My Interview with Tim Knight

Tim Knight holds both Emmy and Sigma Delta Chi awards for journalism. He’s worked as a writer, reporter, foreign correspondent, documentary producer, interviewer and anchor for three newspapers, United Press International, Zambia TV, ABC, NBC, PBS and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). He was Producer of CBC’s flagship news programme The National, head of CBC TV News, Ottawa, and for 10 years served as Executive Producer and lead trainer for CBC-TV Journalism Training. Knight has trained thousands of professional broadcast journalists in the U.S., Canada, Ireland, Spain, Jamaica, Mauritius, South Africa (both networks), Ghana, Finland, Bosnia, Russia, Germany and elsewhere. He’s the author of three books on communications, including Storytelling and the Anima Factor, now in its second edition at www.lulu.com. He is also a fervent believer in the free marketplace of ideas.

I met Tim Knight at the Journalism Conference at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, at which we were both speaking (alongside Richard Brennan of the Toronto Star). Impressed by him as a professional and as a person, I intended to stay in touch with him and hopefully further share his knowledge with a wider audience. Finally, here’s my chance.

I conducted an online interview with him the week of September 20th, 2010, asking him about the use, power and control of media, challenges and opportunities, and advice for budding media activists. He was a fountain of information, and his responses were insightful, funny, thought provoking and incredibly modest for a man of his achievements – just as I had remembered him as a fellow speaker at the conference.

He even offered some public speaking tips. I’ve made my own notes.

Jay Baker: In what way, if any, would you agree with the sentiment that media can be used for good or evil? What brief examples can you give?

Tim Knight: Of course media can be used for both good and evil. You only have to look at the history of propaganda — the telling of only one side of a story — to understand how deeply rooted and accepted different types of propaganda have become.

The black arts of advertising, public relations and spin doctoring all use the media to lie to the people. And the obscenity is that we accept those professions as legitimate. We don’t throw the bastards into jail when they lie. Instead, we pay them lots of money. And include them in the rather foolish catchword “media”.

But if you mean the media as journalism, on the whole it’s obviously a force for good. Good journalists — and the ratio of good to bad is likely the same as with doctors, lawyers and prostitutes — see themselves as disinterested servants of the people serving a worthwhile cause. They take the public service element of their craft extremely seriously.
Besides, who else is there to report in that same disinterested, trained fashion on our times and the meanings thereof? You want politicians to do it? Police? Religious nuts?

Jay Baker: What do you think is wrong with journalism today?

Tim Knight: We’re in grave danger of losing the faith. The sense of public service. More and more my beloved craft is turning into just another job. Like selling shoes. Or — god help us all — public relations.

To a large extent I blame the bully pulpit of politicians. They’re supposed to guard and protect democracy — of which a free press is a vital cornerstone — yet invariably, whether in or out of power, blame journalists for reporting on them without appropriate obsequiousness. The politicians are so-called guardians of democracy. Yet they keep hammering, hammering, year after year, until people really do believe we’re all commies or fascists —depending on their own political inclination.

Then there’s the savage capitalists who buy media, fire half the staff, insist on endless celebrity stories and see journalism as nothing more than a great chance to exercise huge power and earn lots of money.

Jay Baker: Do you think the internet has enhanced or stifled journalism?

Tim Knight: In lots of ways citizen participation through the Internet already improves the free flow of information and consequently the advance of freedom and democracy around the world. These things matter a great deal. And it’s long since time ordinary citizens had a chance to be heard.
But there’s a price.

Media outlets and their trained, educated journalists are castrated while untrained, unaccountable, unbalanced, often unethical Twitters, Facebooks, MySpaces, blogs, aggregators and “citizen journalists” gain more and more influence in society. It’s “the first, rough draft of history” we’re talking about here. And I would be a lot happier if that first, rough draft was delivered by trained journalists rather than every extremist and wingnut with a computer.
I’m pretty much with 60 Minutes correspondent Morely Safer when he states: “I would trust a citizen journalist as much as I would trust a citizen surgeon.”

Jay Baker: What are your thoughts on media ownership and monopolies? What concerns do you have on these?

Tim Knight: I abhor the concentration of media ownership and monopolies. I think they threaten the very roots of our freedoms.

