All you tell are lies!: Elsipogtog and the failure of the media

(This post originally an entry to the 2013 Dalton Camp Award, on democracy and the media.)

On October 19 in Rexton, New Brunswick, five men—all from the Elsipogtog First Nation—approached several reporters and photographers who had gathered around the charred remains of six police vehicles, burned by anti-fracking protesters two days earlier during a confrontation with police. According to Sun News reporter Kris Sims, one particularly aggressive man threatened them, shouting, “Get the fuck out of here or I’ll break your fucking cameras! All you tell are lies!”  Sims got into her vehicle and left. When two other reporters from Global TV and CTV News attempted to do the same, the men seized their vehicles and camera equipment.

Officially, the situation was quickly rectified: vehicles and equipment returned, apologies made. Everyone agreed that it was the actions of a small group who didn’t speak for the larger community. But for one moment, for a few protestors, the struggle wasn’t against the industry or the government or the police, but against the media itself. It was a momentary, but significant, shift in the focus of protester anger.

What happens when citizens lose faith in their media? And how is that faith lost? How was it lost for the group of men from Elsipogtog?

*

Several issues had brought the protestors, a mix of native and non-native, together. The most obvious was environmental—over the potential dangers of shale gas extraction, known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Another issue was democracy—large numbers of people (some polls suggested the majority) opposed the province’s push to exploit its shale gas.  For the Elsipogtog First Nation, one of New Brunswick’s Mi’kmaq nations, there was also the issue of sovereignty—government and industry were ignoring their constitutional duty to consult with First Nations.

Protesters had peacefully opposed shale gas exploration throughout the summer of 2013, and again in the fall when Texas-based SWN Resources moved in for another wave of seismic testing. The national media swooped in when things turned violent on October 17, when heavily armed police moved in to disrupt the three-week old protest, triggering a chaotic confrontation.

The intimidation of the media two days later by a small group of protestors inevitably left many Canadians suspecting that perhaps the Elsipogtog community didn’t want the truth about what everyone now assumed was the violent nature of their protest to come out. The community, it seemed, was barely tolerating the media.

This view is problematic, however, considering that several media outlets had been reporting closely on the protest since it had begun, without intimidation. These included the Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN) and the Media Co-op, through its Halifax representative, journalist Miles Howe.

“I have been camping at the current blockade along highway 134 since the inception of the encampment, filing almost daily reports for the Media Coop,” Howe begins his comprehensive report on the events of October 17. “During June and July of this year, when protests against shale gas exploration in New Brunswick were of far less national interest, I was doing the same.”

Howe filed 29 stories between June 9 and July 30, and another 22 between Sept 28 and Oct 24. Although he did not hide his sympathies, Howe was diligently professional in his work, and his reporting remains the most detailed and comprehensive coverage of any media outlet, and is invaluable for understanding the protest.

You could argue that no journalist knew as much about the protest as Howe, and yet he remained off the radar of all major media sources. His arrest on October 17 also passed them by. There were, in fact, not 40 protestors arrested that day but 39 and one journalist—a worrying event about which PEN Canada expressed concern. (PEN also expressed concern over the later intimidation of the media.)

Whether or not the mainstream media took notice of him, there’s no arguing Howe put in the hours, gained the acceptance of the community, and produced a detailed catalogue of events that together provide the necessary background for understanding the protest—no small feat. None of the reporters who descended onto Rexton and Elsipogtog after October 17 had a similar wealth of knowledge and depth of perspective.

*

These reporters stayed professionally distant, filing functional, efficient, and religiously balanced news stories. The writing they produced was relentlessly and obsessively passive. Take this sentence, from Melanie Patten of the Canadian Press (CP): “The Mounties said six police vehicles including an unmarked van were burned and Molotov cocktails were tossed at them before they fired non-lethal sock rounds—beanbag type bullets—and pepper spray to defuse the situation.”

Who threw Molotov cocktails? At whom did the police fire non-lethal sock rounds? Who is assumed to be involved in “the situation,” and who is not? When journalists are this careful to avoid blame and fault, they end up avoiding motivation and context as well, let alone simple causality. This may seem the criticism of a cranky copyeditor, but it affects a reader’s comprehension at a fundamental level. By establishing—rather than avoiding—causality and fact, journalists equip readers for moving on to larger matters and more pressing questions. By confronting the who, we are then compelled to confront the why. A passive approach can also infect the structure of an article, the choice of information included, and the way that information is presented. Passive writing leaves gaps that readers must then fill with their own assumptions.

Stories written by Patten for CP on October 17 and the days that followed made their way into the Globe and Mail, all Postmedia newspapers (the National Post and its accompanying metropolitan papers, as well as Canada.com), the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, Macleans, Huffington Post, and Global News.com—nearly every major Canadian publication.

This illustrates another major problem: that of corporate media concentration. What sort of breadth and diversity of observations and perceptions, let alone interpretation and analysis, is available to readers if one article by one reporter can theoretically—if not literally—appear in every publication in the country with any notable circulation or readership?

Of course, newspapers do have their own journalists to whom they assign their own stories, and a survey of relevant content can shed light on certain editorial preferences. In the days following the police crackdown, for example, the National Post published a surprising number of articles on the economic merits of shale gas extraction (see, for example, “Fracking code aims to quell fears; Sector under attack,” from October 31, 2013).

