Tag Archives: Peter Desbarats

Transformation at Western’s journalism program

IMG_0175Western University’s graduate journalism program — one of the oldest in Canada — has formally acknowledged plans to re-fashion its one-year master’s program to offer a Master of Media in Journalism & Communication degree. A promotional description of the new curriculum is here.

The decision to shutter the existing program was made by administrators in the university’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS) last December, but has been kept low key, as it sought approvals from various offices within the university for a transformed curriculum. Full-time journalism faculty members have been engaged in the process of building the new credential in the hope that it might save jobs and preserve some form of journalism training at the university. Paul Benedetti, a longtime lecturer in the existing program, resigned as its coordinator late last year.

Originally modelled after the journalism program at Columbia University in New York, Western’s offerings began modestly at the undergraduate level in 1946. It became a 12-month master’s program in 1974, annually admitting about 30-40 students each year since then.

Over the past 20 years, the journalism program has had a checkered relationship with the university. Senior administrators attempted to close the Graduate School of Journalism, then led by dean Peter Desbarats, who rallied faculty, staff, alumni and the members of the university’s board of governors to save the school. (That campaign is chronicled here.) Although the effort succeeded, the graduate school soon lost its standing as a separate entity and was merged with the much larger Graduate School of Library and Information Studies in 1996-97, under the auspices of what is now the Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Desbarats, who had taken the reins as dean of the journalism school from ex-Toronto Telegram executive and founding dean Andrew MacFarlane in 1981, retired in 1997. Manjunath Pendakur, who now teaches communications at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, became FIMS’ first dean. Desbarats died in February. My London Free Press column on his passing his here.

The new graduate program intends to combine elements of journalism, media relations, communications and public relations. Mark A. Rayner, a FIMS lecturer, is taking the lead in coordinating development of the new curriculum.

Full disclosure: For many years, I have taught a summer course on journalism law and ethics as a sessional lecturer in the existing journalism program.

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.