Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Do Voters Care About The Media's Choices?

A veteran colleague from the trenches of journalism wonders whether the media, particularly newspapers, have clout with voters when they say for whom they should vote.
Did they ever?
The answer, in my unhumble opinion, based on fifty years of observation and participation, including too many years writing those newspaper slates, is that a newspaper's urging support of their candidates used to be crucial in the process.
It no longer is as important, but it is still major. After all, why else would major candidates and party leaders have aides or even themselves practically beg for an editorial board with the top editors, especially the person who thinks they control the editorials.
After all, we live in an age where something like 40% of young people believe what they read on the Internet. How disturbing! I used to give journalism lectures on how important it is for young reporters to distrust most of the stuff they read on the Internet and offered some clues as how to sort the crap from the crap.
I go back to the age when Nathan Phillips and Frederick Gardiner were the municipal leaders of Toronto and not just the names on a square and a highway.
While it is easy to dismiss Phillips as ancient history because he last was mayor in 1962, he did serve eight years, and only Art Eggleton served more years since Toronto began in 1834. And I know from watching him in action, and later writing his memoirs, that getting a newspaper to back him was the most important issue in his political life.
So close was the relationship between the Toronto Telegram and Nathan (he hated to be called Nate) that on the night of his first win, when he was devastated because his beloved wife had just fallen down the cellar stairs and was unconscious, his victory speech was written by a senior Tely editor, Laurie McKechnie. It included the phrase Mayor Of All The People, which became his identity.
I learned not to be cynical about newspaper slates when I witnessed many voters carrying to the polls the slate that they had clipped out of the paper. And not just young voters and new Canadians either.
Doug Creighton, the spiritual leader and founding publisher of the Toronto Sun, insisted that we had to have a slate a year after we began. We had absolutely no resources. Just me and an occasional reporter. But we produced a slate in 1972 (which didn't recommend our star columnist Paul Rimstead for mayor) even though there were hundreds of candidates with six councils and six school boards. We even recommended hydro commissioners.
It has been written often how when Creighton, Peter Worthington and I met to discuss Toronto mayoralty candidates, Peter and I said Tony O'Donohue should be the person, though we could be persuaded for David Crombie, and Doug decreed we would support David Rotenberg. Peter resigned for the first time, saying our investors had interfered, but then thawed and wrote an editorial about how Crombie and O'Donohue were fine fellows but we were supporting Rotenberg. Creighton grumbled to me he should have lost the debate but written the slate
I survived the strains of composing the slate editorials in the 1970s by seeking the advice, secretly, of Metro chairman Paul Godfrey. I didn't know that Creighton was doing the same thing. When Godfrey came aboard as publisher in 1984, he was an old hand at the Sun slates but he could now dictate, which he seldom did.
Slates have always been controversial within newspapers as senior reporters and editors clash over pets and enemies. I know colleagues who were devastated at our choices because it hurt trusted sources. The Sun, to its credit, always believed that the best slates in party elections were ones where we recommended candidates from every party, although conservatives were our main choices. I even supported a Communist for York school board.
The fact that we were not partisan completely caused confusion and even a great confrontation between Godfrey and me. In a federal election, I wrote a slate which picked Grit Elinor Caplan in North York over Tory Paul Sutherland. Turned out Godfrey was a close friend of the Sutherland family, which I knew, but was also Paul's godfather, which I didn't know.
I was at the cottage when the storm broke. Thank heavens we were friends or I might have been axed. Godfrey finally settled for a contrived Page Two picture the next day of Sutherland planting one of his signs. But Caplan won.
The bottom line about media slates is that they are important because the media and the politicians think they are important. This becomes obvious to any voter really studying the coverage. And many of them are smart enough to realize that the bias of the newspaper plays a major role in the choice.
Of course the Toronto Star would support a downtown Liberal for mayor because George Smitherman is a trendy high-spending gliberal who does missionary work for his sexual orientation. A high school dropout who says he's no longer addicted, ahem, to "party" drugs, who pretends he's really not a pit bull, is the Toronto Star's choice to rescue a city with a devastated infrastructure. Square Rob Ford, who doesn't believe in throwing grant money at all the issues the Star holds so dear, is seen as the devil to be maligned because he is more careful than Star editors with taxpayers' money.
But then David Miller was the Star's kind of mayor. And he was a disaster. For that matter, so is the Star when it comes to politics. Now there's one slate to ignore.
Voters should consider what the various papers say are the best choices but in the end, it's up to you. After all, thank heavens, voters, not newspapers, finally make the choices, and there often is a folk wisdom about the results. Besides, the alternatives are awful.

No comments: