Todd Blimkie
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Alternative papers like eye, hour, and the Georgia Straight brag about how well they cover the issues mainstream media ignore. But if you're searching for insightful coverage of protests, you'll have to look elsewhere

Late in the afternoon of October 16, 2001, Carlyn Zwarenstein, dripping wet, sat down at a computer in the offices of eye, a Toronto-based alternative weekly. Her notepad was virtually empty; interviewing and note-taking at the Ontario Common Front’s march through Toronto’s financial district had proved impractical at best. When she’d tried to write, rain soaked her notepad and froze her hands. It had been raining since she approached the row of police who surrounded Nathan Phillips Square at five o’clock in the morning, and it drenched everything-from her black pseudo-bowling shoes to the bandanna around her neck that, unlike other bandannas around other necks trying to enter the square, the police didn’t confiscate.

But Zwarenstein didn’t need exhaustive interviews to fill the 700 words her editor allotted her for a ground-level account of the demonstration because she had been researching the story since before dawn in the most obvious possible way: she was in the middle of it all. She spent about two hours in the pre-dawn rain chatting with marchers and listening to speeches in Nathan Phillips Square. She walked with the demonstrators as they snaked past the rain-slicked skyscrapers on King Street, constricting the flow of traffic on Toronto’s asphalt veins. She saw newspaper boxes knocked over by black-clad, balaclava-wearing protestors, who she dismissed as “aggressive boys playing around.” She watched police arrest a marcher near University and Dundas-watched as he resisted, watched as the cops dragged him on his back, watched as other protesters watched all this happening, torn between the impulse to help their comrade and the desire to not be arrested themselves.

When Zwarenstein’s article about the demonstration (“My Day of Action”) appeared two days later, it fell somewhere between an Ontario Common Front press release and a preemptive defence testimony in the case of Toronto mayor Mel Lastman-who called the action “organized thuggery” and threatened to sue its organizers-versus The Activists Who Caused all that Trouble on Bay Street. “The action proceeded in the form of ‘snake marches’ that followed unpredictable routes, winding their way into the financial district, skirting lines of police in riot gear who blocked off street after street, and completely surrounded a noon-time Mobilization for Global Justice rally at Simcoe Park,” she wrote. “Arriving five minutes late, I was ordered to cross the road instead of joining the rally. I snuck back behind a line of police on horseback and slipped into the crowd.”

The story provided readers with a take on the protest that the mainstream media couldn’t-or wouldn’t-provide, and for this reason alone it had merit. “I believe it’s a good idea to have lots of different eyewitness accounts,” says Bill Reynolds, editor of eye until earlier this year. “Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t, but ultimately at least it’s some kind of document about what went on and maybe it shows, in its low-key nature, that the protest wasn’t that hysterical.” Zwarenstein’s article, however, really needed to be substantiated by some contextual reporting: a backgrounder on the antipoverty actions that led to this one, for example; or a profile of someone who had been royally screwed by the government policies that prompted the protest. At a minimum, it needed an explanation of how participants thought the march would help and why detractors thought it was a waste of energy. But none of these appeared in eye in the weeks leading up to or immediately following the protest. This is all too often the case when Canada’s alternative press covers demonstrations.

Alt-weeklies-publications like eye and Now in Toronto, hour in Montreal, Vancouver’s The Georgia Straightand The Coast in Halifax-seem like the perfect place for an intelligent debate on activism, since their broad mandate is to provide insights not found in the mainstream media. Instead, these papers often report on demonstrations the same way they cover a hot new band: they promote an “insider” perspective and spike it with just enough contrarian editorializing to retain their reputations as independent, irreverent, progressive social commentators. Because of all this posturing, readers come away with little more information than what they would have gleaned from the daily papers and the nightly news: that the protest happened, that some people liked it, and that some people didn’t.

Nearly all alternative-weekly post-protest stories can be placed in one of two categories: celebration and cynicism. First-person “I-got-teargassed” gonzo accounts of demonstrations fall into the former group, while the latter category covers criticisms of violent behaviour and dissertations on disorganization among protestors. It’s as if the papers are sticking their collective tongues out at their readers and sneering “look what you missed,” without bothering to explain what the whole thing was actually about and how the protest and the policies being protested will affect the local community.

