would speak gently. But this is a Taliban goon who assumes Cooper can wave a magic wand. Cooper has heard it all before, the whole sick routine, but now it’s late and he’s hungover and mad. He slams the phone. A minute later it rings again. Now Cooper’s in a rage. He swears, crashes the receiver down, rips the cord out of the wall. For a few moments, he feels better.
Of course, in a day or two they call again. This time Cooper sticks to the talking points drafted by the RCMP task force handling the case: 1. She’s a devout Muslim. 2. She’s a friend of the Taliban. 3. Her journalism is making a difference in the West’s understanding of the jihadist insurgency. At all times, Cooper’s been told, refer to Bev by her Muslim name: Khadija Abdul Qahaar. Promise nothing, keep the lines of communication open, don’t talk politics, deflect any questions about a ransom. Maybe they’ll come to their senses, see that this poor, sick woman is more useful to them free than captive.
The rest of the story HERE
By Claude Adams
The Nathan Kotylaks of the world I can understand. It’s the bystanders I have trouble with.
Nathan is a 17-year-old Maple Ridge kid who tried to blow up a police car in Vancouver’s Stanley Cup riot, and blew up a promising life instead. Son of a prosperous family, a prospective future Olympian, he was caught on camera trying to set fire to the car in front of hundreds of witnesses.
It was a moment of epic stupidity. Was he intoxicated, stoned, momentarily unhinged? We don’t know. What we do know is that in the photo there are scores of eyewitnesses doing nothing. Many were egging him on. There’s also video of Nathan throwing fuel into the car, and shouting “Let’s do it! It’s gonna burn!” I listened hard, but I didn’t hear any admonishments from the mob. I heard cheering. Nobody took him aside, and warned him about the consequences of his actions. Instead, somebody snapped a picture, and went on his way.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Photographer Jonathan McMorran is convinced that Kotylak was trying to set the vehicle alight. “I was five feet away when this man was lighting a shirt on fire and putting it in the gas tank. But I don’t think the shirt was far enough inside,” he said. “When the car actually caught fire six minutes later at 8:32 p.m., the blaze was started from inside the vehicle." He can’t say for certain that Kotylak was the one who succeeded in starting the blaze, because three or four people were making attempts inside the car. Source: Kent Spencer, Postmedia News)
The next morning the photograph went viral, and that’s when the backlash started. On Facebook, someone posted his home phone number and his address. A self-styled social media vigilante who calls himself Captain Vancouver launched a one-man “public shaming” campaign against Nathan and several other young men and women who were caught on camera. Said Capt. Vancouver about the photographs and the whirlwind of reaction: “It shall be chiseled into the hard stone of the Internet and last eternally.” (Why didn’t this Moses-like voice of retribution identify himself?)
Much of the commentary, from anonymous posters, was ugly. There were expressions of glee that he might be sodomized in prison. There was gloating that a “rich kid” would be taken down.
Nathan’s family, including his surgeon father, convinced him to give himself up to police. And he has made a public apology. If he is charged with a crime, as is likely, we won’t be able to use his name anymore because he is a juvenile. By then, of course, the social ostracism of Nathan and his family will have taken its cruel course, and court-enforced anonymity will be meaningless. The Kotylaks, worried about vigilantism, have already been forced to flee the family home.
Meanwhile, the national water polo team dropped him. Presumably, the University of Calgary, where he was due to begin studies next year on a partial scholarship, will also quietly withdraw the welcome mat. (The Facebook bounty hunters were urged to write to the dean of the U of C, and make sure Nathan wasn’t accepted.)
All this is predictable and, if Nathan is found guilty, probably justified. What he did is reprehensible and merits punishment.
But at the same time, I feel for the kid because he was an extension of a mob that will escape all sanctions. His co-conspirators will go untouched.
I’m a product of the ‘60s and I remember my William Burroughs: “There are no innocent bystanders.” And my Edmund Burke. “All that is necessary for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing.”
In that downtown Vancouver riot, there were a few good men and women trying to stop the vandalism . . . But they were very few indeed, and some of them were beaten up. Mostly people watched. According to my ethical code, if you are a bystander, doing nothing, you’re an enabler. Eldridge Cleaver said it best: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. There is no neutral ground in a riot (journalists perhaps excepted.)
