Media insult us with leadership coverage overkill

Oh stop it. The newspapers are full of how Michael Ignatieff has 30 per cent of some semi-committed Liberal delegates, Gerard Kennedy must sprout French, Bob Rae may not be a portable catastrophe and Stéphane Dion ... zzzzz. Can I just say “Paul Martin”? Reread the breathless copy about his battle for control of the Liberal party. Would you wrap a decent piece of fresh fish in it today? That his party could swoon over such a man might strike future historians as worth half a line. But day-today fluctuations in politics mean about as much as they do in the stock market, and those of us paid to explain public affairs shouldn’t cover them just because we can. It insults readers’ intelligence. It insults our own.

In Wednesday’s National Post someone devoted an entire column to why we don’t know what the Liberal’s weekend vote means. I can be ignorant more concisely. Besides, I’m devoting my column to why I don’t care: If Mr. Ignatieff wins we’ll find out. If he doesn’t, why waste all this ink?

Monday’s Globe and Mail had four front-page items on the vote, a two-page spread inside including three bits by (gasp) Liberal insiders, then the lead editorial, editorial cartoon and three columns. And one single-column story buried on A12 about nuclear-armed India claiming proof that nuclear-armed Pakistan’s intelligence agency helped plan the Mumbai train terror bombing. Tuesday’s Globe gave the Liberals three columns and a full news page. The top story in Wednesday’s Post showed Mr. Ignatieff’s campaign art, and quoted a middle-aged professor that aping Andy Warhol is “funky, it’s cool, it’s avant-garde ... It’s saying, ‘I’m on the edge, I’m appealing to the young — I’m part of the future.’ ” Uh, didn’t Andy Warhol die 19 years ago?

As for book excerpts on the fall of Paul Martin and the leap of Belinda Stronach, stop it, right now. To understand how overpowering ambition can ruin an otherwise decent and intelligent man, read Macbeth. To understand how a sociable blond can make men silly, who needs a book? Or wants the lurid details? There’s so much to know, and so little time to find it out. Don’t waste it reading political celebrity gossip.

Rotting infrastructure: now there’s a story. So read James Gordon’s Structures or Why Things Don’t Fall Down. Especially the bits on cement. And if you must stare in horror at politics, try Friedrich Hayek’s 1949 pamphlet The Intellectuals and Socialism, with its still-relevant warning that “it is the absence of direct responsibility for practical affairs and the consequent absence of first hand knowledge of them which distinguishes the typical intellectual from other people who also wield the power of the spoken and written word.” Say, Pierre Trudeau. Or Michael Ignatieff. Or Stéphane Dion. Or Bob Rae ...

Admittedly, Mr. Rae got a crash course in practical difficulties as premier of Ontario. But he escaped unmarked. Amid a fog of focus-grouped banalities about “smarter regulation” and “ecological integrity,” he just wrote in the Post that “ideas alone are not enough. You need leadership and experience at solving problems.” I only ever saw him cause them.

Across the way, Mr. Ignatieff’s The Rights Revolution contains neither the “why” of the true scholar nor the “how” of the practical man. But amid platitudes about how great it would be if things were great, he calls Canada “the place on earth that, if I needed one, I would call home.” Forget jeering that he’s too American. I’m worried that a man so postmodern he doesn’t need a home wants to lead my country. Why? Is it quaint? An interesting sociological experiment? The sort of person who now makes, or does not make, a credible leadership candidate deserves coverage. Politics as horse race doesn’t.

So forget he-said-she-said, “Tories stink, critics say,” and breathless “insider” accounts when the whole point of inside information is it’s not outside. Instead, put Wednesday’s Citizen story about another woman miscarrying while waiting in a Calgary emergency room (the Globe managed seven sentences over two days on it) next to the same-day story in Britain’s Daily Telegraph about its new Conservative leader pledging eternal fidelity to socialized medicine, the National Post September story on emergency doctors underreporting infectious diseases, and the September Globe column about the B.C. finance minister’s “soon-to-be-famous” graph of health care taking 71 per cent of provincial spending by 2017. About which I have not seen one news story.

Our health-care system going up in flames despite massive funding increases, while politicians deny the very existence of a crisis they have no clue how to solve, is an important ongoing story. Instead we get Michael Ignatieff winning some delegates but not others.

Stop it, I say.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson