The “Scaachi Scandal” and the Future of Journalism
——– by Christopher Johnson ———
I believe people are born color blind. We are created to see people for their individual qualities, not race.
Canada’s multicultural policies, based on 1971 legislation, allowed me to remain in this idealistic state longer than other cultures would.
Growing up or living in six provinces, I was fascinated by minority cultures, without even realizing it. Age 3, my first friend was Indo-Canadian (and I still crave spicy food). Age 10, my tennis buddy was an Egyptian Muslim (and I still admire that faith). In high school, my teammates had Egyptian, Croatian, Serbian, Filipino, Italian and Chinese ancestry. In college, I used to find new immigrant kids from Africa or Latin America sitting alone in the cafeteria and share lunch with them. I didn’t think of my friends as being representatives of Asia or Africa. They were just my friends. I never thought of myself as a “white guy”. My idols were Swedish tennis player Bjorn Borg and “Magic”, an African-American basketball player sharing my family name — Johnson. I admired Borg’s calm determination and Magic’s charisma and flair. Their race meant nothing to me.
Fascinated by foreign lands, I moved to Thailand, Brazil, China and Japan, learned various languages, lived with partners of various heritages, and spent 30 years working around the world and visiting more than 100 countries.
Now I’m blocked on Twitter by the type of people I would have befriended back in the day.
Activists tell me that Canada already has too many white male writers; we should save room for alternative voices. I too want more diversity and power for minorities and women (such as my sister, a writer). At the same time, I want better journalism. I believe that the best journalists and writers are the ones who reach beyond their personal prejudices and see the world from other perspectives.
About 30 years ago, when journalists earned more than we do now, journalism school taught us to worship a creed of basic fundamentals: balance, ethics, accuracy, and hard indisputable facts based on scientific, empirical, verifiable evidence that others could test and reach similar conclusions. Now everything is about dispute.
I didn’t think about “promoting my brand” or “getting followers” because I was trying to get a job as a “team player” in a big institution like CBC, CTV, Southam, AP or Reuters. Now I’m @globaliteman.
Pre-Internet, I didn’t worry about blocking critics in comments sections. We didn’t even have the words “hater” or “troll”. A critic might write a “letter to the editor” or squeal to my boss. But I didn’t think much about “hate culture” in society. Taught to ignore hecklers or “forgive and forget”, I didn’t have enemies until I reached my thirties. Now everybody has haters from early ages.
To pay my way through journalism school, I worked as a janitor, car washer, window cleaner, factory worker and treeplanter. I gained insights about people outside the media bubble. I learned never to diss anybody, because blue-collar workers would kick your ass.
Tedious labor made me appreciate the fun of being a reporter or editor — prestigious white-collar jobs with privileged status but also an obligation to serve the public good. Journalism granted me access to powerful and famous people, and a back stage pass to the world, as long as I didn’t abuse those credentials for personal gain. Defamation laws prevented me from insulting others but also protected my right to fair comment and truth-seeking. Now, anybody can use a sock-puppet.
Then, self-expression wasn’t the goal. The ideal was to extinguish the self and report facts and quotes from all sides from a standpoint of objectivity and neutrality — a state of detachment akin to Buddhism. That won’t go viral now.
Is this TL:DR?
I suspect that none of this means much to neo-journos weened on selfies, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Some are probably snarking at this, or plotting how to ostracize me from their secret cliques.
They probably didn’t even read this far.
But I try to understand them and their exotic culture, because I was raised and trained this way. Many of my best friends now are journalists in their twenties. That’s why I began to follow people like Scaachi Koul on Twitter.
I thought that “Scaachi”, an Indo-Canadian Albertan based in Toronto, would offer insights into the mindset of young journalism grads who embrace digital media over legacy institutions dating back to the 19th century.
It’s a different generation with a different perspective, and not everybody likes it or favorites it. Others think they are edgy, funny and revolutionary.
Scaachi, in particular, has courted controversy with her brash statements on CBC TV and Radio, and in hundreds of provocative and profane tweets in recent months before her Twitter account disappeared last weekend.
The “Scaachi Scandal” has stirred reactions on all sides.
Coverage is long on spin and opinion, short on fact. While many activists focus on their pet issue, such as racism or diversity, others talk about online idiocy and immaturity, passive-aggressive behavior and “cry-bullying”, or journalism ethics and standards. Nobody is right or wrong.
Most agree that Twitter has become a cesspit of bullying and harassment, especially for women. Many also claim that Twitter should have banished Scaachi weeks ago for race-baiting. It’s not clear if Twitter removed Scaachi for TOS (terms of service) violations, or if she quit herself after weeks of “poking the bear” and battling critics which she labeled as haters and trolls. Her former colleague Jordan Ginsberg of Penguin Random House told a US-based writer that Scaachi deactivated her Twitter account instead of going to private to shield her from abuse while keeping followers.
Scaachi, now a senior writer at Buzzfeed Canada, grew up in Calgary, a boom-and-bust oil city of 1.2 million including 400,000 minorities such as an estimated 85,000 of South Asian descent. In fact, South Asians are the largest visible minority group in Canada, with 834,000 in Toronto, 252,000 in Vancouver, 79,000 in Montreal and 60,000 in Edmonton.
Canada’s population of 1.4 million Indo-Canadians includes 19 current members of the national Parliament in Ottawa.
