Sometimes media should bite the hand that feeds
It’s several days later, but my ears are still ringing from the noise of the Jim Bennett phone call kerfuffle.
And, no, I am not talking about the call itself, which was stupid, but blown completely out of proportion.
I can’t recall being less impressed by a media story than I was with this one.
To hear the likes of Jerome Kennedy, Joan Burke and Kathy Dunderdale poor-mouthing about that “threatening” call from Bennett was too much. These three were some of the chief bobbleheads when former premier Williams said some extremely nasty things.
Where were they, when Williams said certain public servants “should be shot”? That was no offhand quip. Williams spit those words with real venom. Some employees were probably in fear of losing their jobs, and for what? For posting a press release on a Friday afternoon – a trick they had learned from the PC government.
What did they say, when Williams accused a private citizen of being a traitor? “It’s really unfortunate when one of our own comes out and betrays us like that,” Williams said, of a resident who asked pointed questions about the mill closure in Grand Falls-Windsor? They said nothing.
Does anyone remember the private meeting, during the air ambulance controversy, when Jerome Kennedy was allegedly so aggressive he made the deputy mayor cry?
What about the email from a PC staffer, which supposedly threatened Brad Cabana with “personal destruction” if he persisted in running for the party leadership? The government is refusing to release emails on this issue, so it would not be unreasonable to suspect them of hiding something.
And, as noted last week by David Cochrane on CBC Radio, journalists themselves have received etremely rude calls from politicians unhappy with media coverage.
My point is, politics is a blood sport. And members of the current administration have been party to some pretty nasty business. Listening to Joan Burke say she was “shaken” by the call is absolutely laughable.
We all know what happened here. Government sat on Bennett’s message, saving it for the most advantageous moment.
Perhaps it was intended to knock the Liberals back on their heels and off their game, on the first day of debate in the House.
Or maybe they were attempting to change the channel, in the wake of Premier Dunderdale’s startling drop in personal popularity.
Either way, it was nothing more than a cynical attempt to manipulate media to do the party’s dirty work. And this is where my criticism comes into play. I think the media could have better handled this story, either by downplaying it or exposing it for the sham that it was.
I don’t mention The Sunday Express often but it’s the newspaper where my views on journalism were shaped, by my gifted colleagues and especially publisher Michael Harris.
I vividly recall one “learning moment,” when I presented Harris with a press release, hot off the fax machine. It was a Friday afternoon – just as our news window was starting to open – and here was a cabinet minister, offering a saucy opinion on an issue of the day.
To my surprise, Harris laughed out loud, balled up the news release and tossed it into the trash.
“Right,” I said. “Everybody has that. It’s not exclusive.”
“Not just that,” he replied (and I paraphrase, because this was a long time ago). “There’s no story there. It’s just a minister, angling for a headline and a bit of glory. And that’s not our job. We’re not his publicity machine.”
We could easily have contrived a story, based on that release – a typical “he said, she said” confrontation – but Harris would have none of it.
Which brings me to the Bennett phone call. If we accept, as per the examples above, that it was no worse than typical behaviour from the party in power, then what else is the story about? Actually, not much of anything.
It wasn't even a valid news story. It was manufactured. The PCs sat on Bennett’s voice message for five weeks, until it was advantageous to toss out the bait. They played the media like a fish.
And this is a criticism directed at all media, because they all played it at the top of their news, whether it was TV, radio or print. Meanwhile, as a direct consequence, more important stories – such as NDP Leader Lorraine Michael’s vital question about mercury poisoning in Lake Melville – were pushed back, diminishing their importance.
I realize I’m tilting at windmills on this one. Editors are not going to stop being played by politicians, just because that Meeker guy said so.
But I, for one, become frustrated when real news gets buried by fake stories like this.
Based on what I’ve read in online comments and heard on talk radio, the majority seems to agree with me. How ridiculous and overblown was the government’s accusation that Jim Bennett was “threatening”? Check these excerpts from Hansard.
