Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Canadians vs. Americans on freedom of the press

Clicking through some old links, I accidentally stumbled upon an ancient discussion that took place in the comments section of this equally ancient post by the U.S. blogger Bitch, Ph.D. The context was "World Freedom of the Press Day," which happened to occur smack dab in the middle of the sponsorship scandal and the egregious American misunderstandings about Canadian press freedom that came out of that situation. The conversation is primarily between two commenters: American "PorJ" and Canadian "Andrea." And between them, they manage to say everything I tried to say about the differences between press freedom in the two countries back in this post--but in dialogue form.

PorJ starts out with absolutes:

I'm an idealist. I also know the work of Gramsci, Foucault, Derrida, and Chomsky, and other theorists you would throw out to convince me what a sham the concept of a "free press" is. But don't waste your breath on me. Tell it to the Chinese or Iranian kid who dreams of one day running her own newspaper. Or perhaps she dreams of starting a blog to talk about how much she hates her academic job in the middle of China and wants to move to a big diverse city to raise her little boy. [...] Canada? I don't think we can say a state with legally-sanctioned "publication bans" has a free press.
It's this point where Andrea steps in:
PorJ, I think you need to learn a bit more about Canada and our publication bans before you can make sweeping generalizations about Press Freedom here. Contrary to what that one article seems to think, oftentimes they are imposed to protect the privacy of victims or families giving difficult and personal testimony during a trial. The salacious details of a woman's rape should not be fodder for a sensationalistic press; whatever is dragged through the courts should not then be dragged through all of society. And while we may have a temporary publication ban on the Gomery inquiry, we don't have secret military trials conducted without virtue not only of press coverage, but of any due process of law. In December we will see all of the reports and testimony from that inquiry. When are you going to find out what's happening in Guantanamo bay? In 50 years when it's declassified?
But PorJ is undaunted:
We agree: I'd take the CBC over any American news network right now. But I'm not talking about the performance of the press. I'm talking about the pure idealism and optimism that undergirds the American system. [...] Our government cannot ban anything "temporarily" except in extreme circumstances. The Pentagon Papers case took care of that. That's why last Sunday evening on "60 Minutes" over 20 million Americans heard Sgt. Erik Saar, a former Guantanamo Bay translator, talk about the bizarre, sadistic torture of detainees in Guantanamo. Now, if American politicians had recourse to a "temporary publications ban" whenever something scandalous threatened to bring them into disrepute, do you think we would have heard Sgt. Saar's accusations? [...] I'm not trying to be offensive here - I'm just pointing out the hypocrisy of supporting some "publications bans" and not others. We've already taken care of that problem: Thank You, First Amendment.
At this point, Andrea corrects some of the misconceptions PorJ has about Canada's publication bans by listing off the rather explicit criteria that need to be met for a publication ban to be permitted, describing the openness of the trials in question (with press and public present), and reiterating the impermanent nature of any ban. And then finally, she goes on to criticize the practical results of the U.S.'s rigidly ideological press freedom laws:
What has that optimism and idealism gotten you? A prostrate press that publishes pentagon-produced news stories as fact; planted reporters in press conferences spewing scripted "questions"; reporters banned from press conferences for daring to ask unscripted questions. That doesn't sound like freedom of the press to me, nor does it sound like "optimism and idealism"; it sounds like cynicism and hopelessness. [...]

If you actually read the [sponsorship scandal's publication ban] ruling, you'll see that it's not "the government" hiding anything. Justice Gomery decided to implement the ban, not "the government;" and it took some convincing, too. The publication ban is quite limited and at least we know when we're going to find out what happened. Meanwhile, secret military trials are being conducted in the US. (I'm not talking about the torture, which fortunately has become public, though I fail to see that's had any real impact; I'm talking about the related secret military trials). You don't have "publication bans" on them, which would at least permit the press to be present and record the proceedings for future broadcast. You don't even have lawyers or due process of law. Read this and this. Then tell me you don't have "publication bans." Not only have you lost freedom of the press, you've lost due process of law, to boot. [...] So you'll have to pardon me if I do find it objectionable to have the US held up in front of me as a light for the rest of the world to emulate in this regard.
Culture clashes like this are always fascinating to me, because I understand so well where each side is coming from. On the one hand we have an American arguing that the ideas that underlie the U.S.'s First Amendment are good ones--whether or not they work--and that things are better in the U.S. because those ideas are better. From the Canadian perspective, though, we hear that if the ideas don't work in practice--if they're not efficient, as Joseph Heath would say--they're not worth the paper they're written on. These days I tend to err on the side of Canada's "efficient society," but as a former free speech ideologue, I'm more than familiar with the forces that must have shaped PorJ's arguments as well. These are the kinds of cultural differences that can sneak up on us and have each side screaming at the other: "You're not making any sense!!!" When two cultures look so similar on the surface, it can surprise everyone involved when the people who have been shaped by them come from such opposing stances.

One point that Andrea did try to make throughout, but which I'd like to highlight since it seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle, is that it's the very absolutism of the ideology behind American press freedom laws that allows things like secret trials to happen. When there's no possibility of a middle ground like a temporary publication ban, and your government feels the need (justified or not) to hide what goes on in a courtroom from public view, then the only way to do that is to lock it away permanently. This can be done by closing the courtroom to journalists and outsiders and swearing anyone inside the room to secrecy, as in the Valerie Plame case, or by hiding the existence of the courtroom in the first place,
as in the Guantanamo trials Andrea points out. It was this realization that finally broke me of my own prior ideological stance on this subject: when absolutist ideals lead to exactly the situation you're trying to avoid, then those ideals are fundamentally flawed, no matter how good they look on paper.

As a final word (and at the risk of sounding like some sort of a scary stalker-type) I should mention that Andrea impressed me enough that I checked out her own blog, where I ended up disappointed to discover that she doesn't talk politics and culture there. If I ran one of those group political blogs like the blogscanada egroup or pogge, though, I'd sure as hell ask her to join it and at least occasionally share her wisdom with the rest of us. Because holy cannoli, is she ever good.


Beanie Baby/Andrea said...

Wow! Thank you very much.

I do write about culture and politics from time to time, but it's true that Ms. Frances has taken over most of my brainspace as well as much of the rest of my life. Still, I'll take a writing compliment wherever I can get it. ;)

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I so don't buy that. If you have the brainspace to make terrific arguments on someone else's blog, you'd have the brainspace to make a post to a group political blog once in a blue moon. If I had one, I'd make you an offer you couldn't refuse! :-)

No, seriously, great discussion. Thanks for articulating a bunch of points I'd been trying to make, but not quite hitting on.

Beanie Baby said...

And if you made me an offer I couldn't refuse, I wouldn't try. :)

But this is interesting. Now I'm thinking about all the reasons I don't blog more about culture or politics on my own space, and I can't blame it entirely on Frances. Oddly, don't be surprised if a blog post about why I don't blog about culture and politics more often doesn't show up over the next few days.

cdntarheel said...

Idealistic Pragmatist,

I rather enjoyed your observations about the cultural differences between Americans and Canadians when it comes to free speech. Admittedly, I have a vested interest, as you do, with a name like Canadian Tar Heel.

I've only just discovered your blog, but will definitely visit often.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Ooh. I'll be checking back.


Thanks! And welcome. Amusingly, you seem to have grown up where my parents have just relocated (my dad is a professor at Duke), and you now live in the city that originally made me want to live in Canada. So we have more than just our trajectory in common.