Let's get a few things out of the way first:
No, I don't actually think Kai Nagata is mentally ill. My "are you insane?" question was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Kai is a friend, one I've gotten to know a little bit during his brief stay in Montreal. I've admired what was until recently an impressive career in television journalism, but also his creativity in other areas as well. He's a very smart guy, and a great communicator. That may be part of the reason he seems so eccentric sometimes (like the fact that he made a career in television journalism without owning a television set).
When Nagata quit his job at CTV after only nine months and change, I was taken aback. I was just as surprised by the reaction that was sparked by a blog post he wrote explaining why he left. Even though it became public on the evening of Friday, July 8, it went crazy viral over the weekend. Thousands of links on Twitter, including from such heavyweights as Roger Ebert, Margaret Atwood and Jay Rosen. It was reposted by Huffington Post Canada, Rabble.ca, The Tyee and the Toronto Star, and linked to from websites like MetaFilter, Digital Journal, The Mark and Small Dead Animals and some blogs. Nagata said by Monday morning the post had more than 100,000 views, not counting those from other websites that reposted the text. By Tuesday, it was 170,000. By Thursday, 271,000. More than 1,000 comments, many responding to each other.
The mainstream media began to take notice after the Monday-to-Friday crowd came back to work. Nagata was interviewed on CBC Daybreak on Monday morning, later that day on CJAD, and on Wednesday, at length, on The Current. News stories were written by CBC (largely based off the Daybreak interview), the Toronto Star (which drew comments on Toronto.com) and La Presse.
As is their way, many media found ways to relate Nagata's story to others. Josée Legault and another CBC story packaged it with the News of the World shutdown, as if they were related in any way other than temporally. Others including the Ottawa Citizen and J-Source used Nagata's story as part of articles about people quitting their jobs. OpenFile was one of many to relate Nagata's story with that of Claude Adams, who was fired from his job at CBC after making a critical error while rushing on a story. Steve Proulx compared Nagata's opinions on journalism to those of Gil Courtemanche.
A writer in the Regina Leader-Post said restrictions on Nagata's ability to express himself also affect workers in other industries, and should be lifted.
But besides all that, the post generated a lot of discussion among his colleagues within CTV Montreal and other local media. And not all of that reaction was positive.
Nagata said about 90% of the feedback he received was positive. Many comments from journalists and political activists hailed him as some sort of hero. Some even created a Facebook group based on his blog post even though they never met the man and all they knew about him was that blog post.
That level of praise on such a large scale is inevitably going to lead to some backlash from those who feel the need to splash cold water on the situation.
There was Jessica Hume in the National Post defending the idea that journalism makes money. There was Max Fawcett saying Nagata is a narcissist and desperate for attention. There was Bill Amos saying Nagata's criticisms of television news are nothing new, and that TV journalists have found a way to deal with it. (A lot of criticism was along the same lines, asking why he's only realizing now how superficial and image-focused TV is.) There was Sandra Thomas of the Vancouver Courrier suggesting that Nagata gave up and that he's naive. (There's a follow-up to that, too) There was Grant Lafleche from the St. Catharine's Standard. There was Karen K. Ho. There was Jesse Ferreras, saying Nagata's expectations were inflated. There was Dave Bidini in the National Post laying on the sarcasm against Nagata (and, for no apparent reason, Jean-René Dufort).
Global Montreal's Mike Le Couteur started up a blog just so he could respond to Nagata and defend his industry. His colleague Mike Armstrong (Global's national reporter based in Montreal) also blogged about it, giving his perspective and saying that TV news is better than its faults. Gazette intern Joëlle Pouliot wrote an opinion piece saying Nagata's actions made young journalists look bad.
Even the backlash has prompted people to come out and write more balanced opinions on the subject. People like Brett Gundlock, who quit his job as a staff photographer at the National Post around the same time. And Ted Bird, who quit his job at CHOM because of differences over programming. And Jen Gerson, who left for Abu Dhabi in what she considered a similarly naive decision.
Robin Rowland posted that Nagata's resignation is a symptom of a generation gap in media, and the fact that young journalists agree with him while it's the older journalists who defend the status quo is even further evidence that so-called traditional media are failing to connect to a younger audience.
