Monday, April 4, 2011

Canada's 41st General Election: Following the Media Script

What’s been very obvious to me is that the election so far has been following the media script to a tee. What do I mean by “media script”? Well, it was no secret that as the election began, the media was playing up a number of items which, “coincidentally”, seem to have come true over the past 9 days of campaigning.

The mainstream media continues to have a lot of power during election campaigns, as it chooses which segments to broadcast to the public; essentially, the mainstream media defines what “news” really is. Notice, for example, that the media tends to focus an incredible amount of time and effort on the Leaders of the parties only, and much less on local candidates or other members of a Party’s team. This is one way which the media gets Canadians thinking about politics. And with a Leader-only focus on “news”, a television viewer (and voter) will benefit from receiving a fairly narrow view of what a particular political party is all about. Of course, in part to off-set this, the media will trot out pundits, partisans and analysts, and use all sorts of interesting visuals, in an attempt to explain what the Leaders really mean when they say such-and-such.

All of this places the mainstream media in a really unique place. As a “driver” of the election, the mainstream media essentially gets to decide which election issues are important to Canadians, and which aren’t. And by “election issues” I’m not referring to policy issues exclusively. In fact, more often than not, the issues which the media latch on to during an election have nothing to do with policy proposals at all. For example, in 2008, we had Stephane Dion’s inability to communicate in English, pooping puffins, and a return of the 2006 soft-blue Harper sweater-vest.

The media’s pre-occupation with non-policy issues hasn’t yet become that bad so far, in my opinion. But we have seen a debate about the televised debates overshadow policy discussions, along with pundits chirping about whether 5 questions per day from the media answered by Stephen Harper is enough or not. And then there’s the coalition. The media has deemed that these stories resonate more with viewers than do discussions about policies, which tend to last as “news” for only a day or two at most. I mean really, who remembers what the NDP announced as a major policy initiative on last Tuesday? Or what the Liberals first policy announcement was?

But we all know who isn’t coming to the debates in April. Even though hardly any of us know what she might have said had she been invited.

So, how is that script playing out so far?

Enter Michael Ignatieff, Stage Right

The first and foremost scripted storyline applied to Michael Ignatieff. The script called for a better performance on the campaign trail than Canadians would have expected. Given that the media, over the past several years since Ignatieff became the Liberal Leader, have been chirping about how Ignatieff has been underwhelming in his performance as head Liberal, it’s no surprise at all now that all of the media’s attention is focused on him that he seems to be doing better “than expected”. I’m not sure exactly whose expectations Ignatieff has exceeded, but likely it’s just the media’s. Anyway, Ignatieff has pulled through for the media here, and has kept this storyline consistent.

Enter Stephen Harper, Stage Right(er)

The media story for Harper, of course, was that he would come out swinging against the “coalition”, and be a little mean-spirited and nasty along the way, given that the Conservatives have been clamouring for some time now that there is really only two choices for Canadians: a Conservative Majority government, or a coalition of socialists and separatists led by losers. Lo and behold, Harper is following the prepared script quite well, with the added nastiness of refusing to answer more than 5 media questions daily.

He’s also been successful at playing his role as “distanced” by announcing tax cuts for middle-class Canadians – but to have them apply only when the deficit is eliminated. So, tax cuts for corporations are ok to have right now, but all of the goodies being promised for average hard-working Canadians, well, they’re not on the table until we all tighten our belts (except for those corporations getting the tax breaks, presumably). So, on the one hand, Harper is concerned about our fiscal health, and on the other, he’s back-handing the middle-class. And on the gripping hand (shout out to all of you Niven and Pournelle fans!), he’s playing his role as angry, aloof Father-Knows-Best very well indeed.

Enter Jack Layton, rising through a hole in the floor

Now, here’s where things get interesting.

The media script for the NDP was that they’re just not going to live up to past expectations, given Jack Layton’s health, and a coalescing of the electorate, tired with minority governments, around the Liberals and the Conservatives as the only two real viable alternatives. Despite having a good week on the campaign trail, media stories about NDP candidates jumping ship have been played up beyond their merit (especially since there has been time for the NDP to replace candidates). Further, Layton has been hurt by calls being made by the media for one-on-one debates between Harper and Ignatieff.

