The multi-dimensional Peter Desbarats

Official UWO portrait
Peter Desbarats 1933-2014

As I wrote in a newspaper column last week, former Canadian journalist Peter Desbarats was a complex individual with many sides and a variety of literary voices: poet, journalist, author, essayist, children’s author, performer, scholar. Noted obituary writer Fred Langan captured much of this in his memorial piece in Saturday’s Globe and Mail, describing Desbarats as a multimedia man with “a Don Draper phase.”

Indeed, some of this complexity emerged at Desbarats’ funeral on Friday. There were tears; there was laughter. Nephews joked about his “sideburns phase” at Global Television and the fact that, for a while, he wore a cape. “Yes, an actual cape,” one said. Peter’s widow, Hazel, read one of his favourite children’s stories — Halibut York: The Night the City Sang, which Desbarats published in 1964. And there was, even among those of us who knew him fairly well, a new appreciation for the diversity of his writing.

John Longhurst, a communications staffer with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and a longtime friend, wrote to remind me that Desbarats had been a keynote speaker at a conference on faith and media in Winnipeg in 1998. In that speech, Desbarats revealed the texture of his spiritual side and how it meshed with his function as a journalist. Portions of that speech are worth reprinting here, as a kind of epilogue.

“I was raised in a strict Roman Catholic home, educated by Jesuit priests, rebelled against this in my late teens, became the first member of my family to go through a divorce (followed by many others in subsequent years), later insisted on sending my reluctant younger children to Sunday school and wound up to my astonishment as a member of the United Church of Canada, a denomination that my Jesuit professors used to refer to as the ‘Rotary Club of Canadian churches,’ ” Desbarats said.

“When I was in school, I was taught by my enlightened Jesuit professors that these two approaches [rationalist and fundamentalist] were not in irreconcilable opposition, and in fact could never be, because God had not only given some of us faith but had endowed us with intelligence. For instance, I was taught that the science of evolution was reconcilable with Roman Catholic doctrine, as long as we believed that an act of divine creation started the whole process.

“In centuries past, and up to my own school days, the contrast between religion and science was manageable, but now the gap has become unbridgeable . Rationalists who cling to religion because of tradition, or because it provides an ethical guide, do so with a growing sense of contradiction between what they know and what they believe. In practising their religion, they have to turn off a larger and larger part of their intelligence. In the same way, only more extreme, fundamentalists have to deny a larger and larger body of scientific evidence that is in conflict with their most basic beliefs. They do this by believing more intensely.

“Surely this growing chasm between rationalists and fundamentalists — which most of us see reflected in our own inner lives all the time, and witness constantly in the world around us and in its reflection in the media — surely this is the most significant development of our generation.

“Oddly enough, I suppose that what this typical liberal journalist is concluding at this point is that the big story of our time, the great and growing divide between rationalists and fundamentalists, cannot be properly covered by liberal journalists who are religious illiterates. It requires journalists who are rationalists, for journalism as we know it is essentially a rationalist undertaking, but who also know, understand and respect what is happening on the ‘other’ side, the fundamentalist side. This kind of reporting is not occurring at the moment, its absence is making it much more difficult for us to understand what is happening in our own society and in others, and the problem isn’t going to be resolved by paying more attention to, or trying to improve, religious journalism in the conventional sense.”

Desbarats’ observation remains apt, 16 years later.

Media Literacy Week at London Public Library

Media Literacy PosterIn an age of ubiquitous messaging — replete with sound, text, video and still images — understanding the sources and inherent biases of both the technologies and message generators is more important than ever. It’s one of the reasons the Media Awareness Network and the Canadian Teachers Federation, together with more than three dozen collaborating organizations, partnered in 2006 to create Media Literacy Week, which this year runs Nov. 2-6. This year’s theme: Media Literacy in a Digital Age.

The organization’s website is loaded with hints for parents, educators, information professionals and media enthusiasts on how and why they should be part of the process. There are also plenty of resources, available online and for download.

London Public Library has scheduled two events as part of this year’s Media Literacy Week. The first, on Wednesday, Nov. 4, at 7 p.m., consists of a screening of the film Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. If you have a Google account, you can watch it here on Google Video. Following the film, I’ll moderate discussion by a panel consisting of Kane X. Faucher, an assistant professor in the faculty of information and media studies at the University of Western Ontario; Wael Haddara, a physician and a director of the Muslim Association of Canada; and Ghada Turk, an educator at the Al-Taqwa Islamic School in London, Ont.

The second event, on the following evening at 7 p.m., is titled Digital Media: The New Democracy. It’ll be a talk and discussion led by London blogger and creative thinker Brian Frank, exploring the notion that the digital revolution that is so dramatically changing our lives has links to ancient Greek notions of democracy — and what might be next. It promises to be an interesting evening.

If you believe in the importance of media literacy and think you can lend your insights to broaden understanding of the media and their many effects, get involved. Plan or attend an event — or simply encourage others to do so.

Covering Michael Jackson

Paris Jackson at her father's memorial, July 7
Paris Jackson at her father's memorial, July 7

I get a discomfiting sense of unease during occasions such as today’s marathon coverage of the Michael Jackson funeral and memorial service, watched by hundreds of millions around the world. Media (and news media in particular) are, at times, the ultimate bandwagon jumpers, trying desperately to create the illusion of leading a parade from somewhere around its middle.

I was never a fan of Michael Jackson’s music, though I’ll gladly acknowledge the enormous impact the child-cum-man had on popular art forms, including dance and the recording industry. In the annals of the pop music history of the past century, his contributions will stand alongside those of Elvis, Sinatra and the Beatles. He should be given his due.

The current avalanche of newsprint, broadcasts, website excitation, tweets and blogs would sit better with me had the same news media, which today bathed itself in the Jacksonian legend and aura, not so recently been just as hyperbolic in their scathing coverage, documentaries and commentary-laden reporting of child sex abuse criminal proceedings against him. News anchors clucked their shock and disapproval and shot each other knowing glances. The prose of reviewers, writers and columnists dripped with sarcasm, innuendo and double entendre. Jackson’s plastic surgeries and personal quirks were the stuffing of a million punching bags. Mockery and raised eyebrows were de rigueur. And yet today (not to mention the past week), most news media rushed from port to starboard — the side of the ship that asserted how misunderstood, human, sensitive, pioneering and charitable the man was.

We’re still a long way from understanding Jackson in any kind of context, thanks largely to the celebrity- and pack-type journalism that devalues restraint and context, deferring instead to the immediate, the sensational and the glib.

Sure, journalism is about reporting the news. But it should also be about balance, frames of reference and perspective.