OTTAWA—Traditional media needs to get its act together for the upcoming election. This has never been more apparent than last week, when Canadians found themselves enamoured with Netflix’s breakout political show Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, and its report on Canada, complete with an interview with the prime minister.
Patriot Act is a half-hour political comedy show on Netflix and YouTube, and is hosted by Hasan Minhaj, known for his previous work on The Daily Show. Within half an hour, the cohesive investigative reporting done by Minhaj outmuscled the stalwarts of Canadian journalism. In this episode, entitled The Two Sides of Canada, Minhaj adequately skewers Trudeau for the hypocrisy that his government has displayed, particularly on the environment. Minhaj was able to establish the context and tie together interlocking details from an intersectional lens rarely seen in Canadian media. To top it off, it was done with clever humour: no dunking on marginalized groups, and no lazy, worn-out tropes. Sure, he fell back on common tropes Americans have of Canada, but despite that, Minhaj was able to connect the dots on complex issues like SNC-Lavalin, the Trans Mountain pipeline, and reconciliation with precision and clarity.
Minhaj, who, frankly, at this time has no Canadian equivalent, was granted access to the prime minister because he had a large audience and platform to offer. And he didn’t use the opportunity to grovel and thank Trudeau for his charity in making himself available. He didn’t have to rely on the usual five-minute scrums to grill the prime minister. He went all in and asked the tough questions. Not to mention it was pure entertainment to see Trudeau revealed as inarticulate, defensive, and, at some points, bordering on agitated when faced with his own words.
Meanwhile, the Canadian press has fallen into grudge-match journalism of who is ahead, rather than asking the tough questions to elected representatives. Instead, they have written every which way around the issues including, fiscal matters, federal-provincial relations, and who will get more support in the election given their position on the environment and climate change. Maclean’s even went as far as trolling anyone having one iota of concern for climate change by putting five powerful white men on the cover of their magazine and calling them “The Resistance.”
The only resistance is the one that challenges power.
This isn’t an abstract debate about the virtues of media. This election is different. The media landscape is the worst it’s ever been for accurate and comprehensive reporting. There are fewer news outlets and more dubious sources.
Most days the sharpest and most astute observations on Canadian politics come from The Beaverton’s headlines. They probably reach a wider, younger, and more diverse audience than most newspapers. In other instances, we have learned more about Canadian politics from unknown citizens’ iPhone video footage, or from Twitter threads, than we do from actual reporting of the campaign gatherings, fundraisers, and partisan events (see: all the times brave protestors challenged Trudeau on his record).
When these events are discussed in more detail, column ink is spilled over the audacity of a protestor to interrupt the prime minister, and the tone of his response, rather than on the substance of the issue. When traditional media tries their hand at something new, say, for example, podcasts, they bring out their usual anchors to host them, and use the same methods of promoting this content as they do the nightly news. Some even take their on-air programs and stuff it into a podcast, resulting in something resembling spoiled cannoli.
We are skeptical that many Canadians will have a good sense of the issues once the election is underway. (Frankly, we’re not sure we always do.) It doesn’t help that the election platforms, slogans, and ads are already a yawn, and, aside from Jagmeet Singh’s Quebec ad showing him putting on his turban, the campaign materials are already starting to blend together. Without sharp, critical, and hard-hitting coverage of the leaders and their campaigns, including real access to the leaders and candidates, Canadians don’t have a shot of being properly informed, or, in the case of a growing number of Canadians, being motivated to vote at all.
And a debate—or five—won’t be the venue for a thorough examination of election issues, given that it is Canadian media that will decide what these issues are and how much time the candidates are allotted to speak to them. The model itself may even be outmoded, with few outside of those already politically engaged tuning in.
Canadians are starved for good political coverage. There is a reason we know more collectively about the Democratic Party front-runner candidates than we do our own elected leaders. We have more screen time with them, and thus greater access. The American media is far from perfect, but that doesn’t mean we should let perfect be the enemy of good.
Erica Ifill and Amy Kishek co-host the Bad+Bitchy podcast.
As published in The Hill Times.