Our strange obsession with party politics
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, February 16, 2002)

The front page of the Gazette that confronted me over a hotel breakfast on a recent Montreal morning appeared to have been designed to illustrate an idea I've been brooding about for years. I think we journalists, in print and broadcasting, give much more attention to party politics than the subject deserves. We do this because we have always done it, and we never let a lack of real news keep us from filling our columns and broadcasts with political stories.

And there, right beside my grapefruit juice, was the Gazette, eager to make the case. That day its most prominent position, the upper right-hand corner of page one, was given to a "news story" of no value at all. It said the executive of the Quebec youth wing of the Progressive Conservatives had defected to the Canadian Alliance leadership campaign of Stockwell Day. In the last election, the Tories received 5.6% of the Quebec vote, the Alliance 6.2%. The Gazette was saying that a tiny cluster of losers had moved over to join a marginally larger cluster of losers.

This wasn't a man-bites-dog story, it wasn't even a dog-bites-man story. It was barely a man-takes-dog-for-walk story. By any rational calculation it deserved at most a paragraph on page 25. What made it news that day? My guess is that the editor in charge reasoned that, since politics is more important than other stuff, it's okay to put the year's dullest story at the top of page one, providing it's political.

This kind of journalism can only be the result of an unnatural obsession. No one should blame the Gazette in particular, since we all share the same habit. Our interest in party politics goes beyond unreasonable and approaches pathological. At the same time, we are not much interested in a more complicated subject, the workings of the government departments and agencies and their effect on the citizens. We give our affection only to party politics, with its winners and losers and occasional drama. Legions of journalists can analyze Paul Martin's chances of becoming prime minister; few can tell us anything about the Department of Finance he has headed since 1993. Most of what Ottawa does, it does in secret.

In this regard, the Americans are even worse. When Maureen Dowd went to Washington for The New York Times in the 1980s she vowed not to waste her time covering all those boring old agencies. Instead, she focused on the inanities of politicians. She became a brilliant critic of political sound bites.

She re-imagined politics as pop culture and wrote of the first President George Bush as if he were a slightly daft character in an old movie. Then she treated President Clinton as the star of a soap opera. In the first six months of the current administration she was developing something similar for the second President Bush.

But Sept. 11 undid her. Sudden terror, and the possibility of more to come, made satire irrelevant. Overnight, the work of the boring old agencies and departments (even transport) became crucial to everyone. Government, and not just the words of politicians, mattered. Ms. Dowd couldn't think how to react and has since written little of interest.

In Canada it was the party press, in the late 19th and early 20th century, that made us political animals. For generations everyone understood that a newspaper's central purpose was to spread political opinion. Sir John A. Macdonald and most of his contemporaries founded and subsidized newspapers to encourage their supporters and condemn their opponents. Whatever else the journalists printed was irrelevant, so long as they vigorously backed the party that supported them.

Journalists interested in politics edited the papers, and this tradition was handed down over the years like a baton. Today their successors remain in control. Reporters covering federal and provincial politics are those likeliest to graduate to editor. Few dailies are edited by people with reputations made in science, sports, the arts or what we now call the life pages.

All this explains why Stockwell Day has received, in the last year or so, at least five times as much coverage as public interest in him would justify. My sense is that most readers stopped caring about him ages ago and no longer find him amusing. They would prefer he disappeared. But because we are so committed to writing about politicians, we cover everything he does in minute detail. At the end of 2001, when the Canadian Press announced that Mr. Day was the year's leading Canadian newsmaker, many assumed this was a joke. In fact, that announcement merely stated a simple fact. News is what we put in the papers and on the air, and Mr. Day last year made more of it than anyone else.

The excellent Chantal Hébert, an ornament of The Toronto Star, asked her readers some weeks ago: "Will the Canadian Alliance confirm its reduced status as Stockwell Day's private fan club by re-electing him as its leader? The answer to that is a question: Does it really matter?" And the answer to her second question was obvious to everyone: No. But only two days later Ms. Hébert wrote her entire column, all 769 words of it, on Mr. Day's leadership prospects. She can't help herself. Neither, apparently, can the rest of us.

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