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Mansbridge Urges Journalists to Improve Political Coverage

November 7, 2008

CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge says journalists are responsible for low voter turnout and political apathy in Canadian politics. Mansbridge said this while delivering the keynote speech on Thursday night at the 2008 Jack Webster Awards, the annual celebration of the best in B.C. media.

While Mansbridge argued that the media is not the sole cause of political malaise (turnout for the Canadian election was 59% on Oct 14), he urged journalists to rethink how they cover political figures. Having met thousands of politicians in his forty year career, Mansbridge claims the majority are good folks who sacrifice a great deal to make a positive difference for the public. Yet politicians can’t shake the image of being little more than “used car salesmen.”

To illustrate his point, he noted a question he himself had asked the party leaders before Canada’s most recent election: as prime minister, will you run a deficit?

Fearing bad press (and not being damned fools), none of the leaders said yes. But in our current economic climate, it’s an obvious ‘yes’ for all parties. After the election, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives admitted deficit spending is likely the course for the next couple of years.

Similarly, in Barack Obama’s acceptance speech on Tuesday night, Obama said many promises would wait past the first year or the first term to be implemented. In a brilliant campaign, Obama would not have been so foolish as to say so a day before.

In the aftermath of the evening, my j-school classmates and I went to a downtown pub to imbibe a little and dissect the evening. The majority thought Mansbridge’s rebuke was on target, but some wanted to add a few caveats to the words of the Canadian icon.

One classmate described Mansbridge as “out of touch” with political reality. For her, apathy is about an ineffective electoral system as much as anything else. In the first-past-the-post system, it makes little sense to vote when your choice has no chance. All the talk of strategic voting and vote-swapping illustrates this basic frustration throughout the country. I basically agree. The current system is adversarial and not representative, but the jury is out on whether another system would bring more voters to the polls.

Other classmates saw Mansbridge’s challenge as pushing journalists to target corporate interests more than politicians. The mainstream media plays soft with the corporate powers that be, she said. Probably true. You don’t have to be a big believer in collusion behind closed doors to make this point. As corporate communications machines grow ever more sophisticated, underresourced media outlets often cover the news in a passive way, mostly because it’s easier and cheaper. In our classes, mainstream journalists say close to half of the news is of this kind. As a public employee (of CBC), Mansbridge could have driven this point home, but I’m not sure he did – at least directly.

For my part, I’m still unsure about it all. Journalists are part of a giant political, social and economic mainstream that thrives on adversary. If journalists don’t jump on a gaffe, the competition most certainly will. If not, other politicians will – just watch question period sometime. Below the 49th parallel, polarized political analysis is an art form. Just tune into CNN or Fox News and see how partisan spin is replacing in-depth analysis.

Would more thoughtful political coverage increase voter turnout? Perhaps.

In the US, the high voter turnout for this week’s presidential election may be a blip in an otherwise downward western trend. The record turnout in the U.S. may be due to desperation as much as it is to Obama’s magnetism. After an incredibly unpopular presidency, a war that’s clearly going nowhere, and an economic thumping surpassing anything in recent memory, Obama tapped into a national restlessness. Maybe we’re just not desperate enough to vote in Canada.

But maybe low voter turnout is a sign of other things. While apathy and ignorance are never excusable, maybe it’s not altogether healthy to view politics as the be-all and end-all.

As one political scientist once told me, most people simply keep one or two issues top of mind. They’re just too busy living their lives and worrying about other things to do anything else. And as she told me, you can’t really blame them.

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