The NDP is used to being sidelined to some extent during a federal election, but the media script this time out was very clear: the NDP isn’t going to be presented as an alternative to Canadians, and Jack Layton isn’t really a serious contender to become Prime Minister (and notice that Layton isn’t using that line the same way that he was in 2008). With the notion that the NDP’s support has been declining based on the results of by-elections held late in 2010 (and despite polls which continue to show support is only flat-lined, but not really declining), the media had pretty much made their minds up that Layton and the NDP would be a sideshow in the election, at best. So far, that’s exactly how the NDP have been portrayed.

Enter Elizabeth May, lowered from above on wires

As for the Green Party…well, if the NDP was going to be the marginalized party in this election, the pre-election media script had the Green Party become the non-Party, or the not-serious party at best. For the past several years, reduced media coverage of Green Party events and announcements, and of our Leader Elizabeth May, has been coupled with the notion that environmental issues no longer matter to Canadians, who are concerned about the economy. The media, when it has bothered at all to talk about the Green Party, has generally been left wondering just where May and the Greens went.

Despite the fact that May and the Greens have been here all along, trying to get the media’s attention, the media has pre-scripted the Greens to play an un-named role in this general election. Try to think of it this way, as if the election were a Shakespeare play: if Harper and Ignatieff are Romeo and Juliet, then Jack Layton would be Mercutio, and Gilles Duceppe perhaps Friar Laurence. Elizabeth May would be “Guard Number 2”.

The absence of serious media coverage about anything that May and the Green Party has been up to, aside from the debate debacle, has been astounding. Only the CBC seems to at least be acknowledging that the Green Party exists as a national force in this election, and only by including the colour green as one of the 5 stripes in its election logo. When Peter Mansbridge cut away from Elizabeth May’s kick-off speech on the Saturday morning when the election began, and referred to the kick-off as a “kumbaya moment”, the writing was on the wall. The script was to be adhered to all costs.

ON CTV this morning, they were interviewing youth representatives about how better to get youth out to vote. 3 reps were present, one each from the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP. No Green youth was represented, despite the fact that time and again, polls show that youth support of the Green Party hovers around 20%, and is on par with the other parties, and despite the fact that issues which resonate with youth are being championed by Greens in this election (and rarely mentioned by the other parties) such as environmental issues and electoral reform. Perhaps a piece on youth voting might have included a perspective from the Green Party. But that would have been straying from the script.

So the Green Party is to continue to be the non-Party of this election, according to the mainstream media’s script. Canadians aren’t to be told what the Green Party is all about, and will have to do the heavy-lifting of research for themselves. Instead, the media will tell Canadians that the Green Party isn’t a serious Party. They will do so by what they don’t cover: by absenting the Green Party from news stories about policy announcements, by not including Green pundits along with Con/Lib/NDP counterparts, by not including Elizabeth May in the televised debates.

Enter the Canadian Electorate, via the closest Tim Horton’s

Is it just me, or has anyone else been wondering why no “average Canadian” whom has had a mike shoved in front of their face while a TV camera is rolling has told a pundit, “I’m excited about having this election! I can’t wait to exercise my democratic right to vote for an individual of my choice to represent me on Parliament Hill. People in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other places are literally putting their lives at risk because they want to be able to vote in an election. I’m just thrilled to be able to do my part.”

I suspect that those remarks, or similar ones, have been made to media pundits, but since they don’t fit in with the media script about how Canadians think that an election right now is a waste of time and money (and how many of them won’t bother showing up to the polls to cast their ballots), we’re simply not hearing from these engaged Canadians. The media had already decided that the story about the election would be how no one wanted an election. That the story about voter turn out would be that no one really cares enough to vote, because all politicians are crooks and liars.

Of course, media stories about these sorts of things tend to re-inforce attitudes which might not be prevalent. If everyone on the 6 o’clock news has one opinion about something, and your opinion is somewhat different, chances are you might begin re-evaluating your beliefs. After all, why doesn’t anybody agree with you?

