December 13, 2006

Acquitting an enemy of objectivity

Acquitting an enemy of objectivity
The trial of blogger Charles LeBlanc should prompt journalistic self-examination.

It's not everyday that a 'scruffy' New Brunswicker on social assistance makes the New York Times. But Charles LeBlanc isn't exactly a regular guy, and with a host of benefactors and plenty of detractors, everyone seems to be paying attention to the man who calls himself the "grandfather of New Brunswick Bloggers."

Last week, LeBlanc won his day in court. Over the summer, he was arrested and charged with obstructing justice while covering a protest outside Atlantica, a conference of businesspeople and right wing economists, in Saint John.

The trial generated national and even international interest because it raised fundamental questions about media organization, namely: should bloggers have the same access and rights as mainstream journalists?

"LeBlanc was never advised by the police that he would be arrested if he did certain things. He was simply plying his trade, photographing the demonstration for inclusion in his blog when he was arrested," wrote Judge William McCarroll in his 20 page acquittal decision.

LeBlanc has ascended to international acclaim - or at least provincial notoriety - because he has followed one of the most basic and under-appreciated rules of political journalism.

The responsibility of the journalist is to "monitor the centres of power," according to the courageous Israeli reporter Amira Hass. While lacking a newspaper, a salary, a decent camera and sometimes even proper syntax, LeBlanc has fulfilled that basic journalistic duty with uncanny accuracy.

"This blogger (LeBlanc) can't be sued and he can't be bought," said activist Tim Smith.

Leblanc is anything but 'objective', the word typically associated with good journalism. But maybe that's not such a bad thing. "The only thing I ever saw that came close to objective journalism was a closed-circuit TV setup that watched shoplifters in the general store at Woody Creek, Colorado," wrote the late, great Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.

It is possible to be fair, giving equal voice to multiple sides of an issue, without standing in the glass house of objectivity. If objectivity is a false journalistic construct, it certainly doesn't mean it's OK to marginalize unconventional voices or lie. That's where we come to the Saint John Police Department and the courtroom antics of one Sgt. John Parks, the officer who arrested LeBlanc last summer.

According to CBC, "Parks testified that he arrested LeBlanc partly because he was "scruffy" looking and carrying an unprofessional-looking digital camera. Parks also testified that LeBlanc challenged police authority at the event, and resisted arrest."

Parks' testimony was contradicted by CBC video tape from the event, an objective source if ever there was one, which showed LeBlanc was not obstructing police and was simply shooting pictures with other journalists.

Thus Sgt. Parks obviously and willfully lied on the stand. LeBlanc has lodged a complaint.

"As far as Sgt. Parks goes, his testimony was totally the opposite of what happened," said LeBlanc. "Someone will have to be held responsible for this." Ironically, members of Saint John police admitted to frequently checking LeBlanc's blog in the days preceding the Atlantica protest.

Whatever one thinks of blogs as a mode of communication and bloggers as the new journalists, they are becoming increasingly popular in a media world dominated by a relatively small cabal of companies.

According to Enn Raudsepp, head of Concordia University's journalism program (in 2003) 84 per cent of Canadian media is owned by the five largest media companies, resulting in "increasingly homogeneous perspectives." CanWest Global, the largest Canadian media company, controls over 30 per cent of the Canadian media market, including 14 metropolitan daily newspapers and hundreds of community papers (these figures are based on 2003 numbers, and newspapers often change hands like baseball cards, so current ownership demographics could be slightly different). With the Irvings controlling every major paper in New Brunswick, including this one, average people are asking questions about corporate control.

"There is a prevailing feeling among some journalists in Atlantic Canada of self-censorship, that some are afraid to actually write what they think is right because they work in an environment where there's one dominant player," said Senator Jim Munson who helped write a 2006 report on Canadian media concentration for Senate Committee on Transportation and Communications.

Self-censorship clearly isn't a problem faced by bloggers like LeBlanc.

Maybe journalists themselves need take an objective look at the state of media in this province? It's high time we start holding our own centres of power to account.

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