The Spin Cycle
Inside political reporting
May 28th, 2004
By Ira Basen
Political reporters spend a lot of time analyzing how politicians work and how they think, but it is not very often that the tables get turned. We rarely gain insight into the minds of the people who cover politics, find out what makes them tick, and how their view of the world might shape the way they do their jobs.
And that's too bad, because in an election campaign, they are very important people. They do not simply report on events, they make events happen. Story lines come and go during a campaign because the press causes them to come and go. They spin as much as any politician. They are major players in the modern election campaign, even if they are often reluctant to admit it. For most of us, our only connection to this campaign will come through them. And so, in the interests of fairness and balance, and to help you better understand your campaign coverage, here is a highly subjective peek into the mind of the typical Canadian political reporter.
The first thing you should know is that the political reporter loves politics. This might seem obvious, but it is important to understand the extent to which the political reporter loves politics. Only politicians themselves love politics as much as political reporters. But they love politics of a particular kind. The politics they love is not the kind that the American political scientist Harold Laswell defined as "who gets what, when, how." That kind of politics is all about the allocation of scarce resources: who gets a speed bump in their neighbourhood, which town gets a new school, whose polluted river gets cleaned up: it's the stuff that actually seems to matter to people.
But that is not the kind of politics that turns the crank of most political reporters. No, their kind of politics could perhaps best be described as "who's doing what to whom and why." They love the political in-fighting and intrigue, they love handicapping the horse race, and watching the high and mighty stumble. They are storytellers, and they get juiced up by the human drama that they see all around them. It's politics as soap opera.
It's the same reason why they love election campaigns so much. And who can blame them? They're just like the rest of us. They want their jobs to be as interesting and as challenging as possible. If you had to choose between spending three days traveling around the country on the campaign trail, or three days of standing outside a conference centre while Paul Martin and the Premiers discuss health care reform, which would you prefer? So while they've been doing all those stories these past few months about whether there would or would not be a spring election, most political reporters, like most politicians, were secretly chomping at the bit and hoping that there would be one.
And here's another thing that they're hoping for. Most political reporters are rooting for a minority government. This is not necessarily a reflection of any partisan leanings, but for people who define politics as they do, minority governments are a dream come true. The late Globe and Mail sports columnist Dick Beddoes used to say that a good sports reporter roots for the story, not the team. If Russia beating Canada is a better story than Canada beating Russia, you have to hope for the Russians. Good political reporters do the same, and the story worth rooting for in this election is a minority government. That's when their kind of politics will get interesting and important again. There will be talk of changes at the top, secret meetings, and shifting coalitions, and best of all, the prospect of another election in a year or two.
By contrast, the nightmare scenario for most political reporters in this election is Paul Martin squeaking through with another Liberal majority. And if both Jack Layton and Stephen Harper wage strong, credible campaigns, and their parties show signs of sustainable growth, well, what a sad situation that would be! There would be no calls for anyone's resignation, no knives being drawn, no palace intrigue, no early election to look forward to. Or would there? In the Toronto Star a few weeks ago, Chantal Hebert prophesized that if the Liberals win a majority, the Conservative Party's knives might well come out for Stephen Harper.
And maybe she's right. The point is that even if it were true, chances are that political reporters would find that story a lot more interesting than most of their readers, viewers or listeners. And that's the big problem with a lot of political reporting today. It's out of touch with its audience. Most Canadians care much more about the "who gets what, when and how" kind of politics than the "who's doing what to whom and why" kind. Several recent surveys, including one undertaken by CBC News, reveal that Canadians do not feel they are being well served by the kind of political coverage they are getting.
But change will come slowly, if at all. Parliament Hill will probably continue to be the most over-covered institution in Canada. Why? One reason is that the political game is one that journalists have played for a long time: they know the players and the rules, and they play it well. But like most games, it is a lot more fun and more interesting if you are a participant rather than a spectator. And for many, it is the only game they are qualified to play. In his book Spinwars, former Mulroney spinner Bill Fox notes that "because most reporters lack the expertise to assess policy issues on their merits, they tend to shape their coverage to focus on the element of a policy they are expert in - the politics of it."
Notice that Bill Fox used the phrase "shape their coverage" to describe what
political reporters do. No one is suggesting that they make stuff up and
report on what isn't there. But they will place more emphasis on the conflict
and the intrigue and the personal animosities than they will on other
things. In other words, they "spin" their stories to suit their interests
in much the same way that politicians do. Remember, they're all playing
the same game.