A Megalomedia first!

See, all good media should state up front when they make errors, and post these in a noticeable place. It’s just the rigth thing to do. The fact that this error belongs to Jacques in no way is a reason for me to correct it publicly. The piece he was referring to below was written by Chris Dornan, not Chris Waddell. Anyhow, the piece follows, and then a few thoughts.

Globe & Mail, A9
Dec. 23, 2005

How far would you go to get people to vote? How far would you go to get people to pay attention to your election coverage? Actually paying them, remember, is illegal in the first instance and bad business practice in the second.

For example, would you be any more interested in this column if you didn’t know who wrote it? What if the little mug shot of me in the upper left-hand corner had a black band across the eyes with a byline crediting a “mystery” contributor? Would that make it more alluring than the dull truth of knowing it’s just me, some guy you don’t know from Adam? CBC’s The National is running a regular feature, “Campaign Confidential,” in which the identity of the commentator is artfully shrouded. This person could be a former party strategist, a former cabinet minister, or indeed more than one person. A skilled actor you only hear and never see reads the column in the gravelly voice of someone who’s seen it all. The identity of the mystery columnist, we are promised, will be revealed to us on election night.

I dare say that won’t be the most important thing revealed to us on election night, but so what? There’s nothing wrong with trying everything you can think of to get folks mulling over the important business of how they want to be governed. Messy as it is, democracy is pretty simple. It means the people get to choose. If the people elect not to choose — if they sit at home on their hands on election night, not even motivated enough to register a protest vote — what then? On a good day, you can convince yourself that a lack of interest in federal politics is a backhanded compliment, a sign of complacency.

Sure, whatever party happens to be in power is infuriating, but the public judges (correctly) that the country works well enough — better than almost anywhere else — so what difference does it make who’s in charge? But if you care at all about Canadian democracy, election day is not a good day to trot out that rationalization. The fact that fewer and fewer percentages of people vote is troublesome because, bottom line, the thing that makes Canada work so well is the number of people who believe in it.

So, it is not simply incumbent upon the media to cover the election conscientiously, it is their civic duty to encourage interest in the coverage of the election. In their own way, all of the media outlets do so. You don’t think the staff members at Dose, the youth daily, aren’t thinking hard about how to cover this campaign in a way that will get their supposedly uninterested readers interested while at the same time getting more readers? Let’s be honest. It costs the news media a lot of money to cover an election and they have no choice about it. For once, their financial interests are perfectly coincident with their public responsibility: They need to get you interested so that you watch their newscast or buy their newspaper.

So let’s cut them some slack if they resort to a gimmick or two.

The National, for instance, is gimmick central. They have their “Campaign Confidential” mystery contributor. They have a bit called “Taxi Chat,” in which they put someone running for office behind the wheel of a cab and record the exchange between pol and passengers.

(I notice they haven’t tried this late at night, when the bars empty and the people in the back seat are groping one another.) They’re also trying comedy — or what passes for “comedy” in the upper boardrooms of the CBC news division. A Winnipeg outfit called the Content Factory has had a run at animating portraits of former prime ministers bickering with one another about the campaign. Chuckle quotient? Not so much.

Speaking of ideas that would have been best left on the cutting-room floor, lately they’ve wheeled out comic Sean Cullen in a segment called “I’m glad you asked,” in which he answers — or, rather, makes fun of — viewers’ election queries. Sean Cullen has many talents as a performer. This, unfortunately, is not one of them.

But hey, at least the CBC is trying. You can’t fault them for it. If we had an electorate that didn’t need a cattle prod to go to the polls, none of the media would have to try so hard.

Christopher Dornan is the director of the Carleton University school of journalism and communication.

Is it the media’s duty to encourage people to vote? I really don’t know. But Campaign Confidential is the wrong way to go about engaging interest. By describing this person as something of an election expert, the CBC is basically telling you that this person’s insights are useful and valuable. And these reports aren’t exactly politically neutral. The last one, on western alienation, was rather noticeably anti-Liberal, which would be acceptable if the audience knew who was speaking and this person’s general political affiliations. In short, if they had the context in which to place them.

Pretend CC is one of Preston Manning, Joe Clark, Shiela Copps, or Warren Kinsella. Which of the four would you trust the most? I’ll bet a lot of people have a lot of different answers. And if one of them was telling me something, I’d bloody well want to know which one it was before I decided how much to trust what they had to say. If CC was merely reporting verifiable facts, anonymously, then that would be one thing. But opinions on the campaign and how it’s playing out?

While the CBC should try to make the campaign interesting to its viewers, broadcasting unvarnished opinion without attribution could do more than encourage them to vote, despite the pooh-poohing Mr. Dornan offers. It could sway the way a person votes.

And that is not under any circumstances what the media is supposed to do.


  1. Thanks for the correction, King of Bastards, this was exactly the article I was looking for. Thanks for finding it.

    I’ve written an email to the CBC pointing out our discussion to them and asking them to respond if they wish. I’ll post any replies as soon as I get them.

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