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Donald Trump and clickbait cats: We'll look back in shock at 2016's cheap punditry

Now more than ever, those privileged enough to garner a platform for critical thought must take the long view, writes Shannon VanRaes.

In this Nov. 4, 2016, photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Hershey, Pa.

AP Photo/ Evan Vucci

In this Nov. 4, 2016, photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Hershey, Pa.

Nellie McClung is not Donald Trump.

It seems like a fact so obvious that a person shouldn't need to actually state it. Yet here we are.

I'm spelling it out because at least one critic of human civilization up until this point in time believes there is a correlation between the two, although they make no argument for it. Toronto Star columnist Emma Teitel — who obviously adored the opening of my last column regarding McClung, but not my supposition she was axed from the banknote running due to a historical double standard faced by women — made the comment last week.

While she stopped short of invoking Godwin's law, Teitel did write "in the age of President-elect Donald J. Trump no less, it’s a good thing that we don’t jump to immortalize historical figures on our national currency who championed eugenics."

Non sequitur aside, it's the kind of utterance that almost leaves me hopeful future generations do judge our work as journalists and commentators as harshly as those like Teitel have judged our forebears. Because when our children's children ask how the world got to be the way it is, they will undoubtedly turn to the historic record for answers and what they will find is reoccurring examples of how the now vast-category of people, institutions and platforms dubbed "the media" failed to meaningfully explain, inform or challenge the public on issues of the day. Instead, they will look back and find hurried tweets, glib jabs and sensationalism where there should have been facts and arguments. Rather than finding thoughtful analysis, future generations will find correlations between Donald Trump and Nellie McClung, and blanket statements labelling basically everyone born prior to — for argument's sake let's say 1990 — as a "predictable breed of bad."

But, at the end of the day, I'm not angry. I'm disappointed.

While I may not live to see it, I'm confident that fifty years from now universities will offer lectures with titles like "The Impact of Clickbait on Early 21st Century Democracy" and "The Role of the Media in North American Decline" as academics attempt to find answers for the monumental shifts about to rock our world. These imagined academics will say that, yes, it is true fine journalists existed during the period and that the tradition of excellent journalism was preserved in the corners of legacy publishing, but that overall the period was one of missed opportunities, where contrarianism and polarization won out over the thought provoking and nuanced debate we needed to sustain our democracy.

That's not to say sensationalism is new to journalism, I think of the scathing media commentary laid out in the 1951 film Ace in the Hole, where Kirk Douglas plays an unscrupulous reporter who allows a trapped miner to die to further his own career. Journalism has never been above criticism or journalists beyond stereotype, so make no mistake, I am not pining for some mythical golden age of reportage — although I would welcome a return to greater profitability.

What I am saying is that now more than ever, those privileged enough to garner a platform for critical thought must take the long view. Journalism must strive to differentiate itself from the din of online noise to remain credible in the face of backlash, ignorance, fake news and threats yet unseen. Not just because news outlets depend on this differentiation to retain advertisers and solvency, but because civil society depends on it. 

If I want to engage in useless arguments that eventually ends with a comparison to Hitler or relax with "32 cats that regret their life choices" I can look to social media. But if I want to explore issues, expose myself to new ideas and concepts, it takes something else to get there.

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