MISC.: SPEECH AT U of T ALUMNI CONFERENCE, June 3, 2017

Well good morning everyone — great thrill to see so many alumni here all so proud of this great university.

I spoke in this fine old hall once about a decade ago at the Knox College convocation, lovely event, but it was blistering how that day and as I talked on I remember how the yearning eyes from the audience shifted more and more onto my enormous water jug and full glass.

Well cooler today and I’m honoured to be here. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ll speak about…concerns of today, of course, but also on hard lessons learned across an arc of a long career now winding down….but not done yet.

For a reference point: – I started in news 53 years ago this summer…six months after John Kennedy was killed in Dallas…four months after the Beatles first arrived in North America. Vietnam was still just getting started. Toronto, rather boringly kept winning Stanley Cups.

The career feels even longer as I decided to become a foreign correspondent at age 14 in 1956, the year of the Suez crisis. I’d just learned foreign reporters got to sit at ringside seats of history.

Well across many tumultuous decades I found myself ending in on a sometimes very uncomfortable, risky ringside. In recent years, I’ve preferred sitting in the upper decks.

But back in 1964 I graduated and set out to see all I could…local, national and international….and did get caught up in a lot of great moments…and some very weird times, although I think possibly nothing weirder, more unpredictable than this time we’re all in right now.

This week I was at a moving gathering of CBC foreign correspondents—it was Peter Mansbridges’ chance to praise them properly before he retired at the end of this month.

Those I talked to admitted they almost had to pinch themselves every day to believe the kind odd wobbly world they were covering.

I want to talk about the media’s very challenged role in such bizarre times, but first to reflect back a bit on the pace that our arc of experiences has expanded.

I’m still in the 21st century media rush— I was born before television was available; when the only news on screens was on cinema newsreels; when commercial computers had yet to be invented; when no one had heard of space satellites.

Many of the elders I knew as a youth had fought in World War I; I met two survivors of the Titanic when very young; even interviewed the son of a former Russian count who’d played with the monk, Rasputin when young.

I loved to meet those with long life arcs: I got to interview in 1966 a 103-year-old woman born during the American Civil War, who’s British grandfather had remembered the Napoleonic wars. the lady was already close to about 40 when the first airplane flew, yet we were only three years away before man landed on the moon.

Rookie reporters in the 1960’s were swept up in remarkable change…and were full of bold predictions about which, alas, the diary I then kept recorded.

—We knew for sure that the cold war would last through all our lifetimes… barring World War III…

—As for china, we thought it would become mired in abject poverty and state tyranny pretty much…forever.

—Religion? Many of us accepted wide predictions then that faith would fade out around the globe as a political concern. Monarchy? Likely gone by 1990 at the latest when the queen would be anxious to retire.

—And then on February 9th 1964 I had this sniffy entry after watching the Ed Sullivan TV show “. This evening I saw an incredible sight—the Beatles!! This is a rock and roll team from England with damn little talent (not likely to last).

“OK I was into folk music then…. later one learned to use one’s critical facilities better—one had to escape journalism’s “see if” moments…or ‘career in flames’ fiascos.

I was for my first five years a print reporter but was swept into television as the seventies began, when an extraordinary revolution in TV technology was beginning.

Hard to believe now but when I started all items were still done on film…a slow process that required developing and editing and all the rest.

Then video arrived in the late seventies. We were suddenly able to turn around stories almost on a dime. and video even looked more “alive’ and thus dramatic.

We still had the problem of how to get our foreign stories home, especially from remote spots in, Africa or Asia. We still had to rush edited items to airports to try and fly them home…. could take days.

Then suddenly by the late seventies commercial satellites opened up. Remote stories often could now make that evening’s newscast…speed was of the essence…competition soared…it promised a golden age for foreign news…. soon round the clock 24/7 news feeds would arrive…with profound social and political impact.

In the field, it was hectic and exciting…. the whole world was opening up…. if we could stand the pace.

It’s hard to convey how much of a career as TV correspondents is often lived in a kind of anxious blur, racing to meet deadlines that, when looked back on, still make my palms sweat.

