Stephen Harper has done Canadian democracy a great favour in launching his jihad against the Ottawa media. With characteristic resolution and brutality, he has pricked a dangerous boil: the bad marriage that is politi- cians and the journalists they unhappily live with.
In David Bercuson and Holger Helwig’s magnificent study of the relationship that Winston Churchill crafted with Franklin Roosevelt, One Christmas in Washington, there is a photograph that seems surreal to anyone working in politics or journalism today. Churchill had snuck into the American capital just after Pearl Harbor to plan war strategy. The following day he and FDR held a White House press conference. But the photo speaks vol- umes about how far we have travelled since those days.
There is Churchill, smoking a cigar, verbally bobbing and weaving with reporters about the war planning, with the boys casually standing and leaning on a large desk. They are chuckling at his wit, making notes and looking pleased with themselves and life. The New York Times the next day said, ”œA Son Returns to His Mother’s Land,” a reference to Churchill’s American mother.
Flash forward 65 years: the prime minister of Canada glaring fiercely as a roomful of reporters refuse to ask him a question, whereupon he turns on his heel and walks out. The Parliamentary Press Gallery returns the favour the following month by walking out on him en masse.
How have politicians and journalists fallen so far from any form of mutual respect or even public courtesy?
There are, perhaps, three turning points that mark the change and then collapse of the relationship between these two self-important and profoundly irritating, but essential, pillars of democracy.
The first is the explosion of literacy, popular media, radio and politicians who knew how to exploit this new social phenomenon in the 1920s. It had huge impacts on the press and politicians, making journalists more impor- tant players, forcing news organizations to be more open about their partisanship and opening the mechanics of political life to a vast new public.
It was a contentious relationship in the US and the UK, where press barons fought prime ministers and presidents with daily slanderous salvos. In Canada, Mackenzie King kept the press at arm’s length, but they were generally tim- orous critics nonetheless. St-Laurent and Pearson were more adroit in press seduction. Several famous journalists moon- lighted as speech writers and advisers.
There was, however, according to the veterans of that era, an underlying shared respect for the institutions of government and a free press. They were adversaries professionally, often friends personally, and they occasion- ally changed sides when duty called.
When Churchill asked Beaverbrook to join his cabinet, the newspaper baron who had spent a decade savaging Churchill’s ”œalarmism over Hitler” became his ”œwar production overlord.” Roosevelt was detested by most American newspaper owners " he never won a majority of editorial endorsements in four terms " but Roosevelt played the press like his personal orchestra. The heavy-drinking, cigar- smoking, all-male fraternity house that was political journal- ism sowed the seeds for the sec- ond marker in the changed relationships. Journalists starting their careers in the 1960s were leery of the Walter Lippmann, Blair Fraser, Alistair Cooke, ”œjour- nalist statesmen.” Those gods of the profession dined with world leaders, offered their counsel but remained publicly critical " within clear boundaries. King’s prostitutes, FDR’s polio, Churchill’s prodigious drinking were all off limits.
For young journalists in the 1970s the anti-institutional bias of that era simmered through Vietnam, then erupted with Watergate. It is hard to convey the impact those many months of daily televised tales of treachery had on attitudes toward gov- ernments and political leaders. (A small- er echo was felt in Canada about the deceit surrounding the War Measures Act, as those nasty tales emerged more slowly throughout the decade.)
As a young television reporter, I watched the hundreds of hours of Watergate hearings addictively. Watergate changed forever the way a generation of journalists and politicians regarded each other and their roles. A whole new generation of reporters saw themselves as Woodward and Bernstein, toppling a government. In Canada, this attitude was particularly prevalent in Quebec, where the provincial Press Gallery made it its mission to portray the Bourassa government as corrupt. The new world views were ”œPoliticians are crooks and liars, and it’s our job to get them,” matched by ”œThe media are news-twisting slimeballs " never give a reporter a chance to get you.”
