Just forget the words and sing along

Friday, October 10, 2008

Democracy in Action

I try to avoid talking about my life in this blog, mainly because I've heard one too many horror stories about people getting fired because of stuff they've written in their blogs coming back to haunt them, but something happened today, that I just have to get off my chest.

As you may recall from Monday's blog entry, Athabasca had its all-candidates forum on Monday night. Just scroll down a little, and you'll see that I chose not to go. It was being hosted by the Athabasca Peace Initiative, and as part of their planning, they were going to ask most of the questions, because they felt, "it's important the right questions are asked." And, if there was time at the end, they'd open it up to the floor for other questions. That, and, early in the campaign, several candidates said that they probably wouldn't come because of how geographically huge the Fort McMurray--Athabasca riding is. To me, it seemed, the only reason to go would be to see who showed up.

The first person I ran into on Monday seemed to confirm my suspicions. From his point of view, the only folks who showed up were "every old hippie in Athabasca" and that it quickly degenerated into an angry crowd demanding that the troops be brought home from Afghanistan. From the way he talked, it sounded like it happened like I thought it would, and that I didn't miss much.

The second person was my learned colleague who works for Athabasca's newspaper. He read my blog entry from yesterday and was none too impressed with my preconceptions. Of course, he was at the all-candidates forum, covering it for the paper, and he found the Athabasca Peace Initiative's format to be "the most logical and best way to present the issues that are of actual importance instead of letting candidates 'tow the party line.'"

He then went on to say that he found it disappointing that I "brandish a 'press pass' yet failed to attend, let alone report on something that affects people, especially when it's politics, especially when it's a snap election and especially when the election is next week." Naturally, I found this statement to be a personal attack on the two years I spent working as the news director for 850 the Fox. It was nuts to you, and the flame war was on, as I proceeded to defend my record as a reporter.

My career politician mother told me when I was a kid that you should never get into an argument with someone who believes themselves to be morally superior to you, because they'll always twist your words to prove their point, and the more you argue, the more ammunition you give them. "When they attack your integrity, or your ethics, or anything like that, it's best to make a brief statement and let your record do the talking," my mother said. And today was one of those days when I should have listened to my mother. After a few hours worth of flaming, it started becoming obvious that I bought a knife to a gun fight, so I made my brief statement and made a hasty exit.

And it's all documented on Facebook for you to read.

The crux of his argument was my press pass. He kept dismissing it as a phony credential. In my final days as the news director, Athabasca was hosting a provincial junior hockey championship. As it had been a hectic week for me, I neglected to phone ahead and let the organizers know I was coming to cover it and arrange a proper press pass and all that. I shared my tale of woe with the manager in my office, and he went to his computer and printed off a generic press pass for me. He slipped his business card in the back and said, "If they hassle you, just show them my card and have them call me." Of course, my worries turned out to be for nothing, because all the organizers recognized me and when I approached the front doors, they just waved me in.

However, I thought this generic press pass was kind of cool, and I kept wearing it to events in my final days as a reporter, and I've kept wearing when I go out to events in Athabasca.

And, according to my learned colleague, it's a phony credential, and I should stop misrepresenting myself, and I sully the reputation of upstanding reporters like him when I wear it.

I'm sure then that, my learned colleague, the fine upstanding reporter that he is, knows the importance of knowing the whole story before rushing to print.

Choosing not to go to the all-candidates forum was a difficult decision for me. There were several events going on in Athabasca on Monday night, and instead of going to the all-candidates forum, I went to my regular, first Monday of every month date. I went to planning meeting for the Magnificent River Rats Festival.

You've seen me blog about it in the past. Heck, you've probably seen my movie about it on YouTube. When I first started in Athabasca as a reporter, I was told that it was one of the meetings that was regularly covered, so I went to all the meetings. For two years. When I got my promotion from reporter to morning show host earlier this year, the company asked me to keep going, but this time, I would be the station's official representative. Granted, it's merely a symbolic gesture. I have no real power to, say, promise the River Rats a zillion dollars in free advertising. But I do have one power there.

Freed from the confines of journalistic impartiality, I can now vote on stuff. I can now speak up and share my ideas. I can now take an active role in the planning of the festival. And this being the first meeting for the planning of the 2009 festival, this is when all the important stuff was decided. Ticket prices...whether the festival should be on Canada Day (a Wednesday next year) or moved to the weekend before...whether the festival director could be authorized to bring in [name of really cool classic Canadian rockers withheld because they're still in negotiations]. And I raised my hand to vote in each and every one of those issues.

And, truth be told, when I was deciding the ticket prices for the festival, I felt more like I was making a difference than I would have sitting in the theater listening to a bunch of old men debate the issues.

But then really, that's become the real issue, hasn't it? Am I still a reporter -- the impartial observer -- or have I become an active participant? Does wearing the press pass to film the River Rats festival for my YouTube videos make me a fraud as a reporter? I'm reminded of the first words of my news professor at broadcast school, who said that journalism is unique in that it's a profession that has no credentials. Lawyers need to pass the Bar exam. Here in Alberta, teachers need to be certified by the ATA, but journalism has nothing comparable. There's no independent organization to certify reporters. Anyone can be a reporter.

So what is the definition of credentials? When I highlighted my experience in student media, my learned colleague wasn't impressed. "School time is play time," he said, so I'm sure he'll be the first to dismiss education as a credential. Is it being backed up by a major company? If so, my boss's business card nestled in the back of that press pass, stating I work for the second-largest radio broadcaster in the nation, should be enough. Is it having the permission of the organizers of the event your covering? Hey, that's easy, just a couple of phone calls and you're in. Is it experience? If that's the case, then my two years as a reporter in Athabasca should be more than enough to qualify me to cover Athabasca events. Truth be told, journalism credentials are easy to come by.

No, the question here is job titles. Can I keep calling myself a reporter, if it's no longer the job I'm being paid to do? And the answer is...no.

If my evening at the River Rats shows anything, it's that I've made the jump from impartial observer to active participant. I have violated the very core of being a good reporter. I am no longer an impartial observer. So, it's time to hang up the press pass. It's a job that I've moved on from. I think I'll take that press pass and frame it...hang it on my trophy wall, next to my last Japanese business card and my hardhat from that summer on a gravel crusher crew.

The brief statement I used to end the flame war and make my hasty exit was thus:

"Six months from now, you'll have moved on to some daily newspaper in some city, and Athabasca will just be that mark at the beginning of your resume. And I'll still be in Athabasca. And that will be best for both of us."

But he should know this.

When he comes back in the summer to enjoy the Magnificent River Rats festival, and he starts whining that ticket prices went up by $10, he can blame me.

Because I voted.

And he didn't.

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