Journalism, kid gloves, and eating our own

Bob
Bob Wakeham
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If you paid even cursory attention to radio debate and the exchange of views in blogs and columns over the past couple of weeks as the province became curiously addicted to the premier's leaky valve, you may have noticed that the media itself was engaged in a meal of public cannibalism, the type of in-family feast that must have absolutely delighted Danny Williams and his media-sensitive devotees.
Not that it should have come as any great shock that media outlets, and reporters within those operations, can differ dramatically in style, philosophy and mandate. It's certainly not a surprise to those of us who've cobbled together lengthy careers in this business. Those often sharply contrasting standards are even recognized by the scattered hanger-on within our midst (we don't have the salacious fun of puck bunnies or groupies stalking media events, just baby boomers, for the most part, who've always regretted not going to journalism school and becoming Woodward and Bernstein, and are now self-appointed quality-control experts).
In many ways, the coverage of the broken heart in Florida is reflective of a split often evident in the media business: between those who are extremely cautious, polite to a fault, especially when dealing with the powerful of our society and those who actually enjoy upsetting the apple cart, who take chances with regularity, and are more apt to recognize that intrusion in people's lives is part of the sometimes uncomfortable world of journalism.
There are those reporters who feel an obligation to be practically reverential at all times, to tolerate intimidation, to attempt to ingratiate themselves with the powers that be, who are worried sick that their rapport with power figures might be compromised - as opposed to those journalists and journalistic bosses who treat politicians and other power brokers with skepticism, and refuse to let the rich and powerful dictate where journalism is permitted to go.
Some of what I heard, read (and participated in) made me wonder, though, just how little we've progressed in the past 30 years or so, whether we're still bowing with subservience, and absorbing insufferable paternalism, at the hands of politicians and other figures, and the pious condemnation of holier-than-thou types within our own ranks.
To cut to the chase on this matter of the heart, my philosophy has always been that even the most minor of events in a premier's life become fodder for news because they happened to HIM, the highest profiled person in the province. If he has back surgery, it's news, if he falls down a month from now and cracks his arm playing hockey, the cameras will be there, and if he has heart surgery, it should be reported (even more so in this case when he decided, with the vaguest of explanations at the time, to travel outside the province for his procedure).
And when I used, during a CBC radio panel, the premier's marital breakup as another example of a legitimate news story (and one noticeably absent from line-ups during the last couple of the years), the manure did collide with more than a few fans. Critics, however, conveniently ignored the fact that the topic at the time was coverage of the private life of the premier. How could that big elephant sitting in the room, the story known by just about everyone in the province through the rumor mill - the premier's separation - not possibly come up for discussion? As well, I made a point of saying that this was not a monstrous piece of political dirt, but, rather, just a matter of fact, reported in a few paragraphs in the Telegram, or a 30-second hit on television or radio. No Tiger Woods coverage, just the bare facts that the premier and his wife had split, that the woman who had stood by his side through electioneering victories, had disappeared from the scene. Where did she go? Finding the answer was basic journalism, journalism 101.
The premier's office went up in arms, his girl Friday, Elizabeth Matthews, the woman consumed with her bosses' shined shoes, his image, and the part in his hair, decided, along with her boss, of course, that CBC, locally and nationally, were to be refused any one-on-one interviews on the heart surgery.
But there were other critics as well, some inside the CBC, those conservative types to whom I referred before. And there was Telegram columnist Peter Jackson who thought my words were "contemptible" and "ill-timed," and that the public shouldn't tar all media with the same Bob Wakeham brush. He also added that I didn't represent the media, that I held only one person's opinion.
Well, thanks for that pedantic insight, Peter. After 38 years as a newspaper reporter, CBC radio interviewer, executive producer of Here and Now, Soundings, On Camera, Land and Sea, and newspaper columnist and CBC commentator, I knew there was something I wasn't quite getting right. .
Peter also seemed to think that an adversarial relationship between politicians and journalists was unhealthy. Well, as he himself would suggest, that's just one man's opinion (much in the same way his Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, prudish take on some of the relatively harmless sex play and cartoon violence in "Republic of Doyle" is just one particular point of view, one that will put him in the good graces of the Catholic Legion of Decency).
I happened to believe an adversarial relationship is entirely productive in a society where you desire a honest flow of information, not one loaded down with political spins.
The opposite is reciprocation. You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. Treat me nicely on this one, and I'll leak you that document on the Lower Churchill negotiations, or give you an exclusive interview.
What a disgusting price to pay for journalism.