Howard Bernstein, who has lots of experience in the TV news industry, said he agreed with most of Nagata's criticisms, but not his decision to leave his job, because TV needs more people like him.
Nagata's blog post also attracted comments from one of his coworkers at CTV, mixed in with all the back-slapping. Among that person's statements, posted anonymously on Nagata's blog post:
In some ways this is greatly idealistic, in others incredibly naive, and as a journalist let’s face it, you’ve crapped on the boss’s desk.
Kai is a great reporter who was able to offer a lot of great analysis and let’s face it: analysis IS editorial judgement. So the idea that you were in some way limited in what you could say, unless [Executive Producer] Barry Wilson or [News Director] Jed Kahane told you directly ‘don’t go there’ is a little odd to be honest. I know Jed– the VP news– has sent him messages saying journalists need to provide context for political stories.
On the whole I think management failed you Kai.
You did a great job over the past year, but you were isolated in Quebec city, away from your west coast family and all your friends in Montreal (including your girlfriend). You were missing your support group and it’s obvious you needed it.
I work with Kai, I know what he did, and I know that HE had control over his reports. No grand poohbah pronounced from on high "YOU MAY NOT REPORT ON THIS ISSUE" or said "GIVE US THIS SLANT." Not even nudges and winks. the real world of journalism just does not work that way anywhere except in the mind of a conspiracy theorist who is convinced that I'm "just a mouthpiece not for a free press, but for a blatantly bought-and-paid-for press. Paid liars and deceivers who have sold their own consciences"
As for editorial influence, I would say CFCF is probably one of the least stringent shops out there. We could take significant liberties partly because of pretty “easygoing” oversight, and partly because we have one of the strongest union delegations in North America. When it comes to social media all that I’ve ever been asked to do is temper remarks with a disclaimer. I mean Christ, Stephane Giroux is a prime example. He says anything he wants (love u steph!). Point is, there’s a lot more at play, at least at this shop, than the ravenous identity and ideology munching monster that many would like believe is this industry.
Whenever Kai pitched an important story, he was told “go cover it” unless something big and breaking was happening that day.
IN which case he was free to pitch it again the next day. It’s called making choices, and there’s only so much you can do when you are one man covering an entire city.
Also worth reading are comments made in a series of Twitter posts by Basem Boshra, who resigned as The Gazette's TV critic in 2003, and similarly got a lot of pats on the back for it (though there was no 3,000-word blog post). He would end up returning to the paper four years later, and is now its arts and entertainment editor. He offered some perspective from someone who has been there:
Please permit this corporate media sellout to share a few opinions on the @kainagata manifesto. (It's okay, I fully expect the hate mail.)
First, Kai obviously has the right and freedom to leave a job if he's feeling disaffected or kept down or stifled for whatever reason. But issuing a 3,000-word screed full of facile observations about mainstream TV news is, at best, self-indulgent, and at worst it's disingenuous and insulting to many of the good and talented people I know who work there, as well as in other mainstream media.
I mean, he did not know that TV news can often be superficial and ratings-obsessed when he got into the business? How is that possible? Or that news reporters, particularly of the political stripe, are expected to maintain a modicum of objectivity about the beats they cover?
There are, quite obviously, countless opportunities for pundits on TV news, network or otherwise, who do nothing but express opinions. Again, how any of this came so belatedly to someone in the industry is astonishing to me. Or, at least, it's an indictment of our j-schools.
I will leave aside his lengthy tangent on the Harper government largely because a) I agree with much of it (oh no, an opinion!) and b) they are again hardly controversial. I'm assuming getting that stuff off his chest was the real reason behind this cri de coeur.
But I would also caution Kai - who I don't know and who I only hear good things about from his friends and colleagues - about one thing. I speak from personal experience when I say you'll get welts from everybody slapping you on the back right now for quitting your job, but I guarantee you that many of these same people are privately questioning the wisdom of your decision and/or sanity right now. That's human nature. We love to live vicariously through people go through these "stick it to The Man" scenarios. Then we move on.
