Stanley Baldwin, who was the British prime minister in the 1920s and 1930s, once said the press exercised “power without responsibility — the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.” So, whores, basically.
Baldwin was talking mainly about newspaper owners, but Richard Nixon included columnists and reporters on his original “enemies list” of 20 people, targeted to be roughed up by the Internal Revenue Service. An expanded list of hundreds of Nixon’s “political opponents” compiled by one of his aides, Chuck Colson, included scores of journalists.
Which is to say that hostility to the media among politicians is not new, even though the colours of the antagonism seem so much more saturated in the Age of Trump.
Trump’s innovation has been two-fold. First, relentlessness. No one before has made antagonism to the media (Fake News!) a central plank in the platform, as opposed to a matter of campaign tactics. And second, the hysterical tone of the rhetoric is different. Trump has borrowed the term “Enemies of the People,” which has a long and distasteful history.
During the French Revolution, Robespierre, who had a way with words, said the revolution “owes nothing to the Enemies of the People but death.” Lenin and Stalin picked up the phrase, and in the Soviet Union it meant imprisonment or execution.
Though Trump denies he intended to target the media literally, it is not surprising that Cesar Sayoc, an enthusiastic supporter living in a van plastered with Trumpian propaganda, followed the logic of the case and dispatched pipe bombs to media figures and to CNN.
So political conflicts with the media nowadays are simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary, and it was into this environment that a fascinating story by the Toronto Star’s Alex Boutilier landed last week, in which he suggested a run at the media would be a core element of the federal Conservatives’ 2019 election campaign. He quotes the party’s leader, Andrew Scheer: “(Trudeau has) got the media on his side, he’s got the pundits, he’s got the academics and think tanks, everyone who wants to lecture you on how to spend your own money and how to live your own life.”
Subsequently, Scheer pushed back on the idea he was planning a war on the media, saying, “It’s essential in a vibrant democracy.” But meanwhile, Conservative MPs such as Pierre Poilievre and Michelle Rempel have joined the conservative Twitter trolliverse, labelling journalists as Liberal partisans.
The Conservatives are actually right to perceive that journalists are often sociologically more similar to Liberal supporters than to their own. Nowadays, journalists on Parliament Hill are almost all university educated, and though hardly in the One Per Cent, I would guess those working for legacy media mostly live in families with incomes above the Canadian average. Newsrooms are also intensively secular spaces — and rightly so — but that, too, distinguishes them culturally from much of conservative Canada.
That doesn’t make journalists Liberals, but there are elements of contemporary journalism that are more likely to bring their personal attitudes into view and open to scrutiny and attack. Even a decade ago, there was significant resistance to putting reporters on TV panels with pundits and politicos, for fear they would be drawn into conversations that would go beyond their reporting.
Today, no one bats an eye. And then there is social media — particularly Twitter, which is difficult to navigate successfully without sending strong signals of cultural, if not political, orientation.
So what are the Conservatives trying to do by battling with the media?
At the broadest level, they want to tap into a recent mood of resentment toward elites, which, in most Western countries (with the partial exception of the U.K.), has been more successfully harnessed by parties of the right than the left.
It’s worth pausing here to note that there is an element of sham in the Conservatives’ attempt to position themselves as enemies of the elites — just as there was in Jean Chrétien’s populism, back in the day. Preston Manning’s Reform Party drew on the Prairie populist traditions and resentments of the Social Credit and CCF, but he had the backing of much of Alberta’s wealthy and powerful oil and gas commercial elite. And Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party was in part a remarriage of that elite to Bay Street, where the old PCs hung their hats. Jim Flaherty, Joe Oliver and David Emerson were blue-chip members of Harper’s cabinet.
But more specifically, Scheer is suiting up, in his words, to fight the media, the pundits, the academics and the think tanks. And this is clearly not about the broad organization of our society, but primarily about climate change. He is, in a sense, “working the refs” because he and his party are offside with those who know most about this subject — arguably the most
important facing humankind, our children and grandchildren.
Climate scientists, who certainly know more about the subject than the person next to you in line at Tim Hortons, are virtually unanimous that we are entering a zone of real peril unless we act quickly to avoid devastating climate change. Conservatives have moved reluctantly to acknowledge this fact. This week, Scheer joined Doug Ford in denouncing the Liberals’ plan for a carbon tax. They expressed the common goal of defeating the Trudeau government at the polls next year.
But there was precious little urgency from Scheer on how he would address climate change if he were prime minister. He said defensively that he had “always believed climate change is real,” but he has yet to reveal a long-promised plan to address it, and has recently been reluctant to reiterate his party’s previous support for the Paris climate agreement.
Unlike our knowledge that climate change is a real thing, which is the product of physical science, the argument for a carbon tax such as the Liberals are proposing is the product of economics, a social science. It may have many Nobel laureates, including one of this year’s, behind the concept, but it is hardly beyond dispute. And both supporters and opponents have identified flaws, which have been covered by the media.
But it is important to understand what “balance” in media coverage requires and what it doesn’t. It does not mean giving equal weight to a serious detailed proposal to address climate change, based on sound science and a significant consensus in social science, with vague and reluctant acknowledgements that something should probably be done.
A significant part of the reason that the Conservatives don’t like the media coverage of the climate-change debate is the underlying weakness of their position. If the media were to treat their position as equally credible to the government’s, it would constitute false balance.
The danger of an attempt to discredit academic expertise and media reporting on climate change and other subjects is that it may turn some voters off altogether from information they should consider. A recent CBS poll found that 91 per cent of strong Trump supporters say they trust the president for accurate information — a shocking misjudgement on their part. Just 11 per cent trust the media.
Chillingly, Trump reportedly told the 60 Minutes reporter Leslie Stahl that he attacks the media with specific intent: “I do it to discredit you and demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”
That is a licence for lies.