Why mainstream media doesn't work anymore.
From Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper's Assault on Your Right to Know, HarperCollins Canada, January, 2015
Outside of the bubble, the news business had changed, and journalists, who used to be fairly sure that they would always have media work of some kind, were now just one phone call or staff meeting away from losing their careers. The news industry was being re-made, maybe even killed off. Days like February 4, 2014, when Postmedia closed its Parliament Hill bureau, laying off five people and sending its last four Hill reporters to the Ottawa Citizen, became common. Don Martin, a CTV news journalist, had walked into that bureau, then called Southam News, as a Calgary Herald columnist in 2000, when it had about thirty journalists covering very specialized beats, writing news that focused on issues that were important to the chain’s readers in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, southwestern Ontario and Montreal. Now it was over. There were even fewer people analyzing and explaining federal politics and the workings of the government. Mike De Souza, one of the few skilled energy reporters in the country, was let go. It was bad day for more than just the people who had lost their jobs: “After all, a smaller media means a greater chance of bad news staying under wraps,” columnist Don Martin wrote.
“The obligatory coverage of Parliament stretches reporter resources beyond the industry’s ability to dig deeper than the press release or scripted news conference. In a drought of warm reporting bodies, investigative journalism becomes a luxury, not a necessity. Add it up and that means victory for a government which has cocooned itself with communications staff programmed to deny, obfuscate or simply not respond to media requests.”[i]
In Canada in 1950, the number of daily newspapers sold each day equaled the number of houses in the country. (Of course, some people bought more than one, and some bought none). On average, between 1950 and 2000, circulation dropped by a little more than 1 per cent per year, so that by 2000, just 40 per cent of households bought a daily paper. In 2000–2010, the decade after high-speed Internet became common and smart phones rolled out, newspaper circulation was at 40 per cent but still gradually falling.
Through the second half of the last century, political conversation in Canada was muted by the gutting of community journalism, as vibrant independent small-town papers were absorbed into national newspaper chains and ruined. Then, in the late 1980s, big city journalism abandoned small-town Canada. The Globe and Mail had built itself on regional distribution. It became the dominant political newspaper in Ontario because people in its circulation department memorized railway timetables and made sure every farmer, Main Street business owner and small-town lawyer had the paper first thing in the morning. (The Globe’s creator, George Brown, made his fortune in the 1850s by getting the paper to the train on time. George McCullagh, founder of The Globe and Mail, started in the newspaper business in the 1920s as a kid wandering the back concessions of Ontario, betting farmers that he could plow a straighter furrow than they could, with a Globe subscription as the stakes.) The Globe and Mail, in a deliberate decision made in 1988, threw away farm and small-town readers and stopped covering most local and provincial issues. The ad industry lusted for the urban, wealthy demographic, even if it’s not large enough to support a great newspaper. People in the West and small-town Canada clued in quickly. No one likes to feel unwanted by snobs. Other big papers, especially in southern Ontario, closed their small-town bureaus.
Hidden in the stats is a dirty little secret of the newspaper industry: payment for news was dying long before the Internet came along. In the 1980s, big newspaper chains like Metroland, owned by the Toronto Star, had begun giving away “community” newspapers in small towns to cut into the incredibly profitable monopoly of the Thomson chain of weeklies and small dailies. These “controlled circulation” papers were toothless local watchdogs. Newsroom staffs were minimal, pages were full of ads, and the give-aways cut prices to scoop up the real estate and grocery ads, which were the guts of the traditional weekly. (That’s why the weekly papers were usually printed Wednesday, when grocers published their pages of ads listing specials, which were the ripest fruit of all, and not to be trifled with by young reporters who lusted to write price comparison blockbusters). By the end of the 1980s, most grocers had started printing flyers that were delivered in the freebie “community” newspapers and by Canada Post at a cutthroat rate, using non-union labour.
By the early 1990s, the freebies were in the country’s biggest cities, taking the morning rush hour circulation that used to be owned by the big dailies, especially the tabloids. And most of the people picking up the freebies like Metro and the short-lived and strangely named Dose were the young readers that the paid media so desperately needed.[ii] These papers provide just snippets of the news, with no analysis and very little nuance. And none of the freebies have reporters on Parliament Hill. Instead, they chop and rewrite stories sold to them by The Canadian Press wire service and the newspaper chains, some of which own a piece of these “papers.”
Still, despite the hemorrhaging of readers, overall ad sales for most “mainstream” media stayed strong until the 2008 recession, when they fell off a cliff. They haven’t climbed back. When companies found themselves in a squeeze for profits, it was easy to justify slashing ad budgets, especially since the new conventional wisdom was that the media, as we had known it, was on its last legs anyway.[iii]
Smart phones, websites, blogs, iPads, Facebook, Twitter and easily-accessible free wireless didn’t kill newspapers. They were already dead from a cancer that infected them some thirty years ago.[iv] It’s likely no coincidence that newspaper circulation went into freefall in the late 1970s at about the time that The New York Times led North American media into a disastrous evolution from being chronicles of current events to arbiters of lifestyle and trends. In fact, if the Internet hadn’t come along, most newspapers would have had to do some serious soul-searching to determine why their readers had abandoned them, or, to be more accurate, had never acquired the habit of reading them. The numbers show newspapers throughout the developed world went into a death spiral when Pierre Trudeau was still working on the Constitution and Jimmy Carter was president of the United States.