Anyways, that's just my $0.02. I hope you find something out there that gives you the satisfaction you're looking for. Good luck, man.
And then there are those screeds from people who work in television news that don't even mention Nagata's name, but are linked to in Twitter posts that relate them to his story. Like Tim Knight, who deplores that CBC's The National focused on William and Catherine's visit to Canada instead of the end of the war in Afghanistan. Or Claude Adams, who lost his job in TV news after he, under deadline pressure, wrote a script that incorrectly said a dog had died (he claims his post has already cost him another job opportunity).
Does this change anything?
So far there has been no meaningful reaction from the people who supposedly control the media and have caused all the problems Nagata complains about, assuming such people even exist. The Star asked CTV News for comment, but they didn't want to. The Current could get only a one-sentence boilerplate about wishing him well. The Tyee said the post was "Sending Shivers through Canada's Media," but provides zero evidence that this is the case.
I asked CTV Montreal News Director Jed Kahane to comment on Nagata, but he politely declined to do so, not wanting to get into a back-and-forth debate.
In my informal discussions with Nagata's former coworkers and others in local media, many agreed with his criticisms of television news (even senior managers recognize its faults), but I heard no one say they wanted to approach their jobs differently in light of Nagata's manifesto.
After the initial surge of gossip, life returned to normal. Journalists still follow him on Twitter, still lament the problems he brought up (none of which was particularly earth-shattering), but go back to worrying about that day's deadlines and finding story ideas anywhere they can.
The truth is that Nagata isn't the first person to criticize the news industry in general, and the television news industry in particular. His comments about how they prefer style over substance and prevent journalists from expressing their opinions are hardly groundbreaking. The only thing that makes this case different is that he resigned over it and made his feelings public.
Reading the comments attached to his blog post, and comments on Twitter and elsewhere, I got a clearer idea of what's going on. Nagata's post is being interpreted by the vast majority in one of two ways:
- Nagata is a crazy leftist who is whining and running home to mommy because TV news won't let him push their bias even farther to the left. The news industry is better off without him, and he should probably just go ahead and run for the NDP.
- Nagata is a brilliant thinker and a hero exposing how evil megacorporations are slowly eroding the practice of journalism and how "objective journalism" is a fallacy and should be abandoned. He should become prime minister, start up a Canadian version of the Daily Show, or lead a revolution of the practice of journalism.
Of course, both of these are insane. Nagata is very smart, and very perceptive, having learned quite a bit about how the news industry and Quebec politics work despite having spent only a short time immersed in either. But he forfeited his ability to make a real difference when he tendered his resignation.
After weeks of silence (except for some Twitter posts), Nagata returned with a bang in September. It started with a blog post Sept. 1 talking about his "summer of change" and what he planned to do next: Write a series of articles about media, go on a speaking tour, and shoot a documentary in California. For the latter, Nagata asked for donations from his readers.
Ironically, the post was published as I was at CTV Montreal, touring their new studio. It was Nagata's old boss that tipped me off to the blog post, prompting me to quickly load it up on my smartphone and read it from a chair in the set's "cozy corner".
The Tyee, an alternative media outlet based in B.C., announced less than two weeks later that Nagata was its new "writer in residence", a job that pays Nagata a modest honorarium but makes no specific requirements of him concerning his workplace or deadlines. It is for these reasons mainly that he accepted the position and turned down all other offers.
The Tyee also published three pieces by him about the status of media in Quebec, paying particular attention to the power of the Quebecor media empire. The first part explains, for the benefit of the Rest of Canada, the sheer size of the Quebecor empire in this province, and how it's using its power to push the population in a particular political direction. Part 2 discusses the relationship between Quebecor and the Parti Québécois, and the Quebec City arena project that Quebecor is pushing and that caused chaos in the PQ caucus. Part 3 talks about Quebecor's use of public opinion polls (and suggests bias on the part of Léger Marketing), the reluctance of journalists to scrutinize the empire (he lists me by name as an exception), and Quebecor's English-language Sun News Network. He published French versions of each on his blog: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
While these articles were being published, independent media outlet The Mark hosted a brief debate between Nagata and former CBC producer Tim Knight. Knight agrees with much of Nagata's criticisms of television news, but believes Nagata's decision to quit his job was counterproductive - he thinks the culture can only change if the journalists do so from inside.
