Ideas and Impressions: Reflections on a life in journalism

By Jason Moscovitz

Nothing is forever and I realize, after nine years writing a column for the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin, and after 40 years of writing and reporting, that this is likely the last column I will ever write anywhere. It is my swan song and opportunity for me to get down those last thoughts about my two professional passions in life: Canada and journalism, with a bent to what was my specialty – Quebec’s place in Canada.

For me, the many failed attempts at constitution-making, and specifically the failed attempt to make Quebec a constitutionally-entrenched distinct society, turned out to be a positive. It actually took repeated failure to better understand Canada. It has been 40 years since Quebec refused to sign the Canadian Constitution, and yet, Quebec is still in Canada, Canada is still Canada, and the Constitution still applies to Quebec. I always thought not signing the Constitution in 1982 was the most efficient way for Quebecers to say their distinctiveness is defined by Quebec, being the only missing signature on the Constitution of the country.

On my first work trip to Asia, I was taken aback seeing so many people of Indian origin in Singapore, for example, who spoke Chinese as if it was their mother tongue. I couldn’t associate an Indian person speaking Chinese because I didn’t realize, over the generations, they simply adapted to the language of the majority. In today’s Quebec, young people from countless countries, countless religions, and countless races, are now French-speaking. Thirty-five years after the language law, immigrants in Quebec have gone to French schools, where they are so culturally immersed, they fully understand how Quebecers feel about celebrating Canada Day. It’s part of the inner being of a French-speaking Quebecer that makes it difficult, on any day, to embrace Canada in a public display of allegiance or patriotism. On Canada Day, it is difficult to muster a passing interest.

Canada Day is officially called La Fête de Canada in French, but no one in Quebec calls it that. In Quebec, Canada Day, is simply referred to as July 1st. Quebec government liquor and cannabis stores post signs on their doors a week before Canada’s birthday proudly proclaiming that they would be open for business on July 1st. Being blasé about Canada Day is the way it has always been. It’s just no big deal and the proof is this: it’s part of the Civil Code in Quebec that residential and apartment leases begin on the same day. In 1974, a Liberal government in Quebec, not a separatist government, passed a law changing the official moving day in Quebec from May 1 to July 1. It was considered beneficial for many Quebecers because by moving on a legal holiday, Canada Day, they wouldn’t lose a personal vacation day at another time of the year.

So, while the rest of Canada celebrates Canada Day, often in beautiful parks, residential streets in Quebec turn ugly as moving day garbage piles up with dirty old mattresses, tired couches and rusted out broken washing machines. No Canadian prime minister has ever questioned this. No Canadian prime minister celebrates Canada Day in Quebec. It’s an accommodation, like many others, that best explains how Canada works.

How journalism works and has evolved is also part of looking back on change. For someone like me, who started working in television in 1974 using black and white film, the changes, just technically, are astronomical. On the editorial side, there is no word that comes close to defining how much has changed. Before the advent of portable video cameras and more accessible satellite technology in the 1980s, television news had only two editions per day. Supper hour and late-night. Before cell phones, reporters carried lots of change in their pocket in case they ever had to use a public phone to report on deadline. In 1984, I was working with a producer who was always the first with any new electronic toy and he had the first semblance of a cell phone the CBC had seen. We called it “Gaston’s shoe phone.” It had a carrying case which looked like a shoe box filled with wires while the phone was a walkie talkie. The device randomly intercepted other people’s conversations. I recall one day in Niagara Falls listening to pimps arranging dates for their girls in Buffalo.

By 1986, the first Motorola cell phones were produced. They were grey and they were huge and heavy. One day going to do a story in Montreal, I was sitting in the backseat of our rented car when I made the first cell phone call of my life. I told David Herle, who was then past-president of the Young Liberals that, believe it or not, I was talking to him from a car on a phone that had no wire connecting it to anywhere.

We now live in a world where digital technology has put a phone in the palm of 5.1 billion people around the world, and you can bet almost as many are addicted to constantly doing something with them.

