Covering Peter MacKay, Rob Ford and the Toronto Star: The ‘tabloidization of politics’
News media have a responsibility to keep the news in proportion. John Miller argues that the past week's coverage of Peter MacKay's helicopter ride and Rob Ford's freeze on the Toronto Star has largely failed to do this. He calls it: the tabloidization of politics.
Tabloid news is a real threat to journalism and the freedom of the press, argues John Miller in this post. Drawing upon last week's headlines about the Toronto Star vs. Rob Ford and defence minister Peter MacKay's helicopter ride, he urges the media: Keep the news in proportion.
Let last week stand as the one in which the media in Canada completed the "tabloidization" of politics.
As the world economy flirted with meldown, as unemployment rose alarmingly, and as war drums were beating for armed intervention in Iran, news from Parliament Hill focused on whether Canada's defence minister took an inappropriate helicopter ride.
As our largest city announced plans to lay off 1,000 staff and close libraries, news from Toronto city hall focused on why the mayor is in a hissy fit about the Toronto Star.
I know how editors justify this. They say that Peter MacKay's 'copter ride, which cost taxpayers $16,000, is just an example of a much larger scandal — waste, political opportunism and cover-up in the highest councils of the Harper government. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's decision to cut the Star off from receiving any press releases from his office? Why, that's a direct threat to freedom of the press and the public's right to know.
News media have a responsibility to keep the news in proportion. If you want to prove that Stephen Harper is a liar who let his ministers plunder the public purse, then find me a real scandal that involves more than chump change. And if Canada's largest newspaper thinks the public interest requires a front-page editorial from the chairman of the board, then let John Honderich write about something more important than not receiving a handout. Until then, please tell me about the news that really affects my life.
Mayor Ford says he's upset because the Star "made up" a story about him last year. It was about him allegedly being asked to stop coaching a high school football team because he had a physical altercation with a student (which the student later denied). Ford filed notice of libel, which was the appropriate response, but never followed it up and let the threatened lawsuit lapse. He struck back another way — by refusing to talk to the paper or give it press releases from the mayor's office. That's an abuse of process and the Star is right to file a complaint with the city's integrity commissioner. That's the proper response — not a front page editorial that tries to marshall public opinion to its side.[node:ad]
The paper followed it up the next day with a headline saying "Ford to Star: Drop dead." Only Ford didn't say that at all. It was just the paper plagiarizing a famous headline the tabloid New York Post wrote about President Gerald Ford refusing to intervene when New York was on the brink of bankruptcy.
On Saturday, the paper devoted all of page 3, its second most important news page, to the verbatim transcript of the mayor's appearance on a local radio talk show, with annotated marginal quotes from Honderich's editorial. It relegated all other news, of the deteriorating economy, of Third World conditions in a northern First Nation reserve, to less noticed parts of the paper. But the annotated quotes didn't seem to directly relate to what Ford was saying, and certainly didn't refute it, making the self-serving spread a waste of space.
I call it the "tabloidization" of politics because the media in this country are being increasingly distracted by pieces of fluff, which they think will hold our interest longer than reporting on the full fabric of political, economic and social change. Pieces of fluff are easier to gather and readers can grap their symbolic meaning more readily than wading through contextualized substance. The downside is that fluff trivializes public affairs and leaves us feeling disempowered and cynical. We retaliate the only way we can — we start distrusting the messenger, and soon we decide to turn it off altogether.
That's the real threat to freedom of the press. Don't you think that deserves a front-page editorial too, rather than another petty bitch about reporters not having enough access to the centres of power?
John Miller is a professor emeritus of journalism at Ryerson University and former deputy managing editor of the Toronto Star. His work can be found online at The Journalism Doctor, where this blog post was originally published.
Correction: Fixed typo in headline that mistakenly spelled the minister's surname as "McKay."