Saturday, August 28, 2010

Persona not full reality...in media

By Susan Delacourt, Toronto Star, Friday August 27, 2010
Brian Kilgore was one of them —an uncommitted voter, who showed up to see Ignatieff in Oakville at the end of July. Though the crowd was smaller than he anticipated, the Liberal leader was not what Kilgore been led to expect either.

“As a photographer, I watched his eyes and he was constantly scanning the crowd, making eye contact as much as possible, and working his way to people who seemed to ‘connect’ in some way,” Kilgore said. “This behaviour was very much in contrast to his pre-bus persona, as delivered to me by the mainstream media .... He really did seem like someone you could have dinner with on a patio in the summer, without having to be a party big shot or a major contributor.”
"This behaviour was very much in contrast to his pre-bus persona, as delivered to me by the mainstream media"...
One photog watching the eyes of a wannabe prime minister, quoted in a blog by a national reporter who accompanied the Liberal leader... and another layer of the "image" is peeled away from the severe beatings administered by the Harper gang...and in the meantime, the "mainstream media" is considered the messenger by Mr. Kilgour.
And it is that messenger, at all levels in Canadian politics, that in the small towns, and in the editorial rooms and in the coffee shops, takes a deferential stance in the face of the power of the politician. "Who knows just who puts cash in the coffers for this guy/gal?" is one of the questions running through the reporter's head. Another is, "If the story I write is favourable, in the terms of the journalism class, "balanced," what will my editor think of for my next assignment?" And also, "Will I hear and write something that will influence the vote on this issue, which is the topic of my conversation?" And..."What is the future of my reporter's career, and how will it be shaped by this interview?"...
It is the adage taught to all reporters that traps them in a "superficial" or even "infantile" or at best, "adolescent" simplicity in order not to confuse the reader, considered archetypally to be approximately twelve years of age.
"Dumb it down!" "Keep it simple stupid!" "Throw out the big words!" "Keep the sentences simple, straightforward, clear and uncomplicated." These are some of the guideposts that reporters are taught to follow.
And, for the most part, they are necessary. However, I recall one national politician, from the Trudeau government who commented, "Everything I say has to be reduced to a 30-second sound bite, in order to have a chance to make the evening news."
And then, there is the "herd" thing about the media. Those who form the national press corps or the provincial press corps, or even the municipal press corps want to be considered "mainstream" so they have to know what the public will consider "mainstream" so the conventions of the political culture, including the messages from the power-brokers who shape that culture, become even more important than the specific information that is the core of the message.
If for example, the dollars being allocated for a project is the subject of the press release (conference, interview, phone call) then that is the story...and the reporter is expected to document the statement. Of course, s/he is also expected to ask pertinent, cogent and relevant questions...like "How does that figure compare with last year's budget line for that item?" and "Your critics say your are doing a 180 from your previous position; what do you say to them?" and "In X (another similar jurisdiction in another province, or country) the figure for that item is "Y" as compared with your decision; could you explain the reasons for your decision?
What is not included in the reporters questions is one that compares that budget item with another budget item for a different project in another file and the politician knows that going in to the interview. S/He has to be prepared only for questions about the "file" and even if the question pushes the boundaries of that file, the politician can always change the topic, or perhaps more credibly request time to prepare an answer and provide it later.
Picking up on the tenor of the questions from other reporters is one way for reporters to intuit where the coverage may be going in other media organs and thereby set the tone for the listening, intuiting reporter who is preparing to write the report.
It is left to the analysts, the columnists, the pundits and the politico's to put out the "interpretative stuff:" about the story and here we get into the talking points produced by the "press office" of the particular candidate, party, or even government. And every one of them is known for the perspective normally taken to the point that some politicians actually refuse to be interviewed by certain reporters from certain media outlets, because they know it will be a hostile report. They would be venturing into enemy territory, and only if they are running as an established candidate would they have the confidence to venture into such a risk.
So when a professional photographer whose is both trained and experienced, and also without "ties" to a particular party makes an observation that says "reality is very different from that presented by the mainstream media" we can take that as a grain, or even a pound, of salt to pour into our every reading of every news report from every news reporter and organ, to render that report levened, tempered and balanced.
And when this blogger calls Harper "an attack dog" I am expressing a negative perspective of the PM's tendency to attack the jugular of his political opponents, in a mean-spirited and unprovoked manner, as his way of taking the power position. It is a tactic of war moved into the political arena. I prefer disagreements over policy rather than "ad hominum" attacks verging on character assassination. And, I would venture that most Canadians also have a similar preference. We are not raised in a war culture, with a war mentality, where the complete destruction of our political, corporate, academic or religious opponents is our only goal, as is more the case in the U.S.
Call that "more respectful" or "more gentille" or "more wimpish"  or more "civil" or (as some in the U.S. far right would say) more "pinko-socialist/communist" or... on the other hand, call it more "mature"...and more "open to ambiguity"...
And every word, just as every photo, contributes to a public "persona," an image of what the public is given of a personality and once rendered, it is often very difficult to change because the images are indeed simplistic, and embedded in our perceptions and in the age of "social media" the social image of an individual, even a political leader, is subject to a different set of criteria...based on likeability, and not on policy choices.
We are judging the image, and not the person.
We are all committing a collective "reduction" of each person, in our families, in our classrooms, in our council chambers and in our provincial and federal legislatures and that simplistic reduction is a form of  unconscious "violence" rendered by the court of public opinion...and the media feeds on that like a rabbid fox on a piece of road kill.
We have a "tabloid press" mentality that  judges violently every word, and every act of every individual and we have become, all of us, members of the paparazzi, now with cameras in all cell phones but without the same compulsion for cash for salacious photos of celebrities (is that next?). However we certainly have the appetite for the sensational, and the reduction to the simplistic is part of that appetite.
And we are all the poorer for that!
And finally, here's a quote from Michael Valpy in The Globe and Mail, August 27, 2010:
There's no doubt at all that a new political Michael Ignatieff is on stage. And no doubt at all – after 27,000 kilometres travelled and 110 events staged across the country this summer, with more to come on a tour intended to reintroduce Mr. Ignatieff to Canada – that the people he meets are responding to him with what looks to be a lot like enthusiasm.

His robotic body language has gone, along with most of his leaden phrases. He speaks with a lively cadence; he has lost the faux dropped g's. He can be genuinely funny. He shows a keen curiosity in what people tell him and feeds back what they say in his speeches.
He now sounds like the 17 books he has written, warm, engagingly anecdotal and authentic.

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