Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Media, the Message, and More of the Same?

As the Prime Minister of Canada (pictured right) appears to be making an important argument about the relative size of the Leader of the Opposition's trouser snake on a warm day, the Star seizes upon the opportunity to blur the lines between reporting, commentary and editorial.

Maybe I'm dating myself (or just being nostalgic and naive), but I do seem to recall a time when reporters reported, columnists confected arguments, and editorial writers crafted something approximating the newspaper's official opinion. Are headlines now becoming editorial op-ed bites in their own right?

Yesterday, Stephen Harper announced, in addition to the great trouser snake proclamation, that his government would revisit the Youth Criminal Justice Act with respect to toughening up the rules regarding young people who commit serious violent crimes. Violent assault with a weapon. Violent sexual assault. Armed robbery. Manslaughter. Murder. At the discretion of judges, for instance, violent youth offenders as young as 14 could be subject to life sentences for murder (with no parole for 5 to 7 years). And so, ignoring these crucial qualifiers, the Star's headline screams: "PM's Plan: Life Terms for 14-Year-Olds."

Ah, I get it. The hidden agenda unmasked, right?

The accompanying article, by Les Whittington, does in fact acknowledge the 'judicial discretion' clause in the second paragraph, and the 'parole eligibility' much later on. Still, it does betray a subtle partisan bias in the opening paragraph:

DRYDEN, Ont.–Prime Minister Stephen Harper has played the law-and-order card, seeking to tap into Canadians' fear of gang violence and street crime by proposing a crackdown on youth offenders.

Oh, of course. The "law-and-order card" [tapping] "into Canadians' fear." Well, it would be different if Harper had any track record of wanting to toughen up the criminal code. Any track record at all. Oh wait ... never mind.

He also said he would legislate tougher sentences for other violent youth crime, such as attempted murder, manslaughter and aggravated assault. And Harper would change the law to ensure that names of those convicted would be made

Accusing previous governments of being soft on crime, Harper said: "We have been going in the wrong direction for 30 to 40 years in this country and it is going to take some time to get this turned around."

Campaigning in Ottawa, the Conservative leader said society's understanding
of the negative affects on young people of living in poverty or broken homes
shouldn't outweigh the need for justice.

What follows is an attempt to fill in some critical opinions to the contrary, from 'experts' and political rivals. Now, to be fair, this is not only acceptable but also appropriate. Important issues, after all, are best fleshed out when a variety of perspectives are brought to bear on them. And the disposition of the Youth Criminal Justice Act going forward is a debate that Canadians need to have. So, a law professor (Queens) and a criminologist (University of Toronto) are cited as experts who have some reservations about this proposal. And heck, there's even one law professor (University of Calgary) who approvingly finds it "quite balanced."

Then, of course, the last words are given over to Harper's political opponents, who (predictably) are opposed. Mr. Dion "slam[s] the Conservatives for copying the 'right wing' approach used in the U.S." Wow. I didn't see that one coming. Do you tink it's izzy to make up new rhetoric? Or, is Dion just playing the shop-worn 'Harper equals Bush' card?

And as for Mr. Layton? Well he accuses the Prime Minister of "missing the point":

"To deal with serious violent crime ... we need more police officers, we need serious handgun controls, we need a witness protection program that works so people aren't afraid to come forward with information, we need investments in youth programs ..." Layton said.

Still, lest Mr. Layton be accused likewise of "missing the point," he might want to add 'parental responsibility.' 'anti-gang initiatives at the community level,' 'effective criminal courts,' and 'greater latitude and discretion from the bench' to his list. Just saying. (Layton's suggestion of witness protection is a positive contribution to the debate, by the way.)

Perhaps this article is a mere case of the headline failing to capture the essence of the article. Whittington's article, though containing some measure of implicit 'leaning', is actually much more balanced than the article's header suggests. Still, what are they trying to say with a headline that baldly reads: "PM's Plan: Life Sentences for 14-Year-Olds"?!?

Photo credit: Chris Wattie/Reuters.

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