We need to talk about the Donald

By Sylvia Stead

The Globe and Mail

It’s no surprise that politics is at the heart of some very raucous and widespread debates – and not just those about what happens in the House of Commons (such as last week’s controversial “manhandling” incident).

What journalism does for these national discussions is (hopefully) provide enough information that you can make up your own mind, as well as offer opinions that may help order those facts and shape your thinking. This is never more important than when you are about to cast a ballot.

But how about our current obsession with Donald Trump and the complaints I’ve had recently about Globe coverage? Yes, he has angry supporters here, too.

One began by declaring a story on President Barack Obama incomplete: “Why don’t you mention he lost every encounter to Putin. You don’t like someone who can get the public’s ear without the censorship of the press.” But then: “When it comes to the press, I’m with Trump.”

Another complained about “the usual ‘lying press’ daily Trump bashing or Putin bashing. This is where you are the best.”

A few aren’t happy with the opinion columns on The Donald. Seems to some, they are one-sided, as in critical of him.

In his column, Jeffrey Simpson said Mr. Trump “has redefined acceptable domestic discourse and challenged what had been an accepted way of seeing the world. It says a great deal about his country, none of it good, that he has defied so many expectations and may yet defy more.”

John Ibbitson wrote that “most Canadians are doubtless appalled by the possibility of a President Trump.” This spurred a Calgary reader to call and complain, saying he is not a Trump supporter, but “you have all these reports which are biased and one-sided. You don’t give a diversity. It’s quite obvious The Globe has made up its mind. You do the readers a total disservice. Your newspaper is so obviously biased and prejudiced about the U.S. election and it’s disgusting.”

These readers are correct that the editorials and columns have been more often critical of Mr. Trump’s views. But is that a bad thing, and can it be corrected?

In the last federal campaign, Globe and Mail columns were much more frequently slanted against Stephen Harper and his policies. At the same time, there were oceans of type explaining the policies of the major parties and the leaders – in fact, more articles were about the Conservatives, although Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair appeared in more photos. To me, the important aspect of the coverage was that it gave readers the tools to cast an informed vote, even if the columnists were less critical of the other two main parties.

Ideally, though, there would have been more analysis and critical commentary on all the party platforms, especially since the race was at times very close.

The U.S. election has, as well, drawn a tremendous amount of coverage and, of course, not just in The Globe and Mail. Various writers, including the Poynter Institute’s James Warren, have explained the U.S. cable-news obsession with Mr. Trump as “ratings gold … The TV dynamic is surely unchanged. The networks will ride a phenomenon of American politics all the way through the Republican primary, perhaps even the general election.” Jasper Jackson at The Guardian noted that U.S. networks have been blamed for giving Mr. Trump too much air time, “much of it uncritical.” But coverage in Canada has mostly been an attempt to explain how and why Mr. Trump has become the presumptive Republican nominee. And there is not the same public-service need as in a Canadian campaign to inform voters of potential policies and personality pratfalls.

One of the best-read articles from the opinion section last week was a column titled Brace yourselves: Trump is going to win. Written by Derek Burney, a former Canadian ambassador to the U.S., and Fen Osler Hampson of Carleton University and the Centre for International Governance Innovation, it was a top read online and attracted more than 500 comments. The authors noted that Canadians and their media have watched the race “with a mixture of incredulity, disbelief, horror and smugness. The conventional wisdom here … is that Donald Trump doesn’t stand a chance. … The problem is that the conventional wisdom has been consistently wrong.”

And that is precisely why the conventional wisdom must be challenged by analytical writing. Columns seek to explain why the most unlikely man is now the Republican candidate and what it means to Canada. Despite what partisans say, such columns aren’t Trump bashing, but Trumpsplaining.

And while it’s important for readers to have all the facts, without too much snark, there is no reason that news outlets should try to balance their opinion writing. Columnists have every right to express their views and would never be asked to change them just for the sake of balance.

They need to challenge the spin or the outright lies that come from political campaigns and, at times, they need to show when the emperor has no clothes or the budget can’t possibly be balanced. And columnists know that, whatever their views, someone will be offended.

A better question is whether the media are holding the feet of those who want to be leaders to the fire, and not just following outrageous distractions. This must be true for any candidate.

But one thing is sure: The next few months will be interesting.

This column was originally published in The Globe and Mail on 27 May 2016.

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