The last session of Parliament was marked by drama of almost Shakespearean dimensions. Perhaps the most compelling episode, played out in the media in almost salacious detail, was Peter MacKay’s broken-hearted performance over being double-crossed by his for- mer love interest, Belinda Stronach.
There he was with his dog (turned out it was actually his father’s dog) in a verdant Nova Scotia setting, admitting his hurt about being left by the lovely Belinda.
Ottawa as Hollywood. Peter and Belinda as Benn Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, the latest crashed tinsel town rela- tionship. Maclean’s, with its cover of the two facing each other, apes US magazine.
The back story of this episode neatly shows what happens when the spinners and spinned conspire to deflect our journalists from real news- gathering. Seems MacKay’s people offered several TV networks alleged ”œexclusives” that day. They each had a set time with the forlorn young man and when his performance was in the can and started to be aired, they found they all had the same performance " almost word for word!
What is going on here? Is this an isolated incident, or is the space given to this failed affair symptomatic of a wider issue with the way media report national affairs and the way political flaks feed the beast? And how does the well-chronicled overcoming of our media by personalities, popular- ity, process, strategy, and the clash of politicians over policy and the clash of ideas affect the public’s attitude to pol- itics. If Ottawa and its apparent banali- ties is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the majority of Canadians, as many believe it has, what is to be done?
I have no desire to ”œshoot the mes- senger” as I once was accused by Keith Spicer of doing when his Ottawa Citizen turned down my second media column many years ago as being too tough on journalists.
And I believe the tide has turned since the time when George Bain chronicled in Gotcha, published over 10 years ago, the almost organized way in which the Ottawa pack destroyed Joe Clark, Brian Mulroney and Kim Campbell. He did, however, put the big- ger problem very succinctly: ”œIf cyni- cism and distrust of our political insti- tutions are as broad and deep as has been reported, they have not developed spontaneously. They are contagious dis- eases of the spirit, and it would be fool- ish to believe that the purveyors of information, plainly infected them- selves, are not a principal carrier.”
One could argue that we have passed from an era of character assassi- nation to trivialization and personality journalism. And that when Monte Solberg appears on Newsworld to explain what a nice guy Stephen Harper really is and a photo op is staged of Harper tossing a football on the lawn of Parliament Hill, politicians themselves are a large part of the problem.
Bill Fox, a former Toronto Star reporter and Mulroney press secretary, who established his media critic creden- tials very convincingly in his 1999 book Spinwars, identified one telling trend in reporting that illuminates another root cause of this malaise. He calls it ”œcon- genial truth,” a concept originally put forward by Andie Toucher of the Colum- bia Journalism Review. ”œCongenial truth,” Fox wrote, ”œleads reporters to ignore established fact [or evidence for that matter] if it is inconsistent with conventional wisdom…(it) can take hold even when the truth is not sus- tained by facts.”
Here are two missing themes, some real public knowledge of which would have been beneficial to informing public discourse: First, the so-called Layton/ Martin budget itself. The unholy alliance to ”œhang on to power” got far more ink and comment than the impact this absolutely classic minority government bill would have had on Canadians. In mid- June, I picked up a paper in the Toronto suburb of New- market and found a detailed rundown, to the nickel, of every new federal dol- lar that would go to each of the various municipalities north of Toronto. A rari- ty " real news as it impacts real people.
Second, the ”œdeath of medicare.” This barely nuanced treatment of the Supreme Court decision disallowing the Quebec government’s prohibition of pri- vate insurance was covered, as is so much of our news, to provoke more anx- iety than understanding. Proponents of a ”œtwo tier” system (talk about a congen- ial truth!), of course, enjoyed pointing out how much closer we would inevitably come to European systems where pubic and private co-exist. CBC radio and the Toronto Star were almost alone in bothering to investigate how these systems actually work.
And only CBC Newsworld, the public player among our well-heeled national news and information con- glomerates, has Inside Media, a regular outlet for criticism of the print and electronic vehicles that drive our views on politics. This is an unacceptable state of affairs if you accept any of the above analysis. We need more discus- sion and analysis of how we get our news. Does any serious newspaper have the guts to allow someone intelligent to at least take aim at the messenger?