Say…the night the berlin wall fell, I was there to see the cheering, add weeping crowds hammer it apart as the Soviet Union started its collapse…along with the cold war that had dominated our lives.

So, I’m standing before my camera, hooked up, the disembodied voice from Toronto intones “so what’s this mean for the future of all Europe, Brian.”

Another night, I fly into Beirut in the midst of its wild civil war in the eighties…its rocked by gunfire…I’m driven immediately to the hotel and raced to the rooftop to do an instant on camera —the one lit up spot in all downtown— and then asked from studio “So what’s the mood like in Beirut tonight?” always safe to say “serious…. Peter…. even somber”)

Of course, much of my time was spent turning out news stories and writing documentaries, but so many moments seemed unreal…. in the gulf war I was able to scramble into Kuwait City as it was being liberated from the Iraqis…then headed at night back across the desert for Saudi border…. we passed through a scene of pure Wagnerian otherworldliness…every oil well set ablaze…castles and lakes of fire as far as the eye could see. Was it a dream?

Our life had hard challenges, but I want to stress those reporters out there now—they face an even more brutal unprecedented pace as crisis follows crisis. they do outstanding jobs, often at considerable risk, while out describing the problems and outrages of the world…stories we need to know.

Today they file for TV as well as radio and then also file for digital CBC…in the same day…that they’re struggling to get the images, write needed scripts, and find the best experts to guide them.

But for all their skill journalism overall sees through a glass darkly…struggling to describe the largely incomprehensible…as do most human agencies, from investment firms to spy agencies.

How could they not?…when the latest new books out on the state of the world carry titles like: “Age of Anger”…or “A World in Disarray”.

Twenty years ago, the massively resourced CIA looked ahead to the world in 2015…got some things right but also predicted Russia would remain weak with little pull in the world; North and South Korea would be reunited; and there would be a Palestinian state.

Well all generations have trouble absorbing change but we seem to have entered something new. and here I will get…somber.

I’ve been worried for some years this relentless pace of news faster and faster has formed a kind of swirling vortex of too much data to grasp…. way too many crises to comprehend…so called “breaking news…morning, noon and night. It’s a constant roar demanding nervous attentions that is overwhelming the media…the public….and even I fear, swamping government itself. People all the time come up to me and say “I can’t stand this negative news all the time…there’s no break!” They’re right to be alarmed. I am too.

Nervousness is real. Some years back a study of global media by the London’s Financial Times noted a trend where the faster change sweeps over us…the more frantic becomes our search for answers —and the more we feed the community of geopolitical seers and gurus and pundits.

Seems logical—but we need to remind ourselves how often this massive effort misses the boat entirely. We did not foresee collapse of the Soviet Union nor the rise of Russia as a kleptocratic superpower in waiting; did not foresee the giant global economic crisis in 2008; nor the Arab spring, nor Syrian civil war; not the giant refugee crisis beyond anything anyone had imagined; did not predict a new populism in the west, Brexit, nor the coming of Trump.

Do we have declining vision? Ever faster communications, awash in tidal waves, tsunamis of data…. likely makes us more prone to misjudge events.

American political scientist Philip Tetlock did a study a few years ago on the misfires of big thinkers. He found the immediacy of more information does not seem to increase accuracy of predictions. Indeed, perhaps the reverse.

“We normally expect knowledge to promote accuracy, so it was surprising to discover how quickly we reach a point of diminishing returns.”

When I talk to former diplomats and policy makers I find them increasingly worried about balance. Their role used to be not to allow hair-brained conclusions to derail considered judgement.

But the blinding pace of events has seen more simplistic worldviews employed by leaders, virtually down to a level of bumper-sticker solutions.

I sympathize. They struggle hourly with the 21st century dilemma: –“speed times mass of information times rising number of urgent problems equals profound confusion.

There’s even been debate recently among strategist about whether policy makers have stumbled into a “complexity trap” ….so shaken by the profoundly confused nature of so many problems they tend to back away from even trying for strategic solutions as they’re convinced anything they do will make matters worse.

I can see the distress of policy makers when I compare challenges of the past to today’s reality.

When I graduated in ’64 there were 3.2 billion fewer people on earth. There were also far fewer fully independent nation states during the cold war period. Now there are 196, all with their own grievances, causes, demands, and alliances to deal with.

Government now also deals with a vast array of nongovernmental organizations (ngo’s) with strong lobbying ability…relatively few existed 40 years ago.

When I ask officials what it’s like trying to manage this crisis stuffed vortex? Most admit what they have lost in recent decades is the time to “blue sky” solutions…quiet moments for reflection.

Most don’t admit this until they retire. Madeline Albright, a former US secretary of state, said that compared to 30 years ago, the sheer number of problems that need fixing is incomparably higher than media or the public realize.

And unlike the past, she added, today’s second row of problems can’t be allowed to fester as they once could.

An East Timor, Rwanda, Somalia, Yemen, or Mali can suddenly threaten the stability of whole regions. Every problem area also has its has public interest groups demanding priority attention for their concern.

Even to try and explain problems to their own leaders and the pubic takes more time than ever…it requires swarms of meetings and working with the media to try and “shape the narrative,”

That becomes all more challenging now…Zbignew Brezinski, one of America’s most insightful geopolitical analysts, who sadly passed away last week, told me in exasperation that explaining policy was taking up so much time because “You’ve no idea how hard it is to inform a public that knows little of history and less geography.

Henry Kissinger, even bemoaned the fact leaders today had better come to office having done all their learning beforehand because they’ll find little time to think deeply once in power—(I know what you’re thinking…this was said well before the current occupant of white house arrived with his demand for very short briefings.)

Even mental exhaustion is an underestimated problem. Four years ago, the Washington Post did a major study of top us officials, including CIA, Defence, State…what stood out was how not one seemed to get even adequate sleep, let along moments to ponder deeply. Many leave office drained.

It’s not just a Washington concern. On of the eve of the Iraq war Britain’s leading expert on Arab states and Islam was flown back to brief Tony Blair in 10 Downing Street. Blair never saw him…either because he ran out of time…or thought he knew everything he needed to. He invaded alongside Bush, disastrously.

As for Ottawa…when I covered our effort in Afghanistan it was quite obvious to our allies that the whole Kandahar campaign that cost us $18 billion, and lives and injuries including damaged psyches, had been entered without totally adequate prior research and thought.

From the 80’s on, governments have been under far more coordinated pressure to also intervene in humanitarian emergencies…adding a whole new level of crisis management. I observed an historic example of this at ground zero in 1984.

That fall I managed to get into northern Ethiopia with my CBC crew and into the rumoured famine zones of the north where most media were excluded. We captured the nightmarish reality of one of the worst famines of the 20th century….7 million people at risk of dying…an area called “the worst hell on earth.”

I remember those days in the field, lying unable to sleep at night even though exhausted because of a dreaded sense that the world would not respond in time—the blackest moment of my professional life.

I learned later that after we finally got our first report out via Nairobi satellite feed our material hit like a body blow in Canada.

That evening, Nov 1st., the new prime minister Brian Mulroney was watching the CBC national with his family, and all were shaken by the searing images.

The next morning our new un ambassador Stephen Lewis was departing to give his maiden speech in the general assembly when Mulroney called him. Both later told me the short conversation: Mulroney asked “Did you see the national last night, Stephen?” Lewis reply “yes Prime Minister I did and are you going to ask me to do what I think you’re going to ask me?” Answer: “yes Stephen, raise hell at the UN and have Canada lead the whole effort to save Ethiopia.”

That happened…launched in one day. Lewis was the first diplomat tor raise the famine relief call. Mulroney immediately called President Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to lobby tirelessly for them to join the effort.

To raise the famine at the UN…Mulroney immediately called Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to lobby them pretty relentless to join the effort.

And right across Canada donations poured in from schools, churches, sports leagues…. unlike anything seen before. The group that gave the most per capita were northern Inuit…who may have had the least to give….but remembered their own famine and didn’t stint.

It was all the start of a new mobilization—other countries responded to their own media reports. Overnight people learned new ways to raise money and also to pressure government into acting…remember Live Aid?

