Due Diligence, and the Essential Humanity of Reporting

Although much of it may appear archaic and unnecessarily complicated to the uninitiated at first glance, it has been my experience that the vast majority of legal theory is simply common sense, writ large. The concept of due diligence is one with which any lawyer worth his salt is well acquainted. According to Black’s Legal Dictionary (I’m working from my father’s 1968 edition, and although I trust that the spirit of the definition will have remained largely unchanged, you’ll have to forgive any minor discrepancies), due diligence is defined as: “Such a measure of prudence, activity, or assiduity, as is properly to be expected from, and ordinarily to be exercised by, a reasonable and prudent man under the particular circumstances; not measured by any absolute standard, but depending on the relative facts of the special case.”

This cumbersome definition is easily distilled into a single word: responsibility. For practicing lawyers, this means taking the necessary time and spending the required effort to arrive in court well briefed on the details of the case at hand, and ensuring that they’re ready and able to be the best possible advocate for the interests of their client.

Although law and journalism are two very different professions, it is my belief that the pair share many core principles and values in common; not least among which may be counted fairness, transparency, and the pursuit of Truth – however abstract that final notion might seem, at times, to be. The practice of due diligence is therefore vital to preparing ourselves to be good journalists; ready to keep the faith with the public interest and to earn the trust of the society we serve. Just as a capable lawyer would never dream of showing up in court without having studied the case file and carefully crafting his argument, so too would no responsible journalist ever publish content without first conscientiously gathering facts and evaluating existing ideas about the subject at hand.

I would go so far as to say that the importance of due diligence in a journalistic sense is nowhere more significant than in the field of foreign reporting. As a young journalist, to deploy to an unfamiliar land without first having adequately prepared risks not only the quality of your work – it could also jeopardize your personal safety. Having completed only a single year in journalism school, and a mere three months in a foreign reporting class, I would not presume myself to be in a position where I can offer seasoned advice to other young reporters – but I’m able to emphasize what I’ve heard repeatedly this year from more experienced foreign correspondents.

Out of J-School, and into the 'real world.'

Out of J-School, and into the ‘real world.’

When it comes to physically preparing to head abroad, there’s no such thing as excessive care or redundancy. From items as essential as batteries for your equipment, to something as imperative as your passport, it’s never a bad idea to bring a backup. Planning is similarly important – where possible, arrange for trusted local guides, or ‘fixers,’ to be on hand to assist with travel routes, languages, and other cultural necessities. Never travel too far alone without telling someone where you’ll be, and when you plan on returning. If you’re a member of a larger news organization, this could be your bureau or local desk, but if you’re freelancing, make sure to keep trusted friends or colleagues in the loop. And this last little bit of advice regarding physical preparation is rather dark, but important nonetheless: make sure you’ve got an up-to-date last will and testament… especially if headed to an active combat zone. To refer back to my opening remarks, much of this sort of due diligence is common sense, but everyone knows how it can be all too easy to forget details in the excitement of travelling. Always take the time to prepare adequately.

Personal safety is one thing – professional integrity is another. This past term, I’ve listened to multiple experts bemoan the alleged weaknesses inherent in ‘parachute journalism.’ This term can be broadly defined as the tendency of some news organizations to drop a non-specializing reporter into a territory when news flares up, and then extract him or her as soon as things settle down again. Recent examples of this behavior include this past summer’s Israeli operation in Gaza, and the ongoing Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Particularly in this day and age, when cultural relativism is all the rage, many media watchdogs decried mainstream coverage of these unfortunate events as insensitive and out of context, as talking heads flew in from around the world to report on the suffering of the people who were caught up in events.

We’ve had a number of interesting discussions this year concerning just how much context a news organization should be giving when covering foreign news. It’s my own belief that a reporter’s job is not to give deep historical or cultural context to every single story they produce – we are journalists, not academics. Our job is to cover the news, pure and simple, and not to concern ourselves with trying to influence how the public contextualizes or perceives this information. However, this is not to argue that, as journalists, we are entirely free of a responsibility to be aware of the context of the news we report on. This again takes us back to the importance of adequate preparation and due diligence. Today’s stark reality is that most news organizations simply don’t have the budgets necessary to maintain a wide range of permanent foreign bureaus. If news is to be gathered and reported back, ‘parachute journalism’ is, now more than ever, often the only way of getting a pair of eyes and ears on the ground in any given country at any given time. If, as a young foreign reporter, you find yourself in this position – take the time to absorb what you’re able to about the context of the developing situation. Try to understand who’s angry or suffering, and why. Be aware of the history and culture of wherever you may find yourself. View your subjects for what they are – people. Be compassionate, and respect humanity in all of its colours and creeds.

