Ezra Levant is speaking to hundreds of young journalists, and they should listen

Whenever people yell about media figures they hate, I think of my mom. She got a subscription to the National Post in 1999 and held onto it for a decade despite ranting about the flaws of this column or that editorial nearly every week.

Because I was 12 when our subscription started, it took me a few years to realize that a woman who loved Hillary Clinton more than Bill was not exactly the Post’s target demographic.

“So why do you get the Post anyway?” I asked one time when she was lambasting an editorial on unions.

“Because I like to be challenged,” she said. “I want to understand the argument.”

Growing up in a family of lawyers, she knew that if she wanted to improve her mental acumen, there was no substitute for hearing firsthand from those she disagreed with most strongly.

But enough about my mom. Let’s talk about Ezra Levant.

(I hope that’s the last time I ever write that paragraph. Pretty sure my mom does too.)

Every year, the Canadian University Press puts on a conference that 200+ young journalists from across the country attend. There, delegates attend seminars with people in the industry, learn best (and evolving) practices in media, and engage in all the miscellaneous* activities associated with university conferences.

*Which is to say, drink a lot.

At these conferences there are four keynote speakers of renown in the Canadian media world. But their announcement months prior usually elicits no reaction, unless you happen to be a massive fan of one of them.

This was not the case this year. And not because one of the keynotes is Robyn Doolittle of Rob Ford-reporting fame.

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I don’t think I’m telling tales out of school by suggesting that many in the campus media find Ezra’s schtick noxious for a variety of good reasons.

However, there’s already talk of people not showing up to the conference because of Levant, or boycotting his speech. Which is a shame for so many reasons, most of which can be summed up by saying the following:

Ezra is different, and hearing different things is good when you’re a young journalist. ESPECIALLY when you’re a young journalist.

But let’s expand that a bit, because brevity is the soul of writers more talented than I, and part of my point is that it’s important to make arguments that can last longer than a tweet or a statement above a Facebook link.

I went to four national CUP conferences, which meant I heard 16 keynote speakers, and I can say that seemingly all of them had one of two themes.

1) “Here’s a condensed memoir of my career mixed in with some anecdotes, followed by some inspirational words about journalism.”

2) “So, the internet, hey? Wild. Things sure have changed, but I think it will work out, because ???? profit!”

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I have the good fortune of not living inside Levant’s head, but I can all but guarantee his will be different. What will he say? How much will he attack the state of journalism? How will the audience respond? In a piece defending the selection of Levant, head organizer Alex Migdal said half of Levant’s time will be dedicated to answering questions from delegates. All of that should make his keynote entertaining, if nothing else.

Aside from being entertaining, it will be different. University journalism conferences are partly about discussing where the industry is heading. However, conferences generally don’t invite many people who will shout “YOU’RE WRONG” to its delegates, regardless of profession.

At the same time, it’s pretty clear that the industry is creating more, not less, Ezra Levants. More people who mix journalism with punditry and partisanship. More people willing to mix personal attacks with polemics. More people shouting that journalists are in the tank for politician/issue X and aren’t telling the “real story”.

Journalists have to interact with audiences (it sounds like such a laughable thing now, but it was barely true even five years ago), and audiences are all too happy to attack for any number of sins real and imaginary. This environment is here, isn’t going away, and it should be understood.

And good journalists do a lot of things, but an especially valuable thing they do is learn all sides of an issue, summarize it, and give adequate context. It seems to me that at a conference where you’re learning about journalism, listening to somebody who attacks conventional norms of journalism would be a valuable thing to do.

It’s not “know thy enemy”, it’s understanding the arguments of the people against you, even if you disagree with it virulently. Everybody and his mother loves Jon Stewart’s critiques of right-wing media, but Stewart does it so well because he watches an endless amount of Fox News and interviews conservatives to Levant’s right on a regular basis.

Of course, some will respond with Levant is too political, or he’s a bad journalist that gets sued all the time, or he’s a gadfly rather than an influencer, or he’s a predictable hack.

To which I say that Jack Layton was a speaker in 2008, getting sued is an occupational hazard of journalism, he’s been a prominent writer for conservative publications for over a decade, and every pundit is labelled a predictable hack by some.

There’s also the argument that he’s a racist and shouldn’t be given a public forum. I think that since the Canadian media still believes his voice deserves legitimate consideration, so should CUP. And it was just in 2010 that Jan Wong, accused of racism up and down Quebec for an article she wrote following the Dawson College shooting in 2006, was a keynote speaker.

We increasingly live in self-selected bubbles, a place where people can’t articulate why politicians they dislike are elected without sounding condescending, confused, or angry. We imbibe an intoxicating online atmosphere through retweets and likes and upvotes. Confirmation bias is pumped into our brain on a regular basis.

So yell that there were 500 better speakers than Levant by all means. But go anyways. Listen. Then tell him he’s wrong.

You have your entire life to be outraged online, seek opinions you agree with, and ignore people whose viewpoints you find completely offensive. You have one hour to listen to—and directly challenge—the loudest voice in Canada against the type of journalism you probably want to practice.

Choose wisely.

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