13 December 2010

How to win without news media – Part 2

A month or so ago, some of you may have read the post called “How to win without news media” and the story of Texas governor Rick Perry and his rather curious media relations strategy.

Undoubtedly, the smart alecks out there caught on to the real story:  Perry didn’t win without conventional news media. Perry used them as an integral part of his media strategy. Perry did media interviews.  Local news media throughout Texas  carried his news releases and other media events.  After all how could they not cover any candidate for the state’s highest elected office?

The secret to Perry’s success lay in part in how he used the media. Perry used his polling to tell him the attitude he needed to take toward conventional news media in order to strike a chord with voters across the state.

The answer was to ignore them, for the most part and kick at them every once in a while.  Most certainly, Perry never kowtowed to them or showed any sort of deference to the conventional media.  And when newspaper editors, long used to being courted, got wind of his attitude and took up their pens against him, Perry profited by their anger.

Rick Perry capitalised on a thread of animosity toward news media that runs through a swath of the North American population and cuts across a wide range of demographics like age, income and education. 

It tends to be concentrated in the Republican or Conservative bits of the population, though. Sarah Palin plays on the anti-media theme, as have a number of successful Republican politicians in the United States over the past few decades.  Palin likes to talk about the media’s negative slant or their dark and sinister side

Conservatives north of the 49th also use the media as a convenient prop, much like their southern cousins.  And that’s really what the media is:  a prop.

Old media hands like Bob Wakeham [audio link] can live in the past all the want. Danny Williams’ rant at the news media last November, all 12 minutes of it, was not an effort to get the heretics to conform.  Rather, Williams was just reciting another part of the catechism that binds his own followers together.  They love Danny and loathe the media and having that outside enemy helps unite them in the greater cause. 

There’s a bit more to it than that, as well.   There’s no accident that Williams singled out the CBC for his ire the other night. Aside from the visceral hatred many ideological conservatives feel toward the Ceeb, the Mother Corp is to some local Conservatives what the New York Times is to southerners:  it symbolises the smarmy, elitists who suppress the Conservatives’ truth.  And let’s not forget the big part of it for these Conservatives:  the CBC is not local.   It is the Canadian broadcaster.

There’s not a shred of reality in the anti-media belief system, of course.  The Ceeb’s been as good an outlet as any local news media for spreading the Williams’ mythology. In that respect, they are the electronic version of the newspaper supposedly run from Quebec that, in fact, tended to favour Williams and the Conservatives more often than not over the past seven years.

But for all that, some people cling to their hatred of the Ceeb so intensely that last spring they laid siege to the Corporation’s Parkway bunker last spring for something that the Ceeb reporters didn’t do.  NTV broke the story of the Premier’s heart surgery. Yet, the cultists attacked the CBC and, to a lesser extent, the Telegram.

November’s rant was by no means the first such Williams tirade against the news media.  In fact, it was a regular feature of his fund-raising speech starting in 2006. He’s launched into the same sort of tirade at other times, as well, claiming that he’d have been able to do so much more if only pesky people wouldn’t bother him;  bother him, that is with requests for information about what government is doing.

And, of course, Liberals were always a favourite source of Williams ire.  They were the ones who supposedly gave away all the province’s resources, for instance.  There’s a bit more to this whole thread, however, than just a Tory rant.  Consider, for example, the vicious rhetoric Williams employed in a June 2001 in a speech he delivered to Nova Scotia Conservatives:

The more that I see, the more nauseous and angry that I get. The way that our people and our region have been treated by one arrogant federal Liberal government after another is disgusting. The legacy that the late Prime Minister Trudeau and Jean Chrétien will leave in Atlantic Canada is one of dependence on Mother Ottawa, which has been orchestrated for political motives for the sole purpose of maintaining power. No wonder the West is alienated and Québec has threatened separation. Canadians - and Atlantic Canadians, in particular - realize the importance of dignity and self-respect while Ottawa prefers that we negotiate from a position of weakness on our hands and knees.

Yes, friends, conservatives love to use liberals – with initial capital letters or not – and the media for good measure as scapegoats.  That’s a subtext to all this by the way:  things would be better except for these identifiable groups who conservatives, like Danny Williams, can blame for stuff.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, though, scapegoating is a much more deeply ingrained part of the local political culture than one might imagine.  The most obvious one is something  called Quebec.  All Danny Williams ever had to do was say that Quebeckers were behind it and everyone accepted the idea, without questions. 

No Lower Churchill deal?  Quebec is blocking it.  Ask a question about problems with the Lower Churchill?  Get ready to be labelled a Quebec-lover, code for race traitor.

Lest you think these are peculiar examples, consider the Western Star editorial last spring after the people of the province found out that the provincial government had buggered up the AbitibiBowater expropriation rather badly.

Blame the people who did it?  Heavens, no.

It’s time they admitted their shortcomings in the process.

It’s the duty of the opposition to challenge the government on legislation it brings before the house, and make sure these kinds of potentially expensive hiccups don’t make it into law.

They were asleep at the switch in this matter — there’s now way around it.

They dozed in their seats, didn’t ask enough questions ... and let the bad legislation become the law of the land.

It should be a lesson for all concerned.

Our system works best when the tough questions are asked ... not when  government gets a free pass.

Liberals got the blame not only for the mess but for not questioning it in the beginning.

And what about the sorry state of House of Assembly, sitting for a scant eight days of a fall sitting this year?  The Star’s sister newspaper opted to highlight last week the supposedly weak opposition, the Liberal opposition who, the editorialist claims, have had a whole year to do better than make a single mistake.  And for good measure, the Telegram repeats the same foolishness the Star did, blaming the Liberals for things done by the government:

Governments and their ministers are paid by taxpayers to govern the province.

Opposition members are paid to thoughtfully and thoroughly examine the decisions of the government — not for opposition’s sake alone, but to try to help the province keep from falling into errors like accidentally expropriated paper mills and hydroelectric deals without escalator clauses. It’s a serious job with serious responsibilities.

Get some game. Earn the pay

Danny Williams’ political success came in part from his skilled use of messages that resonated with his audiences.  Blaming Liberals and the news media for everything is a case in point, but you have to add in the notion of scapegoating to truly appreciate the power of his messaging and the extent to which patterns of thought are so thoroughly accepted in some segments of the population in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Danny Williams, like Rick Perry, couldn’t win without news media.  The difference was in how each politician used them.

- srbp -