No – this is not to say that every single article you publish, segment you air or report that you broadcast must be prefaced by a deep and comprehensive historical or cultural survey of the region and its people. But if you take the time to be aware, to the best of your ability, of what’s going on around you and why, this diligence will shine through in the tone of your reporting.

Life is rarely – if ever – black or white. Being appreciate and respectful of your hosts will make room for nuance in your reporting, and will enable you to be a better documentarian of the human condition, wherever you might find yourself. And in my mind, that’s our job. That’s what journalism should be all about.

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The Modern Republican’s Catch-22

As a 20-something Canadian, I’m something of a rarity.

I don’t think I’d be going too far out on a limb in saying that an overwhelming majority of my peers are liberal in their political sympathies. If the Canadian electorate were to be restricted to people of university age (let’s say, for argument’s sake, 18-30 years old), The Conservative Party would be comprehensively defeated. It wouldn’t even be close.

I, on the other hand, tend to come down on the right side – pun intended – of the political spectrum on most issues. I would be a Republican if I was an American citizen… along with another five, or perhaps six Canadians of my age. It’s a sympathy I’ve taken a lot of flak for over the course of my time in university. Let’s just say there weren’t too many George W. Bush fans at the University of Waterloo circa 2004.

Congressman Paul Ryan receives the Republican nomination for Vice President in 2012

Congressman Paul Ryan receives the Republican nomination for Vice President in 2012

And so, as someone who favors a great many traditionally Republican stances, it pains me to see the state of the modern party.

Republicans are regularly demonized in contemporary youth culture as a clan of old, rich racists; anti-homosexual, anti-immigrant, and anti-women’s rights. Such a portrayal is not without a base in reality, as recent fringe movements like the Tea Party have seemingly taken a stranglehold on the Republican primary process.

Let me make one thing absolutely clear – although I’m to the right of center on many political issues, I still consider myself to be a centrist, especially relative to some of the views held by the most radical of right-wingers. While my Catholic faith governs my political stance on issues such as abortion and euthanasia, I will never condone a society in which people are made to feel excluded from the public discourse or unwanted because of the traits with which they were born.

The Republican traditions I support are those which uphold a belief in the power of the individual to forge his or her own destiny.

I support a Republican party which believes that government should not be an all-powerful force in every aspect of a citizen’s day to day life.

I strongly believe that all immigrants should be welcomed with open arms, and be given every reason to believe that with a sense of determination and a strong freedom of spirit, their desire for a better life can be made a reality in our society. These are principles that our two countries, Canada and the United States, shared in common from the point of their emergence as free nations.

The Republican Party has a long and proud tradition of advocating for the power of the individual to better their own life, and for discouraging the growth of an already bloated government that hazards creating and fostering societal dependencies. It is the party of Abraham Lincoln – a fact that seems to slip the minds of those who are all to ready to slap the soubriquet ‘racist’ upon GOP voters.

It’s for all of these reasons that I look with such dismay upon the mad scramble of what are otherwise very sensible prospective Republican presidential candidates to the right fringes of the party during primary season.

We saw it happen to John McCain in 2008, and again to Mitt Romney in 2012. Both men are, I believe, eminently qualified to serve as President of the United States, but were labelled as weak-spined “flip-floppers” during the general election.

John McCain – a distinguished veteran of the Vietnam War and a senior US Senator with decades of experience in foreign policy was reduced to a late night punchline over his selection of Sarah Palin to be his running mate… all in an effort to appease increasingly vocal members of the Tea Party.

Mitt Romney, the consummate businessman and former governor of Massachusetts, was forced to eschew his proud legislative legacy in an attempt to get on board with primary voters who regarded Obama’s attempt to bring in universal health insurance with a disdain typically reserved by rational people for the actions of serial child rapists.

