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Superman's image took a hit Add to ...

The shooting of Montreal journalist Michel Auger has exposed not only the inability of police to control biker gangs but, on a less critical level, the reality behind the myth of journalists as agents of good against the forces of evil in our society.

This comic-book fantasy, reinforced by Hollywood, has long been a legendary aspect of journalistic tradition, particularly in North America. It wasn't accidental that the Canadian creator of Superman in the 1930s chose a reporter, mild-mannered Clark Kent, as his superhero's disguise. Intentionally or not, it symbolized the hidden power that supposedly resided within even the meekest journalist, the power to expose and thereby demolish evildoers.

Another expression of this myth was the Humphrey Bogart image of the journalist that Hollywood perpetuated for decades, the raffish, hard-drinking but charming character in a trenchcoat with upturned collar who had the morals of an alley cat but the courage of a lion when the chips were down.

On a more serious level, these images expressed a vision of journalism as a daily critique of the powerful and corrupt in society, and this ideal still animates journalists. Without it, journalism risks becoming a meaningless babble of trivia without much redeeming purpose. But how much difference can journalists really make in a society dominated by huge political and corporate forces with armies of spin-doctors at their command? How much difference, in particular, when the "corporations" are wealthy outlaw groups ready to use intimidation, terror and murder to manipulate and control the media.

The answer seemed to lie in the bullet-riddled body of Michel Auger and it was, "Not much."

Since that shooting there have been other media reports illustrating this fear of intimidation. There have been stories of crown attorneys who fear being assigned to prosecute members of these gangs, reminding me of a conversation a few years ago with a Quebec judge whose main professional concern had become what he perceived as inadequate security for himself and his family, in and outside the courtroom. There have also been sketchy reports of a secret parliamentary committee in Ottawa investigating organized crime whose members are afraid to be identified publicly. None of this comes as a surprise to any journalist who has ventured into this territory in recent decades. I remember some time ago talking with a CBC reporter in Montreal who had quickly stopped reporting on biker gangs after he received threatening phone calls at home and his car was torched one night.

How many journalists have been silenced in this way over the years? Very many, I suspect. Reporting on organized crime in Canada requires far more courage than dropping into a civil war in some distant country for a few weeks and then exiting to a safe haven.

That's why there is so little of this type of reporting, and what there is depends almost entirely on police sources for information. And in opposition to this meagre flow are the many American films and television productions that glorify underworld organizations and render their innocent victims invisible.

Until now, journalists have been largely protected from gang violence by their own caution, and perhaps by a belief among the gangs that killing journalists, like killing police, brings too much unwanted publicity. But the attempted murder of Michel Auger shows how flimsy this protection is, even in Quebec where there has always been a strong tradition of crime reporting, a tradition that was evident in the translations of Mr. Auger's most recent exposé in The Globe and Mail and some other English-language newspapers following his narrow escape from death. When was the last time English-speaking readers had read such detailed reporting of outlaw gangs in their own newspapers?

In Montreal last week a few hundred journalists marched in public to protest the shooting of their colleague. This demonstration and the reprinting of his article were meant to say, "You can't silence us." But these are hollow gestures. In reality, most of the media exposés of the current era target either small fraud artists who can't protect themselves from this type of exposure, or large corporations who have more sophisticated weapons at their command than guns and explosives. Between these extremes, the activities of organized crime go largely unreported.

This isn't written as a criticism of today's journalists. My own career was spent mainly in the relatively safe confines of political journalism, where wrongdoing could be exposed without fear of retribution. It doesn't take much courage to stand up to an angry cabinet minister. So I wouldn't pretend to be braver than other journalists, only perhaps a little more realistic.

When the bullets tore into Michel Auger's body, they showed that there are no Supermen inside the middle-class Clark Kents who work these days on our newspapers, television stations and new Internet information services. The Humphrey Bogarts of the newsroom are long dead, if they ever really existed. Instead, we are left with the disturbing realization that violence often lurks just beneath the surface of our apparently peaceful and complacent society and that the balance between civil order and criminal chaos may be more precarious than our media lead us to believe.

Peter Desbarats holds the Maclean Hunter Chair of Communications Ethics at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto.

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