My claim to fame on technology is that in 2000, I was one of the very first people in the world to discover what awaited us all. Just before the 2000 federal election got underway, BlackBerry, the Canadian company that once beat the world, invented the first handheld device which downloaded emails. The company thought the election campaign would be a rigorous real-time test. I remember opening the box and looking at the tiny keyboard. My initial response was that it was stupid but, within a couple of hours, I figured it out and will never forget the feeling when the campaign plane landed anywhere and my BlackBerry would start sending me emails in rapid succession. I was overtaken by what appeared to be the pure magic of it and recall how I couldn’t put it down, how I couldn’t stop playing with it. Other reporters asked why I always had it in my hand, why I was always playing with it. I remember the day I was  told I was addicted to it. How sweet it is to be one of the very first of over 5 billion people to fall in love with handheld digital technology. My odds may have been better winning a lottery.

In 1988, the face of journalism changed forever in Canada with 24/7 all-news TV. Suddenly, journalists could talk all day and all night about anything, and we all did. That is when journalism changed forever. It was clear early on that the principle of being right, of checking and doublechecking facts, was not consistent with open-ended live television. Conversational journalism threw the doors wide open to opinion, feelings, speculation, gossip and rumours. It enabled journalists and commentators in the new freewheeling style to float new ideas and possibilities. There was an expression that nicely fit the new era. “Let’s put that up the flagpole to see if it flies.”

I recall, in the summer of 2001, being asked to fill-in for the London correspondent over a summer holiday period. Every morning, I had to read wire copy to educate myself on developments in the Bosnian war because, every day, I had to go on CBC News to talk about a war in a country I had never been to, a war I knew little about. For a traditionalist who learned the business the “old school way,” I knew I was being put in a position that cost me credibility; and having to do it daily embarrassed me. Needless to say, 20 years later, social media makes all-news look like a paragon of journalistic virtue.

Social media is a curse on journalism and, as much as it globally empowers people who could never be heard before, the increasing stream of falsehoods, conspiracy theories and hate mongering, is the inevitable byproduct of easy access. The fallout diminishes the overall credibility of traditional news sources as it gets harder to establish a firewall on the importance of facts. When Donald Trump became U.S. president in 2016, all the smart people said once ensconced in the White House, Trump would no longer tweet. So many smart people were so wrong. Trump’s accession to power accelerated the reach of social media in an information age where now anything and everything goes, including endless disinformation.

While traditional media outlets strive to maintain their standards, they know they are not immune to the contagion around them. It is regrettable that technology also cost traditional media millions in revenue, which clearly diminished its product. It strikes me how plain lucky I was to be a journalist when being factually right was bread-and-butter during a time when the foundation of the business was so much stronger.

Professionally, there are countless highlights for me to remember, but for someone like me, interested in Canadian political history since grade school, being able to observe Canadian political history for 30 years up close, enabled me to watch Canada evolve so positively.

Fifty-one years ago, when I started university, the great debate was how English Canadians could avoid the cultural drift of becoming American. People even asked if Canadians had an identity to call their own. Clearly, our identity is now wrapped in the absolute certainty that our values as a people are not those of the United States. We know who we are, and we know how blessed we are to be Canadian. If not the best country in the world, realistically, one of the very best is still a wonderful place to be.

For me, being Canadian can be defined in many ways, but how about this? When my Ottawa doctor of almost 40 years retired in 2018, almost a year passed before I found a family doctor in Ottawa accepting new patients. The only doctor who agreed to meet me for a nonbinding meet-and-greet, emigrated from Iraq. Educated in Baghdad, he graduated medical school there in 1998, and for sure, you might think we would find ourselves somewhat culturally estranged. In the back of my mind was the thought of me, an older Jewish man with children and grandchildren living in Israel, having a doctor in his 40s who grew up in a country hostile to Israel’s existence. I wondered where this life adventure of looking for a doctor would take me.

We bonded during that first visit. Soon after, back in his office dealing with a medical issue, he asked me where I was travelling to. Without hesitation, I told him Israel to visit my children and grandchildren. He didn’t flinch, and it never became an elephant in the room as we continued to appreciate each other.

And if I know anything about anything as I write the last sentence of my last column, I know being Canadian is the bond that brought us together, and that keeps us together.