After Kennedy raised the issue, Liberal Yvonne Jones offered background information, and said Bennett called later with an apology, and would apologize again in the House. She stood firm that this was not a point of privilege because it was not raised at the earliest opportunity. She concluded with:
“Our argument would be that if the minister felt intimidated or threatened in any way within the last thirty-five days or thirty-six days, she would have made contact with the RCMP or, Mr. Speaker, she would have reported it to some authority or at the very minimum to the Government House Leader, or to the Speaker's Office prior to this. So we would suggest, Mr. Speaker, that this is just an opportunity for the government to be able to come into the House and to raise this issue on a day when it is, in our opinion, at the earliest opportunistic time for them, as opposed to the earliest opportunity to make the case.”
To which Kennedy responded, rather ridiculously:
“Now, because Minister Burke is a minister of the Crown, as a Member of the House of Assembly, does not mean that she reacts any differently to situations than any other human being. One of the myths that were debunked many years ago, Mr. Speaker, in terms of violence against women and reporting of everything from sexual abuse to spousal abuse was that people act immediately. There are situations, Mr. Speaker, in which people do not know what to do.”
Did you catch that? Kennedy actually portrayed Burke as a female victim, even though Bennett would almost certainly have left a similar message on the machine of a male MHA. Seeing Kennedy act as if he's the strong male protector, defending helpless female Burke, is laughable. But don’t ask me about that. Ask the deputy mayor of St. Anthony.
Then Kennedy rolls out the old bully word.
“In fact, what I hear the Opposition House Leader to be saying is, bullying is okay in certain circumstances. It is okay for an MHA to bully members of the civil service and to say, and this is the word, Mr. Speaker, ‘on Monday morning I will be calling and there will be hell to pay with your Minister…’”
Sadly, Kennedy is seeking to score political points by exploiting public sympathy for genuine victims of bullying. Yvonne Jones challenges Kennedy on this, as well.
“Mr. Speaker,” Jones replies, “I have spent a lot of years in this House of Assembly, but I do not think I have ever seen anybody sink so low to score political points in my entire life as I am witnessing before me today – as I am witnessing before me today. It is a proud day in this Province to have a female Premier, and what do they do? They orchestrated, Mr. Speaker, to bring a point of privilege to the House of Assembly against a member on International Women's Day instead of coming here and talking about the important issues that face women in this Province.”
“Now, Mr. Speaker, the government members opposite are actually exploiting this issue and exploiting International Women's Day, and that is what is happening there. That is the lowest, lowest thing I have ever seen in my entire life. That is what I say to you. Mr. Speaker, if the government and the members opposite can plead ignorance after the very member sat there as the Opposition House Leader for three or four years, that she does not know the rules and waited for thirty days before they brought it forward to the House of Assembly is a little bit much.”
But Kennedy persists, in his ‘Burke as a victim of gender violence’ line.
“We have now, Mr. Speaker, gone from the condemnation of intimidation, the promulgation of old myths to support the minister's failure to report, to now saying it is only physical threats you should go to the RCMP with.”
It would be fair comment, in this instance, to suggest that, by comparing this phone call with gendered violence, Kennedy diminished the seriousness of those issues, showed an appalling lack of respect or understanding for them and a brazen willingness to exploit them for political gain.
I submit that government’s attempt to manufacture this story, by sitting on the information for so long and then exploiting gender abuse issues, was patently obvious. In my view, this should have been the focus of the story. Government should have been challenged aggressively, and made to defend itself. First, the story should have been played further back. Second, some reality should have been introduced. For example, how about an opener like this:
“In the first day of debate in the House, government’s first order of business was… an angry message, left five weeks ago by Jim Bennett, on Minister Joan Burke’s voice mail. The PCs say it’s a case of violence against women. However, Liberals accuse government of attempting to “orchestrate” and exploit media coverage on International Women’s Day, and say government has sunk to a new low. Here’s Robert Reporter with more on this story.”
See what I did there? I put slightly more onus on government to defend themselves, rather than the Liberals. Attempting to manipulate the media is – or should be – a dangerous game, and journalists are free to challenge whoever they please. Even when that means spitting the hook right back into the boat.
There is another angle on this story that was explored recently by Telegram columnist Russell Wangersky, who observed that the PCs are eager to release certain information, but extremely reticent about releasing that which is potentially embarrassing to themselves. You can read that column here: