Journalism

Journalism 101

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.

o-vancouver-small-closet-570The 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.

dog3

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.

ADDENDUM

websterThe 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.

webster-finalists

 

8 replies »

  1. Jack Webster was no journalism saint. He was willingly in the pocket of the Social Credit party in BC and it’s corporate backer’s. He was easy on Socred politicians and dismissive of Mike Harcourt when he was premier.

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    • That is not my recollection.

      I distinctly remember Webster’s coverage of Premier WAC Bennett’s defeat in 1972. Old Jack was delighted. He’d been exceedingly tough on the elder Bennett’s Social Credit government and he believed the NDP under Dave Barrett deserved to be elected. Webster though did not become a partisan for Barrett.
      In a later interview, Bennett explained his defeat, “The newspapers and magazines and other media were all opposed to us; I was hitting their pocketbooks, their advertising budgets.”

      As a person involved with the Liberals in the sixties and seventies, I had opportunity to talk with Webster. Mostly, when he pretended to be irascible, he had a twinkle in his eye. At the Georgia Hotel, I saw him rip into a group of Liberals, then enjoy their discomfort.
      He was a performer but he also knew that people who stepped into the public arena ought to be held accountable. He said government ministers paid sycophants to hang around and offer praise; they shouldn’t expect the same treatment from him.

      An expression says journalists should hold feet of the powerful to the fire. They are there to ask hard questions and test answers for truthfulness. If a politician feels victimized, it is because he or she is uncomfortable answering the questions.

      Webster took aim mostly at people who were in power. I try to emulate that so on this website, I attack the government of the day. They are the decision makers; they are the ones would could make an immediate difference in addressing problems.

      Liberals prefer writers who act as what Martyn Brown called “master baiters.” In the Georgia Straight Friday, Brown wrote, “There’s a new baiting game that’s big these days with the deacons of Victoria’s legislative press gallery: it’s called baiting John Horgan.”

      Martyn Brown: Disabusing John Horgan’s media master baiters

      At election time, the deacons aim to maintain the status. That suits their interests and keeps their access intact. They don’t have much else to sell.

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  2. “Hist Dom” is full of prunes. During my time in government Bill Bennett would only allow a handfull of ministers near Webster unless it couldn’t be avoided. I was part of that handful and counted myself very lucky. You didn’t “handle”, Jack, you prepared thoroughly and never tried to bullshit him. He sensed fear like a prowling animal because he knew fear was probably justified and he would press until he found out. You had to stand up to him but also also concede if he had you and not try to weasel your way out. If you were honest and straight forward, you were OK, and it also helped to have a sense of humour.

    He gave me several pieces of advice before I went into radio. The one that said the most about Jack Webster was “do every show as if the bastards were going to fire you at the end of it”. I took that advice and while I did lots of shows I would have liked to do over, I always felt I had given my honest best. Of course, I was fired three times.

    I was honoured to receive the Bruce Hutchison Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2003. “The Hutch” and it was my proudest moment and remains so. This was Bruce Hutchison, whom I knew and respected as few others and my sainted mentor, Jack Webster.

    Since then I have seen many receive this honour and felt they were all deserved; on the other hand, I have seen the Webster Foundation corporatized and compromised steadily and have made my views known in no uncertain terms in writing to Jack Jr, a highly respected lawyer. I have told him that you cannot take the Queen’s shilling without doing the Queen’s bidding- that these bastards didn’t “proudly donate” unless they received something in return or at least thought they did, perhaps the same thing. Except that it’s more dignified, and the company ait’s no different tha buying a seat at Christy Clark’s dinner table.

    The people actually running the Foundation are wonderful, magnificent, but the decision to take corporate donations naive as hell and just plain wrong. The payoff to the donors will be subtle and disguised perhaps, but there.

    Finally, health permitting, I will be at the dinner this. Jack Webster will never change, neither will my pride in winning the “Hutch” and nothing in the world would keep me from seeing old and distinguised friends and colleagues.

    I only say this, Jack, in the name of your father, who helped so many, who was fearless with the Establishment whose feet he always held in the flames – in the name of all of us who loved and respected.a man who would be appalled to see his name so abused – just say thanks but no thanks.

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  3. Bob Mackin has more qualifications for a Webster than almost all the others combined! This has become a corporate shill backslapping exercise, not much more.

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  4. The gulf between journalistic theory and current practice is stark. We’ve watched and objected to little avail throughout its relatively rapid devolution to a state from which its recovery seems improbable.

    At first glance, the notion of a Bill Good Award as part of the Webster Awards might be seen as just a symptom of the local pro-journalistic malaise. In my view it forms an integral part of the malignancy guaranteeing a continued death spiral.

    What would aspiring journalists find when seeking journalistic inspiration through examination of Mr. Good’s lengthy career? Would they find exceptional examples of a fearless and independent determination to fully investigate in the public interest actions of captains of industry or government no matter where it took him? Examples where he shone light where we could not go and others feared to tread? Stories he uncovered and told that would otherwise have remained secret? Examples of cabinet ministers or CEOs that feared and trembled at his probe? Controversial stands he took on anything? Lawsuits that indicated he operated anywhere near the edges rather than safely down the middle? Evidence of the slightest difference of opinion with his corporate employers? A book or two he’s authored using his experiences and offering them as specific guidance in attaining journalistic success? Examples beyond length of tenure that established him as a journalist above and beyond the crowd in any manner?

    Or would they find an unhelpful shell empty but for the definition of milquetoast?

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  5. Re: Aberdeen Publishing.

    Norm,

    The Steuart Henderson Britt quote “the mysterious and secretive” Aberdeen Publishing splashes on its Advertising page would seem apt.

    To paraphrase, “Doing business without [transparency] is like winking at a girl in the dark. You know what you are doing, but nobody else does.”

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  6. “Today, the editor of the local paper no longer wields the full yardstick for rapping knuckles. The yardstick is still there, but now it’s shared with TV, radio, bloggers, podcasters, upstart news sites and, well, pretty much everyone with a Facebook or Twitter account.

    “For the most part, this is a good thing. The more people we have reporting news — whatever a person’s interpretation of news might be — the better off we all are.”

    The writer? Wayne Moriarty, in The Province this week.

    http://theprovince.com/opinion/columnists/great-to-see-salmon-project-from-influential-vancouver-blogger

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