Media: Misdirection Bashing

For fourteen years, I have listened regularly to La Première Chaîne primarily to improve my French but also I appreciate the journalism. I only recently started listening to the Radio Canada’s English radio programming to try to find balance (and reading Richler). I watch TV news in both languages. Learned: as much as the deux solitudes differ, misdirection appears to be a deeply-rooted cross-cultural constant.

Born into the era of full-blown boob-tubitude—the Beatles debut on Ed Sullivan, Jackie “And away we gooooo!” Gleason and The Honeymooners, the moon landing, and sci-fi flics like The Blob brought to you by Big Three Theater—my father severely limited our consumption of television programming when my older sister Anita got a D in Mrs. Ryan’s fifth grade class. Radio, on the other hand was omnipresent. We woke up to the news with Bill White at WELI. In the evening, the radio was tuned to the national public radio station’s classical music programs and opera broadcast live from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City provided the sound track for Sunday afternoons. For a while, my parents actually sang with the amateur WELI chorus.
Radio remained a fixture in my life even after I left home. In Los Angeles, I started the day with Morning Becomes Eclectic on the NPR affiliate KCRW, rarely missed Harry Shearer’s Le Show, and my Thanksgiving tradition included listening to a radio play: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Something I didn’t know then but have since learned from Wikipedia: the book was adapted from the radio play and not, as is typically the case, the other way around.
Not surprisingly, when I moved to Montreal, I continued to listen to the radio not only for pure pleasure but because even with an B.A. in French and a year in Paris under my belt, after 20 years of neglect, my language skills were a tad rusty. Also, in Quebec, my French from France elicited more snickers than comprehension. I had to learn a ton of Quebecois vocabulary (what the heck is a “char”? A “chandail”? Okay, “slush” I get.) syntax and expressions that they didn’t really cover at the Sorbonne. And I didn’t have a clue about my new socio-politico-culturo context. In a very real sense, my survival and sanity depended on listening to the radio.
The radio hosts at the Montreal affiliate of Radio Canada’s La Première Chaîne became my unwitting professors. I quickly had my favorites: Marie France Bazzo, Jean Dussault and Pierre Maisonneuve. Even if I don’t drive, I enjoyed the traffic updates reported Yves Désautels direct from his “hérisson” (it means hedgehog and refers to the antennas sticking out in all directions from his car). And Guy Bertrand with his “capsule linguistique” clarified some of the knottier problems of the French language that trip up even native speakers.
At some point, however, the steady drumming of the socio-politico-culturo subtext started giving me a headache. The drumming follows a fairly simple 2/4 beat: francophone Quebec is cooler than the ROC (translation: “rest of (anglo) Canada”), and Canada is cooler than the States, with syncopation provided by the assumption that France is the cultural bellybutton of the universe.
So I switched to the wonderfully eclectic musical programming of Espace musique. Unfortunately, and I guess not surprisingly, the aforementioned drumming marred much of the patter offered up by the station’s hosts. I particularly cringed when music by a contemporary French or Quebecker artist was described as being in “la langue de Molière” and the music of anglo artists as being in “la langue de Shakespeare”.  One day, the station aired the song “Salut les Amoureux”, a French-language version of City of New Orleans interpreted by Joe Dassin, according to the host a version in “la langue de Molière” of a song originally composed in “la langue de Shakespeare”. Mind you, the original was written by U.S. musician Steve Goodman in 1972, popularized by Arlo Guthrie and covered by a veritable pantheon of U.S. country and folk music artists, none of whom as far as I know lay any claim to being related to Shakespeare. Despite the efforts of L’Académie française to keep the French language in check, Molière would probably have a tough time with the French lyrics, ooey-gooey romantic and not based at all on the English version.
I lost it. I fired off an e-mail to the host asking him to please! stop using this utterly useless, utterly lazy formula. I did not receive a reply. A francophone friend said I was overreacting because, after all, the expression was virtually meaningless. He was right. It is meaningless and, most often, grossly inaccurate. So why use it?
Recently I decided to give Radio Canada’s English-language stations a shot. I quickly abandoned the music programming that seemed to air a lot of Celtic, folk, moldy rock and roll that sucked when it first showed on the Billboard charts and hasn’t aged well (I mean, The Archies???), and chamber music that my father called “diddle-diddle” music. I scurried back to Espace musique.
