COVER

AND NOW, THE NEWS

THE GAFFE IS OFTEN WHAT VIEWERS SEE

BRUCE WALLACE October 31 1988
COVER

AND NOW, THE NEWS

THE GAFFE IS OFTEN WHAT VIEWERS SEE

BRUCE WALLACE October 31 1988

AND NOW, THE NEWS

COVER

THE GAFFE IS OFTEN WHAT VIEWERS SEE

It was the only significant stumble in an otherwise sterling performance. Speaking to an attentive—if somewhat restrained—audience consisting mainly of Toronto-area business people at the Liberal party’s Confederation Dinner on Oct. 12, John Turner delivered a passionate denunciation of the Can-

ada-U.S. free trade agreement. But as his arms pumped to emphasize the carefully honed attack on Brian Mulroney’s trade deal, the momentum of Turner’s rhetoric left him tonguetied. When he accused the Prime Minister of selling out Canada’s “birthright,” Turner’s body contorted as he struggled briefly to master the syllables. The gaffe occupied barely three seconds of a 45-minute speech—but it

was what viewers of CBC’s The National saw that night when they watched the report on Turner’s day of campaigning.

Slip: The decision by the CBC to dwell on Turner’s one slip seemed to illustrate the most widespread criticism levelled at television news—that strict time constraints and a preoccupation with visually compelling images produce superficial and sometimes misleading reports. In an age when the television sound bite has replaced the whistle-stop as the critical component of election campaigns, the charge raises doubts about whether viewers can depend on the medium to provide fair and balanced information on which to base a voting decision. Network executives respond that they are constantly seeking new approaches to campaign coverage—while they examine their daily broadcast decisions with an eye to separating news from manipulation. “We don’t base our news decision on the beauty of the pictures,” observed Eric Morrison, producer of CTV’s National News. “It’s all tied to content.”

Media analysts say that such self-scrutiny by the people who control television’s image of the campaigning leaders is now more important than ever. A 1984 study showed that 63 per cent of Canadians depend on television as their main source of news. Because of its power to reach millions of voters, television has displaced newspapers in determining the agenda of political campaigns, whose events are increasingly tailored to cater to the small screen’s thirst for telegenic pictures of the party leaders. Said John Fitzgibbon, producer of CBC’s evening Edmonton’s Newsday. “The politicians believe that it does not matter what television reporters say about you, as long as your face gets on the evening news.”

Risk: Aware that air time is coveted by campaign managers, television executives say that they avoid the risk of political manipulation by constantly questioning the newsworthiness of what is broadcast. With such questions in mind, producers at the CBC were divided over the merits of putting Turner’s verbal stumble on The National. Reporter Keith Boag had introduced the story by describing the event as Turner’s best speech of the campaign so far. Said executive producer David Bazay: “Since the story said Turner gave a good speech, I would have liked to have seen more of him speaking.” But other CBC producers defended the choice. Said Mark Bulgutch, producer for The National’s, election news reports: “Turner’s body language showed passion. That is why we showed that part of

the speech. We were not poking fun at him.”

As well, CBC executives said that they have encouraged their journalists to use the closing statements of their campaign reports to analyse what the politicians are doing. Said Bulgutch: “No TV news report should end with a tepid recitation of where the politician will be tomorrow. Our reporters should be telling the viewer about the significance of what he has just seen.”

The networks also deflect criticism of their coverage by pointing out that they are supplementing campaign reports with background items that analyse the campaigns’ major issues and strategies. The National assigned its chief political correspondent, David Halton, to investigate such subjects as the different ways that the three parties use economic statistics. CTV executives, meanwhile, point out that they are supplementing their general news coverage with more in-depth current events programming, including regular panels and interviews on Canada AM. Even so, observed CTV’s Morrison, television clearly has its limitations. “We hope that people will get their election news from other sources as well,” he said.

Costs: For smaller networks, budgets can limit the coverage of three cross-country campaigns—and sometimes dictate what will appear on the air. Executives at Toronto-based Global Television Network, for one, estimate that it will cost $350,000 to keep its reporters and crews of camera and sound technicians on the election tours—even though Global reporters did not travel with the party leaders for two weeks of the seven-week campaign. In the interests of freeing more money for the campaign, Global has also decided not to start coverage on election night until the end of a scheduled hockey telecast—about 10:15 p.m. in Ontario. By then, CBC and CTV will have been

on the air with election coverage for more than two hours; indeed, if pre-election polls of party standings prove to be accurate, the vote’s outcome may be known well before Global’s coverage begins. Meanwhile, at Montrealbased Télé-Métropole, Canada’s largest private French-language network, reporters are travelling with the three leaders only in the campaign’s final four weeks for cost reasons. Still, the financial commitment involved in covering the leaders’ tours—at $12,000 to $13,500 per seat for the full 52-day campaign—tends to encourage use of reports from each of the tours each night. Said Global’s Ottawa bureau chief, Douglas Small: “Our finances dictate that if we have pictures of the leaders, we will do a story.”

Indeed, on days when there are no big developments in a campaign, TV producers may have difficult choices to make. Some broadcast only video footage of the leaders accompanied by a brief report from the anchor desk. Occasionally, they ignore the campaign entirely. Said CBC Edmonton’s Fitzgibbon: “Our politicians have learned their lessons well on how to run a manicured campaign. But if Mulroney chooses to do nothing but wear a hard hat, we can choose not to put him on the air.”

Share: But that is a difficult option for national newscasts to select. Network execu■ tives are acutely aware that ; viewers and party officials ; monitor the broadcasts closei ly to ensure that the cam' paigns receive their fair share of coverage. And they add that their first responsibility is to report the campaigns—not to impose their own views of how those campaigns should be run. Said Bazay: “Staged events are the reality of modern political campaigns. If the Prime Minister is not accessible to the media, we leave it up to the viewers’ intelligence to realize that he is being evasive.”

At the same time, new technology is making television reporting more immediate. Said Global's Small: “In the days when we used film, it took a long time to have it processed before it could be broadcast. Now we send video by satellite or over phone lines from almost anywhere in the country, and TV reporters can do one report for the 6 o’clock news and another for the late show.” Small predicts that television reporters could cover the next election campaign almost hour by hour, in the same way that radio does now.

Duel: More frequent broadcasts may not diminish television’s susceptibility to manipulation by canny campaign managers. In Clive Cocking’s book Following the Leaders, about the reporters who covered the 1979 federal election, then-Montreal Star reporter Nigel Gibson is quoted accusing television reporters of being “the darlings of the campaign, and acting like it.” But now Gibson works as a senior producer at The National—and he says that TV reporters are also, to an extent, hostages of their own medium. Said Gibson last week: “The staged photo opportunities and the attempts by political handlers to manipulate what we put on the air remains the greatest single problem we face in TV.” The subtle duel between television reporters and campaign strategists is an enduring feature of the mod2 em campaign—even if it takes place away £ from the camera’s hungry eye.

BRUCE WALLACE in Ottawa