Wednesday, July 10, 2013

July 10: What newspapers cannot do...

Last night, on Youtube, I watched some of the many videos of the fire and explosions in Lac Megantic. No amount of reading could prepare me for the horror of what I saw. I was hypnotized by it.  It is astonishing that the firefighters were able to bring it under control. Newspapers cannot convey those intensities of horror or those of  joy that can be caught with a camera.

Sometimes the camera doesn't do it, either, of course.  When we see aerial bombing on TV, it's usually at a distance so that all we see are impressive puffs of smoke. There is none of the sense of horror we get from the up close view of the fire in Lac Megantic. Try to imagine such an intimate video of the day after day bombing that killed over half a million people in helpless Cambodia.

And there are things that TV just avoids. There were videos of American helicopters carpeting almost the whole of South Vietnam. But the cameras weren't around months later when the first of tens of thousands of babies were stillborn - or born with no ears or nose, and with only one eye. Some were born with hearts and lungs fused. But they didn't live long. It's still happening, too, all these years later. No nation has ever used chemical weapons on the scale and viciousness the US does. So spare me the righteous indignation about those horrible Syrians who might or might not have them.

Nor were there cameras on the ground when Lt. Calley led his troops to slaughter some 800 villagers in Vietnam, from the oldest right down to babies.

TV news can deliver compelling images - or it can hide them or disguise as spectacular but distant.

But if you want to understand news as well as see it, then newspaper and radio are still the way to go.
The news becomes understandable with words carefully chosen so that they don't give false images. For example, the word rebel refers to a person fighting his or her own government. It can also carry a sense of struggling for freedom and democracy - though it doesn't actually mean that.

Now, the people fighting the Syrian government are not, for the most part, rebels. They're hired mercenaries from other countries. Many are Islamic fundamentalists. And, for most of them, democracy and freedom are words they hold in contempt. But radio and print routinely refer to them as rebels. This sort of word game is routine among journalists.

The word hero means someone of oustanding valour. Someone exceptional. In the Second World War, Soviet news referred to all soldiers (on their side) as heroes. Western cartoonists made great fun of that.

But just a few years later, it became standard practice in the western world for news agencies to do the same thing. It still is. The men who flew helicopters that sprayed agent orange over Vietnam were heroes. The pilots who killed hundreds of thousands of ordinary people in Iraq (against no opposition at all) were heroes. The men who sit in air-conditioned rooms near Washington to guide drones to kill people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia are heroes. In fact, the American government has just recently approved of medals for them.

Generally, the Irving papers seem to carry only two kinds of news. One kind is biased. The other kind is trivial.
For the biased, see page C3 for a big story on Lac Megantic - sort of. In the face of  that tragedy, some genius of an editor decided we needed to know how safe oil is. So we get a half-page of pure propaganda from oil interests.

As for deepening our understnding of news - or offering a thought-provoking opinion about it - that's why we have editorial and op ed pages.

Today's editorial, unusually, actually makes sense. So, as usual, does Alec Bruce.

Norbert, on other hand, mixes bias with inconsistency. His column is about statistics - and the dangers of relying on them. It's a good point.

But why does he single out public health officials for using suspect statistics? I'm not aware they are notable offenders.

Why does he say they NEVER give the sources of their data. That simply isn't true. Any group will normally not spend much time on sources because it's time-consuming and, frequently, of no value to the average listener. If  I'd had to give sources for everything I said about Canadian history in a course, then the lectures would be just a string of sources with no room for the information.

Then he advises readers to check the sources. Norbert - that's just dumb. Many, many such sources are difficult to find and, once found, difficult to understand. And, very often, it takes an expert to decide whether a source is reliable, and exactly what it tells us.

Be careful with statistics, indeed. they offer only a part of any story; they are easily twisted - and Norbert - you have recently indicated approval of organizing health care management, education, and the whole civil service  on the basis of you ever think, Norbert? or do you find it easier just to slander people?

If you're honest, when can we expect to see your column telling Mr. Irving and Atlantic Insitute of Market Studies to screw off with their simple-minded use of statistics?

Like you said - keep statistics in perspective.

On op ed, we have Eric Lewis and Brian Cormier who, as usual, explain nothing that has to do with anything. And anyone who is provoked into thought by anthing either of them says must lead an incredibly lonely and closed life.
Oh - I'm delighted to read that Moncton City Council is developing plans to deal with such a disaster as struck Lac Megantic. However, I can't help noticing that such disasters are rare compared with those which seem to be caused by climate change (flooding - with two major and highly unusual ones in the last month for Canada, and with a hurricane in New York.)

We have plenty of information in columns from David Suzuki (often with sources for Norbert) on this matter; and Suzuki, with tens of thousands of scientists all over the world, agree that the major cause is the burning of fossil fuels. Does city council - or any other level of government in this country - have any plans to keep the chaos as low as possible?

Does council have any plans for the safe disposal of millions of litres of toxic waste water?

And if fossil fuels are causing the problem, exactly how will moving trains away from Moncton be a solution?



  1. Does Norbert ever respond to your critiques?

  2. Curiously enough, he has never responded.
    I must confess to having it in for him. A couple of years ago, there was a long series of vicious and ignorant editorials attacking out public schools. I was clearly done at irving bidding to support efforts of the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies to muscle its way into the public system. Norbert was editor at the time - and when I read his signed columns,I felt sure that Norbert was the one who had written those editorials.

  3. Thanks for the background...