Mon, Dec
17
2007

Question Everything. Even Ourselves. And Chill.

Mon, Dec 17, 2007

PurpleAmericaPosterAll50.gif

The above map is Purple America, and it’s worth repeating. It materialized soon after the closely contested 2004 election after a map ran whose purpose was clearly to try and demoralize Democratic Party supporters. That first map showed the United States, broken up by county, colouring each county by whether they voted Republican (red) or Democrat (blue). The first map suggested that Democrats had “won” few counties across the country, and that “Red America” was actually the bulk of the United States.

…except that the first map made no allowance for the widely divergent population densities of the hundreds of counties across the United States, giving an almost uninhabited tract of land in rural Arizona the same weight as an inner-city stretch of Phoenix. And it also gave all the marbles to whichever party took the majority of the vote in each county. Purple America weighted the popular support of the various parties within each country, so that a county that voted 95% Republican would look quite red, and one which voted 51% Republican would look purple. The new map really drove home in my mind that the country is, at the same time, far less and far more divided than the commentators believe.

A small controversy has erupted on the conservative side of the Canadian blogosphere over revelations that Liberal committee members may have taken questions from CBC reporters to ask Brian Mulroney as he was in the hotseat at the Schriber inquiry.

For my American friends and, I dare say, a number of Canadians for whom the above paragraph makes no sense, I apologize, but I hesitate to explain. Basically the inquiry is looking into alleged corruption (again) by former prime minister Brian Mulroney who did receive about $300,000 in cash in an envelope from a German businessman named Schriber who, incidentally, is facing extradition to Germany and is likely telling all (and perhaps a whole lot more) to be spared the involuntary trip across the Atlantic.

It’s an allegation that has been examined before, without any proof of guilt against Mulroney, about ten years ago, although new details have surfaced. And I would like to thank my conservative friends for getting all hot under the collar about the issue of our national broadcaster slipping in questions to ask Mulroney, because this is the first time I’ve ever looked up and paid attention to what has otherwise been a big non-event. Though my conservative friends might not appreciate the focus of my interest.

What is wrong with reporters from the CBC offering up questions to committee members of any party to ask at a government inquiry? I guess it depends on what you believe the story is that the CBC should be reporting on. Is it that Mulroney sat before a government inquiry and was asked about possible miscues during his final days in office? Or is it that Mulroney may have made miscues during his final days in office?

Speaking as an average Canadian who likes to get at the bottom of things (well, anything that he happens to break into his sheltered life), nobody would fault a CBC reporter who encountered Mulroney in a press scrum and tried to ask him questions about cash he may or may not have received while he was still holding public office. Nobody would fault a committee member from doing research and asking said question themselves. So why is it such a controversy when an opposition committee member finds a reporter and considers a question the reporter would like to have answered?

For me, my reaction is that the conservative commentators who are all aflutter about this “doth protest too much”. As Paul Wells notes, the practise is hardly new, and hardly anti-Conservative.

reporters have been planting questions with MPs at committee hearings since the dawn of time. I don’t know whether I ever did it with Reform, Alliance or NDP MPs when the Liberals were in government, but I know it got done and if I had a story I needed advancing, I’d have done it in a second. “Hey, you might want to ask about…”

The whole story has touched off that old chestnut: that of the insidious liberal bias within the media. Sandy Crux on Jack’s Newswatch announced a challenge to expose liberal or anti-conservative bias in the media (for some reason the link now routes to a blank page (Sandy writes to supply a corrected link), but Raphael took up that challenge here, and Sandy goes after columnist Susan Riley here).

You know, I can find plenty of examples of poor journalism out there, both in the mainstream media and in the blogosphere. Here’s a few that I’ve covered on my blog since its inception:

But would these items get logged in Sandy’s challenge? I find that unlikely, since in canvassing for posts which “expose liberal or anti-conservative bias in the media”, these posts do not seem to fit that mould. Sandy has inadvertently biased her own survey by calling out her conclusions before the observations come in. In her view, the media has a liberal bias, and no evidence she hears is going to upset her from her conclusions. In her view, the media is out to get her.

