A little post-blackout sympathy for reporters

Bob Wakeham
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There have always been crap assignments in newsrooms, the types of stories to which which most reporters — not all, but most — would hate to have their names attached to by their bosses at the morning editorial meeting. You just knew it was the ruination of a day.

In my time, there was an unwritten list of undesirable assignments that usually provoked — if one happened to wind up in your lap, and you were saucy enough (and I usually was) — a loud protest, punctuated by profanity, an outburst you knew would change nothing, but had to be let loose as a matter of principle, or as a form of short-lived therapy, as in: “Please  $^#$#@**&% tell me I’m not being forced to go ^%#%*&#% there.”

Back then, for example, most media outlets covered every single, weekly luncheon of the Kiwanis and Rotary clubs at the old Hotel Newfoundland (on Tuesdays and Thursdays, if my memory bank still hasn’t lost all its deposits); there was always going to be someone there banging his or her gums (mostly “his” in that enlightened era), and it required, according to the journalistic assessment of those years, mandatory coverage, even if the after dinner speaker was going to do nothing more newsworthy than show slides of tuna cavorting in Conception Bay.

Almost as nauseating an assignment was being told you had to go to City Hall, dig through the agenda of the weekly meeting, and write up the dozens and dozens of building plans being considered by the city fathers and mothers (again, only a couple of mothers back then). It was mind-numbing.

Covering a youth parliament was no treat either, being forced to spend an entire day with a bunch of precocious, self-absorbed teens getting a chance to play politician: the “leaders of tomorrow” was the selling point. Yeah, right — although Steve Kent might have been at one of those snooze jobs, and look how he turned out. So you never know.

But the heart-break assignment of them all, at least in my mind and that of just about all my colleagues, was being sent to hearings by the Public Utilities Board, especially when PUB was dealing with applications by Newfoundland Light and Power to hike its electricity rates (I know the kind of “pub” where I and my cohorts would have preferred to spend our day).

Those multiple-day cures for insomnia would make the writing of a story on the annual report of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (IODE, for short, we all learned) seem downright exhilarating by comparison.  

Buried, we at the press table were, in a mound of paperwork and deluged by verbiage, understood by very few — mills this and mills that, rate of return this and return of return that, thermal this and thermal that; my eyes can still retroactively glaze over at the very memory of wading through endless minutiae, the type of information, on the other hand, that elicited pleasurable drooling on the part of the utility company, its Crown corporation compatriot, the regulator itself and countless civil servants. It still does.

But if you were a decent kind of reporter, and I like to think I was, you forced yourself to get over the disgruntlement with the assignment, and to listen and read, and try to make sense of the information overload and, most importantly, deliver a version to readers or listeners or viewers in a way that was reasonably understandable.

And that took work.

That’s why I have some sympathy for any reporter, in any medium, assigned to cover the fallout out from the blackout, and the three — count ’em, three investigations — into what happened to turn thousands of warm and well-lit homes and institutions in Newfoundland into dark and cold, and, in many cases, dangerous places in which to live.   Nalcor is doing an internal assessment of what happened (a bit like a police union deciding whether an allegation of impropriety against a cop has any validity), the PUB (not necessarily off the hook here) will conduct hearings, and the government (which has the ultimate responsibility) is launching its own inquiry into the crisis (oh, sorry, forgot: the premier told us it wasn’t a crisis;  it was just a matter of washing our dishes by hand, rather than using the dishwasher).    

And I would hope reporters and their editors and producers would do their utmost to keep coverage as straightforward and comprehensible as possible, even if the provincial government, Nalcor, and the utilities board, try, as the saying goes, to baffle them with bullshit.

There are undoubtedly a few out there in the land of news consumers who hope and pray that every single, solitary, mindless detail of information be delivered for public perusal.

Well, I would suggest those pseudo-experts on energy — you can read or hear them strutting their stuff all over the electronic conveyers of information these days, and most are a bore — are in the distinct minority. The vast bulk of people in this province, including me, want to have a few simple answers to a few simple questions: what the hell happened, who was to blame, will heads roll (and they should), and how are you going to make sure it never happens again?

As I say, it won’t be easy, and the difficulty of the assignment will be exacerbated by the fact that these investigations will overlap, and that there’s a very distinct possibility (more accurately, the probability) that a couple of mottos are already being heard in the corridors of government, the crown corporation, and the Public Utilities Board: leave no arse unprotected and pass the buck at every turn.                          

Nalcor, PUB, and Kathy Kilowatt and company will all be seeking a way to keep their heads above water, to stay out of harm’s way. It’s the nature of the beast. Corporate reputations and political futures are on the line.

And that will add to the complicated nature of trying to get to the bottom of Blackout 2014.                          

I say good luck to the reporters assigned the story.

They’ll need it.  

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland

in Newfoundland and Labrador.

He can be reached by email

at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com.

Organizations: Public Utilities Board

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador

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