When Christie Blatchford Came Calling

Christie Blatchford

She was interested in law and order, and only in law and order. That was both her strength and her limitation.

✎  WAYNE K. SPEAR ○ FEBRUARY 15, 2020 ○ Personal Essay

ON THE MORNING OF Monday February 4, 2008 I got a phone call from Christie Blatchford. I was the Director of Communications at the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and Blatchford was working on a series of articles for the National Post concerning the Yellow Quill First Nation, where the AHF had funded a project.

In a few years I’d be writing for the National Post myself, but I never got to know Christie Blatchford well. I’d long known of her work, and we’d had a few conversations. Even before I’d ever spoken to her I had inferred from her writing that she was tough and to-the-point. And she was. Her vocabulary was peppered with shits and fucks, which was fine by me. I knew why she was calling: she had a hunch that with a bit of digging she’d unearth nastiness. The Executive Director, Mike DeGagne, was lining his pockets, or perhaps we were funnelling dollars to the well-connected. Something had to be rotten in the state of Denmark, and Blatchford was calling me to work out exactly what it was.

After the call I wrote a briefing note and took it to Mike. He knew Blatchford’s writing, and so he knew as I did that she wasn’t exactly a champion of Indigenous perspectives. I had a standing policy with journalists, which was to educate them as best I could about the nature and importance of our work, and to win them over to the cause. If it took days or months or even years, so be it. My door was always open to them, and so was my phone line. I’d give them as much time as they wanted. Sometimes I found myself pushing on an open door, as was the case with media folks like Marie Wadden and Shelagh Rogers, but I knew that wasn’t going to be the case with Blatchford. She was a court reporter who’d seen the worst of humanity. For years my father was an OPP court officer, so I was well acquainted with the skeptical mindset that this work engendered. In fact I welcomed the skeptics because I understood them. So winning over Blatchford became something of an obsession.

I said to Mike, listen, I think I know what makes Christie Blatchford tick. She’s drawn to the courts because it throws the drama of human morality into sharp relief. The injustice she confronts there makes her churn wth indignation, and if we can make her see that we’re in the business of addressing historic injustices, maybe she’ll become as fierce an advocate as she is a critic. Imagine that! After all, I said, inside every skeptic is a disappointed idealist. Let’s invite her to the office and put every goddamn file in front of her, nothing hidden, and let her see with her own eyes that we are not the villains she imagines—and that to the contrary we are trying to do something of positive value.

It was an easy pitch, not that Mike ever resisted my counsel. He ran a transparent operation and in sixteen years no one ever caught us with our knickers round the ankles, although many of the best put their shoulder into it. I remember sitting at the AHF boardroom table with Curt Petrovich, an investigative reporter who cast a cold eye on our organization. He went away disappointed, as they all did. I’ll be candid and admit that I enjoyed the game. I had journalism in my background and respected people who were hard headed and tenacious and challenging. Suppose there was in fact corruption. Well, then we would have deserved to be brought down, and the fact is I admire the people who commit themselves to doing it.

When I was young and contemplating a career in journalism, Blatchford was living the life that I fantasized for myself. The by-line at a major outlet, fame, house parties where the booze flowed and the elbows of colleagues rubbed. Back then journalists could still believe they were doing something nobIe, even if it was bullshit, and there was no shortage of money to help them do it. That’s all gone. I was just old enough for the dying years of the old school of journalism, where newsrooms were loud and smoked-filled and a lunch would stretch well into the afternoon. Now the business of journalism goes about in eerie silence, and the changes are so remarkable and happened so fast (at least it seems that way now) that Kelly McParland and I got talking about it one day at the National Post’s headquarters. Some of the changes reflect the decline of the occupation, but most of the change is good. The alcoholism is no longer glamourized, and while journalism remains dominated by men, chauvinism is regarded more as a bug than a feature. Editors tell me they want a more diverse workforce and admit they have a ways to go. So there’s that.

Why this digression into the world of journalism? In my ideal world I would have won Blatchford over and, who knows, we might have become colleagues and even friends. But I was operating in the real world, where neither of these happened. Christie Blatchford made it very clear to me that she was interested in law and order, and only in law and order. That was both her strength and her limitation. When she realized there was nothing lurid to write about the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, nothing to get people outraged over, no human malfeasance to press into the ready forms of her worldview, she lost all interest. One day the calls just stopped, and she moved on.

