Friday, August 06, 2010

Media obsess over stupid shit, Canadians tune out, Harper smiles

If in 50 years, a Canadian political science professor is lecturing his or her freshmen about the decline of political journalism in Canada, this morning’s spectacle at Rideau Hall in Ottawa would provide an interesting case study.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper had a rare press availability this morning, on the occasion of a minor cabinet shuffle. This was a notable for a number of reasons. One, Steve doesn’t talk to the media that much. He knows the risks of over-exposure, so he always leaves them wanting more. He also hasn’t been seen for some time while a number of controversial issues have swirled, such as more G-20 fallout, the census brouhaha, air attacks from the Soviet Union, an alarming rise in unreported crime, and some minor drama that 15 people will see in Toronto.

I was working so, sadly, I couldn’t watch the drama live. Thankfully, Twitter was on duty, and my hack/flack/journo column in Tweetdeck went wild with more cat-fighting than the last time Paris and Lindsay ended-up crossing paths at the same club in Hollywood.

The Globe’s Steven Chase does the synopsis well enough. But first, some helpful background. Our media long-ago caved to the Harper PMO’s desire for media control by agreeing to put their names on a list at press conferences, which allows the PMO to pick which journos to let ask a question. OK, go read Chase and come back.

First of all, let me say I think both David Akin and Craig Oliver’s questions were both pretty dumb. I prefer the two the pack came up with, although not by much. I have no problem though with letting them ask whatever the heck they want to, and I’m not upset at all they wanted to stray from the pack. I encourage it. I just wish they’d stray with questions that have a little more relevance to things Canadians actually care about.

Because I find this entire situation sadly laughable, and think everyone comes off looking pretty ridiculous.

First of all, there’s too much of a pack mentality in the Parliamentary Press Gallery as it is, and huddling to decide on your questions doesn’t help. And then getting huffy when Harper strays from the protocol he has put in place to control you by taking it one step further? I laughed. The problem isn’t that Harper strayed from the list; the problem is that you agreed to the dammed list in the first place! You’ve already surrendered, and now you’re complaining about the quality of the gruel in the prison camp? See the forest for the trees guys, really.

That’s what is at the root of this: Harper’s continual beating down of the national media, and the media’s unwavering willingness to stand there and take it. If the media just once said no, we’re not going to cover your photo-op, if they said if you insist on a list, and will only take four questions, then we’re not coming; he’d cave. Instead, too afraid in the 24-hour news cycle of losing one story, one “scoop” no matter how minor, they’ve given in.

I don’t blame Harper or the PMO one little bit. While as a democrat I bemoan the strategy, the fact is it’s working for them so why on Earth would they change anything? By limiting the opportunity and the questions, they limit the risk, and rather than lashing-out the media have tamely complied, rarely asking tough questions even when they get the opportunity. He’s playing them like a fiddle. Sure, they’ll grumble on Twitter. But then they’ll file the stories he was hoping for.

And don’t tell me the opposition leaders haven’t been watching this phenomenon carefully. Now obviously, opposition leaders need more media exposure, so they need to put themselves out there. Still, put yourself out there and take every question and you’ll either step on your crank or let the media finally hit on a negative story or one that you don’t want; it’s inevitable. Limit it, and they’re forced to parrot your message.

It’s rewarding bad behaviour and like a dog, with repeated reinforcement even a politician will learn eventually. By buying into Harper’s system, the media are perpetuating the behaviour they claim to dislike. Let’s say the Liberals win an election at some point (stick with me here), why would they do anything different than Harper on this? It clearly hasn’t hurt Harper at all.

The other problem is, when they do get a political leader in front of them, the questions the media ask usually have no relevance to what Canadians (their supposed audience) actually care about. This is true any time I see Harper, Ignatieff or Jack Layton taking questions. They inevitably ask about polls. Election speculation. Gamesmanship and the horserace. And their audience tunes-out, because outside the Ottawa bubble we could care less about that nonesense.

I’ve written about this before, but it’s instructive to look at what Canadians ask when they get a chance to question the leaders directly. Health care, foreign affairs, democratic institutions, drug policy, climate change, child care, post-secondary education. These are the sorts of things Canadians actually care about, yet they’re the things our media, supposedly our proxy to our political leadership, never ask about.

There are many challenges for the mainstream media at large to face in today’s media climate. But for our political media specifically, the solutions are clear: reconnect with what your audience actually cares about and act as their proxy, like you’re supposed to. And find where you left your stones.

After that, the rest will take care of itself.

P.S. Actually, there is one more thing the media needs to do. Not be afraid to call bullshit. And I don't mean this as a partisan thing, because all sides of the political spectrum put lots of bullshit out there. And, sadly, media see balance as letting each side have their say, no matter how full of bullshit they are. What they need to do instead is say no, actually the sky isn't blue and Canada isn't being invaded by unreported Communist unicorns.

Anyway, whenever I get too upset about any of this stuff, I'm comforted by reminding myself that hardly anyone is watching this crap anyway. Were I in the gallery though, I'd find that less comforting.

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Eugene Forsey Liberal said...

Well effin said.

CanadianSense said...

Excellent post.

Pack Mentality covered here -

Shrinking media budgets and declining public interest mean that there's also less room for political stories. Still, competition is fierce. No one wants to miss a story, so everyone watches what the others are doing. There are few rewards for breaking away from the pack.

It's a perfect collision of conditions to get everyone chasing one tiny ball, instead of fanning out over the democratic field.


lyrical said...

CS: Chasing one tiny, shiny ball.

The Parliamentary press gallery is a murder of crows.

Rotterdam said...

Last May, Obama had his first press conference in 308 days.

He prefers to take tough questions from the likes of Joy Behar on "The View".
We needed to know his reaction to Lindsay being in jail.

Fred from BC said...

A very intelligent and well reasoned argument, definitely. Your fellow Liberals will hate it, of course...

WesternGrit said...

Great fu#king post!

This part: "media see balance as letting each side have their say, no matter how full of bullshit they are" is SOOOOO damned true. Like the global warming/climate change debate. Common sense and logic take a back seat to never calling bullshit bullshit.

Screw the MSM... blog away. Pretty soon we will all have our own TV/internet channel, where we can simply listen/watch news which we agree with, and which doesn't offend our sensibilities...

And the MSM? No cajones. Not one REAL journalist in the bunch. No REAL investigative journalism. Instead, they find a story, then give equal time to the "defendant" no matter how wrong they are (and the supposed journalists know it).

This is the bastard love child of news/journalism with private corporate interests. Enjoy our supposed democracy! The more I see this, the more I find municipal politics the most pure, organic, realistic politics going...

wilson said...

"media see balance as letting each side have their say, no matter how full of bullshit they are"

My hopes are that SunTV will change that, and challenge 'all' party talking points, on the spot.

It's frustrating to both Lib and Con supporters to read and watch as journalists tell 'half stories',
when they aren't chasing wafers or speculating on the next election.