That guy with a bag on his head? Must be a journalist

Peter Jackson
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It ain't easy being a journalist. We like to believe we're God's gift to humanity, rooting out the rot in government, standing up for the little guy.

We are the sunshine that disinfects.

Then one of those surveys comes along and rains on our parade.

On Tuesday, The Toronto Star reported on an Angus Reid poll that placed journalists near the bottom of the scale of public respect for common professions.

Twenty years ago, 73 per cent of Canadians said they respected journalists.

That number has dropped to 49 per cent - not worse than lawyers at 44 per cent, but still pretty depressing.

Not surprisingly, the booby prize goes to politicians. In 1994, a small majority of Canadians - 61 per cent - said they respected politicians. Now, only one in four would give them the benefit of the doubt.

"One of the reasons is that everybody (in politics) spends too much time running everybody else down," veteran politician Bob Rae told The Star.

That could also help explain the media's fall from grace, too. Blame the rise of right-wing spin shops, with their torqued rage against small-l liberalism and the media lambs who supposedly enable it.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised, then, that the biggest scandal to come along in years in this country involves a curious hybrid of two of the least revered professions: the journalist turned politician. (The only thing worse is a lawyer turned politician, of which our cup overfloweth.)

Journalism is not the most lucrative profession. In larger centres, reporters can make a comfortable dollar. But only the most industrious and talented ones make any kind of enviable wage.

As naïve as it may sound, most journalists are in it for the satisfaction they get from it. They're happy with what they do. They're proud when they get a good story. And most are mortified when they get something wrong.

Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin once served as role models for budding journalists in this country. They reached the pinnacle of their profession, household names on TV sets across Canada.

Duffy sought out political shenanigans like a pig after truffles. The Old Duffster called it as he saw it. He was goofy and endearing in his own way, but never backed away from a tough story.

Wallin was a little more understated, but still highly respected. Her main strength was interviewing, which she did for years on both CTV and CBC television.

That these two in particular should be among a small handful of senators singled out for shady expense claims doesn't say much for a profession lauded as the public's eyes and ears on the ground.

The Duffy affair has been well dissected - fudged living expenses, followed by a lawyer-approved personal cheque cut by the prime minister's top staffer.

But Wallin's credibility is also in question, especially since she, like Duffy, resigned from the Tory caucus. Her travel claims of $321,000 since September 2010 seem a little rich. The skies certainly have been friendly to her.

The whole affair is an unprecedented disgrace.

I had a short e-chat with St. John's South MP Ryan Cleary on the weekend. As a former Telegram reporter and editor of the Independent newspaper, Cleary has followed a similar path to politics - though his is at least an elected post.

"(These) two high-profile scandals reflect negatively on journalism more than anything else," he admitted, but added, "Journalists are as corruptible as anyone."

On improving oversight, Cleary echoed a familiar refrain.

"The (auditor general) should be allowed into both the Senate and the House of Commons. Plain and simple."

Perhaps one reassuring element in all this is that Duffy was outed by the man who replaced him, CTV's Ottawa bureau chief, Robert Fife.

Alas, he who lives by the sword dies by the sword.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram's commentary editor. He rarely files an expense claim. Email:

Organizations: The Star, CTV, CBC Tory House of Commons

Geographic location: Canada, Ottawa

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Recent comments

  • Pierre Neary
    May 22, 2013 - 17:57

    Well said. Duffy and Wallin have no one else to blame but themselves.

  • david
    May 22, 2013 - 13:57

    Politics is of paramount importance to Newfoundlanders...why exactrly is a complete mystery to me, but it is what it is. To "cover" all things political, this is how it's done: journalists here simply wait for their phone to ring, and put the microphone in front of whoever wants to say something that day. There is no investigative, probing interview, just an unchallenged recording of the message, whatever it is. The next day, an opposing politician phones up his or here favorite microphone, and they do their thing in response. This is not journalism. It is completely mindless obedience. But it seems to work just fine here.

    • Eli
      May 22, 2013 - 14:58

      Sorry David but I disagree. Newfoundland news gatherers just don't have the resources of CTV or CBC's headquarters that can create W-5's and the like. CBC locally had a pretty good newsroom but cutbacks screwed that. All we have from them now is a crew of screaming youngsters for the most part. I wouldn't miss the Weekend Telegram for anything but again the reporters and columnists as I surmise have the resources to go only so far and I appreciate that much.

    • david
      May 22, 2013 - 19:18

      Sorry back at you. "Reporters" in Newfoundland live on abject fear of having their "sources" dry up, being cut off..... to the point where they are neutered. (Ottawa media was the same way when the Liberals got turfed....Craig Oliver at CTV was and remains a complete waste of time without his "sources".) Newfoundland is an even more "cozy" --- a completely closed little club. The excuse-of-a-media show up and hold their microphone at 6pm for a paycheque, the radio phone-in shows light up with ignorant partisans all morning, and life moves along...wherever it is that this is all going.

    • Eli
      May 24, 2013 - 14:56

      It must be wonderful to know everything about everything DAVID. Too bad you're so removed from that category.

    • david
      May 25, 2013 - 10:33

      Well, Eli, it is rather handy to be somewhat intelligent, yes. If you think that a "lack of resources" is preventing any reporter --- one who stands in front of a subject with a microphone in their hand anyway and recording their "evening sound bite" ---- from asking any probing questions while they're at it, then I come to the "wonderful" conclusion that your excuse is dead wrong. If he or she couldn't track down sources because their company/network vehicle was sold, or they only worked 3 days a week and today wasn't one of them, or if their phone had been disconnected, then you'd have a point worth noting.

    • Eli
      May 25, 2013 - 14:49

      Limited resources.....and its what I noted David, you seem to have missed that.

    • david
      May 27, 2013 - 14:53

      You really can't comprehend what you read, can you Eli? I wonder if you're a local reporter....

  • Tim
    May 22, 2013 - 11:05

    Journalists should be held to a similar level of accountability as the politicians they cover, or anyone else in a so-called "position of trust". The reason for this is simple - journalists are themselves in a position of trust, because the public relies on the integrity of their reporting in order to be correctly informed about matters that are deemed to be in the public interest.

  • Doubtful
    May 22, 2013 - 10:20

    When did journalists ever become professionals? Is that like a hockey player who is called a professional because he is paid for his job? Lawyers, Doctors, Engineers and Accountants have to be tested for competence before they can enter their profession. When has any journalist been tested for her or his competency? This is also why we have economists who don't know anything about economics going around calling themselves as professional economists.

  • Christopher Chafe
    May 22, 2013 - 09:13

    Here is a bright idea......stop being partisan and start doing your job as a non partisan individual. You just might be surprised on how quick your profession will rise in polls once again.

    • Townie
      May 22, 2013 - 10:24

      Let me guess Chris. If a reporter praises the Cons, he or she is non-partisan. Got ya.

    • Christopher Chafe
      May 23, 2013 - 07:27

      NOPE....that is still partisan......a journalist should remain neutral to all parties.