The debate around fracking is, obviously, a major element of the story, and one worth exploring. But it is just one element. The issue of democracy, as already mentioned, is also at play. Another issue was excessive police force—200 RCMP arrived that day, many in riot gear, others in full-camo who approached from the woods, pointing sniper rifles at a group that included young children and the elderly. Hours before any police vehicles were set on fire—by far the most reported event of the day—protesters had faced mass arrests, police dogs, pepper spray, tear gas, sock rounds, semi-automatic weapons, and, allegedly, rubber bullets.

*

Perhaps the most fundamental issue, however, is aboriginal treaty rights—something that, as far as I can tell, never made it into the National Post’s staff-written news and editorial pieces in the two weeks following the police crackdown. “At the end of the day, the real question is the title of the land,” said Elsipogtog Chief Arren Sock on October 24. “Once we can distinguish who actually is the rightful owner, then we can start talking about extracting natural resources.”

How is it possible that a national newspaper can fail to mention the primary issue for the protesters? Surely anyone turning to that paper for news of the protest will come away with an incomplete and skewed understanding. And surely these same readers will produce incomplete and skewed arguments in later conversations about the protest—though the fault is hardly theirs. For when the range of issues is narrowed, so is the national debate.

Readers of much of the mainstream media missed out on impressively bold statements made by Elsipogtog Chief Arren Sock, former chief Susan Levi-Peters, and the Signitog District Grand Council. Statements by these leaders highlight their vastly different, yet entirely valid, understanding of the balance of power in this country. Canada needs to take note.

The Signitog Grand Council issued an eviction notice to SWN Resources on July 24. Chief Sock did the same on October 1, but he also made another, more incredible, announcement: both his band and the Signitog Grand Council were reclaiming control of all unoccupied ancestral lands, effective immediately.

“For centuries, the British crown claimed to be holding the lands in trust for us, but they are being badly mismanaged by Canada, the province and corporations,” he said, as reported by the CBC. “We are now resuming stewardship of our lands to correct these problems and restore our lands and waters to good health.”

Canada and the Mi’kmaq signed Peace and Friendship Treaties in 1760 and 1761.  According to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs’ own website, under these treaties “the Mi’kmaq and the Maliseet signatories did not surrender rights to lands or resources.”  With Chief Sock’s announcement, the Mi’kmaq were assuming stewardship of all unoccupied New Brunswick—in other words, all Crown land—and they seem to have done so legally.

First Nation land claims tend to stall in the courts for decades, thanks to procedural delays exploited by federal and provincial governments, yet their success rate is through the roof. According to the CBC, aboriginal groups have won 186 lawsuits over resource development since the mid-1980s, at a 90% success rate.  If the Mi’kmaq take their claim to the courts, as they intend to do, and if they succeed, it will, inevitably, take all National Post readers by surprise.

Such surprise—based in a simple lack of awareness and understanding—breeds frustration and, all too often, anger and contempt. Is it any wonder, then, that protesters may come to not fully appreciate the media?

*

Perhaps the most informative and well-written piece on the Elsipogtog protest was Martin Lukacs’ piece, “New Brunswick fracking protests are the frontline of a democratic fight,” published in Britain’s exceptional Guardian newspaper. Lukacs weighs the power relationships between government, industry, and the people, considers the historical context of the protest, and places the protest within the wider struggles for First Nations rights and for government accountability. It was the kind of comprehensive analysis that was largely missing from the Canadian conversation.

The protest and its eventual confrontation resulted from the interplay between differing interpretations of the law and the structures of the state; of where power lies and how it may be used to support—or limit—the democratic system and the rights of citizens. This is the basic framework that any analysis of the protest must work within.

That Lukacs’ article did not appear in a Canadian publication is telling. What does it say about the state of our national media when our sharpest writers look to international sources for publication? Why are our newspapers failing to hire our best young writers? It is also worth noting that Lukacs, like Howe, is deeply involved in the Media Co-op, suggesting once again that media organizations that are both committed to a story and open to its complexities will produce the most relevant journalism.

The mainstream media does have moments of promise. The CBC published a substantial backgrounder that touched on treaty rights and tied the Elsipogtog protest to wider national struggles, and it gave a good amount of space to these issues in the weeks following October 17.  Several letters to the editor in the major papers managed to at least partially balance out the discussion and provide it with some level of depth and nuance.

But none of this amounts to a robust, vigorous conversation. The issues involved with this story are difficult and complex, and deeply relevant to the political, social, economic, and cultural fabric of Canada—to our understanding of our nation, our place in it, and our relationship to each other. As citizens, we need to have these conversations. We need to tackle these issues head on, together.

*

Just because this conversation is not happening in the mainstream media doesn’t mean it’s not happening at all. It is happening, and it’s lively and intelligent and constructive. It’s happening in the so-called alternative media—in progressive magazines and news websites—and on social media and blogs. It’s happening in teach-ins and discussion panels, in seminars and webinars, and among writers and filmmakers and activists and community organizers across the country.

You could argue that the mainstream media is missing out, but this would fail to recognize its sheer influence—the alternative media simply does not have the resources to reach the same numbers and diversity of audience. Such an argument would also fail to recognize the media’s basic obligations. For if the media is missing out on this conversation, then Canadians are missing out on this conversation. By failing to participate, the mainstream media limits Canadians’ ability to not only properly inform themselves but to think about and discuss the issues critically, and thus to act appropriately.

By failing to engage effectively and reflect critically, the media creates an environment in which stereotypes and misinformation flourish. This is, perhaps, what the five men from Elsipogtog understood, and what drove them to threaten certain members of the media. Pursuing important issues, engaging with them, asking complex questions and spending time mulling over the answers—and doing so with conviction and professionalism—this is not just media: this is relevant media.

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