From the mid-eighties on there was an explosion of new ngo’s in almost infinite variety…there are now over 40,000 worldwide I believe, and perhaps 8 million groups organizing domestically.

Now this was an historically wonderful development in a world needing empathy, but I mention it to show how for policy makers it opens a new escalation of pressures.

We worried even then that TV technology, if it was in its future to serve up a steady diet of horror would eventually dull the senses…exhaust viewers…. confuse official priorities….to the point perhaps a real major famine emergency might go unnoticed if too much else was going on.

We have a terrifying example of this right now. four countries in east Africa and Yemen have 20 million caught in famine zones…. potentially more lethal than Ethiopia ever was. But despite excellent reporting by a handful of networks, especially CBC, there is is such a glut of crises, like Syria and Trump, governments have barely noticed.

Millions may die and the UN has been calling for months for $5 billion in extreme emergency aid by this month but only 10 per has been received.

Anyone who’s worked in aid knows government attention is fitful. They get more political advantage through emergency aid that brings headlines than through long term development that media ignores.

There also is a sense in humanitarian fields that national interests are no longer carefully considered…policy is guided by photo-shoots.

In the 1990’s came the great age of interventions that we still live with…Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Haiti, others…all preceded by immense media coverage, which acted as a steady pressure demanding interventions by western government.

Even prominent humanitarians worried by then that media driven reaction to events kept governments bouncing from one crisis to another…following not leading.

I remember Michael Ignatieff was one of the first to precisely pinpoint that era’s of drift we’d succumbed to. “but what has been the national interest once the cold war ended and the threat of a growing communist empire evaporated? No clear national interest has emerged. Policy—if one can even speak of policy—has seemed to be mostly the prisoner of interventionist lobbies with access to the indignation machine of the modern media.”

In a media-centric world he warned, there was no longer any clear sense of government doctrine” “Instead just a series of news strategies to appease a media, always hungry for drama and by the public’s increasing insistence on quick results.”

I stress I’m not arguing everything is worse now for much is better globally…. the world’s more democratic…human rights are more an international concern—and media has played a positive role generally, sometimes an heroic one.

What I’m fearing is that as media set the pace so much… and governments obsess over instant headlines…they will ignore problems that aren’t visually compelling enough and will abandon long term projects as soon as public attention fades.

The reality is no one was prepared for the vortex we’re in or for the dark mood that usually characterizes it.

Way back in the 1970’s as the media age of deference was ending with Watergate and as news organisations started adopting more adversarial coverage serious thinkers like US Senator Daniel Moynihan, warned of a media “culture of adversity” or news “bias towards negativity.”

Some complaints were self- serving…. but there’s no denying that ever since media “story- emphasis” tends to feature societies’ stresses, government flaws, the world’s failures.

Much of this is important, solid reporting. Given a more stately pace, results might have been different. However, when supercharged by the conflicts and furies on 24/7 news…too much gloom has a cost.

New power centres to control the flow of information have concentrated around the offices of all leaders. The wagons are drawn in defensive circles (Obama ref)

It’s all designed to prevent release of news that might advantage the opposition in that day’s news cycle. Increasingly journalists find departments clam up or hand out ‘pr’ pap.

Misuse of technology exacerbates the growing gulf between government and citizens. Just look at our embarrassing excuse for a televised question period. (I covered parliament before TV and after it arrived…there’s little comparison, questions were longer before, so were answers…civility far higher then.)

Public faith in politicians declines as anger and cheap putdowns become Canadian political capital…our affairs reduced to slogans, smears, constant political conflict. Donald Savoie, Canada’s much quoted expert on governance some years ago did a study on both the Canadian and British parliamentary systems….one finding: bureaucrats in each were convinced government ran better 20-30 years ago.

Why? Well all pointed to how much time once spent on formulating policies and hammering out initiatives is now taken up preparing press releases or briefing papers for ministers and answers for question period. Added paperwork that buries thoughtful action.

This explains why even as our world speeds up it seems to takes longer for bureaucracies to do things. I remember in Afghanistan I thought our command was half asleep sometimes, it took so long for them to answer queries.

