The competition for the public agenda — and the public’s attention — is fierce. It’s also a bit of a paradox.
The paradox is that the public’s agenda isn’t the public’s. Governments and corporations think the media controls it. The media thinks governments and corporations control it.
The public, meanwhile, knows it doesn’t control the public agenda at all. Someone else does, but not them.
In the Internet age, controlling the agenda is more difficult than ever before. With the world wide web, there are too many channels to watch now. The media have atomized, and the likes of Peter Mansbridge and Lisa LaFlamme simply are not as powerful as they once were.
Rare, in this new era, are those who know how to penetrate the data smog — the millions of words and images with which citizens are bombarded every single day — and get their message out. Included in this august group are the Kardashians, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and — to use Stephen Maher’s not-soon-forgotten characterization — Canadian politics’ Paulina Gretzky, Justin Trudeau.
Trudeau’s skill in manipulating the public agenda — and in commanding public attention — is nonpareil. He stands alone. No one else comes close.
A journalist from Huffington Post decides to ask the federal party leaders about their use of marijuana. The Conservatives’ Stephen Harper declares he has asthma, and has never smoked anything. The NDP’s angry Thomas Mulcair issues a (typically) angry statement, and refuses to say much.
And the Liberal’s Justin Trudeau? Instead of falling into a trap, like Harper and Mulcair arguably did, Trudeau offers the enterprising journalist a 20-minute exclusive. As the entire world knows by now — as even Star Trek’s Sulu knows — Trudeau famously declares he’s tried it, didn’t like it, but has done it fairly recently. Oh yes, and he doesn’t drink coffee.
Dominating the public agenda at the back end of summer, when no one wants to hear about politics, is no small thing. But Trudeau, ever the new media-era wizard, does it. For days, everyone from the prime minister on down pronounces on Trudeau’s pronouncement, pro or con. For days, the media commenters (including this one) comment. His critics sound like the Temperance Union and Trudeau sounds young and hip: Trudeau 1, Everyone Else 0.
Trudeau’s media manipulation skills, as noted, are not in dispute. Many Liberals are filled with admiration for his ability to seize, and control, the agenda.
This one wasn’t. Personally, I don’t give a tinker’s damn about the Liberal leader’s soft drug use. It doesn’t matter.
What matters, or should, is that in the past week children were gassed to death in Syria. Christians and Muslims were terrorized and murdered in Egypt. Two teenagers, just 15 and 16 — two boys! — were shot to death, in broad daylight, in Toronto.
Oh, and interest rates are going up, Lac-Megantic is forgotten and Parliament is prorogued for no apparent reason.
Those are the things that matter. Those are the things that should be dominating the public agenda. Those are the things that, to put a fine point on it, we have yet to hear about from Justin Trudeau, who aspires to be prime minister of Canada, for Pete’s sake.
Liberals, then, shouldn’t be concerned that everyone knows everything there is to know about Justin Trudeau’s views on dope-smoking.
They should be concerned, however, that nobody really knows his views about anything else.