She is not alone in her attitude, and many hold it worse than her, but it is no less unfortunate. Even though we are talking about a subset of conservatives, this approach in my opinion really exposes these individuals’ insecurities, or even paranoias. Some individuals can’t stomach the fact that the party they support is showing itself to be as human as the next guy, so it’s somebody else’s fault. Call them liberals. Some individuals hate the fact that certain conservative values like self-sufficiency, reducing the role of government, improving security of person, as valid as they might be, aren’t gaining traction in the face of separate but equally legitimate interests who are overwhelmed by the challenges of this world, believe in public service, or see in a law and order agenda on, say, drugs an attack against their own freedom of person. How can individuals hate values that seem, in the eyes of the beholders, self evident? It’s inconceivable. Call them liberals.

It’s a common refrain, voiced perfectly by Henry Higgens in the movie My Fair Lady: “why can’t (the people)… be like me?” The insecure and the paranoid in conservative circles, just like the insecure and the paranoid in the circle of the (insert political dogma of your choice) take this challenge as a personal affront, and ascribe a grand conspiracy. It’s got to be a biased liberal media. It’s got to be a biased liberal education system. It’s gotta be those unions. You name it. Never mind the fact that if the conspiracy really was that big, there wouldn’t be a conspiracy. We’d simply topple the conservative agenda every time it came to a general election — as we’ve typically done nine times out of ten these past fifty years. But it gets a little uncomfortable for these people to admit that, for all these years, those people behind the conspiracy are nothing more than other people who simply and honestly hold different values, and that quite often there are just more of them around. The only thing worse than paranoia is the reality.

And the reality, of course, is more complicated. There is no coherent bias in the media or in our schools or in our public service or in our churches. There are only people.

Some are liberal, no doubt about that. Some are socialist, some are conservative. Some are apolitical and some are libertarians. Some just haven’t made up their minds yet. But in no case is there a manual on how they behave. I wish there was — I could use it in raising Vivian. These people have a worldview that is filtered through their own personal experiences and opinions, and they have jobs to do. And the decisions they make at their jobs are affected by what their worldviews are. And they’re going to make mistakes. These are all vital components of their state of being — which is to say: human.

So, what are you going to do about this? Well, first we have to ask: is there really a problem? Let’s look at the media, which appears to be the conservatives’ obsession of late. Are there bad stories out there? Undoubtedly. From gotcha headlines written by individuals who are too clever by half, to the National Post and the Toronto Sun foaming at the mouth due to a ‘spa day’ for women prisoners that never actually took place. From misquoted crime statistics to fabricated reports that Jews and other minorities were being forced to wear distinctive clothes for easier identification in the theocratic republic of Iran. It’s safe to say that the media gets it wrong every day. But is it an actual problem? Only if you feel that the “bias” you are encountering is inherently wrong. That is to say, only if you believe that, over and above the occasional errors, it is impossible for a liberal to be an objective reporter, teacher, blogger, whathaveyou.

If you believe that, fair enough. So the question now becomes, what do we do about it?

The fact is, people make mistakes. People write bad stories. Lord knows there are writers out there who should be kept ten feet away from a pen at any given time, but they end up with the five-digit advances while I slave away for far less. But do we have the right to actually take their pens away? Because that’s the only meaningful move one can make if one truly believes that there is an institutionalized bias going on in a media outlet. Does the CBC hire too many liberals? What do the conservatives propose to do, create a political affirmative action program for the national broadcaster? Vet every story, and keep tabs on every reporter’s personal life to see what political affiliations he or she might be exercising in one’s spare time? Are liberal teachers to be silenced or fired and conservative teachers encouraged to speak? Who is going to police what is being thought, here?

And I can’t help but notice that in their search for bias in the media, the media’s critics are engaging in much the same behaviour that they criticize the media for.