The venom level stabilized up to the mid-1990s. There were no Vietnams, Watergates or even Irangates. It was a period of relative calm following the defeat of Communism and one of considerable prosperity, with the launch of the tech boom. The lull was broken by a semen- stained dress and a group of highly partisan journalists and their often secret backers on the American right.
The ”œvast right-wing conspiracy,” as Hillary Clinton famously dubbed it, was not vast, but it was deliberate and led by disciplined conspirators. Following Newt Gingrich’s capture of control of Congress, a highly profes- sional campaign to impeach Bill Clinton was slowly unveiled.
Clinton’s sleazy sexual mores and even sadder attempt to defend them, combined with the launch of three new all-news networks, 24/7 news on the Internet and some equally slimy journalism, were the ingredients. They mark the third big downturn in the media-political tango. The vicious tac- tics on all sides gave birth to a new era of consultants led by James Carville, and then Karl Rove. The knife jobs and dirty tricks left permanent scars on political activists and journalists.
The American right had been tar- geting the ”œliberal bias” of the media since the Goldwater years. But it was only this implosion of events that gave it a wide network of believers. In the UK, Tony Blair’s team studied American Republican success in media management and launched their own ”œspinocracy.”
In Canada, Warren Kinsella wrote a minor bestseller about the merits of this vulgar collision " some would say collusion. The spin doctors and political dirty tricksters were heralded as com- petitors, with political journalists, committed to ”œthe game.” But it was a race to the bottom. Kinsella’s most famous contribu- tion to political tactics, during the 2000 campaign, was to bran- dish a Barney doll on national television to portray Alliance leader Stockwell Day as a political dinosaur. The Carvillites and their young fans were less con- cerned with the substance of pol- itics or its impact on citizens’ building contempt for politics than with their personal scores.
Stephen Harper was schooled in this toxic era. Part of the Canadian right that hated the mildly social activist tilt of much of the press at the working level, schooled in the analysis and ”œtricks of the trade” by the American right, he saw the media as part of a wider ”œpermanent Liberal government.” He saw his two Reform/Conservative predecessors savaged by the star journal- ists. He reportedly came close to quit- ting under their relentless campaign against him.
But it does him a disservice to sug- gest that his battle with the Ottawa press is a product of pique. Stephen Harper plays a long game and surely believes that revenge is a dish best served well chilled. No, his media cam- paign fits his game plan precisely.
First, he knows that the only peo- ple less loved than politicians and alu- minum siding salesmen are the media. And he knows that among his target audience this contempt runs to violent hatred. His target voters see Maclean’s magazine " now, under editor Ken Whyte, under its most conservative and Conservative management in its histo- ry " as part of the ”œvast left-wing media conspiracy” because it publishes unflattering cover photos of the PM.
Second, he knows that to a greater extent than any prime minister before him, he does not need the gallery. Every Ottawa pundit who says, ”œHe’ll fold when he is in trouble,” mis- understands how the media and polit- ical world has changed. Stephen Harper’s target voters read few newspa- pers, not because they are stupid but because they are young. The youngest among them hardly watch television news; their lens on politics is blogs, news sites and Maxim magazine.
Finally, he knows that it is not the PMO that will bend. The gallery will. Media owners are already deeply unhappy at this unseemly spat. Discussions about a compromise through intermedi- aries are under way.
Which is why, I believe, Stephen Harper has done us all a great favour. We have come to the end of the post- Watergate era in political journalism.
The centre " made up of a hand- ful of nightly newscasts, rich big-city dailies and their star political journal- ists " cannot hold. It is doubly harassed: by declining audience and revenues and therefore relevance, on the one hand; and by the explosion of ankle-biting, semi-professional digital competitors on the other.
Where has the growth centre in print media been? In trash celebrity journalism and soft porn. In television it is completely unreal reality TV. Radio risks becoming a satellite-borne digital jukebox. As in most of the developments at the nexus of politics and journalism in recent decades, it was the American hard right
that saw this first.
