Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A politician's death and the media

Since yesterday’s sad news that Jack Layton had died, his story has (rightly) been the primary focus of the news media and, indeed, the country. Within this context a debate has emerged surrounding the question of media coverage, particularly as it pertains to the generally uncritical nature of the commentary. This was sparked largely by a column written yesterday by the National Post’s Christie Blatchford, who criticized the “public spectacle” and even the letter Layton wrote to Canadians prior to his death. After an online backlash, her colleague Jonathan Kay came to her defense, describing her critiques as an example of “courage” and “guts”.

It is true that certain elements of yesterday’s coverage were a little silly, especially if you ignore the context. I’ll admit I rolled my eyes when the CBC’s Evan Soloman obliquely criticized the Prime Minister for including comments about the Resolute Bay plane crash and Libya in his public statement on Layton (some on Twitter were outraged Harper had mentioned these other significant events, but what was he to do, hold separate statements? Frankly, there was nothing offensive about how the PM handled things). And to be sure, some of the praise lavished on Layton was based more on the perfectly natural outpouring of emotion rather than cold analytical/critical thought. I saw statements that basically credited Layton with inventing the bicycle. Peter Mansbridge even gave credit to Layton for the withdrawal of Canadian forces from Afghanistan, saying Layton had called for Canada to get out – and look, we have! (six years after Layton first argued for it).

But these are inconsequential “problems” – I made no comment about them yesterday because as someone with a smidgen of empathy and logic I’m able to recognize that the purpose of the coverage was to highlight the attributes and interests of one of the most important political figures of our day – not to critically dissect him or his ideas. That’s not to say that history ought to write the most favourable account of deceased politicians. Criticism is important, but quite frankly so is taking a day to recognize, highlight and yes, praise, someone who spent his days trying to make Canada better. There is plenty of time to get back to critiquing Layton’s decisions and policy positions.

For Blatchford this was all too much. Worse still, everyone was quoting from the letter that Layton had dared write in his final days. How dare he leave a message? “Who thinks to leave a 1,000-word missive meant for public consumption and released by his family?” she asks. “Who seriously writes of himself, “All my life I have worked to make things better”?

I only have questions of my own in response: Who begrudges someone their final words? Who contemptuously spits on the way other people mourn? Who can’t wait a day or two to offer some “perspective” on events?

Kay attempts to answer these questions when he comes to Blatchford’s defense. From his point of view, Blatchford is the lone, courageous voice of sanity in a sea of mindless praise for the dead politician. The headline on Kay’s post is “Who has the guts to call out Layton’s cynical manifesto?”

Cynical manifesto. Of course, by now you’ve all been exposed to the dreaded cynicism against which Blatchford and Kay are so courageously defending us from: “My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.

Cynical indeed.


  1. The stupidest thing is... the public mourning has actually been fairly restrained, tasteful, and entirely appropriate. It hasn't seen any of the excesses of certain other public mourning events that I've witnessed in the last 15 years or so, in the Post-Diana era.

  2. Thanks for writing this. There was nothing courageous about Blatchford's opinion article. I really don't think either her or Kay truly understand why people cared so much about Layton's death. They don't understand that it had nothing to do with politics

  3. Thanks for eloquently articulating what I've been struggling to say.

  4. Good work, this was perfectly weighed response to Blatchford's article. I agree, there is certainly merit to critiquing some of the coverage, which sometimes rendered the line between reporting and hyperbolic commentary very blurry, but it can nonetheless wait a few days. It was, however, her comments about Layton that were a little off-putting. Specifically, they seemed less about contextualizing his career and more about some sort personal animosity towards the man.


  5. Great post. But, actually, Mansbridge's comments about Afghanistan were that Jack was ahead of his time. Peter M. said that when Jack called for negotiating with the Taliban and withdrawing fighting troops from Afghanistan, he was voicing an unpopular sentiment at the time, but it has come full circle.

  6. Well put, Emmett! It seems to me that the issue of the emerging debate you mention isn't really the generally uncritical nature of media commentary, but rather the utter failure of some to critically assess their own motivation for writing (though, I concede, it might be hard or even unnecessary to disentangle the two). There are, sadly, many people who, like Blatchford, appear to be motivated by cynicism and narcissism, likely deluded by some deeper lack of self-worth. By contrast, Dr. Layton's legacy is a stand-out example of how we might choose to lead others to benefit others, even in spite of one's own immediate welfare.

  7. Mr. Blatchford's venom is an unfortunate consequence of free speech and I accept that, however the problem with her remarks is that she completely misses the point.

    ONLY Jack Layton could have written a sentence like: "Love is better than anger.". From any other politician these words would come off as insincere. From Mr. Layton, we knew it came from his heart.

    And of course he would consult with Brian Topp and his wife when writing such a letter. There is nothing wrong with it. If Mr. Blatchford can see some kind of hidden agenda in his letter then I truly feel sorry for her. Her life must be filled with bitterness and disappointment.

  8. Well said.
    My question to Ms Blatchford is:
    Isn't it up to Canadians how they want to
    grieve a respected politician's death?
    Why should we adhere to her standards?
    What is so objectionable for Mr Layton writing a final letter to us fellow Canadians?
    The risk is all his. Not Ms Blatsford's.
    The response from Canadians speaks to what we think of Mr. Layton's letter.
    The response speaks to the pettiness of Ms Blatford whining.