Andrew Coyne makes the unassailable point that the MSM is making a horrible hash of covering the election campaign. And he also provides some insight as to why. As ever, it comes down to the incentives that journalists face:
Read the coverage in any major daily on any given day. Watch the
television. It's not about the election — it's about the campaign:
who's ahead, the minutiae of the day's staged events and, above all,
the strategy and tactics behind it all. Among other ills, this requires
us to give over acres of space and time to the deep thoughts of one or
another of the many thousands of smirking strategists with which this
country is apparently endowed. Understand that these are paid
manipulators, people who spend their entire working lives thinking up
ways to twist the truth to their clients' advantage...
But here's the thing: in his secret heart of hearts, that's who the journalist wishes he was — one of the players, the guys in the room, and not one of those legions of drudges who must forever stand and wait outside the door. We write about the horse race, the polls and the strategy, not because it matters to our readers, but because it matters to the pros, the people we cover, the people we idolize. We parrot their language, even as we absorb their values: the latest campaign ad is analyzed from any number of angles — Will it work? Is it on-message? — except the most obvious: is it true?
This hope is not always in vain; after each election, there are always a certain number of media types who end up accepting job offers from the people they were covering. As a result, journalists have little incentive to provide policy analysis, and every reason to show off their expertise in the minutiae of spinning, marketing and messaging. So that's what we get. Not because we demand it, but because that's the only thing they see any advantage in supplying.
This explains a lot. According to Common Wisdom, this election is based on economic issues: the Liberals' Green Shift, and the general background of economic uncertainty. But if you wanted to actually learn something about these issues, the very last place you should go searching for enlightenment is the mainstream media.
Let's start with climate change policy. All three parties have their own plans, and they've been circulating for months. And how is the debate framed? What is the most common theme that the MSM is circulating?
"The Liberals' 'Green Shift' is too complicated"
My immediate reaction to this meme is slack-jawed horror. Journalists who claim to not understand the Liberal climate change program have no business taking up valuable media real estate; they have a moral obligation to resign their positions and let sentient humans take their place. The issue really isn't that complicated if you're willing to make the effort to learn. Dan Gardner's absolutely wonderful piece in the Ottawa Citizen is a stinging rebuke for journalists who won't take the time to understand the most important issue of the election.
Another version of this meme takes the following form:
"The Liberals' 'Green Shift' is too complicated to explain in a 15-second TV spot"
This may be true, but this is most emphatically not a problem that journalists should spend time worrying about. They are not restricted to 15 seconds; they can take all the time they need to explain the issue. The only reason they should be worrying about this point is if they wanted to come up with a media strategy that would impress the marketing pros for whom this constraint is a real problem. No-one else cares.
Another issue in which the contribution of MSM journalists to public debate is negative is the whole "what if there's a deficit?" story. From a story I linked to earlier:
Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, who this morning refused to say categorically he would never run a deficit if the economy slides, backtracked this afternoon to commit unequivocally that a Liberal government would never cause a deficit.
Quizzed three times by reporters in London, Ont., on Wednesday morning, Mr. Dion insisted he is committed to fiscal discipline, but would not say he would never run a deficit, if a deep recession hits.
Emphasis added. It's pretty clear that the goal of these Intrepid JournalistsTM was not to inform their readers; their goal was to fill out a news cycle. They knew that the quote would elicit an attack from Harper, and that Dion would have to respond to the attack. And that's what happened.
But lost along the way was any sort of analysis about which party leader had the more sensible position on the matter. Dion's original position was that of a reasonable, responsible, reality-based adult, and the notion that deficits are always unacceptable is just silly. But you'd never know it from how the media covered the story. So why did they cover it the way they did? To demonstrate their ability to spin a news cycle?