Tom Davey Editorial Comment

Media myopia revealed with its focus on politicians' eyeglasses

Editorial Comment by Tom Davey

The news media maintains its preoccupation with trivialities at the expense of important environmental news stories right under their noses. First Reform leader Preston Manning was lampooned because he had undergone laser surgery to eliminate his need for eyeglasses. He also underwent dental surgery, along with a new hairstyle. The result was that he actually looked younger and more photogenic, not such a bad thing for politicians in an era of 10 second TV video bites. But quite a lot of ink was spilled, and kilometres of video tape rolled before the novelty wore off. As news anchors have their hair styled and wear make-up daily, the TV comments had the taint of hypocrisy.

Then the heat shifted to the other end of the absurdity spectrum when Jean Charest was reconstituted from a Conservative to become leader of the Québec Liberal Party. Shortly afterwards, Charest was actually seen wearing eyeglasses for the first time. Now millions of Canadians wear eyeglasses, perhaps the majority do so after they reach 40. But some members of the media, ever vigilant to interpret things on behalf of us poor, struggling masses with low IQs, actually raised the question of aging when Charest's eyeglasses first appeared on TV. Charest aging? He might actually be the only politician who has to show his ID when he enters a liquor store!

We have always been impressed with his eloquence in French and English. He also has the charisma Québecers demand of their leaders. He will soon be going head-to-head with the equally eloquent and charismatic Lucien Bouchard in the next provincial election in November.

Both leaders are political switch hitters. Much earlier, Bouchard resigned from the Mulroney Cabinet to become leader of the federal Bloc Québécois. It was the quickest conversion since St. Paul was struck on the way to Damascus. After he was elected to the House of Commons, he actually became official Leader of the Opposition. Only in Canada you say. The Bloc was later nudged out of this position by the optically renovated Preston Manning.

It is ironic that Charest and Bouchard were both former federal Environment Ministers in the Mulroney Government. I met Bouchard at the Environment Canada awards at the National Gallery in Ottawa and Jean Charest at an AQTE conference in Montreal. At the time of writing, the two are virtually locked in a dead heat in the polls so their bilingual mastery and charisma in the ensuing political debates will be an important factor for Canada. Whatever your politics, it cannot be denied that Charest and Bouchard are formidable politicians.

With such a monumentally important issue as national unity at stake, surely the voters deserve better than the unhealthy disposition on the part of the media to focus on such trivialities as the wearing of eyeglasses. Discard your eyeglasses, you invite redicule. Start wearing them and you invite another kind of derogatory reference.

By contrast, our Federal Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien has been called the 'Teflon PM', even though he is equally inept in both official languages. Moreover, he seems to have had a charisma bypass many years ago. His clumsy references to the APEC incident when the RCMP pepper sprayed legitimate protesters, indicates that his sense of humour might have been surgically removed at the same time as his appendix.

Canadians had been pepper sprayed and their protest signs removed from private property so that a bloody tyrant, President Suharto, who brought his own gun-toting thugs to Canada, should not be embarrassed. These are serious issues, but later Chrétien said dismissively: "Pepper? I put it on my plate." 'Peppergate' might yet become his political epitaph.

Meanwhile, the news media continues its quest for trivialities at the expense of real news with undiminished fervour. I was in Vancouver in late June for a conference, weeks after the Suharto incident, but coincidently held at the Pan Pacific Hotel where Chrétien had earlier shaken Suharto's hand as if it were a water pump. This time, the hotel hosted the International Association of Water Quality. Almost 1,500 scientists from around the world, including top environmental scientists from Asia, Japan, Russia, Europe, India and the Middle East presented and debated their findings in an unprecedented assembly of global environmental talent.

For the first time in IAWQ's history, there were practical sessions on problems facing such industries as forestry, pulp and paper, mining, and other sectors vital to the environmental and economic health of the province. British Columbia has seen its fish stocks ravaged, its forestry products industries suffer, and the price of Vancouver real estate plummet, leading to further shrinkage of the forest industry. This was a great chance for the BC news media to pose serious questions to some of the world's authorities on every type of ecological issue. But I saw zero news reporting on this conference which went on for almost a week.

What I did see was a TV report showing that wildlife was occasionally killed in Banff National Park because animals were attracted to grain spillage along the railway track. It was a moving story but did not merit the numerous repeats I saw while I was there.

Even wearing my eyeglasses I could not find a single pixel of TV devoted to the greatest concentration of environmental scientists in the world, nor a drop of ink spilled on behalf of the conference. The next Conference President, Denis Ballay of France, was moved to congratulate Canada and Conference President, Jack Norman, for putting on such a magnificent meeting. Sportingly, he asked: "How can we possibly match this 1998 conference when it is held in Paris in the year 2000?" Too bad no Canadian reporters were there to hear this generous tribute from a real environmental scientist with an international reputation.

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