Mastering the dark art of distraction

Executive Chairman
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This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on 20170305.

Today’s media landscape allows for politicians to avoid addressing tough policy questions and scandals by dangling shiny objects ‘ and Donald Trump is the master.

Along with this being the post-truth era, it is also increasingly the era of distraction — when politicians dangle shiny objects to distract media and voters from deception going on elsewhere.

Voters these days are easily distracted by politicians’ desperate bids for attention. In recent years, politicians have questioned a president’s birth certificate, resorted to ridiculous tweeting, and, amongst other stunts, promoted alternative facts.

Using such distractions, politicians are gaining unprecedented control over their message. Politicians often now resemble celebrities rather than thoughtful policy-makers.

The adage that there is no form of bad publicity appears to be truer than ever.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who reportedly consumes more television news than any president before him, would appear to also be the president who understands how best to manipulate it. The more outlandish his tweets, radical his policies, and atypical his actions, the more attention he receives from the media. His detractors become more infuriated, his base of support more invigorated.

Last week with the cable news networks fixated on the Trump campaign’s ‘constant’ discussions with the Russians, the president came out and held an hour and fifteen-minute news conference during which he was widely reported to appear ‘unhinged.’ The result, however, was no more talk about those pesky Russians.

In the last several days, the president, with little fanfare, announced a review of Obama-era waterway regulations, reshuffled his national security team, signed an executive order easing U.S. fiscal regulations in the Dodd—Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, and signalled his support for Republican measures to replace Obamacare.

These are significant events that deserve significant attention, but there is a real chance that many people missed them. That said, there is little chance that people missed the photo of Trump aide Kellyanne Conway kneeling on the couch in the Oval Office, or that the president called the media the enemy of the American people.

In many ways, Trump is well on his way to replacing Ronald Reagan as the Great Communicator.

Today’s information landscape — vastly different from that of the 20th century — allows Trump’s strategy to work. His tactics wouldn’t have worked in the era when print newspapers and suppertime newscasts dominated media consumption.

Today, shareable and trending posts on popular social media sites are rapidly closing in on television as the breaking news source for North Americans. Facebook is the leading source of news for those under the age of 45. Trump’s attention-seeking ways are dominating our feeds and distracting us from events and news items that we would have had little choice but to consume in traditional media not too long ago.

The economic constraints that are weighing down traditional media have led organizations to focus on headline-grabbing announcements, scandal and horse-race journalism. For struggling news organizations, such surface-level reporting is easier, draws greater attention, and attracts a bigger audience.

It is the information equivalent of no longer having your parent around to tell you to eat your vegetables.

While Trump may be the most successful dangler of shiny objects around, he is not the only politician who uses this media strategy today.

In Canada, Conservative party leadership contender Kellie Leitch has also benefitted from the age of political distraction.

Early in her bid for the Conservative party leadership, Kellie Leitch made a media splash by announcing her plan for vetting immigrants to Canada for their ‘Canadian values.’ With the long campaign, and Kevin O’Leary’s decision to enter the contest, Leitch’s relevance began to wane. Her response: the most poorly produced and awkward video this side of St’phane Dion’s 2008 production.

The eight-minute video featuring Leitch defending her immigration screening proposal has been viewed on social media by more than a million people. And while the video has been lampooned for its poor quality and awkwardness, the attention has put Leitch firmly back into the national conversation.

Similarly, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent announcements around the budget and Canada’s commitment to the middle class garnered little attention, but a BuzzFeed article that zoomed in on pictures of his rear end triggered a stir several times greater than that created by his policy speeches.

This is not merely a lesson for political practitioners.

The business, marketing and technology sectors long ago realized the importance of grabbing the attention of an audience at any cost. It was only a matter of time until politicians caught on.

I am not convinced Trump’s people strategically placed Conway on her knees on the Oval Office couch, and perhaps Leitch’s staff didn’t hire an amateur videographer to purposefully shoot a horrific video.

However, in an age when media is consumed at lightning speed and is shared more widely than ever, and when people are increasingly distracted, those with techniques for commanding attention often find themselves leading the pack.

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

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