I kept her phone number and her email and I suppose I also held to a remnant of my idealism, because I sent her an email later on, when she was writing articles about Caledonia. Once again, I tried to win her over. Christie, I wrote, there’s a long history leading up to the Haldimand Tract dispute, and if you really want to understand what’s happening today, and if you want your readers to truly understand, and to be informed, you need to look at that context. Nothing is going to change in this country until we come to terms with the past, I told her. And after all, isn’t it the job of a journalist to dig, and to present all the perspectives, and to make people understand?

Christie was a lot of things, but one thing she wasn’t was subtle. She had told me in no uncertain terms that she was only interested in punishing people who had broken the law, and I guess I should have left it at that. In any case, she never wrote back. ⌾

More Thoughts on Unpaid Internships and Writing for Exposure

zero-dollar-bill

THE ONTARIO MINISTRY of Labour recently announced an enforcement “blitz” of provincial regulations governing unpaid internships, an action which led to the termination of internship programs at Toronto Life, Canadian Geographic, Rogers Publishing and The Walrus.

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The Limits of Honesty in Writing

TRUTH, LIKE WEATHER, arrives in degrees. Just as the weather is all around, so too dishonesty in writing. Indeed, the taking of the media’s temperatures is a primary moral responsibility of the modern reader. The question which confronts us is how do we read well in an age where dishonesty on many of the important topics may be taken for granted.

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Making a living, dead languages, and why so many pros write so badly

RARE IS the day that I do not find a piece of bad writing in the New York Times, Washington Post, National Post, or Globe and Mail. This statement, I am confident, could be applied with justice to any newspaper of your choosing. The badness is delivered in many varieties, and in fairness I must observe that some errors are a product of working conditions, deadlines and the under-resourcing of bureaus and so on. Most bad writing however has as its root a more troubling fact: its creators do not know what words mean.

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News of the World and the Ethics of Journalism

The demise of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World, though sensational, is of little significance either economically or journalistically. Now and again a journalist is found to be in breach of her profession’s code of ethics, or in more scandalous instances of common decency, and the requisite heads come off. The ordinary business of journalism — which ought itself to be the scandal, but isn’t — goes unremarked.

Continue reading “News of the World and the Ethics of Journalism”

Is Fox News Coming To Canada?

We all knew someone was going to say it, but how appropriate that it was Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and on April Fool’s day.

News networks remain an integral part of the information and communication age, bringing audiences a fair and balanced view of the world around us. The official launch of Sun News Network in Toronto is a wonderful addition of another network offering high quality and distinctive local content. We welcome you to Toronto and we wish you much success.

Continue reading “Is Fox News Coming To Canada?”

An Interview with Heather Menzies

[The following was first published in ASH Magazine Volume 4 Number 1, Winter 1996.]

Your argument, in the book Whose Brave New World?, is that a corporate agenda is “colonizing” the institutions and services upon which we depend in this country. Would you comment on the choice of this word?

In a colonization model, what we are talking about is empire rather than democracy —the empire of technique, but also the new corporate empires imposing their centralised authority, which is what empire is all about, over more and more of the territories of our lives. Colonization has to do with the fact that there is a cultural component, and related to that an ideological component. We’re shifting from an ethic of public service to an ethic that treats services as commodities and service transactions. In the health care field this is very dramatic, and therefore something very important to watch. This is coming out of the United States, where health care is an industry, where sickness is the raw material for a profit-making industry —their bias is built into that— and these are completely taking us away from prevention of debility, prevention of disease, and taking us toward simply the treatment model, where people can make money off a continuing dependence on medicines and treatments and so on. So the colonization aspect gets at the cultural component and the shift toward this more commoditized approach to life, generally, and then within that, service being transformed from an engaged and empathetic human interaction, to a service transaction —which is a business.

There is also colonization in the sense of an existing knowledge base being pushed to the side and treated as completely unimportant while this new knowledge base, and the new sets of technological skills being imposed by the colonizers —by the new technological agents— are being treated as the only ones that count. It’s the same kind of way in which you had the imposition of the pricing system and the commodity form that displaced barter, exchange, and the subsistence basis of an economy based on the commons of the land here.

