Playing to the lowest common denominator

Back in my editoring-in-chief days, my editorial staff and I had a really great discussion one day about editorial graphics. There’s a great temptation to run humorous graphics with no real editorial argument to make – a temptation that many papers succumb to – for the sake of being funny.

We decided not to do that but frankly, I understand why some papers do. I think it’s a wasted opportunity to have a say on something but that’s the editorial board’s perogative.

All this to say, I place a high level of importance in editorial graphics as a tool for making a point. Visuals are more likely to engage the reader than text-based editorials and I’ve seen some wonderful graphics that say more than a 300 word argument ever could.

So when my wonderful girlfriend pointed me to this graphic, my media-rage metre jumped a few pegs:

This is, without a doubt, making an editorial point. But I had really hoped we were beyond this sort of quasi-patriotic nonsense. In my mind, this graphic panders to emotion rather than rational thought. It’s an unfortunate return to the post-9/11 hysteria that placed discourse on the backburner.

Furthermore, it completely ignores the myriad reasons for Canada to be engaged in a complex geo-political conflict and portrays the mission as one of revenge, thus undermining the valuable nationbuilding work our soldiers and NGOs are supposed to be carrying out in Afghanistan.

I’m glad the Citizen decided to use their space to make an argument, but is it too much to ask for papers to advance discourse rather than regress it?


  1. Did the Ottawa Citizen draw a picture of 800,000 Rwandans with the quote “Can you think of 800,000 reasons why we’re not in Rwanda?”

    Didn’t think so.

    In fact, can someone run an Infomart search on Ottawa Citizen editorials to see if they advocated for intervention in Rwanda? I just want to see if they really have a moral leg to stand on.

  2. I ran the FPinfomart search and as JK suspected the Ottawa Citizen editorial calls for intervention in Rwanda were impotent at best. There was no editorial with a focus of calling on the international community to intervene during the genocide.

    The first editorial “Horror out of Africa” came Tue, Apr 12, 1994 it begins and focuses on how “there are a lot of potential Rwandas…”

    The kicker:
    “There, are, however, a lot of potential Rwandas — not in the news, just now, maybe, but just as fragile and with a lot more people who may be displaced. It might be wise to give them some thought.”

    This couldn’t have been more misguided, but I guess a week into the killing their ignorance is more forgivable. Having said that, they ran a news article from The Guardian that day describing the killing and should not have dismissed the scenario so quickly.

    Their next editorial on Rwanda does not come until Thursday, May 12, 1994 over one month into the genocide. Considering the sheer scale of murders that occurred in that first third of the genocide they had already missed the mark in my opinion. The editorial titled “Helping Rwanda” focused on the need for the international community to make donations, they ran it with a sidebar of aid agency addresses and made a mistake in the CARE Canada address. They mentioned the need to stop the genocide in the lead and do not mention it again in the editorial:

    “The international community must stop the slaughter so aid agencies can get on with the job of saving the survivors.”

    By Thursday May 19, the Citizen still hadn’t taken stand so they took excerpts from the NYT editorial that advocated a wait and see approach from what the excerpt showed:

    “The Clinton administration has rightly resisted a clamor for instantly expanding a minuscule U.N. peacekeeping force to halt the human carnage in Rwanda. An ill-planned military debacle might only deepen the conflict there and jeopardize peacekeeping missions elsewhere…”

    Their performance only got worse from there, the words “Rwanda” and “Genocide” are tossed about flippantly in unrelated editorials for months.

    “We must curb the ape in us”
    Mon, May 16, 1994
    The lead: “Genocide, according to Jared Diamond, a research biologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, is a behavior that Homo sapiens shares with the other primates”

    I wish I were joking, but in the midst of a genocide where they didn’t call on the international community to do something the citizen was running shit like this:

    “…the immoral is not unnatural”

    “One cannot say that if genocide is halted in Rwanda and Bosnia then by some simple causal sequence it will become less likely in Los Angeles.”

    Other unrelated editorials mentioning Rwanda included:
    “Compassion fatigue a myth” May 30
    “They get paid for doing this?” June 2 (An 800+ word piece about how “fun” it is being on the Citizen editorial board by Randy Steffan)
    “A darker corner” July 12 (the conflict in Africa’s Western Sahara)

    It is shocking to think months went by as the death toll approached 1 million and there was no editorial with the purpose of taking a stance that the international community should intervene. The best they did was congratulating those who did act (France and Dallaire).

    To end the chapter of Ottawa Citizen editorials on Rwanda fast forward to “Fading conscience” January 28, 1995. This one alludes to the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and how we “do little to save other victims of atrocities occurring before our eyes.”

    Freshly after not taking an editorial stance demanding the international community intervene in Rwanda the Ottawa Citizen is content to mention Rwanda as another failure to act by the West.

    “What’s our excuse?” they ask. “The majority [of us] are, at best, content to write a cheque — or an editorial — and then return helplessly to the business of getting through the day.”

    Who wrote an editorial? Not the Ottawa Citizen.

  3. holy cow! i thought i was well-informed about these situations no one in wants to acknowledge – it’s so ironic how when a real time line is laid out like that (crazy research, good on ya!) most rational people want to puke, but instead of DOING, we allow ourselves to slack with phrases that purport to shame us, but really they are just self-satisfying… the more the media allow citizens to read editorials that pat us on the back for feeling ashamed of our inaction, the more inaction we’ll have. the more we buy and subscribe to newspapers that focus on the george clooney angle when it comes to darfur, the more we passively approve of that strategy… i have no idea how to demand coverage… but this site and your words are big and necessary steps.

  4. Hey, Ben. Thanks for the research. That was amazing.

    As I thought, the Citizen certainly has no moral high ground in running their “towers” cartoon…

  5. I think you’re asking an awful lot of one cartoon — especially since it’s far from the only thing we’ve said about Afghanistan lately. We’re definitely in favour of the mission there, and for reasons you might not agree with, but we don’t just beat the 9/11 drum to justify it.

    (Keep in mind, too, the cartoon is more like a column than an editorial; it’s a comment by the artist, not the whole newspaper.)

    If you’re looking for moral legs, you might rummage through Infomart for our much more current views on Darfur, Uzbekistan, or maybe Kyrgyzstan. Even Rwanda itself. Those are probably more reflective of the moral legs on which the paper might stand than stuff from 12 years ago. We were wrong then, I agree (though I wasn’t around then), but that doesn’t mean we can’t ever be right about anything ever again.

    Great blog generally, though, with some pretty sharp assessments. Keep it up.

    David Reevely, a Citizen editorial writer (speaking only for myself)

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *