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.”