BTC: Silly questions


From the Canadian Press wrap-up of Dion’s first week.

“Seemingly at home at last in a university setting, the former academic’s responses to student questions ran to three minutes in an age when a 15-second sound byte is considered too long.”

From the Sun’s Greg Weston.

“Despite the Liberals having some of the smartest strategists in politics, Dion is only slowly starting to grasp the reality that modern election campaigns aren’t travelling academic seminars — they are backdrops for a series of 10-second sound bites.”

Is the complaint here with Dion or the political system at present? If it’s Dion, would we not rather our politicians spoke in nuance and specifics? Would that not better reflect the complicated issues that are being discussed? Or do we truly believe that the sound bite is our most enlightened form of expression? If we don’t, if our complaint is with the system, is it not the responsibility of the traveling press corps to fight the over-simplification of modern politics? Why is meta coverage—covering the political ramifications of the event instead of the actual event itself—the standard for the vast majority political coverage at this point? When did it become the responsibility of the media to explain how something will play with the public? Who exactly is served by this kind of journalism? How often does the public still get to interact with politics and make its own decisions? And when it does, how come no one notices?


BTC: Silly questions

  1. Aaron,

    You assume that the media will be willing to devote 3 minutes for Stephane Dion every night to get out his thoughts.

    You also assume that Canadian’s will understand a leader who cannot explain a policy like a carbon tax that Dion is so passionate about, and cannot even explain it in a sound bite.

    The problem isn’t the media simplifying but Stephane Dion’s inability to communicate…period.

  2. James, Dion has explained the Green Shift in a sound bite.

    “Cut income taxes, shift to pollution.”

    For Dion it seems it is always a lose, lose situaton. Maybe Dion can go for the sympathy vote. Oh well… Harper sure can jam on that piano man, wicket cool.

  3. James, it is the media’s inability to communicate actual substance that is the problem. Unless the answer is easy or simple, it should be disregarded and dismissed, and don’t even think about debating what was said, it was the way the person says it that counts dammit! Heaven forbid it strays from the media’s beyond-lazy-by-now narrative that Dion is not-a-leader-because-those-Con-speaking-points-said-so.
    Since when is honesty and integrity character faults. You’d think that the entire press gallery has gone all Patty Hearst after being soundly beaten and dominated by Harper for 2+ years.

  4. So. The media does not serve the public interest in a meaningful way. Who knew?
    There must be a poll about that somewhere.

  5. “If it’s Dion, would we not rather our politicians spoke in nuance and specifics? Would that not better reflect the complicated issues that are being discussed?”


    I think Dion can’t explain what he thinks in simple terms because his ideas are too befuddled but the msm says he’s ‘smart’, and they love to talk about ‘nuances’, so reporters have been enabling his professor talk because no one questions Dion about it.

    “I say there are simple answers to many of our problems–simple but hard, it’s the complicated answer that’s easy, because it avoids facing the hard moral issues.” Ronald Reagan

  6. “For every complext problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”
    H.L. Mecken.

    The problem with the simple answer generally isn’t that it’s really all that hard. It’s that it’s the wrong answer, because it doesn’t take into account everything else.

  7. Thank you Aaron

    If the media reported on issues rather than the horse-race/personality contest things would be very different on both sides of our border

    Hey Canada, lets elect the principled nerd rather than the stage-managed thug!

  8. The most important in that list of questions: “Who exactly is served by this kind of journalism?”

    I would add one more: “What happened to the objectivity of The Canadian Press?”

    CP has become no better than the National Enquirer or other rag outfit.

  9. Journalism for the masses is entertainment. People don’t want to think. People have been thinking all day (or so they think) and they just want to have something on the TV to yell at between forkfuls of processed animal flesh.

    If you want a real meal, you don’t go to McDonalds. If you want real music, you don’t turn on the continent-wide pop music station. If you need real furniture, you don’t go to Ikea. And if you need real news, you don’t go to the popular press.

  10. I’m with KRT on this one — and would add that it isn’t that the media doesn’t understand complex policies, it’s that their audience only wants to see and hear besweatered, warm and fuzzy 15-second soundbytes instead of trying to understand nuanced policy.

    How can you expect anything of substance to be captured in 15 seconds?