Looking at the video shot on the night of June 15, my partner Magi Bowyer directed my attention to the expressions on the faces of the people on the sidelines. The most common look was elation: they were getting a buzz from the noise and the flames and the police smokebombs and the prospect of looting. I didn’t see a lot of outrage; instead, it was the expression you see when children are creating mayhem without the risk of getting caught.
Experts who study the behavior of crowds talk about a phenomenon called “pluralistic ignorance”—the more bystanders there are, the less the likelihood of anyone intervening. We take our cues from those around us; if thousands are doing nothing, then passivity becomes the acceptable norm. It’s okay to blend into the mob and rationalize your indifference, because everybody is doing it. The mob crushes individualism. It’s like a fire that consumes all oxygen. Another term for this is “diffusion of responsibility”—if there are two witnesses to an outrage, they’ll probably step in. If there are two thousand, they’ll wait for somebody else to act. Altruism will diffuse into nothing. It’s also known as the Genovese syndrome, after the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in New York. Dozens heard her screams; no one even called the police
As someone has said, the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. When all around you is indifference, it’s easy to flip a car or smash a plate glass window. You fall into the moral vacuum of the moment. The reptile brain takes over. Time is compressed into the black hole of the present. A present in which one's fecklessness carries no cost. (Plus it’s easy to forget that someone is taking your picture.)
The morning after the riot was warm and sunny. Hundreds of Vancouverites were out with brooms, cleaning up the mess and hauling off the trash. The mood for many, I suspect, was shame tinged with denial. This isn’t my city. This doesn’t happen in Vancouver. This must be the work of a small cabal of anarchists and crazies, troublemakers. Everybody pointed fingers; the social media “outed” the culprits like Nathan, vilified them, condemned them, published the pictures they’d taken with their iPhones. Thousands scribbled their pieties on the Wall of Forgiveness.
But then came the real shame of June 15: the ugly vigilantism that followed the rioting, the scapegoating. But the scapegoaters forget it was all of us out there. We, the vast majority, stood by. The intensity of the morning-after fury was, I believe, in direct proportion to the deep-seated guilt we all felt for doing nothing. Because if we were in downtown Vancouver on that evening, we knew, deep down, that our silence was our approbation; our turning away enabled the madness.
We shape the culture, and the culture shapes the character.
Postscript: There's some suggestion that the way we play hockey, and promote it, and indulge its essential violence, was a contributing factor to the violence on the street on June 15. See Jeffrey Dvorkin's excellent essay. I'm not sure about that. But I do have some reservations about the media coverage of the final series between the Canucks and the Bruins. At least locally, it pushed almost everything else off the news agenda. The series was the ONLY story that mattered. We took a straightforward sports event and turned it into something all-consuming. We made it a contest that would define us. We would be the best. We put up giant screens on the streets to concentrate the tribal emotions we whipped up. Politicians appeared on camera in team jerseys, and pandered to the public mood. Hey, this matters, was the message! Then, when the team "failed" and the emotion turned sour, we were shocked.
Make Them Pay, screamed the front page of the Vancouver Province. But it was too late. We have already paid. But have we learned?
By Claude Adams
Judy Jackson is a veteran documentary filmmaker on Salt Spring Island who knows as much about war-related trauma as anyone working in journalism. While she was making War in the Mind, her new film about combat trauma, she was also deeply engaged in the rehabilitation of a Somali photojournalist, Salah Abdulle. Abdulle was severely traumatized when the car he was driving in was blown up in Mogadishu. Abdulle and Jackson met in Canada, and became close friends. He credited her with saving his life.
All the more remarkable, then, that War in the Mind maintains such an emotional equilibrium. Considering Jackson’s own experience with post traumatic stress disorder while this film was taking shape, she would have been forgiven a little more stridency, maybe even an occasional Michael Moore-like shout of outrage against a military establishment that downplays the link between PSTD and suicide among its soldiers.
Instead, Jackson plays it straight, letting her protagonists lead the story. There is anger in the film, but it is subliminal and subdued. One hears it occasionally in the voice of Romeo Dallaire, as he talks about the refusal of the military brass to fully acknowledge how combat and trauma go hand in hand. But the narration itself (by actor Paul Gross) is even-handed in tone. Maybe a little too even-handed for such a raw subject.