Nagata has since written for the Tyee about other issues, including Stephen Harper's image campaign and about a trip to Las Vegas where he swindled his way into free tickets to a show by pretending to be interested in buying a timeshare.
15 minutes are up
Nagata's return to the spotlight didn't go nearly as viral as his quitting manifesto. There were no major news stories about his next project, though there was some talk about him in the media. A few blog posts: One from the Yahoo News media blog, one at thestoryboard.ca, one here, another there, a more critical post from Jesse Ferreras, and a sarcastic one from Small Dead Animals. A story in Vancouver's WestEnder magazine. Another in Concordia's The Link. And a few radio interviews, one with Peter Anthony Holder's Stuph File, one with CBC Montreal's Homerun, and one with CBC Vancouver.
There was also a post from Marc-Olivier Bherer, providing a counterpoint and defending Quebecor.
While his viral blog post got more than 1,000 comments, his latest posts have gotten only a handful.
Fact Opinion check
Nagata makes a lot of accusations and statements about how media (and TV news in particular) works, in his manifesto and more recent writings. Many of them are true, but some might leave people with the wrong impression. Here, I'll present the accusations and offer my thoughts on their veracity:
- "Few reporters feel strongly enough about the importance of what they do that they would be willing to do it for free." - MOSTLY FALSE. The explosion of social media and blogs should be evidence enough of this. The statement implies (whether intentionally or not) that journalists do their jobs for the money. Any professional journalist would laugh at that assertion. Even the big-time professional ones with strong union backing say they do this because of a passion for it. Sure, there are some lazy journalists who clock out at 5pm and couldn't care less about the effect of what they do, but those are the minority.
- "News executives are more concerned with 'growing eyeballs' than presenting important stories to people." - HALF TRUE. Unless they work for PBS, news executives obviously care about ratings. Even at the CBC, they care quite a bit about how many people are watching. But most also believe in what they're doing, even if they may fall into compromises sometimes. Newscasts will talk about cat videos that are popular on YouTube, but they'll lead with political news and other information of a more serious, more important nature. The station Nagata left, CTV Montreal, has just put out a series of special reports during an important ratings period, because it believes it can attract a larger audience by investing in longer-form journalism than by going for cheap eyeballs.
- The TV news industry "casually sexualizes its workforce." - FALSE. Yes, the female anchors and weather girls are very pretty. Yes, hair and makeup is given just as much prominence sometimes as diction and grammar for people on the air. But there's a pretty big gap between making people look professional and making them look sexy. I don't recall the last time I saw sizeable cleavage on local TV news. And for the most part the women I've seen have been wearing suits, not low-cut dresses or miniskirts. Yes, there are some countries where the barriers of good taste are stretched, and it seems as though there's a minimum breast size requirement for weather presenters in Mexico. But I see little evidence that that kind of stuff is happening here.
- "Every hiring decision is scrutinized using a skewed, unspoken ratio of talent to attractiveness, where attractiveness often compensates for a glaring lack of other qualifications." - MOSTLY TRUE. It's hard to judge this one without knowing what the "unspoken ratio" is, but I'd have to agree for the most part that television news places a premium on looks. It's not an absolute - unattractive people get jobs in television all the time, and experience matters more than anything else. But it's definitely not a coincidence that good-looking people drift toward on-air jobs in television. One caveat I might place on this is that there's an element of self-selection. Good-looking people tend to be more interested in being television reporters, perhaps because they think they have an advantage, perhaps because people keep suggesting it to them. Or perhaps because that's what Barbie would do.
- TV news (and particularly the CBC) ignored important news around the world to gush about William and Catherine's tour of Canada. - HALF TRUE. The media went insanely overboard in reporting about the royal wedding and their subsequent visit to Canada. But did they ignore other stories to make room for it? Nagata mentions news happening around the world and in Washington, but much of that news was the kind that would only get 30 seconds on a newscast anyway. Their low impact on Canadians and Montrealers, combined with viewers' lack of interest in the usual international news, is the main reason they get little coverage. Though in the zero-sum game of TV news one would have to conclude that increased coverage of Will and Kate led to decreased coverage of other stories, I don't see any evidence that anything major was ignored.
