Trudeau’s Tofino trip and the age of manufactured outrage

"If it bleeds, it leads" is no longer the adage that applies when it comes to media deciding what's a major news story - it's whipping up anger that sells

Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation wasn’t supposed to be about Justin Trudeau. But it ended up that way after Global News got a whiff of the fact the PM was flying to Tofino reportedly for some downtime with his family. 

The PM’s official itinerary showed he was scheduled to be in Ottawa. That would be changed to reflect his BC trip. But not before a Global camera showed up to capture the PM and his wife walking the beach near a rented “$18 million” house. And just like that, a scandal was born. These days, it doesn’t take much. Just look stateside. Republicans are already rewriting the January 6 insurrection as if it never happened.

In a Twitter thread, a former front-page editor with the Chicago Sun-Times recently offered how the mainstream media in the U.S. has “inadvertently” contributed to the rise of extremism and erosion of democracy south of the border by treating what should be minor controversies as scandals and real scandals as minor controversies. He offers the example of Hillary Clinton’s emails. Compared to George Bush’s lie about weapons of mass destruction to justify the war in Iraq, it was a minor scandal. But the former set the course for Donald Trump’s election victory – and the current political conflagration the U.S. finds itself. The latter was basically ignored.

A similar trend has been taking hold in Canuckistan where the country’s major daily newspapers and biggest networks are overwhelmingly owned and dominated by conservative voices, and where columnists, for example, have recently taken to normalizing the views of the People’s Party of Canada, which by most sober accounts has become a front and breeding ground for white nationalists, Islamophobes and anti-immigrant extremists. 

In today’s virtual reality, the news adage “if it bleeds, it leads,” no longer applies when it comes to media deciding what’s a major story and what’s not. Now it’s anything that whips up anger that sells. As we’re finding out with the revelations stateside about how Facebook messes with algorithms to promote certain publishers’ content over others, hate equals engagement equals clicks equals audience equals advertising money.

Arguably, the results of last month’s federal elections suggest the fourth estate in Canada has some distance to go before we go the way of the United States and our democracy along with it. 

But we’re not far behind. For a while there during #elxn44 it looked like the Libs could be turfed for a decidedly anti-democratic notion – that an election was “unnecessary.” Since when is exercising the right to vote ever “unnecessary?”

In many ways, the so-called mainstream media covering our politics has been acting as the unofficial opposition since the Liberals took power and won a majority in 2015. 

Here, too, controversies have been whipped into scandals. From Jody Wilson-Raybould and SNC-Lavalin (check the record, the former minister has only alleged perceived political interference on the file), to the WE charity madness (it wasn’t just Lib MPs taking money for speaking engagements), to Canada’s relationship with “communist” China and Trudeau’s choice of costume in India, much has been lost in translation in the blur of headlines and breathless coverage of manufactured outrage. 

The National Post’s stable of Sun Media papers, for example, now often parrot – and thus legitimize – views found on social media platforms and propagated by online purveyors of extremism like Rebel Media, Canada Proud, True North and their ilk. The pandemic has brought right-wing media’s descent into alternate facts into sharper focus with the views of anti-masker and anti-vaxxer conspiracy theorists slowly creeping into their coverage. Is it any wonder then that trust in media is hovering close to single digits in public opinion – right down there these days with lawyers and politicians? 

When the PM showed up at the Calgary airport last month to welcome home the two Michaels from China, for example, there was more debate on social media over the fact Trudeau showed up at the airport to greet the Michaels with shirt sleeves rolled up than the quiet diplomacy that won their release. It’s not hard to imagine what the narrative might have been had the release occurred a few days earlier during the election. A setup, no doubt.

As it was, most of the mainstream coverage centered around China’s “hostage diplomacy” following the release of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou after the U.S. dropped its extradition request over Meng’s alleged violations of U.S. trade sanctions with Iran. The request was made while Trump was president. Wilson-Raybould was justice minister at the time and reportedly too caught up in the SNC-Lavalin affair to take the advice of department staff and reject the U.S. request. The two Michaels were arrested a day after the extradition request was granted. Canada would be caught up in the middle of a trade dispute between the U.S. and China as a result. 

It’s important context to understanding the story and why Canada was opting for caution over the media’s drum beating to get “tougher” on China.

Meanwhile, back in Tofino….

What was the PM doing holidaying when he should have been reflecting on Canada’s residential schools’ shame? Why didn’t someone in his inner circle tell him it was a bad idea? 

Certainly, the optics were bad. He had taken part in reconciliation commemorations in Ottawa the night before. But Trudeau had also been invited to a ceremony in Kamloops where the unmarked graves of 215 Indigenous children at the site of a former residential were discovered in May. 

But the idea the PM’s office deliberately misled the public about his whereabouts to cover his tracks ended up colouring the entire story. All of a sudden it wasn’t just that Trudeau was being callous about not accepting the invitation but that he had allegedly lied. (For the record, the PM’s press secretary, Alex Wellstead, was not immediately available to respond to a request for clarification on the seeming scheduling conflict from NOW.)

Some of the usual suspects in Canada’s media establishment are not happy Trudeau won the election, and they won’t be until he’s no longer around. Indeed, Assembly of First Nations leader RoseAnne Archibald chastised media outlets for not giving as much time to the stories of residential school survivors as was given Trudeau’s trip. Some among them are already suggesting the Tofino trip may have hastened his departure as Liberal leader. It’s not hard to imagine. It’s quite possible the constant attacks may be wearing on the PM and that his walk in the sand was like the walk in the snow his late father took before announcing his departure from politics. Now that would be a story, if the media wasn’t so preoccupied with the gotcha.


