The story behind the story
Update: We are grateful to report that the Toronto Star published our op-ed today (online version)!
How did a two-year-old ARPA article that barely made a ripple when we wrote it become headlines in the Toronto Star, CBC, Global Toronto, Hamilton Spectator, Ottawa CTV, National Post, Yahoo News, Sudbury Star, Wellington Post, LifeSiteNews.com and many more media outlets and blogs this week? [Read an example of the coverage here.] The following op-ed, which we submitted to the Toronto Star and National Post yesterday, gives the story behind the story:
“Gotcha” Politics and the Breakdown of Public Discourse
Mark Penninga – ARPA Canada – July 21, 2011: Over the past few days Progressive Conservative Party leader Tim Hudak has had to reply to accusations of a hidden abortion agenda. Dozens of papers and blogs featured the apparent controversy. But what sparked all of this? The story is worth telling because it leads to some much-needed introspection by Canadians about our use of media and technology, its dumbing down impact on public discourse, and the hope of being able to have meaningful societal conversations about sensitive topics like abortion.
Last week, a blogger happened to come across an article I wrote two years ago for the Association for Reformed Political Action (ARPA) Canada, a small Christian non-profit and non-partisan organization. That article profiled the leadership contenders for the Progressive Conservative Party on Ontario. I gleaned information from where it was available and focussed on a few social issues, including abortion, because they aren’t typically covered by the mainstream media, at least without the usual rhetoric.
It was what the article said about Tim Hudak that sparked the firestorm of media attention this week. In answer to a letter, someone from Hudak’s campaign informed one of our readers that Hudak is pro-life and had signed a petition about abortion funding. I thought that was worth noting, given our audience. But it sure wasn’t extraordinary. The article had similar comments about each of the candidates.
Two years later, a blogger happened to do some Googling, came across this article, and thought it was worthy of a post given that Hudak is now running for Premier. That in turn was picked up by Liberal spin-doctor Warren Kinsella whose job is to turn soil and water into mud. That is all understandable, given the internet age and the current election campaign. What is baffling is that a day or two later, the story filled headlines in over a dozen newspapers across Ontario. Hudak had to answer reporters about his views on abortion and McGuinty was adding his challenges not long after.
In and of itself, there is absolutely no good reason why a two-year-old article from an organization that nobody has heard of should spark this kind of attention. So why did Ontarians have to read all about it? The answer is indicative of a much bigger problem with public discourse in Canada. We have sacrificed meaningful discussion of genuine policy issues on the altar of sensationalist “gotcha” politics. Old-fashioned reporting has been thrown out of the window and sensitive topics like abortion have been trampled over in an effort to pump out a new headline or tweet every ten minutes.
The Canadian Press published this story without even verifying any of the content by contacting ARPA Canada. In fact, through the whole ordeal, only one newspaper (the Toronto Star) bothered to call or email us to verify anything. After all, the facts tend to get in the way of a juicy story. As a result, many of the articles were inaccurate. The media trusted a blogger with a chip on his/her shoulder, who relied on Google, which found an old article on our site, which most of the press didn’t even verify. Is that going to be the basis for our public debate? The media gets away with it because the focus of the article is abortion, a topic deemed too sensitive for politicians to risk their career over.
It is precisely this type of “gotcha” politics which is ruining Canada’s ability to having a meaningful discussion about topics that really need our attention but require maturity and grace to understand. When it comes to abortion, do we ever stop and think about how ridiculous it is that Canada is the only country in the entire Western world that has absolutely no abortion legislation? Regardless of where one stands on the issue, there is no doubt that abortion affects hundreds of thousands of lives every year in Canada. It is, by that fact alone, necessarily a public policy issue. Yes, it has significant moral implications. But governance is necessarily tied to morality. Instead of poisoning the debate, the media can do much to advance healthy public discourse simply by honest reporting with a goal of seeking truth rather than encouraging these cheap political games.