The importance of journalism

By Tracey Arial

This is a speech that I gave when running for a position on the board of the Montreal Press Club earlier this year:

I’ve been reading and listening a lot lately about how establishment players work hard to muzzle journalism and other non-fiction works that challenge the status quo. Things like Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault’s investigation into government muzzling of scientists, Kevin Page’s struggle to publish his audits into government waste, the Charbonneau Commission into corruption in the construction industry…

These stories remind me how hard it was to research Canadian involvement in Vietnam thirty years after the war. It’s still difficult to access World War II material too. I have to submit access to information requests to see documents that used to be readily accessible.

I’m also frequently stymied while researching health care, housing, land use and politics in Montreal. Information about what’s happening in our city is dreadfully difficult to access.

To inspire me, I’ve been reading books filled with stories about writers who struggle to publish truth, despite powerful opposition.

Two of these books emphasize the activist nature of journalism. Into the Buzzsaw outlines how various journalists broke stories about TWA Flight 800, the CIA’s involvement in the war on drugs, massacres during the Korean War and American POWs in Vietnam. Without Fear or Favor details the New York Times’ struggle to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

A third book, Points of Departure, an Anthology of Nonfiction, looks like a manual of the different varieties of non-fiction structures, but it actually features people challenging corporate, government and professional ideologies. It begins with a series of threatening letters from Coca Cola to a book publisher, whose responses are so funny, they probably prevented a lawsuit. It ends with an essay in which a female psychologist challenges Freudian ideas before it was popular to do so.

All these stories detail heroes and heroines who fought against power for the sake of justice, public rights or new ideas. All of the writers express dismay at how hard it is to tell stories no one wants told. They emphasize how important a free press is to a free society.

And none of them would have been told if not for the encouragement of writer friends.

All writers need conversations with like-minded people who understand where they’re coming from. We all need people with whom we can collaborate and commiserate. We need a place where we can gather strength, enjoy peace and strategize about how best to tell truth in the face of power.

Note to journalist readers: Do you have a press club in your town? Are you a member? Why or Why not?

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