As a distant grim spectator of New Brunswick’s recent environmental clashes, I sought the real story. It is not as though I disbelieve the reports made by mainstream media. However, when they looped video clips of pepper spray, violence, and angry mouths that shouted silently, the reporter reiterating the atmosphere of protest without meaningful detail, I knew there must be more to the story.
I spoke with Jerry Cook, treasurer at Tax Action in Richibucto, NB, near the Elsipogtog First Nation. Rural residents themselves, Jerry and his wife distributed food and coffee to the protesters after work as a gesture of solidarity during the days of standoff. Our conversation really took off when I asked him about Miles Howe, a reporter for Halifax Media Co-Op who was arrested the day the injunction was served. Howe wrote passionately from the protester perspective, and while his possible bias should make the reader wary, Cook’s perspective lends more plausibility to the controversial tales.
Consider the following plot elements. In serving a legal injunction to the two camps of protesters, the warriors were intimidated by para-RCMP with unholstered automatic weapons. Many were placed under physical restraints and herded to the police station, including non-mainstream journalists and some of their equipment. At some point, five unattended and seemingly unlocked police vehicles were torched, and a line of para-RCMP officers flanked by canine units in military camouflage herded the second camp of protesters, mostly women and elders, and trapped them on the road with their back to the torched cars. The testing equipment that was penned-in by the protesters vanished before noon from a lot near the warriors’ camp.
The incident at Elsipogtog First Nation was manifest of the tortured relationship between industry and environment, but it was reported as a battle of wills between RCMP soldiers and a civilian minority. Several worrying actions were carried out: journalists were arrested, diversions were created, unseen agendas were carried out, violence was perpetrated, and the whole incident was cast as a power struggle between the New Brunswick government and a First Nations community without giving adequate voice to community members like Cook who express parallel disapproval at the risks of shale gas exploration and extraction. Yet we see little meaningful discussion in media, and what little there is serves only to inoculate our anger as the would-be crisis passes to infamy.
This has become characteristic of news in general: the act of having to constantly sell the story not only tempts contrived political neutrality at the cost of accuracy, but turns reporters into magpies who are trained to seek footage first and observe with their mind and senses. We need more from journalism than an impartial catalogue of our public image over time; we need to be meaningfully informed of the actions of the parties in conflict and the moral issues that arise.
It is not easy to make ethical content meaningful or relevant, yet it does not follow that we should reduce our political realities to normal, seismic departures from the cocoon of our current social order. It is nothing short of dangerous to pass off this breach of social values as a mutual and anomalous violence when it is clear that the agenda of the government put a Texan energy company and a few pricey machines ahead of human life and suffering.
The first sign of social trouble is the death of informative political media, and I worry that we’ll fail to diagnose our disinformation before it becomes impossible to fix.