Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Culture War in Calgary?

With its western roots and oil wealth, Calgary has probably carved a unique place for itself among Canadian cities. Even nearby Edmonton, rival and provincial capital, seems to be a bit more at peace with itself than Calgary has during the summer of 2009. The flashpoints include everything from the traditions of the Calgary Stampede to the placement of social services and planning for the future development of the city. It doesn't help that members of the provincial government have been a tad loose-lipped in their social commentary on women's rights and how a families ought to be raised.

Each of these have sparked some degree of controversy between lefties and righties who are eager to either get at each other when the opportunity presents itself.

These clashes might be a little more heated at the moment, because while many in the city might cite the way others are spending and say that the city is fending off the recession there are others who can cite layoffs, and cutbacks in corporate extravagance as signs that Calgary is not as insulated as they might think. It would be a cop-out to suggest that Calgary is somewhere in between at the moment. It is more likely a situation where people are trying to gauge the extent and the substance of the economic shift that is taking place. One side is holding out the hope that the recession is just that rather than a fundamental shift in the economy because of the pressures of the environment, peak oil and the trillions of dollars that seemed to disappear from the economy over night when the bail outs and stimulus packages were doled out like Canadian Tire money at a Boy Scout fundraiser.

The uncertainty has sparked a desire among some to stow our resources for a long post-capitalist winter, while others assert that it is but a draft and that by ignoring it long enough it will go away.

Regardless, the lefties and the righties have been doing their best to get their shots in over these issues.

1. Calgary Stampede animal deaths. The almost statistical certainty that animals die during the Stampede is something that the organizers of the rodeo would have enormous difficulty defending. The fact that it is not indefensible, however, is not reason to demand the rodeo be brought to an end. There is a traditional component to the rodeo and it is a part of western culture and heritage that cannot be denied and ought not be erased. Vegetarian and animal-loving tendencies be damned and all that. The arguments against the rodeo because of the threat to the animals' well-being remains a valid one and ongoing consideration needs to be given to their well-being. Eliminating every last threat to the animals is a worthy cause, but it would quickly get to the point where overprotection erodes the intangibles of the rodeo.

At the risk of oversimplifying, it would be like trading the subtle sensation of the wind blowing through your hair while skating, skiing or biking for the security of a helmet that would protect your head from any life altering threat. Gets It: Righties

2. Methadone clinic. The furor over the opening of the Second Chance clinic in Braeside in the SW part of Calgary was a fumble for the whole city. The clinic has had a harder time finding safe harbour than the MS St. Louis did during World War II. The overwhelming negative response by nearby residents who did not want the clinic in their neighbourhood demonstrated a great deal of ignorance when they argued that the patients at the clinic would cause a spike in crime in their neighbourhood. In reality they may have been more concerned about their property values. After the clinic announced it would close as soon as possible and move to another location, the deep cleansing breath was taken and the majority acknowledged that the city needs this clinic if not more. Gets It: Lefties

3. Plan-It Calgary. The attempt to bring in some guidelines for the future development of the city is not uncommon. Other cities across Canada and in the United States have been trying to structure the future development of their cities in response to the future economic reality that distance is going to cost money as the price of gas goes up. Despite having one of the largest urban footprints of any city in North America, many on the city council and in the construction community argue that Plan-It should not be implemented. Evidence shows that the infrastructure for a larger footprint will create a larger tax burden for city residents, but many apparently "tax-payer-friendly" aldermen argue against the plan despite the long-term tax ramifications and the current shortcomings of the city's infrastructure. Gets It: Lefties (When oil goes over $2/litre, the righties should be required to write 'oil is a nonrenewable resource' 5000 times a day until their terms end.)

4. Controversies over government remarks. I'm going to forego the braincramp by rookie MLA Doug Elniski. His sexist remarks at a junior high school graduation show his true colours but also indicate a certain tone-deafness as well. However, the controversy over Iris Evans' remarks about parents being at home to raise their children. While it is a point of view that she was stating and not an indication of imminent government policy - as if they could implement such a thing - the remarks were pilloried as narrow-minded. There are very valid arguments in favour of parents staying at home. Instead of a reasoned discussion and reflection on her comments there were the knee-jerk responses of "How dare she?" versus "Right on!" as trenches were being dug by both sides. Gets It: Nobody.