And herein lies the catch-22 at the heart of the modern Republican Party’s troubles. In an effort to appeal to the far-right of the party, a ‘base’ which is typically very influential in the run up the the party nominations, perfectly sensible centrist candidates are forced to pander to those who favor tight restrictions on immigration, prohibitions on gay marriage in every one of its guises, and loosening gun control even in the post-Sandy Hook era.

Having thereby secured the party’s nomination for President, the Republican candidate must then beat a hasty retreat back to the political center to stand any chance of being elected in November. And in distancing himself from remarks made during primary season, each Republican candidate is almost inevitably labelled a flip-flopper. It’s a lose-lose proposition, pure and simple.

Earlier this afternoon, I had a conversation with a few of my fellow journalism students here in the program’s newsroom. The topic was the apparent inevitability of Hillary Clinton’s Democratic nomination in 2016 – in fact, coronation seems a more appropriate term in this case. The general consensus was that it’s her election to lose.

While I generally agree with that thought, I’m more optimistic than most that the right Republican candidate could pose serious problems for Clinton. It’s clear that someone like Ted Cruz or Rand Paul stands no chance at the presidency – their ideas, while appealing to the hardcore ‘base’ of the Republican party – are way out of line with the views of the vast majority of the American voting public. To have any hope of defeating the Clinton political juggernaut, the Republicans need to nominate a relative moderate, and a fresh face with new ideas. While I have a lot of respect for Jeb Bush, his name would be a serious liability in 2016 to the strongest argument against another Clinton presidency.

Marco Rubio, a former Florida state representative and current US Senator, is the Republican Party’s best hope in 2016. As a relative moderate and federal newcomer, he would present an attractive alternative to Hillary Clinton – and would likely lure a substantial proportion of the growing Hispanic vote away from the Democratic nominee.

However, in running the primary gauntlet en route to the 2016 Republican nomination, Rubio runs the same risk faced by Romney in 2012, and by McCain before him. it is my sincere hope that the Republican party can come to its senses before it’s too late, and wake up to the reality of the self-destructive nature of its primary process.

The most serious political threat any Republican candidate will face in 2016 won’t come from Hillary Clinton, or any other Democrat. It will come from within their own party.

This reality needs to be recognized and faced head-on. Otherwise, I’m fearful that the inevitable outcome will be another eight years of a Democratic White House, and eight more years of a Clinton in the Oval Office.

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My JFK Fascination

As a boy, I liked to read. Things started pretty small – the Hardy Boys, Goosebumps, Eric Wilson mysteries. But even from an early point I loved non-fiction too. Every boy goes through phases of fascination with different subjects – for me, these ended up being about trains (obviously), dinosaurs (another no-brainer), outer space, and finally, military history.

If I’m going to be perfectly honest, my love of history was initially sparked by a video game. Medal of Honor was a popular series in the early days of Sony Playstation, set in Nazi-occupied Europe during the Second World War. At first, like any boy, I was attracted to the game by its fast-paced, shoot-em-up style. But as soon as I found out that many of the ‘missions’ were modeled after events which had actually taken place during the war, I was compelled to find out more.

By the age of 15, I had pretty well exhausted the Kitchener Public Library’s section on the Second World War, but that came too late for me – I’d caught the history bug.

My scope broadened quickly to include medieval European history, the crusades, classical history (Greek and Roman), as well as more modern subjects. As my focus shifted to the Cold War and the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, my attention settled upon one of the most dramatic and dangerous episodes of the 20th century: the Cuban missile crisis.

Central to this period of the Cold War was John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States (1961-1963), and also an Irish Catholic.

With a name like Brendan Murphy, you’d probably expect that I grew up steeped in Irish lore… and you’d be right. It was only natural, therefore, that with my passion for history and a new found fascination with politics, JFK would assume an important position in my view of 20th century politics.

Arthur M. Schlesinger's 1965 Pulitzer Prize Winning Memoir of his time in the Kennedy White House - A Thousand Days.

Arthur M. Schlesinger’s 1965 Pulitzer Prize Winning Memoir of his time in the Kennedy White House – A Thousand Days.

In his Pulitzer Prize winning memoir, A Thousand Days, noted American thinker and historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote of Kennedy:

“The Irishness remained a vital part of his constitution. It came out in so many ways – in the quizzical wit, the eruptions of boisterous humor, the relish for politics, the love of language, the romantic sense of history, the admiration for physical daring, the toughness, the joy in living, the view of life as comedy and tragedy.”