So when everyone on tv says that this is a needless election, and you were maybe a little excited about going out to vote, perhaps your enthusiasm might take a bit of a blow.

Or maybe if you are a supporter of the Green Party, but you never had the chance to see or hear anything about the Green Party on tv, you might begin to wonder if your support makes sense. Maybe the Greens just aren’t serious; if they were serious, why isn’t their Leader in the debates, and why aren’t their policy announcements receiving the same kind of coverage of the other party’s? And just where, oh where, are those Green pundits providing analysis and colour to today’s stories? Surely, it might seem that the Green Party has disappeared from the national conscience.

Of course, there’s “disappeared” and “been disappeared” as they’d say on a particularly good episode of “Law & Order”.

The media can and does influence election outcomes. We all need to have a better understanding of the role played by the media in doing so. But it’s hard, because we want to trust the media as our fount of information. But blind trust without understanding, without questioning, can and will get us into some difficulties. Best to treat the media as a source of information with its own inherent biases. That’s a good starting point for critical analysis, in my opinion.

(Opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)


Dave S said...

I agree with your overall analysis that the media is playing to its strengths in their news reports but there are some things that do tend to write themselves.

The liberals being the next best Left hope, the media NEEDS someone to challenge the Cons so they are willing to give a lot of leeway to that party. The NDP has pretty much always been a fringe Left party so they can get as much coverage as they need. The Bloc is good because the papers love when people spew vitriol at the Rest of Canada and it makes for good sound bites. Combine that with a pretty charismatic leader in Gilles, then you have good copy.

As for the Greens, this is pretty much the case of the extreme fringe party. The Leader won't leave her riding to campaign. All she does is bitch about the debates. The national party policies are completely unknown so what do you expect from the media? A lot of the youth vote likes the idea of the Greens without having to worry about things like running the country, positions on international affairs, small things like finance and the economy. While there is no doubt that the Greens have a position on that somewhere, their fringe candidacy makes it almost a moot point. It's kinda like having a minor league hockey team bitch to the NHL that they can't get into the NHL All-Star game even though they have players everywhere.

Sudbury Steve said...

@Dave S...interesting observations. I'm glad that you support my overall analysis, but I have to say that I think we've arrived at our conclusions in completely different ways.

For starters, I'm not at all sure that the Liberals are a "party of the left", particularly after Chretien and Paul Martin's belt-tightening fiscal policies. Since the "left" is often associated with free(r) spending, I think that a better case could be made that the Conservatives under Harper have been acting much more like a left-wing party than the Liberals have been lately.

Socially, I'd agree with you about the Liberals. And in general, yes, I suppose the Libs are left of the Cons...but a party of the left? I'm not at all sure about that.

As far as the NDP being a "fringe" party, I just can't agree. The NDP is a truly national party which, over decades, has garnered a good percentage of the federal vote. Provincially, we've had NDP governments in B.C., Ontario, Nova Scotia and elsewhere. Sorry...the NDP isn't on the fringe.

A better case could be made for the Green Party being on the fringe, but I'm going to have to side with the almost one million voters who cast ballots for the Greens in the last election, and delivered 6.8% of the national vote to the GPC to suggest that the Green Party, despite not having elected anyone anywhere in Canada, is certainly not on the fringes of national political discourse. But, I would agree that there remains a ways to go before the Greens hit mainstream.

Not sure that I'd agree with you that a Party Leader needs to leave their riding in order for the Party to run a national campaign. It's only because the media chooses to focus so heavily on leaders that leaders feel they need to be as involved as they are in criss-crossing the nation. May, btw, will be embarking on a national tour, but really, she has a strong team to back her up, and candidates are running in each and every riding.

And frankly, could you imagine the outcry if May started flying around the country during an election campaign? That would hardly of her. She's showing Canadians that the Green Party engages in politics differently than do the other parties.

And since the Leafs are out of the playoffs officially tonight, I just can't bear to take on your hockey analogy!

Jenn Jilks said...

Nicely done. I like the analogies!