The heart of Jackson’s documentary is the experience of a handful of Canadian soldiers returning from duty in Afghanistan. All came back with trauma issues. They agree to take part in a unusual nine-month program of therapy—much of it involving role-playing--at the University of British Columbia. The therapeutic program is called “Drop the Baggage.” Even more surprisingly, they agree to let Jackson’s camera team into the room while they explore their traumas. The result is, at times, electrifying.
One of the doctors in the film talked of a “spiritual” wounding. And that brought to mind something written by Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize winning war correspondent and author. "In the beginning war looks and feels like love,” writes Hedges. “But unlike love it gives nothing in return but an ever-deepening dependence, like all narcotics, on the road to self-destruction. . . . It destroys the outside world until it is hard to live outside war's grip . . . Finally, one ingests war only to remain numb."
Three of the characters in Jackson’s film—identified only by their first names: Tim, Wayne and Dan—also come home and find it hard to live outside war’s grip. In the film, they talk only fleetingly about what it is that they experienced on the battlefield. We hear about buddies wounded or killed while on patrol. For reasons not made clear, a lot of detail of their experience is omitted. We do, however, see remarkable video of Frederic Couture on the battlefield, as he steps on a landmine while on patrol. Realizing that he had lost a foot, the young Quebecer freaks out and tries to shoot himself. His buddies stop him, talk him down, and carry him to safety. A year later, at home, Couture throws himself off a fourth-floor balcony and dies.
Like Couture, Tim Laidler, Wayne Innis and Dan Patterson have their worst moments when they’re back home. PTSD has a long fuse. It can erupt months, even years later, in the most unlikely places. One of the soldiers in the film talks about an overpowering paranoia he felt when he visited a Tim Horton’s in his home town. “I had to sit with my back to the wall, facing the door,” he says. He was haunted by the possibility of being attacked. In a chilling monologue, Dallaire, driven almost mad by his experiences in Rwanda, tells about sitting naked at home, cutting himself with a knife and feeling comfort in the warmth of the blood flowing from his self-inflicted wounds. He said he had lost his mental “prosthesis.”
Considering how deeply PTSD wounds these soldiers, I had some reservations when Patterson rhapsodized about the benefits of the UBC therapy. In a discussion with the audience after a recent Vancouver screening of War in the Mind, he said the therapy left him “a man full of love, able to smell the flowers” and wanting to “spread the word” about how one can recover from severe trauma. In the same discussion, Laidler remembered coming home, and burying his psychic wounds deep inside him. He’d worried lest a future employer might find about it. Now, after the therapy, he brandishes his healing experience. “It’s part of my resume now,” he said confidently. He plans to screen the film for his buddies in the service—something of a risk, since many still believe that when it comes to trauma, a good soldier learns to “suck it up.”
These are very positive things. You really want to believe Patterson and Laidler have left the worst of the trauma behind them. You want to share in their joy of recovery. But then you hear the darkness that’s still in Romeo Dallaire’s voice a full 17 years after Rwanda. And you see the WW2 veterans in the film, who still can’t talk about their battlefield trauma after 60 years. You sense that parts of them have never fully recovered, and you wonder if those parts can ever be restored, no matter how innovative the therapy. (Jackson herself says it would be useful to revisit her protagonists again five years from now, to get a better sense of their recovery.)
War in the Mind is filled with bleak and sad moments, but for me the saddest comes when a Victoria, BC, couple visit the grave of their son Stuart Langridge. Langridge was an infantryman, not much more than a boy, who hanged himself in his Edmonton barracks in 2008—three years after a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan.
In the film, his mother, Sheila Fynes, has just returned from Ottawa, where she convinced the government to award Langridge with a posthumous “sacrifice” medal, an act that acknowledges her son as a casualty of war. The medal came with an apology.
And now she was bringing the medal to her son’s grave. The poignant scene in the film suggests that the medal and the apology afford Fynes and her husband some long-overdue relief. But I was left with a dull hollowed-out feeling: Is that all there is? “I’m sorry, and here’s a medal.” Is that our government’s best response to this recurring tragedy of soldier suicides? Writing about the oft-quoted maxim that it is “sweet and fitting” to die for one’s country, the WW1 poet Wilfred Owen called it “the big lie.” Is it not even a greater lie to pretend that the suicide of a broken soldier is somehow a patriotic sacrifice?
