Sunday, September 14, 2008

Analysis of the Campaign Coverage

A few things to keep in mind as you read, watch or listen to the reporting of Campaign 2008: the cost of punditry is much lower than the cost of reporting. I see many, many, many column inches and broadcast hours devoted to opinion, but not many boots on the ground. It costs tens of thousands of dollars to have one reporter on a campaign plane. Just the airfare can be upwards of $20,000. Add to that the reporter's regular salary, big whacks of overtime, and out-of-pocket expenses, and the news budget takes a big hit. There are three national parties, the Bloc and the Greens to cover.
Then there's the fact that the pool of seasoned political reporters is not only much smaller than it was two decades ago, it's much older and less inclined in engage in adventure. Therefore, most of the leaders are covered by reporters who really don't know much about the workings of the federal government. This results in the over-reporting of polls, gaffes, and other superficial material.
The Canadian journalism elite is now run by ad sellers and marketers and has no real understanding of national politics or interest in it. Therefore, by its logic, neither do you. The people who will write and say the campaign is "boring" are invariably those who do little travelling, rarely talk to regular Canadians, and live inside a bubble in which they are protected -- for now -- against most of the problems faced by ordinary Canadians.
A surprising number of national pundits have no sources in the regions and can't speak French. They write from downtown Ottawa or downtown Toronto and are divorced from the realities of those who live in less prestigious places and make less than $100,000 a year.
To cover a campaign well, you have to put reporters into key ridings for more than an afternoon. You have to pry them off the phone and send them across the country.
But that's not the way this campaign will be covered. There are at least five polls a week, giving the pundits more than enough to chew on. There have been a few small gaffes and screw-ups, all of which were cheap to cover and comment upon.
It's also easy -- and common -- for some of the country's largest news organizations to simply cover the "style" of the leaders as they campaign, to the point where pundits are simply expounding upon what's broadcast on Newsworld and Newsnet. Many of the pundits have not actually seen the leaders in the flesh.
As for individual races, on-the-ground work by political parties, cabinet ministers, front-bench Opposition MPs... well, that kind of coverage costs money.
Canadian media has always been happy if they get the same stories everyone else has. In fact, many editors are suspicious of material discovered by their own reporters and are only re-assured when they see it elsewhere. I found that was the case in my World War II censorship research, and I've seen through my own career that not much has changed.
And the pundits invariably have their own agendas, which news outlets allow them to hide. Quite often, the agendas involve the most blatant conflicts of interest, with pundits being rewarded for biased coverage that will pay off in consulting work, polling contracts, and jobs.
Some of those jobs may well be landed by political journalists. I'd say about half the reporters I knew in the Press Gallery 15 years ago now have great jobs in the federal bureaucracy. Most were hired under the Liberals.
Another large contingent of ex-journalists work in the Liberal Party and NDP research office.
Not many Gallery people became Tory flaks. Instead, the Tories mostly hired little weasels from the boonies, young men with no education or experience who would do anything to advance the party. This is paying off big-time, I see.
Real investigative reporting has probably ceased for the duration. Now the campaign is a battle of ad agencies, some analysis of the leaders' debate, and a lot of garbage about sweaters.

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