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Elizabeth May's War of Words

The Tyee was first to try to get to the bottom of her 'stupid' remarks. The blogosphere erupted.

By Geoff Dembicki 16 Sep 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Geoff Dembicki is a staff reporter for The Tyee and blogs regularly on The Hook.

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May: 'Swear on a stack of bibles.'

For a couple of days it seemed the political fate of Green Party Leader Elizabeth May hung by a few words contested in cyberspace.

Had she really called Canadians "stupid" during a televised political debate on TVO's The Agenda last year?

And if not, why was a news website closely read by politicos now running big headlines saying she did?

Had it been faked? A plot emanating from Conservative party headquarters as May's lieutenant claimed, threatening a law suit?

Or was May simply done in by a viral campaigner working with an authentic, if somewhat garbled, bit of incriminating audio?

Last Friday, vowing to "swear on a stack of bibles," May appeared again on The Agenda to try and put the issue to rest. And all of Canada got another taste of political warfare 2.0.

Speaking to interviewer Steve Paiken, May blamed a faulty microphone and her fast style of talking for what has been widely interpreted by bloggers across the country as a condescending slight on the voting public.

There is no doubt her comment was an important response to an issue that has the potential to put a dampener on the Greens' historic inclusion in next month's televised leaders' debates.

But the fact that May even had to defend herself at all is also important, for it is a testament to the power of blog-driven politics during an election campaign.

From right to left, across the blogosphere

The Green leader's controversial remarks first came to light when Stephen Taylor, a well known right-wing pundit, posted audio from a 2007 episode of The Agenda on YouTube, overlaying it with images of May and Stephane Dion. Taylor then linked the video his blog.

In the clip, May sounds like she is putting down the intelligence of the average Canadian.

Left-leaning Canadian blogger Leftdog stumbled onto the post later that day during a routine query on Google's blog search engine and decided to include the link on his own site, Buckdog.

Within hours, the item appeared on Bourque.com -- a popular news aggregator read by political insiders and media pundits -- where it was given huge play on the site's front page.

A large-font headline that linked to Buckdog stated the allegations against May as fact: the Green leader had called Canadians stupid. (E-mails sent to the site inquiring about how it found the blog and whether it verifies the accuracy of its online content have not been met with a response.)

What had started as a brief remark by May during a virtually forgotten episode of The Agenda now looked poised to break into a national story.

And that's exactly what happened.

The Tyee seeks facts, flames erupt

On Sept. 11, after viewing the clip via the link on Bourque.com, The Tyee phoned the Greens' national headquarters to elicit May's side of the story and was informed by spokesperson John Bennett that the video was a deliberate act of campaign sabotage orchestrated by Conservative Party insiders. We broke that news shortly after on The Tyee's politics blog, The Hook.

As a result of the call, Bennett wrote a threatening e-mail to Leftdog, in which he promised legal action if the YouTube link was not removed immediately.

The blogger posted that correspondence online and Canada's political blogosphere went crazy. Across the country, online commentators from the National Post's Kevin Libin to Kady O'Malley from Maclean's weighed in the controversy. And we at The Tyee posted our own follow-up, trying to decipher the riddles.

Were the Greens justified in threatening legal action? What pronoun -- "I" or "They" -- did May use in her remarks? And most importantly, did she actually call Canadians stupid?

In the 2007 footage, some bloggers -- including Agenda producer Alan Echenberg and Taylor himself -- argued that May clearly said "they think Canadians are stupid," while making reference to politicians who fear voter reprisals for carbon taxes.

'Agree' or 'disagree'?

Not so clear, however, is the intent behind May's follow-up statement: "I fundamentally agree with that assessment."

During her Friday appearance on The Agenda, May told Paikin that what she actually said was "Disagree."

"But I thought I heard you say 'I fundamentally agree...," he replied.

Back-pedalling slightly, the Green leader blamed her fast style of talking and then shifted gears to a technical explanation. She stated that when she started to speak, she was not being miked properly. And when the levels were adjusted, the mike raised the volume on her voice just as she responded -- mid sentence it would seem -- to a statement made by another panellist.

May also claimed if she'd actually called Canadians stupid, the audience would have responded in kind, a response that does not appear in the footage.

"I swear on a stack of bibles," she told Paikin.

(The Green leader also downplayed any legal controversy by pointing out that Bennett had made an official apology for his threatening e-mail, adding that the spokesperson would be not dismissed for his actions.)

Who won?

Was May's explanation enough to satisfy the voting public? To answer the question, The Tyee conducted an informal online survey to see what Canada's bloggers had to say on the issue.

Like the Green leader's alleged comments, the impact of May's Friday Agenda appearance has been ambiguous.

On the right-wing Western Standard's blog, a recent post by P.M. Jaworski expressed a reluctant acceptance of May's defence. Elsewhere on the web, prolific blogger Paul McKeever picked apart May's explanation clause by clause and attacked what he perceived as her elitist arrogance towards ordinary Canadians.

Whether a strong verdict for either position ever becomes clear is hard to say. But according to Taylor in a recent CBC interview, a strong message has emerged from the controversy:

"It almost seems to be the first lesson of doing damage control on a viral campaign is that you just don't feed it -- and that's exactly what the Green party did by threatening legal action against (Buckdog)."

His statement demands a corollary: in today's online media landscape, blog-driven politics matter.

Related Tyee stories:

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