In 2009, 35.9 per cent of people aged 18–34 read a newspaper regularly. Some 43.3 per cent of Canadians aged 35–49 were regular newspaper readers, while 58.8 per cent of people over 50 still had the habit.[v] People weren’t walking away from newspapers. They had never read them in the first place. For example, in the first four years of this century, just 19 per cent of Canadians aged 23–31 read a newspaper every day.[vi] In the early 1980s, 59 per cent of people between the ages of 18 and 29 read newspapers. That’s 20 per cent more than all of the people who read them now.
Maybe TV’s to blame. But broadcasting has been around for years. It’s always delivered news. Radio networks of the 1930s had correspondents all over the world, the same way the big networks do now, and they devoted much more time to serious journalism than any electronic media, even cable news networks, do in modern times. Broadcasts of Hitler’s speeches by the big American radio networks scared the hell out of my grandmother and millions of other people, and the blood-chilling eyewitness radio report of the burning of the airship Hindenburg in 1937 ranks with the best journalism anywhere. Radio correspondents like Ed Murrow, William L. Shirer, and Matthew Halton were big stars in Canada. Father Coughlin, the Canadian radio preacher who operated out of Detroit, collected so many coins from his millions of listeners that he created a continent-wide shortage of pocket change and seriously considered cornering the silver market.
Now, viewership for CNN and most other North American news networks—Fox News Network being a notable exception—is declining, although none of them had stellar ratings to start with. In Canada, ratings for flagship national TV newscasts flatlined years ago. None of our major news networks were ever roaring successes. The Sun News Network has laughable ratings, but the CBC’s and are so bad that they have to fight with Sun and other private news networks to land advertising from peddlers of burial insurance and walk-in bath tubs for geriatrics.
The future of network TV, especially news channels, looks confusing, and not particularly good for the old, big national broadcast networks. A Harris/Decima poll called Let’s Talk TV: Quantitative Research Report, taken in late 2013, found, of Canadians surveyed:
· 39 per cent watch TV programming through the Internet-on-demand such as Netflix and YouTube
· 47 per cent subscribe to cable
· 19 per cent subscribe to satellite
Even at election time, young Canadians ignore political coverage, if they come across it at all. (And they certainly won’t on Netflix, which doesn’t yet carry ads). The supposedly pivotal (though actually stage-managed) leaders’ debates during election campaigns have seen a fairly steady decline in viewers. More than 60 per cent of voters under 30 ignored them in 2004, when the Liberal government of Paul Martin came close to being turned out of office. So, since the elderly people actually get out and vote—and also donate money and time to political parties—governments, no matter which party is in power, tailor their policies to the baby boomers and their parents. The Harper Conservatives see this demographic as an important part of their voting and donor base, in contrast to Justin Trudeau’s and the Liberals’ targeting of young people for both votes and campaign workers.
Why bother with media when it’s all about games and spin and manipulation? People know that the “news” is hardly a mirror held up to events, and that coverage of, say, Question Period and the “scrums” that follow is just bad theatre. By 2004, only one in five young Canadians could name the country’s minister of finance. The elderly, at 65 per cent, scored much better. And, of seven developed countries surveyed, Canadians, young and old, were the most ignorant about their political leadership. At the same time, and probably not coincidentally, pollsters found people had very little faith in politicians to solve the country’s problems. That lack of confidence in politics and the political system was reflected in voter turnout. The 2011 campaign was supposed to be a watershed election that would decide whether the Harper Conservatives would be able to govern unfettered by the compromises of a minority parliament. It was a spring election, so people couldn’t be blamed for tuning out politics while they were on vacation. And there were some interesting local races. Yet only about 61 per cent of the voters of all ages felt it worthwhile to go to a polling station and cast a vote. Obviously, in what was called “the Twitter election,” tweets had not connected candidates to voters, even if tweeting and reading tweets did make journalists feel important.[viii]
Still, according to Harper’s Magazine publisher Lewis Lapham, while the media has many sins of pride, sloth, incompetence and greed, it’s too easy to make journalists scapegoats for the shabby politics that we’ve been stuck with on both sides of the border for the past couple of generations. Lapham wrote in 2000: “To do so serves no purpose other than to flatter the media’s sense of their own self-importance.” The idea of a media conspiracy seemed ludicrous to Lapham; at the same time, conformity of thought and ideology among journalists was not only stifling to intelligent political conversation throughout society, but it was also dangerous to the public good.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Lapham said, most of the top journalists in the country were social-climbing poseurs who talked a good fight about liberty, including freedom of the press: “Having attended a good many weekend conferences at which various well-placed figures within the peerage of the fourth estate exchanged decorative platitudes while admiring the view of the mountains or the sea, I long ago learned that nothing so alarms the assembled company as the intrusion of a new idea.”[ix]
Another problem is that most “news” is not news at all. It’s masked advertising, bumph, propaganda, filler and spin that takes up time and space in the media because it’s cheap to make, politically safe and seems to have some value to someone. And much of it is eye-splittingly boring. Daniel Boorstin wrote about “pseudo-events” fifty years ago. Back then, pseudo-events were things like newspaper interviews with politicians and celebrities, anniversary commemorations and government announcements. The stories created by coverage of these non-events filled newspaper pages and radio newscasts, but they weren’t really written to inform the people. Rather, they were created to help sell ads and fill the space between ads, and they almost always made the subject of the pieces look good. If these stories hadn’t been generated by the media itself and by public relations hacks, the “events,” this “news,” never would have “happened.”[x]
Eric Alterman, writing in 1991, just before the Internet hit, realized that journalists had stopped writing for their readers and were trying to make themselves important players in the power game. Rather than expressing readers’ issues to the powerful and explaining actions of lawmakers to the people, newspaper executives decided they wanted to make and break politicians. Of course, newspaper executives had always been in that business, but now, as newsrooms thinned out, pages of news stories were dumped and newspapers literally became smaller. Cheap and easy punditry dominates the media. Newspapers and newscasts are often preachy, disconnected and tedious. “The American body politic is sick and getting sicker as our democratic muscles atrophy from disuse. The very pundits who bemoan the state of American political debate are themselves responsible for its dilapidated condition. For except in the most extreme cases it is the punditocracy, not the general public, to whom our politicians have become answerable,” Alterman says.[xi]
Award-winning journalist David Halberstam said the rules of objectivity force journalists to write in a “bland, uncritical way” that requires them “to appear to be much dumber and more innocent” than they really are. By trying to keep their news pages looking fair and objective, then by chasing lifestyle trends, news managers had chosen to make them safe and boring, becoming what A.J. Liebling once called “Adolph Ochs’ colorless, odorless, and especially tasteless [New York] Times.” Newspapers lost readers in droves. They’ve tried to become relevant by offering more local news, but that’s failed to bring readers back.[xii] Not only did newspapers see an impact on circulation and ad lineage, but newspapers’ role in the political system, going back 200 years in the United States and more than 150 years in Canada, started to die.[xiii]
Blandness was mistaken for objectivity, and the failure of newspapers to explain what was really going on, Halberstam says, “plundered the guts out of American politics.” And people knew that the “insiders” gave them just snippets of the truth, leading them to believe that whatever was going on in Ottawa or Washington wasn’t showing up in their hometown newspapers.
“The resulting abdication from politics,” Alterman writes, “coupled with the increasing identification with the culture of celebrity, represents as much as any single development, the foundation of the punditocracy’s opportunity to hijack our national political dialogue and direct it toward goals and ambitions that have precious little relevance to most American’s lives. Were contemporary journalists able once again to recapture the hearts and minds of their readership, the reconstruction of our community conversation might follow.”[xiv]
In the early years of this century, the blizzard of puffery and the hours of journalists-interviewing-journalists news coverage was explained away by media experts as “feeding the goat” of the new news channels. Round-the-clock media—whether multiple newspaper editions or hourly radio newscasts—changed the nature of the business more than twenty years before CNN started broadcasting in 1980. “The news gap soon became so narrow that in order to have additional ‘news’ for each new edition or each new broadcast, it was necessary to plan in advance the stages by which any available news would be unveiled,” Boorstin wrote in 1961. “With radio on the air continuously during waking hours, the reporters’ problem became still more acute…it became financially necessary to keep the presses always at work and the TV screen always busy. Pressure toward the making of pseudo-events became even stronger. News gathering turned into news making.”[xv]
Now it’s TV that’s the “goat” that needs to be fed, and even though round-the-clock news stations have dismal viewership in Canada, the entire media-political system is being twisted and warped to fit a medium most people ignore. Question Period became the focus of TV coverage because it guaranteed the conflict and images that TV news feeds on. When Question Period ends, the House of Commons empties. Debate on new laws is ignored by the media, so politicians ignore it, too. In fact, Stephen Harper, in his time as a backbench opposition MP, in his brief stretch as leader of the Opposition, and as prime minister, has never debated a bill. In the 1940s, the House of Commons was full on sitting days, and it often met at night, too, with important ministers and opposition leaders sparring over new laws and policies. (During World War II, the House even convened on Saturdays). Now, when a law is debated, usually only a handful of MPs are in the House. Those few people who are watching on television are tricked by MPs who cluster around their colleagues to fill the camera’s frame as they speak to an empty house. Democracy in Canada is now what Boorstin called a pseudo-event.
