corporate and think-tank researcher

Donald Gutstein

02 May '11

Big Media’s Sway Will Be Tested at Ballot Box

(This article was first published in The Tyee on May 2, the day of the election.)

Most corporate news outlets buttressed Harper’s drive for a majority. But has the game changed?

Richard Nixon famously declared “I am not a crook” in his televised defence of his handling of the Watergate affair. After that everyone thought of him as a crook.

Did the same misfortune befall Michael Ignatieff when, after weeks of Harper accusations that Ignatieff would form a “reckless coalition of losers,” he declared his party would not form a coalition government under any circumstances.

Ignatieff fell into a Conservative trap. His campaign went downhill from there to the point where the Liberals, once the “natural governing party,” had plummeted to third place, outpaced by the New Democrats.

It didn’t matter that Harper’s charge was a great distortion of the truth. He succeeded in implanting a Liberal-led-coalition-whether-Ignatieff-denies-it-or-not frame in the public mind.

University of California cognitive scientist George Lakoff defines a frame as a mental structure that shapes the way we see the world. Once a frame is clamped on an issue of public concern, denying the frame merely reinforces it.

Ignatieff’s hesitations and then denials embedded the idea of a reckless coalition deeper into public consciousness.

A surge of support for Jack Layton and the NDP during the election indicates how definitively Harper had tarred Ignatieff. But it was too late in the day to turn his attack dogs on Layton. Successful framing requires patient audience priming and preconditioning.

Layton became the election’s most popular leader.

When decrying the frame helps the frame

Harper could not have framed Ignatieff the way he did without the assistance of the corporate media. He could talk about coalitions until he was blue in the face, but unless the media report it and comment on it, his words would not reach the public.

On the first day of the campaign, at a rally at the Pearson Convention Centre in Brampton, Ont., Harper used the word “coalition” 21 times.

The next day three Globe and Mail stories discussed Harper’s strategy to force voters to choose between a “majority Conservative government” and a “‘reckless’ Liberal-led coalition.” The Globe cautioned that this was a “false premise,” but was filling the “campaign vacuum” thanks to over-the-top media coverage and Twitter feeds.

The paper proved the point by providing its own over-the-top coverage: its front-page story mentioned the word “coalition” 16 times.

And the following day columnist Lawrence Martin picked up the topic, commenting on coalition mania, while the Globe’s editorial board chimed in with an editorial complaining that Harper was creating a phoney issue, but discussed it anyway.

Harper learned the wizardry of framing when he met privately with Republican spin-master Frank Luntz in 2006. Luntz is credited with the 2004 George W. Bush victory over John Kerry because of his success in framing Kerry as a flip-flopper.

Harper used the same trope against the hapless Stéphane Dion in the 2008 election, framing him as a flip-flopper before Dion could explain himself to the Canadian public.

The media helped Harper frame Dion and they helped Harper frame Ignatieff.

Repetition is the key

As Maxwell McCombs, a scholar who studies agenda-setting, explains, “for all the news media” — newspapers, television, radio and even the Internet — “the repetition of a topic day after day is the most powerful message of all about its importance.”

Every paper and television network across the country beat the coalition drum, attacking or defending the idea — it didn’t matter which. The word “coalition” appeared, along with mention of Harper, in 543 news stories and columns, news releases and television broadcasts—and who knows how many times on the largely conservative talk radio networks—during the first seven days of the campaign. And it dominated Twitter election feeds.

By the end of week one, persistent media repetition helped set one election frame: stable Conservative majority government or reckless coalition of losers.

No one wants this election, right?

Harper also attempted to impose a second — and related — frame: the election was opportunistic and unnecessary. Like the reckless coalition, Harper started building this frame well before he asked the Governor General to dissolve Parliament and call an election.

The corporate media assisted Harper here too, reporting incessantly about his denunciation of the opposition parties’ ambition for an “unnecessary and very expensive election.”

The truth was, of course, as the Vancouver Sun’s Barbara Yaffe pointed out, Harper — and not the opposition parties – likely had the most to gain from an election. He was as close to majority territory as he had ever been: the latest opinion poll positioned him 19 points clear of the Liberals. But he couldn’t be seen lusting for an election and cleverly turned it back onto the parties with the least to gain.

“Harper [snookered] the opposition parties into forcing an election,” Yaffe suggested.

“Reckless coalition” and “unnecessary election” framed most media coverage of election issues.