Much of the health and beauty of our liberal democracies depends on having a wide variety of journalism available from a wide variety of sources. Cut down on that variety and you move towards the dreaded Orwellian state with its control by propaganda, misinformation, denial of truth and manipulation of the past.

It would probably be legally and financially unwise for me to mention the names of the obviously guilty here.

Jay Baker: What opportunities do you see ahead for media to bring social justice to parts of the world?

Tim Knight: I think media will have every opportunity to spread social justice. Whether we take that opportunity is another matter.

Slashed budgets coupled with the resulting weakening of the journalistic ethical compass are likely to bring better, wider coverage of celebrity breasts than social injustice.

Jay Baker: What advice would you give to activists seeking to use media for positive change?

Tim Knight: Nil desperandum. I agree with Hemingway who said: “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.”

If your cause is just — and keep in mind that no-one has ever announced “our cause is unjust” — then it follows that you really have no choice but to keep fighting.

Here’s a suggestion, though. Be honest. Tell the truth. When dealing with media do unto them as you would have them do unto you.

Jay Baker: You have worked for almost every major media organisation in the world on dozens of projects. Which do you personally feel had the greatest impact; achieved your aims?

Tim Knight: Not sure that working on three newspapers, one wire service and five broadcast networks quite qualifies for your description.

But to answer your question … I’ve been a writer, reporter, interviewer, anchor, producer, etc. working as a journalist in dozens of countries for more than 40 years. And I got an awful lot of satisfaction from practicing my beloved profession. I always took journalism, not myself, very seriously. I truly believed, and still do, that journalists are servants of the people and it’s a great honour to be a servant of the people.

But for the last 25 years I’ve been training broadcast journalists in different countries in storytelling, writing, interviewing, performing and journalistic ethics. That’s where I really learned my beloved profession. In the workshops. Mostly from the people who came to learn, not teach.

In fact, I now believe that I’m finally a good enough broadcast journalist and trainer to properly do all the jobs I’ve had along the way. And do them a lot better.

Jay Baker: What have been the greatest challenges in your career?

Tim Knight: Actually, I’ve been blessed. I’m a high school dropout — although I did cover student riots at Yale and Columbia universities in the sixties for ABC — with very little ability to do anything but write the occasional lucid words and speak them reasonably convincingly in front of cameras.

Things just happened. And most turned out very well.

At ABC in New York for instance, none of the big reporters wanted the women’s beat, the youth beat or the black beat. So I got them. And they all turned out to be incredibly important.

Okay. Greatest challenges? I guess my own impatience with the glacial pace of change in society. Think racism, imperial wars, the concentration of power and money in fewer and fewer hands. And how long it took media to recognise and react to the change. That impatience seriously frustrated me and cost a couple of perfectly good jobs.

But in the end, I think most challenges we face are internal rather than external. The fault, dear Jay, being not in our stars, but in ourselves.

Jay Baker: What are your current career plans?

Tim Knight: In ten years I want to retire and live in the world’s most notorious resort, Hedonism ll, in Jamaica.

In the meantime, I’m expanding my international broadcast journalism training business to work with non-journalists on speech writing and delivery. Most speechmaking being bloody awful. Even that great orator Barack Obama could do with better performance training.

And more and more, particularly as Canada’s winter gets closer, I’m trying to get international training assignments where palm trees wave, the water is warm and the beer is cold.

Jay Baker: What gives you hope for the future?

Tim Knight: The fact that I’m an incurable optimist. You have to be an optimist if you’re a journalist and consequently uniquely trained to at least partly understand the seriousness of the situation.

This goes doubly for journalism training.

You keep plugging the wondrous Free Marketplace of Ideas concept. All the while you know a lot of the people you work with face political and financial pressures that seriously interfere with their ability to practice real, honest journalism. And not just in developing countries. You remember that around the world more than one journalist a week is killed in the line of duty.
You know that. The people in the workshops know that. Yet they go on. They really, really want to practice the honourable profession. They have a cause.

And you keep hoping the people in front of you will be able to practice free and honest journalism without being fired, imprisoned or killed.

And you know the cause is worthwhile.

Which is the best reason of all for hope.

You can find out more about Tim Knight at his website.

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