Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Case Study

One of the consistent progressive/liberal critiques of the newsmedia is that they're too responsive to criticism. They pretend to not care, but sooner or later, they move in the direction of the most virulent attacks and disdain, theorizing (I suppose) that the volume of the attacks must correspond to how "un-objective" they happen to be. That tends to benefit conservatives of whatever stripe, because they have both the machine and the temperament to be consistently and constantly loud in their attacks on the "MSM".

Now, perhaps, we have a case study showing that there's something to this, in the form of Canadian PM Stephen Harper. Hearken:

Stephen Harper's disdain for the fourth estate has been well documented. His government has allowed less access than almost any before it. In his latest salvo, he is snubbing the annual press gallery dinner.

But rather than hurt him, Mr. Harper - is there method in his badness? - is getting increasingly favourable media treatment. To look at the recent coverage, you would think his government is on a roll. Breathless reports follow breathless reports on how he could destroy all opponents in an election this fall.

That's not bad for a governing party stuck at 33 per cent in the polls for months, one that has fallen six or seven points since it tabled its last budget in March, one that has lost more support in that time than the Liberals or NDP, both of whose numbers have remained stable.

This is usually the kind of news that gets you booed out of town. But, in the case of Mr. Harper, the scribes are doing more cheering than jeering. They look at opinion surveys on who would make the best leader and see that he is far ahead. Given the built-in advantage a prime minister has in such a ranking, any PM who doesn't enjoy a wide spread over a relatively unknown opponent should take up lawn bowling.

As for national polls, given Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion's two weeks from hell, the governing Conservatives should be opening a double-digit lead. But a Decima poll taken last week showed no gain. The Dion Liberals lead the Conservatives in the three biggest provinces, including Quebec, where they, along with the Bloc Québécois, were supposed to be in a free fall.

Other polls starting over this past weekend might well tell a different story. If they don't, Mr. Harper is in trouble - with everyone except the media.

Journalists barely got around to mentioning his low numbers last week. No headline reading Tories Going Nowhere Despite Dismal Dion. Instead, at the first free-wheeling press conference in the National Press Theatre that the PM has deigned to hold, he was serenaded for his shrewdness.

The glowing Harper coverage was best evidenced in the National Post, which makes no secret of its leanings. In a skybox at the top of Page 1 last Thursday, it ran a picture of Laureen Harper with the title, "The Prime Minister's wife was stunning at the NAC gala." The National Arts Centre gala in question took place five days earlier.

Margaret Trudeau couldn't have done better in her prime. Like Pierre Trudeau, Mr. Harper's attitude toward the media is one of intellectual disdain. He's all about reason over emotion. Maybe it's a sly way of gaining respect.
Lawrence Martin goes on to argue that it reflects a media that is conservative now, instead of liberal as it used to be during the Trudeau era. Perhaps, though he gives no reason to believe that. It makes more sense to simply notice the hostility that the PM has had towards the media and judge based on that.

Being a relatively conservative leader didn't save Paul Martin from media scorn; in fact, he was pretty open and accessible to reporters, and they paid him back by being hostile and derisive, no matter their partisan bent. Harper openly hates any and all media that isn't writing puff pieces and/or rewriting his press releases, sincerely believing that they're all liberals and socialists who are just waiting to declare Proletarian revolution, and he's treated with kid gloves.

(Yes, "Blogging Tories" whine about how liberal the media is. That's just because they don't repeat idiotic conservative blogger talking points about abortion being a violation of God's Will and the Liberals eating kittens and socialized medicine being Bolshevism in disguise and whatnot. The only significant thing about them is that Canadian media still appears quite happy to let them vent their spleens on whatever idiocy was Blastfaxed to them from Ottawa and Calgary. They're safely ignored otherwise.)

Harper attacks them, calls them biased and unfair, and they do everything they can to accomodate him. Martin treats them nicely, gives them interviews, plays friendly with them, and he gets slaughtered. How else can you look at this? Sure, Bush played nice with reporters, but he had a whole attack machine ready to jump on the press. Martin didn't, and Harper doesn't really have one either. What he demonstrates is that the machine is scarcely necessary. If the attacks are there, the press will respond. It will carp, bitch, and moan about how unfair this all is, but it'll still dance to your tune. It will, apparently, come crawling back for more no matter how badly you treat it- and the worse the treatment, the faster the response.

Sad. Disturbing. More than a little pathetic. But it's how Harper keeps his good press... and as long as it works, he'll keep doing it. And so will the rest of the Right, wherever it is.

(It does make me wonder what the press strategy of the next president will be.)

(Hat tip: Jeff Jedras.)

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