In so many ways, I think this neatly sums up Kennedy’s draw for me as an American icon, a historical figure, and as a role model. I might well be flattering myself to think so, but in his vivid description of the President’s character, Schlesinger reminds me of myself.

I finally picked the book up last week, after browsing past it at the local Indigo a few times this year.

Hey – it’s tough to justify spending $40 on mere ‘pleasure’ reading when you’re a student.

I’m currently 200 pages deep in the book… out of more than 1000. But I’m already drawn into Schlesinger’s narrative. Why did Kennedy choose politics after his stints at Harvard and in the Navy? How did he come out on top against such Democratic Party heavyweights as Lyndon Johnson and Adlai Stevenson in the 1960 L.A. convention? What motivated his foreign policy? How did his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, end up as his Attorney General?

These questions are being answered one by one, and I’m enthralled as each explanation has been revealed. Finally taking the time to learn about Kennedy’s presidency in more depth than ever before is a tremendous pleasure for me, and I can only hope that the book doesn’t distract me too much from my studies in this last month of my Journalism degree.

Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend!

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So My Favourite TV Show is Hiring…

I’ve said for some time now that the best job on Earth must be that of a Top Gear presenter. Imagine earning hundreds of thousands of pounds to travel the world, drive many of the best cars on Earth, and generally goof around with your mates. Every aspect of that description screams ‘dream job’ to me, and to be perfectly honest, was one of my pie-in-the-sky motivations for wanting to get into journalism in the first place.

Well, now there’s an opening at the very pinnacle of Top Gear – Jeremy Clarkson was fired by the BBC today.

Former Top Gear Host, Jeremy Clarkson

Former Top Gear Host, Jeremy Clarkson

The Director General of the BBC, Tony Hall, confirmed this morning that the broadcaster would not be renewing Jeremy Clarkson’s contract as host of the internationally-popular motoring show.

Clarkson had been involved in an altercation earlier this month with one of the show’s producers at a hotel while filming in North Yorkshire. In announcing the corporation’s decision to part ways with Clarkson, Hall said that “…for me a line has been crossed. There cannot be one rule for one and one rule for another dictated by either rank, or public relations and commercial considerations.”

Of course, I’m being facetious in implying that I’m happy there’s a job opening with Top Gear – I’ve got a very long way to go before I’d ever be placed in such a prominent position. In fact, learning about the firing of Jeremy Clarkson had a big impact on me as a longtime fan of the show.

I’m not for a minute suggesting that Clarkson is a saint – I think it’s quite clear to everyone who has watched the show or read his newspaper columns that the man is quite prone to the cantankerous type of outburst which led to his dismissal. But I’ll miss his unique brand of humour and on-screen presence immensely.

One didn’t need to be a car aficionado to enjoy Top Gear. The comedy was smart, the challenges and adventures that Clarkson embarked upon with his co-hosts – James May and Richard Hammond – were wide in scope, huge in scale geographically, and very often visually stunning. Being the number 1 most-viewed factual program on Earth allows for the kind of budget needed to bring all of this about.

As Clarkson is no longer affiliated with the show, the fact that the contracts of both May and Hammond are coming up for renewal very shortly takes on a new kind of urgency, and raises the spectre of the show’s overall demise. Will the three boys reunite to produce a similar show on another network? There’s no doubt that a reborn iteration of Top Gear (under a different name, of course) on ITV or Channel 4 would be a major coup for any broadcaster in direct competition with the BBC, both in the U.K. proper and worldwide.

All of this is just speculation. For now, let’s just have a moment of silence for the 13 years of great TV that Top Gear brought us. And in spite of his indiscretions, all the best to Jeremy Clarkson – I’ll be hoping to see him back up on the small screen (with or without May and Hammond, but ideally with) before too long. And, in the meantime, I’ll hone my nascent TV skills and keep my eye on the prize.

Maybe one day…

Photo Cred: Top Gear

Photo Cred: Top Gear

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A Plug for my Favourite Defense Blog

Today, I’m taking a break from my usual geopolitical ranting to give a shameless plug to one of my favourite online destinations: War Is Boring.

WIBI first stumbled across the site a couple of years back, after I’d started to frequent a number of online news aggregators. One of these, Real Clear Defense, features daily updates on all things military – policy, spending, and technology – from all over the world.