    We get the governments we vote for — and the fact that we don’t actually want to read, discuss and understand policy ourselves buys right into the hands of people like steve harper.

    We are so stupid that we might elect him again.

    I’m voting for the principled nerd, because I can read and understand.

  11. Meant to say I take Greg Weston far less seriously than I do Dion.

  12. @jwl:

    As Blues Clair says: Dion summarized the Green Shift in six words… “Cut income taxes, shift to pollution.” Too complicated for you?

    And yeah, it would be really horrible to have an objectively smart person (they don’t give poli-sci professorships to chimps) leading the country, wouldn’t it? Instead of, say, an uber-partisan ideologue with a degree in economics who ignores good economic policy (cutting the GST for populist purposes).

    And given that you quote an American president who was responsible for quadrupling the national debt and contributing to the Savings and Loan crisis, that pretty much says it all…

  13. Hey D: You say they don’t give Poly Sci professorships to chimps – boy I can sure tell that you have never studied poly-sci or been to university as some of the dumbest people I have ever met that have made the stupidest political decisions ever made have indeed been over educated in the theory of the art of politics – or gasp god forbid Law – first off it’s not a science despite what they tell you! Up to masters level sometimes useful after that you become an expert in the relationship between voting groups in 1837 in Athabaska (soon to be named alberta).

  14. I wonder how many of us would go to an old-fashioned political speech by a major leader. As in, troop down to a major venue, sit in a crowd and listen, quietly, as these issues are expounded by such as Dion etc.

    Or even just tune in to a TV show consisting of these guys lecturing us?

  15. For one hour? For two hours? Any takers?

  16. Wayne

    You are exactly right. There is a big difference between ‘intelligence’ and ‘wisdom’ and I don’t think any academic should be anywhere near the levers of power.

    I recently read somewhere that people with really high iq’s are attracted to abstract social theories that are far removed from reality. After all you don’t get a reputation for being smart by saying 2+2 = 4, they call you ‘smart’ when you say 2+2 = 5 and than explain why they rest of us are idiots for thinking it was 4.

    Bill Simpson

    There is an interesting article online by John McWhorter in the The New Republic about how political speeches used to be delivered and what they are like now. It starts:

    If Abraham Lincoln were brought back to life, one thing that would throw him, other than electric power and the Internet, would be that audiences disrupted his speeches by clapping after every three or four lines. As ordinary as this seems now, this kind of applause is actually a custom of our times: Wesleyan political scientist Elvin Lim has documented that, in records of presidential addresses since Franklin D. Roosevelt, 97 percent of the applause lines appear in speeches by Richard Nixon and his successors.

  17. There you go again Wayne showing off your omniscience about other people based on your skewed opinion of a single post. I would have said almost the exact same thing as D and it just so happens that I have spent plenty of time in University and studying Poli-Sci. Can Phd.s make bad decisions? Of course. So can everyone else. The bigger questions is this- given the same amount of decisions over the same amount of time would a highly educated person do better or worse than a less educated person in making those decisions? Typically knowing more is better than knowing less. Annecdotals about a few dum profs prove nothing. I have had bad advice from a doctor in the past, does that mean I will be just as well off if I start taking my advice from random people on the street?

    All of that aside- Aaron- this is outstanding stuff. You really sumned the issue up in a concise,intelligent and well reasoned way. It is this sort of strong journalism that has me addicted to your blog (as well as ITQ) and increasingly deciding not to waste my time with the 15 second soundbites on the evening “news”. Awesome work, thanks a million!

  18. Bill Simpson: I’ve attended plenty of political speeches — I’m interested in your description of “old-fashioned.”

    It seems to me that when politicians give speeches, it’s to huge crowds of supporters, and so the substance of the speech is more of a rallying cry (or fear-mongering if it’s a conservative) than it is informational or policy-based. In the case of our dear prime minister, not even media can ask questions, let alone the crowd of voters.

    So is that old-fashioned or new-fashioned?

    Also — I encourage Canadians to ask questions of your local candidates when they come to your door. These people should be prepared to give honest and direct answers regarding their party’s policies and platform.

  19. Huh. And here I recently read somewhere that people with really low iq’s are attracted to simple answers that appeal to them based on ideology and “common sense” (that which says heavier objects fall faster than slower ones) rather than factual information.

