By Frank Moher
The Canadian news media have been engaged in a lot of hand-wringing and debate over the Russell Williams trial and their coverage of it. Should they have published photos of him dressed in his victims’ lingerie? Should newspapers have kept the photos off the front page? Should the details of his crimes have been reported, in their every lurid, sexually violent aspect?
It makes you wish for the days when the media were less punctilious. It also reveals the extent to which they’ve decided their job is to control the flow of information, especially if that information might be disturbing.
The Toronto Star got it right, by publishing a photo of Williams posing in women’s underwear alongside another of him saluting in full-dress military uniform. As publisher John Cruickshank told the CBC, “I think it’s that pair of photos — not the single photo — that tell an extraordinary, disturbing story.” Quite so. But Cruickshank really hit the mark when he added: “This is a day you hate as a publisher. I would much rather have a victorious Leafs cover celebrating their victory.” Why? Because the hockey pic would sell papers and leave everyone feeling good, as opposed to the Williams diptych, which you can bet resulted in a lot of cancelled subscriptions and ill-will towards the Star.
The decision to publish or not-to-publish, especially on the front page, was really a business decision, no matter how piously Cruickshank’s competitors explained otherwise. The Star made the hard choice; others did not.
Note, too, that the media’s squeamishness focussed mostly on those photos, as opposed to Williams’ murders. But cross-dressing isn’t a crime; if the still mostly-macho culture of our newsrooms can’t handle it, that isn’t a reason to suppress images of it. It’s a reason to get editors with more capacity for the complete range of human behaviour.
The job of the news media is to tell and show us what happened, period. It’s not to decide what we can or cannot handle, what is or isn’t tasteful, what should or shouldn’t be seen or known. And as a public, we have no more right to demand that newspapers keep shocking images off the front page than we do to insist cities remove homeless people from the streets. Reality is reality. Don’t like it? Can’t help you there.
Unfortunately, more and more news organizations do assist those readers (or viewers) who prefer not to be upset — not just in matters of human psychopathy, but more broadly as well. Prefer not to know that the CIA used drug profits to finance its war against the Nicaraguan contras? Hey, no problem. Or that the Bush Administration lied America into war? We’re on it. Or that evidence indicates foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks extended well beyond whoever hijacked the planes? Leave that to us.
Of course, these really big stories are suppressed for other reasons too, including fear of, or manipulation by, political overlords. But when the media set themselves up, not as conduits, but as filters, we’re all the poorer for it. No matter how much we might prefer to be kept in the dark.