Black Watch: Today’s Top Stories

The September issue of the Literary Review of Canada, a subsidized Cancon knock off of the New York Review of Books, has a piece this month by Suanne Kelman. From her lofty perch as associate chair of the school of journalism at Ryerson University, she critiques the coverage of the Black trial (“The Trial Coverage on Trial”), or, at least, some of the coverage.

This being a publication that acknowledges the “support” and “assistance” of the Canada Council, the Ontario Arts Council, and the provincial and federal governments, the editors decided to focus exclusively on the Canadian coverage, ignoring what was written in Britain, the United States and anywhere else on earth where anybody might be interested. (If this article had been published in 1975, this might have made sense; in 2007, it seems positively luddite.) However, given that one of Kelman’s themes is that the trial got too much coverage in Canada, for the sake of her own sanity, I suppose this was a good idea. Of course, to the degree that the article hoped to rise above stultifying, not to mention parochial, mediocrity…not so much.

Where to begin? Kelman’s reporting is flaccid, her analysis sophomoric, and her conclusions unsubstantiated. There’s not much that’ll get me rushing to the defence of my fellow blogger Mark Steyn, but in this case, reason forces me to make an exception. (More on that in a moment.) When Kelman’s not being vague, she’s being ridiculously coy. Take this opening salvo. In pining for a golden age in “Canadian” court reporting, Kelman asserts that:

“Once upon a time, not so long ago, Canadian reporters covered court proceedings with a measure of caution, even decorum…you had to avoid scandalizing the court—a catch-all offence that could well extend to assessing the judge’s sexual attractiveness or trashing the prosecution’s performance or insulting the jury’s social status, intelligence and taste in clothes. Yet all those were regular features in the Canadian coverage of the trial.”

As to who actually said or wrote this stuff or why, well, that part is taken for granted since whoever is reading the LRC is so focused on Canadian coverage that they would know exactly who she was taking about and just chuckle right along with her clever inside joke. Beyond that, Kelman is often just, how to say, wrong. To wit:

“But many of the stories trumpeted the joy of having a home-grown martyr or villain, with a corresponding resentment that the U.S. press refused to acknowledge Black’s full importance as either saint or sinner. But the saturation reporting did not work. Most non-journalists lost all interest fairly early. The coverage provides the most flagrant example of Canada’s press shoving a story down the public’s unhungry throat since the days when so many employees of the CBC and The Globe and Mail mutated into Meech Lake Moonies.”

I covered the trial beginning to end, here and in Chicago, and can’t think of a single instance when a journalist expressed resentment along the lines Kelman suggests. And as to the business of “shoving the story down unhungry throats” (get me rewrite!), polling reported that 40 per cent of Canadians followed the trial most of the time.

Kelman then goes on to have at bloggers in general:

“The blogs let you know which journalists took lunch with the Blacks, and speculate on which ones were getting late-night calls from the prosecution. That’s not really a surprise. Journalism seems increasingly to suffer from an affliction first observable in Hollywood—the desire to become the centre of the story. Just as film producers have elbowed themselves into the publicity process (and very boring most of them are), reporters and editors and publishers suffer from the delusion that they are as interesting as the stories they cover.”

So, in Kelman’s world, better that the public not know who among the press corps are compromising their coverage by getting a little too cozy with one side or the other. Better that we simply take for granted what she thinks ought to be the institutional press’ standard for objectivity and verisimilitude. Which, in turn, would fit with the sort of credentialism that allows her to shoot the wounded from the high ground at Ryerson, and do such extraordinarily shoddy work and have it pass for good—or, at least, Canadian.

The Trial Coverage on Trial [Literary Review of Canada]


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