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Harper's Secret Plot to Fan Pundit Paranoia

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In seeking to fill this humble column space week after week (a space, incidentally, which has recently been christened with the sexy new name "Media Bites" and an equally sexy title card), one of my main goals has been raising awareness of trite media narratives, and the degree to which the modern Canadian news establishment -- particularly the pundit class -- relies on them at the expense of actual reporting and analysis.

A narrative, in this sense, is exactly what it sounds like: a catchy little story. "President Obama faces tough battle for reelection," is a narrative, for example. So is "Greek budget woes threaten European economy," or, "University grads face uncertain job market."

Just as the narrative of a novel provides the structural framework for explaining why Bella can't sleep with Edward or why Katniss wants to beat the jerks from District Four, so too does a journalistic narrative attempt to sync a disparate cast of characters, settings and conflicts into a single coherent plot.

When done right, a strong narrative not only provides order and purpose to a story, it makes the news fun and easy to read. When done wrong, however, it's only fun and easy for the guy plunking the keyboard on the other end.

I'm sure there are those who imagine the life of a journalist to be an endless romp of glamour and excitement, but for many of the hapless folks who actually toil in the field, writing clever things about politicians is simply work -- and the biggest thrill comes at quittin' time. The temptation to breeze through fact-finding and simply churn out an editorial forged from vague hunches and shopworn cliches is always strong, because hey, Grey's Anatomy is on tonight and no one wants to get stuck in traffic.

It's this sort of drab, institutional laziness that forms the worst sort of bias corrupting the Canadian press, notwithstanding the wild ideological media conspiracy theories -- which are so much more fun to write and read -- that hog all the column space. (See where I'm going with this?)

Hey, stop me if you're heard this one before.

Quietly, Stephen Harper is working to "re-brand" Canada. His government is emphasizing the military, the monarchy and select episodes of Canadian history in order to create a competing brand of right-wing Canadian nationalism and divert attention from the great symbols of Liberal patriotism, like medicare and Lester Pearson. This Noted Expert agrees, "Yes, this is a thing that is happening."

Various species of this story pop up in the Canadian press every once in a while, and in the lead-up to the first-year anniversary of Harper's big majority government win, they've been sprouting like mushrooms. Last week Jon Ibbitson and Erin Anderssen in the Globe even made this cute little slideshow documenting "How Stephen Harper is Remaking the Canadian Myth."

Though portrayed as the result of independent research and rational analysis, these generalization-heavy attempts at Harper-trendspotting vividly illustrate the perils of the narrative straightjacket in its most smotheringly obnoxious form.

The template is standard. We're told that in Stephen Harper's New Canada™ (now with more Conservatism!), things like royal visits and medals have become amazingly commonplace, the military has enjoyed "increased emphasis," we pay more attention to Conservative history, and we've become more cutthroat and competitive on the sporting stage. Yet when it's time to trot out the supporting anecdotes, the reader is invariably confronted with the awkward tone of a thesis whose prewritten conclusion is in open war with uncooperative facts.

The Ibbitson-Anderssen subsection on sports, for instance, prattles on about how "Conservative Canada doesn't just ask you to give it your sporting best. At the Olympics, we're in it to win it," yet they can only name one supposed Tory program -- "Own the Podium" (which was actually established during the Paul Martin years)  -- as evidence. Read any article about the monarchy's moden-day revival, likewise, and I guarantee you won't hear much mention of the six royal visits that occurred during the Chretien Administration or the dozens of Golden Jubilee medals handed out by Sheila Copps.

Talk of a militaristic Harperite renaissance will studiously omit the fact that Harper has actually kept defence spending as a percentage of GDP unspectacularly stable and even poised to decline, or the fact that the War of 1812, which his government is alleged to be unprecedentedly keen to commemorate for ideological reasons, has long been more closely associated with anti-American chauvinism of the David Orchard variety than any values of 21st-century Conservatism. And the less said about this guy's weird Rorschachian reading of the Winnipeg Jets logo, the better.

In all cases, the common motive spawning such journalistic sloppiness is a desire to create an insightful narrative ("Harper as reactionary visionary") without the hassle of providing any actual insight.

Now, does the current prime minister's vision of Canadian patriotism differ from that of his Liberal predecessors? Perhaps, but it's hardly reflected by his government's largely status quo relationship with war, royalty and sport. Only by strenuously searching for specious subtext in a handful of trivial, unrelated, and often brazenly false factoids are we able to be taken somewhere else, on a trip that exists mostly for its own sake.

The pundit class is not necessarily out to "get" the PM, but after six years in office, they're still not in any great hurry to understand him.

As usual, the real story is mostly about themselves.