Imagine a flock of starlings, settled deep into a spruce thicket and nattering away non-stop in song fragments the way they do, squawking over each other constantly.
Then record that noise, crank it up from “2” to “202” and play it back while you’re inside a plexiglass box, so the sound bounces around like a new sound weapon specifically designed to addle all rational thought.
Welcome to a national-level news scrum. I’ve been to a few, and I’m always startled at just what an auditory mugging they are — among the best and most professional reporters in the country, shouting at the top of their lungs to try and have their particular question be one of the few questions that the politician involved deigns to answer.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had what was essentially a photo-op at a Liberal candidate boot camp training function. Reporters were welcome, for a while — just long enough to listen to the prime minister’s comments.
But he wasn’t going to take any questions. That was spelled out in advance.
Presumably, one of the things he was teaching the next cohort of Liberal candidates is that the media should know its place, and that you can simply dictate when and where you’re actually amenable to answering questions from the scruffy hordes.
You can understand it — to a point. Nature abhors a vacuum, and reporters abhor the end of a question and answer session, especially when there’s something big going on. As long as you stand there and answer, they’ll shout questions. Have a photo-op with the latest visiting president of somewhere, and guaranteed there will be reporters shouting questions.
Rigorously controlling access and demonizing the media are ways to machine coverage into what you want.
But at the same time, more and more often, it seems that the media is expected to attend and be part of the political script: here’s the politician looking professional, dutifully recorded as such. Now, move along, media.
It gets taken to extremes. I can remember election campaign leader events where the media was herded into roped-off corrals, far enough from the politicos involved that even the shouted question is an impossibility. In the States, media corrals at Trump rallies are even a handy spot for the president to single out people for abuse — or worse. Remember, whatever you think about “The Media” as a whole, individual reporters and camera people aren’t fifth-column agents of evil — they’re really just people who are simply trying to do their jobs in difficult circumstances. Rigorously controlling access and demonizing the media are ways to machine coverage into what you want.
It’s clear that political strategists are keenly aware of the need to control the media as best they can — by all means, let us get those few shots of the leader shaking adoring hands, but keep us at a healthy distance lest we actually want to discuss those nasty issues.
People regularly chastise the media for not being thorough enough, for not asking enough questions, for letting government officials get off easy. I don’t think it’s unfair or editorializing or anything else for reporters to add a simple, factual “the minister refused to answer questions at the event” or “the prime minister answered only three questions before walking away” any time access is abridged or cancelled altogether.
Spelling out the circumstances just helps to frame the debate honestly. It’s hard to get to the bottom of any issue in three questions or less. And it’s hard to do your job with a hand tied behind your back.
One last thought.
Hey, starlings may be noisy, but, left to their own devices, they’re also remarkably thorough.
When a flock of them is finished picking over your lawn, there’s not a pest left to be found.
Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @wangersky.
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