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Clinton captain of her own misfortune

This article appeared in the Toronto Star on September 18, 2016.

Watching the circus that is the presidential election south of our border has long been a Canadian pastime, especially since Donald Trump rode that escalator to announce his candidacy.

As a former political communicator, I have watched, with not a small amount of sympathy, as Republican operatives have tried (with limited success) to defuse scandal after scandal their candidate himself has created.

Donald Trump’s campaign careens daily, thanks to a candidate who seems more interested in building his personal brand, selling branded steaks, and stoking angry supporters than in becoming the head of state for the most important nation in the world.

While Trump’s campaign has been described as unfocused, bigoted, incendiary, juvenile and just plain mean-spirited, you will struggle to find anyone describing Trump’s campaign ‘good.’ By all accounts, it has been a disaster that has Republicans terrified of the down-ballot consequences.

And yet, after a summer of near-constant missteps and scornful media coverage, Trump’s campaign rattles forward. Polls this week have shown predictions of his campaign’s death were greatly exaggerated; that there may now be a path to an Electoral College win for him.

All of a sudden, he is now, based on polling, within striking distance of Hillary Clinton.

There are three essential reasons for this, even though the thought of it is unfathomable to many political analysts.

The first is that the political divide in the United States has grown so large that many Republicans and Democrats would tolerate nearly anyone as their party’s nominee merely because that person was not the ‘other side.’ In today’s political environment, even Mother Teresa would struggle to gain cross-partisan support.

The second is that while the United States has experienced rapid economic growth in the last several decades thanks to globalization, not everyone has benefited to the same degree. Blue collar workers across middle America have watched as manufacturers, the bedrock of economic opportunity in many small towns, fled offshore. They have seen wages stagnate, opportunities dry up and the long-term outlook grow more and more anemic.

Not unreasonably, that segment of the population feels more than just disenfranchised; they feel they have been left behind. Fed up with the establishment politics they see as having led to the decline of the America they knew, it is impossible to underestimate the level of antipathy among these voters toward politicians like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, whom they see as harbingers of America’s continued woes.

However, even considering these factors, Trump’s potent mix of intolerance and incompetence should have sunk his campaign by now. But it hasn’t. And that’s because the third factor faces not him, but his opponent.

That factor is entirely a Hillary Clinton phenomenon. While much of the attention has been focused on Trump’s unpopularity, Clinton is not far behind. The Democratic nominee is seen as untrustworthy, secretive and cynical.

Events of the last several days — the ham fisted handling of a simple medical issue — give us a glimpse into why American voters are so leery of Clinton’s trustworthiness.

After Clinton fainted at a public event, her campaign’s first instinct was to obfuscate. After that failed to quell interest, her campaign officials blamed the problem on heat overexposure.

They neglected to mention the pneumonia diagnosis she had received a few days before; a diagnosis they only admitted after intense media pressure.

A textbook example of a self-inflicted story.

Too often, politicians, business leaders and other high-profile people fall prey to their instincts and try to shut down a story and minimize damage by dissembling and hiding.

It’s a strategy that never works. Giving evasive answers, using weasel words and avoiding the issue only generate more interest and pressure from the media, who sense something is amiss. And the drip, drip, drip of negative stories only compounds the problems the candidate faces.

After years of covering Clinton, reporters are keenly aware of her instinct to try to hide the entire story from them. Journalists react by continuing to dig, ask questions and press the campaign to come clean.

Every time another of the campaign’s stories unravels, it represents another strike against Clinton’s credibility. Her trust with the American people is at an all-time low, and the fact she struggles to connect with voters is largely a self-created phenomenon.