Consider this takedown that Sandy engages in on a column written by Susan Riley for the Ottawa Citizen. Riley, criticizing Stephen Harper’s response to a decision by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to shut down a fifty-year-old reactor for a safety refit, causing a shortage in the production of key medical isotopes. Parliament had to meet in a special session to take extraordinary measures to order the plant restarted, despite safety concerns by some, and Harper took that time to criticize the CNSC as a “Liberal appointed” body.

Susan Riley engages in some sharp words about Harper’s actions, but though Sandy’s commentators claim that she “clearly show(s) up how some of these columnists are not applying any sense of basic logic when discussing issues”, that is a matter for some debate. Indeed, let’s further the debate.

(Susan’s column): “One recent example of Tory ‘transparency’: The Harper government finally released a two-month-old report on federal polling practices that was sharply critical of the Conservatives — and not, as expected, of the Liberals.”

(Sandy’s response): “How is “releasing” a report an example of a lack of transparency? Is it not actually the reverse?

(Susan’s column): “Another announcement you might have missed: The government chose the day of Karlheinz Schreiber’s first appearance before the ethics committee - with the media thoroughly engrossed in a decades-old scandal - to quietly confirm that Canada has joined the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, instigated by U.S. President George W. Bush to promote nuclear power.”

(Sandy’s response) Excuse me? Is Ms. Riley saying this to be anti-American? Or is she suggesting that all government business should have stopped because the opposition and media were more inclined to pay attention to a decades old scandal?

Susan’s second point answers Sandy’s first question, albeit in a roundabout way. The report that Susan is referring to is a study the Conservatives commissioned, using a Parti Quebecois member to investigate the Liberals’ polling practices during their term in government. Given the political affiliation of the person the Conservatives called up, many people assumed that this was a deliberate attempt to embarrass the Liberals… until the Parti Quebecois member went outside his mandate and compared Liberal practises to those of the current Conservative government, and found that the Conservatives were spending far more time and taxpayers’ money in polling. Oops

To Sandy’s question of how the “releasing” of a report is an example of a lack of transparency: there is the fact that the report sat on the Conservatives’ desk since October, and there is the fact that the report was finally released on a Friday (a day at the end of a typical media cycle that is used so often by governments Conservative and Liberal to bury announcements that are embarrassing to them that it has become cliché) during the very day when they knew that the news media would be occupied by Brian Mulroney taking the stand for the Schriber enquiry.

This is the action of a government that has something to hide. That sort of mars the transparency.

As for the comment, “to quietly confirm that Canada has joined the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, instigated by U.S. President George W. Bush to promote nuclear power,” I agree that this is badly written hyperbole, so points off to Susan for that. However, one can call Susan for badly written hyperbole without engaging in one’s own hyperbole about an anti-conservative bias. Could it not instead be an anti-nuclear bias?

(Susan’s column): “As for more honest government, it didn’t look that way last week. The prime minister accused Linda Keen, head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, and her fellow ‘Liberal appointees” of risking the health of Canadians — part of a nefarious plot among Liberals, he implied, to turn a blind eye to human suffering.”

(Sandy’s response): Ms. Riley actually sounds like she is minimizing the potential medical crisis. How exactly was it dishonest to do the right thing? Human beings were suffering because of the shut down. Is Ms. Riley suggesting that the Tories should have done nothing? It is a case of the PM being damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.

Here, Sandy is operating from her own conclusions, when the argument is still going on. It is Sandy’s assumption that restarting the reactor was actually the right thing, and there is a fair argument in that. However, the fact that the reactor had been shut down as per policy due to its age and the need for a safety refit, is something that Sandy herself minimizes. What’s bad for the goose is bad for the… other goose.

And it’s worth pointing out that this news didn’t really get the traction it received until Harper bridled at opposition questions and derided the CNSC as a “Liberal-appointed body”. More on that later, but the point is, if Harper had kept his cool and not tried to impugn the objectivity of these public servants who made the decision to close the reactor, this would not be news. And while there are valid questions here (like, why is this the only reactor that produces medical isotopes? why is it fifty years old? why is it built over a fault line?) that the Liberals would have some difficulty answering (they had thirteen years to identify and fix this problem, after all), Harper should realize that the Conservatives have to share some of the blame too (they’ve had the last two). If he pushed ahead and refused to make this into a partisan issue, this would not be nearly the story it is. He would get credit for rolling up his sleeves and making the best decision he could with the information at hand. But he didn’t. Which leads us to our last point:

(Susan’s column): “But Harper’s analysis ended up looking more like a tantrum once the facts were known. First, it is not clear how serious the ‘crisis’ in supply was. Second, while all sorts of federal boards were appointed by previous Liberal governments, that doesn’t make all of their members Liberal.”

(Sandy’s response): Well, I didn’t see any tantrum. I saw a prime minister that was clearly fed up with Liberal interference.

It’s ironic that in Sandy’s attempt to point out every example of Susan Riley’s anti-conservative bias in a piece wherein Susan is expressing her own point of view, Sandy resorts to her own personal observations of her own point of view. ‘I didn’t see any tantrum’? Does Sandy not consider that it is her own pro-conservative bias that may have blinded her to that ‘tantrum’?

I would say, in my own personal opinion, that Harper reacted unusually strongly in attacking the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission as being a “Liberal appointed” body, politicizing individuals who did not deserve to be politicized. And inaccurately too. Two members of the board were appointed during the Conservatives’ time in office. The other three have pretty impeccable and otherwise a-political credentials. All five were unfairly maligned of being Liberal hacks, making a decision on the basis of their political affiliations and not on the basis of their mandate which is, among other things, to ensure public safety. The decision to shut down the reactor was taken weeks ago, and there is no indication that it broke upon party lines, or that the Conservative-appointed members of the commission were particularly upset when the decision occurred.

And I can’t help but point out that this is the second time Harper has attacked public servants whose only crime has been in doing their jobs. There was the time Harper attacked the Chief Electoral Officer for stating that women did not have to show their face in order to vote. One did not have to go that far among commentators to hear pointed out that the Chief Electoral Officer was appointed during the previous Liberal administration. But it turns out that the guy was only reading what was in the law, and it was parliamentarians’ own damn fault (from all political stripes to boot) for reacting so clumsily to a perceived security flaw in the system that they failed to close that very security flaw that got them all hot under the collar in the first place.

And, yes, this is my opinion, and yes I have my bias, but I’m not the only person to note Harper’s quick and inappropriate temper. Indeed, right-leaning bloggers have noticed it too and criticized him for it. Chris Selley is no liberal and yet on the issue of veiled voters he says:

Harper just accused Elections Canada of adhering to the laws they wished existed instead of the laws that actually exist. Which is exactly what he’s doing. Seriously, is this a dream? Is this purgatory or something? I am not easily shocked by the vacuousness of Canadian politics, but I can scarcely believe what I’m hearing today.

Even the reliably Conservative Steve Janke criticized the Conservatives for the politicization of the reactor shutdown issue.

But my harshest criticism has to go to the Conservatives. Did Linda Keen, the head of the CNSC, put a lot of people at risk by shutting down the reactor? Yes, of course. But she did it believing that she was protecting a lot of other people at risk because they were living near a reactor she thought was (not —jb) as safe as it should be.

Liberal-appointed? Hey, a lot of people in a lot of crown corporations and independent regulators were appointed by the Liberals. And many of those appointees are friends of Liberals (Linda Keen insists she is apolitical). But as I’ve said before, a relationship with the governing party of the day is not cause for disqualification.

Is there reason to believe Linda Keen is not qualified for the job? Maybe there is a reason, but being appointed while the Liberals were in power is not it.

So, should Susan Riley have said that Harper engaged in a tantrum? Well, she didn’t. Instead, she said “Harper’s analysis ended up looking more like a tantrum once the facts were known” Was Susan wrong, and was Harper just upset over “liberal interference”? That’s debatable. And what Sandy takes as her own facts is debated by none other than Angry in the Great White North.

So, I would say that there is room for debate, and thus Susan Riley’s point is a valid point of argument that needs more debate.