Neil Postman has stated, in Technopoly, that a technology will “play out its hand” when introduced —that is, it will do what it’s designed to do, regardless of our efforts to control it. But you seem to believe we have a good degree of control.

I’m neither for nor against technology: I’m for a particular use of technology, one that extends what people do, rather than replaces people and replaces what they do. And so, at a fundamental level I understand and I work with the definition of technology as a social construction. Now, there’s a point at which it begins to become deterministic. It’s a bit like what Ursula Franklin said, that once values are incorporated into the design of a technology, they cannot be negotiated. That speaks to the fact that, for instance, once software monitors people and has taken over more and more of the knowledge required to do a job effectively —taken that knowledge away from people and de-skilled them — once that system is put into place, you can’t negotiate around it. There is a time when one has to negotiate. That is in the initial stages of design, and the initial stages of organizing work and the place of technology. There is scope for intervention at that point. I am somewhat sanguine about the possibility of people gaining control. People still have the capacity to negotiate. People are endlessly inventive.

What do you say to the people —and some of them aren’t necessarily pro-business— who find your critique of corporations “conspiratorial,” or at least so dark that it’s hard to accept? I have to admit I find it hard to believe that business has gotten so mean-spirited that it can enrich itself on human misery.

I think that people who subscribe to conspiracy theories are capitulating to the mystique of all-powerfulness associated with many of the institutions of power, which get all the press and are held up as being the only institutions of power. The corollary of that is that these people are betraying and not sufficiently having confidence in the power that in fact people out in the community still do have, to think for themselves, to speak for themselves, and to act. Where I think I come down is that those people who are in institutions of power do have, usually, access to faster means of communication, and they are therefore able to more quickly apprise the situation and seize an opportunity to exploit it. History is much more chaotic, much more fraught with possibilities than the conspiracy theorists would have us believe. And also it’s peopled on the other side with an awfully lot more stupidity and laziness than conspiracy theorists would have us believe [laughter]

There is another enormous advantage for those who have power, and that’s the ability to define the public interest. Until a public interest is defined, it’s impossible to get any sort of program underway.

And again, that comes back to this moral voice issue. I was giving a speech Friday, in which I stressed the importance of scale —the scale of the voices that are saying “This is in fact what the public interest is all about.” I proceeded to lay out what’s happening —the social devastations that globalization and restructuring are causing, with the downsizing and deficit being part of that larger agenda —and having done so, I was talking about the need for media paying attention to networking amongst all those voices, so that you can get the kind of sustained moral tone that is going to in fact communicate this different definition of the public interest: that the public interest is not deficit cutting, is not global competitiveness; the public interest is in fact defined by meeting people’s needs and positioning all these other agendas within the caring capacity of the larger social environment.

I find myself using the language of “community” when I speak of the public interest. But I suspect this is a buzzword — I mean, community is clearly important, but it’s hard not to be self-conscious. Do I really live in a community? And what’s the relation of business, on any scale, to the interests of community? — particularly given the erosion of traditional ties of business to employees, towns, and even democracy itself?

Too much of this gets discussed in the abstract. And abstractions can be so used by anybody. Community is a perfect case in point. You’ve got various ways in which “community” is being used. It’s being used by business to talk about corporate alliances —now they’re being called communities. Communities are also being defined around ownership of consumer goods, such as cars. And communities are being defined around lifestyles. These are all a redefinition of community into consumer roles and property relations. And that’s a complete betrayal of the historical origins of community. People don’t tend to pay attention to the hard work that communities involve. There’s this tendency to reach into the past and pull out this golden, hazy image of community where everybody gets along with their neighbours. But in fact there is no such community. Community-building is hard work. It’s the art of listening to the other person, putting up with their halitosis [laughter] —one of my ways of describing it— but it’s also the daily practice of dialogue, and dialogue doesn’t just involve speaking for yourself, and your family, and your locale, and the particularities of your group identity. It also involves listening. Listening, to be able to respect, so that freedom can be combined with responsibility, in the microcosm, and you can actually work out differences —you know, negotiate differences. That’s my sense of a real community. We need that kind of practice to avoid the idealisms: the golden age of community, which didn’t exist, and also to avoid the new commoditized images of community. The public interest isn’t an abstraction; it’s the people going to the food bank around the corner from where I live, or the Daily Bread food bank in Toronto, or the one where you live.