Even if the soldier is killed in conflict, is this really a “sacrifice?” Sacrifice implies virtue: it asks us to buy into the language of those who see military service as inevitable, honorable, and a duty. Once again, I turn to Chris Hedges: “What do you say to those who advocate war as an instrument to liberate the women of Afghanistan or bring democracy to Iraq? How do you explain that the very proposition of war as an instrument of virtue is absurd?”
Yet it’s an absurdity that we instill in Tim and Dan and Wayne and Frederic and Stuart and the other soldiers we send out to fight our wars—conflicts in distant place that may have nothing to do with Canada’s security. And when they come home confused and damaged, we wonder how we can put them together again. Perhaps one in six is psychically scarred.
PTSD hadn’t even entered our lexicon when a little-known German poet, Franz Werfel, wrote these words about combat-addled WW1 veterans: “On a storm of false words, the head wreathed by empty thunder, sleepless from lies . . . “
Sleepless from lies. Empty thunder. War as virtue. Maybe it’s in these untruths and patriotic sound effects that the trauma of the foot-soldier really begins, even before he is crippled by an IED, watches his buddies die, or inadvertently kills a civilian. Maybe it begins in basic training, when we put a gun in a young man’s hands and teach him to kill without thinking. (Clearly, the military is sensitive to this subject. Watch the TV recruiting commercials for the Canadian Forces: there’s no killing there, only dramatic Arctic rescues and sea patrols.)
These are the kinds of emotions that Judy Jackson’s film evokes, and why War in the Mind deserves a place in the canon of anti-war filmology. It may not have been her intention, but we leave the theatre disturbed and angry, and asking questions that go beyond the treatment of trauma.
(War in the Mind will premiere on TVO on Wednesday, July 6, at 9pm, and will be repeated in subsequent broadcasts. It will also be shown on the Knowledge Network in the fall.)
By Claude Adams
Early in the pages of The End of Iceland’s Innocence, Daniel Chartier fires a familiar rocket at the print media; that journalists often hype, spin, magnify and sensationalize “the facts . . . creating an ethos to make the news more appealing to readers.”
He’s about to tell us that the banking crisis in Iceland in 2008 was a media narrative. Yes, the banks failed, and yes, there was a loss of faith in the island’s economy, and yes, Iceland’s moneymen and politicians made some terrible mistakes that reverberated throughout the European economies.
But it was the Greek chorus of international commentators, wielding the language of hyperbole, who did the real damage. “The foreign media,” Chartier says, “worsened the situation and made Iceland a pathetic example of the financial failure the world was experiencing.”
It’s a compelling argument if you look only at the tone and the language of the coverage. Chartier, a literature prof at the University of Quebec in Montreal, based his study on the reporting of nine reputable newspapers in the fall and winter of 2008, including The New York Times, Le Monde, the Financial Times, The Globe and Mail, and Montreal’s Le Devoir. There’s no denying that the reporting often lurches into the apocalyptic: Iceland’s international reputation “ruined” (Financial Times), Iceland is “about to sink” (Le Monde), Iceland “crashing down to earth” (The Australian); Iceland “like Chernobyl” (Bloomberg); and my personal favorite, Iceland “the Nordic Zimbabwe” (The Huffington Post)
Of course, Iceland is still there in the North Atlantic. It hasn’t sunk, crashed, melted, imploded or drifted into the heart of darkness. Icelanders haven’t descended into cannibalism or thrown themselves lemming-like into the icy sea. Indeed, we’ve seen very little about Iceland in the newspapers since those grim days in 2008/09, but a quick search through the 2011 CIA World Factbook tells us that Icelanders are slowly putting their economy back together again. They haven’t gone Zimbabwean.
So yes, we can agree with Chartier that the ethos of catastrophe created by the print media muddied our perception of this tiny nation, with a population—320,000—equivalent to that of a mid-sized Canadian city. But the author goes too far when he argues that “this foreign discourse . . . has constructed for millions of people abroad the only image of Iceland they will ever get.” Most of us already had an image of Iceland before 2008, and it was a pretty Tolkienesque one: a land of hardy Nordic seafarers and fishermen, the world’s most peaceful country (a 2008 global index), occupied by the happiest, the healthiest, the best-read, the friendliest, and the greenest of people. Before 2008, we thought Iceland and what came to mind were Bjork and Bobby Fischer’s hideaway and halibut and volcanoes and a capital city that was impossible to spell. But that perception has been smashed. Today, thanks to the coverage of 2008, we know that Icelanders are Europeans living on a small island who survived a terrible economic collapse. Cut their credit and they bleed. Just like the rest of us.
