Saturday, March 03, 2007

Liberals: the Media is the Message

There seems to be a lot of confusion, here and elsewhere, as to why I think the Liberals would be wise to embrace a full blooded social liberalism as a political strategy. So I will try again.

The Canadian media is a very poor vehicle for getting the Liberal's word out. Study after study has showed that the coverage the Liberals have received over the course of the last number of years has been worse than abysmal. Yet the Liberal party has still not recognized that if the media does not care for a particular policy or talking point, it matters not a lick how well a particular issue polls, or focus groups. To borrow from Marshall McLuhan, the media is the message. A party’s platform and talking points are only as good as the press they generate. The media is the only focus group that matters.

What this means is that the Liberals have to reassess not only their media strategy, but also what policies and talking points they push as well. With regard to talking points, the Liberals have to recognize that the media are much more politically savvy, educated and knowledgeable than your average Canadian; the Liberals then have to respond accordingly. If a particular talking point offends the intelligence of those in the media they are sure to let the public, subconsciously or otherwise, know their opinion. And if they do that, it matters not at all that Joe focus group loves this talking point. The talking point will be more a liability than a benefit. For a party that is now in opposition and a party with so little to spend on unmediated ad time, this is a lesson the Liberal party has to learn and fast.

Incidentally, while a proper reading of the role of the media in disseminating political messaging seems to hold out the promise of an elevated public discourse, paradoxically it also casts doubt on the possibility of nuance. Nuance invariably involves concession and that is exactly what a politician can not do with the press present. There is simply no guarantee that the media will report both the concession and the triumphant counterpoint. Worse, the media’s fascination with sound bites turns careful deliberation, nuance and concession into dithering. Context is the ecosystem of nuanced comments. Most politicians recognize this and the words “but”, “however”, “although”, “while”, “given”, “granted”, “nevertheless”, “nonetheless”, “despite”, etc. are lacking from many political speeches as a result. This makes political speeches almost intolerable to listen to, but it insures the media does not send out mixed messages on a politician’s behalf.

The media reports what is newsworthy and what is newsworthy is what generates the most profits and what generates the most profits is by and large what generates the largest audience. So, not only should there be no expectation on behave of the Liberals, or any other political party for that matter, that the media will faithfully report what the party is saying, the Liberals must readjust what issues the party focuses on. The public may care a great deal about meat and potatoes issues and tell that to politicians, but the media does not share the same concern and media are the ones that matter. The media love hot button issues. The Liberals should give them what they want. Having introduced the subject, the Liberals should then sit back like any good therapist and let the dialectic play itself out in the media and invariably the public at large. Pundits, academics and, indeed, bloggers are far better positioned to take over championing the policy from there on in.

What hot button issues the Liberals should bring up are, of course, the $64,000 question. As I said before, I think the Liberals should introduce hot button issues that have already played themselves out amongst the learned and are bound to be well received by news organization such as Canwest, which is very libertarian in outlook (e.g., the stem cell research debate and the relative benign nature of marijuana). If the debate is allowed to go on long enough, the end result is predictable. As I have said time and time again, SSM was a great case in point. At the polls, SSM was a looser. Canadians were spilt on the issue, but the older one is the more likely one is to be opposed and to vote. The reason it was a winning issue was because it left the Conservatives defending an intellectually, morally and legally bankrupt position and they were, rightly, pillared by the media and the learned every step of the way. Pace Harper et al, the various court decisions, that ultimately led to C-38’s passing, represented not a premature beginning, but a summation.

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