True, these publications have a very limited budget for news, but original, insightful coverage-that not only recounts how people took to the street, but really analyzes why they were there-should come without asking. Unfortunately, though, activism reporting in alternative weeklies is often disturbingly formulaic and hollow-and there’s nothing more unalternative than that.

“To the right and left of my head I hear the quick sound of ripping air, like fastballs coming high and tight. Then the rubber bullets slam with a dull pop into the brick houses on the corner. The crowd is in full-scale panic mode.” That’s how M-J Milloy, en the news editor for hour, described last April’s Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. His tale of overreacting cops and fleeing protesters, “Gas Panic,” was published in the Montreal weekly on April 26, 2001. “We certainly like taking potshots at the misunderstandings of the mainstream media,” Milloy says. “But I think what’s more important is to give people who are interested in these issues-and probably the people who aren’t interested in these issues-reasons to think about them, and reasons to look at the issues in a wider way.”

Despite his high-minded ideals, hour‘s summit wrap-up didn’t really achieve this goal. It presented some context about the demonstrations, including Lyle Stewart’s article about progressive Brazilian President Fernando Cardoso, who one of Stewart’s sources called a “weak link in the free-trade chain.” But the issue was dominated by Milloy’s article (which was one giant mainstream-press potshot) and a cynical protest-good-violence-bad piece called “Like Lord of the Flies but Dumber” by Martin Patriquin, the current news editor.

Even worse, Now‘s activism coverage often contains more articles in that cynicism category than other alternative weeklies. Its summary of the Quebec summit, for example, included a piece called “La Belle Protest”-a series of wry street-level observations by comedian Sheila Gostick-and “Thank God for a Riot,” an editorial by Glenn Wheeler on the Liberal Party bumbling and general lack of action inside the meeting of leaders. In addition, Ellie Kirzner published an article titled “They’ve Grown Up,” in which she argued that the demonstrators were too numerous and divided by tactics to get much constructive protesting done. None of the post-summit articles in Now analyzed the policies that drew thousands of activists to Quebec-that content had begun appearing three months earlier with Wheeler’s “FTAA Primer,” but gradually gave way to discussions about the fence and how to breach it.

Similarly, eye continues to print ground-level protest accounts without sufficient context or counterpoint. For example, a short first-person dispatch called “Dissent Made Criminal in Ottawa” was the paper’s only coverage of the G20 conference protest in November 2001. Zwarenstein, for her part, has written more than a dozen activism-related articles for the paper, and she resolutely pursues a take on demonstrations that readers can’t get from other conventional news outlets. “I start from the assumption that the mainstream media either don’t show many of the things that go on-just neglect a lot of issues-or portray them very badly or in a way that I disagree with,” she says. “So I don’t necessarily look at what they’re doing, but I just start by assuming that I’m doing something they’re not.”

The most important difference between Zwarenstein and mainstream journalists is, of course, that she marches right along with her sources. Though she isn’t likely to take a run at any barricades in the near future (she is non violent and, to be frank, tiny), she is passionate enough about progressive causes to interact fluidly with activists and explain their grievances-as she did in her pre-summit article “Behind the Barricades,” published in the April 19, 2001, issue of eye. This interaction provides an essential element of her stories. “As much as possible, I’ll let activists talk instead of just saying what I think is good about them,” she says. “I’ll give them a chance to explain themselves, which often just won’t be given in the mainstream media. They’ll either cut people’s quotes short so that they inflect the word ‘violence’ or something like that, or they won’t quote them at all. So I see it more as giving alternatives a chance to speak.”

But this notion makes even her former boss at eye nervous. “What worries me about covering this sort of thing is that the reporter could become a mouthpiece for the activist organization,” says Reynolds, “and so the activist organization can essentially use the paper as its own broadsheet. And I think that’s a real worry.” He’s not the only one who’s concerned. “We don’t want to be owned,” says Kirzner, an associate editor atNow. “We’re not a movement paper. We are reflectors on a movement that is part of our dreams, but we’re not owned by a movement.”

