Right now in the United States, Super Tuesday is just a couple of days away. It’s pretty amazing that I know that. I have never paid such close attention to American politics before. I never cared that much; not until it came down to the actual Republican vs. Democrat. In general we, your neighbours to the North, breathe more easily when it’s the latter.
But right now there’s a political revolution going on that has broad implications in both of our countries. There’s a huge generational divide. It’s the generation we call the Millennials. They’re changing how everything works. In current North American politics, both in the recent Canadian federal election and in the upcoming American Presidential election, there has been a visible, undeniable generational split in opinions at the polls, and it has made, and is making, a significant difference. Millennials are the reason that the Conservative Harper regime in Canadian government was finally overthrown, and Millennials are changing the face of American politics even as you read this. Nothing in national democratic politics is ever going to be the same again.
Why? Is it that Millennials are creative and innovative? Well, to some degree that’s true; the younger generation is almost always more flexible and more willing to try new things than the older generation. Is it that they realize how fixed the system is and they are desperate for change? Well, that’s partially true too.
But more than anything, I think it comes down to one simple thing: Boomers watch TV. And Millennials don’t.
The Problem with Corporate Media
We in democratic capitalist societies labour under the delusion that the media is the Fifth Estate, which exists as an independent watchdog to inform us on the benevolence, and abuses, of those in power. The media, we believe, reports on events in a way that delivers the news with forethought, expert consultation, and a fair, if not entirely unbiased, lens. My parents still share this subconscious assumption. But it’s not true. It’s never been true.
Corporate media is, of course, interested in furthering the interests of things that benefit corporations. In general, they support right wing policies because right wing governments support bigger corporate tax breaks, trickle-down economics, low wages, and lack of regulation. It’s only common sense, really. These things benefit any large corporation, and I don’t think there’s any denying that broadcast media is entirely ruled by large corporations. What you may not know is just how large they are.
You would think that print media would be different; the last bastion of the independent journalist. But again, you would be mistaken. Almost every major newspaper in Canada is owned by two companies. That’s right, just two. They are Sun Media and Postmedia. How big do you think a corporation has to be to own so many newspapers?
It didn’t used to be that way. There was the CBC, and then there were mostly local private companies. Until our broadcast media was partially deregulated in 2008, and again in 2011, by the Conservative government of the time. Is it any wonder that the news seems to be favouring the right wing view more and more all the time?
Sometimes the bias is so blatant that it’s a suitable subject for ridicule. But most of the time it is subtle; so subtle I know most people don’t notice it. Watching coverage of the Bill C-51 protests here in Canada was most instructional for me, because I had just caught on to the tricks and so I really noticed them:
Two very different stories may be observed in the Vancouver Sun, which is a major corporate newspaper, and the Vancouver Observer, which is a somewhat respected but smaller and decidedly more left wing “alternative” media source. Both papers are reporting on the exact same protest in the same city. If you’d like to play along at home, I urge you to fire both of those links up in separate tabs and compare them as you read.
Our first clues as to the tack of the stories can be found in the headlines. The editor of a paper is the one who chooses the headlines. The Vancouver Sun headlines their story with “Vancouver protesters rally against Tories’ Bill C-51.” Seems innocuous enough, right? But let’s break it down a little. First, limiting the story to Vancouver divorces it from the national movement in the minds of the readers. Vancouver has a reputation for being a sort of “San Francisco of Canada,” and is regarded as a haven for what the right wing sees as “leftist nutbars.” So this makes it sound like the protest is a local phenomenon. Note, also, that the Sun is quick to call it “The Tories’ Bill.” This demands polarization. It makes it personal. It suggests that anyone who might disagree with the bill is only taking exception to the then-unpopular Tories, rather than objecting to legislation which gives unsettling powers to the government. It trivializes it as “party politics.” It’s a “nothing to see here” tactic.
In the meanwhile, the Vancouver Observer tells us that “Thousands protest Bill C-51 across Canada.” We are meant to be alarmed. Thousands? What is horrible enough to get “thousands” to protest? And “across Canada?” What could be causing such a sweeping concern?
Our next big clue is image. The Observer has chosen an image that shows a vast sea of protesters, standing politely with their signs and listening to a speaker on a stage. I am sure that they were trying to get as many people as possible in the shot to display how widespread the opposition to the bill is.