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 30 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by e-mail at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com.

Organizations: CBC, Catholic Legion

Geographic location: Florida, Newfoundland and Labrador

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Comments

Recent comments

  • anne
    July 02, 2010 - 13:25

    It seems to me that Mr. Wakeham is still missing the obvious in his self-exculpation.

    Mr. Williams entered public life, his family did not.

    If you want to confuse tough journalism with gossip about politicians' personal lives, that's up to you. But you cross the line when you fail to respect the fact that a political spouse is a private citizen.

  • lonenewfwolf
    July 02, 2010 - 13:25

    i agree. what is going on is disgusting. it's not the media spin and relentless god-like propaganda williams pumps out, it's that with all this he and his business associates are walking our province into a new era of corporate control and corruption, one run from the premiers office, a group in montreal, and now florida apparently.

    democracy??!! more like robbery shielded by the cloak of democracy and opaque political fandangling. its laughable, all you have to do is follow the money right to the guys door.

    line up the boards of directors of nalcor & energy groups in ontario & quebec, throw in a couple of high-rolling contracting firms, a couple of ex-politicians and you have corruption!!

    what is everybody else missing here? still waiting for the messiah no doubt...

  • don
    July 02, 2010 - 13:19

    I agree with Bob Wakeham completely. He has an opinion and he should express it freely. Any agreement between politicians and journalists which results in the journalist being muzzled or his/her commentary watered down to suit the politician is a very bad arrangement and should never be entered into by any professional journalist. If Woodward and Bernstein had been in Richard Nixon's pocket, the Watergate scandal would never have seen the light of day! There are too many journalists who are partial to the whims of Government and politicians. Accordingly, sources get ignored, stories go without investigation and are never reported or if reported, are skewed to suit the Government. The Government scandals get coverage only when there is too much evidence of wrongdoing to cover up or ignore. Some Reporters would prefer not to report any negative commentary about our little dictator, perhaps fearing they will not get a call for the next Director of Communications job that comes open at the Confooleration Building! Bob Wakeham represents a dying breed of journalists and that is very unfortunate indeed.

  • Tim
    July 02, 2010 - 13:18

    I think it is quite ironic (and telling) that in an article meant to address the apparent 'cannibalism' that is taking place in the local media, this column ends with an unwarranted personal swipe at the opinion of a 'fellow' editorialist. It is one thing to point out actual flaws in an opposing argument, however the line is crossed whenever issues that have nothing to do with the topic at hand are hauled into the debate. In this case, the reference to Peter's take on ROD and the sarcastic Catholic line makes the above column stand on nothing more than hot air.

    I don't care how many award-winning (awards according to who?) documentaries, programs, gossip gags, Mr. Wakeham has valiantly spear-headed. In fact, having to mention ten and fifteen year old productions to justify his opinion - and self-proclaimed superiority in the matters of offering opinion - puts him on the lower pedestal.

    If you read this Peter Jackson, you will have no problem taking the high road, as it is presently unoccupied.

  • Eugene
    July 02, 2010 - 13:17

    With the Lettoesque and Huttonite bent in local journalism, Bob Wakeham is a breath of (surely not fresh) welcome air. While they may have different approaches, Wakeham and editor Wangersky have similar approaches: nothing is holy and the more popular a public figure (a la Danny) the more we need a media that digs into stories and leaves no stones unturned. Personally, I feel that anyone who throws his/her hat into the public ring has opened their private lives to public scrutiny; when/if they become elected officials, this scrutiny should increase exponentially. Good one, Bob. As a reporter who basks in the disdain of elected officials you should be celebrated by all lovers of freedom.

  • Polly
    July 02, 2010 - 13:10

    If it wasn't for the tenacity of some journalists to fight for the public's right to know , the remaining few of us ,who want to be able to think and express our views , would find ourselves huddled in some dark corner and constantly looking over our shoulders. As someone in the newspaper business recently said to me , I would fight to the hilt , for the right for you to express yourself . I don't know Peter Jackson , but I do know that he has a right to his opinion as much as you or I Bob , and I would bet that you would be one of the first to fight for his rights . We have to allow everyone their opinion even if it clashes with our own . Your remarks about Jackson's beliefs and how he views life may have been unwarranted , and understandable as in this poisonous atmosphere the Divide and Conquer tactic seems to be working .

