The first step is admitting you've got a problem - Macleans.ca
 

The first step is admitting you’ve got a problem


 

I was to have spent part of this afternoon participating in the Public Policy Forum’s Back to School celebration (Kady’s there), specifically as part of an afternoon panel alongside Don Newman, Ian Brodie and Carleton’s Katherine Graham on the topic of how we might “improve the Canadian political system.” Suffice it to say I would’ve been the least insightful of the panelists and it’s largely for my own good that a scheduling conflict means I can’t be there.

All the same, here is what I would have said were I to be there.

I’m tempted here to simply steal Rick Mercer’s idea, expressed during an election night rant last fall, that we turn the cameras in the House of Commons around. That we start showing the country what goes on when no one at home is watching—the yelling, screaming, heckling, gesturing, spitting and other such traditions that MPs feel safe to indulge in so long as they can be confident the general public won’t ever see it. That doing so would immediately bring an end to the awfulness. Or at least cut down on the spitting.

Thing is, that would spoil my fun. My editors at Maclean’s sent me to Ottawa with a very specific mandate—to behold the pageantry of Parliament and sketch the grandeur of it all to my readers each day. At present, I am a regular witness to a circus of human emotion, a parade of fear, a carnival of arrogance and folly. And, quite frankly, my afternoons would suddenly be quite boring if Marlene Jennings and John Baird were compelled to stop screaming at each other. I’d end up standing outside Centre Block each day, pushing opposing MPs into each other and trying to encourage fisticuffs. Eventually I would have to go back to writing about professional sports.

Less selfishly, I will say that turning the cameras around would likely be for the betterment of our democracy. But it would only go part way to addressing what is perhaps the larger problem here: namely, the way in which we cover, chronicle and report politics in this country. Indeed, at the risk of assigning far too much power and influence to the press gallery, I would argue that nothing in this town will change until that changes.

For the sake of argument, I’ll say that, in this decade, there have been two new phenomenon that have reshaped the way politics is covered and discussed in the United States.

The first is the web, which has allowed for far more comprehensive, extensive and constant scrutiny of all the forces involved in shaping the national discussion. Not all of it, of course, has advanced the ideals of their Holinesses Woodward and Bernstein, but on the whole, the United States is better served today than it was a decade ago. I dare say, while we have, as a general, unwieldy group, made great improvements, we in this country lag behind on this count.

The second phenomenon is The Daily Show. Setting aside whatever else The Daily Show does well, it’s primary contribution to American political discourse, especially in recent years, is very straightforward: It calls people on their shit. Each night, Jon Stewart spends ten minutes exploring contradictions, half-truths, overstatements, lies and diversions. The worst behaviours are called out and mocked, simply and glaringly. All involved are called to account for the words that come out of their mouths in the most blunt and straightforward way.

This is not to say that we need our only Daily Show. This is not a call for the CBC or CTV to begin developing their own nightly knock-offs. Nor, for those who consider Jon Stewart to be just another whiny liberal adored by the East Coast media establishment and followed primarily by pot-smoking college kids, is this a case for more “crusading” journalism. I mean, more simply, to wonder whether there is something in the basic motivation. That as much as the press needs to, and must, act as a forum and conduit, as much as we may also like and need to entertain, we might also be mindful of both how our readers and viewers are best served and what expectations and accountability we create for the political system we take great pains to grouse about at every opportunity.

Rick’s idea was genius in its simplicity, but also in its implicit purpose. With little to no effort it would change, quite literally, the way politics is covered in this country and, in the process, introduce a new level of accountability and expectation. Perhaps because it’s a technical change, it’s easier to contemplate than asking the humans involved why they cover what they cover and how they cover it. For sure, politics in this country can change, but it won’t unless and until there is an incentive for it to do so.


 

The first step is admitting you’ve got a problem

  1. Very well argued and FWIW I heartily agree. BTW why can't we have a Daily Show in Canada? We've got lots of comedic talent. I don't watch TV but my impression is that we our equivalent(s) are lame and unserious by comparison.

