By Neil Earle
Well hello to all of you living in Canada’s newest province of New Finland, or to be more up to date New Finland and Labrador.
Of course this is my saucy way to introduce my Los Angeles-based meditations and ruminations on the Larry King Show of March 3. The dreadful hour was actually important to watch. I feel obliged to do this every once in a while as a student of media and a participant in the process with my own local-based Cable 55 show (my wife claims it’s named “55” because that’s how many people are watching it!).
That aside, Larry King’s expose of the Atlantic seal hunt once again showed us the downside of trying to arrive at truth via television. I am referring, of course, to the surely much discussed debate between Sir Paul and Heather McCartney and our own Premier Danny Williams. You can tell how one-sided it was when a Bay Boy turns off the set thinking, “It’s pretty scary when a Newfoundland Premier can’t get a word in!”
Somewhere the ghost of Joey Smallwood is profoundly disturbed.
Oh no, my son, don’t ever think for one minute that this tubular spectacle is untypical. Not at all. Just that very day I had been caught short of words when, in teaching my U.S. History class some salient things about their Constitution, one of my older students popped up with, “Well, we don’t want to be like Canada where they’ve taken away people’s guns.”
“What…I…er…huh…where did you hear this?” I expostulated.
In political terms both the right and the left have their own sound byte version of history.
And there’s an excuse for my lovely students. They live in what one of their own calls “The United States of Amnesia.”
But amnesia is not the word on my mind when I recall CNN’s 35 minute rendition of spectacular outdated clubbing footage complete with red ice and Heather and Paul’s repeated litany of “barbaric…inhumane…cruel.” My amnesia was on hold because I remembered Saskatchewan farmers in the 1970s being alternately miffed and amused at the sight of international press attention being drawn towards Brigitte Bardot hugging a baby harp seal. Solidarity! Western farmers know something about being misrepresented!
I think it was back then that a local wit wrote about the incongruity of press attention drawn to baby harps and the noble cod fish being vacuumed to the point of near-extinction.
“Codfish aren’t cuddly,” was the comment.
Now, mind you, there’s always things to learn from television. The lens can be an indiscriminate purveyor sometimes so that genuine facts often get aired, if inadvertently. I’ve been away upalong for long enough to be educated by the Premier’s statements that 90% of seals are killed by bullets, that they are beginning to devour trout along the coastal rivers, that this hunt has been regulated by the UNO and approved by the World Wildlife Federation. Or my sister Lydia’s reminder that seals are vicious little creatures (our ever-resourceful father brought a cute little harp to our back yard once when Earle Freighting was into the seal hunt – but we kids kept our distance!). Impressive, too, was how knowledgeable and accepting the PEI fisher folk being interviewed were about the regulatory side of the industry.
And, let’s be fair. It is people such as Heather McCartney, after all, who have helped create a “world ecological consciousness” (phew – what a phrase!). That genuine contribution has overall been of great benefit to the planet, and one which Atlantic Canadians mostly appreciate. Her work on land mines in Angola more than makes up for CNN’s trumpery. No question about the overall contribution such people have made – and Premier Williams was media-trained to reflect that respect, which he did. It was Richard Nixon’s Republicans who were forced by public pressure to create the Environmental Protection Agency in the USA.
That being said, the more interesting issue at stake to me was the aforementioned impotence of the much-vaunted media to actually engage, let alone frame, intelligent debate. Colorful verbal hand grenades lobbed between commercial messages are detrimental to serious discussion. Most of us know this by now. On the tube, perceptions push out reality. A more cynical scribe than I summarized the First Rule of TV: “Pure drivel tends to drive out ordinary drivel.” In my own writing on media I have used such words as “superb visuals” and “breathtaking sequences” to hymn the camera’s strengths, so I admit to my part in the problem. Well, the Premier had no choice but to enter the lists and most fair-minded Americans are going to feel he represented reason.
But even so we have to allow for the principle of attitudinal refraction through the camera lens when assessing any story (refraction – that’s what happens when the trout is not where your hand thought it was, as I learned in Powell’s Brook as a boy).
Perception, refraction – two prime media values. And one more word – excess. A better media critic than I, John Fiske, says that excess is endemic in the popular arts. It gives pop culture its edgy appeal. This helps explain wrestling, rock concerts and Buddy Wasisname!
So what are we to do? We’re stuck with the pop culture and we can’t outlaw television. I suppose as members of the public we have to try to be more aware. Awareness may be the key and I know some schools are offering classes on the effects of television. Not a bad idea. This could be incorporated as part of the English curriculum (and already is in some schools, I’m sure). One journalist opined that if you really know a subject in depth you can tell from watching TV that you’re getting snippets and glimpses of reality – more gossip than news. And, let’s face it, gossip has its charms.
Item: That very day, the much maligned Michael Brown of FEMA was answering the award-winning Wolf Blitzer as to why Congress reported he hadn’t even taken the emergency training course.
“Wolf, I designed the course,” was Brown’s response.
Another great quote about media: “Journalists don’t act as if they were hired, they act like they were ordained!”
Okay. This is getting long enough. As your sometime reporter from the Palm Latitudes I yield to my cousin Phil’s colorful pen and your own water-cooler commentary to assess Larry King’s latest low point. Atlantic fishermen know the real story here and it has always seemed to me that more kodachrome needs to be expended on the rigors and harshness of the seal hunt for the human beings involved than for the 5 million (and counting!) cuddly little cod-eaters.
Neil Earle is a Carbonear native and Los Angeles-based journalist who has written on his home province for The Journal of Canadian Studies and other publications. He is author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in American Popular Culture and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.