It didn’t take me long to realize that WIB was regularly publishing some of the most interesting content on the aggregator, and I became a frequent visitor to the page.

One of the things I find most appealing about the blog is its diversity of subject matter. I come from an academic background in history, in which I had focused mainly on military history. Unlike many of the other contributors to RCD, WIB often integrates historical content into its updates. This can include profiles on prominent historical military leaders, detailed explanations on how weapons systems have evolved throughout the years, and surveys of how tactics have changed along with military technologies.

Military affairs will probably not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you happen to be interested in keeping up on everything from defense policy, to current military affairs, to evolving battlefield tactics and technology, I cannot recommend WIB highly enough.

Thanks for reading, and have a great day!

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Mark Safranski on Strategic Ineptitude in Iraq

Anyone who happens to follow me on Twitter will already know that one of my favorite subjects to harp on about is the Obama administration’s apparent lack of strategic direction in the Middle East.

Recent months have seen US foreign policy lurch from one mistake to the next. As often as not, these errors have more to do with the manner in which policy is presented to the US public via the White House press office than any serious strategic blunder. Most observers are aware that increasing American involvement in overseas conflict is not a reality that the current administration wishes to hype up.

In fact, the President quite clearly desires the exact opposite.

US mounted infantry in Iraq, mid-2000’s

President Obama came into office in 2009 thanks, in large part, to strong public support for his desire to end American involvement in two long-running wars (Afghanistan and Iraq), and to refocus government priorities back upon the domestic economy. This was combined with Obama’s clear desire to strengthen the country’s diplomatic presence on the international stage, and to improve the world’s opinion of America in general, following what he had characterized as eight years of heavy-handed war mongering under the preceding Bush administration.

Obama’s aims were characterized by the much-vaunted removal of US combat troops from Iraq, a “reset” with Putin’s Russia, diplomatic engagement with Iran’s hostile theocracy, and a “pivot” to the East, to address the challenges posed by China’s rapid growth to established US interests in Asia.

A little more than six years on, what can be made of the Obama administration’s efforts in the realm of foreign policy?

Well, US troops are back on the ground in growing numbers in Iraq, this time to counter a renewed Sunni insurgency operating under the black flag of ISIS (or ISIL, depending on whether or not you adhere to the administration’s preferred nomenclature). Strengthened by the chaos of the post-2011 Syrian Civil War, ISIS – or what had previously been Al Qaeda in Iraq – stormed back into that country this past summer, comprehensively embarrassing an Iraqi Army greatly weakened by Obama’s haste to extract US forces from the region.

Attempts to “reset” relations with Russia have backfired no less spectacularly, as Vladimir Putin continues to wage a transparent, if deniable, proxy conflict in eastern Ukraine, following his annexation of the Crimean Peninsula earlier in 2014. The United Nations is now reporting that conflict’s death toll as standing at more than 5,000, a number which climbs daily in spite of impotent finger-wagging by the US and its NATO allies.

While negotiations continue with Iran in an effort to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon, Iranian clout within the Middle East continues to grow. Iran wields a considerable influence upon the policy of Iraq’s mainly Shi’a government, and is the primary supporter of Bashar Al-Assad’s government in Syria, which, despite all odds, continues to cling to power in large parts of the country. All the while, Iran edges closer to the capacity to produce a nuclear bomb – something which has driven a wedge between the US President, and America’s strongest regional ally: Israel.

Meanwhile, in Asia, Chinese military strength continues to grow. US regional allies such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines are becoming increasingly nervous about America’s willingness – even ability – to come to their aid should China take its saber-rattling over the disputed Senkaku Islands to the next level.

And so, with foreign policy misstep appearing to follow misstep under the current US administration, more and more observers are beginning to question the role of the media in holding the White House to account for its apparent lack of strategic direction.

Earlier today, I came across an excellent article by Mark Safranski, a senior analyst at Wikistrat, and publisher of the national security and strategy group blog, Zenpundit.com

Published on War on the Rocks, one of my own favorite defense blogs, Safranski makes a strong case that the role of the media in conducting political damage control on behalf of the Obama administration has been deeply damaging to US foreign policy as a whole. He uses the example of CENTCOM’s recent and baffling disclosure to the press of the US and Iraqi plan to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIS.