Notable Canadians of South Asian heritage include Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi (a Muslim) and Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan (a former Vancouver detective and Afghanistan war veteran born in Punjab, India). (On a personal note, Indo-Canadian musicians often play with my brothers in bands Big Sugar, Wide Mouth Mason, Grady, Lemon Bucket Orkestra and Rambunctious. Several of my closest friends and collaborators have South Asian heritage and HIndu, Buddhist or Muslim faith.)
CTV employs many visible minorities including hosts Marci Ien, Scott Laurie and Sarika Seghal.
CBC has long emphasized diversity. Two of its biggest stars are David Suzuki, a Japanese-Canadian biologist once voted the most popular man in Canada, and Ian Hanomansing, born in Trinidad of Indian descent.
Scaachi claims on her LinkedIn page that she studied journalism at Ryerson in Toronto, and did internships at Huffington Post and Maclean’s magazine before joining The Loop, Hazlitt and then Buzzfeed about six months ago as a “senior writer”.
Some of her writings in Buzzfeed, the New Yorker and elsewhere focus on herself and her views of white males.
Instead of ignoring New Media, the CBC has invited Scaachi to their panels such as a recent discussion about the troubled newspaper industry.
Her comments on The National sparked outrage from many commenters who accused her of being a smug, entitled racist making factual errors on a network supported by more than a billion dollars in annual taxpayer funding.
When asked if newspapers are still relevant, she said: “I don’t think for my generation, it is. They (newspapers) don’t adapt. They don’t change.”
She also criticized the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest daily by circulation, for trying to “wedge a newspaper into the internet”.
Sitting next to Carleton University journalism professor Chris Waddell during the CBC panel, she disputed his claims about the success of La Presse in Quebec.
She lamented the loss of local news coverage and LGBT papers in cities, but smiled at stats showing growth in digital revenue.
This irked many Canadians who remain loyal to print legacy media, which continues to garner $2.6 billion in ad revenue despite 10,000 recent job cuts.
As the show ended, Scaachi said: “A lot of newspapers tend to market themselves to older straight white guys, and that’s far less interesting.”
Rather than citing facts, Scaachi was offering her opinion, based on a popular perception.
Facts suggest otherwise. NewspapersCanada.ca says 87 percent of Canadians read newspapers.
Many Canadians, offended by Scaachi’s claims, criticized her journalism fundamentals or ethics, and some attacked her personally, insulting her race or gender.
They also criticized her comments the next morning on popular CBC Radio show “q” about a mass gathering of people — mainly white — doing yoga and dancing early in the morning.
Instead of accepting valid criticisms or seeking legal action against cyber-bullies, Scaachi provoked them or fought back vigorously, blocking or insulting people she’s never met.
The Twitter Storm around Scaachi, in my view, shows what journalism might become in the Digital Age if we continue to devalue science, ethics, factual accuracy and traditions that have evolved over the 170-year history of the craft. We are either headed toward a blogger Babylon and Media-geddeon (to borrow a Rastafarian phrase), or something more rich and diverse than ever before, a sort of Digital Bliss where disses become meaningless.
For now, the Internet is still a teenager with growing pains. We have a collective online identity crisis. A new generation of journalists, weened on social media, are accustomed to sharing themselves online and making friends in far places, but they also fabricate themselves, ignore facts and attack each other in a public way that old schoolers might find unprofessional or offensive.
Yet they aren’t better or worse than us.
We had schoolyard bullying and brawls. We had codes and lines you didn’t dare cross, and punishments and sin-bins. If somebody from Parkview called my friend a Chink or Paki or Spic or Spade, we’d rumble with them until somebody called the teachers or the cops.
Now these fights happen on Twitter, and apparently there are no teachers or cops. Somebody disses somebody in your clique, and you wage war by blocking, doxxing or “cry-bullying” (in which you provoke somebody into attack, then block them to claim the almighty “victim” status.)
It’s a game as stupid, immature and bigoted as the schoolyard brawls of yesteryear. Yet now it’s done by adults, journalists and activists.
Why are we doing this?
While the older generation was taught to “get your hands dirty” and “go on the street” to tap into social issues, Scaachi’s generation are taught to “promote your personal brand” and feel the pulse through online battles. The emphasis now is on individual stardom, not the team. Truth-seeking is meaningless compared with the Queen Bee’s ability to expand their personal following and generate clicks and likes.
As a result, it’s harder for the younger writers such as Scaachi to separate their professional and personal lives. It’s easier to take everything personally and form protective cliques to ostracize rivals.
Offended or astounded by these infantile power games, the old schoolers see these “Digital Idiots” as entitled narcissists who block, silence, diss or ignore anybody with a different view or affiliation.
Many “old school” journalists don’t realize that the younger generation are fighting to survive amid fierce job competition and dying, 100-year old institutions that often oppressed, misinformed or neglected the needs of women, minorities and youth. They feel they have to be SJW Social Justice Warriors or Femi-Nazis or Men’s Righters or whatever will empower them.
This clash of cultures and generations will shape new forms of journalism in coming years. It’s as fascinating for me as the curry cooking next door or a mosque during Ramadan. We should try to like it and retweet it, not block it.
——- 30 ——–
Journalism is ultimately a mirror and a window. For a view into Scaachi’s world, which is a matter of intense public interest and worthy of fair comment, here’s a collection of her tweets after her CBC appearances, as well as reactions by her supporters and critics.