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The Real Blitz that Buried Dion

Grit Leader done in by the media? You read it first in The Tyee.

By Donald Gutstein 28 Oct 2008 |

Donald Gutstein is a senior lecturer in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University.

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Et tu, media?

When Stéphane Dion announced his decision to step down as Liberal leader on Oct. 21, he blamed his dismal showing on a Conservative ad blitz that kicked in as soon as he won the party leadership in late 2006. The advertising onslaught questioned his qualifications for the job, helping "define him with the public and he never recovered," the Globe and Mail reported the next day.

Dion done in by Tory ads became the story of the week in the commercial press, as papers across the country jumped on the bandwagon.

At the Vancouver Sun, Miro Cernetig wrote: "[the Conservatives] spent millions of dollars on ad buys to attack Dion... As a result... Dion was instantly framed in the voters' minds." And L. Ian MacDonald wrote in the Montreal Gazette "there's no doubt that the Conservatives effectively defined Dion as 'not a leader' from the first series of pre-writ television ads at the beginning of 2007."

Some in the media questioned whether the ads alone could make Canadian voters turn their backs on the Liberal leader. "The commercials would not have worked if they didn't seem true to the electorate," offered a National Post analysis. Someone needs to explain to Dion "that attack ads only work if they are grounded, however tenuously, in the truth," a Winnipeg Free Press editorial chimed in.

But nowhere in the discourse was there recognition of a factor even more defining in bringing down Dion -- the reporting and commentary in the news media themselves. Most Canadians have never met Dion. Their knowledge and impressions of him are mediated by the press. And the press, with the Aspers' National Post and Mike Duffy's Countdown on CTV leading the pack, gave Harper and the Conservatives nearly unlimited access to their audiences to disseminate the Conservative message, as The Tyee reported in March 2007.

Media reflected ads they sold

If the commercials seemed true to the electorate, it was because the media were repeating the same message in their news stories and commentaries.

It was the combination of paid (ads) and free (news stories and commentary) messaging that did Dion in. But the role of the media in that endeavour has been pretty well expunged from history.

No sooner was Dion crowned leader than the Conservatives pulled out all the stops to implant a Dion-as-flip-flopper frame in voters' minds, attempting to define Dion for the voters before Dion did it himself.

For this work, they turned to Frank Luntz, then a prominent Republican spin doctor, a master at framing the political debate through his use of language. He's credited with the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 via his bogus Contract with America.

Luntz visited Canada in May 2006 to meet privately with Harper and to address the shadowy Civitas Society, whose members include Harper's then chief-of-staff Ian Brodie, his long-time political mentor Tom Flanagan, and Environment Minister John Baird. Montreal Gazette reporter Elizabeth Thompson heard Luntz tell the 200 libertarians and neoconservatives that voters want someone who is credible and they can trust more than someone who shares their ideas. "More than anything else, they want to know you are a straight shooter," he added.

Pulling from the Bush's 'flip-flop' playbook

Luntz assisted George W. Bush eke out his narrow victory over John Kerry in 2004 with similar messaging. Google "John Kerry" and "flip flop" and you'll still get 250,000 hits four years later. In 2004, you would even have found a brand of footwear called the John Kerry flip-flops, which were perfect to wear to the beach. That's where you'd find Kerry -- or on the ski slopes -- while his rival was busy in Washington looking after the nation's business.

Bush, the straight-shooter; Kerry the effete flip-flopper.

After Bush featured Kerry's flip-flopping as a central theme in his 2004 convention acceptance speech, Luntz asked swing voters in Ohio to give him one word to describe Kerry. The top answer was "flip-flop." The message got through, and Luntz must have been satisfied. Bush won Ohio and Ohio gave Bush the presidency. Of course, we must remember that the state Republican administration ensured that 357,000 Ohio voters, the overwhelming majority of them Democrats, were prevented from voting or did not have their ballots counted.

Harper can't rely on such shenanigans to get him elected in Canada, so the Dion-as-flip-flopper frame had to do some heavy lifting for the Tories. And thanks to an obliging media, it worked here, too.