The current buzzwords do express an abstracted way of looking at the world which has not very much to do with people and a lot to do with processes and technologies.

One of the major shifts going on right now is we’re moving toward the equivalence of the neoliberal and neoconservative agenda —they’re really one and the same. Democracy and democratic values are being subsumed by corporate values. Human rights are being subsumed, or eclipsed, by property rights. “Whoever has the most power wins” seems to be emerging as the ethic of the new era. It’s really important to name that for what it is, and then also know what you have to do if you want to turn that around. You don’t do it, I think, with abstractions about human rights. I think we can regain our perspectives by grounding ourselves, positioning ourselves in solidarity with the people who have been marginalized —who are being displaced. We’re not doing them a favour; we’re doing ourselves a favour. Because we can redefine the public interest with people at the centre.

The economist Paul Krugman has stated [in Mother Jones], “it will take another [Roosevelt], and perhaps the moral equivalent of another war” to bring back the decent society Americans had a generation ago. What do you think it will take here?

What I was also saying about “the empire versus a democracy” is that you get something imposed, versus something negotiated. The whole public discussion of this has almost shut out the notion, the idea, that this kind of thing should be negotiated. In other words, that there should be a debate, a negotiation, between an ethic of social justice and an ethic of business efficiency and corporate profit. And instead what we’re getting is the imposition of this one ethic, the business agenda. Negotiation is reduced to quibbling over the adjustment mechanisms. To be able to reassert that this is in fact an ethical discussion, and that there are moral choices to be made, requires leadership in a very engaged form. And I think there are already in Canada a number of voices that do represent the kind of moral equivalent of, let’s say, the Roosevelt era —people like Ursula Franklin, various people also in communities. We need to pay attention to the fact that the macrocosm is also composed of a bunch of microcosms.

You’ve written a half-dozen or so books about computers, and one about cheese [By the Labour of Their Hands]. Obviously, there’s more to Heather Menzies than technology.

[laughter] The Menzies were farmers in rural Ontario, so this is sort of my personal roots book. I was also as a child taken to the cheese factories. I got a sense of fascination with technology as part of the landscape. I think I gained a sense that machines had characters and were part of our story. And having written that book, it gave me a lovely perspective, because I jumped into 18th and 19th century technology. I learned a lot about technology in the process of writing [By the Labour of Their Hands], although it isn’t at all a technology book. It’s very much a book of the rural culture in Ontario, which has hardly been written on at all. The other thing is I’m a writer first; I hate being described as an expert on computer technology. Now I’m able to pose, at least for myself if not for others, some of the deeper questions about our society and the philosophies at work in it. It’s been an interesting journey.

Heather Menzies is the author of 7 books, including Whose Brave New World?: The Information Highway and the New Economy. (Between The Lines, 1996). She spoke to ASH from Ottawa, Ontario.

Milton Rogovin

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The great photographer immersed himself in the poetry of simplicity and came to the surface with the net full of clear fish and flowers of profundity —Pablo Neruda, “The Islands and Rogovin,” Windows That Open Inward.

People all over are beautiful if given half a chance. I feel that people should have an opportunity to work and live decently …. — Cheryl Brutvan, “An Interview with Milton Rogovin,” The Forgotten Ones.

Milton Rogovin was born the 30th of December 1909 in New York. His parents owned a small store and sold draperies and yardgoods. Like many, they lost everything in the Depression. Rogovin saw devastating poverty, and as a result became politically active. Another decade would pass however before he’d discover photography. In the meantime, he attended Columbia University, where he studied Optometry, as his brother had done before him. In 1938 he moved to Buffalo and opened an optometry clinic on Chippewa street. He had come to Buffalo to be near the trade union people, but he would eventually discover much more.

