Reporter Michelle Lang dies in Afghanistan

It isn’t often that Canadian journalists die in the line of duty, at home or abroad. That fact alone makes the death yesterday of 34-year-old Calgary Herald reporter Michelle Lang remarkable. She was killed alongside four Canadian Forces soldiers as their armoured vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device. The Taliban have claimed responsibility.

Michelle Lang

Lang’s untimely death has hit journalists hard — not because her life was somehow more important than the soldiers who died with her, but because the Canadian journalistic community is, despite appearances, a relatively small one. There are few among us who do not personally know someone who has been to Afghanistan to report on Canada’s mission there. Lang was the first to die doing it.

I did not personally know Lang. Over the past day, tributes from those who were well acquainted with her have been posted; they come from across the country and overseas. There is the account of Globe and Mail reporters Patrick White (on the ground in Afghanistan) and Anna Mehler Paperny on Lang’s career, spirit and courage. There is the column by Windsor Star reporter Craig Pearson on the loss of a journalistic comrade. There is the account of Emmy Award-winning reporter Graeme Smith, also of the Globe and Mail, on the fear journalists confront while working in a war zone. There is a blog post by U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Jacobson, one of the last people to be interviewed by Lang. There are statements of regret and condolence by many journalistic organizations, including Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. There is a tribute by Canwest News Service columnist Don Martin.

Dozens of Canadian journalists have, over the past six years, volunteered for a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Many do more than volunteer — they actively lobby their managers, syndicates and networks for the opportunity to go. Still others see the chance to work in a war zone, even for a short period of time, as a way to burnish their professional credentials and hone their abilities. All, however, are driven by the desire to tell the story of what Canada is doing in such a remote part of the world — and whether, through military action or humanitarian intervention, we’re making a positive difference there.

We owe a debt to Lang — for modelling journalistic integrity and excellence; for being brave enough to risk her life for the sake of understanding and clarity; and for reminding us that journalistic zeal and passion are no antidote against the deadly, ugly realities of armed conflict.

Portuguese airline TAP thanks its customers

Here’s how employees of Portuguese airline TAP in Lisbon wished their customers a happy holiday season.

Hmmm. Maybe Delta Airlines employees and airport security officials in Amsterdam were doing something similar on Christmas Day, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab passed through their security scanners. In any case, it’s a nice gesture. Though, as Toronto Star columnist Cathal Kelley notes, this kind of routine will now get you tasered at some international airports.

The Lisbon airport dance is reminiscent of a routine in April of this year at Amsterdam’s main train station:

Here’s hoping that, despite our collective obsession and occasional bouts of paranoia over security in public spaces, we never entirely erase such displays of cheer, fantasy, whimsy and goodwill.

Decades, centuries, eras: How do we measure time?

The end of the decade to which the Brits refer as the Aughts (“aught” being the Old English word for “zero”) is upon us. In three days, we’ll enter 2010. (Will common parlance come to prefer the expression “two thousand and ten” or “twenty ten”?)

The approach of that milestone reminds me of how tentative, narrow and conditional our understanding of history often is. Take the current decade, now coming fast to a close, as an example.

As we approached the end of 1999, it seemed clear that with the turning of all four numbers on our digital calendars — as if they were odometer numerals — we’d enter a new, as-yet-undesignated, era. The calendar was telling us things were about to change. Who were we to argue?

There were passionate and heated arguments about what the turning of all those figures would mean. Remember the Y2K paranoia — the notion that many of our automated systems would freeze and lock up, creating mass havoc? Then there were the debates over when, exactly, the end of the second millennium in the common era would arrive. Many argued (rightly, but inconsequentially) that the new millennium would not begin on Jan. 1, 2000, but rather on Jan. 1, 2001.

When extremists struck at the United States with such unprecedented force on Sept. 11, 2001, we revised our thinking. Many commentators, myself included, thought that, when the chronicle of this century is written 100 years hence, 01-09-11 would mark the geopolitical fulcrum on which the world shifted and a new chapter of human history began. Only eight years out, does that still seem likely? Not so much, really — the events around airport security in the last few days notwithstanding.

Just as lively debate still exists among historians over precisely when the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, the Victorian Era or the Modern Era began, so I expect debate to continue for some time as to when, exactly, the 21st century arrived in our midst. For some, it will be the clicking over of the calendric numerals; for others, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Economists may one day argue that it was a particular date in the fall of 2008, when the biggest global recession since the Great Depression struck.

I was intrigued, however, to read a passage on the popular Quoteflections blog from Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. Martin is quoted there as saying Nov. 10, 2001, was a pivotal date in the history of the past decade, if not the fledgling century. “That was the day the first iPod was shipped. To me, it heralded a kind of an interesting, ironic intersection of trends. In terms of consumers, what it heralded was individualization . . . . But Apple didn’t just announce iPod; it announced iPod and iTunes simultaneously. What that heralded was also the era of the business ecosystem — a gigantic system that a corporation orchestrates and manages. The two trends were more momentous than any of us had realized. It’s not that iPod caused it, but iPod signalled it,” Martin said.

