Ford and the Media: This article is about the coverage of Toronto mayor Rob Ford, health care and the assisted suicide movement in Canada. In a global sense, media literacy about these issues needs improvement and I’m using the feeding frenzy around Ford to illustrate why. I am not religious, but am a huge fan of Denys Arcand and his films. This article has 2,200 words.
I recently watched Jesus of Montreal again after not seeing it for many years. The 1989 film is a postmodern version of the passion play and its literate narrative — its subtle humour and play within a play — allows viewers to consider Jesus’ life in both extraordinary and ordinary circumstances.
Like a canny aphorism, one scene has left its mark in my memory. It’s when the priest in charge of the shrine, where a controversial version of the play has been staged, lashes out at the actors after they make light of his faith.
Have you ever been here on a Sunday when it’s packed? Have you seen the Haitian cleaning ladies? The Guatemalan refugees? The elderly and forsaken? It’s a gathering of universal misery. They don’t care about the latest archeological findings in the middle east; they want to hear that Jesus loves them and awaits them…
Not everyone can afford psychoanalysis. So they come here, to be told, “Go in peace, your sins are forgiven.” It comforts them, a bit. That’s something. This is where we hit the depths…loneliness, illness, madness.
The exuberant young actors, who minutes earlier had been clowning around, mixing biblical phrases with advertising hyperbole, are momentarily struck silent. It’s moving. In a few sentences, the priest sums up his and his church’s mission: it’s to gently support the dispossessed in their misery. The reference to immigrants is likely what hooked me into the priest’s perspective and made the moment so memorable: my mother is one of that flock he so eloquently defends.
Lately I’ve been writing about Rob Ford and about the push to decriminalize assisted suicide. The link between the two can be found in Denys Arcand’s sublime script, in the words uttered by the priest, the ones that speak directly to those in Montreal (and elsewhere) who are on the bottom rungs of society. Ford’s success was entirely predictable, or would have been, if those Torontonians most horrified by his tenure had bothered paying attention to the social climate in their city.
That they were caught off guard is obvious, so the most important question, even more important than the how of the situation, is the why of it. Despite the prodigious output of venom, coming in waves, layers and every colour imaginable, not one social scientist or political pundit, or even an upstanding spokesperson for Toronto-the-Good, has answered this question satisfactorily. While Ford is being blamed for being divisive — for pitting the servers against the served — critics who say so are over-demonizing the man, giving him way too much credit. That divide has been there for decades and Ford, in his disinhibited way, has merely had the gall to say so.
I left Toronto in the early 1990s because with my arts degrees I had no idea how I could support myself with a job I actually wanted. Now when I visit I stay at downtown hotels and wonder how on earth the chambermaids, valets and hotel receptionists, most of whom are immigrants, can afford to live there. My father’s job as a janitor gave me this sensitivity and curiosity. (Those are attributes that would have stood some Torontonians in good stead before the advent of Ford; let’s hope they figure it out in the aftermath.)
The Toronto Media
In the meantime, the media in Toronto has been showing its petticoat and giving us some insight into the parallel workings of egotism at several levels. Like Jesus of Montreal, we are getting narratives within narratives — we are getting the story of Ford’s bad habits — and we are getting the stories about how reporters broke the story. That over-focus on Ford has left some of us wondering if the powerful in Canada are encouraging the dumbing down of our media, if they’re encouraging the “deep” coverage of petty uproars, the kind caused by easy targets like Ford, to distract us and displace other information that might be more pertinent to our lives. Although Ford is accused of being a media ham, everything I’ve seen points at a press aiming to keep us amused instead of informed.
The media savvy at Idle No More have figured this out, as have a few of us who are trying to shed light on stories of medical malfeasance in this country. Natives are upset about the lack of police concern and media coverage when it comes to their missing daughters, sisters and wives. People like me, who are concerned about institutional elder abuse, are trying to raise awareness of the issue before assisted suicide is voted into law. We’ve seen enough incompetence and wrongdoing in our health care system to know it is a comprehensively bad idea, but reporters are turning supporters of it into their own media darlings.
So instead of laughing at how Ford drums up “retail” support via his many visits to Torontonians in need, maybe others in Toronto should step back, look at the larger picture and consider how class divides work in this country.
Our Healthcare System
Let me describe two scenarios. Two Toronto women, Joan and Jane, are diagnosed with similar cancers. Joan has a master’s degree in the arts and has been teaching for 30 years. Jane, whose name is an anglicized version of the one she was given, has been cleaning buildings since she arrived in Canada 30 years ago. She too has an arts degree, but since it wasn’t recognized in Canada and she needed work, she started cleaning even though it was far beneath her abilities. Her English is good, but not perfect, and her children, who could not afford to live in Toronto, live in Montreal and Halifax.