Should Donald Trump be elected president on Nov. 8 in spite of a campaign filled with gaffes, bullying and outright bigotry, the Clinton campaign’s mismanagement of the media will be a key part of the tale.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

Why the crackdown on fake news is a good thing

Do you know that the Washington Post cranks out more than 1,200 news articles per day? The New York Times produces at least 230 articles per day. Good luck tracking them all down. Buzzfeed published 6,365 stories and 319 videos in April alone—or about 222 pieces of content per day. These are but a few of the news organizations producing so much daily content, and no human being could realistically consume it all in a day. The Internet contains a near-infinite amount of information—we just can’t keep up with it.

So what do we do? We rely on the convenience of social algorithms to tell us what matters. We pull up our Facebook mobile feed and let the miracle and science of its algorithm find the diamonds in the rough. It’s a wonderful experience. We literally have no work to do: no newspaper to flip through, no news channels to suffer through, and no photo albums to thumb through. It’s all there for us, conveniently sorted and available at a swipe of a finger. Just about everything we read has to make its way through a filter before we see it.

Think about the apps you use most on mobile. I’m willing to wager a bet that you get a lot of information through Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Facebook notoriously tweaks its news feed on a regular basis to ensure it’s properly calibrated to give you content you want to consume. Twitter finally realized that people find a raw news feel overwhelming and now uses an algorithm of its own to prioritize content it thinks you want to see. Even your search results are filtered. For sometime now Google has tailored its search results to make them more relevant to you, the user, based on your browsing and search history. All of these platforms have an incentive to give you information you want instead of the information that is the most up-to-date or relevant: their bottom line depends on it. If they fail to give you the content you want, you’ll tune out. And if you tune out, you’re one less person they can serve ads to. And if a whole lot of you start doing the same, revenues take a hit, membership numbers stagnate, and Wall Street gets cranky. So, these three digital behemoths need to give you quality content, which is a lot easier said than done.

For years, publishers have focused on producing huge volumes of content. Most of this content was (and remains) thoroughly cheap and unfulfilling. Think about the scourge of ‘click-bait’ articles that used to fill up our social feeds and rank highly in search results. The headlines were catchy—we couldn’t help but click on the link only to discover that the resulting article was barely 100 words long, and often, completely different than what the headline promised. Sadly, this type of content continues to plague the Internet. It’s a serious problem for curators like Facebook, Twitter, and Google. When this content appears in feeds or results and we click on it, only to get angry about where we landed, it diminishes the user experience.

Considering this, it makes complete sense that Facebook and Twitter are taking steps to remove this type of content, this fake news, from their feeds. The pair are joining at least 30 major news outlets—the Washington Post and The New York Times among them— to crack down on fake news articles more effectively, in the hopes of improving the quality of the information in social feeds. In some ways, it’s encouraging—even heartening—to see these major platforms recognize that as they are the primary news source for most of their consumers they should ensure a basic level of quality for the news it serves. This newly-formed network is backed by Google and is working to create a voluntary code of practice and a verification system for journalists and social media companies to ensure a basic level of integrity in news coverage. Of course, partisans of all stripes will laugh at such a statement, since news organizations are hardly seen as objective operatives. But if we can park our bias aside, most of us will concede that ‘traditional’ news outlets are bound by some journalistic standards (fact-checking, legal checks etc.) that ought to be the norm. Of course, they’re far from perfect, but they serve as a basic foundation.

We live in a world where most news breaks online. People at the site of the news event are the ones posting raw video and images online. Eyewitnesses don’t wait for a reporter to arrive on the scene before sharing what they’ve seen first-hand. Stories that would never have been reported in the pre-smartphone era now become global movements because someone took out their smartphone and captured an event or altercation. And of course, fake news and hoaxes, like everything else online, have become much more sophisticated, and tougher to crack down on.

In this context, it doesn’t help that all news looks the same in our news feeds. It can be tough to sort out the real stuff from the hoaxes. In truth, the Internet has democratized content-creation. Anyone with an Internet connect and a keyboard can become a publisher. Nothing stops me from starting a new website today, writing completely egregious or false content and publishing it to the major social platforms. Or they could write breaking stories, uncovering facts and perspectives that others can’t or unwilling to investigate. But whether or not that same piece of content should be subjected to the same filtering and standards as fact-checked and verified stories, is a matter of debate. I for one, am ok with it, even if it means traditional news outlets regain some level of clout.

