Reflections on my Dissertation Part 4: We’ve seen Clickbait Before

This one will be quite short.  Whenever I get frustrated at a piece of “news” that is high on personal attacks and short on facts, I remember that we’ve seen this stuff before.

Many right now in media have been using pre-World War II as a model for the considerable unrest occurring in the world right now — at least from a media point of view.

I think a better model is post-War of 1812 North America. Canada was caught between the Scylla of UK colonialism and Charbydis of US expansionism in terms of its media coverage — something I discuss in a previous reflection — and a large number of American loyalists became the mainstay of Canadian culture by using new technologies like pulp paper and the rotary press to develop platforms for their news. One of the main differences between then and now, however, was the near reliance of these news business on government printing in order to stay alive. But sometimes there are “special interest stories” that resemble much of what we might see on Gawker or Buzzfeed:

On friday evening last some of our official sprigs and hopeful upstarts sallied forth to make a display of their activity; which they did by making depredations upon the property of our peacable citizens. Mr. James Taylor, Merchant, had a quantity of salt barrels lying piled up in his house, where they their ingenuity by tumbling them down where some of them were broken by the fall — they proceeding from thence to pull down diverse signs, one of their member, a young gentleman by the name of Craig (who we learn was in the main well behaved) a nephew of the Archdeacon, who had clambered up for the purpose, fell from his station and injured himself so much that he died on Tuesday evening. We understand that the companions all ran away and left him except William Campbell Esq., clerk of Assize for the district. We have not learned their names but we understand that Robert Hamilton, a student of law, and one of the Archdeacon’s sons, were of the party.

What a pity our gents would not learn to behave better. Had these depredations been committed by the boys in our office there would be little doubt but they would soon have found safe lodging within the strong walls of the brick house.

We understand that young Craig stated that he had been drawn into the scrape by persuasion, and that he desired all the youth of the town to take warning by him and avoid such company.

It’s unclear to what degree poor Craig’s injuries could have been helped by modern medicine, but what strikes me about this passage is the very informal and personal style of the author. There’s a clear social-justice bent to the language and the story is very much intended to act as a warning to all those other young hoodlums who would get themselves into such a mess. By changing the language, this could easily become a Tumblr post.

The newspaper that ran this article, by the way, was the Colonial Advocate (cited in W.H Kesterton’s A History of Journalism in Canada) — the owner of the paper was the leader of the Upper Canada Rebellion, First Mayor of Toronto and First President of a declared “Republic of Canada” in 1837 five years after this article was written.  He was also the grandfather of William Lyon Mackenzie King – a future Prime Minister of Canada.

So, if the historical pattern follows, the concern that we should worry about most is not a build-up of fascism, but instead a divided public on the road to civil war.  Canada’s response was the response of a nation too small and poor to get into a big fight: a restructuring of government that followed Durham’s famous report on responsible government for Canada. Unfortunately, the differences between the more progressive and expansionist Yankees and the colonialists slave-owners to the south were not as reconcilable. One hopes that common ground can build to prevent such a catastrophe as a big war.

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