Ron Fortier wrote A Farewell Guide to Political Journalism for The Atlantic. It’s a short course, useful for beginning reporters but an even better refresher for scribes and pundits that have stayed too long at the fair. Fortier sets the stage:
In a meeting just before [our social media] site launched, my business partners …debated which reporter would be given an interview announcing our venture.
I mentioned a particular journalist known to be an easy mark… Afraid of confrontation, eager to please, and lazy, this reporter printed whatever minor bits of news and color aides fed him, without skepticism or criticism. I didn’t respect the guy…
“He’ll gobble up what we feed him,” I told my partners.
One groaned. Another winced and said, “Yes, but nobody will buy it. Nobody respects him. They’ll know it’s just a press release.”
Until that moment, I assumed the people we covered in politics valued pushover journalists. I thought this particular reporter got ahead by going along. That might be true on the small stories, but not for the stuff that matters.
It is not just in Washington DC where political reporters like the one described are found. They are here in Canada. In Ottawa. In Victoria and probably every major centre.
The financial weakness of Canada’s largest newspaper chain (Postmedia now 98% owned by anonymous debt holders) ensures there are few places for ambitious public spirited journalists. In some media outlets, judgements about coverage depend more on owners’ financial interests than newsworthiness.
Suppose Postmedia’s life-sustaining bond funding through Ontario’s Canso Investment Counsel Ltd. came from a consortium of fossil fuel companies seeking favourable coverage? I’ve been told that but the information cannot be confirmed. Despite obvious public interest, the real financiers hide behind proxies and fund managers. The federal government, expecting friendly coverage in return, pretends that a company almost wholly owned abroad is “Canadian-Controlled” for tax purposes.
A reporter’s job is to get as close to the truth as possible, overriding personal biases and sifting through a rising churn of spin and lies to explain what happened and why it matters. At its highest levels, journalism informs (via scoops and insights that would otherwise be unknown), provokes (via new thoughts and action), and holds powerful people accountable (with no fear or favor).
Careful observers of political reporting in BC know there are carefully tended loops between politics, public service, journalism and PR companies that service business and industry. If a practicing journalist wishes to keep the connecting roads paved, he or she must conform and keep potential employers satisfied.
You’re not working for your editors, other reporters on your beat, or your sources. You’re working for the public, your audience… Also, remember for whom you work when you’re rewriting a press release or broadcasting a spoon-fed story for the wrong reasons—“because I’ve got to keep them happy” or “I’ve got to show them I’m relevant, that I’m the reporter they come to.” That’s how you become a patsy. It’s not how you develop sources.
Developing sources is time consuming and results are unpredictable. Being a patsy ensures access when a quote or a simplistic account of a complex subject is needed.
I tell sources, “I’ll never stab you in the back. I’ll always stab you in the chest.” In other words, you’ll know when I’m writing about you or your boss, you’ll know exactly how negative the story will be, and you’ll get a chance to argue your case—but you’ll still get the sharp end of the knife. A reporter’s job isn’t to make friends. It’s to build relationships that inform and provoke readers, and to hold powerful people accountable.
Holding powerful people accountable is what the great reporters of British Columbia (Hutchison, Barker, Garrett, Webster, Fotheringham, Nichols, Oberfeld, Mair, etc) did. It is uncommon today in corporate media.
A government official who tells you something in an interview and then says, “That’s off the record” gets a polite but curt reply, “It’s on the record, sir. I’m a reporter, not a priest.”
When a reporter’s income is supplemented significantly by payments from groups affected by his reporting, impartiality may be affected. When radio producers please government and are rewarded with highly paid appointments, we have a right to be cynical about their work at that station.
If you can show the deception is intentional, tell your audience… Don’t strain for balance or equivalence in a story where there is none. The truth is rarely black and white or evenly balanced between poles.
As RossK wrote at The Gazetteer, BC Liberals regularly create problems and then subsequently claim solutions to those problems as if they had nothing to do with the original difficulty. They do it because they get away with it. RossK says, “Local proMedia will now move on as if nothing has happened.”
In fact, if every government knew they would be hammered for mistakes, they would make fewer of them.
Politics isn’t just about winning. I loathe political journalism that reduces every development or controversy into a single lazy question: “What does this say about how Candidate X will fare on Election Day?” The better question is often ignored: “What does this say about how Candidate X would govern?”
The best way of predicting how a public servant will govern is to look at the record.
BC Hydro and its responsible minister have been indisputably wrong in predicting domestic demand growth. Based on projections they knew to be false, they went on a spending binge, growing assets without growing the market for what they sell.
In 2005, BC Hydro had assets of $12 billion. In 2016, it had $30 billion and acquisition plans for about $15 billion more.
Would you believe they sold more power to BC customers in 2005 than in 2016? It’s true. No properly managed business would do that… and survive.
Don’t follow the herd. Journalists in Washington tend to chase the same stories based on the same assumptions to reach the same conclusions. Resist the temptation because it’s boring and bad for your career. The way to advance in journalism is to be distinctive, which means telling stories that nobody else is telling, which starts by asking questions nobody else is asking, which can only be done if you ignore the convention wisdom and group think, which takes guts. Take a chance. Take control.
The statement of Ron Fournier has particular relevance to TV’s Chris Gailus, the newsman who said Global couldn’t really cover Vancouver’s real estate bubble because it wasn’t TV friendly.
Huffington Post found a visual that resonated. It was a photo of a $430 a month closet offered for rent.
Car crashes are TV friendly. So are rescued dogs.
The reality is that real news reporting is difficult. And expensive.
When Cameron Bell and Keith Bradbury ran the BCTV Newsroom at 7850 Enterprise, they didn’t follow the herd. They were out in front. Not because it was easier, not because it pleased the province’s elites. They led because they were journalists and that’s what journalists are supposed to do. It’s vital for democracy to work.
The Webster Awards has evolving into an insider’s festival of self-congratulations for the industry this article criticizes. The Jack Webster Foundation is a registered charity that spends hundreds of thousands a year, mostly on non-charitable purposes.
Their last report to CRA showed only 11.5% of its expenditures were for charitable activities. The cynic in me wonders if finalists are determined by the number of dinner ticket sales a nomination would produce.
I’m certain old Jack would not have approved of taking money from corporate sponsors who are hungry for softball reporting. He would have laughed at positioning Bill Good alongside Bruce Hutchison as a namesake of any special award.
I think Webster would have cringed at awards in his honour becoming, in Harv Oberfeld’s words:
…not only funded by big media bosses and management and their business friends… but also very establishment orientated and, at the top, more and more removed from working reporters, etc.
Not something I believe Jack would frankly be happy about.
Of course, as long as the Webster Foundation pretends only a handful of corporations do journalism and that new media is not involved, it deserves scorn.
Nevertheless, here’s a list of 2016 finalists. There are some fine journalists listed but note the absence of many who think themselves stars of BC journalism. I’m amused that mysterious and secretive Aberdeen Publishing has as many finalists as either Global or Postmedia.