Protest coverage: all live, all the time, all shallow

In the 77th minute of the pulsating World Cup game between Ghana and the U.S.A. – then tied 1-1 – the text crawled across the TV screen. G20 protests, violent clashes. Some people looked at their iPhone or BlackBerry. Some glanced out the window. Nobody moved.

It was happening, is all. The customary theatre of the protests. Without even seeing the footage we could all picture it – kids in black hoodies and bandanas throwing stones, breaking windows and, probably, setting a police car on fire. That’s precisely what it was, of course.

See, the G20 is the Oscars of the protest-world. Tons of media attention, not much context. Photo-ops and fame. And television coverage of the G20 Summit and the protests in Toronto has been drearily predictable, and mostly as mindless as Oscars coverage. The protests – representing nothing more than infantile, pay-attention-to-me-Mommy exhibitionism and destruction – are photo-opportunities as much as the politicians’ statements and handshakes, are photo-ops. Getting on television is pretty much the point of everything, and television loves live, violent action as it loves movie stars.

Thus, so much of our TV news seemed to be salivating at the prospect of protests. Dramatic footage! Riot police! Gangs of roving youths. Running battles on the street! And it became stupendously obvious in the lead-up to Friday and Saturday that local TV news was worshipping at the altar of local police authorities. Local TV news tends to gravitate toward authority on a daily basis anyway, but in Toronto in the last week the sense of paranoia fostered by the police was absorbed and spread to a ridiculous extent.

As a result, obvious questions were never asked. No context for the rioting and destruction that was to come on Saturday in Toronto was ever provided. This was an occasion in which all the shallowness and predictability of TV news was glaringly illuminated.

Far as I can tell, nobody ever asked anyone in authority – government or police – if the grandiosity of the security preparations in downtown Toronto wasn’t an invitation, a challenge even, to the pseudo-anarchists to attack and do their worst. Nobody in the TV news racket seemed willing to ask why, if “security” was the main concern, the G20 was being held in the core of a major city in the first place.

Nobody on TV was prepared, or indeed intellectually equipped, one suspects, to see the enormous fences and the extreme disruption of downtown life and business, as a symbolic act of hostility against a population, and as symbolic examples of the remoteness of the powerful from ordinary people.

Further, nobody on TV was ever willing to suggest that there is a bizarre symbiotic relationship between the forces comprised of black-clad riot police and the “Black Bloc” anarchists. I mean, seriously – these are two groups of guys getting dressed up in black to go out and do some damage to somebody or something. No matter what they tell you, me or those perky TV news reporters, these all just guys itching for a showdown.

While I’m at it, it would have been useful if some TV pundit had suggested that anyone planning to protest in Toronto during the G20 would make a point with more pith and less aggravation if they’d simply stayed home and issued a press release. Thus the staggering $1.2-billion cost of summit security would have been revealed as the ludicrous excess it surely was.

But nobody was going to make that suggestion and nobody was going to stay home. Everybody wants to be seen on TV, making a speech, cheering, carrying a banner or pointing a finger at somebody else. Look, ma! Top of the world, ma!

What we all saw on TV, eventually, was perplexing – empty streets, burning police cars, the smashing of shop windows, vast armies of police moving this way and that, in a bizarre dance. Some reporters expressed shock – the ones who have never been in the middle of a truly terrifying clash between authorities and protesters. We saw $1.2-billion of taxpayer money evaporating, and nobody asking: Why?

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