    Perhaps rather than basing our opinion of the idea on where it comes from, we should examine the idea itself.

  20. “Perhaps rather than basing our opinion of the idea on where it comes from, we should examine the idea itself.”

    Hold on there T. Thwim! That is some really radical thinking!!!! If you ask me its “just not worth the risk.” Straying from the narrative, asking questions? Having opinions that weren’t spoon fed to us???? Revolutionary stuff.

  21. Why are people so disinterested in pursuing political knowledge?

    Is it laziness, or a lack of intellectual curiosity?

    It really plays into the politicians hands, to have an electorate that is so tuned out of the process and policies.

  22. MJ Patchouli,
    Good point. And as you say, it does seem that it is only the party faithful and real political wonks that go to such meetings anymore. The general public gets its information second hand or in edited sound bites, notwithstanding the dismal debates.

    Of course, everyone then complains about media bias etc., but I wonder how many who do so actually bother to go see someone in person.

  23. Such critique and self-righteous indignation does little for your point RyanD: I have 3 university degrees and a whole series of letters I can string to my name and you know what? The 10 smartest, wisest and most knowledgeable people I have ever known never attendand the vaunted halls of academia. The smartest politician I have ever known was a commercial fisherman here on Vancouver island and he was famous in the Social Credit Party for his analysis and strategy, the smartest person I have ever known was a farmer from Lethbridge alberta who made 2 university professors back down and concede to him in a debate as they thought he was just another rube from the boonies. I could continue this ad nauseum – an academic education is very usefull if you want to learn a lot about a little. I have hired, fired and trained hundreds of people in my time and the only really usefull thing about a university education was that it showed me that the person had the discipline for attendance and the ability to learn it was most certainly not what they knew about the subject or what they studied which more often than not had little practical value.

  24. I have read a bunch of theories on why people do not appear to want to follow the issues. The most compelling is that most people subconsciously recognize that there is little they can do to further their interests as voters (as opposed to any other form of action), so they do associate their own interests (unless directly threatened) with elections. As a result, they may actually vote against their real long-term interests just so that they can indulge their prejudices or opinions on some subject.

    This is particularly true of more radically minded people, who are burning with desire to express themselves as opposed to forwarding their real economic or other interest.

    Policy wonks like ourselves find this really annoying.

  25. should be:

    “so they do NOT associate their own interests”

  26. You’re a real populist, Wayne.
    Contributing in your own sweet way to the ultimate triumph of the Know-Nothings.

  27. Before we get further into, can we accept that Professors of Political Science can be thoroughly intelligent people that you would not put in charge of anything?

  28. Wayne- You had already gone on ad nauseum. Try reading my post again and actually absorbing what I said. I agree that Academic success is not the end all and be all and that there are many folks with no letters after their name who may surpass academics in skill. However, if you took a person with a given skill set would they be better or worse off if they had some education in addition to their natural skills? More education is better than less. The strong implication of your earlier statements was that educated people were in fact less intelligent than educated people (that may not have been your intent but it certainly comes accross that way). If you think University is just good for showing you had the discipline to show then I don’t care if you have 50 degrees, you missed the point! University also shows a person’s ability to absorb complex information and ideas, deal with stress and most importantly it develops the skills necessary to think critically. Also, knowing “a lot about a little” can be very useful depending on the little thing you know about. For example, I am glad that doctors specialize so that they know a lot about one specific area of medicine, other wise we’d have no oncologists, cardiologists etc… and we would be a lot worse off.
    As for my “self rightous indignation” I don’t feel I was self righteous unless having an opinion counter to yours is to be described that way. I am always indignant when someone makes unfounded statements about another person based on little or no knowledge. You claimed a great deal of knowledge about another commentor’s educational background based simply on the fact that their opinion was not the same as yours. That is unfair and unproductive.

  29. Bill Simpson- you are making some good points here. Sorry if I’ve strayed from the main topic of debate, I do get carried away sometimes. For what it is worth I think people are disengaged because of excessive consumerism in our society. People want immediate entertainment and immediate gratification. Politics rarely provides either and it only provides entertainment (outside of the politics geek circles) when it is less about policy and more about empty imagry and sound bites. Thus people ignore it or don’t delve deeper because they have no patience for anything that doesn’t focus on their happiness right this second.