In the meantime, the Sun has chosen a much closer angle, so that you really have no idea how many people are at the event. And they have also chosen a picture intended to make the protesters look as stupid as possible. The big sign in the center of the image says, “Harper Darper,” which sounds like a child making fun of someone in the schoolyard. If that weren’t bad enough, the most clearly-visible sign other than that one says, “Honk to defeat Happer!” Obviously it’s a misprint, and the protester tried to correct it – you can see a black Sharpie line turning that first P into an R if you squint – but it’s difficult to see and obviously your first impression is meant to be “what a bunch of buffoons!” You are supposed to dismiss them as “stupid left wing crazies.”
Now let’s break down the articles themselves. Our first paragraphs set the stage nicely. In the Sun we are told that “more than a thousand people” gathered to protest “Harper” in particular, and “the new anti-terror bill” by extension. Okay, yes, there were more than a thousand people. The Observer tells us that there were actually about a thousand more people than a thousand people, which is a total of two thousand. So the Sun was telling the truth, but the implication minimizes things just a little. Also, the Sun is letting us know that the protesters are protesting Harper because they don’t like him; not the proposed legislation because it’s objectionable.
In the Observer, our first paragraph tells us that about two thousand people “descended on the streets” to “express frustration with the federal government’s proposed anti-terror bill.” So in this key sentence we are told a) there are a lot more people out there than the Sun was saying there were; b) they are frustrated with the federal government, not any party or person in particular; and c) that the bill is still a proposed bill, not something that is already law.
It seems like it’s a conspiracy. But it really isn’t. It’s the natural result of the corporate system of ownership; reporters making subtle changes to their pitched articles to make them palatable to their editors, who must then make them palatable to the company management, usually passing through several layers of bureaucratic stratification in between. And ultimately, the paper is printed to please the boss, who likes things that benefit corporations just fine.
Most of Canada’s newspapers endorsed Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the last election despite plummeting popularity; the ones who didn’t supported mostly the Conservative Party with Harper’s resignation as a caveat. People couldn’t understand it. But Postmedia ordered all of their subsidiaries to endorse the Conservatives; which is actually a traditional owner’s prerogative. In other words, every media company that has ever existed has a bias. And they are expected to.
This is where publicly-owned media, run properly, can provide an alternative view and thus widen the lens we are given to look at the state of things; but even that has its problems. Because the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is a Crown Corporation, meaning that the Canadian government is the primary shareholder, there are limits to the powers of the CEO and the Board of Directors. As a result, a significant faction within the CBC, angered by the Conservative appointments and the reduced budget, supported – almost downright campaigned for – the Liberal Party and our current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. But we need to understand their bias as well; the Liberal Party promised all kinds of things to the CBC as part of their campaign platform, including a lot more funding. Thus, even in Canada’s nominally non-partisan public media company, every time we heard about the New Democratic Party or its leader Tom Mulcair, it was to deride and discredit their campaign promises and to make Mulcair look as foolish as possible, with photos seemingly selected for the purpose. And that was regardless of which mainstream media company was reporting on the election.
But even publicly-owned broadcasting is not safe. The CBC, long regarded as a public resource with a decidedly left-wing approach (and it used to be) was gutted completely by Stephen Harper in his last couple of years as Prime Minister. He cut its funding, fired most of its executives, and appointed a whole bunch of his Conservative cronies to significant positions. Justin Trudeau’s attempt to fix some of this has been actively stymied by tactics from these appointees that look a lot like crazy Republican stunts to me. (Incidentally, when a government changes hands, requests for appointees to step down like this are a normal, expected part of the system; which of course, the current CBC isn’t telling us.)
Things like this have already been done to the BBC several years ago and are now firmly entrenched.
It’s an interesting point because I see the American media doing the exact same thing to Senator Bernie Sanders that the Canadian media did to the New Democrats, for the exact same reason; corporations hate social democracy. Social democracies limit corporate powers and increase wages. Social democracies believe in what’s best for all of the people, not just a select few. I think it’s a safe bet that the mainstream media will never show us an unbiased view of policies that might put more limits on corporations; which is why so many people seem to think that Mr. Sanders’ “socialist” policies are “unrealistic.” Even my parents. The funny thing about this is that most of Sanders’ platform is the way Canada did things, from the 60s right up to the Harper administration, and it worked just fine.