So the over-hyped media attention, while traumatizing, may have been a useful wakeup call, for us and for Icelanders.
That’s not to excuse hyper-ventilative reporting. Matthew Arnold called journalism “literature in a hurry” and in the profession’s galloping urgency, a sense of proportion (not to mention the literary sense) is often lost. Major events become history-altering, medical advances become breakthroughs, every revolt is a democratic upheaval, and heroes are a dime a dozen. Editors have taken Pauline Kael’s admonition to filmmakers—“Astonish us!”—and directed it at their reporters. No surprise, then, that journalists will gild the grammar and torque the story.
Chartier does it himself, with the title of his book. Iceland was never “innocent” and 2008 wasn’t the end of anything. But as you follow his story chapter by chapter, you begin to see that while the newspapers may have amped the story, all those unhappy things did happen: Icelanders did over-indulge, the country’s three big commercial banks did collapse, and, relative to the country’s size, this was the biggest banking meltdown suffered by any country in economic history. And yes, the UK government did then apply anti-terrorism legislation against Iceland to recoup money owed to British depositors. And many Icelanders have turned their attention to fishing again.
All these things happened. And likely would have happened, even if Iceland had been a media-free zone. The journalists simply added the over-rich adjectives, and in their inimitable circus-barker way, drew us into the tent to tell us about a place we knew very little about. They came, they saw, they inflated. Thus it ever was. And will be.
Also published March 18, 2010, in J-Source magazine.
By Claude Adams
Trauma wasn’t a big issue for journalists 32 years ago when Unit 2 of the Three Mile Island nuclear facility in Pennsylvania suffered a partial core meltdown. As I remember it, we were “spooked” by the fact that if we were accidentally radiated, we’d never know it until our hair started to fall out weeks later.
That produced its share of gallows humor at the time. As did my anxiety when my flight out of Harrisburg back to Washington took me over a TMI cooling tower just as it belched a huge cloud of steam. Was it a radioactive cloud? What was the pilot thinking? Was I doomed?
I remember worrying what effect this flyover might have on my ability to produce children, but the subsequent arrival of Patrick (1981) and Ariel (1987) put those fears to rest.
They were heady, stupid days. Most of the journalists who converged on Dauphin County to cover that iconic nuclear accident knew almost nothing about reactors, relief valves, or radiation. We were ignoramuses eager to produce some disaster porn. Science was not our strong point. The most common question in the media scrums was “What’s a millirem?” (Answer: It’s one-hundredth of a Sievert.) We’d all seen The China Syndrome, so we were all waiting for the molten uranium to burn its way through the earth’s crust and initiate the Countdown to Armageddon. Meanwhile, we listened to the lies and evasions of the plant operators, and wrote the obfuscatory stories that created more confusion than clarity for our readers.
I remember one day, desperate for fresh copy, a few us drove out to farm country to see the cows. We’d been told that cows react to unnatural events by turning away from the source of trouble. So we found a farmer’s field where most (but not all) of the cows were facing away from the TMI cooling towers. That was enough for a provocative photograph and a few chilling paragraphs with a catchy headline: “What do the cows know that we don’t?”
Of course none of this is funny today, as we watch the unfolding of the Japanese triple-threat: quake followed by tsunami followed by reactor crises. Reporters are better versed today in science and technology, as well as how to act in dangerous places. But still, some serious questions remain.
The Pack Moves In
Like, what are all those journalists doing there in the first place? Are they really necessary, or do they just get in the way? What are they telling us that we don’t already know? The stampede of foreign journalists into Japan in the days after the tsunami baffled some correspondents already there.
Dan Chung, a video-journalist for The Guardian, was in Japan’s disaster zone 36 hours after the 8.9 earthquake struck. He left during the first radiation scare. “We were the first wave in and we were getting the hell out of Dodge. And the second wave (of foreign media) were just coming in. It was strange. I guess they were there to cover the meltdown.” (A podcast of Chung’s experiences can be found here.)
Of course, if there were a meltdown, nobody would get within 100 km of the nuclear plant at Fukushima. Even as it was, there was little or no access to the main disaster area, so most of the second wave of visiting journos never even left Tokyo, with its 24-hour communication, abundant food and accommodation, and best of all, no threat of radiation.