Question Period gives the visuals for the never-ending campaign. “To paraphrase von Clausewitz’s famous dictum that war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means, Question Period is the continuation of the election campaign by other means,” long-time Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson wrote during the Chrétien years. “Television, by its visual, kinetic nature, demands conflict. Nuance and subtlety are television’s sworn enemies. Question Period provides institutional verbal combat in short, sharp bursts of rhetoric. Better still for television, Question Period offers occasionally genuine but usually rehearsed and packaged emotion. Television treats indifferently the motivation for emotion; it just wants people to show emotion, and the more of it the better. Knowing this, opposition parties place a premium on emotion, anger being for television the most visual and therefore the most appealing emotion.” His observation was still valid more than a decade later.[xvi]
And Question Period, along with the mob-like interviews of politicians in the foyer of the House of Commons right after (“scrums,” in Hill lingo), is cheap to cover. In an environment where the greatest volume of words and images at the lowest price is essential to survival, Question Period is vital. Watch TV or go through a few newspapers sometime to see how much coverage, if any, is focused on debates over new laws. You’ll likely find none.
Partly, geography is to blame. Toronto, not Ottawa, is the media centre of the country. Toronto media executives, editors and publishers have a Toronto-centric view of national politics. Issues outside Toronto don’t catch their interest, and Ottawa, with its arcane culture and strange political rituals, seems very far away and, usually, unimportant, unless there’s a lot of easy-to-understand drama:
Lobbyists, media relations strategists, political spinners and others with a large stake in the Ottawa game often appear on cable news-talk shows and on the pundit panels of network news shows. The strategists tend to know Ottawa very well and are eager and, usually, articulate commentators. But they’re also on at least two payrolls—the networks, which pay between $200 and $1,000 to these talking heads, and their business or political clients. People watching the shows don’t know who the so-called “political strategists” are lobbying for. And even among the journalists themselves, there’s some double-dipping. Mike Duffy had a lucrative little guest speaking business before he was appointed to the Senate. Peter Mansbridge, anchor of the flagship CBC nightly newscast, and Rex Murphy, host of CBC radio’s national open-line phone-in show and editorialist on Mansbridge’s newscast, were both paid hefty fees for speaking to oil producer groups. With many of these people, politics is a game where winners land hefty contracts and get to appear on TV “news” and analysis shows. Credibility is the media’s stock in trade, but it’s hard to believe, if you’re a cable television news junkie, that you’re getting a clean product. Knowing the people giving policy advice and commenting on the political horse race have conflicts of interest and hidden agendas must make people sour about everything on “news” networks.[xvii]
And much of the media seems thinner, cheaper, more superficial. Media managers have tried to save money and make the media fit together by trying to merge TV, newspapers, the Internet and, in some cases, radio as well. Though embraced by media consultants and journalism professors in the 1990s and early 2000s, “convergence” of media has been a disaster that trashed the media, leaving newsrooms gutted and overwhelming the surviving reporters. David Olive of the National Post wrote convergence is not a potential boondoggle. It is a proven one. It failed a century ago when William Randolph Hearst tried to develop a vertically-integrated news company. Rupert Murdoch had not been able to pull it off with newspapers and television. Michael Eisner and Edgar Bronfman Jr. also failed in the modern era. Yes, there are new media, but news managers—a notoriously uncreative bunch on their best day—are nowhere near capable of evolving.[xviii]
Newspapers finally realized, by about 2010, that they had been fools to give their stories away. Most of the country’s major newspapers set up paywalls, give away a few stories every month, then ask readers to pay for the privilege of reading news online. But it’s too late. People don’t like to pay for something they used to get free. And, in perhaps the unkindest cut, the CBC has developed the country’s most comprehensive news page, with stories and opinion pieces from across the country. That website is free, and it competes directly with all of the country’s newspapers. By 2014, the paywall score was being added up and it was grim: just 110,000 people had signed up for Globe Unlimited, The Globe and Mail’s paywall service. About half of those subscribers got The Globe and Mail delivered to their door and had online access. All of the Postmedia papers—the dailies in Vancouver, the Calgary Herald, the Edmonton Journal, Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette—are hyping themselves as “digital first” but, in 2014, had only scraped together 137,000 paywall customers, and only 45,000 were digital-only subscribers. The Toronto Star said it couldn’t give solid numbers because its paywall was new.[xix]
Social media is the next passing ship for journalists. Twitter is hyped as the great connector between the powerful and the rest of us. The 2011 Canadian federal election was labelled the “Twitter election” by those who embraced the micro-blogging fad. The Canadian Press, probably the brightest collection of journalists in a single Ottawa bureau, hired Ottawa social media consultant Mark Blevis to analyze Twitter’s content and blog about its role in the campaign.
Certainly, the volume of election-related “tweets” seems impressive: about 16,000 of them on a typical day, jumping to 25,000 a day in the week of the leaders’ debate and levelling at 18,000 in the last week. Twitter fans think those numbers are stellar, but when you consider that 24 million people were actually eligible to vote, they don’t look so hot. Blevis counted re-tweets as well as original tweets. The most popular tweeters, like Kady O’Malley, who was paid by the CBC to tweet and blog almost around-the-clock, drew about 35,000 followers, numbers comparable to the viewing statistics of Sun News Network, which everyone in Ottawa’s political circles believe had no impact on the campaign.[xx] Most of the journalist and political insider tweeters had less than 1,000 followers.
