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Media comes under fire at Toronto election panel

October 9, 2010

Note: Originally posted at Spacing Votes.

The media gives us the news. And part of this helps us chop up the running election, helping us make sense of the candidates and their platforms. Or so is the notion.

The School for Public Policy and Governance, in collaboration with the Center for Municipal Finance and Governance at the Munk School of Global Affairs, played host to an event looking at the role of the media in the elections. Instead of being the ones asking questions, three city journalists were asked to answer questions from the general public. The panel consisted of Marcus Gee, columnist for the Globe and Mail, Royson James, municipal affairs columnist for the Toronto Star, and Matthew Blackett, creative directer and publisher of Spacing magazine. The evening was moderated by noted municipal issues scholar Enid Slack.

Gee kicked off the event by delving into the reasons for Rob Ford’s success, beginning with an article he penned in January encouraging the Etobicoke councilor to run. It would have added interest and spice to the race, reasoned Gee, as a right-wing councillor with little hope of winning.  Ford was able, however, to capture the disgruntled sentiment of many and has been famously surfing as front-runner for over a month. Gee explained Ford’s message and strategy critically, stating that Ford “made Mel Lastman look like Martin Luther King, Jr.”

James followed up with an alternative look at the dynamics of the election. He provided some historical context to the functioning of the city, especially in the context of amalgamation. For James argued the major theme of the Toronto mayoral election has not been a shift to the right, it has been an urban/suburban divide caused by a variety of factors, including the media. He mentioned that with a media industry in Toronto focused on downtown’s issues, the voters physically distant from City Council often feel left out of the municipal conversation. To further the point, James stated that “the downtown elites” often let councillors enjoy an abnormally high level of perks and benefits, a position that has led to zero fiscal credibility at City Council and allowed the negative rhetoric of Ford’s campaign to flourish.

Blackett then took the stage and provided insight on the points raised by his counterparts before adding what he has liked and disliked about the election so far.  He noted that from the perspective of someone with a suburban background, the urban/suburban divide was a little exaggerated, citing statistics on cycling that belie the notion of suburbs being anti-cycling communities. Blackett had several points to make about the role of the media in these elections as well — namely that they had provided unprecedented coverage to the mayoral race in a constantly faster news cycle, and had taken cues from the 2008 U.S. Presidential elections (specifically, the Toronto Star’s “smell test,” which was inspired by the CNN’s Truth Squad). He ended by criticizing the length of the mayoral campaign and the fact that several core issues such as governance and infrastructure have not been discussed adequately so far.

This set the stage for the question-and-answer session, which was easily the most boisterous part of the evening. Several mayoral candidates took over the microphone and loudly attacked the media for limiting its coverage to “the chosen five media darlings.” The response from the journalists was both honest and pragmatic. One factor behind the choice of the so-called top 5 was that they were all current or past politicians, and thus got an automatic pass. The second factor was the support enjoyed by candidates; both James and Blackett pointed out that the media could only focus its attention on a limited number of people at a time, and that they had to prove themselves newsworthy with grassroot support, not expect to receive top-down help without proving that they deserved it.

The issue of covering suburban issues then arose. As many have acknowledged, the race for mayor will be won or lost in the suburbs, but there is little coverage of suburban voices. This, as James argued previously, helped perpetuate a feeling of disempowerment and alienation that played into Ford’s hands. The media was also grilled for not covering councillors (something Spacing Votes has done), given that Toronto has a weak mayoral system where the mayor gets one vote and has to be a consensus-builder to get anything done.

The most vociferous questioning of the media was done by two audience members near the end who accused journalists of failing to do their job and cover the issues that matter. An irate elderly gentleman asked why the media promoted “nonsense instead of ideas,” why good things did not get as much attention as the bad and why the media helped build the perception of a broken city that needs to be fixed. As another man put it, the job of the media is to take what is important and make it interesting — but they haven’t done that, and have thus helped make city politics dysfunctional.

The reactions of the panelists could be summed up as both defensive and apologetic — they pointed out that it was difficult to provide broad-based coverage, but that the media did regularly point out positive news in the city and focus on more than just the negative harping.

Editor’s Note: But we want to extend the olive branch to you. What do Spacing Votes readers think about the media’s coverage in this election?

Watch the entire event on the Munk School website.

Predictions: who will win the race?

Matthew Blackett: George Smitherman by a hair.

Marcus Gee: George Smitherman; the backlash against Ford will let him sneak in at the end.

Royson James: Can’t make a prediction, but the next major poll, due ten days before the election, will be decisive.

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