MEDIA WATCH

Tilting the balance away from objectivity

From the beginning, this summer’s Mohawk insurrection at Oka, Que., has been reported with a general bias towards the natives

GEORGE BAIN September 24 1990
MEDIA WATCH

Tilting the balance away from objectivity

From the beginning, this summer’s Mohawk insurrection at Oka, Que., has been reported with a general bias towards the natives

GEORGE BAIN September 24 1990

Tilting the balance away from objectivity

MEDIA WATCH

From the beginning, this summer’s Mohawk insurrection at Oka, Que., has been reported with a general bias towards the natives

GEORGE BAIN

It's an old story, from the time of the state of Israel's just coming into being, that the editor of a New York City newspaper sent a reporter to cover the fighting between Jews and Arabs with one instruction: “I want you to approach this assignment with complete objectivity. But bear in mind that we don’t have many Arab readers.” At that time, objectivity in news reporting, as distinct from frankly opinionated editorials and columns, was the supposed newsroom rule. If the practice sometimes slipped, it was still considered necessary to give the policy lip service, as in the case of our New York editor. But even then, objectivity was being denounced here and there as an impossibility. No reporter, it was argued, could shuck the influences of a lifetime so as to approach any subject free of all biases, feelings or leanings. The question is not whether that was true (it was) but whether it warranted giving up the attempt.

From the beginning, but particularly after the army went in, this summer’s Mohawk insurrection has been reported with a general bias towards the natives in the national media. More than that, Mohawk views of those on the other side relayed through reporters have colored much of the reporting. Naturally, given that tilted perspective, the governments of Canada and Quebec, the Sûreté du Québec (the provincial police) and the army have not fared well. It is questionable that the Sûreté du Québec has deserved better. However, the same is not true of the two governments—the Mohawks have not been easy to deal with— and, more so, of the army.

When objectivity in news reporting went out of fashion, it was replaced by a doctrine of fairness and balance. The terms were intended to imply that, while coverage of an event or issue need not be neutral in its probable effect on the reader’s or viewer’s mind, it should give fair representation to both, or all, sides. Balance has not weighed heavily on the minds of some reporters who evidently came to the summer’s events predisposed to the Indians’ side or quickly developed an affinity. Some reporting has been so clumsily slanted as to discredit itself. The National on CBC TV, on Sept. 6, carried a report which described a “shoving match” between a Warrior and a soldier. The tape belied the reporter’s own words. What viewers saw was a Warrior pushing a soldier in the chest, pushing him again into the wire, challenging him to drop his gun and fight, and walking off muttering obscenities. The soldier did nothing.

A few days earlier, a Warrior had walked to the barrier, singled out a soldier, taunted and threatened him, and, having provoked no response, turned away with a war whoop and said to reporters, “I just wanted to look in their faces before I kill them.” The next day, the Toronto Globe and Mail, under the double byline of Geoffrey York and André Picard, reported without quibble the comment of a Warrior that the military were “constantly provoking us, trying to justify legal murder.” Despite the heavy media bias towards the Mohawk side, all of the reported talk of killing and dying has come from that side—“They’re circling for the kill,” “When you’re right, you’re right, and you’re not afraid to die,” “Before I die, I’m going to take out 50 of you [soldiers].” From the record, the army, having said at the outset that it would not fire the first shot, is seen as having been less bent on trying to justify legal murder than it has on resisting provocation to create martyrs.

What has made the perceptible slant odder is that what Canada has seen this summer has not been civil disobedience in the manner of Gandhi or Martin Luther King, but insurrection, defined as a rising in arms against civil authority. Neither is there a resemblance to the last calling out of troops and the proclamation of the War Measures Act in October, 1970. Those actions were taken on the excuse of an “apprehended insurrection” of which no persuasive evidence was offered then or later. What did exist were two superficially related civil crimes—kidnappings—which the Quebec attorney general and the police had both jurisdiction and capability to investigate and prosecute under the Criminal Code. That one of the kidnapped men was murdered subsequently does not alter the civil nature of the circumstances—and, in any event, the murder occurred only after the army was called out and the War Measures Act invoked.

A first possible, and likely, explanation of the bias noted is simple sympathy with a native population that has not had a fair shake. However, qualms of guilt on that point are shared to some extent by many Canadians, and presumptions of a higher sensibility do not really make a sound basis for good reporting. Also, a question arises. If masked men with semi-automatic weapons constitute an acceptable means to the desired end of producing accelerated negotiations on such large, large questions as sovereignty and land claims, what would persons of the higher sensibility say a government could say no to in those negotiations, without being accused of bad faith?

A further possible and likely influence towards partisanry is romanticism and a journalistic weakness for color and drama. The noble Warriors in their battle fatigues, with the headscarves around their faces like the bank robbers in oldtime western movies, and their highpowered AK-47 rifles, with, here and there, a feather: romantic. And the nicknames—Beekeeper, Spudwrench, General, Noriega, Boltpin, Stonecarver, Christmas, Wizard, Splinter, Lasagna, Blackjack, Mad Jap and all the rest. Colorful stuff, that.

Finally, what has become a characteristic of much Canadian reporting, much more noticeable here than in the British or American media, is the influence of a reincarnated piece of journalistic flapdoodle, expressed first in London’s Fleet Street of another day as “Our role is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Translated into recent Canadian journalistic practice, what that means is that any person, or body of persons, with a grievance is afflicted, therefore to be comforted. As the redress of all grievances is seen simplistically to be in the hands of constituted authority, which is by definition complacent, therefore comfortable, it is the mark of courageous, hard-hitting journalism to afflict it in all circumstances and on all occasions. It puts a hell of a strain on fair and balanced.