There’s another concern with corporate media. The media makes a lot of money on political campaign ads, as politicians try to make their messages heard; and also on election coverage, as corporations backing particular parties or candidates sponsor programs that feature those candidates. And the more political tension they create, the more money they make; which is probably why every political campaign is portrayed as a horse race, even when it’s not.
How the Internet is Transforming Politics
In the early days of media, there were newsletters and newspapers. Media was a lot less centralized and thus, people read what they wanted to read. Since there were a couple of dozen New York papers, you just read the one you preferred; or maybe a handful, if you were really well informed. When it came to politics, you read the papers that supported your political view; for instance, if you were a socialist, you read the socialist papers.
Slowly, larger papers began buying up the smaller papers, and so your options of what to read, and thus the viewpoint you were shown, gradually diminished. Why did the New York Times become so respected? Because everybody read it.
We have seen how that sort of centralization reduces the scope of the information lens so that we only hear what the corporate media wants us to hear. But that’s changing. There are alternative sources of media emerging; blogs and journals like ours, for example. And the reason is – you guessed it – the internet.
Right now, political blogging is in its early growing stages. We are graduating from a few random commentors to semi-professional small blogs and YouTube channels. And the Millennials, having realized that the food that they’re being fed is (un)liberally flavoured with Corporatist propaganda and always tastes the same, have started seeking out those alternate sources.
Or so it would seem. The truth is actually simpler than that, if I might cast a pall of cynicism on this ray of hope with an intention of helping us to make use of it in the most efficient possible way.
Millennials don’t watch TV anymore. They don’t read newspapers. Between their computers and their cell phones they go online for everything; their information, their entertainment, their social outlets.
So the fact that they’re discovering the alternate media is a cosmic accident, really. And the only reason why the alternate sources are doing so well is that we’ve been here longer. Fortunately the large media corporations were initially more interested in fighting or discrediting internet media than they were in using it. But that’s changing too.
Before you dismiss this as a fad, it’s clear that this has changed the way Millennials think. They are perhaps the most literate generation that has ever existed. Because they surf the web they know things that previous generations do not. Because of Google Translate they can talk to people in other countries even if they don’t understand a word of the language. And thus, it has never been so easy to find like-minded individuals and organize along ideological lines as opposed to geography.
More than that, most Millennials have probably experienced a situation in which they were humiliated on social media for not fact-checking a link or a meme. Whether this or something else is the reason, Millennials who are politically aware check their facts. They look up the definition of “social democracy” on Wikipedia. They Google any statistics they are offered. They use Snopes to confirm or denounce rumours and scandals. You can’t just give them the facts you want them to hear, cherry-picked for your convenience. They will double check.
As a result, we are beginning to see huge ideological divides between generations and it’s starting to make a difference. Why did Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party win the Canadian federal election? Because two significant demographics supported him almost unilaterally; First Nations Canadians, and young voters.
Note that these are both traditionally underrepresented groups in the political landscape. But this time they overcame their reluctance to engage with a system so obviously stacked against them and came to the polls. This, despite deliberate changes in election laws, such as gerrymandering electoral ridings and requiring proper picture ID as well as a voter registration card to vote – a tactic almost never done in Canadian history and obviously disadvantaging the young and the poor. And as a result, our First Nations and our youth changed the course of Canadian history.
We are seeing this in American politics as well. Would Bernie Sanders be doing so well against the likes of former Secretary of State and First Lady Hillary Clinton if it weren’t for the massive support he’s receiving from America’s youth? Millennials hear Sanders using the language of the Occupy Movement and his call to fight the 1%, and they are protesting the system with their ballots. It is even starting to affect demographics that were believed to be unassailable, such as creating a generational divide in the black vote.
Will this factor change the course of this American election? It already has. Even among the Republican voters, nobody expected Donald Trump to do as well as he has. In a way he’s the right wing equivalent of Bernie Sanders; he sounds like a rebel against the system. He’s just going about it in a way that openly reveals the fascist heart of Corporatism.
Either way, this is likely the last U.S. Presidential campaign that will be so strongly influenced by the mainstream media. It’s a whole new world out here.
But the battle isn’t over yet. The halcyon days of net neutrality are already behind us, and there are ways in which large corporations are manipulating the internet to their advantage. Also, the way in which we access the internet and social media corrals us into echo chambers which entirely lose touch with anyone who doesn’t share our views. I will address these issues in my next article.
*I have chosen to use the gender-inclusive singular “they” as my default general pronoun in this article.