Saturday, January 10, 2009

Diagnos? Check. Cure? Umm...

I seem to be on a medical theme today. But The Star's James Travers does a fine job of diagnosing the illness in his column today on the media's failure to look past the fluff and ask critical policy questions during the last election:

Where we in the media were missing, though, was in the fall federal election. Preoccupied first with an imploding Stephane Dion and then with Stephen Harper's insensitive, decidedly dicey stock market advice, the national press let the major parties promise surplus heaven with the country teetering on the threshold of deficit hell. Even after the September financial meltdown, leaders clung to badly dated summer statistics to make campaign commitments that, in ranging from Liberal ludicrous to Conservative careful, clearly couldn't be kept.

I like Travers so I don't want to give him too hard a time, and he's certainly going further than the bulk of his colleagues by even considering these questions. And I think he's making an effort here. But I believe I misspoke when I said he has diagnosed the illness. In actuality, by focusing merely on the economy, he has actually only succeeded in identifying one of the symptoms, not the illness itself.

He's correct, the media by and large failed to ask critical questions of the party's economic platforms during the campaign. They also helped create a environment where politicians who didn't “play the game” were in trouble: remember the furious backtracking St├ęphane Dion had to do during the campaign when he admitted a deficit may be possible due to the economy. The Conservatives went after him hard and the media both mocked him and played it up, and Dion was forced to quickly back down and tow the line: deficit? No way, you crazy, sunshine and sprinkles.

But this was merely a symptom of the larger illness, for the media's lack of desire to provide critical analysis of important policy areas also manifested itself in other areas. The obvious example? The Liberal Green Shift. We didn't get any critical analysis of the merits of the policy during the campaign. There was no examination of its effectiveness of ineffectiveness, or attempt by the media to examine it in the context of the proposals of the NDP and the Conservatives. Not until after the campaign, when we got a raft of analysis/eulogies saying what a shame it was such a great, effective policy wasn't embraced. Heck, even big oil is now pushing similar policy (h/t Wherry).

That's all after the campaign though. After the campaign the media are eager to revisit the merits of a carbon shift, or critically analyze the party's economic policy proposals. During the campaign, however, the bulk of coverage was exceedingly superficial, and was focused on the politics before, and in exclusion of, the policy. New poll numbers, puffin poop, how will this trivial event effect the horse race, interview outtakes and bloopers.

This isn't a new phenomenon, and it certainly didn't begin in this campaign. Critical reporting is becoming less and less common in today's media, whether there's an election on or not. There's less and less room for investigative reporting and even the analysis piece. While you'd think the 24-hour news cycle would give more room for real journalism, instead it seems to encourage a focus on the superficial and the trivial.

And in the end, while he has only identified one of the symptoms, Travers is right in that its the citizens that suffer, for we are less informed and educated as a result, which can only hurt our democracy. But it goes beyond the media. Responsibility must be born by a political culture that feeds into this mentality. And we, as citizens, bust bear responsibility as well, for both rewarding the media and politicians that play into this cynical game, and not standing behind the increasingly rare politicians that attempts to go against the grain and give us the “politics done differently” we always haughtily claim we want.

Sadly it's a mistake few politicians, even if they have a chance, will make twice.

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McLea said...

Oh wow, this post was rich. The disingenuous, unapologetic partisan hack is condemning the mainstream media for not being critical enough of policy?

You're either the least self-aware person on earth, or have absolutely no problem with cognitive dissonance.

McLea said...

It doesn't matter what the mainstream media does if Liberal advocates such as yourself continue to publicly support Liberal policy and ideas, while privately disagreeing with it.

Jeff said...

mclea, a few things. First, you're one of the more disingenuous, unapologetic partisan hack of a commenter I've seen, so is this meant to be a complement? Second, I'm satisfied with the level of critical policy analysis I provide on my blog and if you're not, frankly, I don't give a damm. And lastly, I have slightly different levels of expectation in the quality of discourse I expect from professional journalists and amateur political bloggers.

Frankly Canadian said...

You have hit the nail right on the head here Jeff, there is a genuine need for true journalism to disassociate it self from the main stream media and takes its proper place among the vast opportunities of the internet. Main stream media persist to carry on down the path of creating a market for each and every passing fad, an O.J. Simpson trial gets more coverage than a national crisis (pick any one of many). This to me seems as familiar as the big American auto makers continuing to build large gas guzzling S.U.V.’s , as the completion continues to carve out its fair share of the market place by filling the void in supply. More and more news agencies are seeing the need to get involved in news on line, or different perspective and opinions, and even blogging. I believe we will see in the not so distant future journalist who are in high demand for insightful stories, not for their ability to tow the line for the programmers or to generate hype, rather for their ability to reveal the facts of each story or to at least offer a different point of view. I believe Mr. Travers has discovered what the general public is also beginning to realize, that if the mass media can’t provide us with real journalism, we will find it somewhere else. I think we all have a journalist or a web site we frequently rely on for dependable perspective.

Barcs said...

I think McLea, the difference between Jeff, who is an opinion blogger.... and claims to have opinions; Is alot different than the media.... who claim to be unbiased, fair, and provide comprehensive and deeply investigated stories.

Jeff doesn't stand up and tell us he is unbiased. He is in the business of giving opinions,... And he does a good job of building his opinions and his arguments (whether I agree all the time or not).

Conversely the media tells you how unbiased and none partisan they are... and then promptly report their news agency endorses a party.

They appear to be rather inept at fact checking stuff given to them that fits the opinion of the news desk... like this one Kate found:

With all the stuff going on in the world.... was a documentary on Oprah's weight really the best story that Larry king could come up with?

In layman's terms.... Jeff exactly as he claims.... his opinion. (and occasionally right)

And the media is not fair, balanced or right anymore than Jeff... They do their best to sensationalize the news, embellish their stories to make them more interesting.... but it only hurts what credibility they have left.

Jeff said...

Jeff exactly as he claims.... his opinion. (and occasionally right)

I may need to make this my new slogan:

A BCer in Toronto: Occasionally right.

More often left, though, probably.