Whose view will prevail over the long run won’t be known for another century or two. But two things seem clear. One, that the technological shifts of the past decade will play a role in interpreting and drawing the lines of history. And two, that history, as always, will be told in myriad ways, through the lenses of an increasing number of tellers, through an ever-expanding bouquet of tools and platforms.

The enchanting mystery of Christmas

I anticipate Christmas Eve each year, and even long for it, because by about 6 p.m., the commercial din that began mere days after Thanksgiving and grew slowly over the succeeding weeks toward a fulsome frenzy of mall mania, parking-lot angst and swipe-card silliness suddenly falls quiet. Silence becomes nearly palpable. Suburban streets, shopping centres and downtown office buildings assume a kind of haunting eeriness that suggests some kind of rapturous event has occurred, leaving mere mortals behind.

And, in a way, it has. Christmas has come, ready or not. Commercial jingles and slogans about the meaning of the season are mercifully sucked into some unseen cosmic dumpster, laying bare the stark, enchanting nudity of Christmas — the bare bones, the naked flesh, the unadorned essence.

There is nothing left now but to approach the creche — this crude, stylized manger scene meant to mirror some similar imagining of nearly 2,000 years ago. We tend too often to admire it only from afar. In our detached, urbane, 20th-century sophistication, we refuse to allow ourselves to get close enough. Like a finely played classical guitar or cello, this event is best appreciated in close proximity, in its unamplified, undistorted form.

Pause before this natal moment, this nativity scene. Take several steps, sometimes many steps, forward. Dare to gaze intently into the eyes of this child. Wait patiently until, like an a 3-D optical puzzle or motion picture, the full depth of this event suddenly comes into focus — the unbearable dimensions of the infinite contained in the finite, the eternal captured in the temporal. Once seen, you wonder why you couldn’t see it at first blush.

But the voyage of discovery continues. Look even more closely, adjusting your focus again, slightly, ever so slightly, until there, at the outer edge of the child’s cornea, you glimpse your own reflection.

In seeing that image, you grasp the mysterious, eternal truth that the invasion of human history by something divine is celebrated in the nativity, but is not confined to it. That discovery, with its many Christmas corollaries, is the best hope for peace on earth in a world conflicted by poverty, war and injustice.

Supreme Court validates responsibility argument

The Supreme Court of Canada's judgment means additional freedom — and responsibility — for journalists. Credit: SCC

I was sitting in a restaurant Tuesday morning having breakfast with my spouse, our daughter and her friend when I happened to check the Twitter feed on my mobile phone. “Yes!” I exclaimed, feeling suddenly self-conscious about my outburst as other patrons were trying to caffeinate their way to alertness.

“That sounds as if you might actually be getting excited about something,” my wife said. (I’m not generally known for pouring a lot of emotion into everyday conversation.)

I’d read a tweet about the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in a case where “responsible journalism” had been the key argument in a libel case — a ruling that provides for additional protection for journalists and news organizations when careful, balanced and methodical work on a story is in the public interest, even if it happens to tarnish the reputation of an individual.

In the annals of Canadian journalism, the lack of this type of precedent has killed hundreds of stories, no matter their importance to the public interest and national discourse, for fear of libel and slander litigation.

Dean Jobb, associate professor of journalism at King’s College in Halifax, has provided a cogent and accessible analysis of the ruling for Globe and Mail justice reporter Kirk Makin also wrote a fine piece on the meaning of the ruling.

The challenge for news media now, of course, will be to live up to the demands implicit in the judgment. The danger lies in citation of the Supreme Court decision by journalists without the requisite hard work and care in reporting. As is so often the case in other spheres, with increased freedom comes increased responsibility — and that will be the message journalism instructors will need to relay to their students.

I expect the ruling will, in a roundabout way, also increase the impetus toward the professionalization of investigative journalism, if not in a formal sense, then in its practice. And like the proverbial tide that lifts all boats, it reminds every thinking journalist of the imperative of nailing down every detail before publication.

Hergé, Tintin’s creator, as seen by Assouline

I’ve written before in this space about my childhood fascination with the fictional boy reporter Tintin and his escapades, thanks to the imagination of Georges Remi, the Belgian cartoonist of the last century. But I’ve not yet seen Pierre Assouline’s book, Hergé: The Man Who Created Tintin.

A review by Charles McGrath in today’s New York Times, however, puts the book on my Christmas list — or at least at the top of my shopping list for the inevitable trip to the bookstore during the upcoming holidays.

McGrath’s review isn’t especially flattering, but holds out the promise that Assouline delves into considerable detail about the man whose artistic style became distinct and who, through his storytelling, delved into topics that, for his time, pushed the boundaries of what could be accomplished through the medium of the graphic novel. I’ll be interested in learning more about a man who, at least for many North American readers, has remained rather two-dimensional, much like his drawings.

Interest in Hergé, his characters and the story lines of his Tintin series will likely continue to grow as we approach the premiere of the first of three motion pictures, directed by Steven Spielberg, based on the novels. The Secret of the Unicorn is slated for release in the fall of 2011. Accompanying the film are sure to be the long-simmering controversy about whether Remi was a tool of the Nazi occupation and the question of whether the racism reflected in some of his work — which he later regretted and, quite literally, tried to erase — negated some of his genius.