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Here we go again

Posted by ealboim under All, Election 2011, Election 2011 Campaign strategy, Election 2011 Faculty links, Election 2011 Media commentary

Elly Alboim

The decision by the networks to exclude Elizabeth May from the Leaders’ Debates goes to the heart of the media’s sense of hubris in election campaigns.

Elections always feature a continuing struggle between media and political parties for control of the agenda. Media take on for themselves the role of arbiter of the truth and organizer of the hierarchy of importance of issues. In doing so, they work under two often contradictory values – loudly proclaiming the importance of accessibility and transparency and insisting on what they call news value in determining what they cover. Implicit in their narrow definition of news value is that the issue be interesting and/or entertaining to their audience, a judgment they insist is their excusive purview to exercise.

In the debates (and I’ve been party to those discussion many times), media organizers and producers worry first and foremost about the “watchability” of the debates and how to make it “good TV.” Although they cloak the discussion in high-minded discourse of making it accessible and interesting to viewers to foster increased democratic participation, it really is about applying game show and sports entertainment values to the process. They prize direct confrontation and angry conflict. Boring and incremental discussion doesn’t cut it – hence the rules on thirty second answers and the reportorial focus on “knock-out punches” and winners and losers in the coverage of the debates themselves. It isn’t really clear why that is important to them – after all there are no commercials to sell and no inter-network competitive urges to satisfy. But they can’t seem to stop themselves from being driven by production values because that is what they do every other day of their professional lives.

It is the only possible explanation for the decision they have made. May represents what is clearly a legitimate fifth party in Canada. It garnered 6% of the vote. She was in the debates last time. It is a common sense proposition that anyone who received a million votes has a right to be heard. It is not hard to justify her presence over other small party leaders.

Election debates are important. Beyond the obvious, they are the only time Canadians can share a campaign experience in real time and in an unfiltered way, allowing them to discuss what they’ve seen and heard with friends and families. For media organizations to restrict that process seems entirely antithetical to what they proclaim to be their goals of accessibility and transparency. It is particularly hard to understand on the part of the public broadcaster which was part of what was described as a unanimous decision.

To exclude her is to invite yet another examination of why we as a society delegate to television networks the right to decide issues like this.

Elly Alboim is an Associate Professor of Journalism and a former Parliamentary Bureau Chief for CBC TV News