Controversy erupted on Twitter Friday when an anonymous account posted a screenshot of racist comments (or what most people would consider racist) that the wife of Gord Steeves, candidate for Mayor, posted on Facebook four years ago.
It is troubling that somebody’s interaction with panhandlers downtown produced hatred and bitterness instead of compassion or understanding, or at least a more neutral emotion of some sort. Yes, downtown Winnipeg does have a problem with homeless and intoxicated people, often of the race referred to in Lorrie’s Facebook post. The degree of this problem may be debated, but it’s not unusual for people to feel uncomfortable or even afraid to walk around areas of downtown. That’s one thing, but for this experience to transform into a venomous rant in a semi-public forum requires a level of level of intolerance that reflects very poorly on a person’s character.
It is troubling that somebody felt the need to smear a particular candidate without showing their face. The twitter account that posted the screenshot has no other tweets. The person behind it does not even have an established online persona that people can use to evaluate their intentions. It is probable that this social media sucker punch was administered by somebody from one of the other candidate’s teams, but we may never know. This is extremely trashy politics, and it’s unfortunate to see this introduced to an election campaign where the focus should be on issues.
Finally, it is troubling that the press amplified this into the biggest news story of the election so far, potentially turning a stinging sucker punch into a media-administered KO of a leading candidate. It could be argued that this “news” is relevant and should be reported. That argument might be that Lorrie’s views reflect upon the character of her husband, and this is relevant to voters who ought to know something about the character of a person who could be mayor. The problem is that a spouse’s views do not necessarily reflect those of their partner, so it’s not really fair to publish Lorrie’s rant knowing that people will associate them with Gord in that way. Her racist or intolerant views do not preclude the possibility that Gord could be a fair and effective mayor.
Even if they do reflect the attitude of Gord Steeves to some extent, do they tell us anything we don’t already know? It doesn’t take a whole lot of reading between the lines to find similar sentiments in Steeve’s earlier policy announcement. The wording of his “comprehensive downtown safety strategy” was obviously crafted in a much more professional and palatable manner, but hints at cleaning the streets of the “drunken native guys” that Lorrie refers to, and clamping down on welfare cheque day [i.e. during peak IPDA (Intoxicated Persons Detention Act) violations]. There was more to the announcement than that, but what Lorrie’s leaked rant does is call into question the nobility of Gord Steeve’s policy announcement, perhaps unfairly. Is it driven by good intentions and a real desire to increase safety, or is it motivated by something uglier?
There is no question that the anonymous tweets added a new dynamic to the election race among those who are active on social media, and for that reason alone it could be considered “news” and worthy of reporting to the non-tweeting public, but in doing so the press is multiplying the impact of the event. In this way the media is creating the news just as much as it is reporting it. It is a difficult situation for a reporter to be in, I imagine, because ideally the media should leave no footprints in the news landscape.
The Winnipeg Free Press is not only leaving footprints but using a bulldozer to shape the news terrain of the mayoral race by publishing at least 8 stories related to the event, including a splash in large font across the front page of the Monday paper even though nothing of significance happened the day before.
For whatever newsworthiness there may be here, in my opinion the tradeoff is not worth it. Gord Steeves should be judged for his own words, actions, and election platform. There is not enough of a connection between what his wife posted on Facebook four years ago and Gord’s integrity as a politician to justify rewarding the cowardly behavior that @DarlingDarleneJ demostrated on twitter.
Had a campaign manager for another team, for example, tweeted the offensive rant under their own identity, that would be another thing. It would clearly be a case of one candidate taking a shot at another. The act of one candidate digging into the personal history of another candidate’s family would be news just as much as what they found, and people could decide for themselves which is more despicable. In this case however there will be no repercussions for whoever is behind this, if it is indeed another candidate or one of their supporters, and I find it regrettable that these sort of tactics would be rewarded to such a large degree. Its success encourages more of the same and threatens to plummet the campaign into a series of ugly personal attacks. In a race that is starved for real debate about important issues, the last thing we need are dirty politics to get in the way.