Even for readers not well versed on the ins and outs of military strategy, it should be immediately obvious that any disclosure of military plans or intentions is not exactly a smart thing to do – particularly in an age where ISIS commanders and sympathizers need only to turn on a TV, or fire up their laptops in order to have immediate access to these public disclosures.

This is just one of the most recent examples of the strategic ineptitude of the current US administration, and I would highly recommend giving Safranski’s commentary a read by following this link: ‘There are no tea leaves to read about the “Mosul Plan”.’

As always, thanks for reading and have a great weekend!

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Echo Chambers

I should probably launch into this post by saying, first of all, what follows is purely my own opinion – not a reflection of the views of Western University, or of anybody else for that matter.

Amid my musings yesterday, I mentioned that I’ve been an avid lifelong consumer of news. As the tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has unfolded over 67 years, I’ve been a witness to the fighting and anguish for the last 28 of them. Mind you, when I say witness, I’m painting myself as an observer in the sense of having taken in all that I’ve been able to glean from our media’s portrayal of the conflict, and from a number of university courses I’ve taken which have covered the political history of the Levant.

Palestinian Woman Yells at Israeli Soldiers

Firstly, it’s important that I remain cognizant of my own biases. I’m a pretty conservative guy by nature, and in Canada, that typically goes hand-in-hand with supporting the state of Israel. Additionally, the U.S. media that I’ve been absorbing from an early age has a notoriously pro-Israeli stance. Now, this isn’t always the case – but, generally speaking, I’ve found it to be true. Adding to this is the fact that I’ve never been on the ground personally in the Holy Land to see things for myself – therefore, any opinions which I might render on this topic will be necessarily influenced by my own life experiences.

I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that I’ve just preemptively disqualified myself from writing on this topic, but I’m taking a different approach here. Rather than spilling yet more ink on the history of the conflict, and who’s right and who’s wrong (neither side is), I’d like to talk about how I’ve personally witnessed the conflict being treated here in Canada – specifically on university campuses. And I’d like to tell you just how non-constructive I think such approaches have typically been.

Yesterday evening, I decided to accompany a friend of mine to a panel discussion hosted here on campus at Western by the group Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR). As you’ve probably already inferred from its title, SPHR is a campus organization whose mission is to raise awareness of the suffering of Palestinians in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank.

It’s not as though I went into the event anticipating a perfectly even-handed treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Few ongoing issues on Earth seem to have quite the same capacity to inflame emotion and provoke argument. I headed into this event desperately hoping to hear at least some kind of nuanced opinion or relation of personal experience from any of the three panelists – among which was included at least one permanent member of the university’s own faculty. I was sorely disappointed.

Again, before I’m accused of holding an overwhelmingly pro-Israel bias, I’d like to make it clear that there are many points on which I think the Israeli government is definitely in the wrong. The continuing construction of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank is, I believe, a rank criminal act, and an unacceptable provocation. Similarly, the treatment of civilians by the Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza and the West Bank has often been brutal. Illegal detentions, and unannounced searches and demolitions of Palestinian homes by the IDF have degraded the most basic human dignities of the Palestinian people.

Nevertheless, it was to my dismay that last night’s event presented nothing but an hour-long litany of grievance from the three assembled panelists. Not every complaint was without justification or substantiation. However, many utterly unfounded statements of historical “fact” were pronounced, to the accompaniment of much nodding and “mmm-hmming.” One such edict that sticks out prominently in my memory was the assertion that (and I’m paraphrasing here): ‘there are many historical texts which prove that Jerusalem was never first a primarily Jewish city.’

What the hell was she talking about? This didn’t just offend me as someone who holds an MA in history, it offended me as an individual with even the most rudimentary capacity for critical thought. And the audience lapped it up.

Over the course of the evening, not a single conciliatory comment was made about the state of Israel, or about even a single individual Israeli citizen. While expounding at length about Israel’s history of targeting Palestinian activists for assassination, not once did any of our three speakers so much as hint at the fact that many of these men had been involved in the bombing of city buses in Tel Aviv, or in the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Each assassination – which, I will admit, have not all been entirely justified – was nonetheless presented as an utterly unjustifiable killing of an innocent.

When the time came for questions from the audience… nothing but softballs. No issue was taken with any of the many assertions which had been made over the course of the evening without evidence provided to back them up. Room 2024 in the Social Sciences Building had been, for the past two hours, a literal echo chamber.

And here’s the point of my story. There are pro-Israeli groups and pro-Palestinian groups at most Canadian universities. They hold events and protests. They hold discussions and assemble panels. They expound at length about the righteousness of their own cause, and the villainy of the actions of the other side. But almost never in the same room, together, can they come together for a civil, nuanced debate.

You might accuse me of painting with a broad brush here, and you might have a point. But I can only write with authority on that which I’ve witnessed myself over the course of more than 10 years spent on university campuses in Ontario. In my experience, groups like SPHR get together regularly to complain to each other about what they already agree on anyway.

Nothing is gained. Nothing is learned from the other side. There are no fresh perspectives.

Leaving last night’s presentation, neither my friend or I could say that we’d learned anything we didn’t already know about Palestinian grievances. Neither of us had gained an insight into possible solutions to the continuing struggle.

And so, as Palestinians and Israelis will continue to die in the Levant, Canadian students will continue to argue in circles, and make bold pronouncements to rooms full of people who will nod and applaud, but learn absolutely nothing new.

There needs to be a better way to bring people together. I don’t know what it is yet, but it’s a worthy cause for deep thought.

Thanks for reading, and have a great day!

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On Interviewing

It’s something that a seasoned professional can often make look effortless. First – meet a complete stranger. Next, all you have to do is sit them down in front of a television audience which, during prime time, can often reach into the millions. And then… proceed to have an entirely natural conversation. No big deal.

Successful interviewing is something that, for an industry outsider, might never warrant a second thought. After all, how difficult can it be to just sit there and ask questions? Wouldn’t any sort of stress or onus be on the guest who’s there specifically to provide the answers? Well, as it turns out – conducting a solid interview is a lot harder than you’d think.

Charlie Rose Show

Charlie Rose with Apple’s Tim Cook

Flipping back to little more than one year ago, I didn’t really have much of an inkling that I’d ever wind up in J-School. 27 years old at the time, I’d spent the majority of my school years in a purely academic stream, studying history and political science at the University of Waterloo. I’d always had vague notions of myself either in law school or in pursuit of a business degree, or even a PhD, and I’d taken a couple of years off in order to figure out the next step.

It was my parents who had started to nudge me in the direction of journalism. They’d observed first-hand my interest in the news and current affairs – had seen my desire to always be aware of what was going on in the world, and why. I’ve been consuming news from a very early age – my idea of evening television growing up was the NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw. News had been a constant in my life, between daily newspapers, Meet the Press every Sunday morning, and the omnipresence of CBC radio in my mother’s kitchen.

But, of all the media I’d grown up taking in, one show in particular fascinated me beyond all others: the Charlie Rose show.

It’s not what you’d call a dazzling set, and there’s little to be found in the way of special effects. It’s a simple circular wooden table, set against the infinite darkness of a black backdrop. Charlie Rose sits on one side, and his guest(s) on the other. They then proceed to talk – just talk – for the next 15, 30 – sometimes 60 minutes, broken up only by the odd clip from a forthcoming film if his guest happens to be an actor, or a still shot if the work of a featured photographer or author. Sounds incredibly dull, right?

Wrong.

Charlie Rose has the incredible ability to draw fascinating stories and profound wisdom out of nearly each and every person he interviews. Personally speaking, I come from a liberal arts background. My main loves are history, politics, law, philosophy… you get the idea. Naturally I’m drawn to conversations with prominent authors, politicians, and thinkers – of which there are no shortage on Charlie’s show.

What impresses me the most, however, is how I’m able to be similarly enthralled by his interviews with people who come from specialties which are the exact opposite of these – scientists, performing artists and athletes. In fact, I can honestly say that I’ve had many a pet interest first sparked by guests on Charlie’s show. In the years since I started following the program, I’ve developed great interests in architecture, classical painting, and photography – all because of people I’d seen interviewed by, and subjects which were explored on Charlie Rose. He’s able, damn near every time, to give his viewers a sense of the passion which drives his interviewees in their various pursuits, and to lend a glimpse at the factors which have made them so successful in their work.

Charlie Rose trades in life lessons from some of the most interesting people on the planet, and I want his job.

