During the 2016 U.S. election campaign, American newspapers and television networks found Donald Trump so ghoulishly fascinating they devoted many hours and many pages of coverage to him.
Reporters, hosts, editors and producers for news organizations such as CNN may have believed their obsessive and never-ending coverage of Trump served the purpose of exposing a lying charlatan and bully for what he is. The news organizations’ management had a less enlightened motive. They knew the Trump story would help boost ratings and readership. As it turns out, all that media attention did not serve to expose and thus fatally wound Trump. Quite the contrary, it provided oxygen to his campaign.
Up to this point, we have been seeing a repeat of that same syndrome in coverage of the Ontario campaign. A large number of Ontario election news stories focus primarily on the antics of Doug Ford, the Progressive Conservative (PC) leader. The other leaders do get covered, but, all too often, only in so far as they react to Ford.
The northern debate story: all about Ford
This happened after the non-televised leaders’ debate on northern issues, which took place in Parry Sound on Friday, May 11. The Toronto Star has zero sympathy for Ford, and yet its story on the debate deals entirely with one Ford answer to one question. The Star’s headline reads: “Ford spars over immigration with Wynne and Horwath at northern debate.”
That headline at least mentions the other two leaders, even if only as Ford’s sparring partners. The subhead to that same story is exclusively about Ford: “In the second leaders’ debate, Ford said he had concerns about replicating a federal pilot project under way in Atlantic Canada to attract newcomers to remote parts of Ontario.”
The CBC carried a Canadian Press (CP) story on the debate, which framed the event solely as part of a determined Conservative effort to grab northern seats away from the NDP. The CP/CBC story’s focus was completely about how Ford is turning his attention away from Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne to the NDP’s Andrea Horwath, whose party is rising in the polls. As with the Toronto Star story, other leaders are worthy of attention only in terms of their reaction to Ford.
The first four paragraphs of the CP/CBC story deal exclusively with Ford’s attacks on Horwath and the NDP. It seems the Conservative war room found what they believe to be dirt on one NDP candidate. He is, as the Conservatives put it, an anti-mining environmental extremist. Ford made an effort, during the debate, to pummel Horwath with that so-called revelation. The CP/CBC story on the debate reports virtually the entirety of Ford’s tirade on that subject -- which was, mind you, a tiny part of the whole debate. When the CP/CBC story finally turns its attention to Horwath, it notes that she parried Ford’s thrust by mocking him for not even releasing his own program.
The CP/CBC story completely ignores virtually everything substantive the leaders had to say in the debate. The story’s subhead is: “Health care, resource development and transit were front of mind for voters.”But that is the only mention it makes of those issues or what the leaders had to say about them. The most memorable moment, as the CP/CBC story sees it, came after the debate was over. That was when Ford repeated the gratuitous comment he had made during the first debate about Kathleen Wynne’s smile. That’s it. That’s the story the public broadcaster provided to those interested in the campaign. It was all Ford, all the time.
Indeed, CBC apparently thought Ford’s smile comment was of such great interest that it ran a second story focused exclusively on that tiny incident, and various folks’ reaction to it.
Conservatives love all the attention, even if it is intended as negative
And that’s how cheap-trick political artists like Trump and Ford win the battle for public attention. They play on our fascination with the aberrant, the bizarre and the offensive.
Conservative strategists obviously believe any attention their leader gets is good. In fact, they would rather the media focus on such epiphenomena as the smile comment than on substantive policies. They have precious few of those. The denizens of the PC war room also know that Ford would almost certainly have great difficulty defending or even clearly enunciating the few policies his party does have. Better to have facile reportage on campaign trivia than serious discussion of issues such as health, education or Indigenous rights -- as long as it is Ford-related trivia.
Of all the media coverage of the northern debate only National Post columnist Chris Selley got it right.
His headline read: “Ford the huckster replaces calm, measured version in second leaders’ debate”.
“The relatively measured and calm Doug Ford who showed up at last week’s Toronto-centric debate was not in attendance,” Selley wrote. “Instead we got the joyless, sputtering, fact-free version…”
Of Horwath’s performance, Selley wrote: “Rising in the polls, she seemed entirely abreast of the issues being discussed, confident and unaffected… she looked the part she needs to: the presumptive alternative to the Tories.”
The campaign is still young and Horwath’s apparent rise in public esteem could provide the media with a new story line. Ever preoccupied with the horse race, some journalists are now examining the hypothesis of Ford winning a plurality, but not a majority on June 7.
Maija Kappler has a story for CPon just such a hypothesis. She asks both Wynne and Horwath what they would do in that situation, and both, rightly, demur. Badgering candidates with this sort of hypothetical question only has the not-very-helpful effect of sowing doubt on any legitimate and democratic outcome other than one party winning more than half the seats.
To make matters worse, CP and Kappler get their facts wrong at the outset when they refer to the possibility of Ford winning a “minority”. A party that wins the largest number of seats, but short of 50 per cent plus one, does not, automatically, win a minority -- that is, the right to form a minority government. That party would only gain the capacity to form a minority government after winning a confidence vote in the legislature.
In the most recent British Columbia election, Christy Clark’s Liberals won the largest number of seats, but not a more than half. Shortly after the election, they tested their capacity to carry on in the legislature, but lost the vote of confidence. The lieutenant governor then called upon the second-place party, John Horgan’s NDP, to form a minority government. The same happened in Ontario in 1985.
That may all be a matter of semantics, and a bit abstruse even for many reporters and editors. What is not a semantic question is the fact that once the voters elect 124 members to the legislature, then, and only then, will the parties and elected members have the responsibility to decide what kind of government they want.
If no Ontario party wins a majority of seats on June 7 we could have a coalition government. That would mean parties would share power -- and seats at the cabinet table.
Or we could have a minority government, in which one party governs with enough legislative support to get it over 50 per cent on key votes.
Coalitions are extremely rare in Canada. Minority governments are not. Usually it is the party with the greatest number of seats that gets to form a minority government, but not always. It is not the case, currently, in British Columbia and was not the case in 1985 in Ontario.
For now, it would be more helpful if media coverage focused on the kind of leadership and the sort of policies the parties and their leaders offer. Once the voters have made their collective choice there will be plenty of time to figure out what shape a new government might take.
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