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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Mr. Simpson regrets

  1. There is no need to pick on political punditry. Financial pundits are also wrong, almost always, and the consequences of making investment decisions after listening to – say a Maria Bartiromo, for example – can be far more painful than basing a voting decision on what pops out of pundit-X on the Newman or Duffy shows.

    Besides, the political/press pundits pretty much all say the same thing anyway. Their main impact is to create an echo chamber, which as Mr. Harper will find out in the next election, determines the multiplier effect of a political campaign’s ad strategy.

    Besides, if Mr. Simpson is correct, then it would mean that his observations are also devoid of “soundness” and is only the bitter gripings of a person who believes he should be – but is not – on “At Issues” or QP etc.

  2. Okay, so the standard journalism outlets have a hard time finding the time and space to do analyses that are more sophisticated than he-said-she-said. We knew that already.

    Enter the blogosphere. When it comes to commentary on economic issues, the mainstream media is overwhelmingly outclassed and outgunned by bloggers. As Chris Dillow notes , the dead-tree’s idea that the blogosphere lacks credibility and expertise is, of course, utter bollocks. It’s the dead-tree columnists who lack expertise – just compare them with my blogroll.

  3. I will forego commentary on the accusations levelled by various pots against various kettles in both the Simpson piece and this blog post and simply stating the following: A credible, focused monthly magazine with long-form investigative or analytical political reporting would go a long way to improving journalism in this country. Canada has no equivalent to The Atlantic, and it desperately needs one to improve the quality of policy discourse in this country.

  4. Stephen Gordon: I note that you’re referring to economic blogs. When it comes to politcs, well… how many of the blogs in Dillow’s extraordinarily long blogroll are Canadian? The question isn’t idle mischief; I have a point, which I’ll be careful not to state for now.

    DB: Surely The Walrus qualifies? (You’re welcome to answer either Yes or No.) And… he said as his eyes grew misty… wouldn’t it be interesting if somebody brought Saturday Night back in a credible incarnation?

  5. Oh, crap. A modest suggestion: see if a ‘preview comment’ feature an be added?

  6. Doesn’t it seem relevant that the political punditry are encouraged in their method of reporting by the politicians and the political system? Both Harper and Dion, and frankly most if not all of their predecessors have had the bad habit of being unable to verbally support anything their opponents do. Forgive the naivety of this statement, but a credible opposition should hold itself to criticizing ideas and policies it actually views as bad; not simply attacking everything based on which party is saying it.

  7. You’re totally going to get another surge in traffic now.

  8. “Forgive the naivety of this statement, but a credible opposition should hold itself to criticizing ideas and policies it actually views as bad; not simply attacking everything based on which party is saying it.”

    You can go ask Carole James out in BC how well this is faring for the NDP. Thy have tried to be constructive, on the principle that the government will be constructive back. For her troubles, she has had to weather a storm of articles about how she is acting like she is back on the school board, and one should attack attack attack in parliament. This raises the question – are the pundits correct that her strategy is wrong? Or is she correct in that the voters can see through the noise generated by the media and see that here is someone who is acting like a human, rather than a politician?

    And, one journalist who I think does manage to balance policy/optics well is Vaughan Palmer who covers the BC Legislature (with the most astonishing files – he claims the take up an entire office on their own)

  9. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: journalism needs to be professionalized, just like the legal and medical professions. This would, in some measure, standardize training and educational standards, provide a real code of ethics with enforcement mechanisms, and ensure that journalism schools aren’t shoveling a massive pile of kids into the workforce with varying levels of education, training and skill. Who knows, with less journalists and better training, maybe the pay might go up?

    As to the bloggers? Obviously, the blogosphere wouldn’t exist too long without the MSM, despite the arguments to the contrary. But as time goes on, I’m seeing a growing reliance on the blogosphere by the MSM, a reliance that to me seems horribly misplaced. You know how it’s going: “One commentator at a blog called Carpet Bomb the Squirrels, who goes by the name of CrazyGritHater, claimed that Harper would ‘steamroll them sissy boys’ come election time. Dion’s office would not comment, but a Liberal Blogger, known as Beaver Patriot, noted that Harper was ‘really turning into a girly man himself.’ How this will play across the nation in the coming weeks is unclear, but most party officials say that…” Et cetera.