However, these recent developments further entrench the shift towards a highly-filtered Internet. And cracking that filter is no easy task, especially if you’re not a pre-approved news outlet. It means, more than ever, that brands and organizations need to double-down on quality content. Stop producing content for the sake of it—focus on providing value and you may get to join the ranks of the ‘Big 30.’ And if that fails, you may need to dust off your traditional media relations skills—’traditional’ outlets may soon get a bump in clout.

The people must decide on electoral reform

This article appeared in the Toronto Star On September 11, 2016.

Referendums are often called to reach a consensus on a way forward. Just as often, however, referendums seem to reinforce deeply bitter divides.

When then-premier Jacques Parizeau famously conceded defeat in Quebec’s 1995 sovereignty referendum, he declared the Yes side had lost due to money and the ethnic vote. The referendum settled the question, but only in the near-term; sovereigntists continued to win a plurality of seats in Quebec for years afterward.

When Britons voted by a narrow margin to leave the European Union, dozens of high-profile media and political figures lamented the ignorance of voters and argued that the referendum need not be binding after all. The voters, they argued, didn’t know what was best for them. Many cited as evidence that ‘What is the EU?’ was the most Googled question in the U.K. in the hours after the vote.

With this in mind, we turn to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promise that the 2015 election would be the last election under the current, first-past-the-post electoral system. Some sort of change must be made, argued the Liberals. And so has begun a cross-country consultation to overhaul our arguably outdated electoral system.

There have been previous attempts at electoral reform in Canada, each coming to a crashing halt when subjected to the approval of the voters through referendums. Ontario’s attempt at reform in 2007 and British Columbia’s attempts in 2004 and 2009 all failed.

The Liberals, perhaps informed by the failures of previous Canadian referendums and the recent U.K. experience, have remained uncertain about committing to one this time around.

Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef recently told a House of Commons committee that ‘although I recognize that a referendum is one way of seeking clarity from Canadians, I remain to be convinced that it is the best way.’ She noted that referendums ‘do not easily lend themselves to effectively deciding complex issues.’

The argument goes like this: In previous referendums, Canadians have voted with little context about how different electoral systems around the world have worked and have opted to remain in the safe, if somewhat flawed, system we have now.

The minister is not wrong.

The federal government faces innumerable decisions every day. It both produces and receives a huge amount of information from commissions, committees and studies on topics as diverse as the environment of salmon on the West Coast to the safety of our infrastructure. It produces and consumes an amount of information impossible for an average citizen to digest.

That is why we elect members of Parliament. Every four years, Canadians decide who will best keep up with the information and the issues and then make informed decisions for us. MPs vote on hundreds of motions, resolutions and bills that require deep knowledge and understanding. And, every four years, should Canadians be unhappy with the decisions of their MPs, they can fire them.

The minister is also not wrong to suggest many Canadians would vote in a referendum on electoral reform without a nuanced understanding of the options in front of them.

She is right to say that referendums are often divisive and that they lack the opportunity for complex debate most issues deserve.

That’s why MPs should be trusted to make decisions on almost every issue that confronts us. They are deeply versed in the issues the country faces. In fact, this forms part of the basis for parliamentary democracy.

However, there is no way MPs can fairly assess whether the method by which they are elected should change. That is because they would be hard pressed to ignore how any change would affect their own electoral situation – in effect, their own, personal job prospects.

Different electoral systems favour different parties and different MPs within those parties. When voting on any changes, some MPs could, depending on the system, be voting themselves out of a job, or into a cushy seat that they would likely never lose.

So that’s why a referendum, with all its many flaws and challenges, is the only way the Canadian electoral system should be changed. To have MPs choose the way they are elected is, to use a shopworn clich’, akin to having the fox guard the henhouse.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.