The Heart of the Issue - 4

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Some of the venom was really quite toxic

In my previous post, I talked about the bizarre situation we were thrust into last week, when the Open Line shows, talkback lines, letters to the editor and online comments were besieged by people, unanimous in their view that none of us including the media have any business even talking about Danny Williamss health issues.

(Never mind that Deputy Premier Dunderdale started the whole thing in the first place, with her news conference on February 2. If it was really that private, she should have withheld comment. By confirming the story, she lifted the lid.)

Perhaps the strangest moments came during Open Line, when not a single caller defended our fundamental right to free speech. They all told Simms, and the media at large, to back away from the story.

I called Simms soon after that show, and we had an interesting conversation. After a few minutes, he said, This is all off the record, right? I groaned, and started again, asking if I heard right did any callers defend our right to ask questions? Or was it total insanity?

I had some calls that made sense but there certainly wasnt anything in terms of balance, Simms said. Nobody picked up the phone this morning and said, Randy, thats a good question, or Randy, Id like to answer your question. Nobody did that. And I dont mind, thats fine its an open forum, open dialogue. But as a general rule you will get both (sides of an argument represented). Ive got a fair amount of email that does question what the premier has done, that does ask why didnt he give the answers, and all of that. But these people are doing that under a blanket of anonymity. They are not prepared to phone. Theres a real herd mentality about all this.

Unlike me, Simms was not prepared to say that some of the callers were part of an organized campaign.

I dont think its that organized. I just think its a group of people out there who see an opportunity to show their devotion to the premier, and they do that by, in this instance, attacking the media In many instances, they werent listening to the program, they dont know what the question was that I asked, they havent read my column. But they are responding (anyway) and a lot of them will respond and cc it to other offices, lets say that. And its done for a different motivation than engaging in legitimate democratic debate. But you get some of that, right?

Towards the end of the February 2 program, Simms referred to a bunch of emails he had received that day; messages that were vicious, insulting and mean-spirited.

I dont know why you would take the time to write an email, the sole purpose of which is to insult, to see if you can inflict some kind of emotional hurt. I dont know why you would do that. That says more about you, than it does about me. Thats basically what I was saying. You call me an idiot and you call me a moron, because I dare ask a question or open up a debate on some political issue, but dont you realize that, by doing that, youre proving that youre the idiot, youre the moron. I asked them to stop filling up my mailbox with such drivel. Youre better off engaging in the debate. And thats how I ended the show.

Simms would not disclose in any detail the contents of the emails. All that became moot on February 10, when Simms opened up about threats he had received. It started with another caller, who defended Williams and his decision to get surgery in the U.S., by claiming it wasnt safe to have the surgery here; that people had made threats on the premiers life, and might make good on those threats while the premier was unconscious. (Yeah, this was one of the zanier calls. But there have been many.) Here is Simmss reply:

All of us, everybody, in any form of public life will have threats made against them. If you could read what has been said to me, about me, and of me, simply because we mentioned Danny Williams name and health care in the same sentence. Ive had my life threatened. Ive been threatened with being shot. Ive been threatened with having my house burned down. We even had a guy come on Facebook yesterday and he actually said that Randy Simms should do us all a favour and hang himself in his basement. Now I ask you These people should these people be walking around free?

Later in that call, Simms said he is not taking the threats seriously. Still, its scary stuff, and an extreme example of how twisted political loyalties have become in this province.

I have written in previous blogs that supporters of the provincial government work behind the scenes to goose the results of VOCMs online poll and almost certainly, calls to Open Line. The question is, do they act on their own, or are their efforts organized by the government or the party?

Is it a stretch to surmise that, if Tom Hedderson is exhorting the populace to flood Open Line with premier-positive comments, calls are also being made and emails sent to supporters behind the scenes? Either way, I find it very worrisome that a Minister of the Crown would encourage a public onslaught of media, merely for doing its job.

The calls were also fast and furious to Talkback, the listener feedback line on CBC Radio. Later on Wednesday, On The Go host Ted Blades remarked on the number of calls and emails received, most unequivocal in their view that media should not be doing this story. He said that listener feedback did matter, and, for that day, they would not be doing anything on the story.

On hearing this, I immediately sent a note to Blades, asking him to elaborate on this decision. I received this reply:

What I said was that On The Go was limiting its coverage of this story - today - to listener talkbacks and emails, not because of them, and not in perpetuity. Just today.

I got in contact with Kathy Porter, Executive Producer of Radio, Current Affairs, for her reaction to the public mood, especially the flood of calls to Radio Noon. It was early days for this story and Porter said she wasnt sure what to expect that day when the lines opened.

