ELECTION CHATTER (DAY 26): Is the national media lying to you?
People & Places

ELECTION CHATTER (DAY 26): Is the national media lying to you?

Day 26: In which Ottawa Magazine contributing editor Mark Bourrie despairs for democracy — and accuses the national media of playing partisan games

I just survived a virus called System Tool.

It’s a nasty thing. I had it at Christmas, too. System Tool infects your computer’s hard drive. It pretends to be something useful, a virus scan software. But instead of sweeping your computer for viruses, it hijacks your computer and ruins it.

You can try to buy off the software by sending your credit card info to the Russian mafia or the Hong Kong triads or whoever created System Tool. But you won’t get your computer back. That’s why, for the past 10 maddening days, I’ve been using the kids’ laptop.

System Tool is not the only thing around that looks like something useful but is, in fact, evil. We’re in the middle of the most dishonest and dirty election campaign I’ve seen, and there are so many system tools infecting democracy that I don’t think we’ll be able to wipe our hard drives and get rid of them.

Take the pollsters. I don’t care about their results. Lazy journalists rely on these system tools to drive news coverage. Pollsters are cheap, much less expensive than journalistic boots on the ground. We don’t need them. This isn’t a racetrack, and a vote is not a bet on a winner. We need honest, detailed examination and discussion of the people seeking office and insightful examinations of their policies.

“War rooms” are also system tools. Ever since the movie The War Room came out after Bill Clinton’s first win in 1992, every politically-inclined dweeb who couldn’t get a date without the help of a $100 bill fancies himself a James Carville.

By their very nature, war rooms are filled with liars and manipulators. Yet the media treat these people like great political play-yahhhs, gurus of spin. The most outrageous liars and political saboteurs are praised for their cleverness. Richard Nixon’s Dirty Tricksters ended up in jail. Ours get regular spots on TV and radio political panels.

And the media is infected with systems tools. I used to think attention deficit disorder was the media’s biggest problem. I’d point to things like the short intellectual shelf life of the G-20 Muskoka pork story and the Bruce Carson allegations, and say the 12-hour news cycle has killed inquisitive journalism.

But now the media’s biggest sin is lying, or accepting the lies of others, either through partisanship or stupidity.

You can put all of the country’s truly investigative national reporters in a Chevy van. The rest want to back a winner so they’ll have friends, or at least fake friends, in the Prime Minister’s Office.

That’s why the national press — at all levels, from publishers to editors to reporters — have jumped onto the disinformation campaign that has portrayed Michael Ignatieff as a nutty professor, an opportunistic aristocratic fop, a scheming fool and, as of today’s Sun coverage, a mastermind of the Iraq war.

Most bright people think the media tends to be right-wing, or that the lefties in the media think Ignatieff is too Tory for them. That’s the interpretation a lot of historians and other academics will come up with when they write about this election.

The truth is different. Ignatieff and the things he says are lost in a fog of disinformation and contempt for a reason that makes sense to anyone who spends time among the Hill elites. Knowing Michael Ignatieff will never be valuable to the social climbers in the media because Ignatieff will never be Prime Minister. He will never invite them to intimate dinners at 24 Sussex or for a swim at Harrington Lake.

Of course, there are members of the media and the political class who don’t care about anything but remaking this country into George Bush’s America. They’ve done a great job throwing out all kinds of bizarre intellectual falsehoods and logical twists that anyone except a die-hard political junkie or constitutional scholar has to struggle against to get near the truth.

These are the people who argue with a straight face that a vote for an opposition candidate could result in Gilles Duceppe becoming prime minister, and who rely on people’s ignorance of the Westminster parliamentary system to argue that a post-election accord by Ignatieff and Jack Layton would be a “coup.”

(At the same time, they build up Layton, knowing that a split Liberal-NDP vote will elect many, many more Tories. Jean Chrétien used the same strategy against the right when he won his three majorities.)

Now, as we enter the late innings, we’re seeing the ugliest of the political system tools. Call centres in the States, hired by persons unknown, are phoning voters in close ridings in the middle of the night and pestering them. The callers try to pass themselves off as local campaign workers for political parties.

And there’s the attempt to shut down student polling places in a blatant attempt to suppress the vote, especially in Guelph, where the local election is still too close to call.

This is far more sophisticated than the work of creeps who trash campaign signs and, in one local riding, drew big gun targets on the face of a candidate. Vote suppression in a country where nearly half the adults in the country did not vote in 2008 is treason, a direct attack on democracy.

With my computer, I was able to get rid of System Tool after hours on the phone with a computer tech in Nashville. I had to wipe my hard drive. That was a radical solution, but only by starting fresh could I be sure the virus was gone.

We can’t get rid of system tools so easily. But we can isolate these viruses, work around them, and save our democracy before they over-write it.