The Next News Cycle
Disenchanted by traditional broadcast, CTV bureau chief Kai Nagata quit his job to turn a blind motorcycle daredevil into an internet star
January 8, 2013
Two men meet by chance at an airport. One is a TV journalist who has come to believe television news is a corporate Titanic headed toward an iceberg of urgently presented banality. The other is a world-renowned British lutenist on his way to perform a baroque concert in Denver. The first wonders if he dares quit his job as CTV bureau chief in Quebec City—based on nothing more than principle. The second responds with his own story: that he has decided to learn how to drive a motorcycle and jump it 100 feet—for the thrill of it. He is completely blind.
Vancouver writer/videographer Kai Nagata, 26, thought journalism’s primary task was to hold power to account. He’d gone to Concordia, studied journalism, and gotten a good job in a TV newsroom in late 2010. He believed that with sufficient public discussion, democracy flourishes and people’s rights are unabridged by the manipulations of corporate or civil authorities. Injustices can be prevented, and what happened to his family 70 years ago would never happen again. In this belief, he was—like his Japanese-Canadian grandparents in 1942—about to be disappointed.
As a reporter, Nagata realized his beliefs about journalism were not in line with the way it actually operated. Discussions about global warming, for example, required “balance” by dependable warming deniers—despite the absurdity of their protestations. Politicians could defend Canadian asbestos sales to India, or a B.C. bitumen pipeline, or their faith in perpetual economic growth without being called to task. He came to understand that to do TV news, he often had to shill for the very system he believed was destroying the planet.
“There are obstacles,” says Nagata, “that prevent the news being reported well. As the economy contracts and budgets shrink, newsrooms get hollowed out. Those who are left worry about paying their mortgages. News becomes contrived. And stories that push celebrity or consumption get aired—as news. Important questions aren’t asked in the face of this jingoism.”
Had Nagata not known the story of his great-grandfather, who grew cucumbers and tomatoes on Mayne Island, or the stories told by his grandparents—all Canadian citizens—he might not have felt so strongly about newsrooms’ reluctance to challenge the powers that be. But his grandmother made it a point that her family’s four years in Canadian internment camps not be forgotten. “She talks about it every day,” he says. “It became the central point of my moral development.”
Nagata describes how the Canadian media fell silent in 1942, failing to question the rightness of imprisoning 23,000 citizens because of their race. “In fact,” says Nagata, “newspapers supported the bigotry. There was a failure of public discourse. The public went along. My great-grandfather lost his farm, his land—everything. My grandparents lost everything, too. The same thing’s happening today. There’s a real environmental crisis, but the news media is pretty much silenced by its corporate masters.”
Frustrated by such shortsightedness, Nagata found himself thinking this existential thought: How do you go to work when you know you’re on the Titanic? “So,” says Nagata, laughing, “I deserted ship.” On July 8, 2011, Nagata posted a 3,000-word essay on his blog describing how one day he’d had a prestigious, high-paying on-air position with a national media corporation; the next: nothing. His valedictory letter, arguing that television journalism has become toothless, went viral. Within days, his blog received 1,500 comments, and Nagata himself over 1,000 emails and 2,500 Twitter messages. Most commended his courage, saying his insider’s critique reflected their suspicions. Some journalists, however, told him: You are so naive!
“I didn’t have a golden parachute. It was a running leap off a 10-metre platform. I burned—no, I blew—my bridges into the stratosphere,” Nagata says, having now faced the consequences of his diatribe. Returning to Vancouver, he did a few shifts at a local bar, wrote some online stories for The Tyee. He wandered. He camped. He ate a lot of wild berries. And he made a phone call to the blind lutenist he’d met a few months earlier, asking if he was still serious about that motorcycle.
Not only was Matt Wadsworth serious, Nagata learned, but he’d already made arrangements to get to the Competitive Edge MX Track in Southern California’s arid high desert outside Hesperia, and to begin training to learn how to ride and jump a 450cc Honda motorcycle. Says the track’s manager, Kristen Oehlhof: “It’s hard enough to drive a powerful motorcycle—with all your sense. But blind? I thought it was a wonderful idea.”
Wadsworth, 38, was born sightless, but his English parents had refused to coddle him, preferring to encourage his independence. At age six, he’d been given a child-size, 50cc motorbike that—bound as he normally was to a white cane—he raced around a treeless Manchester park, intoxicated by the adrenaline rush. It was this sensation of speed and freedom, recalled three decades later, that he sought to recapture by going to California. “I’ve had to be determined,” he says of his blindness. “I see things as challenges. You only grow when you’re outside your comfort zone. But jumping a motorcycle 100 feet was, I began to realize, going pretty far outside my comfort zone. ‘Blimey!’ I thought. ‘This could be dangerous!’ ” Undeterred, he booked the flight.
Nagata had a crisis of his own. He recognized a good story: famous lutenist (completely blind) learns to jump powerful motorcycle (completely insane). But Nagata had no money to finance a documentary, and no time to plod through the traditional funding routes of proposal-pitching and grant-writing. Even Kickstarter.com, the popular crowd-funding site, only took American projects. With possible journalistic redemption in sight but the clock ticking, Nagata made a Hail Mary pass. He borrowed cameras and recording equipment, convinced two friends to join him in California, and appealed on his blog for financial help. One hundred people sent him, in total, $5,140.
It wasn’t enough. But even without sufficient funds, without a distributor or a marketing budget, it could be made to work if…if he used his modest resources to make a compelling 12-minute trailer to post on YouTube, seeking wider, crowd-sourced help to complete the project. He understood, as he explains it, the story had several “natural constituencies”: the motorcycle community, lured by the idea of a blind guy risking injury on a dangerous project; disability advocates with similar morbid fascinations; baroque music lovers who knew Wadsworth as a celebrated player; and the many web-wandering lovers of absurdity. “Renaissance Man (Part 1)” went on YouTube last spring. It got 60,000 hits, and via PayPal, more money arrived for Nagata to complete his three-part documentary.
After six weeks of training—in preparation for his ultimate jump—Wadsworth suffered a serious crash. Nagata was worried. Many thought he should maybe just give up. But Wadsworth had come too far. With cameras rolling, guided by messages transmitted into his helmet’s earphones, Wadsworth lined himself up, revved to a familiar pitch, and blasted down the 180-foot dirt track. He hit the launch ramp at 50 mph and went airborne, landing 59 feet from takeoff. “This guy represents hope for everybody,” said a stranger in the crowd. It wasn’t the full stretch, but it was more than most sane and sighted people would try.
To Nagata, his widely viewed “Renaissance Man”—and the thousands of other freelance documentaries on the internet—illustrates how rigid old media is vulnerable today to independent, web-based projects. By being nimble, by embracing minimal costs and maximum uncertainty, by forming temporary alliances with audiences and crowd-sourced funders, and by using the myriad platforms the web provides, this new journalism, he believes, can be produced out of a backpack. Authorities be damned! As Nagata says: When Martin Luther was forbidden to distribute his books by the 16th-century Catholic Church, his supporters passed out the pamphlets across Europe in secret, utilizing a network of horseback riders. And during the Arab Spring, revolutions were organized via Twitter, Facebook, and clandestine YouTube videos.
In this age of so-called liquid modernity, when little is certain, Nagata has learned that anything is possible. Celebrity changes by the month. Issues and events, ideas and images, fact and fiction mash up inseparably. Seemingly solid ground turns to water. The trick is: to know when to jump, and how to land with a minimum of pain.