I visit Rogovin at his house. It is simple and dignified, like the man himself. Daumier prints cover the dining room walls; more prints are spread across the table, waiting to be framed. A Navaho rug lies across the livingroom floor. The shelves are well-stocked with books: Picasso, Goya, Van Gogh. At one point, he reads to me from the memoirs of Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), the artist for whom he has the greatest respect. “If you want to know what I think about something,” he remarks as he draws aside the cover, “just look in the back of my books.” I can see he’s made copious notes. Finding the passage which he has enclosed in a bold ink rectangle, he reads words that could well describe his own feelings about his photography:

I should like to say something about my reputation for being a “socialist” artist, which clung to me from then on. Unquestionably my work at this time, as a result of the attitudes of my father and brother and of the whole literature of the period, was in the direction of socialism. But my real motive for choosing my subjects almost exclusively from the life of the workers was that only such subjects gave me in a simple and unqualified way what I felt to be beautiful. For me the Königsberg longshoremen had beauty; the Polish jimkes on their grain ships had beauty; the broad freedom of movement in the gestures of the common people had beauty. Middle-class people held no appeal for me at all. Bourgeois life as a whole seemed to me pedantic. The proletariat, on the other hand, had a grandness of manner, a breadth to their lives. Much later on, when I became acquainted with the difficulties and tragedies underlying proletarian life, when I met the women who came to my husband for help and so, incidentally, came to me, I was gripped by the full force of the proletarian’s fate. Unsolved problems such as prostitution and unemployment grieved and tormented me, and contributed to my feeling that I must keep on with my studies of the lower classes. And portraying them again and again opened a safety-valve for me; it made life bearable.

Rogovin once told Cheryl Brutvan in an interview, “I never could warm up to the middle class in photography.” Among the working classes, among the poor, among those who live on the street, he finds not only suffering but also dignity and beauty. And as the title of his book, The Forgotten Ones, suggests, he finds potential that is never acknowledged, never given an opportunity to flourish. His task is to document this forgotten potential, dignity and beauty. Accordingly, he considers himself a “social documentary photographer” and not an “artist,” though he’d rather dispense with labels altogether and concentrate on his mission—to tell the truth about the human condition. This concern with documenting human lives guides everything he does. He is not institutionally trained; he does things an academically-minded photographer would consider incorrect. His techniques have been developed ad hoc, to accommodate the challenges of photographing in a mine, in a factory, in a living room, in a foreign country. Even his choice of equipment often has a mundane rationale. Years ago he changed his camera after a number of people had asked what it was worth. How could he function, worrying his camera might be stolen?

Rogovin purchased his first camera in 1942, the year he was drafted, the year he married his wife, Anne. But even then he wasn’t a serious photographer. He took snapshots of family vacations and the like. Then in 1958 he was asked by a friend, a professor of music at Buffalo’s state college, to collaborate on a project. The professor would record music at store front churches; Rogovin would take pictures. After three months the music recordings were finished, and the professor moved on. But Rogovin had found his place, and so he continued to photograph at the churches a further three years. He had embarked on a path that would cross the Earth.

In the late 1950s he was still practicing optometry and could photograph only weekends. Besides the responsibilities of his work, he had three children to consider. In addition, Rogovin was politically active in the Black community, as he had been since the 1940s. His efforts caught the attention of the House Committee on Un-American activities, which targeted Rogovin in 1957. His name appeared in the papers. He was shunned by neighbours; his children were no longer visited by their friends; his income dropped immediately by one-half. The wounds have never healed, though in recent years he has been awarded an honorary doctorate by the local university. The recognition, he adds, is encouraging. “It helps,” he says.

As early as the 1960s Rogovin began to receive critical recognition. A number of the store front church photographs (accompanied with an introduction by W. E. B. Du Bois, an educator, writer and founder of the NAACP) was published in a 1962 issue of Aperture by an impressed editor, Minor White. In this same year, Rogovin travelled to Appalachia to photograph coal miners. He had been reading about the problems that they faced, and he wanted to document the hardships, to show outsiders what was happening. This would be the beginning of a world-wide trek. Milton and his wife Anne eventually lived among miners in France (1981), Scotland (1982) and Spain (1983); they would also travel many times to Mexico, and once to China (1986). A selection of the photographs which Rogovin took in these places was published in book form with the title The Forgotten Ones.