Even for those intrepid one-man crews like Chung who got into the disaster zones early, news-gathering was nightmarishly difficult and ultimately without much point. Almost all of Chung’s 20-hour working day was consumed by logistics—fuel, food, power and finding Internet connections—which left barely two or three hours for real work.
And then, most of the still pictures and video he shot were superfluous. Chung says he “couldn’t compete” with Japanese crews on the ground and in helicopters, or with the incredible Japanese amateur video that was already being transmitted around the world.
Finally, there was the simple problem of communication. Chung couldn’t speak Japanese, and even with a translator, survivors didn’t want to talk to him.
“I kept asking myself, what the hell are you doing, and how do you do it differently?”
Planting the Flag
Those questions are mostly rhetorical. They answer themselves. In his heart, Chung knows very well why he was there, spending thousands of dollars of his boss’ money on a noble but unrewarding exercise. He was in Japan because The Guardian wanted him to be there so they could say they had somebody on the ground. (Radio France were notable for their decision to put safety ahead of ego, and pull most of their journalists out of Japan when the reactors started leaking.)
Disaster coverage on this scale is all ego for large news organizations. It’s ego on steroids. Stories like Japan offer almost no opportunity for original, enterprise reporting. They’re a showcase for your marquee correspondents, who are parachuted in and whose job it is to put a face (or a byline) on an already-familiar story. It’s a practice called “establishing presence”--like planting one's flag at the North Pole: Today we are here (and tomorrow we’ll be gone.) The pictures these correspondents are fronting from Tokyo are the same pictures, and the same information, that have been spinning through the CNN, BBC and Al-Jazeera news cycle for hours.
Just as Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait, 1990, was covered out of Washington, so too Japan, 2011, could have been covered perfectly well out of Vancouver or Toronto. All the images and human drama and analysis and graphics and voice clips are flowing down the pipeline, 24 hours a day, and all of them can be perfectly packaged at home. (Disclosure: I tried to cover Desert Storm for the CBC from a hotel in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, but ended up spending much of my time in a bomb shelter with a gas mask on.)
“We owned the story yesterday,” was how the senior executive of one Canadian network greeted the first-day coverage of the disaster. In fact, nobody on this side of the Pacific “owned” it. It wasn’t owned. At best, it was creatively appropriated, re-packaged and disseminated. The real owners of the story are the people who lived and died through the disaster, who used the social media to deliver the images, and who continue to risk their lives in the rubble and the reactors to mitigate its effects. Plus those brave Japanese journalists who got the first pictures out on March 12.
Who Owns What?
Maybe the time has come for new, lean, fast-reaction kind of disaster journalism. Small, highly-mobile, self-contained units of intrepid people like Dan Chung who are able to access a disaster area within hours, and send back information, pictures and audio to a data pool that everyone can access. We have to accept the ego-deflating fact that there are few scoops in catastrophes. We have to give up the idea that we can “own” stories of chaos.
This kind of mindset is not likely to be embraced soon by our corporatised, celebretised media, so I guess we will continue sending journalists into trouble areas, and hope they muddle their way through with the minimum of risk and trauma.
If so, they should all read a guide prepared by Yoichi Shimatsu, a former editor with the Japan Times Weekly. His guide was commissioned by the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma, and it has some good crisp ideas on how to gird yourself for life in a nuclear disaster zone. He also tells you what to pack: Things like small units of currency, the right camera phone, travel insurance (for that emergency helicopter ride to the hospital) and plenty of throwaway raincoats and face masks.
My favorite piece of advice is: Don’t be afraid to act like a “horse’s arse” at official press conferences. “The press handlers play dirty, and never forget it,” Shimatsu advises. So ask the tough questions and expose the denials and excuses.
In other words, if you absolutely have to be there, then at least find a way to make a difference.
Published in J-Source on Feb. 25, 2010
By Claude Adams
Last night (Feb. 24) after a tumultuous day in Libya, all three Canadian networks--CBC, CTV and Global-- decided that the prime story of the day was NOT an African people's brave and bloody struggle for freedom, but rather how that revolution is inconveniencing Canadians. CTV led with higher gasoline prices at the pump: CBC and Global opened their shows with reports from Rome, about how difficult it was for Canadians to leave Libya.
Ironically, a woman interviewed at a gas station by CTV put things in perspective: "What's going on in Libya is much more serious than spending an extra three dollars on a tank of gas."
