The Big Interview Part 1

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Parsing what may be the media event of 2010

It may well be The Interview of The Year. It was the first time the premier spoke to media since sneaking off to Florida for his heart surgery, and it aired exclusively, February 22 and 23, on the NTV Evening Newshour.

The interview went down during an extremely heated chapter in the history of local media. At the time, CBC had been frozen out, for the silliest of reasons, and NTV had the inside track on the premier. (The boycott remains in place, apparently.)

On first glance, NTV may appear to have the advantage.

However, the premier was boycotting CBC for not behaving, for not knuckling under to the apparently overwhelming devotion that people feel for this premier.

Meanwhile, NTV was being granted exclusive access to Williams, despite breaking the story in the first place. They were first to violate the premiers so-called privacy. They caused all this fuss, and yet, they were rewarded with continuing, exclusive coverage.

It doesnt add up.

Furthermore, it raises questions about journalistic independence at NTV. The question MUST be asked: If the premier gives preferential treatment to NTV, does this mean that NTV is trusted to behave itself? To not be aggressive? To not ask tough questions?

On, February 21, the day before the interview aired, I received the following email from a private citizen:

In my opinion Fred Hutton has set himself up as press secretary for Williams. How can he now be seen as impartial and objective?

After the interview, I spoke with journalists from other news organizations, who said, Tell me you are going to write something about that!

I said yes back then, and I meant it. This was a major media event and I feel obliged to put my views on the record, even if it is yesterdays news. I watched, along with thousands of others, the two-part series of interviews. I also recorded NTVs Eyewitness News the following Sunday, to see more raw interview footage.

I went through that recording several times, taking general notes in some places and, in others, transcribing the discussion word-for-word. I will now present my analysis of that interview in much the same way, pausing where necessary to go into more detail about Fred Huttons questions and the premiers answers.

First, a few words about Fred Hutton himself. I have always held him in high esteem, and have never had reason to doubt his integrity or credibility as a journalist. Every time I run into or talk with a reporter at NTV, I ask how things are at the newsroom and, in every case, they always rave about Hutton. They are loyal to him, and quick to defend his integrity - a point that carries a lot of weight with me. I watched this interview with that in mind.

Outside of the interview itself, Williams showed Hutton around his condo, talking about the many cards he had received from well-wishers. This was heckled by some of my media colleagues, who saw it as contrived and manipulative and perhaps it was but there is a place for this kind of soft stuff. After all, the folks back home want to see more of the human side of their enormously-popular premier. Such fluff has its place in a piece like this, as long as the interview itself delivers the goods.

And that? Im getting to it now.

The interview opens with Hutton asking how the premier is feeling, when he might get back to work and other small talk. Then the premier is asked for details about his heart condition, and responds by going into detail about what was diagnosed, when, and by whom. The premier said he was tempted to put off the surgery until after the throne speech and budget.

And I said no, Ive got to start thinking about number one here now, Williams said. I do feel good physically. So rather than wait until later and develop a complication, I figured now is the time to do it.

Hutton asks the premier how he decided to leave the province and the country for his surgery, and the premier recounts in considerable detail the sequence of events that brought him to Mount Sinai Hospital in Miami Beach, Florida. It was all pretty straightforward, except for this sketchy remark from the premier:

The surgery that I eventually got, which I can explain to you, was not offered to me in Canada. Now that doesnt mean that there isnt other forms of surgery in Canada But what was offered to me in Canada was not what I got, the surgery I received, in Florida.

This is precisely the same term that Deputy Premier Dunderdale used in her first news conference, and thats no accident. The awkward, legalistic choice of words seems to imply that the surgery was not available in Canada. That was how I heard it the first time, and it was only on the second or third listen that I said, Hey, wait a minute There was considerable local commentary about the not offered angle in local media, and Hutton had to be aware of it. However, he didnt ask for clarification. A simple, What do you mean, Mr. Premier, by not offered? would have sufficed. It would have forced the premier to explain himself. But the question went unasked.

(This question was partially answered more than a week later, during a comedy skit on This Hour Has 22 Minutes when the premier said: When I checked in other parts of the Canada, the surgery was available but not offered to me However, we still lack clarity on what not offered really means.)

There is more, much more, discussion about the details of Williamss heart surgery. In fact, its more than we need to know. I thought this was private? In my view, he is overcompensating now for the complete lack of information on February 1, when it was needed most. Now, its empty, meaningless babble. It is too late. The damage has been done.

(As I explained in this blog entry, the premier might have contained the international fall-out if he had communicated details of his operation beforehand.)

Then Hutton asks the premier why he didnt initiate a communications plan before he left which goes straight to my point. Here is part of the premiers rambling reply:

Well, I was warned by my staff that this could be an issue. From my own perspective, I just said, look, our communications plan here has been quite simple. This is my heart, my health and my choice It wasnt a question of me leaving the province. It was a question of being told I have to go outside the province in order to get my surgery done. From that perspective, I didnt want to have a big media frenzy going on just before I left, people going to the airport, send-offs, all kinds of questions being asked with regard to my condition.

Hutton could have interjected here to point out that such concerns are unnecessary the premier would use a chartered jet on his own sweet time, so there would be no issues with crowds at the airport. But Hutton can be forgiven for not wanting to irritate his subject so early in the interview. The premier continues:

My health is private. It is private to myself and to my family, and I figured the best thing to do was just go off and do it and then, at the right point in time, advise the public as to exactly what my condition was, what my prognosis was You know something, Fred, I think the public get that. I think, you know, 99.9 percent of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians actually get it; we understand that theres a certain right to privacy, but theres also at the right time a certain right to know how the person that they elected leader of the province is doing. And thats exactly what were doing here today.

This would have been a good time to toss out a question with some teeth, such as: Mr. Premier, did you intend to tell the public at all? Or were you hoping to avoid public disclosure altogether? (This is a valid question, because, lets face it, what the premier did was sneaky. He was already gone before the story broke. There is certainly a motive for total secrecy it would avoid potentially embarrassing questions about why he went elsewhere for health care.) Of course, if Hutton had asked this question, the interview probably would have ended. The premier handles challenging questions very poorly.

Coming soon: Part 2

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  • Patton
    July 27, 2010 - 14:54

    What? You received only silence to part one of that thrilling verbage?
    Good work. Carry on.