Revenge of the nerds

By Dan Delmar on February 16, 2011

I was wrong.  Almost exactly two years ago, I wrote in these pages that, as a proud journalist, I would be boycotting Twitter and limiting my use of Facebook. I argued at the time that traditional forms of media could remain competitive with social media if they simply fought back andput out a more entertaining product.

My six-month old Twitter handle, @delmarhasissues, demonstrates how misguided I was in writing the piece, “Is journalism dead? I will not be reduced to Twittering for attention,” and how I underestimatedthe power of nerds. That is to say, those who are the earliest adopters of new technologies; who have an innate ability to predict how we will be living in the years to come. 

I hereby bow to our nerd overlords and embrace that journalism and social media can not only coexist, but thrive together. Now, I must warn others. The Charest government could also be underestimating nerds and even making the fatal mistake of going to war with them.

Quebec’s culture and communications minister, Christine St. Pierre, ordered last year that a government study be commissioned to look at, among other things, how the independent press could cope with new technologies. Université de Montréal journalism and communications professor Dominique Payette was given the job and her sweeping recommendations were released recently. All 51 of them.

delmar-twitter-screen-bw.jpgOne highlight – and I use the term with tongue firmly planted in cheek– was the suggestion that all media organizations be required to buy memberships in and be regulated by the Quebec Press Council,  that oracle of objectivity. . Outlets like The Métropolitain who refuse to be governed by this needless regulatory body would be cut off from government advertising dollars (not that we’ve ever asked for taxpayer-funded handouts to begin with). 

Another is the idea that media people would need to pass a French test in order to be “accredited” by this professional association. This couldcome as troubling news for hockey commentators and FM disc-jockeys across the province. C’est du gros n’importe quoi. 

But the recommendation I want to focus on takes aim directly at the aforementioned nerds. Payette suggests, in a sense, that those who don’t work for these traditional, accredited media organizations cannot be real journalists. She wants to see these non-journalists placed at the bottom of the list when trying to access government information; they would also be excluded from protection mechanisms in place for their sources.  

Doctors, lawyers, pharmacists...virtually all professions have some sort of regulatory body or professional association. That makes perfect sense because these professionals require specific technical knowledge.Journalists do not require any specific technical knowledge – and journalists know that. That’s why so many of them are in favour of government-regulated media; because many know how mediocre and unremarkable they are and that all it takes to replace them is a pulse and an internet connection. 

When you're in the business of free speech, having someone arbitrarily decide what constitutes acceptable conduct can be problematic, to say the least. When a journalist crosses the line from acceptable criticism into libel, well, we have the courts to sort that out – nothing more is needed. Despite the preaching of media purists and some journalism professors, this profession is not a science; our work is subjective and creative, thus extremely difficult, if not downright impossible to regulate. 

Not only is there no consensus on what journalism is, but new media innovations are raising questions on who journalists are. And many of the best new journalists fall well outside of traditional parameters. Who are Payette or St. Pierre to potentially deny them access to information simply because they practice their craft on the internet or don't have the buying power to join the Press Council?

Independent Canadian bloggers like Warren Kinsella or Pierre Bourque regularly break stories that mainstream media outlets miss; in fact, we often get our ideas from writers on the web (don’t tell anyone!). In the US, online media organizations are more of a force. If the American government even considered interfering with The Drudge Report, or The Huffington Post, there would be hell to pay. In Quebec, virtually no one bats an eyelash at the thought of statist media control. 

Apart from the inherent problems with government-regulated press, the Charest government would be angering an increasingly powerful group of organizations with these potential new regulations. The culture minister would be wise to look to recent examples of non-traditional media having an enormous impact on the political landscape: Wikileaks and the ongoing protests in Arab countries, where much of the word isgetting out through social media.

Governments who attempt to regulate communication and free speech will undoubtedly face the wrath of the people, if only because in 2011, it is all too easy to unleash wrath (as I write this, over 700,000 on Facebook are ‘attending’ “A Virtual March of Millions in Solidarity with Egyptian Protestors”). Why brave a cold Quebec winter to protest on the streets when you can tweet? Tag your post with #Charest, and he’ll get the message – with more force than if you were waiving a placard in front of his office. 

Since I wrote my anti-tech rant two years ago, I’ve experimented with social media; working inside the nerd universe, instead of being stubborn and battling against it, has led to tangible results for the organizations I am associated with. My message to the Charest government: You cannot beat the nerds. You might as well join them.

It is ludicrous to commission studies with the premise that somehow government can improve the media landscape. Media at its core is a reflection of a society and changes should happen organically, from the people. Government interference could poison media, making it even more beholden to those in power.  

The Premier has had a difficult year in media. If government decided who is a real journalist and who is not, could his harshest critics be silenced? A far-fetched scenario, perhaps. But St. Pierre and Payette’s report has left the door wide open for all kinds of abuses. 

Quebecers need to get on Facebook and Twitter and tell their government that “Quebec is not China. We demand a free media,#Charest” – all in a nerd-friendly 53 characters.

Delmar @ Night airs weeknights on CJAD 800 in Montreal and


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