But that was a perspective clearly not shared by the lineup editors at Canada's most important broadcast news outlets. We may be living in a global village, but when it comes to broadcast priorities, it seems, we are still a collection of villages where parochial self-interest comes first, and the state of the world second. "Has anybody here been raped and speak English?" are the words that late Edward Behr had the typical British correspondent asking as he landed in an African civil war. "Are the Canadians okay?" our networks are asking today. "Okay, now what else happened?"
Of course, there are practical concerns here. In foreign news reporting, the messenger is often just as important as the message. None of the three Canadian networks had a correspondent inside Libya; they hadn't "established presence.” If the CBC's Carolyn Dunn, for example, had managed to reach Benghazi or Tripoli and send out a first-hand account of what was happening there, she would likely have led the show. Instead, it was Adrienne Arsenault first from Rome with the story about the belabored Canadians, and Dunn second at the Libyan/Tunisian border. The stark pictures and events inside Libya came third, in a report from Washington. The deployment of your network's marquee reporters abroad is always a factor in designing a newscast. (When I worked for The National years ago, they would rush to get me to a foreign capital so I could file a report from the ground, even if I hadn’t cleared my baggage yet. The news desk would feed me information, so I could sound authoritative the moment I touched down. That’s “establishing presence.”)
At CTV yesterday, the thinking (I suspect) was even more pragmatic. Everybody knew what was going on in Libya, thanks to the 24-hour news cycle, so why not do a story on what was really worrying Canadians: how much is that darn revolution going to cost me at the gas pump? The hottest news, like politics, is always local. Or so the thinking goes. (I remember a news director telling me: "News is what people are talking about on the bus to work. Nothing more, nothing less." I suppose that's why we're better informed about Kim Kardashian than North Korea.)
News executives will argue that the hierarchy of stories in the first ten minutes of a newscast doesn't really matter, as long as they are in some way linked to the main story. I don't agree. A newscast should be a reflection of what we really care about as an audience, as a society. Do I really care more about the Canadian oil worker trying to get home, than about the Libyan citizen being pursued by armed mercenaries? And if I do, should a public broadcaster cater to that blinkered sentiment?
Yes, yes, I know that news today is omnipresent, and that I can find out all I need to know about Libya on the CBC's website and on radio and on Google News, anytime I want it. But still, the top newscasts are the prism through which many people view the world, and how the networks behave as gatekeepers tells us something about their values, what they deem significant. Is it too much to insist on a sense of proportionality?
When I taught broadcast journalist a few years ago, we used to play the Lineup Game. I would collect a synopsis of all the stories from the night before, from all the prominent English-language TV newscasts in Canada, the US and the UK, and I would put them up on a board. Then I would ask the students to act as lineup editors, to design their own 22-minute newscasts from all the available stories, based on their own beliefs of what mattered.
In almost every case, the shows they created gave greater weight to strong international stories, with less weight to the purely Canadian-angle ones. I told them this flew in the face of marketing dogma--where local interest always trumps global interest. A downtown shooting will almost always attract more local buzz, and thus more eyeballs, than a ferry sinking in Bangladesh. The students didn't care about these algorithms of relative importance. "These are the kinds of newscasts I would watch," they said about their shows. (Implicit in that was the obvious message: "We don't, and won't, watch the others.") I'm not certain they were telling the truth. But I did find it interesting that their shows most closely resembled BBC newscasts.
Incidentally, these students are precisely that cohort of Canadians that is abandoning traditional newscasts in great numbers. Maybe there's a lesson here.
Feb. 4, 2011
I find it curious that the Globe’s editorial board would urge the continued exile of former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, even as it applauds the efforts of the Egyptian people to determine their own political future (Return Of A Polarizer – Feb. 3). You call him “unwelcome.” Surely not to the Haitian people, who elected him twice in a democratic vote. But you got one thing right. Mr. Aristide is indeed a polarizer. His “pole” is Haiti’s poor and dispossessed – the people who voted for him then lost him in an international coup.
Claude Adams, Surrey, B.C.
Noted in the Canadian Haiti Action Network newsletter.
Another version of this story was published in J-Source on Jan. 11, 2011, and in The Tyee
By Claude Adams
In her final hostage video, in March 2009, Bev Giesbrecht of West Vancouver, her voice breaking, says this: “Either the Pakistani government or my own country, somebody’s got to move now, because my life is going to be over . . . Responsibility of this will be clearly on somebody’s shoulder. I’m pleading with you, please save my life.”
