Mr. Simpson regrets

Perhaps you will not be entirely surprised to learn Jeffrey Simpson thinks we are all going to hell in a handcart. The Globe‘s venerable columnist is often disappointed with the rest of us, a cohort variously defined as “everyone;” “his colleagues”; “government”; “people who dislike government”; “people who perpetuate the status quo”; “people who try to shake up the status quo”; “people who don’t get Quebec”; “Quebecers”; and so on. So his essay in the current issue of the Queen’s Quarterly will probably not get much attention. And yet it’s worth considering.

This time (here’s a snippet) it is other journalists who are letting him down, or our bosses, or the business side, or Journalism tout court. Like most blues lyrics it is familiar because there is truth in it. “Too much of what now passes for political reporting in Canada is about motives and optics; too little about the soundness, or otherwise, of what is actually being proposed or done,” he writes. “Somehow, a balance between motives/ optics and substance has been lost, becuase of the nature of the contemporary media, the way governments manipulate information, and perhaps, sad to say, an audience increasingly conditioned to the sound bite.”

“The worst offenders,” he says, “are the panels of talking heads that have proliferated on television.” Taking care to acknowledge that in what is now the receding past, he used to spend a lot of time on those panels, Jeff writes that “almost all” of the analysis they produce “is demonstrably wrong, because it rests on false foundations — namely that the ‘public’ is paying attention, will react in a particular way to a specific event or announcement, and will therefore be more inclined come voting day to mark a ballot in a certain way.”

Jeff informs us this is all bollocks. Nobody is listening, they are set in their ways in any case, and today’s scandal will be contradicted by tomorrow’s. “It can be easily demonstrated how the chatterers on television and pundits in the print media who practise this sort of political journalism are wrong by simply looking at what has occurred, politically speaking, since Mr. Harper became prime minister: nothing.”

And indeed, the polls that resemble the January 2006 returns are more numerous than those that seem to show a trend one way or another. (Let’s be wicked and examine the counterfactual: if the polls were moving, as they have in the past and will again, would that make talking-heads panels a vital contribution to our democratic discourse? Sorry, I suppose that’s not helpful. Onward.)

“This disconnect” — the assumption that people care and pay attention — “is widened still further by the disinclination of the national media to move outside the precincts of Ottawa (or Toronto…), and to converse with citizens across the country.” Simpson declares a “golden rule”: “the absolutely worse place from which to analyse the country is within sight of the Peace Tower.”

Perhaps this is where I should hasten to report that there are no windows in Jeff’s office. But then, if we all wait around for somebody without sin to cast the first stone, we perpetuate the elaborate protection racket that Canadian political journalism so often resembles. I won’t call your story a confection of anonymous ax-grinding if you don’t point out that I boosted a two-point poll swing into a front-page headline. Nice reputation you got there, bud; hate to see anything bad happen to it.

We must not yet succumb to that temptation because we’re getting to the most useful part. “The exploration of motive and the anticipation of political fallout is the easiest and laziest form of political journalism. It takes little skill, almost no understanding of the country’s history, and no effort to understand the substance of policy or the canvassing of options. It leads inevitably to politics as only theatre, and to a deeply cynical presentation of the country’s political life.”

It’d be fun to spend a little time analyzing why it is that “the easiest and laziest form of political journalism” is the one that gets practised so often. My own version, which I posted a couple of times and have lost every time in the shifting sands of this blog’s archives, is that political news bureaus are so thinly staffed and government so complex that hit-and-run journalism — which prizes conflict and strong emotion because those are the only things any generalist reporter can spot while jogging past — are all that survives. Jeff prefers not to go into detail; it is enough to know that all men are sinners. The CBC “ought to be a sanctuary” from the worst in political reporting, “but is not. Why the public should continue to pour money into a television news organization not markedly different from those of the private networks is a subject worthy of debating, although nobody does.”

Well. Nobody except Andrew Coyne, for 20 years from a succession of increasingly prominent podiums, and everybody who has ever written the letters “CBC” in that order in the National Post. But who’s counting. Space and time for serious journalism has “shrunk,” a word Jeff uses four times in the short essay’s last page, and “sympathy might therefore be extended” to political journalists, some of whom are “very good.”

So there you have it. There are two lessons here, one intended and one unintended, both useful. First, that decoding motive and presuming bad faith isn’t hard, it’s just about automatic. I remember somebody once writing that the job of Washington reporters is “to stand on the White House lawn sounding skeptical about what the President said today.” We too rarely get around to telling people about what actually interests them. As Mark Bourrie writes in a recent blog posting that’s getting some attention around Ottawa, “Stick to telling people about new laws.”

The second lesson, unintended, is that even when a message is valuable it can be hard to swallow when it comes from a guy who simply can’t believe what a bad job everyone else is doing. Annoying autobiographical/confessional pause: this is something I have been thinking about lately when it comes to my own work. I hope my own writing will, over the next little while, contain fewer variations on “Why doesn’t anyone…” and instead more often reflect an effort to look in the mirror and ask: “Why don’t I….”

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