Academics David Taras and Christopher Waddell, (the latter a former Globe and Mail political reporter and CBC Parliament Hill bureau chief), wrote after the election that Twitter had a decidedly negative role in the coverage of the election. In earlier elections, journalistic insiders had communicated with each other by Blackberry. Twitter had replaced the Blackberry and had become what Waddell called “the logical next step in the media’s turning inwards.” Journalists’ tweets dealt with what they and the campaign strategists cared about. Energy that might have gone into real coverage and analysis was spent by social-and political-climbing media stars on campaign planes cozying closer to political operatives and distancing themselves even further from voters.
Andrew Coyne from Maclean’s, David Akin from Sun Media, the CBC’s Rosemary Barton and Kady O’Malley, and Susan Delacourt from the Toronto Star[xxi] became the core of a small group of tweeters who tried to dominate the media agenda and frame the campaign’s issues. Very little of the material they posted dealt with things affecting the voters. Rather, they focused on the election-as-horserace meme. Twitter stripped away the pretense of objectivity: anyone who cared to examine the opinions of political journalists could pick through their tweets, many of which were remarkably frank about biases. The Hill media rarely followed or talked with outsiders, or even other journalists who worked for unimportant organizations or weren’t members of the clique that covered the campaign. Reporters might be able to quickly get comments from candidates (or staffers posing as them on Twitter), but these comments were superficial at best. How could they not be, when even the most thoughtful candidate could reply in just 140 characters or less? Most politicians knew better than to say anything substantial on Twitter. Only two seasoned Conservative Twitter hands, Tony Clement and James Moore—who, not surprisingly, were also two of the handful of ministers allowed to say anything substantial on behalf of the government—made the bulk of the Harper campaign tweets.[xxii]
Some people point to media scandal-mongering as the culprit for killing political involvement and undermining the watchdog role of the press in Canada. George Bain, a respected Globe and Mail writer, made that case in his 1994 book Gotcha! But coverage of scandals began long before Confederation. Dozens of newspaper and television news awards grace the walls of newsrooms, home recreation rooms and even some bathrooms for coverage of controversies and wickedness that are long forgotten. And other press critics argue young people might be turned off by regional griping. But Canada’s always had that, too, and in fact, those concerned about disenchantment with the federal system should turn public attention to provincial politics. Even college and university students, who feel the direct financial hit of increased tuition and residence fees and have the most to fear from today’s economy, are very unlikely to engage in politics or rely on the media to follow current events. The notable exception is Quebec, which is unplugged from much of American-dominated media culture. There, in 2012, young people learned by experience that they could throw out a government that they felt was gouging them and that had passed a law to limit their right to protest.[xxiii]
Perhaps, then, people care about their immediate surroundings: roads, bike lanes, policing, urban planning, transit, garbage disposal, parks—all things run by municipalities, with meetings right in the community and representatives who are often easy to call, email or visit at a city hall. But voter turnout at the local level is appalling, even in cities with notoriously inept, even comical, candidates. Yet, where young people actually see the effects of social engagement, you find a very interesting thing: young people volunteer twice as much of their time as their parents did thirty years ago. Some Canadian provinces now require students to volunteer for civic causes, but that simply reinforces a trend among youth that began in the 1990s. (Even taking into account the idea that some students do volunteer work to beef up their resumes for college applications, the doubling of volunteer hours is phenomenal. If anything, universities are easier to get into than they were in the 1970s, and doing free work in, say, a newsroom or a law firm to try to get into a competitive professional program would not count as community volunteer time.) In the United States, young people volunteer more of their time than any demographic segment except people in the 40–49 age group.[xxiv]
Certainly, something is happening to make young people feel like the political system does not want them, and that it’s owned and operated by, and on behalf of, other people. Even during the Obama presidency, young people showed very little interest in American politics. While young Americans supposedly swooned over Obama in 2008, wore his buttons and put “Hope” and “Change” posters in their bedrooms, it was black people who actually got off their seats and voted for him.