Actually, what they were doing was having to wait and wait for the privy council press team in Ottawa to OK what they could say. As for today…will we ever get new fighters…new naval ships?

The media vs government tension has hardly been reduced by social media…which for all its benefits further fragments public discourse while reinforcing vicious and often fringe positions.

Add social media on top of increasing ideological conflict with the media of some countries—in the US with all-news, talk radio, Breitbart, or in Britain in most print media —and small wonder political divides are intensifying alarmingly with no signs of any easing.

There’s another core problem: mainstream media has been remarkably slow to grasp. When you add disrespect across politics, plus fiercer ideological division, you start seeing more mistruths and alternate realities entering public life.

Even 20 years ago US philosopher Harry Frankfurter noted that while there had always been some lying in politics, at least the offenders tried not to get caught-out…. now they no longer seemed to care. What risk if supporters didn’t mind.

US comedian Stephen Colbert famously coined the term ‘truthiness’ to describe the tendency of politicians like Sarah Palin to avoid reason or fact-based evidence. Instead they fed audience desire for ‘authentic emotions and gut feelings’…facts mattered little, perception was now everything.

This was even before the Trump movements, spewing astonishing numbers of falsehoods in every direction, as well as the appearance of new fringe media outlets quite comfortable with lies or ‘alternate theories.’

Across Europe there’s an equal wave of fake news outbreaks and manufactured conspiracy stories…made to stir up race hatred against immigrants…. some barely disguised propaganda from Russia.

Remember that before the Brexit vote in the UK last summer the ‘leave’ side plastered banned on buses charging Britain would be charged 350 million pounds a week extra just to stay in the EU. It was totally false but highly influential, may have helped changed European history…. a lie but again there were no repercussions.

A new breed of international political tacticians, many on the right appear, to have coordinated even the chants abroad: “Never trust elites! Experts know nothing! Universities suppress thought! Mainstream media lies!” You see these everywhere.

Millions seem curiously drawn to the unbelievable. Neuroscientist and author Daniel Levitin in his recent book “Weaponized Lies” says we’re facing” an evolutionary tendency towards gullibility.”

He cites studies last year by Stanford University’s of the online reasoning ability of precollege students that found a declining ability to distinguish high quality news from lies and false statements.

“Somehow our educations system and our reliance on the Internet has led to a generation who are not aware of what they do not know and who lack the humility.”

Many of the young, of course, have picked up the sense of intense grievance against society for real and imagined ills.

Part of the crisis of course is that media failed badly to even identify the sincere anger bubbling up against globalization’s pain…unequal incomes…and the giant crash of the world economy in 2008…. not to mention failed wars.

I won’t go into all the reasons media flubbed it, but everywhere rage was unrecognized until it exploded so spectacularly in politics.

We still can grasp it. Writer Objaj Misra in his powerful new book, “Age of Anger” claims the resentment of hundreds of millions around globe is “a broader more apocalyptic mood than we have witnessed before…. presently making for a global turn to authoritarianism and toxic forms of chauvinism”

I’m not sure we should go that far but in his impressive study “enlightenment 2.0 U of T philosophy professor Edward Heath I think nails the central reality…. clear reason is desperately needed now but is losing ground.

The danger is that the struggle between government and anti-government is now….so unequal!! and it is government that now much weaker.

“Collective action requires institutional building. Undermining collective action is, by contrast, much easier to do. Since the primary function of government in modern society is to solve the most intractable collective problems, anti-government activists have an inherently easier time of it than pro-government activists”

As anti-government activists can also easily gain attention of adversarial media looking for conflict…it ensues a climate where it grows more difficult every year to affect reasoned change through government and institutions.

Will this pass? Not soon. Trust in government, major institutions and media all appears to be collapsing through the democratic world—according to studies like the Edelman Communications Global trust poll of 28 countries. 2,1 in 17 years testing, Edelman has never experienced such sharp drops in trust…. which spurs the rise in populism.