  • anne
    July 01, 2010 - 20:11

    It seems to me that Mr. Wakeham is still missing the obvious in his self-exculpation.

    Mr. Williams entered public life, his family did not.

    If you want to confuse tough journalism with gossip about politicians' personal lives, that's up to you. But you cross the line when you fail to respect the fact that a political spouse is a private citizen.

  • lonenewfwolf
    July 01, 2010 - 20:11

    i agree. what is going on is disgusting. it's not the media spin and relentless god-like propaganda williams pumps out, it's that with all this he and his business associates are walking our province into a new era of corporate control and corruption, one run from the premiers office, a group in montreal, and now florida apparently.

    democracy??!! more like robbery shielded by the cloak of democracy and opaque political fandangling. its laughable, all you have to do is follow the money right to the guys door.

    line up the boards of directors of nalcor & energy groups in ontario & quebec, throw in a couple of high-rolling contracting firms, a couple of ex-politicians and you have corruption!!

    what is everybody else missing here? still waiting for the messiah no doubt...

  • don
    July 01, 2010 - 20:00

    I agree with Bob Wakeham completely. He has an opinion and he should express it freely. Any agreement between politicians and journalists which results in the journalist being muzzled or his/her commentary watered down to suit the politician is a very bad arrangement and should never be entered into by any professional journalist. If Woodward and Bernstein had been in Richard Nixon's pocket, the Watergate scandal would never have seen the light of day! There are too many journalists who are partial to the whims of Government and politicians. Accordingly, sources get ignored, stories go without investigation and are never reported or if reported, are skewed to suit the Government. The Government scandals get coverage only when there is too much evidence of wrongdoing to cover up or ignore. Some Reporters would prefer not to report any negative commentary about our little dictator, perhaps fearing they will not get a call for the next Director of Communications job that comes open at the Confooleration Building! Bob Wakeham represents a dying breed of journalists and that is very unfortunate indeed.

  • Tim
    July 01, 2010 - 20:00

    I think it is quite ironic (and telling) that in an article meant to address the apparent 'cannibalism' that is taking place in the local media, this column ends with an unwarranted personal swipe at the opinion of a 'fellow' editorialist. It is one thing to point out actual flaws in an opposing argument, however the line is crossed whenever issues that have nothing to do with the topic at hand are hauled into the debate. In this case, the reference to Peter's take on ROD and the sarcastic Catholic line makes the above column stand on nothing more than hot air.

    I don't care how many award-winning (awards according to who?) documentaries, programs, gossip gags, Mr. Wakeham has valiantly spear-headed. In fact, having to mention ten and fifteen year old productions to justify his opinion - and self-proclaimed superiority in the matters of offering opinion - puts him on the lower pedestal.

    If you read this Peter Jackson, you will have no problem taking the high road, as it is presently unoccupied.

  • Eugene
    July 01, 2010 - 19:58

    With the Lettoesque and Huttonite bent in local journalism, Bob Wakeham is a breath of (surely not fresh) welcome air. While they may have different approaches, Wakeham and editor Wangersky have similar approaches: nothing is holy and the more popular a public figure (a la Danny) the more we need a media that digs into stories and leaves no stones unturned. Personally, I feel that anyone who throws his/her hat into the public ring has opened their private lives to public scrutiny; when/if they become elected officials, this scrutiny should increase exponentially. Good one, Bob. As a reporter who basks in the disdain of elected officials you should be celebrated by all lovers of freedom.

  • Polly
    July 01, 2010 - 19:45

    If it wasn't for the tenacity of some journalists to fight for the public's right to know , the remaining few of us ,who want to be able to think and express our views , would find ourselves huddled in some dark corner and constantly looking over our shoulders. As someone in the newspaper business recently said to me , I would fight to the hilt , for the right for you to express yourself . I don't know Peter Jackson , but I do know that he has a right to his opinion as much as you or I Bob , and I would bet that you would be one of the first to fight for his rights . We have to allow everyone their opinion even if it clashes with our own . Your remarks about Jackson's beliefs and how he views life may have been unwarranted , and understandable as in this poisonous atmosphere the Divide and Conquer tactic seems to be working .