As national polls continue to track the growing popularity of Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada, which now rates well ahead of the Green Party, the search for a cause is underway. Federal Conservatives have tried to pin it to Justin Trudeau and his willingness to speak out against anti-vaccine protesters, while Liberals are more than happy to point out Bernier’s long-standing ties to the Conservative Party of Canada. But as a disastrously tone-deaf column from The Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson showed, we shouldn’t overlook the role the mainstream media is playing in the PPC’s troubling rise.
In a piece arguing the PPC “deserves” representation in Ottawa, Ibbitson traded in an argument that sounds like it was drawn straight from the 2016 coverage of the American election. “There are plenty of reasons why so many people have become resentful and untrusting: the loss of manufacturing jobs due to offshoring; the increasing number of non-European immigrants; the stress of the pandemic; the self-empowerment that comes with rejecting authority,” he wrote.
Yes, you read that right — “non-European immigrants” are apparently to blame for the paranoid tirades and xenophobic nationalism that tends to characterize large gatherings of PPC supporters. It was so odious that The Globe and Mail was forced to add an “editor’s note” explaining that this sort of racism is, indeed, a bad thing.
But that wasn’t the only questionable paragraph in Ibbitson’s column. In the first version posted online, he concluded that “if their voice is silenced — if PPC members fail to break through in Parliament, just as Mr. Bernier was unfairly denied representation in the leaders’ debate last week — they will find another way to be heard. And you may not like their methods.”
That last sentence was magically excised from both the print and updated online version, although apparently, it didn’t merit its own editor’s note. But let’s be clear: Bernier’s exclusion from the federal leaders’ debates was a reflection of the rules the debate commission set, not any sort of “unfairness.” His party deserves the representation it wins on Sept. 20 — no less, and certainly no more.
If this sort of sympathetic coverage seems familiar, that’s because it should. It’s precisely the same kind that helped normalize and mainstream Donald Trump’s candidacy and ideas. As Wired’s Miranda Katz wrote in 2018, “The very act of exposure, combined with stories that unwittingly framed extremism as a victimless novelty, legitimized and empowered an otherwise fringe perspective.”
In a May 2018 report called “The Oxygen of Amplification,” digital media scholar Whitney Phillips mapped the various ways in which mainstream media organizations unwittingly did the work of far-right radicals in the United States, and laid out some strategies for how to avoid it in the future.
“The takeaway for establishment journalists is stark,” she wrote, “and starkly distressing: just by showing up for work and doing their jobs as assigned, journalists covering the far-right fringe ... played directly into these groups’ public relations interests. In the process, this coverage added not just oxygen, but rocket fuel to an already-smoldering fire.”
Whether he meant to or not, Ibbitson dumped a bunch of The Globe and Mail’s high-powered fuel onto that populist fire.
It’s not the first time his publication has made this sort of mistake, either. In 2019, it gave column inches to Ezra Levant, the proprietor of Rebel News and enthusiastic supporter of Trump and his movement — a decision that apparently came straight from editor-in-chief David Walmsley. Levant was understandably delighted by the public relations coup he’d pulled off. “I’m grateful to them for giving me the platform,” he wrote, “because while The Rebel has a massive audience of ‘severely normal’ Canadians, The Globe and Mail is the newspaper of record for the Canadian establishment.”
At some point, you’d think an organization as well-resourced as The Globe and Mail would figure this out. It does not lack for smart people who can read the proverbial room and see why publishing this kind of commentary looks an awful lot like what papers like the New York Times did with Trump and the MAGA movement. In bending over backwards to understand or accommodate Trump’s far-right supporters, they ended up mainstreaming their concerns and ideas, which included things like bigotry towards immigrants and threats of violent reprisal. The world saw how that all played out on Jan. 6.
Opinion: Telling the truth about the People’s Party of Canada and the frustrations that apparently motivate its voters is important. But they must be told in a way that doesn’t help advance their cause, writes columnist @maxfawcett. #elxn44 #cdnpoli
If we want to avoid a repeat here in Canada, we need our mainstream media organizations to do much, much better than this. They must learn from what happened in the United States and Trumpism, and avoid falling into the same traps their counterparts laid for themselves. Telling the truth about the People’s Party of Canada and the frustrations that apparently motivate its voters is important. But they must be told in a way that doesn’t help advance their cause.