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When Journalists Go Bad

I knew there was a problem when my mother called my hotel in Prague. She had been watching the news and was under the impression that, if I were at the protests against the World Bank, I was either in hospital or in jail. I told her things got pretty tense for a few minutes but that, on the whole, the protests had been peaceful. "Don't believe everything you see on television, Mom."

Only it's hard not to. All week, I've been poring over TV and newspaper reports and all I've seen are Molotov cocktails and flying paving stones. The activists are dismissed as "anti-trade" Luddites. This caricature was drawn most crudely by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who plagiarized his own writing post-Seattle, calling the Prague protesters "a rogues' gallery of Communists, anarchists, protectionist unions and overfed yuppies" determined to "keep poor people poor." If the protesters have any ideas about alleviating poverty, we didn't hear about them.

On the streets, the relationship between the press and the protesters has become one of open hostility. The resentment was particularly near the surface in Prague, raising nostalgic memories for journalists who were around for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Tiananmen Square uprising. During those demonstrations, Western reporters were welcomed by protesters as both allies and witnesses; many journalists believe, with reason, that their presence helped bring down repressive regimes. They were part of a revolution.

They got a very different welcome from the activists in Prague, as they have at similar demonstrations worldwide. In a movement with the stated goal of reining in the power of multinational corporations, journalists working for CNN and CBS don't get their egos stroked with cries of "The whole world is watching." In fact, they might just get their egos slapped with taunts of "Go home, corporate stooge!"

Sure, this behaviour isn't terribly diplomatic, but, as anti-corporate sentiment grows, and as news agencies (such as this one) join ever-expanding corporate conglomerates, journalists will increasingly be regarded by activists as part of the problem, not the solution. Tensions are further fuelled by the fact that the new breed of protest is difficult to cover. Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Daniel Johnson got misty eyed last week about his days covering Prague's Velvet Revolution. "At the Magic Lantern theatre, [Vaclav] Havel gave daily press conferences as the spokesman of the revolution." Not any more. The Prague protesters had no one spokesperson. Instead of the Magic Lantern, there was the anarchic Convergence Centre, where journalists were tossed out for taking photographs without permission. And while there were some press conferences, they mostly spread confusion since the "autonomous affinity groups" on the streets did whatever they wanted.

Clearly, if journalists are going to accurately report on the political movement that has captured the imagination of a generation of young idealists, we are all going to have to get the story ourselves.

Only don't hold your breath. The night I arrived in Prague, I found myself in a bar where a key demo organizer was having a drink. A table of journalists was also there, from The Economist, International Herald Tribune and Daily Telegraph. When they were introduced to the organizer, they looked up only briefly. They didn't have a single question.

Two days later, when the streets were exploding with activity, the reporter from CNN seemed unable to descend from atop his van. He was telling his viewers that thousands of activists were in Prague to discuss "important issues" but, "sadly," those issues were overshadowed by violence. Surely he could have climbed down from his van and covered some of those issues. Sadly, he chose not to.

This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.

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