This is a reversal of the way things used to be. Surveys showed that, between 1948 and 1972, the elderly were less likely to be informed about politics than young people.[xxv] Back then, young people also found their way to the polling booth. Now, when it comes to democracy and public service taking place in power centres like parliaments, city halls, political parties and voting booths, where there’s little obvious impact by each individual, the kids are absent. In places where they see results and maybe get a smile and some praise, more young people are showing up. So we can toss the idea that young people have become too lazy and too pampered to be informed about their government and engaged in democracy. Something else must be keeping them out of the public sphere. Maybe, like most people, they simply don’t feel welcome and believe they are lied to.[xxvi]
So what happened? Partly, politicians began working hard to delegitimize the role of “mainstream,” “lamestream” and “corporate” media. In 1835, the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville had credited the vibrant American press for spurring public participation and the creation of political associations. The death of newspapers—and, it’s reasonable to assume, intelligent TV journalism—hurts democracy. Empirical studies confirm that when newspapers scale back coverage or shutter their offices, a rather frightening number of people simply stop caring about the way they are governed. Portland State University professor Lee Shaker took a look at public engagement in Seattle and Denver, two cities that recently lost daily newspapers. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, which had been bleeding readers and advertisers for years, were crushed by the 2008 recession. In both cities after the papers closed, voter turnout dropped, people made fewer calls and visits to their political representatives, they joined fewer civic organizations and they were less likely to engage in protests such as boycotts.[xxvii]
In the years leading up to the emergence of Stephen Harper, the Canadian media had done a tremendous amount of damage to itself, mainly because of cheese-paring and poor financial and journalistic decisions in head offices. Very few of the surviving journalists have beats, so many reporters really don’t understand what they’re writing about. That’s especially true among the new generation of young reporters hired—even in print media—because they look good on TV and Internet video streams. Most of those kids have never worked anywhere else and have no idea of life outside of school and their fresh media jobs. There aren’t enough bodies around, even in the Ottawa bureaus of the CBC and the big Toronto newspapers, for reporters to devote their days to specialized reporting. With fewer people to write hard copy, prepare web content and file film clips for web pages, most Parliament Hill reporters can’t take chances on stories that may not pan out. Investigative reporting, when it’s done at all, happens when reporters have filed their quota of stories. And reaction to investigative stories can be ugly and expensive, as the Toronto Star learned when it took on mayor Rob Ford, was hit by a boycott campaign and saw its sales plunge.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, newspapers, magazines and radio and TV stations had been abandoning Parliament Hill, leaving coverage mainly in the hands of The Canadian Press wire service, and, recently, to the Ottawa Citizen, which feeds to Postmedia papers in Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver, the bureaus of the Toronto dailies, and the CBC. In the 1960s, reporters from individual papers, from publications like the Montreal Gazette, Hamilton Spectator, London Free Press, Winnipeg Free Press, Calgary Herald, Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and Vancouver Sun were the bedrock of the press gallery. By the turn of this century, almost all were gone, the family-owned Halifax Chronicle Herald being one of the last holdouts. Where once there had been reporters from news organizations all over the country, looking for regional and local stories, now there were national news bureaus of so-called national media. There are no reporters at all in the Parliamentary Press Gallery from newspapers or radio or TV stations east of Montreal, except for one journalist from the Halifax Chronicle Herald. And there are none from Saskatchewan.
After the 2011 election, only one English-language private radio bureau on Parliament Hill survived, and it had one reporter. News-talk radio stations might claim to offer wall-to-wall news, but none of them would pay for their own Parliament Hill reporter. This change—which had been evolving for years as Canadian newspapers and radio stations were bought up by chains, and which accelerated as newspapers began withering in the late 1970s—radically altered the outlook of the press gallery. Formerly, its members had worked their way up through their own news organizations and were respected reporters in their own communities. Now, many Hill reporters are hired straight out of university, partly because they’ll work for almost nothing just for the experience of covering national politics.
The deterioration of Hill coverage has made a difference to the way Canadians vote. Christopher Waddell, chair of Carleton University’s journalism school, took a look at the voting patterns of cities whose dominant newspaper had closed their Ottawa bureaus and found an interesting, disturbing pattern. He and David Taras looked at the voter turnout in six Ontario communities over the seven federal elections from 1979 through 2000. Three of those cities—Windsor, London and Hamilton—started the period with a local paper sending a reporter to Ottawa. The other three communities—Niagara Falls, St. Catharines, and Sault Ste. Marie—didn’t have anyone in Ottawa reporting for the local paper. By 2000, the Hamilton, London and Windsor dailies had closed their bureaus. Taras and Waddell found voter turnout in the three cities whose newspapers had shut their Ottawa bureaus fell more quickly than the provincial average. Those towns started the period with a much higher voter turnout than the cities without Hill reporters, and, by the end of the period, voter turnout had plunged to the mediocre norm of the rest of Ontario’s cities.[xxviii] Why was that? Probably because local MPs and the issues they raise in Ottawa no longer get coverage back home. If issues affecting those cities do make it to the floor of the House of Commons or a parliamentary committee, the news is not considered national and therefore important enough to be covered by national media. The tree falls and no one hears it.
After the mid-1990s, the economic problems of Ontario outside Toronto fell off the agenda in official Ottawa because no one—especially in the media—seemed to care. An unpleasant new shallowness crept into national news coverage, which, even more than it had before, became a sort of sports reporting. The public picked up on it. The media was no longer really part of the public. So it was easy for the media to be identified as elitist, out-of-touch and insular. The Media Party nickname coined by Ezra Levant of Sun News to describe the Hill media is effective because, at the heart of it, there is a substantial grain of truth. Rather than dealing with real people—say, talking to individuals, municipal and provincial politicians, business, church and non-governmental organization leaders, First Nations and others back home—the Ottawa media elite talk to each other and to the new professionals who develop retail politics. This is the selling of voters to parties and parties to voters, paid for with money raised through state-of-the art donor identification, tracking and fast communications using carefully targeted messages.
