I was once driving with Jack Layton to an event in Gatineau. He had just gotten off the phone with his mother; she was upset over what the newspapers were saying: “Jack will never be prime minister”; “Jack is a good guy but not a leader”; “The NDP is a bunch of socialists.” I asked him, how do you stand it day after day? “I don’t read it,” he replied. “You need to tune it out.” It was the best advice I never followed.
I am an enthusiastic media consumer. I tape most evening television newscasts; I read constantly, from clippings and the internet. For four years I hosted a call-in show at Radio CJRC in Gatineau, and spent another two years hosting a current events TV show on Vox.
News can provoke anger, or understanding; it can inspire great ideas, or merely irritate. Yet increasingly there are more Jack Laytons than ever – Canadians who are tuning media out. When I travel through my riding, I know more people are definitely not watching newscasts. Why? I think people are fed up with the negativity.
Each morning at CJRC a producer and I worked through topics for our call-in show. Of course there was a question of ratings; the point was to select a theme of sufficient interest or controversy to invite calls. But I am a labour lawyer by profession, and this gave me a unique and cautious perspective. I never provoked the audience for the sake of it.
We discussed substantial themes: racism, freedom, religion. I emphasized education and context of complex issues. Do you know what happened? It worked. Listeners expressed a thirst for information. I was always amazed at the feedback we received from people who said, “Thank you – I did not know this.”
Canadians like to be informed. They like explanations of difficult issues. Life is complicated for many people, and they accept complications. Given a chance, people will digest facts that are important to know. Audiences are not idiots.
I don’t listen to radio talk shows anymore. I find it difficult to detect balance, and don’t care for personalities who inflame the audience. Now they say just about anything. Other media increasingly manufacture news from polling and punditry. This is infuriating. It is not “journalism.” Crime coverage caters to vengeance and punishment; political coverage skews to talking points.
On Parliament Hill, analysis of bills and regulations goes to the core of our democratic system. Is it now too specialized? Can news coverage not go beyond rhetoric? Do journalists read legislation? I have had reporters feed me lines that echoed what they were told by the government, rather than cite the substance of parliamentary business.
I make it a point of knowing what type of journalists I’m dealing with. It helps me in scrums in the House foyer. Depending on which reporter asks the question, I will answer more succinctly, or in more detail.
I don’t think the kind of news Jack Layton dismissed is a new phenomenon – the superficial coverage and offensive punditry. But I think it is becoming more common because of the crush of 24-7 deadlines.
Are journalists to blame? I see the stress they are under to file stories, to fill airtime, to be the first with an “exclusive” story. Interestingly, trying too hard to be the best, can bring out the worst in people. We can do better!
(Editor’s note: the author is two-term New Democrat MP for Gatineau, Que.)