Truth squads: U.S. vs. Canada

Jeffrey Dvorkin

The CBC’s Rick Mercer said it best: “…the stakes are a little higher in America. Whoever wins the presidential election inherits the launch codes to the nuclear bomb, whereas whoever wins ours inherits the keys to a drafty home on the Ottawa River.”

There are other important differences in the coverage too. We are seeing a new form of political reporting that will influence American journalism for a long time to come. It’s a viral and very effective form of online “truth-squad-ing.” Canadian journalism may eventually adopt some, if not all of these patterns, but not to the same extent as the Americans.

This year’s election in the US is seeing the rise of the full-throated bloggers, on both the left and the right.  Their emergence comes at a time when American journalism is even more a captive of the 24 hours news cycle, the fragmentation of market share and the flight of traditional news audiences away from broadcasters and newspapers whose influence continues to decline.

As a result, in the 2008 election, the blogosphere has emerged in the US as the main resource for “truth squad-ing” the candidates. Their impact can be seen every time another myth about the candidates emerges, and takes a campaign off-message for one or more news cycles. This is happening almost daily and it one of the reasons that Obama in particular, has been having trouble sustaining momentum.

Among the most influential of the left bloggers is Media Matters for America. It tracks the journalistic errors, gaffes, misstatements and outright distortions in the campaign. While it is mostly focused on what conservatives are saying, it doesn’t spare Obama either.

American conservatives also have their online truth squads. But most of their efforts are confined to AM talk radio, leaving the impression that, in the US at least, radio is for core conservatives and the Internet is for liberals and progressives.

The blogosphere’s effect on political coverage in this U.S. election has been nothing short of startling. Mainstream media outlets are devoting a good chunk of their dwindling resources to keeping an eye on the blogs and noting when the campaigns are changing their tactics and strategies based on Internet pressures.

Newsrooms are also on the receiving end of those pressures, whether from the liberal bloggers or right-wing talk radio hosts. Editors and ombudsmen are spending more time than ever responding to allegations of bias and partisanship. Even when the allegations are unfounded, precious time has been spent checking out the accusations, mollifying the complainants and ensuring the same mistakes don’t happen again. In my experience as National Public Radio’s (NPR) ombudsman, much time was spent chasing down baseless allegations from talk radio and bloggers about what was alleged to have aired on NPR. In most cases, the allegations were simply a method of rallying the troops against NPR’s liberal bias or it’s shift to the right…depending on the source. It was annoying but it did spare producers and managers from a thankless task.

Thus, ombudsmen and others find themselves increasingly reliant on the online and on-air truth squads to cut through the fog of accusations.

The result? Media Matters for America has become an indispensable, if occasionally annoying, reminder of the fallibility of political editors and campaign managers.

For example: In a recent posting, MMA noted that Fox News had reported that more oil seeps out of the California seabed than is ever spilled in drilling accidents (not true according to the Santa Barbara County board which monitors these things), the Detroit News reported that Obama would raise taxes (not true – Obama says his administration will lower taxes for middle and low income families), G. Gordon Liddy stated on his radio show that Obama doesn’t have a Hawaii birth certificate (not true says MMA, but the Obama campaign won’t release it), the former Clinton advisor turned right winger Dick Morris stated on Fox that Hilary Clinton became “emotional” in New Hampshire because she was complaining about sexism (not true. She was talking about why she was running for president).

MMA has another six examples. And that’s just for one day – Tuesday, September 16th!

A brief search of Canadian websites shows that both conservatives and the liberal/left are just as active in cyberspace as their American counterparts. But mainstream media in Canada pays less attention to them. This has the effect of giving the American blogosphere more influence in the coverage and the campaign than ever before.

While Canadian bloggers don’t seem to have the same degree of influence, the official parties are active in posting blogs and videos online and on YouTube. The recent much-ado-about-not-very-much, aka, “Puffingate” was an example. Canadian news organizations still pay closer attention to what the parties do than to what the bloggers say. This may be a missed opportunity.
Another difference in the political blogging cultures may be due to the fact that American mainstream journalism has some fences to mend.  After its abysmal performance in covering the Bush Administration and the drive to war after 9/11, U.S. news organizations are defensive about their performance in this election cycle.

Among the many mea culpas expressed by American media managers is the admission that it was swept up in the patriotic climate during George W. Bush’s first administration. Whatever opposition there was to the Bush policies (there was some – and not only in the usual Congressional places), it was covered either half-heartedly, or hardly at all in the swirl of patriotic intensity — a swirl that continued until Hurricane Katrina revealed a level of cronyism and incompetence that has dogged the Bush Administration ever since.

The diminished numbers of journalists in American news organizations may be another factor in the newfound influence of the blogosphere. Bloggers have now become good sources of information for newsrooms that are unable to cover the election details as effectively as they once did. The bodies just aren’t there anymore.

In Canada, the same sense of urgency just isn’t evident, compared with what is at stake in the US. And that is reflected in the influence of the blogosphere in the respective campaigns.

Jeffrey Dvorkin’s career  in broadcasting includes
many years at the CBC, where he was managing editor of radio news among
other positions, and at National Public Radio, where he was
vice-president of news and information, and later ombudsman. He also
served as executive director of the Committee of Concerned Journalists.
He is currently
the Rogers Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at Ryerson University.