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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.


Jeffrey Dvorkin

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Dubious Value of Editorial Endorsements


Over the past weeks since the election of a Liberal government in Canada, a number of critics have decried the open editorial support for the Conservatives given by most newspapers in this country.

Editorial support for a party is, as one wag one opined, "like wetting yourself in a blue serge suit; it makes you feel warm all over, and nobody notices."

This time, quite a few people noticed. Post Media is the largest newspaper chain in Canada. It came out with a false front page on all its newspapers calling on citizens to vote the Harper government back into power for a fourth mandate. It didn't work and the Liberals were elected in a landslide.

The Globe and Mail (now Canada's largest circulation paper) tried to have it both ways: it called for a return of the Tories, but for the immediate resignation of their unpopular leader, Stephen Harper.

Only the Toronto Star with its long Liberal tradition wrote to support Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party.

Did the respective editorial endorsements have any effect on the reporting side? For Post Media - not so much. It's always been a Tory paper and its columnists and reporters have always reflected that.

The Toronto Star's progressive political principles were established a century ago by Joseph "Holy Joe" Atkinson's approach. It was more Methodist than Marxist. Star columnists were delighted with the election outcome and did not hid their glee. The Star's political reporting seemed more even-handed.

The Globe and Mail was more openly critical of the newly elected Liberals.  As my friend Peter McNelly noted on Facebook, the Globe's coverage of the new government, barely one week old, was instantly disparaging of the Liberals and of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. As Peter wrote: "...there was their story trying to belittle the gender parity in cabinet by pointing out that several of the new female ministers were only ministers of state and would be paid less. The Liberals swatted that away by noting that these portfolios would quickly be upgraded to full status, and that it was only a technical issue due to a holdover of old titles.

Now, the U.S. decision to reject the Keystone Pipeline has brought their adversarial stance toward the new government into sharper focus...The New York Times, suggests the cancellation is an opportunity for the new government...The Globe and Mail, paints the move as a problem for the government. I think the Globe reporters know what the editorial board wants and are, shall we say, tilting their reporting in that direction. "     

So much for a press honeymoon.

The CBC, as the public broadcaster is supposed to take a neutral stance on all things political. But the flagship nightly newscast, "The National" obtained what it called "unique access" to the new Prime Minister by the show's host Peter Mansbridge. It's worth watching.

The sequence ran about 15 minutes and had some modest insights and perspectives on Trudeau. But the chummy quality of the chats (they were hardly interviews) between Mansbridge and the telegenic P.M. was unnerving and in many ways, unjournalistic. "Cloying" was how one National Post columnist described it. This seemed especially inappropriate given the Liberals' campaign commitment to restoring most of the budgetary cuts the CBC has endured under the Conservatives.

I couldn't help but feel that there was a "thank God you're here" quality to the Mansbridge-Trudeau segment. There should have been a bit more reportorial distance and a lot less folksy bonhomie. In the end, I didn't learn anything important about either the Liberals or the new Prime Minister that CBC and others hadn't already reported.

But I am more convinced than ever that the CBC TV needs stronger editorial management. And newspapers need to reaffirm the primacy of their reporting over the obvious business interests of the owners.

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