I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

Quitting Solves Nothing

Okay, okay, enough already, for three days I have been getting calls, emails, posts and pleas to wade in on the Kai Nagata story. Kai’s the former CTV reporter who worked in, or should I say was, the Quebec City bureau. He has walked away from his job at the naïve young age of 24 but not before writing an impassioned essay on why he left and what is wrong with broadcast, no, all of journalism.

Kai’s screed has been an internet sensation among those of us who call ourselves journalists. Not just because it was passionate and well written, but, because there are too many sorry truths to ignore in his ramblings.

Kai says he quit his job “…because the idea burrowed into my mind that, on the long list of things I could be doing, television news is not the best use of my short life.”

Nagata’s main criticisms of his former profession are all right on the mark. He decries the need for good looks as a television reporter and says that sometimes, perhaps many times, looks are more important than the ability to report, write and produce top quality stories. He felt he could not do the kind of reporting he thought was necessary. He especially thought reporting on the Harper Government was a non-starter because his bosses did not want to tackle what he saw as the flaws in policy, those include Harper’s foreign policy which Kai believes has diminished Canada on the world stage, the lack of funding for science and research which he calls a “war” on science, and the Harper plan to increase prison sentences at a time when the crime rate is falling.

It appears that Kai was especially upset by the wall-to-wall coverage that Will and Kate got for more than a week on their Canadian tour. The royal romp across Canada seemed to upset him for two reasons, first, that while so many major stories were percolating all over the world, TV journalist wasted their efforts and broadcasters wasted their air-time on what is after all a very unimportant story. Second, he was disappointed to see and hear some of televisions best journalists stoop to become breathless groupies gushing over the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

As I said, Kai was right on all counts. So I ask myself, why am I not as impressed with Kai as it seems most of the rest of my world seem to be?

First and foremost Kai answers my question by reporting that he had lots of journalistic freedom to cover the Quebec Assembly and Quebec politics. This was after-all his job and by his own admission he was allowed to do it and do it reasonably well. When he took the job in Quebec City he did not expect, or did he, to cover federal government policy.

Second, and probably most important, while it is true that broadcasters and newspapers sometimes abdicate their job, that of covering the most important stories, this so that there will be more room for the most popular stories of the day, the stories that will bring in many, many more eyeballs and perhaps help pay for the expensive services that journalists provide, it should be pointed out that over time journalists have done an excellent job of breaking extremely important news. On the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, I should not have to tell people what kind of work journalists can and do accomplish. Ask the starving people of Ethiopia if Brian Stewart’s expose of the drought was effective journalism? What about the coverage of Chretien government’s sponsorship scandal that may have brought down a political party? From tasers to tainted tuna we have all witnessed some excellent journalism by broadcast journalists who didn’t let the coverage of Princess Diana or the Bollywood film awards get in the way of the vital news they had to deliver.

I see people like Terry Milewski and Craig Oliver continuing to hold authority up to scrutiny. I see a new young guard of people like Omar Sachedina and Adrienne Arsenault who deliver the kind of stories that Kai says he wants to see. I see what could have and should have been an opportunity for a bright young man to take on the system and make it better. Alas he quit. He walked away when there was work to be done.

This is a case where being right doesn’t mean you are doing the right thing, I know because I made the same mistake once. I was news director at Global TV when the Oka Crisis was happening just outside Montreal. My boss, the vice president pulled my crew out of Oka without asking or informing me. I was shocked. I stormed into his office and asked him how he could pull our news crew away from the most important story in Canada? His response: Howard, we don’t have to cover it anymore. We got our license renewal on Friday.

I went down to my office and wrote a letter of resignation leaving 75 people to deal with an ignorant boss and a new toadie who would take over the newsroom.

To this day I regret the rash decision because I was in the process of turning Global News into a serious force in Canadian journalism. My departure left the wolves in charge of the hen house and it took a decade and new leadership at Global before they could start to claw their way back to credibility.

Kai Nagata seems like just the kind of young journalist the industry and the profession need to survive and prosper. Nobody has ever changed things for the better by walking away. By leaving he has in fact, helped those that seek to trivialize broadcast journalism and ceased to be of aid to those who want to make it better.

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Filed under: Media Commentary, Political Commentary, , , , , , , , ,

20 Responses

  1. George Jamieson says:

    Hi Howard: I think there’s a sad truth in K N’s story. It is not possible for a smart and skilled person of 24 to make the kind of changes that some of us think our despoiled industry needs.

    As I read it, Kai discovers that he has so many breaths in his body, and he thinks it’s a waste to spend more of them trying to tell real stories in a milieu that gives comic books a bad name. I hope he does well. I believe the world of tv news would be not one bit better if he were to mount the frustration machine every day for the next 30 years.

    I think there’s a reason for the sickness in the news industry. There are too few managers — real managers, with clout — who will fight to keep or improve the quality.