The Harper government’s lies, ethical lapses and cover-ups should have made great cannon fodder for the battalions of reporters and pundits covering the campaigns. But three weeks into the election, Victoria Times-Colonist columnist Jack Knox berated Harper’s “sputtering purple-faced opponents” for not understanding that “nothing sticks.”

Knox listed the charges: “contempt of Parliament, Bev Oda, intolerance of dissent, the Senate flip-flop, spending violations…”

“What drives critics crazy,” Knox offered, “is that the more they holler, the less voters listen.”

That’s one explanation. There’s another reason why Harper government scandals fell into a sink-hole: the media didn’t adequately report what the opposition parties were saying. As Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts once explained, “in a world where media set the public agenda and drive the dialogue, those things media ignore may as well not exist.” If a topic is rarely or never discussed in the media, it has almost no chance of being deemed important by the public.

Ethics? Who cares?

Going into the election, the risk for Harper was that the campaign could morph into a debate about ethics. He neutralized that risk by creating the two frames that took attention away from him and his party. By the second day of the campaign, an Ottawa Citizen poll informed readers that ethics was not a “hot issue.” And several days later, the Calgary Herald claimed the “opposition strategy of ethics and contempt” was “failing to register.”

The media let the Harper war room spin the notion that ethics issues were just political gamesmanship.

Take the Bev Oda scandal, for instance. In 2009, Oda, the Minister of International Co-operation, rejected the renewal of church-based foreign-aid group Kairos’ long-standing Canadian International Development Agency grant. She called the rejection a “CIDA decision,” but it turned out top CIDA officials had signed a note recommending approval of Kairos funding. That memo was later altered when the word “not” was inked in before “approve.”

Oda told a House committee she didn’t know who inserted the “not,” but later admitted she had ordered the doctoring of the document. “Any reasonable person confronted with what appears to have transpired would necessarily be extremely concerned, if not shocked,” House Speaker Peter Milliken ruled after reviewing the file.

But Canadian voters did not have the opportunity to become shocked because of the sparse and misleading mainstream media coverage of the Oda scandal. An analysis that ran in many Postmedia papers during week one framed Oda’s behaviour as nothing more than a “mishandled rejection” of the grant.

Saskatoon Star-Phoenix columnist Bronwyn Eyre instead attacked NDP MP Pat Martin for shouting “you’re lying” at Oda when Oda was lying to the parliamentary committee. Martin’s sin was that he was an MP “with no knowledge of even basic administrative or evidence law.” Eyre neglected to mention Oda’s sin.

Curiously, the liberal Toronto Star provided the most apologetic Oda coverage. One early story claimed that Oda “naively tried to cover up the exercise of her ministerial prerogative,” while a later article asked if the “funding and fibbing flap” would “hurt Oda at the polls,” but provided no answer.

Meanwhile over at the National Post, Rex Murphy harrumphed we were ignoring war and peace but wasting our time debating Oda and the census because they are too trivial. But his media colleagues were not debating Oda.

Nor were they debating the other ethics and accountability scandals of the Harper government, at least with the same intensity they did when presenting the stable Conservative government versus reckless coalition of losers frame.

How Layton broke through the frames

Despite a handful of commentators who provided more critical perspectives on ethics issues — Vancouver Sun’s Stephen Hume, Ottawa Citizen’s Dan Gardner, Tim Harper at the Toronto Star, and several others — the campaign was heading in its predicted direction until something unforeseen happened.

Jack Layton and the NDP received a surge of support.

Burnaby-New Westminster NDP MP Peter Julian says the surge occurred despite corporate media efforts to minimize coverage of the New Democrats.

He attributes the NDP’s rise in the polls first to Jack Layton’s excellent performance in the French-language debate on April 14. This was followed by positive coverage in the Francophone press which, Julian says, is more balanced than the Anglophone press.

Then social media — Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr — began spreading the news about Layton. Young, progressive Quebeckers had become disillusioned with the Bloc Quebecois, which they saw as stale and dated. Layton, who was progressive, born in Montreal, spoke a French they could relate to, and cheered mightily for the cameras when the Canadiens scored a goal in the playoff round against Boston, became a viable alternative. The New Democrats soared to first place in Quebec polls.

Outside Quebec, in Atlantic Canada and BC, where the corporate media are more imbalanced, Julian attributes the NDP surge largely to social media. People in large numbers began forwarding information that corporate media were not reporting.

