Wednesday, February 22, 2012

“Dion syndrome” is revisionist history masking self-interest

Leadership races are always places for amusing and nonsensical spin, and the current NDP race is no exception with some participants warning against a supposedly deadly, but entirely fictional, new malady: Dion syndrome.

Named for former Liberal leader Stephane Dion, it’s meant to describe the horror of a candidate that finished third on the first ballot going on to win because of their strong second-choice support. Or in other words, winning because more members like them than like the other choices.

Here it is in common ussage:

* An NDP MP is warning party members to be wary of the “Stéphane Dion Syndrome.” .. “I’m behind Thomas Mulcair,” he said. “However, I’d prefer if the winner were Brian Topp instead of everyone’s second choice.”

* Last week party officials were warning about "Stephane Dion syndrome," referencing the third place Liberal contender who won his party's leadership because of divisions between Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae supporters.

First of all, it’s amusing to see the notion of preferential balloting degraded by supporters of a party that has made electoral reform and the evils of first past the post a key policy plank for years. Preferential balloting is fairer; I won’t bother repeating the argument as they've already made them ad nauseum.

But a look at who is pushing this narrative (primarily Mulcair supporters) reveals why they’re tossing-out past arguments of fairness: self-interest. It’s in the interests of the two media-anointed front-runners (Mulcair and Brian Topp) to do everything to frame this as a two-way race, and force members to make a polarized choice. While they may like one of the supposed second-tier candidates better, if there are only two “real choices” they’re forced to choose between them.

Ironically, it’s the same strategy the Liberals and NDP have ran against each other at the riding level for years. Only we can stop the Conservatives, so vote for us or you’re electing the Conservatives/throwing your vote away. Just hold your nose and pick the lesser evil…

However, they can’t just come out and say “we’re the only real candidates and those other guys suck” because, besides not being true, they do actually need the support of people that like those other candidates. Hence the invention of “the Dion Syndrome” to frighten people about the evils of electing a third-place candidate. While I would take many lessons from Stephane’s leadership, this isn’t one of them.

Let’s look back and look at the numbers. Going into Montreal in 2006 much of the media had framed it as a two-way race: Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae. This offered a compelling media narrative for a number of reasons. For one, a two-way race is easier to cover. Also, their personal history made it compelling: former roommates who went off and made good in the world, now battling for the leadership. And like it is for Topp and Mulcair, it was in Ignatieff and Rae’s interests to promote this narrative. One was right of centre, one left, and both were polarizing figures. And neither had strong second-place support. So make it a two-way race and let the chips fall.

Except, once the members began to vote it was clear this was anything but a two-way race. Going into the first round of voting, Ignatieff campaign members told me they’d be in the high 30s. Rae would be within striking distance, was the word.

Instead, we got Ignatieff 29.3%, Rae 20.3%, Dion 17.8%, Kennedy 17.7% on the first ballot. Ignatieff’s results were nowhere near his campaign’s over-spin, and just a few per cent separated supposed also-rans Dion and Kennedy from the supposed front-runners.

Now, to follow the logic of those diagnosing “Dion Syndrome” everyone but Rae and Ignatieff should have dropped-out because of a difference of 121 votes out of 4,815. Of course, they didn’t, and with Ignatieff and Rae’s support stalled Dion would take the lead on the third ballot and win on the fourth.

Now, there are lessons to learn from Dion’s leadership. He won with the support of the delegates (not the wider membership, which is why we went to WOMOV a few years later) but little support from caucus, which would prove a problem. And some supporters of other candidates declined to down tools, preferring to wait him out. But to think picking one of the supposed front-runners would have changed that is incorrect; first past the post would have elected a candidate with less support from the membership, not more.

The lesson is the same as it is from any leadership race: respect the will of the membership and work together to support the new leader or we won’t get anywhere. I’d actually call that Liberal Syndrome, and its one non-fictional malady that, speaking from experience, the NDP would do well to avoid.

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Friday, February 17, 2012

Vikileaks and the death of the journalist as news gatekeeper

I was in Las Vegas for a work trip and tuned-out of all news from back in Canada, so it was only Friday that I returned and caught myself up on the “Vikileaks” drama, and it was fascinating to read some of the commentary and follow the tweets on the topic, particularly those from hill journalists and political sorts.

I won’t pass judgment on whether or not the information about Vic Toews should have been published or not, except to say it’s not how I would chose to do politics. Which I guess is passing judgment, so there you go. This sort of thing is par the course in modern politics though, and for the Conservatives, who have taken it to new levels, to now wring their hands is silly. And, for the record, it is only an ethical question, and we are talking about publicly available information and documents.

What really interests me though is the reaction of the proverbial “main-stream media” to the Vikileaks story, with an Ottawa Citizen piece attempting to trace the IP address of the “@Vikileaks30 leaker” spurring endless speculation and demands to identify the person or persons responsible. It should be noted that had @Vikileaks30 given their documents to a journalist who chose to publish a story based on them, then the media would be reminding us how important it is to protect the confidentiality of their sources. Even competing outlets wouldn’t try to unmask another journalist’s confidential source. That’s just not cricket, old boy.

What the media reaction to @Vikileaks30 really shows though is how angry, and perhaps frightened, they are about losing their traditional role as the gatekeepers of news, the people that get to decide what we, the unwashed masses, need to know and what we don’t need to know. Journalists are used to being in the know, to having the inside details, the scoop. It helps make up for the low pay, long hours and heavy drinking.

Journalists made judgment calls every day on what is news and what isn’t, what people have a right to know, and what isn’t relevant. It's part of the job in one sense; there's always more news than column inches or air time. And they see it as a public service. But no one elected them as the arbiters of good taste. They’re accountable to no one but their publisher and the shareholders. It’s a lot of trust, and a lot of responsibility.

The internet, blogging and social media are changing all that however. Now you no longer need a printing press or a television or radio station to publish information to the masses. Anyone with an Internet connection can publish anything they want, and potentially find an audience. And the market will, in a way, make its own judgment on its news worthiness. If people find it relevant, they’ll share or re-tweet it and the news finds a wider audience; if they deem it inappropriate it will wither and fade away, perhaps after first being soundly condemned.

What it means, though, is that the role of the traditional media as gatekeeper is drying, if it’s not already dead. With their breadth of reach and size of audience, the regular media is still the fastest way for news to be disseminated to the wider public. But thanks to social media, even if the press deems something “un-newsworthy,” if it gets enough traction online they eventually have no choice but to cover it anyway.

Whether or not you think publishing details of Vic Toews’ divorce as a form of protest against privacy-invading Internet snooping legislation is appropriate, what this drama shows about the eroding power of the media gatekeeper is very much a positive, in my opinion.

But back to the moral media tut-tutting around this story. Here’s the National Post editorial board weighing-in, for example, with a reflex attack on the always handy partisan scarecrow:

… their partisan opponents wouldn’t care. Rightly or wrongly, to embrace, promote or even acknowledge Vilikeaks — as a remarkable number of opposition MPs have done — is to accept yet further debasement of the Canadian political conversation. There is no way around it. The ends may justify the means in some people’s minds, but all politicians’ private lives are less private today than they were on Monday.
The media’s role in this is more tricky. The content of the Vikileaks tweets has been widely known in Ottawa since the events occurred. Yet not a word of it was breathed in the mainstream press, in accordance with the basic Canadian understanding described above.
But now it is all over the news — if not the particulars of Mr. Toews’ situation, then the fact that someone is publishing those particulars at a Twitter account called @Vikileaks30.

Attacking evil partisans is always easy for journalists, or in this case anonymous editorial writers, but the fact is the Post’s statement that “not a word of it was breathed in the mainstream press” is easily and demonstrably wrong, as a simple search of any newspaper archive service shows.

* May 17, 2008, Mia Rabson in Winnipeg Free Press

Sources suggest Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants Toews to step down because of concerns about issues in his personal life -- he's currently in the midst of a divorce. An appointment to the bench makes sense because of Toews' background as a former Crown prosecutor in Brandon and lawyer for the Manitoba government.

* May 17, 2008, Don Martin in Calgary Herald

But the 55-year-old Toews' public face of self-righteous morality is now clashing with his troubled private life. An MP dubbed the "minister of family values" by Liberals is embroiled in a messy divorce after fathering a child last fall with a much younger woman.
That's his business, frankly, yet it might explain why Mr. Toews was demoted to the Treasury Board and immediately cloaked by invisibility, stewing in question period silence while his junior parliamentary secretary juggles tough questions on election financing irregularities.

* May 23, 2008, Joan Bryden in Waterloo Region Record

As well, Tories have been whispering that Treasury Board President Vic Toews, embroiled in a messy divorce, has fallen into disfavour with Harper.

In June of 2009, Vancouver Sun columnist Barbara Yaffe even wrote a column headlined “U.S. 'affairs' so much more interesting.”

And last year, then-Justice Minister Vic Toews split with his wife of 33 years after having fathered a child with a political staffer. A Winnipeg newspaper called it "messy personal stuff.
Toews since has been re-elected and appointed Treasury Board president. His website features nothing personal beyond "Vic enjoys roller blading and jogging. He resides in Steinbach.

In fact, here’s a May 21, 2008 story from the National Post with Toews reacting to a story about his divorce proceedings, in, you guessed it, the National Post (I guess the op/ed writers missed this one):

Mr. Toews, appearing at a news conference for a joint federal-provincial program for aboriginal youth sport, was also asked about a report in Saturday's National Post indicating he is currently involved in a messy divorce after fathering a child last fall with a much younger woman.
"I don't talk about my personal life," Mr. Toews replied.

Perhaps Vic, but the media sure does an awful lot. It seems obvious that the media tut-tutting has nothing to do with publishing such personal details; it’s just the feeble protests of the dying news gatekeepers.

UPDATE: An earlier post along these lines that has relevance to this one: On Adam Giambrone, morality vs. privacy, and the media as gatekeeper.

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