The mood helped Trump savage what he called America’s “stupid, incompetent and crooked leaders….” It helped the UK vote to leave the EU…and it has roiled elections across Europe.

Canadians may think we’re an exception because of our high regard overseas and limited signs of fury here. But we’re not spared. The Edelman poll found we’ve sunk to an average place among the doubter nations where majorities show widespread distrust unique to this period.

For the first time, ever in this poll 51 percent of Canadians say they don’t trust major institutions. There seems to be a knock off effect of Trump here…trust in media plunged 10 points in one year…now only at 45%.

Just as many US and UK media— generally urban-centric, were shocked to find so many angry voices emerging so Canadian media perhaps doesn’t recognize such sentiment here because it doesn’t look hard enough.

Recall that in the last three national elections here an average of one in three didn’t vote…quite similar to US and UK numbers.

Many of those had valid reasons…but close study by elections Canada found almost half—more than three million people—fell into categories that trusted no candidates and refused to vote on principle.

A growing distrust in the west is something extremes can exploit and its coming here.

According to two of our most experienced media experts. We too are threatened because of the mugging of liberal democracies by fake news and hacking.

Edward Greenspon, head of the public policy forum, and Taylor Owen, digital media expert, warn that soon “fact and fiction may be impossible to sort out”.

Congregations of the disaffected are discovering one another, filtering out contrary opinions, while amplifying resentments inside their own techno-world… government and media may struggle to attack falsehood but “it has become impossible to talk to all the people…even some of the time.”

Well my time for talking to you is ending…and having criticized the negative tone of much media I don’t want to end on a defeatist tone myself.

We have reasons to worry and such must do a better job getting through to those despairing of democracy.

But Canada has a lot of in-built strengths. Our governments and parties are chronically undervalued but still strong. Our politics have not collapsed into the red state-blue state tribal chasm seen in the states.

Our media does soul-search and needs to do far more. but main TV networks, including rivals CBC and CTV, as well as 23 top print outlets, have not broken out into ideological wars. CBC even has an ombudsman to guard against unfair reporting practices.

While it’s unlikely our vortex will slow down as many plead, media could do a better job doing calmer longer form items.

When I argue it needs to address negativity and do more positive items to easy the miasma of our time I’m not talking about cheerful animal stories nor joy all the time pap.

We all need to pay attention to cracks appearing in the general faith in civil society. That means showing, where justifiable, how governments often work rather well…how politicians of all parties make honest efforts and have some good ideas…how departments like Canadian foreign aid still achieves results to be proud of.

As citizens, we need examples of success, not just failure and strife seemingly without end.

Like many people my life was changed by Ethiopia. I saw things differently. I lobbied the CBC to send me back five or six times…to record its’ recovery from crisis, to show its amazing people rebuilding lives.

It’s so critical to do this, even though limited news budgets tend to now chop that kind of non-emergency story first.

We need expanded Canadian foreign news coverage…not just breaking news highlights…without better balance viewers are left with impressions of global hopelessness.

Something media can also do very well, when inspired, is to point out that while we have many evil villains in the world…the number of remarkably brave, compassion, and indomitable people out struggling for good is inspiring.

As for falsehoods as a country we need soon, as suggested buy Greenspoon and Owen, well funded methods to track news technologies used by anti-democratic forces, including those from abroad. We need to come down hard also on political falsehoods before they spread like virus in our system. Political liars should be so labelled.

Finally, we have an education system that must be protected from the kind of loose extremism, of left and right, threatening so many institutions elsewhere.

Our universities are strong, recognized so internationally, they and their crucial alumni are in the frontlines of protecting rational thought in a wobbly era that none can yet predict the course of.

As I’ve grown more concerned about challenges to democracy in recent years I’ve looked on universities, with their separate schools and depth of scholarship as the core point of resistance in times of fakery, conspiracy theory nuttiness, intolerance and incivility….and all the nonsense that tests our sanity.

I guess standing up for reason’s sake is an old role for universities. But right now,…media old and new, politicians, and civil institutions… need to rely on their reasoned studies and defence of truth, more than ever.

In a very important way, with much at stake, this is your time.

Thanks very much.

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