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18 responses to “Trudeau’s Tofino trip and the age of manufactured outrage”

  1. An excellent article that makes its point without devolving into the same “manufactured outrage”.


  2. The media specializes in sensationalism of which crime and scandal are its major headline stories and sadly often looking to search for and sometimes actually create stories to fill time slots on TV for example rather than report.

  3. Why wouldn’t he himself know it was a bad idea, out of curiosity? He’s not a child. You don’t need to rely on advisors to know the optics of a prime minister holidaying on this day of all days, was a bad idea.

  4. It is actually quite scary how easy it is to fall into the headline manufactured outrage stories and the Canadian Conservative party’s willingness to follow the American ‘playbook’. I remember the fabricated outrage over Obama’s tan suit and Michell’s bare arms. Trump escalated hatred with an unending stream of poisonous personal attacks and this kind of politics is taking hold in our Country. Are we at the stage that an opposition party has to become better at outrage building in order to win?

  5. I agree entirely. Trudeau said he wanted a mandate on managing the Covid crisis, which made sense given the divergent views on lockdowns, vaccine mandates etc. When you look at Canada from a global perspective, the pandemic has been remarkably well managed here, despite the media’s determined focus on small groups of screaming anti-vaxxers (witness the constant reprinting of pictures of protests that happened days or weeks ago, even in more “liberal” papers such as the Toronto Star). The Liberals did not do enough during the election to tout their achievements, instead falling into the trap of rehashing old conservative grievances. They have their mandate, let’s move forward.

  6. He literally brushed off a day he created in order to go surfing. Stop defending the indefensible this is a PM who is constantly making horrible decisions and gaffes and no its not “bad Optics” is just plain bad.

  7. Does Katie Telford give you the Op-eds directly or does she allow you the “journalistic freedom” to spin indefensible actions by the PM. I guess its not just female staffers, MP’s or reports natives “experienced things differently” too. As someone of native descent this was an utter slap in the face, worse than kicking out my brothers and sisters during a fund raiser and worse than taking a photo op on the graves of dead children. He created this day, he says hes committed to reconciliation than he goes surfing, what an utter imbecile. Hes either totally incompetent or he just doesnt care and neither are the marks of a man we want as PM. Shame on you for trying to dismiss these actions.

  8. Exellent piece! I wish more people would pay attention. “Critical thinking” seems to equal “common sense” in that they are both oxymorons (of a fashion).

  9. Seems decidedly partisan. Kind of tough to accuse journalists of leaning right while doing the same on the left?

  10. ‘there was more debate on social media over the fact Trudeau showed up at the airport to greet the Michaels with shirt sleeves rolled up’

    One guy complained about it on Twitter.

    That basically sums up your entire article: a big long whine that less than 100% of the population has sufficient adoration for Dear Leader.

  11. It’s so hard to root for his highness. He swaggers and smirks through life and doesn’t appear to care about Canadians as much as the world order. Liberals are infamous for jumping all over their opponents and making up stories or lying about the truth. So, for most people, it’s being happy to jeer when his highness falls on his face.

  12. If Justin uses too much Kleenex during this winter’s cold season, the CONs will manufacture it into an outrage over how he alone is responsible for the reduction of the world’s forests. And believe me, they will be stalking him all winter with hidden cameras and counting how many tissues he uses.

  13. I met Trudeau once and can;t say I liked him much, but the Libs got my vote because they earned it with their pandemic response. Action matters. And on the indigenous issues – and there are many – it will be the same thing. Yes, it was dumb and insulting to some leaders that he wasn’t there on the day – the AFN leader being a dissenting voice – but it won’t matter if his cabinet takes real action on the indigenous issues before them. This was an excellent piece, though. I agree that journalism has become all about chasing the anger, and that’s just not healthy for the country. More analysis like this would be great, and maybe we can stop calling people who disagree with us “psychos”.

  14. The author has missed a great deal of background information. Perhaps he should revisit the Liberals pandemic failures right from when the Canadian Military advised the government of a new and serious virus months in advance of the government accepting the WHO advice. He gave away our PPE to China, He delayed the contracts for COVID vaccines for over a month because he tried to get the vaccine from CHINA. He rushed single source contracts to Liberal insiders without any checks – company went bankrupt after being paid to produce PPE, Former Liberal was overpaid at least a million dollars for equipment that sits on a shelf. So many other failures around COVID and now he is on a power trip mandating people get a vaccine that, if you look at Israel, has a rapid declining effect and is a medical risk to some for a virus that has an extremly high survival rate for people under 50 (that do not have other medical issues).

    This is just one issue that the author should delve into. There are others as well. Rebel News, True North, Western Standard may be conservative in their views but they try to portray a balanced report and usually back up stories with documents you can read on their website. Not sure how the author feels the media leans toward Conservatives, and he said nothing about Trudeau spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars “buying” the media. Has the CBC done a good job advising Canadians of Trudeaus failures, lies, corruption and putting the country so far in debt no one has any idea of when we will get back to a balanced budget and be able to pay down some of the trillion plus debt.

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