Chew the Pork Tour

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Election announcements should be presented as such

July 22, 2011 – Azzo Rezori may be the best journalist in the province.

I say that because the best journalists are not, as we used to say in my journalism days, “spit collectors.” They do not attend news conferences, collect some tape, and go to air, parroting the first five sentences of the news release.

No, the best journalists are those who take a piece of official “news”, apply it to accepted facts, ask appropriate questions, then give us the full story – an objective conclusion based on facts.

Azzo Rezori did that at least twice this week during CBC Here & Now, when he reported on government spending announcements. Rather than regurgitate the “good news,” Rezori applied the brakes to government spin, viewing the story through a wide angle lens and pointing out, fairly bluntly, that this is a story about government electioneering.

Rezori was covering the announcement of a new fire truck for the towns of Pouch Cove, Port aux Choice and Baine Harbour.

“Sixteen other communities across the province have already had their new trucks announced, all within the last three months,” Rezori said. “(Is there) any connection to the provincial election this fall?” he asked Kevin O’Brien, Minister of Municipal Affairs, who had the gall to say, “this has nothing to do with the upcoming election. It just happens to be an election year.”

My opinion of Randy Simms changes with the weather, depending on what issue he’s trying to stir up and how, but today, I have a major man-crush on the Open Line host. Kevin O’Brien called the program this morning, after Simms took a few jabs at the electioneering angle.

The conversation lasted seven minutes, with Simms asking pointed questions, taking jabs and doing guffaws at O’Brien, who held firm – and sounded ridiculous – in his claim that the announcements have nothing to do with the election. “I’ll be making more announcements over the next couple of weeks,” he said.

At the end of it, Simms puts it all on the line, asking O’Brien to repeat after him:

“The timing of these announcements has nothing to do with the election. So help me God. I’ve got my hand raised. Raise your hand.”

“And I have it up,” O’Brien says. “The timing of these announcements had nothing to do with the October election, because, I will answer it this way… If I had the fortunate aspect of being re-elected here in Gander, which I think I will, I think my record speaks for itself with regards to what I’ve accomplished over the last eight years, okay, so the question here in my district is, and I am only speaking for myself, do you want four more years of what you’ve just experienced in the last eight, or do you want to sit in the Opposition, or whatever it may be, and that’s fine.”

Did you catch that? With hand pressed figuratively on the bible, O’Brien swears it’s not about the election, but then, in a run-on sentence, actually tells voters to re-elect him if they want more pork.

Now, most journalists don’t have the latitude of an Open Line host – or the audacity of Randy Simms – to ask the minister to swear on the bible (though I’d pay $100 to see a reporter do just that).

Overall, the media’s record, on pointing out the election angle, is spotty. Not all journalists are as insightful as Azzo Rezori. Earlier in the same edition of Here & Now, another reporter covered the province’s $500,000 donation to Pennecon, a company owned by Ches Penney, to expand the industrial facility in Bay Bulls. The reporter did not reference the looming election, or question this half-million gift to a very successful company.

It’s the same over at NTV. They don’t present election announcements in that context. However, political reporter Michael Connors does a ‘Week in Politics’ stand-up every week, where he puts such events in their proper perspective (and does a very good job of it – his commentaries are some of the best out there).

When the pre-election pork announcements happen in rural areas, you can count on even less penetrating coverage. The local townspeople are invariably delighted at their good fortune, and the rural stringers – with both networks – generally get caught up in that enthusiasm (so do the Transcontinental community newspapers). Witness the string of announcements Jerome Kennedy made recently, on his Chew the Pork Tour, up the Great Northern Peninsula and into Labrador. Those stories were played straight up, by everyone. I didn’t hear or read all coverage, but never did I hear mention of the word “election.”

There’s lot at stake here. The provincial government is using the money you give them in taxes, for the hours you work and things you purchase, to buy your vote (the Liberals did it too). If you live in Bay Bulls or Pouch Cove, perhaps you think that’s a good thing. If you don’t, maybe you are pissed about that. And maybe you are right. It is your money that is being sprayed around.

Here’s a fact that most local reporters seem to have forgotten. When government does a spending announcement, the media are not obliged to cover that story. They can choose to ignore it. They will get a “minister is disappointed” call from the government PR people, but the sky will not fall. And other, more important stories will rush in to fill the vacuum.

Better yet, why not probe a little? Azzo Rezori’s piece included a map, showing all 19 communities that received fire trucks in the last 90 days. I would like to see this information overlaid on a map of the province’s electoral districts, to see how the pork is being distributed. It’s all conjecture, but it’s fun to look at the data.

Also, it would take just an hour or two to wade back through the last four years of government news releases, to see if there are similar orgies of announcements at this – or any – time of the year. If spending until recently has been tight, that might indicate that government has been salting away these little gifts for months and possibly years (which, in turn, could raise questions about the propriety of holding back life saving equipment for reasons of political opportunism).

At the very least, if media do cover these stories, they need to qualify every one of them with the obvious fact: this is an election announcement. 

Azzo Rezori is one of the few journalists who are doing that right now. The rest of the media should follow his lead.

To do anything else is not journalism, it’s spit collecting.

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