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The unemployed question markThe unemployed question mark

The unemployed question mark

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Topics: Journalism
The unemployed question mark May 24, 2011  |  By Peter Stockland
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One of several reasons I left the news business after more than 25 years was disenchantment gusting to disgust at its programmatic nature. The owners I worked for were programmatic idiots, of course. With the rare exception of Conrad Black, Paul Godfrey, and a very few superb people like them, newspapers have always been owned by people whose staircases don't reach the top landing. But no, it wasn't the myopic profit squeezers and brown-nosed platitude preachers running the corporate booby bin who bothered me. It was the people who did what I did: daily journalism. I could see that many, if not most, of them were far more talented and much better reporters than I. The distressing part wasn't their lack of talent. It was their absence of memory. Too many had forgotten their job was to ask questions, not fix the world or even tell it how to go about fixing itself. The resulting ill effect is not the banality of bias or even the laziness of mere pack journalism. It is the operation from a script on virtually everything, so every story is given a typology and played out according to an unwavering call-and-response program. A perfect example is last week's appointment to the Senate of three Conservative who tried and failed to get elected in the recent federal election. The Senate appointments of Larry Smith, Josée Verner and Fabian Manning might have been good things. They might have been bad things. They might have been somewhere in-between things. Run through the media script mill, however, they were automatically only one thing: an outrageous scandal. No journalist I'm aware of thought to ask the simple question: why? Why were they an outrageous scandal? It was simply an accepted part of the script that senate appointments are an outrageous scandal because . . . because they are scandalously outrageous. Nouns become adjectives. The question mark—journalism's raison d'etre—is unemployed. The question left unasked goes unanswered. What we get in its place resembles a serpent swallowing its tail: the outrage of the outrageously scandalous scandal is the anti-democratic affront of appointing to an unelected body three people who'd just been rejected in a federal election. Yet the Senate, by its nature, is a body filled with unelected bodies. It has been so since Canada was confederated. Most of those bodies haven't even bothered to try to get elected. They are simply appointed at the prerogative of the prime minister. So why would the fact of having sought election make a whit of difference to the legitimacy of the appointees? There might be a really great answer to that most basic of questions. There might be great answers to many of basic questions on the issues that confront us—if only the questions were asked. All too often, they aren't. The failure, extrapolated across the field of daily journalism to virtually every story covered, created what I began to think of in the last years of my newspaper career as the new yellow journalism. It is not the yellow from the turn of the 20th century when American newspapers indulged in a riot of sensationalist jingoism to report the Spanish-American war. It is the yellow of Miss Havisham in Dickens' Great Expectations, when Pip finds her in the room she has lived in permanent stasis since being jilted at the altar years before. "I saw that everything within my view that ought to have been white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre and was faded and yellow," Pip says. I know, all too well, what he means.

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