That’s not the way some readers, including conservative Claire Hoy, see it. In fact, any negative coverage of activism would come as a surprise to the former Toronto Sun columnist, because he thinks the alternative press sees itself as part of the movement-not that there’s anything wrong with that. “I’m not likely to be out talking to these people who are marching in Quebec City,” he says. “For me, a good way to find out what they’re thinking is to read it from their perspective.”

Regardless of what outsiders think, not all activists believe the alt-weeklies do a good job of presenting the perspective of protestors. John Clarke, organizer for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, accuses the Toronto papers of “running with the hare and hunting with the hounds”-in other words, cozying up to activist groups when it serves their interests to do so, then turning around and criticizing them later. “I generally feel that they put across a double message to organizations,” he says. “The notion is if you’re dealing with a Nowreporter, this person is someone you should welcome on your bus, welcome as part of your inner circle, somebody you should drop your guard around and talk freely in front of. And we don’t really feel we can have that kind of relationship with them.” While Clarke believes that Zwarenstein “wrote a good piece” about the October 16 demonstration, he says the only reason eye ran the story is because the paper “saw it in its interests to allow a generally very sympathetic and helpful piece to go through on that occasion. But had things taken a different turn, they might very well have been writing a piece of savage denunciation.”

When it comes to coverage of protests, Vancouver’s Georgia Straight operates by different rules than other alternative weeklies so it doesn’t have to worry about its perspective getting confused. Even during the November 1997 pepper-spraying melee at the APEC conference in Vancouver, says editor Beverley Sinclair, “We didn’t do the ‘I’m there, I got teargassed’ thing. And part of the reason for that was it was everywhere. It was so everywhere that it would have been way past the fact.” In addition, the Straight didn’t send anyone to nearby Seattle to cover the WTO meetings in November 1999, and it published only one article about what happened at the Quebec summit. The paper did, however, print an examination a few weeks before the summit of the contentious issues surrounding the Free Trade Area of the Americas proposal.

According to Sinclair, this is the Straight‘s way of differentiating itself from the mainstream media. But there is an easier way to explain this: although it used to be a hard-hitting leftist publication, many people believe The Georgia Straight sold out its progressive tendencies. Gregory Boyd Bell, media issues columnist at The Hamilton Spectator, calls the paper “a cheap version of Toronto Life without the long articles.” Anne Roberts, chair of the journalism department at Langara College in Vancouver, agrees the Straight has gotten much softer. “The news hole used to be larger,” she says. “They may not have been covering every event, but they were doing a lot more news coverage.”

But if the alternative press is supposed to respond to the mainstream media with “the real story”-and Kirzner, Reynolds, Sinclair, Milloy, and Patriquin all agree that this is true-then articles that seek to increase understanding of the issues need to appear more often and run alongside all the celebration and cynicism. And the protest-good-violence-bad articles need to be replaced with more useful and original criticism, since variations on this argument can usually be found in the demonstration coverage of any large news outlet whose name does not contain the words “National” and “Post.”

When a new band starts receiving piles of acclaim in the underground music scene, the music editors at alternative weeklies weigh their praise carefully, lest they be accused of being followers. But they still really like the band, so they’re hesitant to say anything especially damning. When alt-press reporters cover protests, they behave like music editors writing about the next big thing. And because of a “triumph of demographics over editorial vision,” Boyd Bell says, there is very little diversity of opinion at most alternative weeklies. “I want to read a story and go ‘Oh, I never thought about that that way,'” he says. “And I might say, ‘Oh, I find that a little offensive,’ or ‘That’s a little strange,’ but I’d like not to hear the same old shit over and over again. So I think that’s where the alternative is not alternative at all, and I think the alt-weeklies are terrible failures at that.” OCAP’s Clarke, like Boyd Bell, attributes this attitude to the papers’ commercial motivations. “They rely on their advertising revenue and they develop their editorial line based on their own notions of what sells, what doesn’t sell, and they conduct themselves accordingly.”

