Peter Cowan, the CBC television reporter in Labrador, may not be aware of it yet, but I think he had a seminal moment in his young journalistic career there last week when he went toe-to-toe with embattled politician Peter Penashue.
Cowan may have been advised during his first couple of years in the news business that politicians, when in trouble, will invariably shoot the messenger, that they will blame the media, those god forsaken, evil truth-twisters, for having put them in an unfair bind.
And his bosses and educators may have told him that if he had to endure flak from a politician, he shouldn’t take it to heart, that, instead, he should wear such a cloak of chastisement with honour, and view it as a signal he was doing something right.
I can hardly recall a prominent politician in my 40 years or so in this business who didn’t, at one time or another, call out the press for failing to inform the public just what a tremendous person that representative happened to be, just how much he or she had done on behalf of constituents; it was the media that was to blame for all t
he unjustifiable criticism levelled at the dedicated, sincere, hard-
working, honourable men and women giving their heart and soul to society, not a self-serving, egotistical bone to be found among them.
But it’s one thing to hear about these matters from a cynical old grey beard (or white beard, as it were) like myself, or others who have been in the trenches with MHAs and MPs for an eternity; it’s quite another, and much more educational, much more instructive, to be thrust without warning into these affairs of the mouth, as Cowan was last week, and get a chance to see up close and personal what politics is all about.
Now I don’t know Peter Cowan from Adam, except from what I see on the boob tube, and he’s come along just fine in television news. When he first appeared from Labrador several years back, he looked young enough to be babysat, a slight drawback in an often-
shallow medium where performance and appearance are as important as content.
But a bit of mileage in the racket and the addition of a beard, the latter strictly and childishly forbidden in times past by the CBC (I was ordered to shave mine off during a very forgettable year as a reporter with “Here and Now”) have taken care of that superficial perception.
And I thought he handled himself quite well with Peter, Peter, reporter eater.
He wasn’t intimidated, that’s what was most important.
Now, to give Penashue credit here, the former MP, now candidate MP, soon to be defeated candidate, helped Cowan along considerably by making just a holy show of himself with his attempted verbal take-down of the reporter and the CBC, tossing out his idiotic implication that there was some sort of conspiracy afoot designed to drag him through the muck.
Cowan kept his cool, and politely but strongly told Penashue he would treat any politician, no matter what his or her political stripe happened to be, in the same way in which he had treated the former MP.
Cowan was handling it all quite well, but Penashue decided to give himself another shot in the foot when he boldly declared that a “colleague” of Cowan’s in the CBC was running the Liberal campaign in the Labrador byelection.
Well, now, what a shocking revelation! Just shameful!
Penashue looked and acted as if someone had just handed him a tremendous weapon, some grand bit of gossip, and he was almost drooling with the opportunity to throw it in Cowan’s face. His eyes twinkled when he tried to use the “colleague” story to illustrate his foolish charge that he was being given a raw deal by the CBC.
It turns out, of course, that the “colleague” was retired CBC host Cindy Wall, a person who, as
normal-thinking individuals would realize, is free to work with any political party, any organization, any business, any union, anywhere she wants, now that she’s out of journalism. It’s no one’s business what she does with her time.
But then again, perhaps we can’t blame Penashue entirely for the faux pas. Maybe it was just a matter of bad advice once again, the kind of misdirection that he claims got him in this mess in the first place. He’s never to blame, is he?
The entire exchange was played that night on CBC Radio’s national flagship program, “As It Happens,” for all Canadians to hear.
Penashue supporters (if there are any left) and Tory backroom boys and girls, election and byelection organizers, must have cringed.
During that same media event in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, CBC Fisheries Broadcast host John Furlong also got a taste of the Penashue sidestep.
Penashue refused to answer any of Furlong’s legitimate and pointed questions about the Harper government not fulfilling promises made in the last election campaign
on fisheries matters. Instead, Penashue sounded like a programmed Tory robot. Then he walked away in mid-sentence, or certainly in mid-question. Furlong, of course, has been in the news business since John Crosbie had long hair and muttonchops, a pro’s pro who’s seen and experienced it all and undoubtedly chuckled to himself as Penashue squirmed (I know I always did in similar situations).
But it was probably a first for Cowan. And Furlong may have even told the much younger reporter that this was par for the course. Get used to it. In fact, embrace it.
And if Furlong didn’t tell him, I will: that was the kind of lesson you could never learn in a journalism classroom, Peter Cowan, or through directions from your bosses in St. John’s.
You should thank Peter Penashue the next time you see him.
Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.