    When I think about the excellent work that’s been done – some of it in offices where you and I worked – I see a common thread. There was always a big boss who protected the show. Not an executive producer or news director… a person we’d call a “suit”. Sometimes the suit was a small woman named Margaret Lyons. Sometimes it was a big man named Don Cameron or Peter Herndorff.

    We also called those people “warlords” They would go to whatever the big council was called and and kick people in the nuts for you and me and the work we were doing. They wouldn’t come back from the council and kick you and me in the nuts because their bosses told them to.

    At the CBC, news was generally good (with some quibbles here and there), until the last warlord left. We could debate whether that was Tony Burman or John Cruickshank, my point is the same. (Radio news and info hadn’t had a real warlord for years by that time.)

    Is there a warlord for news at CTV these days? Or at the Globe and Mail? I admit my knowledge of Global TV is limited, but I don’t believe there was a news warlord there, with the possible exception of Bill Cunningham. With respect, you were not a warlord, and you your story about Oka tells us all we need to know about your vice-president.

    No warlord = slim resistance against other suits who want to race for the bottom = craploid news and fluff stories about the Tuchis of Cambridge.

    Any time a 20-something smart person asks my advice about working in broadcast news and information I say “cherchez le seigneur de la guerre”. .

    cheers,
    George J

  2. Chris NElson says:

    For a moment there, I was going to say that your thoughtful post speaks more to your capacity for empathy than the boy’s merits as a journalist or human being. I was going to suggest that someone whose sensibilities are so brittle that they could break over circumstances that have existed since before he was born had no place in a newsroom. I was going to agree with you, and say that many idealistic-but-practical journalists (such as the ones you’ve mentioned) have found a path through this state of affairs that allows them to do meaningful work. I was going to suggest that making a declaration so publicly smacks of narcissism rather than principle, and that perhaps the boy, smart and talented as he may be, might be confusing vanity with integrity.

    And then I Googled “Kai Nagata”, and realized the kid isn’t naive or idealistic – he’s an ambitious, exceptionally savvy self-promoter. His blog has received well over 100,000 views in 3 days, an equal number of people have started following him on Twitter, he’s receiving job offers, props from luminaries such as yourself and Roger Ebert – even marriage proposals. He’s quoted as saying that nothing he’s done up until now has attracted as much attention as his screed. And all he had to do was quit a reasonably high profile job over problems that most critical thinking people agree are problems. It reminds me of the lyrics from the Rollins Band song “Liar”: “And I’ll tell you things that you already know so you can say: I really identify with you, so much.”

    You’re right in that Kai Nagata’s resignation will in no way solve the issues that currently afflict the fourth estate. But it solves plenty for Kai Nagata. This is a brilliant, daring career move if I’ve ever seen one. I wish I’d thought of it.

  3. […] his bridges to two of the biggest media companies in the country and pissing off lots of other journalists. And while many applauded his blog post, it’s worth nothing how small and well-connected the […]

  4. Bill M says:

    Howard you are absolutely right, the “youth” movement is a serious problem in TV news. It used to take 12-15 years to get a bureau post or National reporter job. Now the “newbies” want the top jobs before they reach 30.

    One needs to have some life experience before getting these jobs. Having a family, owning a home, owing money. Young apartment dwellers live in a vacumn, have few concerns and little life experience to bring to these top jobs.

    I like looking at a great bod as much as anyone, but big hair and big boobs do not give me confidence in a reporters work.

    Give me a few wrinkles and grey hairs and less make-up and hair spray!

    Bill

  5. bill catalano says:

    Howard,

    I won’t elaborate on your comments in depth as it’s quite obvious good looks beat out experience every time. I simply wanted to thank you for acknowledging Adrienne Arsenault. In my opinion she is arguably the best television journalist in the CBC arsenal.

    In the case of one of the other reporters you mention, I think your belief that authority is being held up to scrutiny could more accurately be described as a Tory bias.

    Thanks, as well for sharing your Global news experience.

  6. Joe Clark says:

    Quitting solved nothing in your day. The best you could do was individually telephone a few people, write them individual postal letters, talk to them individually or in small groups over coffee. You could then hope a notoriously inaccurate game of Telephone would arise whereby your peers would learn the whole unvarnished truth (i.e., a story exactly matching your own, not your former employer’s).

    You aren’t working in that day anymore. Kai Nagata can quit and quite possibly “solve” more than one problem, including his own unemployment, due to the fact he has a platform which even old-timers like you magnify through online discussion.

    Quit a job in 1965, 1975, 1985, or even 1995 and the world won’t notice. Quit a job in 2005 or later and you can blog about it and become a standard-bearer for journalism ethics. You’re already employable (you already were employed); publicly standing up for principle makes you more so.

    We appreciate that you have a blog, Howard, but would appreciate it more if your thinking were more consistent with the era in which blogs exist.