  10. “Too much of what now passes for political reporting in Canada is about motives and optics…”

    That should be, “Too much of what has always passed for political reporting in Canada is about motives and optics…”

    Simpson–and many others–erroneously assume there was once a golden era of political reporting. That’s not the case. The very conception of political reporting was flawed to begin with and those flaws have remained ever since.

  11. A perfect example of the malaise: The federal government recently proposed changes to immigration. A rich, complex, vital issue, central to Canada’s future. The current system clearly and massively dysfunctional. But predictably, the mere mention of the word “immigration” simply acted as a Pavlovian trigger to journalists and pundits, to gleefully go into their “hidden agenda” mantras and recalculate their seat projection spreadsheets.

    If there’s a disinterested, dispassionate, facts and numbers and outcomes-based analysis of this issue, it’s very well hidden.

  12. I think Mr. Simpson is saying that most “journalism” is purely reactive. If you measure even the “gotcha” school or the spin school of punditry by what they actually *contribute*, it’s just as enslaved to party spin as a press release. Simpson’s columns always contain a) facts b) perspective c) issues that are not (yet) on the radar screen. Most other columns are no more than So-and-So’s take on the daily meme. That’s laziness.

    I don’t doubt that journalists are an intelligent species that could do a good job if called upon to do so. The stakes have to be raised institutionally. As is, we’re in this (long-standing) vicious cycle of cynical politics and cynical coverage. Life is too short for that.

  13. Delacourt has picked up on the idea of requiring pols to focus on issues as opposed to knee-jerk criticism of other parties. It seems that CBC 1 – The House tried this out over the weekend. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear the results, but I read Delacourt’s version when she posted an edited version of the transcript from QP. The problem with her example unfortunately is that she ‘edited’ out many relevant critiques of government actions and the actions/policies of previous governments, particularly, what in my opinion, were the valid observations of NDP MP, Peggy Nash.
    My wish would be that the political press learn to cover a multi-party parliamentary system. Far too often, the focus is on the ‘horse race’ between the Liberals and Conservatives, this in the face of polling which suggests that neither party is able to convince a majority of Canadians that they are sufficiently without corruption to lead the country. I also don’t think that the Conservatives (with an assist from the Liberals) have presented a vision for the country that appeals to Canadians. Maybe it’s time for the political press to set aside assumptions and simply report what all the political parties are doing and saying.

  14. I agree with this post, sometimes I want to hear what a politician said without the reams of spin. Most reporters seem to want to spread their opinions more than they spread the news, so I often find myself switching the channel when I cannot stand it anymore. CBC reporters are the worst, it seems they pride themselves on not reporting what happened, but reporting on themselves reporting what happened.

    For example, they will often say, “We made a phone call and there was no answer. They would not respond to our request for interviews.” This is turning the reporters into the story, it insinuates that there is something to hide, when in fact hiding from the reporter’s spin is what is really happening.

    “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.”

    So true. It appears Mr. Simpson is the one missing the boat.

  15. Dear Mr Wells: I hate to say it, but if our print journalists were at all good, the US papers–as they decline–would still snap them up. And pay a lot better. I’m amazed Andrew Coyne is still here, must be a true patriot. As perhaps you are.

    Can you imagine “Giggles” employed by a serious US network or paper? Not to mention Craig the Oliver. Cf. Tim Russert, George Stephanopoulos, et al. Also one might notice that American politicos, just sometimes, actually try to provide somewhat substantive answers to questions, not just slang each other.

    Remember John Burns.


  16. I might add that the most amusingly revealing thing about Canadian political journalism is the commercial for CBC Newsworld’s “Politics” in which Don Newman looks us straight in the eye and says, with almost prosecutorial zeal: “The spin stops here.”

    Whereas in fact his program is almost all spin, during which he does much to twirl the top.



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