In an effort to find balance, on weekends I switched to English-language news programming aired by the Radio Canada’s Montreal station. And I found a lot of interesting stuff: The Sunday Edition with Michael Enright, Quarks and Quirks with Bob McDonald. Stuart McLean who hosts Vinyl Cafe reminds me, in good ways and bad, of Garrison Keillor. There is a lot of excellent programming about writing, writers, books and the book trade.
Last Sunday, I tuned into All in a Weekend hosted by Dave Bronstetter. The upcoming federal elections dominate the news these days and Bronstetter’s show weighed in with an election panel formed by two guests: community activist Sujata Dey and Steve Faguy, a freelance journalist and blogger. I didn’t expect groundbreaking analysis but I did hope to learn a little about the issues. What I heard was the not so faint English-language version of the drumming: a lot of snarky comments about the stupidity of the American (U.S.) voting (or not-voting) public as compared to the Canadian electorate. And I realized I had been hearing it a lot.
Again, I lost it. I fired off an e-mail to Dave Bronstetter. Within a few hours, I received a very thoughtful reply.
Dave wrote that their intention was not to “USA bash”, explained that the panel had used another program, Michael Enright’s recent interview with Jason Brennan, an assistant professor of philosophy at Brown University and member of the university’s Political Theory Project, as a springboard for the discussion, which explained the references to the U.S. political landscape. Made sense. But the words “USA bash” got me thinking.
Was I being hyper-sensitive? Was it okay (and usually really funny) for Jon Stewart to rant about U.S. stupidity, but not for Canadian radio wonks to trash talk the States? And what’s my deal with the Quebeckers and their pro-French bias? Frankly, I’m an unrepentant francophile and support vigorous efforts to protect the French language in Quebec. In any case, journalistic claims to objectivity aside, every station has its bias. Clearly, Harry Shearer and Anderson Cooper do not espouse objectivity.
I gave it some thought and realized that bashing per se doesn’t disturb me. And, in fact, I don’t believe that this “drumming” is a case of bashing (USA, ROC, anglo, franco …). I think it is simply lame misdirection. Inadvertent and or amusing as it might be, when I tune in to learn something, I resent the essentially lazy reflex to reduce debate to an “us vs. them” polemic. I resent it because I usually hear more about the villainous “them”, a thinly-veiled ploy to shed a favorable, saintly and completely skewed, hardly enlightening, light on “us”.
Canadians, Quebeckers and citizens in the ROC, are quick to credit the U.S. with cultural colonialism. They’re not alone in their opinion and they’ve got a point. The U.S. media and entertainment (if we can make such a distinction) machine wields an enormous amount of power.
CBC TV recently aired a story on how few Canadians are paying attention to the federal election. They showed photos of the candidates running for the job of Canada’s Prime Minister to a handful of folks across Canada and asked them to name the people in the photos. Clueless.
Show Canadians photos of political figures in the U.S—Sarah Palin, Obama, Arnold Schwartzenegger, Hilary Clinton, John McCain—and a lot of Canadians would probably pass that test with flying colors. Ask yourselves why.
US media and global political power are only partly to blame. Another reason Canadians know so darn much about the U.S. is also because, despite the constant griping about U.S. cultural power and energetic adherence to Canadian content guidelines, Canadian media insist on using the U.S. as a benchmark or a baseline, frequently follow the most inane U.S. stories while ignoring current national affairs, lard news feed with nonsense about Brangelina and Zanessa, and regularly quote monetary sums in US dollars.
And the subject simply doesn’t matter. If Canadian teens between the ages of 12 and 17 sprout pimples at an average rate of 20 per week, rest assured that you will learn about the relatively higher pimple-sprouting rate of American teens served with a humorous sidebar about the relatively high rate of junk food consumption in the States. By the time the story ends, you’ll have learned quite a lot about American teens. In comparison, Canadians’ pimple faced children will look like cherubs and Canadians will have learned precious little about what makes their kids tick.

Here’s an idea: A one-week media moratorium on any irrelevant references to the U.S. or its citizens. Bonus points go to Quebecois media wonks who don’t mention Paris or France and to Anglo-Canadians who manage to get through the week without filling the holes with news on the Killiam. Or is it Willate?

One Comment

  1. Nice essay! I wonder where Alex Trebek would fall on this issue. He’s a naturalized U.S. citizen, but makes sure there’s at least one Canada-related clue in every Jeopardy show. He’s a Canada-booster!

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