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John Doyle: This is no time to take a vacation from the news

On Friday morning, the news broke that Steve Bannon had been fired as White House chief strategist, and for the umpteenth Friday this year, a shake-up in Washington dominated the news. On CNN and MSNBC multiple opinions were canvassed about the meaning and significance of this event.

On Fox News, Republican members of Congress were talking about President Donald Trump's allegedly excellent work in reaching out to Congress about something-or-other. It wasn't clear what. That's Fox News for you. The other evening Tucker Carlson unleashed a monologue that might best be summarized as "Whither Slavery?"

It all gets overwhelming, these news cycles ramping up the importance of some White House official leaving their job or the implications of Mr. Trump's early morning tweets. It can get tiresome, the sheer amount of outrage, opinion and wildly speculative analysis.

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There is genuine fatigue – and that's understandable – but it's wrong. The temptation is to twist all Trump-related news into one big tumbleweed of tedious acrimony and let it blow away. At this particular time of the year, a lot of people are on vacation and there is aversion to the ill-temper of it all. Best ignore the news, say many people.

But, after this week's bizarre and troubling events in the United States, ignore it at our peril. Yes, sometimes the pundits are windy and there is such vigour in the enmity that you get exhausted taking it in. And yet it is vital to know that in the past week succour has been given to white nationalists and neo-Nazis. A woman protesting against the far-right in the United States was killed. These are momentous, deeply troubling events.

The other day, when Mr. Trump was ranting away at Trump Tower, walking back his forced, begrudging condemnation of neo-Nazis and other right-wing goons, I was put in mind of the late Rob Ford, the former Toronto mayor.

Just a few years ago, in this neck if the woods, citizens of Toronto felt they were living in bewildering times. Analysis was beggared by the news as it unfolded – the Rob Ford fandango of revelations, accusations, apologies and freakouts. It was exhausting to watch, let alone cover it. Often, TV and print media covered the Ford situation by relying on the usual menu of some expert pontificating on the marketing and selling of politicians. This was comically useless in the Ford situation. There was no playbook. There were no rules. Does that ring a bell of recognition?

Mr. Ford could never resist the lure of the TV camera. Condemned for some action or resentful of criticism, he'd launch into a rant at the nearest TV camera. If coverage was live, all the better. He knew intuitively that his bluster would be cheered on by people who believed in him as champion of the little guy.

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At the time, as I recall, there were people in Toronto who were fed up with the constant coverage of Mr. Ford and his brother Doug. It was overwhelming and they wanted less of it, or they wanted nothing more to do with it. Understandable, too, but look back now and we can see that close attention to the Ford phenomenon was prescience itself.

Mr. Trump did the usual slanging about "fake news" reporters the other day. On the radio show hosted by the Ford brothers, back in the day, the Toronto media were called "maggots." Among other things, Rob Ford would always claim, inaccurately, to have saved Toronto a billion dollars; he dodged and weaved around the truth, knowing intuitively, as Mr. Trump does, that the old-fashioned, firm, accurate narratives reported and spread by traditional news media have been shattered. Bluster worked better than accuracy, and accusations of bias were the best answer to media criticism. Does that, too, ring a bell of recognition?

Mr. Ford held sway with his many supporters because, in part, he knew that in the digital age, a portion of the electorate only dips in and out of the news narrative. There's a bunch of people who don't know or care what's real and what's merely sensational half-truths or biased opinion – that became starkly evident during the Ford years in Toronto.

It's important not to be one of those people, not to give in to fatigue and tune out news coverage. If you paid close attention to the Ford phenomenon, you could see what was coming in the politics practised during the digital age. Rob Ford merely insulted the intelligence. Donald Trump is doing far worse than that. Pay attention.

Video: What you need to know about Steve Bannon as he exits the White House
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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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