Both women have a form of cancer that causes pain in the early stages and both have been given powerful analgesics while they wait for operations. While Joan shows up with one of her children, who are all well-educated, her treatment pathway proceeds as it should. She sees specialists, meets with a surgeon, has her surgery and chemo afterwards. Jane, on the other hand, has a strong accent, which slightly distances her from the same process and shows up without her children. They haven’t asked for time off work to travel to Toronto because their mother is being vague about her illness. The analgesic, which is powerful, has rendered her muted and indistinct when it comes to answering questions. It’s also interfered in the organizing her treatment: she misses an important appointment because she is too chemically intoxicated to drive or take public transit.
When she is rescheduled for a few weeks later, the physician is very busy, hands her another prescription for pain and tells her it is unfortunate, but she must wait her turn. The powerful drugs muddle her thinking and the physician senses Jane is not someone who will make trouble if she is not treated with urgency — she is deferential and appears intimidated. By contrast, educated patients like Joan, whose children can and will make trouble, are prioritized. The physician doesn’t want the kind of grief her children can cause him.
So in a healthcare system with more patients than resources, this physician’s path of least resistance means being proactive with his well-educated patients and being less so, to varying degrees, with the rest. Jane is eventually hospitalized two months later, by which time the cancer has progressed to a terminal stage. Her children are told their mother waited too long to be seen and the only option is to provide her with comfort care until she dies. She is sent home with the promise of community caregivers, who show up intermittently. Her daughter takes an unpaid leave from work to help. Joan, in the meantime, has survived and participates yearly in one of the many fundraising walks to raise money for cancer research.
Anyone who doubts the possibility of these scenarios needs to step into my life. Although my mother’s story was slightly different, she is a lot like Jane, and I have no doubt there are many Janes out there. If I had had the option picking up a phone and asking someone like Rob Ford for help, I would have done so in a heartbeat. I would have asked him to advocate for my mother until I had a chance to organize a trip home. And it’s the power of that kind of accessibility that Ford’s enemies are under-estimating and under-estimating to their detriment.
It’s the same with assisted suicide, except that advocates in that case are over-estimating the strength of our healthcare system and aren’t taking the diminished experiences of people like my mother into account. Because people who support assisted suicide are mostly educated, they haven’t experienced inequities in the system — their education gives them the agency and confidence to survive, or at least successfully manage, a serious illness. And so it’s the cleaning ladies, the valets and the cooks, whose unpronounceable names and less-than-perfect English means they will likely be relegated to the medical slow lane, a lane where being treated proactively becomes a hit-or-miss affair.
That being said, supporters of assisted suicide do know they are advocating for a procedure that is meant for middle-class people just like themselves. And this is obvious because most advocates are using the class card to gather support. The caricature on offer is that only uneducated religious zealots oppose them, so if you don’t want to be lumped in with that herd of lummoxes, you better join us and say yes. Coupled with the requisite descriptions of agonizing deaths, this is neoliberalism at its Sham-Wow best.
The fact that the timing of treatments in Canada, especially in the immediate aftermath of a diagnosis, can differ according to variables like class, ethnicity, age and disability is something supporters of assisted suicide either dismiss or willfully ignore even after they’ve been informed. They pooh-pooh the idea because, of course, it interferes with their goal.
So it’s disappointing that our media is so in love with itself that we hear stories about how they tell stories — about politicians like Ford — and we don’t hear that in some parts of Canada, it’s dangerous for the elderly (and others in Canada) to go into hospital without help from black belt advocates. Instead we hear about the actions of a garden-variety boozer, Ford, who does the predictable things that boozers are known to do: they lose their tempers, rant about people they may actually care about, and forget about having done so the night before. Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of alcohol abuse knows these things and also knows that our media is dining out on Ford’s behaviour in ways that are contributing to the very circus they’re criticizing.
We don’t need another article or book describing the heroics of reporters who have “broken” the Ford story: believe it or not, most of us have seen heavy drinking people and politicians before. Ralph Klein was known to tie on one and act unreasonably, but the good people of Alberta didn’t lose their minds over it, which, given the current state of affairs in Toronto, makes them seem eminently sensible by comparison.
What we do need is a media that asks why segments of Toronto are behind Ford, despite his problems. Why aren’t their needs being served and how can service be improved? These questions would be one place to start.
But our media is failing us: they should be taking on the role of asking the tough questions of everyone, not just the Fords or the Ford Nation, and acting as a responsible intermediary between the political machinery of our country and a population that has a right to understand the entire context, and not just the context according to reporters and editors promoting a hero narrative that serves them well and us badly. Ford is not the problem; he’s a symptom and the sooner our media recognizes this, the faster we will return to news that is news and not reportainment. I’m not holding my breath though; the narcissism of our media, like the narcissism of some of our health care professionals, is profound and not likely to change soon.
The Idle No More movement set up a blockade on the rail lines between Montreal and Toronto today. They were protesting the lack of resources our nation’s policing authorities and media outlets put towards the issue of missing native women. Individuals from that movement have read my articles about health care and have commiserated with me: they know what it’s like to be ignored too. Maybe this is a good time to join forces with them and to suggest our media outlets get over their addiction to their own “heroism” — to stop obsessing about their work — and do their jobs properly.
They could start by reporting the news instead of trying to make it.
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