- The CBC is being overrun by consultants who care about style but little about substance. - HALF TRUE. It's true that the CBC has consultants who care about things like how on-air graphics look and what ties the on-air staff wear. Whether they've "overrun" the CBC I can't say, but I don't see their presence as pushing out more legitimate journalistic oversight of news programming.
- Nagata was prevented from expressing his opinions on Canadian policy. TRUE. Though news organizations are still trying to figure out how to deal with social media, they have stuck to the idea that journalists should not be taking sides on divisive political issues. From what I'm told Nagata was asked to follow this and not, say, post negative opinions about the Harper government on his Twitter account.
- CTV claims all intellectual property its employees produce, even when they're off the job. TRUE. The standard contract CTV has its employees sign actually says this. But it's more boilerplate small print than anything else. I don't know of a case where CTV has tried to enforce this and demanded rights over intellectual work done while not on the job. And I doubt it would stand up to a court challenge. But this remains in the contract, and should be removed or clarified.
- "Despite great advances in communications technology, the public conversation is narrower, shallower, and more fragmented than it was a generation ago." - TRUE. I would argue it's more "because" than "despite". Politicians have gotten better at filtering everything they say through a sound bite machine, PR companies have gotten smarter at manipulating journalists, and news consumers' short attention spans means short bits of news are more likely to get attention than long, boring pieces. The expansion of social media has meant more people getting news from biased sources that reinforce flawed logic or uninformed opinions. On the flip side, there's more information out there, and it's far easier to criticize the media in public, which I think is making the media more accountable.
- "Every question I asked, every tweet I posted, and even what I said to other journalists and friends had to go through a filter, where my own opinions and values were carefully strained out." - TRUE. Welcome to journalism. Like it or not, journalism is a public service, and journalists are supposed to represent the consumer, not themselves. I think of it not so much as imposing a filter taking out one's opinions, but of bypassing a filter that injects them. People need to be informed and make their own decisions, and that means they need to trust that journalists are giving them all the information. Once a journalist starts telling you what to think, that trust goes out the window, particularly if you don't already agree with him.
- "Canada has no Jon Stewart to unravel their ideology and act as a counterweight." - TRUE. Canada needs better media criticism, people with the time and resources to go through hours of Sun News footage and point out their hypocrisies. But it doesn't, yet.
- "Our satirists are toothless and boring, with the notable exception of Jean-René Dufort." - MOSTLY FALSE. Canada has satirists with teeth, though it can obvious we can use more. It's just that they don't focus on the media. Maybe Rick Mercer, Mary Walsh et al a bit too
policepolite (though Rob Ford might disagree), but I find Dufort to be a bit rough sometimes, particularly on things like language issues and the Charest and Harper governments where it seems like he puts his personal politics above the interests of comedy.
- "And on the more serious side, we have no Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow." - TRUE. Well, at least on the left. But while I think these two might be a bit more loyal to the truth than their opponents at Fox News, I don't consider left-wing commentary masquerading as journalism any better than right-wing commentary masquerading as journalism. Hyperbole is bad on either side, and treating the news as a political war doesn't suddenly become okay just because the fighters are on your side.
Note that many of these are judgment calls, and very subjective. If you disagree, feel free to offer arguments in the comments.
I'll leave discussion of the correctness of Nagata's political views to other forums.
It was obscured in secrecy for months. Nagata said he was working on a documentary project about an inspirational person that required him to travel to California, but the details were kept secret. Who is this person, and what makes him so inspirational?
On Friday, Nagata told his followers about the project, posting a link to the first part of the documentary, which is embedded above, and showing off the gear used to create it.
It's called Renaissance Man, and it's the story of Matthew Wadsworth, who is an accomplished lute player. The documentary focuses on a project Wadsworth is undertaking in which he's training to perform a 100-foot dirtbike jump. Which is a bit involved because Wadsworth is blind.