So it was really interesting to hear the reaction on Radio Noon, Porter said. I expected more of a range of opinion because on Radio Noon, we do get a range of opinion. I was surprised that so many people felt we shouldnt even be talking about it. I can understand people disagreeing with each other but I was surprised at the number of people who said you shouldnt even be having this Crosstalk. We dont generally get that.

Porter said they have no way of knowing if some of the callers were part of any organized campaign. I really cant say on Radio Noon whether it was a genuine outpouring of feeling that people have. I really dont know, she said. Particularly since, on Radio Noon, we do ask people to give their names. That usually cuts down on any organized attempts to dominate.

Calls were also received in the control room, Porter added, from those who didnt want to go on the air but criticized the subject matter of that days show.

What surprises me is people saying you shouldnt even be talking about this when, from our perspective, this issue was already out there, right across North America, by that time, and we thought it was only right to give our listeners a chance to give their perspective I know that (hosts) Ramona (Dearing) and Jon (Soper) werent there to promote any viewpoint that they have, just to explore questions. They were expecting an interesting discussion. I think we were all surprised at the level to which it became a bashing of the media.

The big question is: will this affect how CBC handles this story, or similar events, in future?

No, and we talked about it ourselves today, other producers and myself, Porter said. We like to be thoughtful about these things and not knee jerk and just to make sure we are doing what we believe is right. And the consensus certainly amongst us, is that weve been balanced and sensitive and trying to represent everything from the concerns about the premiers health, to the policy questions that have come up as a result of it. We are not in the business of being sensational. And we feel like Radio Noon and all of our current affairs shows are informed places to talk.

So, heres the thing: The media in this province were not overly aggressive in covering this story, and they had every right to ask questions. It was not into the stratosphere at all. This is a fiction that was repeated over and over, on Open Line, in talkback calls, online comments and letters to the editor. Callers repeated this contention, this accusation, so often that it sounded like fact. But it was NOT. It was a lie. (And if you think I am wrong, I want to hear from you please send specific examples of local stories where media sensationalized or overplayed this story.)

In the next, and hopefully last, installment in this series, I look at some of the ridiculous things that people said or wrote in defence of the premiers health care decisions.

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  • Patton
    July 27, 2010 - 14:54

    I really like this continuing dialogue about the media's handling of issues of importance. The Danny Williams brain transplant , as one person I know called it, (and please, don't change it, he is great just as he is) has provided a wealth of energy to test how stories of major importance are dealt with. I exchanged emails with someone I respect who told me they believe there is an organized effort to move this issue along to certain advantage. I didn't believe that was correct at first but noew i think it is probably true. Further, i believe it is incredibly disrespectful to the people of NL. In reading this latest edition of Geoff's blog, I am also struck by the way in which talkback issues in two different CBC locations came to the same conclusion. Here in NB last week the Info Morning show in Fredericton mentioned they were getting emails and calls telling them that they devoted too much time to the discussion on the pending sale of NB Power to Hydro Quebec. They too are accused of bashing the government on this. But ironically a greater number are just sick of discussing it. I was astounded to hear the host say they would try to fit in other subjects and give less time to the NB Power story. I believe it was a genuine effort on CBC's part to provide a wider based discussion for the show. But, when a large percentage of the NB public is cheesed off and wants to discuss the NB Power issue more than anything else, and follow up by making many calls and sending many emails, then I guess CBC should be reflecting that, as long as they can identify who is really saying it. It's one of those darned if you do and darned if you don't scenarios. Just like the discussions happening about Danny williams. That story has turned into a kind of referendum on the popularity of Mr. Williams. Certain people in his government are seizing the opportunity to identify an enemy and rally the troops. The benefit to them is of course a way to maintain their government's popularity. But the people of Newfoundland are much smarter than that, I know. I believe most people certainly want the Preem to have an excellent result from this surgery and continue ahead with his very interesting life. But even the Premier would probably rather see other things being discussed, because whether anyone likes it or not, life is still happening and new issues are born daily. The organized groups should be very careful that while they focus on creating a fuss in one direction, something doesn't creep up and bite them in the behind because they aren't playing proper attention. Danny Williams wouldn't want to return to find the team had run the thing into the ground while he was gone. Media has a hugely important role in our very fortunate society. It's ok to blast media or anyone else who sticks their nose out there in public, but come on people, you cannot really believe the media created this ridiculous and excessive discussion on the man's heart surgery, do you? Leave them alone, they don't often create the issues, even though they sometimes make mistakes. Get your minds on other issues affecting your life, and try to come up with some ideas for government to pursue when the Premier is fit and ready to rock. How I wish I could visit Erin's and talk to my friends Buzz and Ralph about all this over a Guinness. Maybe two.