Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Appetite for Destruction: The Media Coverage of the G20 Summit

“The media are all-knowing. They supply a community of knowledge and feelings, and a common morality. Many people, literate and illiterate alike, simply do not read. They receive information from television whether or not they seek that information. It often comes to them in the form of entertainment.”

--Tony Schwartz, Media: The Second God (1983).

Like most people, especially Torontonians, who witnessed the war zone that became our city during the past weekend of the G20 summit, I was appalled by a number of things. One could get into a number of healthy debates over the decision to have the summit in Toronto (given the violent history of these events), the destructive acts of the Black Bloc, or the reaction of the police to those acts. But I was struck more by some other factors that I believe contributed to creating the dark vortex the city fell into while world leaders were discussing the problems of the planet.

It’s been clear for some time now that the process of political engagement has become less of a discussion and more of a battle between intangible notions of what constitutes politics. When the various heads of state were whisked into Toronto and sequestered into a sealed off compound, they were already becoming abstractions to the city they were attending. And the huge security detail, though totally justified in the age of terrorist activity, only made those individuals less transparent, less real, and (for many) nothing more than symbols to rail against. We hosted a summit on world matters where, ironically, one part of the world, the citizens of the city it was held in, couldn’t directly address it. Then we had the demonstrators, representing a variety of causes – some justified, some dubious – speaking out against systems of perceived oppression. But where, in the sixties, the issues and the leaders were out in the open and often visible, the G20 collective were hidden and they could have just as easily been visiting Mars. The demonstrators sometimes sounded like they were also visiting from Mars.

There’s no secret to the fact that many young men and women feel alienated from the political process to the point where they end up becoming totally incoherent about what they represent. That’s due, in part, to the fact that they no longer feel that their leaders represent their concerns. Many of them don’t even vote because they no longer believe (if they ever did) that the political process is a legitimate one. The cynicism runs so deep that these activists end up becoming as faceless as the leaders they charge with deserting their social concerns. But it’s on TV, or talk radio, with pundits ranging from Stephen Colbert to Rush Limbaugh, who transform that cynicism into a stand-up routine, a glib joke on all of us, a wink to let us know that the emperor has no clothes. Now the news media wants in on the action.

Watching the coverage, Saturday and Sunday, on both the local CP24 and CBC Newsworld, you could sense an appetite for destruction. On Saturday afternoon, you rarely got any insight into the issues of the summit, or even a sense of what the peaceful demonstrators were protesting against and how their issues related to the gathering of world leaders. Instead we saw an almost eager anticipation for something ugly to happen, some drama to engage us, to connect us, since the issues surely weren’t. So we had young bloggers and reporters focusing on the actions of the Black Bloc, young psychopaths who themselves are a dark image of mass conformity with no human distinction, and letting them magnetize the cameras. "The universal psychopath is born when the individual ego is weakened to the point at which it loses separate identity and is forced, for security, to merge with the mass," wrote Robert Lindner in his powerfully insightful 1955 essay The Mutiny of the Young. You could see Lindner's nightmare vision of Mass Man consuming the crowd. The voices of these young reporters then responded as if (like the Black Bloc) they, too, could now part of history in the making, talking as if they were stationed in West Beruit, excitedly imagining themselves as part of something bigger than themselves. Guess what, I was there when that police car burned and that window was smashed. I was part of history.

By Sunday, according to the news, or Naomi Klein, Toronto suddenly resembled just another police state. Innocent people were rounded up with the guilty and herded into a detention centre making the rule of law inconsequential. Again, as a peaceful demonstration was in effect at the detention centre, the cameras zoomed in looking for something violent to break out. Of course, it did. Everyone from the police to the demonstrators today are more aware of the power of the camera – and everybody now has one, even in their phone. We can get information at our fingertips, but (to paraphrase a Frank Zappa song) is it actually knowledge? That’s one of the disturbing aspects lingering from the weekend. In place of a dynamic for democratic debate and discussion is the visceral need to act out the role of victim and victimizer. The police can now look to some as excessive, even brutal, to others not actively aggressive enough; the demonstrators can look like either thugs, or victims of human rights violations. But does any of this take us any closer to grappling with what the issues of this summit were about? Of course not.

In the sixties, when civil rights violations were taking place in the American south, activists went there to change the legacy of segregation, the violation of voter’s rights, and the bombing of black churches. The role of the media – especially television – was essential to bringing those powerful images of police dogs and hoses battering protesters to the national audience. “I think that television helped accelerate the progress of a movement whose time had come,” NBC reporter Richard Valeriani told author and journalist Juan Williams (Eyes on the Prize). “The wires, newspapers, and magazines would eventually have had a similar impact. But it would not have been nearly so immediate.” Television still has that immediacy, but in a 24-hour universe, the stations no longer operate with the innocent curiosity, or clarity, of the past. News networks now know what drives up ratings because their bosses see the news and politics in general as just another branch of the entertainment industry.

So this weekend, everyone had a role to play. And they played it out with high drama. What was lost, besides the rights of those who were innocent and the property of helpless entrepreneurs was the kind of discourse that recognizes that we are part of a global community. It's a community with the communication technology to make our knowledge of the issues of the world more intimate than at any other time in our history. An international summit with that kind of recognition and intent has yet to emerge anywhere. And given the events of the past weekend, I’m not anticipating one any time soon. But until we do, the politics of engagement, with its inherent power to connect us to our most basic concerns, will be replaced by what we saw in Toronto this week which was nothing less than the politics of opportunism.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism

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