The terror is etched in her face. She clearly feared the worst from her Taliban captors—a grisly videotaped beheading. But that never happened. Instead, according to an Indian newspaper, Bev Giesbrecht died of a “prolonged illness” in October, 2010, while still a hostage. That’s 19 months after her video appeal, 19 months in which a Canadian citizen, working as a self-styled journalist, lingered in fear and illness in Taliban hands.
We couldn’t, or wouldn’t, save her. And the Canadian media paid only perfunctory attention to her plight. She was a Page 5 story, an after-thought. Giesbrecht got nowhere near the attention of two other Canadian women who were kidnapped by Islamic insurgents, Mellissa Fung and Amanda Lindhout, during this same period. Both were subsequently released.
Clearly, Giesbrecht was a complicated story, an anomaly. A woman who, in mid-life, suddenly converts to Islam, sells everything she owns, loses most of her friends, says nice things about the Taliban, and flies in the face of government policy. She calls herself a journalist, and ventures into one of the most dangerous places on earth—the tribal regions of Pakistan—looking for insurgents to film. Imagine that: a 95-pound middle-aged chain-smoking single woman, taking on the Taliban with nothing more than a camera, an attitude and quotations from the Koran!
She must have been crazy, or suicidal. At least, that’s what her critics were saying. “She made her Muslimah bed,” goes one Internet chat room comment. “Let her lie in it.” Vancouver journalist and author Terry Glavin was even harsher: “Batshit crazy play-acting,” he blogged.
But she wasn’t crazy, or play-acting. Her close friends, and people who worked with her in the field, say she was aggressive and opinionated and tireless, but perfectly sane—qualities that made her something of a phenomenon in B.C. publishing circles in the 1980s and 90s. As she described herself in her website: “I am not a ‘terrorist,’ a fanatic or mentally unbalanced. On the contrary, I am a level-headed, capable woman, a humanitarian and a contributing member of society.”
Her close friend, Glen Cooper, said she adopted Islam as a way of accessing a culture that she believed was misunderstood in the West. He says she wanted to help us to understand militant Islam better. A quixotic mission, maybe, and even foolhardy, but not without a certain nobility. “She was the bravest person I ever knew,” Cooper says.
Phil Rees, a British filmmaker who worked with her in Pakistan, told me Giesbrecht was “trying to give voice to people who she felt were not getting equal say in the swing of things. . . . She wanted to make films.” Her work appeared on Al-Jazeera, and Channel 4 in the UK. When she was captured, she was working on story she hinted would be a sensation in West.
But to the Pakistani government, according to journalists in Peshawar, she was seen as meddlesome Westerner-in-a-hijab consorting with the enemy, and they did little or nothing to help her.
How did this hostile attitude get in the way of Canadian efforts to secure her release? We don’t know, because Ottawa is saying nothing about her case, and neither is the RCMP, which was tasked with negotiating with her Taliban captors. Officially, they will maintain that silence until Giesbrecht’s death is confirmed. And, given the geography of where she was held, that could be a long time.
All we do know for sure is that Ottawa held firm to its uncompromising policy of not paying ransom money to kidnappers. Politically, that makes sense. But it’s a policy that needs to be examined from a humanitarian point of view: Maybe other concessions could have been offered, enough for the kidnappers to save face. Or why couldn’t some ransom money have been channeled quietly through private groups or individuals? (Lindhout was freed with private donations of $1 million.)
And there’s a good chance Giesbrecht could have been freed for far less than a million dollars. The Pakistani interpreter who was kidnapped with her (and released) said her captors were despairing of ever getting any money for her. She was ill, losing her sight, and becoming a burden. They were ready to let her go. A Pakistani-Canadian journalist who traveled to Peshawar told me that the word on the street was that a “few thousand dollars” would have been enough to secure her freedom.
Why didn’t this add some impetus to negotiations? Again, nobody will say. But it begs the question: how determined were the efforts to rescue an imperiled Canadian on foreign soil when that citizen was a vocal critic of government policy?
There is a slim chance that Giesbrecht may, in fact, still be alive. But if she’s not, simple compassion requires that she be mourned, and that we are given an explanation of why she could not be rescued.