And, finally, I have to ask: Sandy, when you criticize Susan Riley for an “anti-conservative” bias in a column in the Ottawa Citizen, don’t you realize that this is a column? This is not a work of journalism, it is an opinion piece, written by one woman who is being paid to write about what she thinks. You can debate her on the facts she uses to back up her assertions (and, indeed, that’s what the Letters to the Editor section, or even blogs, are for), but if you are telling her that she has an anti-conservative bias and is thus disqualified from having an opinion, you are going way beyond simply accusing her of making honest mistakes. You are telling her to change who she is as a person. You are saying that until she gives up her opinions that conservative values are not her values, then you will always view her points of view with suspicion, even before you take the time to deconstruct the argument and find the flaws and merits within.

So that’s my objection. You’ll get no argument from me that there are plenty of examples of sloppy journalism out there, but I reject the assertion that the bias is all aimed one way, or that there is a coherent thrust to it. If you want to take on a poorly written column or a badly researched article for the mistakes contained therein, be my guest, but if you do this only within the frame of a wider bias that you believe exists, you are leaving a whole lot of sloppy journalism on the table whose bias conforms to your own. You are refraining from holding a lot of the media and a lot of the blogosphere accountable.

There are plenty of conservative columnists out there, ranging from the sane and affable Andrew Coyne to the batshit crazy Ann Coulter. There are news outlets which take a more conservative point of view in their editorials than others (the National Post, Macleans, the Toronto Sun). They certainly address the world from a conservative point of view (a multitude of points, no less). Does Sandy not think that their own bias deserves the same scrutiny, the same grain of salt, that one applies to liberal leaning columnists? Perhaps, though in my experience few conservatives do, likely because the conservative columnists are not seen as threats, despite their inaccuracies and invalid assertions. Thus one side of the fence is given a free pass because of one’s own prejudices. I criticize the conservatives for this here, but they’re not alone.

So that’s where we’re tying ourselves up in, in this crazy world of ours. People are shutting down the debate with labels. If you are a conservative, then you are an authoritarian, anti-woman religious nutcase who isn’t entitled to have an opinion. If you are a liberal, you are an elitist heathen terrorist-coddling hippie, deserving of the same silence. Well, that shortens our day, doesn’t it? We should just put away our newspapers and turn off our television sets because everybody is so influenced by their own worldview that there is no point in arguing anymore.

Or we can simply agree that people are people, and that everything we read, even the things we agree with, should be taken with the requisite grain of salt, because people being people are all capable of utter brilliance and abject stupidity in the same sentence. I enjoy William Shakespere and fan fiction, Harry Potter and Ursula K. LeGuin. They are each appropriate in their own way. I use Wikipedia not as a be-all and end-all source for my materials, but as a quick reference that gives me an idea of where I should look if I want to do further research. I don’t automatically dismiss the writings of Andrew Coyne the same way I don’t automatically dismiss the writings of Royson James, though I know that both individuals are coming from completely different directions to address the issues I care about.

I have no doubt that I will find plenty to argue with out there in the blogosphere and in the mainstream media. That’s part of the reason I enjoy trawling the blogosphere so much. But it’s important to debate the ideas and not label the people for their ideas. Automatically putting down ideas you disagree with as a sign of an anti-(insert political viewpoint of choice here) bias is the lazy way out. It does not test the ideas on their own merits or lack thereof.

And, finally, perhaps we can agree that in this capitalist society, where the corporate media is a business whose first duty is not to inform the public but to sell advertising space, that whatever liberal or conservative bias that is on those pages is trumped by the simple dictum of “if it bleeds, it leads”. The media out there is designed to attract our attention, through shock, horror and controversy. We do not get enough good news, and we do not tend to notice when people write things whose general thrust agrees with our points of view. We are simply prodded with sticks, made to be afraid, made to be angry, made to react, and not to think.

Which leads to my simple dictum that I try to follow when it comes to dealing with what I read in the media, or indeed anything I come across in life.

Question everything. Even ourselves. And chill.


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