Thursday, July 2, 2009

You Left One Out, Mr. Travers

I've been incredibly impressed with what James Travers and the editorial staff at The Star have been doing with their series on Canadian Democracy. Today, he runs us through his Ten Seemingly Random Reasons why Parliament is dysfunctional.

However, as witty as today's op-ed was, he's left out an important element from his thesis: his own profession. The media.

Almost every problem he lists, from the dumbing down of complex issues, to the doling out of half-truths and spin in place of fact, to the endless, ugly partisan spectacle that passes for political discourse in this country - almost every complaint leveled at the government is also at least partially the fault of a complicit press.

Take Number 2 for example:

Play Dough
Separating new money from old is almost as hard as following the dollars. There ought to be a Guinness record for the number of times a reannouncement is reannounced. This year's economic stimulus, 80 per cent implemented for those gullible enough to believe the television spots, is a contender. Even the Mother of all Spreadsheets – sold separately but, permanently out of stock – couldn't help you tell new money from old.

Really? Because I would think that, being the recipients of every single funding announcement the government hands out, the members of our fourth estate would be uniquely qualified to determine which ones are identical to previous iterations. Hell, I get a sense of deja vu whenever they re-announce the Toronto subway expansion or the light rail link to the airport.

The sad fact is, the current rottening of our democracy could not continue to fester if it were not for the dovetailing interests of politicians focused on getting and keeping power, the media who let them get away with it for the sake of ratings, and a complacent public who would rather watch politicians yell at each other on TV than actually put any mental effort into making political decisions.

The problem is, the incentives built in the system all work against a healthy democracy.

Politicians are supposed to concern themselves with the public interest so the public will continue to vote for them. But when most people have stopped voting, winning elections becomes a simple matter of blowing dog whistles to the base and keeping as much information about their activities as possible from being revealed.

The media are supposed to dig up that information, analyse it, strip it of partisan spin, and communicate it to the public so we can make informed decisions. But that takes effort, and doesn't attract the public's interest nearly as effectively as treating the whole thing like sports, complete with televised fights and scoring stats in the form of poll numbers. Papers like The Star sometimes buck the trend with insightful analysis, but really - who reads newspapers these days?

And then there's us. All we're supposed to do is vote, but we can't even be bothered to do that. We excuse our apathy as disgust and frustration with a broken and unresponsive system, but at some point we need to ask ourselves - what are we responding to? If negative ads didn't work, they wouldn't use them. If Question Period really put us off, we wouldn't watch it. If the media thought for one second that we wanted to hear about serious political issues, they'd talk about it on the 6 o'clock news.

Even those of us who are supposed to be aware and engaged - the bloggers - too often fall into the trap of crowing over poll numbers and handicapping politicians and parties like race horses. Meanwhile, the politicians pander to us and the media entertains us because that is, apparently, what we want.

We're all complicit here. Even you, Mr. Travers.

1 comment:

  1. "He's left out an important element from his thesis: his own profession. The media."

    They always do. I managed to get to read some of that Ibbitson book, and while he has a lot of choice words to say about both political parties and the public service vs. their American counterparts, he says almost nothing about the media situation.

    It makes sense- they don't want to bite the hands that feed them. But it is disappointing. They have a role to play, too, and they've abdicated it.