Over the last few weeks, media coverage of Canada’s major metropolitan mayors has largely focused on personal issues. Gregor Robertson has had his alleged marital problems paraded across around the web. Hazel McCallion’s dining and entertainment habits have been thoroughly investigated (her driver’s license hasn’t been, but it probably should be). And the media is sharing Rob Ford’s chaotic ways, as it always has. Fortunately or not, the build-up of these public officials’ personalities doesn’t go without repercussions. Clearly, the personal is still political, but, this time, we’re talking about political character battles, rather than hegemonic masculinity.
First, let’s look at the pros and cons of focusing on politicians’ personalities.
Pros: It’s probably a good thing to know a bit about the person to whom we’re giving power in our society. Knowing the individual outside the political arena could change our feelings of trust and respect towards them. If we’ve learned anything from the success of federal Conservative attack ads, this seems to inform many of our votes.
For example, when former Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman said “what the hell do I want to go to a place like Mombasa? Snakes just scare the hell out of me. I’m sort of scared about going there, but the wife is really nervous. I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me,” many people probably lost any respect they had for him. Well, let’s be honest, there probably wasn’t much respect left after he called in the troops to fight a blizzard. Regrettably, even if Lastman could sense danger before that chilling day in 1999, he likely didn’t send a raven straight to Ottawa with the message, “Winter is Coming”.
Cons: Maybe we agreed that knowing a bit about our leaders outside of their policies is good, but what if that’s all we know about them? If the media only covers personal aspects of politicians, it becomes difficult for the average person to access the political aspect.
We all know Rob Ford’s a recovering (or so he wants us to think) addict, but what do we really know about the mayor’s recent political actions in city council? We don’t hear much about his political life. The odd time we do, the media will frame decisions that have powerful political messages as personal issues. Ford’s decision to remain seated during a WorldPride standing ovation might represent an anti-LGTBQ political viewpoint, but the media focuses on him as an individual homophobic rather than looking at the issue as a broader movement. As a result, we don’t hear as much about any current Torontonian LGBTQ crises, and we don’t learn how we can work to address real problems in Toronto’s communities.
So why does the media continue to focus on the personalities of politicians, even if actual political coverage suffers? Unfortunately, sex and drugs (maybe not rock and roll anymore) sell in Canadian media. Writing about Rob Ford smoking crack has probably won more attention than writing about Olivia Chow’s or John Tory’s policies. Private news sources need high rankings to stay afloat, so they produce what much of the public wants: entertainment. Public broadcasting should be able to focus in on political issues, but it still needs, and the Harper government cutting the CBC’s budget doesn’t help on that front. Essentially, it’s difficult for the media to focus on policy issues when Patrick Brazeau works at a strip club.
It’s also important to note that this focus might not only be the media’s fault; the politicians are playing a role in creating character battles. The federal Conservatives are, once again, on the campaign trail with anti-Trudeau messaging, while the Liberals counter with a positive-character campaign. Although this positivity may be above the attack ads, it still focuses on personality and therefore continues to build up the character battle between Harper and Trudeau.
I have two suggested paths, going forward.
1) When we’re making political decisions, we can try to critically assess what the media shares with us, recognize when we only have character information, seek out policy information/platforms, and make an informed decision that takes into account a politician’s character and policies.
2) When a character battle becomes so heated that it completely takes over policy-related debate, we can ask the media and our politicians to act responsibly and get over their problems. Maybe Ford, Harper, and Trudeau should just sit down together, smoke a fat one (Harper will probably be in unless he’s “too drunk to smoke it,”), and settle all their problems after watching some Cheech & Chong.
The first path makes more sense, but the second is more entertaining.