  30. I don’t expect politicians to explain complicated issues to me…that’s what the media (and other sources of information) are for. What I do expect is to get the impression that a politician understands the issue,

    Aaron asks an important question, but I doubt we’ll ever get a candid answer. Which is why people are largely abandoning the traditional news media, since it doesn’t tell us anything we really need to hear. Should I really care what is important for political campaign strategists to know? Of course not.

  31. Meta coverage is the standard, Aaron, because journalists, editors, and publishers/broadcasters find it attractive.

    No more. No less.

  32. (Also apparently attractive: Ridiculous bias. That Canadian Press piece is the kind of hit-job that a Fox News producer would find “a bit much”. Who owns them, Rupert Murdoch?)

  33. Weston, Don Martin, et al seem to have a different story from others in attendance, but again, Weston especially, has it in for Dion. Dion could give him a million dollars and Weston would bitch.

    I think I’d rather believe the likes of Ted Friedman, 3 time Pulitzer Prize winner….over these clowns. He has a new book out – and carbon tax is the only way a goal will be achieved. Hey, what does he know…he’s an expert on the Middle East, OPEC, oil and gas and has delved into how this connects with the environment.

    Perhaps Canadians deserve more than a sound byte….aren’t we grown ups?

  34. These ramblings are from someone who actually read (cover to cover!) Red Book One, and many of the Charlottetown Accord documents that you could order by calling an 800 number, so it is probably fair to say that I may, just may, be an outlier on the Canadian spectrum.

    Most news gets to Canadians by TV, a spectacularly unhelpful medium for intricacies of policy analysis and debate. So politicians cater their campaigns to a television news “cycle.” What’s the “story” today / this week, and who “owned” the narrative, who stumbled, who got off message, and all the other garbage. Who is next to apologize for the next ad gaffe. Bah!

    To me, this is where print and online media (nudge, nudge, wink, wink to our current hosts) *could* make a fantastic contribution. Who has what to say about the major issues facing the federal government? If elected, what would each party do about X? Y? Z?

    Alas, as entertaining as Blog Central is for us nerd-geek-wierd politics-as-sport addicts, it is following the mold set by television journalism. Who messed up in the war room? Doesn’t he look dumb in a sweater? Heh, heh, he said puffin poop!

    Where’s the policy? As much as I roast the Libs, at least they used a couple of election campaigns to lay it all out in print. Last campaign, the Tories stuck to a few key priorities, so we knew what we should expect, and could check off the list of commitments as well as anyone else. So far in this campaign? Soundbite to staged photo-op to gaffe to heckler to soundbite. Blech.

  35. I’ll tread carefully here in case the site should internally combust when I write these names. But.

    Ben Bagdikian
    James Winter
    Maude Barlow
    Joyce Nelson
    John Ralston Saul
    Ken Auletta

    Good starting points. Look ’em up. Read ’em.

  36. Fear not, fearful Sisyphus. A society that, maybe if the stars align, still values free speech, can tolerate of list of names. Even those names!

    Look around, no smoke! Isn’t it wonderful?

  37. Dion is a liar just like all the rest of ’em. The green shift is just a wealth redistribution scheme dressed up as an environmental scheme. It makes little sense from many different angles. People say he is not selling it well enough, but those who know the most about it are the least favourable.

    Socialist theories always boil down to the same thing: expropriate from the people who earn in order to redistribute to the people who do not earn.

    Yet the lemmings in our society want to follow him cuz he managed to get a professorship in political science.

    Economic theories are a dime-a-dozen. For every Harvard economist touting one scheme, there is a Yale economist touting the opposite. And then there is Dion, who is clearly out of his tree.

    There’s nothing wrong with being an academic and a politican, that can win votes, but there is something wrong with being an idiot and a politican, because that does not win elections.

  38. I[m not a Liberal, but strategically, what I don’t understand is why the Liberals are participating in this leadership sweepstakes that puts them at a disadvantage rather than showcasing their team by letting other candidates speak for the party on parts of the platform.

    The Liberals have experienced cabinet ministers and savvy star candidates that would compare quite favourably with Harper’s decidedly inexperienced and completely controlled caucus if the Cosnervatives were ever to let them off the leash.

    And if they didn’t remove the gags, then that would look bad too.

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