Schadenfreude: Sun News edition

Those of you who have either been reading this blog for several years or who regularly follow my Twitter feed and have caught one of my unhinged rants on the subject, I am decidedly not a fan of Canada’s Sun News Network. While (full disclosure) I would not be a fan of any ‘right wing’ news outlet, there are gradations of obnoxiousness and professionalism that allows me a wide level of tolerance for ideas that do not necessarily reflect my own (Margaret Wente, columnist for The Globe and Mail sits just on the periphery of what I can stand before I begin cursing at my computer monitor). I recognize (and laud) that a commitment to freedom of speech specifically licenses views that I disagree with, and I recognize the importance of heterodoxy in a modern democratic state.

The need for divergent views, however, must be balanced with a respect for truth and a commitment to scrupulous standards of fairness. There is no value in claiming validity for positions that are based in distortions of fact or outright lies. In news circles, this ethos is known as “journalistic integrity” – the idea that news outlets have a duty to provide readers with analysis that as closely approximates objective truth as possible. Now I am nowhere near so naive that I fail to recognize that different outlets have editorial biases – that’s media criticism 101. However, there are standards of good reporting that require all editors to suppress their own personal beliefs in service of giving their audience proper information.

Sun News Network has made an obvious decision to do away with the archaic notion of “journalistic integrity” in favour of sensationalism and pandering to the begrudging meanness and spite that occupies the underbelly of any society. Patterned after its ideological predecessor Fox News Network, Sun has adopted both the monumentally-ironic “Fair and Balanced” narrative and the anti-”Lame Stream Media” narrative that has served its southern counterpart so well (until quite recently, at least*). By railing against “The Media Party” and setting themselves up as the place reporting the things that “THEY” won’t report on, Sun is clearly hoping to tap in to the same instinct for jealous paranoia that has created a parallel reality among American Conservatives, accompanied by a chorus of ringing cash registers.

I see what this has done to the quality of discourse in the United States, with networks desperately trying to out-sprint each other in a mad scramble to the lowest common denominator. In such an environment “journalistic integrity”, an ethos that is entirely ‘opt in’ rather than strictly regulated, will be the first thing jettisoned as so much dead weight in an environment where ratings rule. Such is the nature of capitalist news.

In light of such a daunting landscape, it would be easy to become hopelessly depressed at what seems like the inevitable destruction of an intellectual edifice. There are two things that give me hope. First, I do not believe that we face unique challenges today – I believe that if you look at any period in history you will find doomsayers sagely prognosticating the downfall of the fabric of society. The fact is that society is still here, and will likely endure in some incarnation of its present form for as long as the planet can sustain human life.

The second thing that lifts my spirits from the depths of fatalistic despair is stories like this one:

Blogger and free speech activist Ezra Levant has been ordered by the Ontario Superior Court to pay an additional $32,500 in libel to human rights lawyer Giacomo Vigna. Last November, Levant was ordered to pay $25,000 to Vigna for libel, citing his “reckless indifference” to the truth while writing blog posts about the Canadian Human Rights Commission lawyer.

Levant accused Vigna of lying to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, tampering with evidence, and suggested he’d been fired, the National Post reports. Justice Robert Smith ruled that Levant “spoke in reckless disregard of the truth and for an ulterior purpose of denormalizing the Human Rights Commission across Canada which makes his statements malicious in that sense.”

In the first decision (published November 18, 2010), which you can read here, the judge dismissed some of the claims against Levant, but found that he defamed Vigna six times between March and May 2008. That Levant failed to check facts or seek Vigna’s side of the story meant that he could not claim the new libel defence, introduced by the Supreme Court late last year, of “responsible communication on a matter of public interest.

Calling Ezra Levant a “free speech activist” is a bit like calling Rush Limbaugh a “women’s issues critic”. Levant is to Sun News Network what Sean Hannity is to Fox News – a mewling bully who has made both his fame and fortune (such at it is) by bringing internet trolling into the newsroom. He casts himself as a bold champion of the right to free expression (and surely believes his own propaganda in that regard), but then abuses the license in order to spew whatever passing low-cognition impulse that happens to flit across his basal ganglion or whatever organ it is that his ilk use to serve the function that a brain serves in humans (judging by the quality of his arguing, I’d imagine its the transverse colon but I am not a medical expert).

Canada takes freedom of speech seriously, but because we have had the luxury of learning from the mistakes of the American First Amendment, that right is subject to those limitations that can be demonstrably justified as necessary for the conduct of society. This balance is certainly not taken lightly by our Supreme or lower courts, but beyond the legal system there is a collection of parallel human rights courts that attempt to ‘fill in the cracks’ where harm is demonstrable but criminality is not. Ezra Levant has personally crusaded against the very existence of these courts, as they force him to actually consider the well-being of others before shooting his mealy mouth off.

And yet, in this circumstance it was not the Human Rights courts that tripped up our intrepid guardian of the freedom to be an abusive horse’s ass in public – it’s the honest-to-goodness legal courts that have, in a quite literal sense, forced Ezra to put his money where his mouth is. Given the declining fortunes of Sun News (not that it ever had particularly lofty prospects), a nearly $60,000 fine is not exactly a drop in the bucket for Levant. And while I do not necessarily wish specific harm on the man, I refuse to hide my glee at his self-immolation.

To be sure, it is the mark of a petty man to have his hopes for the future buoyed by the suffering of his opponents. Luckily for me, I’ve never claimed to be particularly enlightened.

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P.S. In the interest of fostering something like my own journalistic integrity, I feel compelled to make two post-script statements. The first is that Sun is not Fox (and is legally not allowed to be, but that’s another story), and that there is at least one diamond to be mined from its open pit of horseshit. The second statement is a referral to what I think is a high-quality critique of the network, free of the anti-Sun spin that I unashamedly include in any of my analyses thereof.

*A bit of speculative analysis here. Fox has trumpeted its high television ratings as evidence of its success. How many of you reading this still get your news from the television? If you’re anything like me, you’re getting your information online, and from a variety of sources rather than tuning into a single station. I have long been irritated by the Neilsen ratings system, as the only thing it captures is a rapidly-dwindling audience of people who have nothing better to do for an hour or so than watch the evening news at night (and at a fixed time every day, rather than with a DVR). Two of Fox’s flagship shows have an audience that is majority and disproportionately older than 50, which strongly suggests to me that they’ve hit the height of their popularity and their fortunes will steadily decline.