The latest Senate committee to investigate the media has set an ambitious goal: to study “the appropriate role of public policy in helping to ensure that the news media remain healthy, independent, and diverse.” I am not sure what launched the committee’s probe, but I did notice that the evening I was invited to testify fell on the anniversary of a startling statement by CanWest Global ceo Leonard Asper. In November 2003, speaking to the Economic Club of Toronto on the subject of a free press, Asper had said: “All of this is about gaining market share . . . we want to own and create content that is pre-purposed [sic] and designed for multiple revenue streams.” While the neologism “pre-purposed” renders this statement cryptic, I suggested the following interpretation to the Senate committee: current-affairs content that is both alive and fully researched is difficult to achieve and expensive. So much the better, then, if it is prepared in advance (i.e., “pre-purposed”) and used simultaneously in newspapers, and on radio, television, and the Internet (i.e., “multiple revenue streams”).
For the news media to be “healthy, independent, and diverse,” they must spend, and spend big, on content; and, a China wall must be erected between editorial and advertising. After debating the dangers of “vertical integration” and related topics, I was told that these hearings might be conducted across Canada. Good news.
As I soon discovered, the senators were not the only civil servants working late to advance the interests of the state. Returning to the hotel, I boarded the elevator, and was joined by ten to twelve men and women, all carrying either notepads or briefcases, and most of them talking rather boisterously. By the accents, it was clear that I was surrounded by Americans.
Being nosy, and still a bit energized by my debate with senators Joan Fraser and Trevor Eyton, I asked the man pressed in beside me, “What are you folks in Ottawa for?”
“Actually, I live here, and work for the Canadian government. We’re preparing for President Bush’s visit with Prime Minister Martin,” he said.
“Already?” I asked incredulously. (It was still weeks before Bush’s two-day visit to Halifax and Ottawa.)
“Oh yes, there are many issues to resolve, and I’m helping them prepare,” explained the man. “The Americans do their homework.”
That was it. The elevator stopped on the eleventh floor, and the group filed out with my chatty new friend saying, “Another meeting. See ya.”
Away from the main event, this is the politics of prepared spontaneity, of orchestrating events for maximum impact. How well did our Bush and Martin advance teams do their homework?
On the night before the president’s arrival, the cbc—not without a sense of humour or timing—announced the “Greatest Canadian” ever. While Tommy Douglas was a Bible-thumper in his own right, and from farm country, the Prairie socialist and father of Canadian- style health care certainly interpreted the Big Book rather differently than the other major news item that night—Mr. Bush. The next day, Canadian icon Pierre Berton died, causing many to wonder if the president’s mere presence on Canadian soil drove the “last spike” into the old man. From the start, the Bush-Martin mini-summit was competing for headlines.
“Damn Canadians,” I can imagine the president’s elevator advance team saying. “Maybe Bush should have addressed a joint session of parliament.”
As arch-conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer pointed out at the time of Bush’s stopover, the president is in a hurry, and “if that scares . . . those around the world who were desperately hoping for his replacement and repudiation—it should.” Indeed, with the heartless Dick Cheney by-passing his own run for the White House, Bush will be denied a de facto third term, making him a “lame duck” by 2007. This means that every moment must produce high voltage. Denied the top headlines twice, Bush went for broke.
In Halifax, urging Canada to support the US-led war against terrorism, the president quoted from a speech given by William Lyon Mackenzie King during World War II: “We must also go out and meet the enemy before he reaches our shores. We must defeat him before he attacks us, before our cities are laid to waste.” Bush then added, “Mackenzie King was correct then, and we must always remember the wisdom of his words today.”
Man, have you no shame? wwii was a righteous war—Hitler had turned all of Germany into a weapon of mass destruction, the Nazis were rounding up Jews and gypsies, and invading everywhere—and you guys were two years late to the scene!
Krauthammer is right: this is “no accidental presidency.” It is, however, a presidency prone to accidents. And with Bush believing in the coming apocalypse, the end of the world may hit in 2007. I don’t know about pre-purposing, but that is something worth preparing for.