By now the world is well aware that Prime Minister Trudeau’s impromptu “genius moment” — in which he gave a brilliant, off-the-cuff slapdown to a condescending reporter who underestimated his intelligence — was actually nothing of the sort. It was a carefully pre-planned bit of theater designed to repair a deficit in the Prime Minister’s public image — namely, a perceived lack of brains.
Conservatives in Canada have relentlessly bashed the Liberal leader for his legacy of gaffes — from calling Baltic states “not a thing” to talking about “reciting pi to the 19th decibel” to darker nonsense like claiming to envy China’s “basic dictatorship” when asked to name a country he admired. No politician benefits from dopiness of this sort, but Trudeau’s verbal flubs and flashes of ignorance have proved particular liabilities given this telegenic son of a former PM has long struggled to deflect accusations his rapid rise from high school drama teacher to world leader was fueled by anything other than celebrity.
Doubts about Trudeau’s intelligence did not prove substantial enough to deny him the prime ministership. But as he plunges ever-deeper into the business of the nation, pulling Canadian troops from the war on ISIS, racking up enormous budget deficits, and drafting laws about literal matters of life and death, the dangers of perceived stupidity only heighten.
Trudeau’s handlers clearly saw the advantage of staging a photo-op in which the Prime Minister could demonstrate to the world that he was actually a man of intellectual heft. Perhaps at one of the country’s top science labs, where he could stand on a dais surrounded by scientists, in front of a blackboard covered with dense equations. Maybe he could even wear one of those graduation caps with the little dangly thing. If he could say a bunch of smart things in that setting surely there’d be no more joking about the man who once suggested the Russians might invade Ukraine because Canada beat them at hockey.
And so that’s what we got. As I described in a much-shared blog post, Justin Trudeau spent his Friday boning up on quantum computing at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics then demanded reporters ask him about what he learned. When they failed to comply, he launched into a mini-lecture on the matter anyway.
The coverage that ensued was surely better than anyone in his inner circle could have possibly expected. The vast majority of reporters either deliberately or lazily omitted the part of the story where Trudeau asked to be quizzed about the subject he had just studied, so we got stuff like this:
During a visit to the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo on Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded to a reporter’s sarcastic comment about his knowledge of quantum computing by giving the reporter a quick lesson on it.
PM shows off knowledge of quantum computing… The man who has been called Canada’s new heartthrob, yoga hotshot, feminist PM — apparently eager to show he’s more than a now globally recognized pretty face — promptly showed he has computer-geek talents previously little known.
The Internet was abuzz with praise for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Saturday after clips showing him schooling an reporter on quantum computing went viral… While political opponents learned a lesson about underestimating the photogenic Trudeau, 44, during last year’s surprise electoral upset, the unnamed reporter fell into the same trap during an event at a Canadian university on Friday when he jokingly tested the former teacher’s knowledge.
Forget the incredible yoga strength, the charming feminist talk, or that glorious hair. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is more than a pretty face…When a reporter sarcastically suggested that the prime minister explain quantum computing, Trudeau took up the challenge without missing a beat.
Handsome Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Gives Passable Off-the-Cuff Lecture on Quantum Computing… Tired of being treated like a himbo meme queen, Trudeau proceeds to deliver a succinct explanation of quantum mechanics vis-à-vis computing. And it was all captured in a video that by any reasonable definition qualifies as softcore porn.
Near as I can tell, the sole contrary voice amid all this was the reporter who actually asked Trudeau the question in the first place, the Canadian Press’ Colin Perkel, who was obviously in a good position to note Trudeau had “seized an opportunity with both hands,” though even his coverage was still more credulous than warranted. To the degree any reporting was even marginally critical it was entirely on Trudeau’s terms — as when Vice assembled a team of scientists to scrutinize the Prime Minister’s summary.
All this favorable press was not gained legitimately. It was the product of a media who chose — again, either through laziness or deliberate effort — to spin Friday’s events in a fashion that would prove most useful to the Prime Minister and help alleviate one of his greatest liabilities. Their coverage was not neutral or skeptical, it was aggressively supportive and free of cynicism. This has been a defining theme of Trudeau’s media reception. When the Prime Minister stages a photo op it is often reported as a relevant news event unto itself, as when Justin Trudeau cuddled the new baby pandas at the Toronto zoo or dressed his family as Star Wars characters for Halloween or did that weird yoga thing.
Stephen Harper was certainly not above using cheesy PR gimmicks to shore up perceived weaknesses with his public image. Yet time and time again, it was cynicism of Harper’s media strategies that became the story. His sweater vests and kittens and cowboy hats and hockey book were tropes of incessant, sarcastic mockery as journalists recoiled at the notion they could be so easily played. A reader drew my attention to this 2010 CBC story on Prime Minister Harper’s famous piano-playing: “Some commenters accused the prime minister of using the concert as a publicity stunt to improve his image and criticized news organizations for giving it so much attention,” they note sternly.
Why is Trudeau different? Partially it’s a product of the corrupting influence of foreign journalists, who have no obligation or interest to offer responsible coverage of Canadian politics and are thus free to treat Justin Trudeau as a pure celebrity. In the eyes of progressive American journalists in particular, Justin Trudeau has become a reliable clickbait meme, a slightly comical, mostly endearing mascot of the utopian dreamland their liberal readers expect Canada to be. Canadian outlets are presumably not ignorant of the views that can be gained by pandering to this base, which one must assume is larger than the typical audience for stories about Canadian prime ministers.
But partially too is it the result of a Canadian journalistic establishment that simply doesn’t regard Justin Trudeau as a politician deserving of hassle. If Canada’s journalists are operating from a mindset in which Trudeau has been one of the great victims of our time, a man chronically “underestimated” and unfairly maligned by right-wing “trolls” then they will be naturally predisposed towards stories that confirm the Prime Minister as a man of great complexity and substance.
That is the act in which I believe far too many of this country’s journalists have been caught. It reflects poorly on all involved.