Why can't we all just get along?

Peter
Peter Jackson
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In the late 1990s, a debate was raging in Washington about a new statue of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Many of the four-term president's family and followers insisted the sculpture should be discreet about FDR's disability - paralysis of his legs due to polio.

The designers agreed, deciding to portray him in an ordinary chair, as he was often seen, cloaked from the waist down.

In the late 1990s, a debate was raging in Washington about a new statue of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Many of the four-term president's family and followers insisted the sculpture should be discreet about FDR's disability - paralysis of his legs due to polio.

The designers agreed, deciding to portray him in an ordinary chair, as he was often seen, cloaked from the waist down.

The disabled community protested, saying the disability should be displayed front and centre as an inspiration to others.

As a compromise, the sculptor added two small wheels on the back of the chair.

But advocates for the disabled were not satisfied. A coalition raised funds for a second statue of FDR in a wheelchair, which was placed at the entrance to the memorial site. It was dedicated by outgoing president Bill Clinton in January 2001.

The issue highlighted a curiosity about FDR's presidency: the complicity of the news media in concealing his affliction.

Photographers and reporters agreed not to reveal his disability in words or pictures. To this day, only a small handful of photographs exist that show the president in a wheelchair.

These days, despite enlightened demands for journalistic integrity, a modicum of complicity still goes on in mainstream media. A reporter may agree to embargo the release of information, or to grant minor conditions on the conduct of an interview.

The fact is, politicians and journalists have a symbiotic relationship. Politicians need media to get their message out. Journalists need politicians to provide open and honest information.

In Newfoundland, the trust between politicians and the media has gone through numerous ups and downs.

In the 1980s, then premier Brian Peckford briefly boycotted the CBC. The public broadcaster has had similar run-ins with Premier Danny Williams.

About five years ago, former St. John's mayor Andy Wells refused to respond to any queries from The Telegram for several months.

This month, a new controversy about media conduct burst into the open following the news that Williams left the province for heart surgery.

The issue has been festered for far too long, and it's a little hypocritical of me to bring it up at this late date.

But there is a specific facet that warrants more attention - that is, the level of anger directed at the media. Most of the irate radio phone-in calls - and the letters and electronic comments posted to other media - were genuine. They were not, as some argue, all part of an orchestrated campaign. They were not all government plants.

These were real people with very visceral reactions to the initial news coverage. I know people who felt like lashing out themselves, and they were not die-hard fans of the premier.

Moreover, some even suggested the media should have self-censored the story. Not just show restraint, mind you, but ignore it completely. It's not a standard they would advocate as a rule, I hope, but the anger was immediate and perhaps a little blind; it was a gut reaction.

The Williams administration has, meanwhile, taken unprecedented measures recently to suppress the release of information to the public. And it has lashed out against opponents and critics with a ferocity rarely seen before.

Curiously, only a minority of people outside the media seem particularly concerned about it. And as we've seen, many seem to think the media is the culprit.

Why? There's no easy explanation.

Some suggest the cult of personality has taken over, but that only accounts for a small core of fans. Besides, Williams is hardly the most charismatic leader. He rarely smiles, and sounds like he's always wound up tight as a drum. Nor can we assume the population has developed a spontaneous yearning for the good old days of FDR and media collusion.

There is an element of tarring all media with the same brush. Many radio listeners were outraged when guest panellist Bob Wakeham brought up Williams' broken marriage on air.

His live-to-air remarks were off-track and contemptible, but he doesn't represent the "media." He represented one person's ill-timed opinion.

Something more is going on, and it needs to be evaluated outside of this adversarial arena.

Otherwise, we are at risk of sinking further into the miasma of poison and hatred that characterizes public discourse south of the border.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram's commentary editor. He can be contacted by e-mail at pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: The Telegram, CBC

Geographic location: Washington, Newfoundland, St. John's

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Recent comments

  • I. P. Freely
    July 02, 2010 - 13:22

    Must be ...hate the US media day at the Tely.

  • I. P. Freely
    July 01, 2010 - 20:07

    Must be ...hate the US media day at the Tely.