The Toronto Star discovers the “Arctic”

The Toronto Star, Canada’s most-read daily newspaper — it claims a Saturday circulation of 600,000 or so — nearly fooled me last weekend.

In its Saturday, Aug. 1 edition, the Star brays and brags big-time about the launch of “a challenging new beat” — the Arctic. Allow me to correct myself. It’s more than a “beat.” It’s “the world’s first multimedia Arctic-Aboriginal beat.”

To scribble content for the “the world’s first multimedia Arctic-Aboriginal beat,” they’ve enlisted a photographer by the name of Paul Watson, billed as Canada’s only Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. You don’t likely remember this, but he won the Pulitzer in 1994 for his picture of a dead U.S. jar-head who was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by a mob of crazed Somalis. (For the record: he’s not the Paul Watson who runs the loony-toon animal rights outfit known as the Sea Shepherd Society.)

Watson’s maiden story, an interesting science piece about the three oceans project that researchers aboard the Louis St. Laurent are helping to conduct this year, isn’t nearly as bad as I might have feared. It’s not news, of course. The three oceans project was announced a couple of years ago with the launch of International Polar Year. But Watson does a pretty good job explaining how the health of copepods and other tiny creature really is essential to understanding the health of the marine food chain in the Arctic Ocean. It’s the kind of geeky but well-written biology-for-the-masses article that would fit perfectly into the pages of Canadian Geographic.

But the appalling display material had me laughing out loud. The Star’s dim-witted copy editors pack in more clichés per pixel than I ever thought possible. I now know the Arctic is “the planet’s new frontier,” a place where “nations rush to stake their claims” and where “Ottawa aggressively fights back to protect our land.” Our land? I know of about 40,000 Canadian Inuit who attach an entirely different meaning to the phrase “our land.”

I even learned the Arctic is a “canary in a coal mine.” Wow. What an original trope.

Poor old Paul Watson, new head of the Star’s “Arctic Bureau,” isn’t responsible for all this twaddle, of course. But I do feel sorry for his having to bear the shame of seeing his name associated with it.

The Star also gives us a slideshow featuring some of Watson’s pics. He’s a talented photographer with an eye for beauty and he knows how to use light, colour and composition to great effect, but do we really need more pretty pictures of polar bears and Arctic sunsets?

To accompany all this, the Star excreted an editorial, also published Aug. 1,  which  comments on the Conservative government’s Northern Strategy document.

Escalating temperatures, ice cap meltdown, threatened livelihoods and disappearing species. As if the assault of global warming on Canada’s Arctic weren’t enough, the laser beam of world attention on its oil and gas riches and future marine transport prospects has brought a new set of challenges to the boil.

Your humble content provider would require another 1,000 words to explain how that and other passages exemplify the worst kind of expository writing — but that would be an unforgiveable digression.

The editorial’s biggest fault is its obsessive focus on sovereignty, which in my opinion is a vastly overblown issue. The Harper government’s document discusses four “pillars.” Arctic sovereignty represents only one of them. The others are economic and social development, governance and environmental protection. The Star’s editorial entirely ignores them.

I suspect this is because no one on their editorial board or inside their newsroom is capable of thinking about these issues — they don’t know anything about them. The Star, despite its bloated staff and enormous cash flow, has never bothered to provide regular coverage of the three territories. Arctic issues are fashionable — for now — but the Star has no institutional knowledge with which to understand them.

And they have no way of appreciating that the Arctic is a place full of people, people who work, love and suffer, people who worry about how to pay next month’s bills and how to feed their children and keep them healthy.

The Star’s handling of Arctic issues isn’t completely incompetent, however. On July 29, they did publish this rather sensible piece by P. Whitney Lackenbauer, who comments on the Tory’s Northern Strategy document.

The government finally seems to have paid heed to those commentators who downplay the threat of an imminent “sovereignty crisis” requiring military action. There is room for cooperation in the circumpolar world, and the Department of National Defence should not be the lead federal agency in charting our course in the region.

The tone and emphasis also should find support among the opposition parties and northern leaders, who repeatedly have expressed concern over the alarmist thinking that dominated the agenda until recently.

Touché.

But forget everything I’ve just said. I haven’t even mentioned the Star’s boldest foray into northern journalism. On Aug. 1, they delved into the polar bear issue — by sending a hack to the Metro Toronto Zoo.

Your humble content provider rests his case.

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