One may rue the morals of the fraudsters who helped defeat John Kerry by lying about his war record, but you cannot dispute their malevolent genius. The Swift Boat con- spirators took a collection of lies and dis- tortions, some willing miscreants with a simulacrum of credibility and a pile of money and created ads, blogs and events: a powerfully damaging political myth spun out of thin air. The role of the mainstream media (usually reduced to a sneering acronym, the ”œliberal MSM,” in the blogging world) was that of hostage. The MSM tried to ignore the artificially created storm. Incredibly and foolishly, so did the Kerry campaign. Each was forced to play catch-up.
A story like this could not have reached liftoff stage pre-Internet. It will take a great deal of rethinking by politi- cians and the MSM to keep it from becoming the norm. If each of these two of Thomas Carlyle’s famous estates take the view that they are each other’s worst enemies, they and the genuine contest of ideas that is the core of dem- ocratic debate will be the losers.
Val Sears, a leading political journalist of the postwar years, once made a joke made infamous by Peter Newman’s devastating profile of John Diefenbaker’s government, Renegade in Power. Rallying the ”œboys on the bus” to the Diefenbaker campaign plane, he is reported to have declared, ”œTo work, gentlemen, we have a government to overthrow.” My father has always played the droll wit, and this remark is typical. What is sad is that I have grown up with a generation of journalists and politicians for whom this faux battle cry is a sincerely held religious conviction.
This ”œgotcha” journalism is easy to write and avoids the tedium of having to know anything about the policies or goals of the government you are cover- ing. Some journalists are revolted by it. Paul Wells, in a speech he recently reprinted on his blog, is among those serious reporters who rue this shallow, content-free journalism. He has many silent allies in the media who are less courageous than he is about attacking the dead end that his profession has hit.
It is time for both sides to look at the real world and make some changes.
Neither politics nor political jour- nalism sits as close to the centre of people’s lives as it did a century or even a generation ago. To win atten- tion and respect from a more sophisti- cated and skeptical public means going upmarket, not down. The wrongheadedness of most media moguls in understanding why so many have defected from politics and the media is painfully clear. What can one say about the Toronto Star‘s launch of a trash celebrity magazine as its major editorial investment this year?
The oldest axiom in the business is: ”œBad news sells.” More infamous to a younger generation of TV reporters is: ”œIf it bleeds, it leads.” The potential audience for a more thoughtful, bal- anced media is not made up of high- way accident voyeurs, however. Rubberneckers were never the whole audience and today one should proba- bly err on the side of the more demanding reader/voter.
Politicians and political consultants will have to dial back the ”œkick- ing ass, then lying about it” approach to ”œthe game.” When a political apol- ogy is called for, do it. When a mistake has been made, fix it, hang those responsible and tell the story straight. Soon some journalists will reward such candour with straight, even sup- portive coverage.
Peacemaking is hard work, and the early volunteers get deceived and even fired on. That makes peacemak- ing no less essential after a bitter con- flict. Confidence-building measures, modulated by the response of each side, are the only building blocks. Sometimes a third party is required " journalism school deans, where have you been? " to permit the players to extend trust. Sometimes a ceasefire document, commitment to mutual disarmament or new rules of engage- ment launch the process.
But a process of disengagement, reflection and commitment to a new modus vivendi is essential. The civil war might amuse some of the partici- pants, but the collateral damage to the democracy is too heavy. Each side needs to recognize it is trapped in a deadly embrace.
Permit me to take liberties with a famous Middle Eastern fable: To cross a raging river, a scorpion pleads for a ride on a frog’s back. He is rejected by the wise frog on the grounds that the scorpion will sting him and they’ll both drown. ”œCome on, old frog, why would I be so stupid as to commit sui- cide.” With great trepidation the frog is persuaded, and yet midstream the scorpion still stings him. ”œWhy did you do that, you idiot?! You promised! Now we’ll both drown.”
With a sigh, as they begin to sink, the scorpion replies, ”œI’m sorry. I couldn’t help myself, I’m a journalist.”