Media

Bypassing the campaign trail

Marci McDonald April 21 1997
Media

Bypassing the campaign trail

Marci McDonald April 21 1997

Bypassing the campaign trail

Media

Marci McDonald

The outrage was both swift and loud. Barely 48 hours after La Presse reporter André Pratte unleashed The Pinocchio Syndrome, his 160-page essay arguing that lying has become the common currency of Canadian politics, howls rose from the floor of Quebec’s national assembly late last month. Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson led a motion censuring not only Pratte, but also the French-language television show One Day at a Time, which had released the results of an audience poll inspired by the book: asked to rate which politicians lied the most, 52 per cent of viewers had accorded top honors to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, 17 per cent to second-place finisher Premier Lucien Bouchard. Thundering that Pratte had impugned the integrity of every elected Canadian, Johnson, who had branded Bouchard a liar only the week before, won near-unanimous support.

But if the politicians’ fury was predictable, what stunned Pratte was the reaction of his media colleagues, whom he calls accomplices in the crime—letting officials off the hook in return for suspect, off-the-record leaks and allowing scrums to degenerate into pure theatrics. As Pratte discovered, it is one thing to declare that the emperor has no clothes, quite another to question the garb of the imperial scribes. “Most of the political reporters said I was naiVe or too idealistic,” he marvels. “That surprised me because I thought that was what journalists were about—to set standards that are high.” In fact, on the eve of an expected federal election call, when polls show public skepticism of both politicians and the media at record levels, Pratte has raised awkward questions about a relationship that, more than ever, seems destined for the spotlight’s glare. Already, the CBC and other news organizations have promised a revolution in this year’s campaign coverage, provoked in part by the frustration of finding themselves inadvertent bit players in a ritualized electoral pageant—one increasingly orchestrated by political strategists and proliferating spin doctors. “It’s a rebellion against the fact that there has been an emptiness on the campaign trail,” says Tony Burman, execu-

tive producer of The National. “The goal here is to keep two or three steps ahead of the manipulators.”

Last month, the leading networks wrapped up an agreement to pool footage from each of the five party leaders’ tours. Instead of dozens of competing crews jostling to immortalize a candidate’s every move, two communal cameras will record the rites of every leader on the hustings. Considering the fact that some parties in 1993 charged reporters $18,000 a seat on their campaign planes—and that in the current

splintered political landscape, there are even more leaders to track—the pool will drastically cut media costs. According to CTV’s Ottawa bureau chief, Craig Oliver, it could save some networks as much as $500,000. But it will also slash party revenues, dulling the hoopla that has long gilded electioneering with the heady glamor of a Hollywood entourage. Says Oliver: “I don’t think the public knew we were essentially financing these campaigns.”

Gerry Arnold, Ottawa bureau chief of Canadian Press, makes no pretence of the fact that, purely for financial reasons, his reporters will not be assigned to any party leader’s plane but Chrétien’s. “Our staff is cut by 26 per cent since a year ago,” he says, “so we have to find new ways of doing things.” But despite the fact that CBC TV has gone further than its rivals—declining to assign a full-time reporter to any of the leaders’ tours, including the Prime Minis-

ter’s, Burman insists the public network was not forced to do so by its current fiscal straits. For years, he argues, he and others have questioned the value of that campaign institution, the boys and girls on the bus— shepherded from tarmac to photo opportunity with such discombobulating frequency that they can often lip-sync the stump speech more accurately than the candidate. “We felt we were becoming prisoner to a ritual which really wasn’t all that illuminating,” Burman says. “The argument was that the tours provided access to the leaders, but in fact even that has shut down, except for these ludicrous scrums.”

Whether or not the changes in coverage are provoked primarily by the bottom line, they reflect a growing anguish among the media that serving as politicians’ campaign props was merely feeding voters’ alienation from the democratic process. The CBC plans to redeploy the money saved from not following the leaders’ slipstreams into more regional election reports. Butfor James Winter, a professor of communications at the University of Windsor, any cutback in coverage represents a risk. “You’re simply relying on the opinion of a smaller number of people,” he worries. “Ultimately, it can lead to a situation where you end up with one voice.”

Last week, in another new twist, CBC-TV’s parliamentary bureau chief Christopher Waddell invited all five parties to participate in morning news conferences on Newsworld. Patterned after British election campaigns, they are meant to prod candidates into a more civilized debate. But Britain’s current scandal-besotted campaign offers a cautionary note about the extent of their civilizing influence. And as CTV’s Oliver points out, despite the trendiness of decrying political horse-race reporting, “Every time I meet someone out on the campaign trail, it’s Who’s going to win?’ not, Tell me about the distinct society.’ ”

Whether political reporting is ever to undergo a true metamorphosis will, in the end, depend on what voters themselves demand. “As a society we have to ask ourselves what we want,” says André Pratte. “If we want politicians to tell us everything is fine and all our problems will be solved in six months, then let’s stop criticizing the sound bites.”