Government and society need to communicate with much more nuance and background knowledge than either side particularly seems willing to demonstrate. There seems to be a desire to stake out ideological or geographic turf in the city and the province as well. While everyone would like to see some sort of changes to the community the pursuit of ideological change is aimed at having one's way rather than actually being right. If the dialogue that takes place in the city continues to be entrenched along liberal-conservative partisan lines then Calgary is going to bicker rather than fiddle.

Monday, July 6, 2009

News or Storytelling?

Since the death of Michael Jackson, the media has been investigating the intrigue, innuendo and grief that have surrounded his public life and sudden passing. There has been some discussion about the saturation coverage of all things Jackson over the last few weeks but it does not seem that the public has wearied of it. There are countless angles for the media and the audiences to pursue and neither side has shown any Jackson fatigue after 12 days and counting of coverage, which achieve a crescendo and its first intermission with Jackson's memorial service in Los Angeles.

While it would be easy to cite news topics that have been bumped off the front pages, Twitter's trending topics and the scrolling tickers as evidence of irresponsible sensationalism by the media, the fact is that audiences are fascinated and obsessed with the story because of the complexity of the character who is at the heart of it.

Jackson has had several turns as the focus of saturation media coverage, the type that makes it difficult to distinguish the tabloids from those media organs that boast that they shoulder the legacy of credibility and trust that belonged to the likes of Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow or even Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, Bernard Shaw or whoever else each network would like to cite as their touchstones of integrity and professionalism.

The interest that has surrounded Michael Jackson's death and the controversies of his personal life is not predicated the bearing he has had on issues of global significance and concern. Throughout his past controversies, he has merely taken a stage in the public domain that has been previously occupied by Brittany Spears, O.J. Simpson and other celebrities caught in an ignominious moment.

During such controversies public attention is fixated not because of the relevance to our well-beings but because of the heightened interest in how this story will unfold. In such moments, the line between a news story and the bedtime stories or morality tales that are staples of fiction or myth.

Michael Jackson's death is evidence of a tendency among news media to try to plot out a narrative that will compel audiences to follow a story to its conclusion rather than do the investigation and newshounding that provided people with the facts and the core of stories and issues that have greater influence on their lives.

Much of the coverage over the last two weeks has been used to set up future plot points and developing characters for the quasi-daytime soap coverage that will be the custody battle, execution of Jackson's will and the mystery surrounding his cause of death.

Such "plot development" is often carried out at the expense of in-depth reporting. Recently, in the run up to the June 12 election in Iran, Newsweek's June 1 issue ran with the headline "Everything You Think You Know About Iran is Wrong" and angled its coverage toward the likelihood of a moderate win that would usher in a new era for Iran and Iran-American relations. NBC's "Dateline" took the same tact on June 6 with its indepth coverage of the election. It is debatable whether the media were capturing the facts of the story or were merely caught up in an optimism of unknown source with the reporting they did before the election. When the results did not lead to the anticipated moderate victory, the mainstream media was nothing short of sluggish in its response to the harsh realities in the streets of Iran.

TV news is merely content and the chance to serialize it is rarely passed up. In the Michael Jackson death and other recent stories, the media craft news into archetypal moments or plot points, attempting to anticipate potential consequences. In doing so they act more like soothsayers or Hollywood script doctors than credible journalists.

They are not, however, alone in this. In the coverage of the Jackson funeral it is clear that the audiences still have not gotten enough of the story. When the salacious details of Michael Jackson's life are unfolded and his various hangers-on each exercise his or her profit motive, the captive audience will remain large because of the desire to find some meaning, some mythic structure or some original point of reference in this tragic story.

Meanwhile, the world economy, swine flu, American medicare, car bailouts and war near and far, despite their significance, remain ignored because for all intents and purposes they are too tedious and too demanding for audiences to figure out.

Sadly, audiences' capacity for the details and nuances for more important matters falls short of what it ought to be.