The documentary, which is exactly 12 and a half minutes long, is well done. High definition, good video quality, well edited. I found it interesting enough to sit through even before realizing it was the work of Nagata and his team.
The video was posted to YouTube on Nov. 13, but with no link to Nagata. His name doesn't appear in the video or on the YouTube page. In fact, the documentary has no credits at all. This was done on purpose, Nagata tells me, to test how the video did through word of mouth strictly on its own merits, and hopefully prove that good journalism and good storytelling can reach a lot of people without needing a big name or big marketing budget behind it. The video was sent to the people who donated money, goods or services to help create the documentary and spread from there.
It gathered about 10,000 views, apparently mostly through social media and without any major website linking to it (yet).
I found it through a link Peter Anthony Holder posted to Facebook, again with no reference to Nagata. It was only when I put two and two together (there's a clip of Wadsworth in Montreal's metro, and this story seemed to fit the profile of what Nagata was working on) did I suspect this was it. Nagata confirmed it to me on Thursday.
Nagata said he met Wadsworth at Quebec City's airport, while they were both waiting for flights early one morning. Wadsworth had a large instrument case with him, and the two began talking to pass the time.
This was while he was still working at CTV, and Nagata pitched the idea of documenting Wadsworth to his bosses. It was turned down because of the high travel costs and how much time Nagata would need to spend away from the National Assembly.
Months later, after Nagata left his job, Wadsworth suggested the newly unemployed storyteller travel to California to tell the story of the jump. Compared to some of the awful pitches for documentaries Nagata was answering, this one seemed like a winner.
The project was funded largely by donations ($5,140, plus borrowed gear and donated services), and Nagata and fellow documentarians Evan Crowe and Candice Vallantin are hoping that more come in so they can finish the project (three parts are planned so far). You can donate here.
Nagata's old job
Back at CTV Montreal, Nagata's former job remains vacant.
CTV posted the Quebec City bureau chief position vacated by Nagata on July 15, two weeks after he left. The original deadline was Aug. 15. Among the qualifications, besides fluent bilingualism, TV and journalism experience and the willingness to work overtime, was "Excellent collaborator, he/she ensures to maintain excellent relations with the News department in Montreal, CTV and other external clients." (In case you were wondering, that language was also in the job posting a year ago that eventually went to Nagata. The only change made this time is to drop the TV experience requirement from 10 to seven years, which makes sense since Nagata was hired and had far less than that at the time.)
More than three months after that deadline, no announcement has been made about the position, apparently because of a difficulty finding qualified candidates. (Plenty of eager journalism school graduates, but you can imagine the station's reluctance to take a chance again with someone inexperienced.) The National Assembly returned to work Sept. 20, and Quebec politics remains as hot as ever, but the station has filled its Quebec City bureau on a rotating basis with staff from Montreal.
The job isn't an easy one to fill. It requires an anglophone who is fluent in French and is intimately familiar with Quebec politics, has the ability to work independently (the bureau consists entirely of the reporter and a cameraman/editor), and willing to live in Quebec City. Many existing reporters at CTV Montreal who could do the job are unwilling to move to Quebec City, and many exterior applicants don't have the qualifications necessary.
There has been speculation that the station might try to steal the Quebec City reporters of its competitors (Global's Caroline Plante, who's currently on maternity leave, or CBC's Tim Duboyce), but that's all it is so far. If you know of someone who might be good for the job (and isn't a recent journalism school graduate), you might want to forward their CV to Jed Kahane.
Nov. 30: Nagata writes about the documentary for The Tyee, in which he goes into more detail about the story behind it and discusses how he sees the filmmaking industry. He's also interviewed by Concordia's The Link newspaper as part of its special issue on media and democracy. There, he says he wants to startup a collaborative social-networking website that's "like a Facebook for citizen journalists."
Nagata also writes on his blog about his trip to England to film the next part of the documentary.
Dec. 17: Part 2 has been posted.
Dec. 30: Part 1 is just under 50,000 views on YouTube, Part 2 about 5,000 views. Nagata writes about the documentary in progress again for The Tyee.