Of course, editorial independence and not going bankrupt are important goals for any media outlet. But cynical criticism can be interpreted in different ways: Clarke feels betrayed by the papers’ coverage and Hoy-a regular Now reader-thinks of alt-weeklies as activist booster clubs who occasionally print “tactical” criticisms. In most cases, they’re both right. In “The Tent City that Might Have Been,” an article about an OCAP “Safe Park” action held in Toronto’s Allan Gardens in August 1999, Kirzner lamented that a homeless person who missed the action wouldn’t be able to cherish the “beautiful memories of what people can accomplish together.” But she also accused Clarke and “his lieutenants” of being “one-trick strategists.”

For reporters, tactical attacks are the easiest ways to be critical, while I-got-teargassed stories are a simple way to offer ground-level perspective. But these papers should exert more than the minimum required effort. Alternative weeklies need to stop relying on stories that simply celebrate or question the tactics of protests. Instead, they should devote more resources to publishing articles that explain the issues and their impact on each paper’s community, and critique demonstrations according to how effective they are at broadcasting their messages of concern.

In other words, the weeklies should follow the example of the April 19, 2001, edition of The Coast. The Halifax paper’s cover story, “Jello Biafra Talks Trade,” was an alt-press marketing coup: independent music combined with social issues. Biafra was the leader of the American punk band Dead Kennedys, and is a prominent opponent of most government policies. In the interview, he discussed everything from the demonstrations against the Vietnam War in the ’70s to a transnational corporation’s power to sue the Canadian government if the feds pass any law that hinders said corporation’s ability to “send supertankers up your rivers to swipe your water.”

And if the reader didn’t understand how this could happen, The Coast provided “A Citizen’s Guide to the FTAA,” which outlined-in twice the space Zwarenstein was allowed for her equivalent piece in eye-what the agreement is, who is involved, and what the critics say is at stake. To that end, there was an article in the arts section detailing how the FTAA could affect subsidies to the Halifax film industry, and an editorial on how free trade policies threaten local agricultural producers. David Lee’s story, “The Road to Quebec City,” featured perspectives from “three generations of protesters on being moved to activism,” while Lezlie Lowe wrote a column about the hypocrisy of opposing globalization and its threat to all things Canadian when, for example, “most of us can’t even stomach a full evening of CBC-Television programming.”

The Coast‘s pre-summit package proves that it is possible for the alternative press to present compelling, progressive, and original angles on activism. This high quality might be because Kyle Shaw, editor of The Coast, feels a much stronger responsibility to today’s activists than his colleagues at other publications. “Every new activist needs a way to speak,” he says. “I don’t think The Coast does a fantastic job about being open and accessible and helping these people find a voice. But I think it’s absolutely integral to the ideal or theoretical mandate of these papers.” Shaw is worried that some activists are turning their backs on alternative weeklies. “If the real activists who are doing ground-breaking stuff are not coming to The Coast, and they don’t think The Coast is for them, then that’s a problem.” But here’s the tricky part: although Shaw is more concerned about catering to the needs of activists than other alt-press editors, The Coast‘s summit primer had the most independent editorial voice of any alternative weekly. It wasn’t blindly pro-demonstrator, either; it was simply fresh, local, and extremely informative.

The only problem is that it was news-heavy. Coverage of this depth, even at The Coast, won’t regularly appear in these papers because news does not pay the bills. “As a publication, you’re trying to sell records and CDs, and you’re trying to sell movie tickets, and you’re trying to sell tickets to plays, and that’s how you’re making your money,” says Boyd Bell. “The politics, I think, is window dressing at most of these publications. The way I look at it when I read these things is ‘the government is bad, and big corporations are bad-and did we mention that big corporations are bad?-and buy this record.'”

And when they’re hyping another kind of hit parade, it’s the same story: the government is bad, big corporations are bad, and fair reader, you just missed a kick-ass protest against the…oh, does it really matter?

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