    • hlbtoo says:

      Hi Joe…thank you for the most agist and arrogant comment I have ever received. Why not respond, disagree or argue based on my ideas or assumptions? Why is it every time you comment you feel the need to add a personal dig that is irrelevant to the discussion and inevitably speaks to my age and thus my inability to stay in touch with what is going on? Do you hate everyone that is older than you or is it just older journalists and television producers?
      BTW, that goes double for your next comment on The Globe in Decline.
      My point is a simple one. You are free to disagree. Bright, seemingly talented and caring people are a boon to journalism. I would have hoped that Kai would have stayed and fought for what he believed in. Others have and succeeded in the business. I wish Kai had too.

      • Joe Clark says:

        Quitting on principle works splendidly when you have a public platform like the Web, which just wasn’t available in your heyday. But you have the same sort of platform now. Can you use it as well as Nagata does?

        When will you start?

        I wrote that we (sic) “would appreciate it more if your thinking were more consistent with the era in which blogs exist.” I have read all your posts (who else has?) and have agreed with some and disagreed with others. I linked to one of your posts on MetaFilter. I am hardly a critic of your work. CBC-style paranoia is something else you should leave behind, Howard. Time has marched on.

      • hlbtoo says:

        Joe, do me a favor. Tell me what CBC style paranoia is exactly. Oh, and if you have the time, explain the internet age and how to master it. That would be a tremendous help to me and my outdated generation.

  7. bill catalano says:

    Regarding George’s comments, I think he is bang on, but respectfully this has been going on for over 30 years. Owners care about one thing and one thing only….the bottom line. My first 18 years in the business were spent in the privates. Whenever it rained, the newsroom was always the sacrificial lamb. In takeover after takeover, promises are made to the CRTC that upgrades will be made to local content, or at the very least, existing content will not be compromised. Of course it’s all baloney and the CRTC turns a blind eye. It’s time this toothless monolith was sent to the scrap heap.

    • George Jamieson says:

      Hi Bill: I agree, the cheese-paring has been going on since the beginning of time. My experience is mostly at the CBC, and the cuts began in 1978-79. I have no love for Brian Mulroney, but he didn’t start that spiral.
      However, even in the privates, if there was a warlord to fight for the news department — like Don Cameron — the newsies were protected a bit. Not just financially, either. Sometimes the warlord would push to run that story about firetrap cars, even though the car company or local dealer was a big advertiser. Not a perfect setup, of course. One of my smart professors pointed out that the station manager in every private broadcast outlet he knew had come up through the sales department, not from news. That was back in the days of black-and-white radio, mind you.
      For all its failings, the news warlord system was better than
      having the news dept. run by a stooge who takes a steno pad to the meetings to write down what his or her priorities should be in the news information market. Priorities that originated in the sales department.
      cheers, GJ

  8. bill catalano says:

    George, I agree, the difference being, in my day we hung around with a tougher crowd. Warlords soon learned directions to the unemployment office.

    I smile at your reference to the cutbacks at CBC beginning around 1978 or 1979….That’s when I was hired…..(Whatever that means)

  9. Lisa says:

    Seriously? A 24-year old is already a bureau chief and he’s whining about not having enough power? Oh, and the world isn’t as perfect as it seemed in his undergraduate seminar two years ago? Sheesh. That’s not the kind of judgement I want to have deciding my media.

  10. StubbornFool says:

    Nagata had a voice within CTV and with time could have made change. Nagata, perhaps both brilliant and naive may still find his proper forum to overhaul the industry. On the other hand, he may be satisfied not to change anything and simply move on.

  11. Ibrahim says:

    To Lisa, Bill M & Chris NElson:

    Your comments about Kai are patronizing and gratuitous. I worked with Kai at the CBC and his work ethic, intelligence and news judgment were far superior to that of many lazy veterans who often needed a fire lit under their burned-out behinds.

    Kai would often volunteer to do 2 packs for the show, when most reporters whine about having to do just one. He constantly offered suggestions to make the show better, and he never complained.

    If you’re going to criticize Kai’s decision to quit abruptly, fine. If you think his manifesto was a shameless self-promotional ploy, fine.

    But taking potshots at Kai’s age is a cheap shot, and questioning his journalistic integrity is an exercise in ignorance unless you worked with him on a daily basis as I did.

    • Chris Nelson says:

      Hi Ibrahim

      I can’t speak for the others, but if you read my comment, you’ll see that at NO time did I impugn Kai’s work ethic, intelligence, news judgment, or journalistic integrity. I don’t think I even took issue with his age. If anything, I give him full props for being a very smart, very smooth operator.

      Now, if you wanted to accuse me of questioning his idealism, or implying that he is a calculating careerist – well, that would be completely apropos.

  12. […] Bernstein, who has lots of experience in the TV news industry, said he agreed with most of Nagata's criticisms, but not his decision to leave his job, because TV needs more people like […]

  13. […] Many influential voices in journalism are saying that Nagata should have stayed and fought. One of the latest comments comes from someone highly respected in the broadcast news industry, Howard Bernstein, Quitting Solves Nothing. […]

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