“Dion shoots… he scores! Stephane Dion scores to steal the Liberal leadership in overtime!”
The federal Liberal leadership was decided over the past weekend and though no one was there to put words to the actions in an Ed Whalen-esque fashion, the event certainly felt more like a heated game seven Stanley Cup final than any sort of political gathering.
In a way, politics has become a lot more like sports in recent years. Though media has always tried to make waves by picking front runners, likely-winners, and sure-shot champions in elections of all types, it has rarely felt like there was more importance placed on the actual picking of the valiant victor than the running of the election itself. Amusingly enough in the latest two elections to experience fall-out–the federal Liberal and the provincial Progressive Conservative leadership races–both victors were “underdogs,” stealing the spotlight from media-favoured leaders. Ed Stelmach yanked the position from Jim Dinning, and Stephane Dion did the same from Michael Ignatieff. Maybe we should start talking about editorial board curses rather than Madden football cover or Sports Illustrated champion ones.
Unfortunately though, the endorsements are inevitable because people don’t want to read wishy-washy comparisons of all the candidates that come to no solid conclusion. Ultimately, the papers want to write things that will get picked up, and choosing Ignatieff to win the Liberal leadership race will get read. People who want Ignatieff at the Liberal helm will read and nod along approvingly, while detractors will read the same sentences and shake their head. Strong opinion draws interest from both sides of any argument.
In a way, making the predictions frames the eventual story that comes out of the whole process. Looking at the headlines the day after Dion was chosen, the word “underdog” was everywhere. Ultimately, it is far more interesting for everyone to read and it makes a better story when the journalists can write “Underdog Dion takes the leadership from front runner Ignatieff,” than “Dion, who was deemed slightly worse than Ignatieff, wins the position.”
Obviously sporting outlets attempt to draw pictures covering seasons in the same manner. Last year the Calgary Flames were picked to win the Stanley Cup by Sports Illustrated–among others–and when they lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, it added one more statement to the sportscasters’ arsenal. Not only could they label it as an upset that the Ducks beat a third-ranked team, but also because this team was supposedly going to win it all.
Ignoring all the prognosticating dailies, even the television coverage tries to build drama and intrigue out of an event usually lacking those qualities. Candidates were knocked out in early rounds, and then dramatically crossed the floor with cameras in tow as they picked their way through the crowd to throw their support behind a still-standing foe. Hugs were exchanged, maybe a few tears, not unlike the long lines of players shaking hands at the end of a hard-fought playoff series.
Storylines thread their way through the event. The ABI (anyone but Ignatieff) opinion of most delegates, and the wooing of former hockey-star Ken Dryden’s delegates through unnecessary praise both gave people a reason to watch to see how they’d conclude. These are easily compared to the kind of storylines that are driven into our skulls throughout the post-season, like during the Detroit Red Wings 2002 cup run. Wings captain Steve Yzerman was basically playing on one leg, and it’d be hard to forget even if you were blind. The announcers made sure you knew every time he lined up for a faceoff.
Storylines are what make people interested in events, and pushing them to the forefront can increase the connection between media and its audience, even if the event is a political race and not a series tied 3-3 going into game seven.
If you had a vested interest–and most people do because this may be the next prime minister–the Liberal leadership race was compelling viewing. Election night has become a pretty productive cow for the networks to milk every two years in the States, or every year for Canadian minority governments. For ABC’s political coverage of the U.S. midterm elections, they averaged 9.67 million viewers, far eclipsing audiences for nationally broadcast NHL games in the U.S. The more the stations make political intrigue interesting, the more that number will grow and the more advertising revenue for these type of events will grow.
In the end, even if supposedly serious Liberal leadership races become Liberal-to-Liberal love-ins with two-arm-squeeze endorsements like two sweaty, jerseyed warriors celebrating an overtime goal, it doesn’t really matter how the event is presented, as long as people watch it. The Liberal leadership campaign, whether or not people were paying attention, will be an important political event that will help shape the next decade of Canadian politics. And if in order to get the experience, weight and relevance across to people, eggs need to be counted before they crack, champions crowned before the season ends and heroic storylines constructed, then so be it.