Illustration by Matthew Daley/Torontoist.
Last week, Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan caused a mini-furor at a press conference when a question about how Ontario became a “have-not” province catapulted him into a rant about how the “right-wing media” were misrepresenting the facts and how the province was as “have” as have could be. On a roll, Duncan then compared our home-grown media types to Rupert Murdoch, the beleaguered press baron and James Bond–villain archetype whose minions famously hacked into celebrity cellphones. When queried further on what specific outlets were right-wing, the minister cued up “Freebird” and took the assembled wretch-stained inksters on a road trip, pointing “down the 401: the Windsor Star, the Chatham Daily News, the London Free Press, the Toronto Sun, the National Post, Global…”
The opposition reacted with surprise and barely disguised glee to Duncan’s artless pre-election bitch-slap at the very folks who mold the opinions of the Lumpenvoters, with Progressive Conservative critic Bob Bailey calling the Liberals “desperate” for blaming the press for their lousy public image.
Shattered media pundits were also able to suppress their tears long enough to offer ripostes. Christina Blizzard at Sun Media displayed the dignified objectivity for which that organization is known, noting that while the Grits “have any number of crazy, off-the- wall fruitcakes,” it wasn’t until now that she realized “Pillsbury Dumboy” Duncan himself was part of the “lunatic fringe.”
The Post‘s Terence Corcoran, himself no mean mouth-foamer, offered a more measured response but managed an inadvertent plug for Taste of the Danforth by implying that the Grits had put Ontario on track to become Canada’s own little Greece.
Pointing the finger at the media is rarely a good idea politically, particularly in defense of a government that has spent eight years dancing up a storm and is only now starting to worry about the piper bills. However, Duncan may not have been altogether wrong in suggesting that a good chunk of the Canadian press have slipped to the right in recent years.
Dwayne Winseck, professor at the Carleton School of Journalism and Communication in Ottawa, undertook a survey immediately prior to the May federal election and found that of 32 editorial endorsements for prime minister from newspapers comprising 97.5 per cent of the market in Canada, 21 endorsed the Tories, 10 stayed on the fence and offered up cheerleading “get out and vote!” editorials, while only the Toronto Star broke ranks to support Jack Layton and the NDP. Poor Michael Ignatieff got a preview of the Liberal train wreck that election night would be, garnering no endorsements at all.
In other words, depending how you spin the numbers, somewhere between 86 per cent (market share) and 95 per cent (number of outlets) of editorial boards that backed a candidate picked Stephen Harper. In contrast, the Conservatives received less than 40 per cent of the popular vote.
Not surprisingly, with the exception of Global TV (owned by Shaw Communications), the outlets that Duncan specified in his tirade—the Windsor Star, the Chatham Daily News, the London Free Press, the Toronto Sun, and the National Post—are all part of the Sun Media (QMI) or Post Media groups, organizations that between them account for well over half of national market share in newspapers. During the federal election, with a few exceptions, their editorial boards across the country spoke Borg-like, united in support of the Tories.
Toronto newspapers followed a similar pattern in last October’s municipal elections. The Toronto Sun and the National Post backed Rob Ford, although the Globe couldn’t bring themselves to line up with the clip-on tie conservative crowd and reluctantly endorsed George Smitherman. Absent a viable candidate on the David Miller left (sorry, Joe) the Star also got behind Smitherman as the most likely to beat Ford,
So, using other recent elections as a measure of the political inclinations of the newsprint empires, at least, seems to support Duncan’s contention of media bias.
There are a bunch of caveats here. In a splintered media world, where single-issue basement bloggers and City Hall socialist tweetmongers all have—at least theoretically—equal access to the hearts and minds of the electorate, is it reasonable to suggest that a few newspapers are turning voters Smurf-blue? And what about the whole chicken and egg thing? Maybe it’s public opinion that’s driving the endorsements, and not the other way around?
Well, maybe. But Johnny Tweet and Jenny Blog don’t have headline boxes on every urban street corner, and they don’t typically have the advantage of wealthy corporate parents with insider political access. And the ease with which public opinion can be manipulated by a powerful press is even now being demonstrated by the U.S. political process, which has finally devolved into complete madness, thanks largely to Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and its hilarious, terrifying Tea Party spawn.
That doesn’t mean Duncan’s outburst was smart. Even the most die-hard Liberals—and polls suggest that may soon be all that’s left—get a little King’s Speechish when defending the McGuinty government’s record on spending, so to holler at the press and then expect a free pass from them defies common sense. Even our Stone Age ancestors knew better than to piss off the cave gossip when they were making a run for head mammoth hunter.
But whether or not it was a good idea, Duncan’s rant wasn’t just sour grapes, and it’ll be interesting to see how the media treat him going forward. It could make election season a whole lot more entertaining.