I’ve been writing a lot of Liberal leadership stories in the past few weeks, and we’ve been getting a fair bit of feedback. There’s a recurring motif that I’d like to address. A lot of commenters on The Telegram website have been leaving messages that essentially boil down to “Why aren’t you covering X?”
This blog post is going to delve into some journalism school questions about the roles, responsibilities and obligations of a reporter. This goes beyond the Liberal leadership. In fact, it goes beyond politics altogether.
But, the short answer to the question “Why aren’t you covering X?” is “Because it’s not my job to do that.”
Let’s start, right off the bat, by saying that when it comes to Liberal leadership, the two main targets are Cathy Bennett and Paul Antle. As sitting or former politicians, Dwight Ball, Jim Bennett and Danny Dumaresque are pretty thoroughly known commodities.
On the other hand, to my knowledge, neither Cathy Bennett nor Antle have held elected office, and they haven’t faced the scrutiny that comes with it. So Antle may have been involved in some questionable tax stuff in the Barbados and Cathy Bennett has been heavily involved with bringing temporary foreign workers to Canada. Both of these issues are potential political liabilities, and they should be hashed out during a campaign. It’s up to the Liberal voters to decide whether that’s enough of an issue to vote for someone else.
Jim Bennett also gets a bit of this in The Telegram comments section, with people alluding to his previous stint as Liberal leader, and the fact that it ended on a bit of a sour note. And just this week, I received a cloak-and-dagger e-mail from somebody who didn’t want to be identified so badly he used AnonymousSpeech.com to send the message. Here’s the full text of the e-mail that our courageous tipster wanted me to investigate.
I have not verified anything in this e-mail, but it’s a good example of the sort of stuff that comes my way from time to time. (I can, however, confirm that my last name is spelled McLeod not “MacLeod” and the Official Opposition chief of staff is Kelvin Parsons not “Calvin.”)
Just to be clear: I am not dismissing any of these as potentially legitimate, serious issues that should be discussed in the media and considered by voters.
But when I get a comment on a story about Antle launching his leadership campaign, and somebody is writing that the real story I should be covering is Cathy Bennett’s business involving temporary foreign workers, I roll my eyes and do my best to ignore it.
As journalists, it’s our job to cover the news. It’s not our job to make the news. Generally, what that means is somebody will call us up or send a news release saying, “Hey! This is something I’m angry about! I want to talk to you about how angry I am, and why I’m angry!” Then, as a diligent reporter, I call that person up, and ask incisive questions like, “So, what are you all angry about?” Later, I call up whomever this guy is angry at, and I say, “So, he’s pretty angry at you, what are you going to do about that?” Then, later, I sit down and write it up, incorporating relevant background information and any numbers about the demographics of angry people I can easily find on the Statistics Canada website.
That’s 90 per cent of all journalism.
Sometimes, as journalists, we come across information and say, “Hey, this is going to make a bunch of people angry.” Then we call up people, see if they’re angry, and write a story about it.
Here’s the important thing to remember in all of this: If nobody is angry and willing to do an interview about it, there’s no story. (I’m painting in broad brush strokes here; sometimes somebody is really happy, and we write a story about that. Those are called “good news” stories.)
Let’s get back to the issue at hand. Paul Antle’s wife had a bank account in the Barbados, and the Canada Revenue Agency didn’t like that. The media has, in fact, already covered this. There’s the CBC story on their website.
But to my knowledge, no other leadership candidate has publicly criticized Antle for it. That’s fine. Maybe they don’t think it’s an issue. Maybe they privately think it’s an issue, but they think that by publicly criticizing another leadership candidate, it’ll hurt their leadership bid more than it’ll help them.
Similarly, a lot of sitting MHAs are lining up behind Ball, and a lot of people within the Official Opposition office seem to be formally or informally behind him. On the one hand, that seems like it might be an unfair advantage. But on the other hand, members of the Opposition staff have been working closely with Ball for the past 18 months; they clearly like the cut of his jib and his leadership style. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to be involved in the campaign? If Cathy Bennett or Danny Dumaresque wants me to pick up the phone and do an interview with them about how Ball has an unfair advantage, then that’s something I can do a story about. But if nobody is willing to talk on the record and speak publicly about Ball getting a leg up, then is there really anything for me to report on?
The important question here is this: If nobody is upset enough to speak publicly, what the heck am I supposed to be writing a story on?
Should I be writing about the fact that Antle’s wife had an offshore account, and CRA went after her for it? That’s old news. It’s already been reported. Should I be doing a story about how other Liberal candidates think it’s a reason why he’s not qualified to be leader? Well, I’ll do that story as soon as Dwight Ball or somebody issues a news release. Should I be doing a story about how nobody is criticizing Antle for it? About how this is a controversy even though nobody is willing to talk about it? Should I spend a month trying to dig into the tax records of the other four candidates? At a certain point, it stops being journalism and becomes a crusade.
The race to become leader of the Liberal Party is a matter of interest for our readers, and, to some extent, it’s important to the people of the province. The position of Liberal Leader holds very little power by itself, but if you’re elected to the House of Assembly you become Leader of the Opposition, and the government in waiting. This stuff matters, and that’s why we write stories about.
However, the Liberal leadership race is fundamentally an internal process. It won’t be The Telegram or the CBC organizing leadership debates; it’ll be the Liberal party itself. It won’t be citizens of the province voting to pick the new leader; it’ll be party members and supporters casting ballots.
It may seem like a fine distinction, but during a general election, the media serves as a proxy for citizens, challenging all candidates and covering the issues to give the public the most informed perspective possible before they vote. During a party leadership, we do a bit of that but, fundamentally, we’re on the outside looking in. It’s an internal process we cover because it’s of interest to our readers. It’s up to the candidates and the party members to challenge each other and test each other, and it’s up to them to pick the best candidate to put forward to the electorate.
If the other four candidates don’t think that Cathy Bennett’s business dealings involving temporary foreign workers are a serious issue, well then, that’s fine. (I promise, if she wins the leadership, the NDP is going to make a HUGE issue out of it in the general election, but that’s a battle for another day.) For now, the Liberals need to decide whether she’s the best candidate, and if nobody is going to make an issue of it, then it’s not my job to try to create a controversy where none exists. In fact, when you stop and think about it, that’d be pretty darn unethical.
It’s worth noting that this stuff isn’t exclusively a politics thing. I was discussing this blog post with Ashley Fitzpatrick, our natural resources reporter. She said this sort of thing comes up all the time during environmental assessments. People get in touch with us, asking why we’re not covering how some big project will affect the locals in the area. These comments almost inevitably come from people who don’t want to do an interview with us, and aren’t actually locals who are affected by the project. (If people are affected by a project and they want to talk about it, I assure you, we’ll end up doing a story about it.)
That’s about it, I guess. Basically, if you think there’s some important issue about one candidate or another in the Liberal leadership race, ask yourself: Why isn’t Danny Dumaresque criticizing the other candidate publicly about it? Or why isn’t Dwight Ball? Or Cathy Bennett?
That’s why we’re not writing a story about it.