Harper kicked off the flip-flop campaign in the House of Commons during the debate over the extension of sunset provisions in the Anti-terrorism Act regarding preventive arrests and investigative hearings. The Liberals had enacted the law in 2001 and Liberals were voting against an extension. This was a flip-flop of colossal proportions, they charged. The accusations of Liberal flip-floppery were relentless, occurring 33 times over the next three weeks. Most were about the Anti-terrorism Act, but accusations of flip-flopping spread to Liberal policies on Kyoto and sending troops to Afghanistan. Harper himself used the term five times.

By the time Parliament recessed, the campaign had taken full flight in the media and on the Internet. Dion the flip-flopper was placed prominently on the Conservative Party's home page. Under a banner showing Harper "getting things done for all of us," was mounted the bodiless head of Dion on a blood-red background, interlaced with the words flip flop flip… The title read "Dion's terror flip flop exposes weak leadership."

CTV steps up the message

One vehicle for disseminating the flip-flop message was the nightly Mike Duffy Countdown segment on CTV, where the Conservative frame was provided a friendly welcome. Anti-Dion ads played during the commercial breaks were reinforced by Duffy's guests.

Government Whip Jay Hill led off by slamming "the flip-flop on Afghanistan, or the flip-flop now of the anti-terrorism act ..." Next, Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day skewered Dion's flip-flop on the anti-terrorism law and its implications for the Air India investigation. Jay Hill was back several days later, as the vote on the anti-terrorism law extension neared. Harper appeared the same evening, repeating the phrase "abruptly flip-flopped" he used twice in Parliament. Apparently abrupt flip-flopping is worse than gradual flip-flopping.

Conservative strategist Roxanna Benoit couldn't understand why Dion needed to flip-flop, parliamentary secretary Pierre Poilievre hoped Dion would flip-flop once again on the environment and backbencher Garry Breitkreuz accused Dion of being like a fish out of water, going flip, flop, flip, flop, repeating the phrase for the benefit of slow learners in the audience.

Harper has changed his mind more than a few times. Think of his about-faces on Kyoto and taxing investment trusts. But few in the media called him on it. And while Dion's flip-flops demonstrated weakness, Harper's were a sign of strength, at least according to National Post columnist Don Martin. After slagging Dion for most of his column, Martin then writes, "to be fair, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been known to change his mind. Just ask income trust investors." Harper the straight-shooter changes his mind. Dion never changes his mind, just flip-flops.

National Post played role of Fox

Aping the role of Fox News as the main cheerleader for the Bush administration, the Asper family's right-wing bully pulpit, the National Post, led and broadened the campaign against Dion. One editorial attacked Bill C-257, which would outlaw replacement workers in strikes against employers in federally regulated industries. Liberal support for this bill, the Post hectored, "would mark another colossal flip flop of the kind the former governing party has become famous for since Stéphane Dion took over as leader last December."

A week later, in a piece headlined "Liberals go from Dithers to Flipper," Post columnist Don Martin weighed in with the assessment that Dion had a "lousy week." Why? "Not once or twice, but three times in four days we saw Mr. Dion flip-flop on positions he'd taken during the leadership race or his party had supported last fall." The column was apparently considered vital reading for all Canadians, since it was reprinted in the Montreal Gazette, Vancouver Sun and Ottawa Citizen.

And a few days after that, another Post editorial reminded readers of the "already long list of Liberal flip-flops, which includes … Afghanistan, the Anti-Terrorism Act, Bill C-257... the rehabilitation of Adscam bagmen... and a carbon tax on fossil fuel consumption." Whew! A week later, a Post editorial mused that Dion's "new policy stance on law-and-order issues" incorporated a flip flop.

In case you didn't get it...

Fast forward a year and the Post was still at it. Dion's flip flop on a carbon tax "could not come at a better time for the Conservatives," a May 2008 editorial surmised. That sentiment was mirrored two weeks later by a Don Martin column decrying "Dion's flip flop on the carbon tax."

In case Canadians still didn't get it, the Aspers' Calgary paper helpfully provided two more editorials, the second published after the election was called, with the headlines "Dion's carbon tax flip flop," and "Dion's deficit flip flop."

So it was more than a bit hypocritical when the Post's Kelly McParland wrote in the paper's blog after Dion announced he would step down, that Dion lost, not because of the ads, but because "the ads confirmed what Canadians already thought:" that Dion's "judgement and leadership skills were suspect."

Hmmm. Wonder how that happened.

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