One of the most objectionable terms Donald Trump has popularized is “fake news,” which he uses to describe any coverage he disagrees with.
It doesn’t matter whether the information is empirically provable. If the president doesn’t like it (typically because it’s critical of him or casts him in a less-than-flattering light), it’s automatically “fake news” to him.
That way of thinking betrays a profound lack of understanding of what journalists do. Journalists are supposed to be in the business of digging up empirically provable facts (you’re going to see that expression again, I’m afraid), then sharing that information with the public.
The process is so integral to a healthy democracy that both the United States and Canada have enshrined those journalistic responsibilities and rights in some of their most important documents: the U.S. Bill of Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
So it was with dismay that many provincial-affairs observers heard a Progressive Conservative cabinet minister utter the term “fake news” two weeks ago, in answer to a query during question period in this rare summer sitting of the legislature.
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Lisa MacLeod, the minister for children, community and social services, was asked why the Tory government had decided to eliminate the basic-income pilot program well before its three-year completion date. The question seemed appropriate, given that during this spring’s election campaign, both Doug Ford’s chief spokesman, Melissa Lantsman, and Christine Elliott, now deputy premier and minister of health, both confirmed on the record that the program would be allowed to run its course before the government made any decisions about its future. MacLeod, inexplicably, in the face of those empirically provable facts, denied that those commitments existed and said during question period that any media accounts suggesting that the PCs had, in fact, made such a promise were “fake news.”
It was a particularly disappointing turn of events for those who had hoped that such Trumpian language would somehow stop at the border.
It’s worth remembering that MacLeod isn’t the first Ontario cabinet minister to have dropped the “fake news” bomb. A year and a half ago, the Liberals’ economic development minister Brad Duguid used the expression while defending the government’s record on the MaRS Discovery District. Duguid, who claimed he’d been referring to the opposition’s questions, not the media, almost instantly realized the damage he’d caused and offered an apology.
“Fake news is a real and troubling problem,” he tweeted, “but our Ontario media is professional and vital. My intention wasn't to call that into question.”
MacLeod took a different approach. For nearly two weeks, she refused to take back her “fake news” allegation, despite the fact that everybody else around her knew the promise had been made and broken.
Until this week.
“You know something,” MacLeod told Citytv’s Cynthia Mulligan on Tuesday during a scrum at Queen’s Park, “I regretted the ‘fake news’ (comment) the moment it came out of my mouth.”
Bravo. With that one answer, MacLeod seemed to show that she understood that continuing to defend the indefensible was making her and the government look silly.
The “fake news” comment was doubly unnecessary coming from MacLeod, who, in these early days of Premier Doug Ford’s government, has clearly demonstrated herself to be one of the PCs’ best and most popular performers. With a caucus of dozens of rookie MPPs, Ford has handed the MPP for Nepean a heavy load. She’s responsible for more than $17 billion in spending, on programs such as Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program. She’s one of the few cabinet ministers who’s actually capable of offering responses in question period without having her nose stuck in her briefing books, and she has proudly led the fight to see more of the province’s expenses related to refugees and immigrants paid by Ottawa.
Whenever she gives answers in question period, her skill is plain for all to see. She usually starts out by gently thanking her opposition critic for having raised an important issue, then quickly turns up the heat, delivering a dramatic, full-throated, and partisan defence of Tory policy. She routinely brings her colleagues to their feet. Let’s just say it: MacLeod is a helluva performer.
This is not a defence of the policies she’s advanced. Doing that sort of thing has never been in my job description. And plenty of Ontarians are furious that the minister has broken the PCs’ commitment to see the basic-income pilot through to its conclusion. Not to mention, MacLeod is also cutting previously promised 3 per cent increases to OW and ODSP payments by half — another policy the Tories didn’t run on.
But in terms of pure performance skills, there’s almost no one better in the house.
Analyzing how MacLeod does her job over the next four years will be one of the more interesting parts of covering Queen’s Park. Her ambition has always been evident — nothing wrong with that; it comes with the territory in politics. But her brashness has come at a price. She ran for the PC leadership against Patrick Brown more than three years ago but dropped out before the contest was over due to a lack of support. Many of her caucus colleagues have disparaged her behind her back, complaining she has never been a team player. Others have pointed out to me how unseemly her behaviour was in the days after Ford’s leadership victory, when she tried to ingratiate herself with the new leader. (It’s fair to ask whether such observations would be made about MacLeod if she were male.)
However, MacLeod has emerged as one of the early stars of the new PC government — a confident performer who’s on top of her portfolio, even though it’s an extremely difficult one. And now that she’s apologized for her ill-advised “fake news” comment, MacLeod may also have struck a positive note for empirically provable facts — the stock-in-trade of everybody who reports on what she does at the legislature.