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On Lynching Politicians and Academics

Posted on 22 February 2011

Immediate disclaimer: This isn’t meant to be an attack on Jason, nor a full-on defence against his criticism. Just my thoughts after reading an intriguing point of view from a regular political commentator. Also, as always, these are MY VIEWPOINTS AND OPINIONS, informed by nothing but my own misunderstandings of the world.

Over on his blog, UNBC political scientist (and my former professor/soccer teammate) Jason Morris writes about his experience as part of an interview with Christy Clark on Daybreak North last week. Clark is running for leadership of the ruling Liberal party, and had said she would try to reopen the door for a controversial mining project the federal government had rejected. Says Morris:

“I was recorded asking a question that came off like this:

Christy Clark’s plan to lobby the federal government to get the Prosperity Mine going is just that, a promise to talk… While it’s important for dialogue between the federal and provincial government, it’s also political posturing if there is no wiggle room to overturn the decision.

And it would be played for Clark to answer.

And she would also get similar recorded questions from an environmentalist bashing her for putting jobs before fish. And I believe, a First Nations representative maintaining her promise leaves out First Nations as an important stakeholder to consult on such natural resources decisions. If there were also some other angles, no doubt these would haven been added to the dog pile on Christy Clark.

One, two, three… bang, bang, bang, three bullets at the candidate who is only trying to get her message out. In some circles, this ganging up would be described as media bias, media bullying. And unfair, even if it obviously makes a more interesting story and that’s how the game works.

To some, unfair to me, too. I was commenting in the position of also representing my employer. While I have freedom to comment as I see fit and given what I know, when my question is later rebuked by Christy Clark, it could make the institution I work for look ill-informed or put in a bad light.

The questioner here never gets the last word!”

This raises some interesting issues. I should mention that although I do work on the show in question, I wasn’t involved in this story. That said, I have done the same thing: get a contrary voice to pose a question to the person being interviewed, rather than just present it for the host to ask.

I think there’s advantage to this. First, we try to ask the questions that people want answered. In the case of politicians, and particularly in the case of politicians who are saying they want to do something that was opposed by a large group of people and/or institutions, this means asking questions from a critical perspective.

“In some circles, this ganging up would be described as media bias, media bullying. And unfair, even if it obviously makes a more interesting story and that’s how the game works.”

The thing is, if you didn’t ask those questions, all you’re doing is cozying up. And if you’re going to be asking them, I think it’s stronger to come from real opponents or divergent viewpoints as represented through taped voices, rather than have the host read quotes or throw out hypothetical opponents. In a regional morning show where interviews max out at ten minutes and average closer to five, it’s not often feasible to have every competing perspective in the room for a full-on debate. It’s a limitation of the medium, and one whose merits are up for discussion. But as Morris himself says

“it obviously makes a more interesting story…”

Yes, it does. It has its limits compared to something longer-form, but it has it’s advantages, too: people are introduced to large stories with multiple views in the time it takes them to get to work, and are maybe introduced to a perspective they haven’t heard or thought of. I don’t know how many people are reading policy papers over breakfast. It’s less nuanced, but hopefully not reductionist. Coming from an academic background, I’m sometimes frustrated by the limitations of drive-time radio, but increasingly I’m intrigued by the challenge of crystallizing a complex issue in a way that people can immediately understand on a human level. If it’s NOT interesting, they’re not listening. For better or for worse, those five minutes are all the time most people have or are willing to invest in learning about these things. I think if they aren’t listening to these ‘media lynchings’ they’re more likely to be tuned into the local rock station than they are to be reading academic analysis.

Footnote: As for the issue of the questioner never getting the last word– well, there’s only ever going to be one person who does. Be it a formalized debate, a back-and-forth of editorials, question period, or morning radio, someone goes first and someone goes last.

Footnote two:  To reiterate, this isn’t meant to be an attack on Jason, nor a full-on defence against his criticism. Just my thoughts after reading an intriguing point of view from a regular political commentator.

Filed under: journalism, media, politics

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