Why does scandal sell?
On CBC's Cross-Country Checkup yesterday, there was an intriguing discussion of whether Ottawa (collectively, the media and politicians) was too caught up in scandal. It was a clever way of using scandal to protest about scandal, but that's another point. For what it's worth, here's the two cents I was offering (aloud, while cooking in the kitchen) as the broadcast unfolded.
* Neither the media nor the politicians decide the pre-eminent story in a vacuum. If scandal sells, someone's buying. That would be you, the readers/consumers of news. Some callers made this point. And these days, our editors can actually quantify, immediately, the kind of stories that people want to read, through web stats. Thousands and thousands of people have "clicked" on our stories about the Guergis-Jaffer controversy. I haven't seen the web statistics for the Liberals' thinkers' conference, which was preoccupied with matters of pension reform, foreign policy and the digital future, but I doubt it holds a candle to the readership of stories about sex, drugs and errant politicians.
* It is true there is little reward for politicians who want to talk about policy or have discussions in shades of grey, rather than black and white. The media spent the last year ripping apart the Liberals for not tackling policy discussions, then rewarded the three days of Montreal policy discussions (see above) with either minimal coverage or snide dismissal from folks who didn't even attend. The New Democratic Party regularly uses Question Period to tackle policy issues. It's heartening to see, in fact, day to day. The reward, in poll numbers or media attention? Nil.
The Prime Minister knows this -- why do you think he only takes two questions at his rare press encounters? The less politicians say, the better. Note that Harper been saying nothing about anything quite some time now -- it's only the Guergis-Jaffer affair that has attracted some attention/criticism about his minimalist attitude to disclosure.
* This all said, much of the Cross-Country Checkup discussion yesterday revolved around journalism as the business of giving people the information they want. Should we only do stories that get a massive amount of clicks on the website? Of course not. There is, I hope, still room for the public-service model of journalism. When you hear people say: "No one cares about the Afghan-detainee story," I'm not sure how we should respond. Okay, we'll stop looking into it then? Throw some busty hookers into the debate?
* And one final point, which I sort of said when I was on The Current last week. At the risk of sounding whiny, it's worth noting that politics takes up a lot less space in the news than it used to occupy. There used to be room in the paper for the serious and the scandalous. We managed to cover all of Mulroney's ministerial resignations in the 1980s, as well as free trade and the constitutional travails. Now, as a result of a combination of factors -- shrinking news pages and fewer reporters, the triumph of consumer journalism over the public-service model, the tendency of the media to inflate one story at the expense of others (a trend that one smart friend of mine traces to Princess Diana's death) -- there just isn't the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time. I think there's probably a whole discussion that can be had here around the idea of competition -- are we competing to be the same, or competing to be different? But this blog post is long enough.
Comments most welcome.