Shades of grey

Russell Wangersky
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

It’s just not that simple. This past weekend, in his Weekend Telegram column, former “Here and Now” boss Bob Wakeham talked about a recent run-in between CBC News reporter Peter Cowan and Conservative candidate Peter Penashue.

Apparently bereft of anything close to an answer to questions about the election spending fiasco that led to his resignation from the House of Commons, Penashue went on the offensive with Cowan, and suggested (in what certainly looked like a pre-planned, pre-scripted attack) that the CBC was somehow involved in supporting Liberal Yvonne Jones’ campaign.

Penashue’s “evidence”? That a retired CBC journalist, Cindy Wall, was working with the Jones campaign. (It quickly came out that another former CBC employee, Donna Paddon, used to work for Penashue as a Labrador adviser.)

Anyway, to get back to Wakeham’s column: he quickly made the point that the attack on Cowan was pretty regular fare for journalists, and suggested that Cowan, a relatively new journalist, should wear the attack as a badge of honour.

In Cowan’s case, that’s almost certainly true: the Penashue attack was clearly a dodge-and-weave of “the best defence is a good offence.” Cowan has done yeoman service in digging into the twists and turns of the election expense problems that have dogged Penashue, and is one of the driving forces asking questions that Penashue seems just as driven to never adequately answer.

The problem I have is that Wakeham seems to suggest it’s always that way — that if a politician ever complains about the style and tone of media coverage, they’re necessarily wrong, and that the moment someone complains, they’re just another sleazeball politician trying to worm their way out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves.

“(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,” Wakeham wrote.

He’s right — to a point. I’ve seen plenty of other journalists being handed a kicking for the temerity of doing their jobs properly, and I can even remember listening to a radio interview where a politician blatantly claimed I was young and inexperienced and had gotten a story wrong — even though I had tape of him admitting he’d taken his family on a cross-country vacation in his government car, charging the gas to the taxpayer the whole way.

But Wakeham’s suggestion that there’s always just that one side to a story? Well, that’s too easy an out.

Journalists are like everyone else: we’re human and we sometimes make mistakes, and because we are human, we’re often loathe to come clean and quickly, plainly admit to those errors.

That’s why corrections are sometimes obtuse and often buried in out of the way places in newscasts, and why you can understand that a politician might feel put upon or unfairly attacked.

Not black and white

Do politicians turn their guns on the media to try and divert attention from their own errors? Certainly they do — there’s probably not a journalist in Canada who hasn’t had a politician try to dodge an issue by shooting the messenger.

But it’s not all media heroes and political bad guys: that’s a radical oversimplification of a much more complex situation.

Sometimes, the messenger is just plain wrong.

And sometimes the messenger tries to divert attention from an error by counting on the bad reputation that politicians already have.

Journalists are supposed to look at every case on its facts, and only its facts.

Once you start deciding that one side of an argument is wrong because a politician is making it, and the other side is necessarily right because, well, journalists are all good and pure and consistently accurate — well, you’ve left the field of reasoned discussion and stepped into the land of jingoistic polemic.

And that is no badge of honour.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: CBC News, House of Commons

Geographic location: Canada

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page



Recent comments

  • Fintip
    April 16, 2013 - 11:02

    A curious column indeed Mr. Wangersky. I agree that journalists sometimes get it wrong. It might be accidental or it might reflect a conscious bias. A case in point is Williams' battle with Exxon in an attempt to extract fair compensation from the Hebron project. You and other columnists at the Telegram, the Globe and Mail, the National Post, along with the Board of Trade and even NOIA, were all unanimous in your view that he was being too strident and too greedy. It was the old 'please sir may we have more' refrain that has dominated Newfoundland's bleak economic history. Exxon went away mad but eventually returned to the table and negotiated a deal that, while not perfect, was a far cry from what people like you would have had us accept. So I am under no illusion that journalists are always right and politicians always wrong. And not to defend Wakeham's track record which I think has been off-base as much as your own, but I do think you are being unfair in this instance. Wakeham did not claim infallibility for his kind. He merely complimented Cowan for refusing to fold his tent in the face of what I think any right-minded person would agree was an unreasonable, unprovoked, unsubstantiated assault by a federal cabinet minister. Penashue, who hasn't had a word in his face since assuming office, wasn't content with ignoring reporters' questions as usual - he accused Cowan of bias and the CBC of allowing one of its own to manage a competitor's campaign. In Penashue's mind, the mere asking of a tough question is sufficient proof of bias. Your column not only reflects badly on your Telegram colleague, it questions the appropriateness of Cowan's conduct, and offers a level of comfort to Penashue that he does not deserve. The reality is that the quality of journalism in this country and elsewhere has seen a steady decline in recent years. Reporters are pulling back for fear that, like Cowan, they will be singled out for harsh treatment. Beyond that is the fact that so much of our once locally owned media has been subsumed by corporate conglomerates like Bell, Rogers, Shaw and even TransContinental whose first priority is profitability.

  • Tim
    April 16, 2013 - 09:39

    Good article. Both sides can be and are guilty of this. Pride (and "badges of honour") are the reasons that sensationalistic headlines are on the front page in big letters, and retractions tend to be written in small letters in some inconspicuous location near the back.

  • StephenRedgrave
    April 16, 2013 - 07:31

    The situation with Peter Penashue, although circumstantially different, reminds me of Marion Barry (former Mayor of Washington) . He has no shame and nothing seems to sink in as being wrong. He just keeps on as if all is normal.