Just a few random notes as the federal election campaign kicks off.
I’ve had a very busy last few weeks with my law practice, and have been tossing some ideas around in my spare time. Here’s a look at some of this campaign’s challenges to the public’s right to know:
The Hill media
The aging of the Parliamentary Press Gallery and the big cuts to its private sector contingent – “news radio” stations have abandoned the Hill and there is just one journalist from an English newspaper east of Ottawa – mean there’s very little real investigation and not much serious analysis. The CBC has filled some of the news gathering gap, but the unique views of reporters from medium and large papers across the country have been lost.
Opinion has replaced news-gathering. Everyone seems to be a pundit these days (yes, I see the irony in this). Why is that?
Partly, it makes writers feel important, as though they have some skin in the political game and are so wise that their opinions count. Punditry is a lot easier and more glamorous than covering a Fisheries Committee meeting. Punditry is also more lucrative: professional opinionists are much more likely to be asked to be paid members of TV news network political panels. Exposure on those panels can generate lucrative guest speaking gigs at corporate events. And book deals. And all the other trappings of success.
But we now have a gross surplus of people whose only qualification to be pundits is the fact that they are pundits. These are people who write on economic, legal, constitutional, environmental, Indigenous and other issues with no training or work experience in any of these fields. They speak with great authority on issues they know nothing about.
So why are there so many when journalism itself is dying. Here are a few reasons:
- They’re cheap.
- Their work is predictable, both in content and length of story.
- They can act as sock puppets for their editors and publishers. The vast majority of Canadian pundits are right-wing or centre-right, so they get the corporate message out.
- They’re cheap. Yes, I’ve already said that, but it’s a point that needs to be made twice. For a few hundred dollars, a freelance pundit can give a paper some credibility, even after it’s closed or gutted its reporting bureau. A staff pundit will generate a certain number of words a week, whether or not there is any actual news. The staff pundit will file on time, not run up much of an expense account, and will not come into the office – the way a typical reporter might – and say there was no story.
So we will see a lot of punditry in this election, a lot of TV panels of interviews with pundits, and not a lot of informed analysis, challenges of conventional wisdom or surprises.
Boots on the Ground?
We’ll really see a big difference in coverage of local races. Since the last election, some fairly-large Canadian cities have lost their newspapers. The Guelph Mercury was the first newspaper in the country to report on what became the Robocalls scandal in 2008. Now, that paper doesn’t even exist.
And surviving papers have much smaller staffs. Their ability to cover the basics, things like all-candidates’ meetings, will be tested and likely found wanting. Investigative reporting of local races will be almost non-existent. The lack of coverage of local campaigns means voters will have to turn to national media for coverage of the election and for debate on the issues that become the ballot question. So a lot of MPs will be sent to Ottawa with very little scrutiny, riding on the coat-tails of party leaders or swept up in voting trends.
The loss of community journalism is accelerating, and no one in Canada seems to be serious about doing much about it. The new bail-out rules actually work against the revival of small-community journalism and the creation of new outlets.
That’s not a good thing.
Follow the Leader?
Political parties have booked their campaign planes. But it’s not clear if they’ll have space for media. The 2018 Ford campaign in Ontario did quite well without a media bus, relying on far more friendly and less sophisticated local coverage of campaign stops.
And if they do, will media pay for seats? These are quite expensive, running upwards of $25,000 for a shot at travelling the country with a national leader, listening to boilerplate stump speeches while trying to pick up real tidbits of news from staffers. This is a form of coverage that evolved in the 1940s and no longer works. The “stories,” which are mostly pack journalism pieces describing staged events and non-news, are dull.
Attention has shifted in recent years to the leaders’ debates and to covering pollsters. People don’t need journalists to decide who won debates. They can watch for themselves. But media outlets love these stories because they look like real journalism and they empower media to interfere in horse race politics.
Poll coverage also doesn’t cost much. And, while it taps into the public’s visceral urge to want to know who’s going to win the race, it really serves no democratic purpose. But these stories always lead the news and make the front page, drowning out tidbits of real debate on national issues, if any such unusual occurrence actually happens.
Meddling and Ratfucking
When the Green Party, of all people, have engaged Warren Kinsella to run its “war room,” you know the election is going to be one of the ugliest ever.
We have already seen the federal Tory campaign adopt the populism of Jason Kenney and Doug Ford. They’re trying to stem the bleeding of votes of right-wing rural whites to Maxime Bernier. The Reform Party caused the same kind of split in 1993, and it cost the conservative movement dearly. Maxime Bernier is no Preston Manning, but he is trying tap into the same kind of unfocused anger that sustained the Reform movement through three federal elections.
And this kind of populism has worked.
Now, whether or not the Americans, Russians, Chinese and Indians meddle in our election through evil doings on the Internet, there will still be attempts to manipulate public opinion through data crunching, bogus polling, fake news, disinformation, astroturfing (even of journalists), voter suppression tactics and all the other unsavory, underhanded, sleazy, borderline illegal and outright illegal tactics used in the election campaign business.
And it is a business. The interconnection between professional campaign strategy companies, lobby firms, political parties and media in this country warrants serious investigation. Volunteers become political staffers, who evolve into political strategists, and those strategists spend the time between elections as corporate and NGO lobbyists, selling their influence and their access to the very politicians that they put in office – and who will employ them again on the next campaign.
This is probably the greatest problem facing Canadian democracy, and so many people who could do something about it already have a conflict of interest. The biggest names in political journalism are also the people most likely to jump to one of the big lobby/strategy shops. The politicians in all parties who rely on this industry will not rock the boat. And, outside Ottawa, few people understand what’s going on.
It also seems as though some major outlets will employ reporters to report on alleged foreign interference. I am really looking forward to this, considering the fact that the vast resources of CSIS and the Communication Security Establishment have never been able to get to the bottom of it in an meaningful way.
This is not the most upbeat assessment of the media in the 2019 campaign. And I could be wrong. We may see the emergence of solid coverage by the CBC, Canadian Press or one of the big Toronto papers. I hope we do.
What we really need is reporting that is brave and intelligent enough to keep the campaign and the campaigners honest, or at least makes them reluctant to indulge in the kind of lies and smears that have become normal in American political campaigns. That means publishers and editors must be willing to deploy hard-working journalists and back them when they’re attacked by the very campaigns they’re covering.
And they – in fact, all – legit journalists need and deserve the solidarity of their colleagues. Because when a reporter who’s doing her job fairly and conscientiously is attacked, it’s the voters and democracy itself that’s under fire.