Rogovin says he is normally a shy person. But that changes when it comes to his photography. He is not afraid of being aggressive. Perhaps his most remarkable act was to write to the world-famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in 1967, asking if he were interested in collaborating on a book. I asked Rogovin what motivated him to do this. The poems, of course: he mentions “The United Fruit Company,” and then asks rhetorically, “Neruda had worked with other photographers and artists—why couldn’t he work with me?” Rogovin laughs when he tells this story; even he seems a bit surprised by his boldness—but there is no doubt that the letter paid off. Neruda replied on 13 November 1966 with a letter that begins, “your work is wonderful and I will be greatly honoured if we collaborate in any venture.” Collaborate they did, and the result was Windows That Open Inward: Images of Chile.

After leaving Chile Rogovin returned to Buffalo. He began in 1969 to photograph the people of the Lower West Side. At first some were suspicious (was he with the police? —the F.B.I.?). He photographed prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers. He met intelligent people whose lives had gone terribly wrong. He tells me a few stories about people he has met. He tells me of a man who lived in the shadow of an abandoned apartment building. “Why,” the man had once said, “can’t the city give us this building? I could teach people here how to do lathe work and other sorts of work. We could fix up this building and live in it. All we want is a job.” A job, Rogovin repeats, a job. The problem, overlooked in this time of welfare-bashing, is the lack of good jobs, and Rogovin’s experiences have convinced him that matters are only getting worse. Today, he reminds me, AT&T have announced they will fire thousands of workers as part of their “restructuring.” The topic turns to work.

In The Forgotten Ones there is a section entitled “Working People.” This group of photographs was begun in 1977, shortly after Rogovin read Bertolt Brecht’s poem, “A Worker Reads History.” He decided he wanted to show the people who do the gruelling physical work on which our society depends, work we don’t see depicted in the photographs of mainstream magazines—or anywhere in our media. Meanwhile, he had been gradually phasing out his optometry practice, from which he retired in 1976, after discussing with his family his desire to photograph full-time. Rogovin could no longer bear the distraction which optometry had become. Photography, he knew, was his calling. Having exhibited his work in Buffalo’s Albright-Knox gallery, he’d by this time established his credibility. He was able to get permission to go into Republic Steel. Once inside he pressed further, asking the workers he’d photographed if they would allow him to take pictures in their homes. He wanted to document the contrasting aspects of working people, to allow them to dress the way that they wanted to dress and to sit where they wanted to sit. He had learned quickly, in the Lower West Side, not to ask questions and not to make demands. He let people choose how they wanted to be photographed. And he was careful to keep a distance.

He returned to the Lower West Side in the early 1980s and again in the early 1990s. He didn’t know the names of the people whose pictures he’d taken between 1969 and 1972, much less where they had gone; but he had the pictures. He showed them to the locals, and was told who had OD’d, who was in jail. Others, he was told, had moved or disappeared. Those he could find he again photographed, and in 1994 the resulting book Triptych was published by Norton.

Milton Rogovin wonders aloud, Is anyone listening? Is anyone listening to the silence of his photographs? If you study them for a while, they begin to speak; but you must pay attention. He finds the sometimes fruitless work of selling himself to booksellers, publishers and museums disheartening. Outside of Buffalo, his work is largely ignored. He recognises that his photography is good, and yet he must acknowledge that “good” does not guarantee an audience. And besides, the well-to-do don’t want to be reminded of those who are less fortunate. Poverty isn’t fun, and so it can’t compete with, say, the glossy colour images of People and Glamour (“I hate colour photography,” he says), or the saccharine banality of Trisha Romance. He’s never heard of Romance (a painter who has captivated the bourgeoisie), so we throw around a few more names and indulge our consternation. In the end though Rogovin is confident he has taken the right path, and he knows that there are a few people out there who are paying attention.

I have one last request of Milton Rogovin before I leave. He has told me of a book, a very special book, given to him by Neruda many years ago. “May I see it?” He goes to the shelves and carefully pulls out a large volume, 20 inches in height, perhaps more. Neruda has inscribed the book for Rogovin. I’m struck by the exuberance of the large green script, among which are whimsically-drawn green birds (“Neruda always wrote with a green pen,” he tells me). The book, Arte de Pajaros [Art of Birds], is a collection of poems. Beside each poem is a gorgeous illustration of birds, painted by friends of Neruda. It is a work of beauty and simplicity, and I look upon it with delight. Then I look out of the window, and see it is getting dark—it is time to go. [-June 1996]