Politics·Point of View

How the internet hurts political reporting and breeds spin

The internet and 24/7 news channels have turned political reporting into a demented auction and political spokespeople into email dispensers of talking points, argues former PMO spokesman Andrew MacDougall.

News isn’t a gas that can expand to fill the internet, argues former PMO spokesman Andrew MacDougall

Andrew MacDougall, who served as Prime Minister Stephen Harper's director of communications from April 2012 to September 2013, says the online 24-hour news cycle breeds fatuous political reporting and a reliance by politicians on talking points. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The CBC's Neil Macdonald last week posted a piece bemoaning the lack of clarity in today's communications, whether it be political or academic. It got me thinking about my own views on political reporting and communication.

In my old life as director of communications to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, I would often quip that I would love to have had my job in the days before smartphones and the internet. With 700 to 800 emails and dozens of calls a day, the life of a modern political communicator is full-on, to say the least.

What must it have been like in the leisurely age of teletype, radio, the nightly broadcast and the next day's paper? No wonder hacks and flacks would get drunk together in the afternoon — they didn't have to worry about Twitter, Facebook, some crank's blog or filling up their website with reams of copy. And if people were behaving badly at the bar, or dipping their pens into each other's company ink, no one had access to the instant canvas of the internet to gossip about it.

In the pre-digital era, the days had a rhythm and the news had a cycle. Reporters had one broadcast or a set number of column inches. There were one or two wire services, and they — and only they — had the responsibility of banging out a quick blast on the latest news. The rest of the reporting world could take their time, read the material, make a few inquiries and interview a few people, knowing that most punters wouldn't have a chance to watch, listen or read their work until that night or the next morning.

Nowadays, every reporter is a wire service and it's everyone's job to rush out copy the second news breaks. It's equally everyone's job to do it when no news breaks at an event. After all, you wouldn't want a competitor's news site to have a story that you don't have, right?

The internet and 24/7 "news" channels, married with the decline in revenues at news organizations, have too often turned reporting — and especially political reporting — into a demented auction where over-worked and under-resourced reporters bark at competing political parties for reaction all day, updating their stories at each bid. It has also turned political communications staff into email dispensers of talking points.

Spin cycle

In my opinion, the worst job in journalism in the modern era are the poor souls who have to go on TV a minute after something has just happened to "explain" what the hell just happened, and why it's important. Just once, I wish the talking head would say "how the hell would I know, IT JUST HAPPENED! Come back to me in an hour after I've read the freaking press release!"

Don't get me wrong, I loved talking to these reporters. After all, "Andrew, what is the prime minister going to say, I need to do a hit right after the announcement" was a license for me to fill their ears with spin that would then faithfully appear on screen. Who wouldn't want to shoot fish in a barrel?

This isn't to suggest there is anything wrong with spin. It's a fact of life and we all do it. Spin has been around at least as long as the first caveman was pooped on by a bird in front of a friend and was smart enough to call it a sign of good luck.

But spin runs wild in the 24/7 news environment. As the comedian Dennis Miller once quipped: "politicians used to speak in sound bites, now they think in them."

It would help if we could all recognize that news isn't meant to be a gas that expands to fill any container — at some point it stops being news and just becomes gas

Which bring us to the talking point. Twenty-four hour news might not have invented the talking point, but it has made it the No. 1 weapon of choice in modern political communication.

It makes sense. If you're being asked for reaction all day, every day, on every issue, at a moment's notice and with tight deadlines, you'd dig deep in your bag of rhetoric to come up with something, anything, to say.

Because if you're not in that first story with a reaction, any reaction, there's a greater chance your phone will melt down as the legions of lemmings try to match the story that's just been slapped onto the web.

The worst part is, the pace of digital news and communication too often results in talking points being dispensed for "legit" stories. The need to say something quickly invariably wins out of the need to wait, gather the facts, produce an explanation and communicate it.

Add to that the feeling that the barrier for reporting has dropped perilously low, and you have the recipe for a fatuous political environment.

The internet's limitless canvas

It used to be that a politician would say something dumb and people would titter, call him a "moron" and move on. Now reporters, opposing flacks, or a random passerby tweets it for all to see. And then people retweet it. Then it's officially a thing.

It used to be a reporter would have to make the case to his or her editor why valuable inches in the paper or minutes in the broadcast were needed for this brain-dead comment. Now, with the limitless web and social media, no editor needs to make that call. Everything goes.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to reporters at UN headquarters in New York in 2011. The pressure on reporters to produce stories is one reason politicians and their staff rely so much on talking points, Harper's former chief spokesman says. (Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)

The internet's limitless canvas also happens to be the primary reason for talking points. In the cluttered communications environment, messages have to be repeated endlessly before they punch through (to be clear, it was ever thus but is even more so now) and with everything now being reportable, no matter how inconsequential, sticking to script is essential.

Knowing that every gaffe, no matter how trivial, will be endlessly circulated and discussed, the instinct is to hunker down, say little and not add fuel to the fire. This leads to lack of candour and increasing frustration on both sides of the hack/flack divide.

I don't envy flacks or reporters. The strain on PM trips was evident: reporters needed to wake up with news, have more news at noon, a tidbit for mid-afternoon and then a main course by supper time. Equally, people in my position had to have something to say multiple times a day even if there was no substance to underpin it. No wonder we tried to make news off the same announcement three or four times a year.

Where will this environment lead us? I haven't a clue, but I'm not hugely optimistic. It would help if we could all recognize that news isn't meant to be a gas that expands to fill any container — at some point it stops being news and just becomes gas. Smelly, unedifying gas.

Too often, the premium for reporting is set on speed, not analysis and context. This inevitably leads to the quick sugar-rush of process coverage: who's in, who's out, who's up and who's down.

That said, the internet is toothpaste out of the tube and news organizations aren't going to figure out their resourcing issues anytime soon, if ever. No one has the luxury of time anymore and we're not going to find a way to buy more.

What I can guarantee you is that whichever government succeeds the Harper government, be it the Glorious Haired One or the Angry Bearded One, in 2015 or 2020, it won't change this new approach to political communication. The 24/7 communications environment won't allow it.

Andrew MacDougall is a former director of communications to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He is now the Senior Executive Consultant at MSLGROUP London. Follow him @agmacdougall


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