Dan Lett | Not for Attribution
Free Press
The nature of the news cycle
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The nature of the news cycle

“I have an attention span that’s as long as it has to be.” — Donald Trump

Top news can change quickly and without warning. And in so doing, it can provide a valuable respite to politicians on the hot seat.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett, Columnist

Dan Lett

The Macro

The news business has always been afflicted by “here today, gone tomorrow” sensibilities. Which is to say, today’s screaming headline can be easily forgotten in one 24-hour news cycle. It has always been thus.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked commercial airliners and crashed them into New York City’s World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. Another plane that law enforcement believes was headed to the Capitol Buildings in Washington crashed in a field just south of Pittsburgh. It was a seismic news event that wiped the news slate clean.

At the Free Press, I remember we spent the first few hours after the attacks just trying to confirm what had happened. Then, when it was clear it was a terrorist attack, we had to figure out a way to tell the story.



For the first and only time in my life, the Free Press — which was a morning paper at the time — published a special evening edition on the attacks that hit the streets around dinner time. I remember getting a phone call from a convenience store in Selkirk asking if we could send them more special editions; there were a dozen people lined up waiting in the store to get a copy.

However, despite the fact we had turned our entire attention to one story, other stories were still unfolding.

On Sept. 10, 2001, Japan announced it had confirmed its first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), otherwise known as Mad Cow disease. A combination of time zone differences and news cycle mechanics meant most of the world was destined to read about the story on Sept.11. BSE remains a potentially deadly disease that can be transmitted to humans. It’s so dangerous that its emergence is enough to devastate a nation’s entire beef industry, as was the case in Great Britain, which saw its beef exports banned in 1996 over a BSE outbreak. It would take 10 years before the ban was lifted.

The emergence of BSE in Japan did have serious consequences, including decisions by neighbouring Asian nations to ban Japanese beef imports. However, Japan largely escaped the stigma that Great Britain and Canada had faced over their own BSE outbreaks. In fact, many online chronological histories of BSE do not even record the Japanese outbreak.

Such is the nature of the news cycle.

You can see the same phenomenon playing out with the Russia’s atrocious war of aggression against Ukraine.

The military invasion and occupation of Ukraine by Russian President Vladimir Putin has, rightly, drawn the world’s attention. And when you draw eyeballs to one giant, global story, you are drawing them away from other important stories. Often to the benefit of the people at the centre of those other stories.

By now, it appears to be a consensus in the United Kingdom that the career of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson might have been saved by Putin’s ugly war.

At the beginning of February, it seemed all but certain Johnson would be forced out of his job by his own party for “Partygate,” the name given by British media to scandal surrounding the revelation that Johnson personally attended several social events with political staff during a period in which such gatherings were forbidden by public health orders. A dozen of these events, from both 2020 and 2021, are still being investigated by police as violations of pandemic orders.

Johnson had, at various tries, tried to deny his involvement in the gatherings, and then claimed they were fully compliant with public health restrictions. An independent investigation showed otherwise, identifying failures in both leadership and behaviour by the prime minister.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson personally attended several social events with political staff during a period in which such gatherings were forbidden by public health orders. (Alastair Grant / AP Photo file)

Partygate turned Johnson’s Conservative Party into a shark tank. Several MPs and ministers resigned and the Tory caucus was building toward an internal vote of non-confidence to force Johnson to step down as leader. One Tory MP said Johnson’s removal was “inevitable.” 

And then, on Feb. 24, Putin invaded Ukraine and the political calculus in Great Britain was completely altered.

Following the invasion, Johnson acted swiftly to impose economic sanctions on Russia and kept repeating for news media and his caucus his call to arms: “Putin must fail.” It all added up to what appears to be a complete reversal of Johnson’s political fortunes.

The Guardian did a particularly excellent job describing how the mood in the House of Commons changed virtually overnight with the invasion. “The chamber was packed but eerily quiet as hundreds of MPs from different parties sat motionless,” wrote political editor Toby Helm. “Within 15 minutes, it was clear that unseemly political arguments of recent times had been subsumed and rendered irrelevant — at least for the time being.

“One Tory MP and former minister, himself a critic of the prime minister who had wanted him to quit over partygate until a few days ago, said afterwards: ‘The enormity of what has happened in Ukraine has transcended party politics. There was a sense of seriousness and shared endeavour that just took over from everything.’ ”

The decision to park party politics was the correct one, of course. But history will show that if Johnson somehow hangs on to his job, it will be largely because of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

The same equation could be playing out in Canada. The week of the invasion, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was facing mounting opposition about his decision to invoke the Emergencies Act to combat the Freedom Convoy protests. He did survive a potential confidence vote with the support of the NDP, but it looked as if Trudeau’s Liberal government would be dragged down by his decision to bring in such a heavy-handed law.

And then Putin invaded, and in the past week the only significant stories about the Freedom Convoy are those documenting the criminal cases against some of the organizers.

The news cycle can be cruel and there are many other examples of politicians being victimized by scandals that were not all that scandalous, but which did occur on otherwise slow news days.

The rule of thumb for politicians? Control what you can when it comes to the news cycle, and always be prepared for the worst.



Do you have a subject you would like to see covered in Not For Attribution? Do you have specific questions about journalistic practices or the business of news? Do you have specific concerns about politics or political leaders? Email me your questions and I will respond. Promise.

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