    Aaron, are you allowed to videotape anything in the House yourself, or is that a no-no?

    • Heck, we could write our own version of Canada's Daily Show! Let's write a spec script!

      • I was just thinking the same thing!

        • We should really try it. A made-in-Canada hybrid of the Daily Show and This Hour Has 22 Minutes.

          • Not trying to worm my way in to anything, but I'd be happy to contribute in whatever way is helpful.

            Wonder how busy Feschuk is these days?

          • agreed. a show like that could do wonders to politicize youth.

          • agreed. a show like that could do wonders in politicizing youth.

    • Not to speak for Mr. Wherry, but as far as I know it's a no-no.

      I don't think you're even supposed to take pictures of the House when it is in session. CPAC is only allowed to film in there under the authority of the Speaker.

    • We do have a Daily Show. It's called:
      Air Farce
      This Hour has 22 Minutes
      Rick Mercer

      Unfortunately, it's not funny. People watch John Steward because he's funny, even when you don't agree with him – he still makes you laugh.

  2. Interesting post.

    Aaron, you say …the way in which we cover, chronicle and report politics in this country. Indeed, at the risk of assigning far too much power and influence to the press gallery, I would argue that nothing in this town will change until that changes.

    You don't really get into what you think needs to change, other than a mention of the Daily Show and that Canada doesn't need its own equivalent.

    Do you have any specifics on what you mean? I certainly agree with you on this, but I doubt in the way that you probably meant it. How do you think the coverage of politics needs to change?

  3. Turn the cameras off. Leave the audio on.

  4. We don't need a Daily Show type in Canada. We just need Rick Mercer to spend less time on his road trips and more time skewering the politicians of this country, like he used to do on a regular basis on This Hour Has 22 Minutes.

    • He's made a point of saying he doesn't like to go too hard on the politicians so they keep coming on his show.

      He's funny, and his "rants" are still good, but he has totally lost his edge.

      • It doesn't seem to keep the politicians from going on the Daily Show.

    • I thought it was a bit myopic to miss the whole "This Hour" point when drawing attention to the latecomer Daily Show. I guess that has to do with how politically friendly "This Hour" became over the years. More of an elbow to the ribs with the victim playing along, than a sharp poke in the eye.

    • I thought it was a bit myopic to miss the whole "This Hour" connection when drawing attention to the latecomer Daily Show. I guess that has to do with how politically friendly "This Hour" became over the years. More of an elbow to the ribs with the victim playing along, than a sharp poke in the eye.

  5. We had the daily show before it was on the air, it was called this hour has 22 minutes.

  6. Wherry, if you are capable of material like this, why don't you get off your lazy butt and contribute more of it, instead of posting out-of-context links?

    Excellent blog!

  7. Would it really be that difficult for the press gallery to simply report deliberately misleading or false statements by politicians and include in their story the truth as well as the facts?

    • Like the money tree, the 'truth locker' is elusive. Whereabouts unknown.

      • Pontius had it right! What is truth? – my ex had it better = you would rather be right than happy (ouch) now that's truth.

        • well I hope it doesn't hurt if I laugh alongside you. It also begs the question of whether or not that must also be true of her, if she was compelled to point it out.

  8. Politics today is a "win at all costs" game. That's mostly because there is so much at stake. That's partly because the government has grown so large.
    Blaming the press or the politicians is missing the point. When the single entity called government controls 50% of the economy, takes nearly half of your total income away, and inserts itself into every aspect of your lives, then you feel the need to win the next election at all costs.
    It's very simple really. You'd have to be crazy to think that politicians could be patting each other on the back and smiling at each other during question period.

  9. 2000 data : Total taxes in Canada account for 41.8 percent of our total Gross Domestic Product. That's slightly below the average for all the industrialized countries which belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Contrary to right-wing claims that we are "overtaxed," our taxes are below average – and so are our social programs. ( defense spending above average )

    Source: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, "Economic Observer"