As I sit in the newsroom of our graduate class (2015 will be the final year of the MAJ program at Western University in London, Ontario, in case anyone might be wondering what that #TheLastMAJ business is all about), I may well be flattering myself to think that I have any wisdom to impart upon the skill of interviewing which Charlie Rose has so perfected. But with the final month of my degree nearly upon me, I’d like to share just one tip with other students and prospective interviewers.

Never, under any circumstances, constrain yourself exclusively to a preconceived agenda – whether your own, or that of anyone else.

Let me quickly explain what I mean.

I believe that the risk is high – especially in young and inexperienced journalists, among whose number I must clearly count myself – for an interviewer to feel confined to a certain type of question. To put things another way, for a journalist to feel compelled to illicit a certain response from their subject, or to pursue a line of questioning beyond the point at which it should be clear that there’s nothing to be gained.

All of this to satisfy a preconception of what the interview should be, or what information should come out of it.

In the admittedly limited experience I’ve had over the past year, I’ve found that the very best things to come out of interviews have been those little glimmers of emotion or passion which can often happen entirely organically. Let the conversation flow naturally – if your subject says something that catches you off guard, follow up on it! Even if it takes the interview as a whole in a completely different direction.

Never feel as though you absolutely must adhere to the original list of questions you clutched going in, or to the order in which you had originally intended to ask them. If you simply let your subject speak their mind and elaborate freely, I’ve found that you’re likely to get a much better idea of their real thoughts and emotions. And this clearer picture of your subject will shine through in any piece (print, radio, or TV) that emerges at the end of the process.

I believe that this is the real secret to Charlie Rose’s success. He’s able to quickly establish a rapport with his guests, and then lets the conversation unfold as exactly that – a conversation. Not as a grilling in the manner of a Sunday morning political show. And, as a result, you get a better feeling of what the subject is really like – of what drives them, and how they think. And that’s usually the most interesting take-away of all.

Thanks for reading, and have a great day!

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Victoria Day in Victoria Park

May 19, 2014
Kitchener, Ont.

Victoria Park

Prominent Waterloo Region historian Rych Mills seems almost taken aback by the blue sky and warm breeze in downtown Kitchener’s Victoria Park this Victoria Day morning.

“We’ve been doing Victoria Day in Victoria Park for about 20 years now, and we’ve had to contend with all sorts of nasty weather in the past – rain, sleet, wind… you name it,” says Mills, host of the annual event, which features a number of presenters speaking on the topic of monarchy and empire, and of the lasting impact of our nation’s imperial ties upon Waterloo Region.

The event, which in years past has featured a litany of speakers including serving MPs, MPPs and mayors, was begun through the Victoria Park Society in the 1990’s, in order to approach the holiday from a more historical viewpoint, and to remember the impact of the many lapsed civic traditions which used to surround holidays such as Empire Day.

This year’s featured speaker was Bonnie Rees, the national membership officer for the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (IODE), a Canadian women’s organization dedicated to citizenship and social services projects, specifically in support of the Canadian military and veterans. It was the IODE which, between the years of 1902-1908, raised the money for the commemorative statue of Queen Victoria which now resides in the park, and which serves as a backdrop for the annual event. According to Rees, ongoing projects supported by the IODE include ‘Broken Wing’, a live-in program for veterans who struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in County Middlesex, Ont.

“I’ve been coming out to this event for the past five or six years,” says Waterloo resident Dave Moore, who fondly recalls some of his earliest childhood memories taking place in Victoria Park. Growing up in post-war Kitchener, Moore remembers hearing one of his neighbours telling his mother that the King (George VI) had died in 1952. “I remember feeling as though it was the end of the world,” Moore says, “I knew there was a statue of a Queen in the park (Victoria), but who was this King, and why was he dead? It was a very dramatic time!”

For Rych Mills, there is no better symbol of the British monarchy’s impact upon Canada than Queen Victoria, whose name appears in Waterloo Region on everything from city streets to public schools.

“Victoria was the most famous person of the 19th Century,” continues Mills, who has been a member of the Waterloo Historical Society for going on 15 years, and is the group’s current editor-in-chief. “Five-sevenths of the word ‘history’ is ‘story’, and helping members of our community connect with Canada’s imperial past by looking at events on a smaller more local level really helps to get people interested.”

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Playing Around With Photoshop

Look ma, I’m fading! #MoodShot

Original:

unnamed

And after my depressing edit:

SunLife - Edit

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