These strategists, pollsters and lobbyists work in the high-rises near Parliament Hill and socialize with members of the press gallery. The old National Press Club died a generation before, but the members of this elite, and those who were desperate to join it, haunt the bars on Sparks, Elgin, Queen and Albert streets in downtown Ottawa and find good tables at clubs in the ByWard Market. Now so-called news stories are about polls, party strategy, and winners and losers, not about jobs, health care, and pensions. Those topics may be at the core of some Hill stories, but the issues are not the focus of the stories. Instead, reporters tend to focus on how politicians and their strategists are seen to be handling those issues. People don’t care about the things Hill reporters find interesting: How did political strategists react to some piece of news? Will there be a cabinet shuffle? An election? Will a leader quit? Is the Liberal Party still split by infighting? Will Stephen Harper be able to hold his party together? One recent study showed that more than half of Canadian federal election news in 2011 coverage was about the way the parties were running their campaigns, rather than about candidates and issues. This cryptic insider coverage may intrigue reporters and the campaign strategists who feed them information, but it must be deadly dull to those who don’t know the players.[xxix]
During the frequent elections of the 2000s, reporters turned their backs on issues and embraced the technology that bound them, ever more strongly, to each other and shielded them from dealing with real people. In 1984, the country had a free trade election. In 2011, it had a Twitter election, after the YouTube and Blackberry election of 2008 and the blog election of 2004. This came just a few years after the web election of 2000, the first one that featured sophisticated Internet advertising. “Web-based media can narrow rather than expand the information and perspectives available to journalists,” Taras and Waddell wrote. “Reporters become so preoccupied with the latest tweets from politicians and each other that they lose sight of what’s taking place beyond their own gated community.”[xxx] Elections became so expensive to cover that the big TV networks started relying on pool footage shot by a single camera. The networks chipped in for the pool cameras, which are always trained on the prime minister. That ensures that all the networks are able to get their Harper shot on the nightly news, but the camera doesn’t turn toward, say, the Muslim girl being dragged out of a 2011 Conservative rally in London, Ontario, and it doesn’t ask questions.
Some papers actually ran winners and losers lists written by reporters who watched to see who was up and who was down. When there was space, they ran insider notebook columns that were read by power players and few other people. Most Canadians, though, seeing their standard of living eroding and unsure of their ability to get their kids through college and retire with dignity, simply did not care about Ottawa’s power games.
It hasn’t helped that politics has become progressively more ugly and nasty in the past thirty years. By the time Harper arrived in Ottawa as leader of the new Conservative Party, real discussion and debate in Parliament had pretty much died, electoral politics had become a professional game played by lobbyists and professional campaign managers, and by people hoping to join their lucrative businesses. Running a successful campaign can earn a strategist more than $500,000 a year. Wedge-issue politics, which had been honed in the United States, were brought to Canada by all of the major parties.
“The political parties and the media have created a world in Ottawa in which voters have become outsiders and can’t relate to what is being reported,” Christopher Waddell wrote. “Too much political coverage means nothing to them and has no impact on their lives. As a result, Canadians tune out until something happens, such as the prospect of an unwanted election that temporarily forces them to pay attention.”[xxxi]
Part of the problem lies with the fact that many Hill journalists don’t bother reading newspapers. Some print reporters don’t even read the publications they work for. News aggregator web sites like nationalnewswatch.com are popular with members of the press gallery. These sites do a fairly good job of listing Canadian national news stories and opinion columns, but they’re not particularly good at finding important regional and local stories and bringing them to the attention of people inside the Ottawa bubble and they have almost no international news. So, by relying on those kinds of sites for their news, Hill reporters effectively see themselves reflected back.
“This kind of coverage produces a world that people across the country can’t comprehend. Canadians don’t act that way when they deal with their neighbours, when they are out in the grocery store or riding a bus to work. They do not see any of it as relevant, so increasingly, they ignore it and the national political media as well,” Waddell wrote after the 2011 election.
It has replaced its traditional role with an inward-looking, narrowly-focused coverage that concentrates on the issues defined by the parties through their joint sharing with the media of technological tools and their ability to engage reports in concentrating on the artificial world they have collectively created. Instead of using technology to bridge the communications gap between voters in their communities and the media, the media has used it to turn its back on the public, forging closer links with the people reporters cover rather than with the people who used to read, watch and listen to their reporting.[xxxii]
In Canada, the Tories have a foundation myth that the “mainstream media,” the “lamestream media” and the “Media Party” oppose them and everything they stand for. They’ve said it so often that it’s believed by many people who don’t see themselves as conservative. In fact, through Stephen Harper’s career, especially before he won his 2011 majority, he’s enjoyed media support, especially among print journalists, that other leaders would envy. Here’s what The Globe and Mail said in the editorial that endorsed the Tories in 2011: “Only Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party have shown the leadership, the bullheadedness (let’s call it what it is) and the discipline this country needs. He has built the Conservatives into arguably the only truly national party, and during his five years in office has demonstrated strength of character, resolve and a desire to reform.”[xxxiv] The Globe was not alone. The Tories, in their hunt for a majority, were endorsed by the Vancouver Sun, Calgary Herald, Montreal Gazette, Hamilton Spectator, London Free Press, Ottawa Citizen, National Post, Winnipeg Free Press, the Waterloo Region Record, the Sun chain of tabloids in Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto and Ottawa, and Maclean’s magazine. The Toronto Star endorsed Jack Layton’s NDP. Michael Ignatieff and his Liberals did not get the endorsement of any large newspaper in Canada. As well, Conservatives effectively set the issues in that campaign and received much more coverage than the other parties, continuing a trend that began when the Tories re-emerged as a national contender in 2004.[xxxv]
So, when Harper was elected in 2006, the media was already very, very sick. Isolating and delegitimizing the media and its role in Canadian democracy would be easier than it could have been at any other time in recent Canadian history. The stars had aligned, the media was hobbled, and now, if possible, Harper and his people would push it to the fringe of Canadian politics. At least it wouldn’t be alone: scientists, parliamentary watchdogs, and pretty well anyone else who could get in the way would be out there, too.
