Opinion

A Canadian journalist was physically attacked for doing his job. That should be huge news: Robyn Urback

Though I’d like to think of a more charitable explanation, the fact that the targeted journalist works for the Toronto Sun probably has something to do with the relative lack of coverage.

The altercation happened on camera, in front of police, with dozens of onlookers

In this still taken from a video posted to the Toronto Sun's YouTube page, a man in a grey shirt forcefully grabs the hat off photographer Stan Behal's head at an anti-hate rally in Toronto on Saturday. (Toronto Sun/YouTube)

A member of the news media was assaulted by a protester in Toronto this past weekend.

The altercation happened on camera, in front of police, with dozens of people standing by. The incident in which a journalist was struck by an activist — ironically, at an anti-hate rally — seemed entirely unprovoked: a pathetic attack on someone who was just there to do his job.

Every Canadian who respects the role of the news media (and knows that grown-ups aren't supposed to hit each other) ought to be outraged. Though, at a guess, at least a few readers are only learning about this incident now.

The encounter happened Saturday, when a number of anti-fascism groups assembled to counter a planned protest by the Calgary-based Worldwide Coalition Against Islam (WCAI) organization at Nathan Phillips Square, outside Toronto City Hall. The WCAI protest was actually cancelled ahead of time, but the counter-protest was held anyway, and it was there that a Toronto Sun photographer was attacked by a still-unidentified protester.

Forgive me for employing a lazy rhetorical technique here, but it's perhaps still the best way to emphasize the point: if that protester were an alt-right fanatic, and the journalist worked for a more centrist news organization, this column  — written days after the incident — would be old news.

In that scenario, there would have likely already been coverage across digital, print and broadcast news, with pundits debating whether the anti-media rhetoric oozing from U.S. President Donald Trump is partly to blame.

The perpetrator would be doxed. Most of us would learn the journalist's name. And the altercation would spawn handfuls of little think pieces, which would spawn little think pieces of their own. That was the editorial process that followed when journalist Shauna Hunt rightfully called out a couple of greasy Toronto FC fans who yelled "F--k her right in the p—y," for example.

But that process didn't — or hasn't yet — happened here. And though I'd like to think of a more charitable explanation, the fact that the targeted journalist works for the unabashedly conservative Toronto Sun — and his alleged attacker was ostensibly from the other end of the political spectrum — probably has something to do with it.

The Sun's critics will insist this scenario is different in that the Toronto Sun stokes political division. But for the record: the victim here was Sun photographer Stan Behal, who is a veteran in the news business with a stellar reputation for professionalism. But even if that were not the case: you use your words, not your hands, children.

The relative silence here is striking in that journalists are particularly, and understandably, sensitive to attacks on the news media at the moment, what with the president of the United States adopting Bolshevik language to describe his country's own journalists. Over the last couple of weeks, CNN's Jim Acosta has become the de facto spokesperson about the dangers of such inflammatory language, noting that its evolution into violence is pretty much inevitable.

Well, in Toronto this past weekend, that evolution actually happened. Except the violence came from the side of the guys who loathe Trump, not the ones who support him. And yet, at the time of writing, news of the incident hasn't transcended much beyond Twitter and the Toronto Sun.  

Finding the bigger picture

To many, this will be evidence of the "biased left-wing media" only caring about their own. And there probably is some bias at play here. But part of the issue might also be that journalists tend to look for bigger-picture stories, ones that connect to issues and movements beyond a single encounter. For this scenario, the bigger-picture issue is more difficult to find; while the rise of the alt-right is a verifiable phenomenon, there is not the same degree of organized uprising on the left.

That said, distrust of the news media is not unique to one side: the far-left tends to loathe the media just as much as the far-right, if for different reasons. Indeed, an Antifa member and an alt-right activist locked in a room together would eventually bond over their mutual disdain for the mainstream media, as well as their contempt for establishment figures and their fear about the overall demise of Western society: Isn't our country a hellhole? Why, yes, yes it is! It could be a beautiful, deranged love story.  

This is all to say that assaults on journalists — usually verbal, but occasionally physical — can come from all directions. We should care just as much about the ones that appear unco-ordinated as the ones delivered with the practical blessing of the president of the United States. A Canadian journalist was assaulted doing his job this past weekend. That should be huge news.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Robyn Urback

Columnist

Robyn Urback is an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at: