Maybe it started with Watergate-where the print media and television arguably were the main reason a president was forced from office. Prior to that relations between elected officials and the media were much more collegial. If you flip through newspaper archives you will see that before Watergate, political coverage in the 50’s and 60’s centred mainly on policies—not personalities. FDR was known for calling in reporters he liked for drinks and deep background chats where he would float policies and even ask advice. Similarly, Canada’s long serving Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s diary contains numerous references to private meetings with the Ottawa Press Gallery. Such off-the-record encounters would be condemned by the journalistic establishment today; and there’s a good argument against reporters trading off enhanced personal understanding against the right of readers and viewers to know what’s really going on. Still, having proven who’s really the boss post-Nixon—what has journalism done to improve public life? Fast forward to today where in the US, two cable channels—MSNBC and Fox exist almost solely on politics—not even coverage—mostly opinion, and highly biased opinion at that. In Canada we have Sun TV trying to emulate Fox, albeit with production values that resemble the old Soviet television. (note to Sun production designers: watch CFTO Toronto and take lots of notes).As the media have turned political coverage into a sport consisting of winners and losers; a constant clash of personalities and largely manufactured dramas over mostly trivial events (see Justin Trudeau F-bomb, Stephen Harper cowboy outfit), the actual business of government gets lost. Long ago any serious politician gave up on policy and started pandering to the sound bite—the backdrop—the staged event; and down and down the spiral goes. Oscar Wilde once noted that there is “nothing lower than the English lower class,” and similarly journalism as a class, looking around to find a calling lower than theirs has had a roughly 4-decade field day with politics. The problem is public perception of the news profession has dropped just about as fast as that of politicians. A Gallup poll last year in the US reported that only 24% of respondents rated reporters high or very high on the trust scale.
So what does all this mean on a practical level? In the US we see years of legislative gridlock along highly polarized ideological fault lines. In Ontario we have an opposition focused on trying to make a Watergate out of deleted emails, when the public is just praying for somebody to give us a government that has a modicum of competence after years of disastrous energy, health and transportation screw-ups.