Controversy helps feed divisions - Keith Roulston editorial
Dr. Anthony Fauci had just completed a thorough explanation of the new U.S. government’s plans to vaccinate 100 million people for COVID-19 when a reporter asked a question that you just knew was going to bury everything else he’d said.
How, the reporter at last Thursday’s news conference asked, did it feel not to have to deal with Donald Trump as president anymore? When Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Chief Medical Advisor to the President, admitted it was “liberating” not to have to worry about contradicting the President anymore, the story dominated the next 24-hour news cycle.
In doing so, it turned the page back to past tensions when the real need is to concentrate on how to deal with today’s problems, like halting COVID-19’s deadly hold on the country.
Ever since the November presidential election, and particularly since Trump supporters invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6, the mainstream media has been filled with stories about the need to reverse the tribalism in the U.S. which makes Republicans and Democrats not just disagree on policy, but hate each other. Yet the media thrived during the Trump presidency as viewers tuned in to learn about his latest outrage. Reporters who have become star personalities live for conflict in their news coverage – hence that old conflict between Fauci and Trump was more “newsworthy” than authoritative new information on the pandemic.
In his new autobiography A Promised Land, former President Barack Obama tells of a similar diversion from information to controversy. He had been taking a beating in both the main-stream and right-wing media over his Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Designed to give millions more Americans protection against soaring medical care costs, the legislation’s noble goals had been poisoned by all sorts of misinformation, including bogus fears that the government would set up panels to decide who should live and who should die, based on their cost to the government-funded part of the plan.
Obama thought he could head off part of the misinformation by holding a press conference to thoroughly explain his plans and answer questions. He was feeling good about the results as the conference wound down, when a reporter asked a question of a totally different nature. A well-known Harvard professor, who was Black, had returned to his home in well-to-do Cambridge, near Boston, after a trip to China. When he found his front door jammed, he impatiently tried to force it open. A neighbour, thinking it might be a break-in, called the Cambridge police.
When police arrived and asked for identification, the professor, by now frustrated, at first refused and called the officer a racist. Eventually he showed his identification but as the police departed he continued to berate them. Eventually they became angry enough that they arrested him and took him to the police station (the charges were quickly dropped). Now, the reporter wanted to know, what did that say to the president about race relations in America.
Obama answered in a way he thought was innocuous, saying he could understand how people became angry, but that obviously the police had acted stupidly in arresting a man who had already proved he was on his own property. It was that charge of acting stupidly that triggered the reaction that dominated the news for several days, with right-wing media portraying Obama as an elite (Black) president siding with an elite (Black) professor over a working class (white) police officer who was just doing his job.
Coverage of Obama’s carefully planned explanation of health care reform was lost when this was turned into the familiar story of racial divisions.
If you study drama, you learn that the driving force is conflict. The news media thrives on conflict, looking for it even before it actually happens. When the news broke that Governor General Julie Payette had resigned over findings that she had created a toxic workplace at her official residence, a reporter/commentator immediately speculated on what the political fallout might be, long before opposition party leaders even had a chance to react.
And that’s also a part of the problem. At one time a reporter would bite his/her tongue rather than express an opinion. Today television reporters in particular, freely mix reported events with their own comments and observations. When they’re not reporting, often they’re guest commentators on panel shows.
If we’re going to reverse a them-versus-us dynamic in society, then a good place to start is for media outlets to rein in their instinct to seek out and emphasize conflict. Let reporters be reporters. Let commentators be commentators. Separate facts from opinion.