In his canvassing in New Westminster and Burnaby, he’s finding many more people — especially young people and marginalized groups — who say they plan to vote this time (and vote NDP) than in previous elections. The large turn-outs at advanced polls bear him out.

The argument is being made that this is Canada’s first social media election and young people, who traditionally vote in lesser numbers, are becoming engaged. A case in point is the web site ShitHarperDid, which brings together five years worth of Harper goofs, insensitive remarks and ill-advised actions. Within hours of the site’s launch it crashed under the weight of more than a million visitors, as the word spread on Facebook and Twitter. By the next day it passed two million hits.

Another example is the phenomenon of vote mobs. On April 4, 200 students at the University of Guelph suddenly appeared outside a Conservative rally and unfurled signs saying “Surprise! We are voting.” Vote mobs are a variation on flash mobs, which organize events online and simply appear at a specific place and time and engage in some collective action. Vote mobs have sprung up at universities across the country.

These groups—or non-groups—say they are non-partisan, although with a distinct anti-Harper flavour. But will they increase voter turn-out and for whom? A recent poll suggests young people vote for the parties in about the same proportions as the general population. How can political organizations reach them?

Social media meets political power

Using social media cannot guarantee election victories, but can be effective when used in conjunction with traditional media and election-based organizations. There’s the successful case of Naheed Nenshi, a long-shot candidate for Calgary mayor. He used social media—especially YouTube—to personalize his image and bring levity to his campaign. But to win he spent heavily on TV and radio ads and participated in all the traditional campaign activities.

And, perhaps most important, Nenshi obtained endorsements from both major Calgary newspapers. The Calgary Sun liked him because “he’s business friendly and passionate about restoring fiscal responsibility and transparency—and cutting red tape.” The Calgary Herald offered that if he can “convince the development industry he is not the liberal bogeyman hiding under the bed, he just might win.” He did and he did.

Days before election day, both major national dailies attacked Layton and endorsed Harper.

The Globe accused Layton of “putting a benign gloss on his party’s free-spending policies,” while the National Post cautioned anyone thinking of supporting the New Democrats that he or she would be “backing a serious gamble with the health and unity of the country.”

Only Harper and his party “have shown the leadership, the bullheadedness … and the discipline this country needs,” the Globe offered, while the Post claimed that “Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are a clear choice in uncertain times.”

Meanwhile, with three days to go, Postmedia papers across Canada — with the exception of the Vancouver Sun and The Province – put the same story on their front page:

  • “NDP rule will cost us: Harper” (Calgary Herald)
  • “NDP coalition would scare away investors: PM” (Edmonton Journal)
  • “NDP would stop recover, Harper says” (Ottawa Citizen)
  • “NDP win would kill investment—Harper” (Montreal Gazette)
  • “Harper’s words of warning: An NDP coalition would be unstable and wouldn’t last very long. But no one should underestimate the damage it would do to Canada’s reputation, credibility and economy” (National Post). Whew!


The Toronto Sun followed its own anti-NDP agenda, with its Friday front page depicting Layton as the Joker with the massive headline “WILD CARD.”

On Saturday, all Sun newspapers — and Sun News — used the same front page picture of Layton and the headline, “BAWDY POLITIC: Layton found naked in massage parlour: Former cop.” The story referred to a non-incident that occurred in 1996 when Layton was a Toronto councillor and it should have remained locked up in police files. It was preposterous yellow journalism concocted by obvious amateurs.

Corporate media’s power to be measured

Contrast that desperate coverage with the penetrating analysis and commentary of election-related issues provided in some independent media.

The Tyee published Andrew Nikiforuk’s superb investigation of Harper advisor Bruce Carson’s shenanigans in and out of the Prime Minister’s Office, which is in the best tradition of investigative journalism, shining a spotlight on the links among business, politics and academia. It’s the kind of journalism corporate media have largely stopped doing.

This may be the first election in which independent media like The Tyee, and Straight Goods are competitive with the corporate press., for instance, saw its number of unique visitors reach an all-time high of 188,000 in March and over 250,000 in April, with three or four days still to go.

Meanwhile, on Saturday and Sunday, the rest of the corporate media trotted out their predictable endorsements: unanimously for Harper, with one exception — the Toronto Star endorsed Layton.

Tonight we’ll know if voters are still swayed by corporate media rhetoric or if a new discourse is taking hold in the Canadian political arena. Will Layton’s performance, public disgust with the Harper government’s sordid record, and a burgeoning independent media sector prevail? Or will it be business as usual?

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