[i] Don Martin, “Only the government wins as Postmedia goes dark in Ottawa,” CTV.ca, February 5, 2014.
[ii] Floridian Sauvageau, “Advertising Looks Elsewhere,” in David Taras and Christopher Waddell (eds.), How Canadians Communicate IV: Media and Politics (Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2012), 34.
[iii] Ibid., 36.
[iv] Martin P. Wattenburg, Is Voting for Young People? (New York: Pearson, 2012), 13.
[v] Sauvageau, “Advertising Looks Elsewhere,” 32–34.
[vi] Wattenburg, Is Voting for Young People?, 13.
[vii] Paul Delahanty, “TV Viewers Head for Exits,” Blacklock’s Reporter, April 26, 2014; Tom Korski, “CRTC Says 62% Eye Netflix,” Blacklock’s Reporter, May 27, 2014.
[viii] David Taras and Christopher Waddell, “The 2011 Federal Election and the Transformation of Canadian Media and Politics,” in How Canadians Communicate IV, 74.
[ix] Lewis Lapham, Gag Rule: On the Suppression of Dissent and the Stifling of Democracy (New York: Penguin Books, 2005), 91–92.
[x] Daniel Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 12–13.
[xi] Eric Alterman, Sound & Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy (New York: HarperCollins, 1992 edition), 296.
[xii] Carl Sessions Strepp, “Why Do People Read Newspapers?,” American Journalism Review, December/January, 2004.
[xiii] Alterman, Sound & Fury, 307.
[xiv] Ibid., 309.
[xv] Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-effects in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 12–14.
[xvi] Jeffrey Simpson, The Friendly Dictatorship (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart 2001), 36, 39.
[xvii] Andrew Mitrovica, “Who’s paying for that ‘expert’ opinion?,” iPolitics (ipolitics.ca), March 5, 2013.
[xviii] Crazy David Olive, “Hazy days of convergence: US experience exposes some flaws in media marriages,” National Post, September 16, 2001.
[xix] Tamara Baluja, “How well are Canadian newspapers doing with paywalls, tablets?,” Jsource.ca, January 24, 2014.
[xx] Justin Trudeau had some 360,000 Twitter followers in 2014, a number that has to be taken seriously as a political force by even the most die-hard critics of social media.
[xxi] Delacourt later wrote a book condemning the effects of retail politics and “insiderism” on Canadian politics. The book, Shopping for Votes (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2013), is an interesting account of the development of the political persuasion industry. It is well worth reading by anyone who wants to know how the permanent campaign works and who the players are.
[xxii] Taras and Waddell, “The 2011 Federal Election,” 97–98.
[xxiii] Martin Wattenburg, Is Voting for Young People? (New York: Pearson, 2012), 155.
[xxv] Ibid., 71.
[xxvii] Lee Shaker, “Dead Newspapers and Citizens’ Civic Engagement,” Political Communication 31:1 (January 2014), 131–148.
[xxviii] Taras and Waddell, “The 2011 Federal Election,” 113.
[xxix] See Thierry Giasson, “As (Not) Seen on TV: News Coverage of Political Marketing in Canadian Federal Elections,” in Alex Marland, Thierry Giasson, and Jennifer Lees-Marshment (eds.), Political Marketing in Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012), ch. 11.
[xxx] Taras and Waddell, “The 2011 Federal Election,” 104.
[xxxi] Ibid., 126.
[xxxii] Ibid., 127.
[xxxiii]Pew Research, Amid Criticism, Support for Media’s Watchdog’ Role Stands Out, www.people-press.org, August 8, 2013. Pew surveyed about 1,400 Americans over a one-week period in July 2013.
[xxxiv] “The Globe’s election endorsement: Facing up to our challenges,” editorial, The Globe and Mail, April 27, 2011.
[xxxv] For an interesting analysis of the volume of media coverage of Canadian political parties in recent elections, see Blake Andrew, Patrick Fournier, and Stuart Soroka, “The Canadian Party System,” in Amanda Bittner and Royce Koop (eds.), Parties, Elections and the Future of Canadian Politics (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013), 161–184.