Bold, but not brave

Russell Wangersky
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Across the way, in a piece of newspaper real estate pretty much like this one, columnist Bob Wakeham makes his case for an unfettered free press and CBC’s brave journalism in broadcasting the radio transmission between Cougar helicopter Flight 491 and air traffic control shortly before the helicopter crashed into the ocean.

First of all, don’t think that Bob is making up some after-the-fact logic to defend the indefensible on the part of a past employer: he believes what he’s writing, and he couldn’t be more sincere.

Wakeham has been the ultimate “if it bleeds, it leads” journalist for years. He doesn’t just talk the talk. He’s walked it, and he took the freight from many outraged viewers over the years when he was “Here and Now’s” executive producer.

I’ve been a managing editor and made my own arguments for using strong photographs taken during fire rescues and car accidents, and I’ve been equally chastised. It comes with the turf.

But what Wakeham is, this time, is wrong. (Not necessarily in his argument that the tape should have run, but in the logic he uses to defend it.)

Here’s Wakeham’s argument in a nutshell (or stop here and go read his column first): the sheer power of hearing the voices of the pilots during the last few moments of their lives makes it impossible for those who make safety rules to ever forget the toll of, or their responsibility in the crash. In its own shocking way, the stronger the pathos, the more likely it will prevent a similar tragedy from occurring. And for that reason, the bigger the scar it leaves, the better.

Interesting point, but a hollow one.

Is there valuable information in the tape?

You can argue that there is — especially when it comes to the steadfast professionalism of the pilots in the midst of catastrophe — but what there is, most of all, is its overwhelming emotional power.

Does it deliver a searing message?

Of course it does.

But does having that memory scarred into you actually do anything to prevent a future occurrence?

I don’t think you can even begin to say that.

Strong emotion is strong emotion — but a tape of pilots fighting to keep their helicopter in the air is much less likely to stop any further helicopter crashes than careful analysis of the root causes of a crash would.

That’s not to say Wakeham’s argument isn’t a traditional one.

It’s the journalistic equivalent of wrapping yourself in the flag — “what do you mean, you don’t support our troops?” When you don’t have any other adequate defence, you trumpet the people’s right to know.

More to it than that

The fact is that journalists are like anyone else — they like to beat their competitors, and they often act with no more sense of great and global imperatives than anyone else. Wakeham trumpets the use of the radio traffic between the helicopter and air traffic control as “journalism, (and) damn good journalism at that.”

Strangely, I always thought there was more to journalism than simply picking up raw tape and slapping it on air. Or, to put it another way, I have always thought that good journalism meant breaking a deeply-hidden story through the dint of hard work, or bringing out an unpopular but necessary message at great personal risk to yourself.

Pressing “play” may take nerve — but to me, it does not take any particular journalistic skill. It’s a little like finding someone else’s $100,000 on the sidewalk and then claiming the success of your financial strategy.

And the whole thing reminds me of an experience I had at CBC Television.

Years ago, when Wakeham was the big boss, I was told I was being sent to a town just outside Clarenville to cover the death of a child in a sporting accident.

I was told in so many words, whatever it took “don’t come back without a picture of the girl.”

What I said then was equally blunt: “Send someone else.”

Why? Because I had a three-year-old at home at the time, and I couldn’t help but put myself in the shoes of the grieving parents. Everybody may secretly want to see a picture of a child who has died — but not one of them would go to the door and ask for it. We like our searing tragedy safely at an arm’s length.

Wakeham didn’t fire me — but they did send a different reporter.

The truth is, families often do want to hand over pictures — they want to, because it makes the tragedy human. It puts a face to their loss for everyone else to see.

And, in the media, we happily take advantage of that. Twist your journalistic head enough and you can convince yourself that you have a right — a duty, in fact — to offend, to hurt and to damage, all in the service of a concept as empty as “the right to know” or “journalistic objectivity.” (No one’s objective — the best you can try to do is to recognize your subjective leanings.)

Remember a simple thing: broadcast media run stories to get the best ratings they can, just the way newspapers run stories to sell papers.

That happens to be our business.

Call running the Cougar tape what it was — a pragmatic business decision, one where you balance those who will listen and laud your efforts against the number who will switch off your station and never listen again.

But it’s not brave journalism. To call it that is the worst kind of muddled thinking.

It was a tough decision.

I’m far from convinced that it was the right one.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: CBC

Geographic location: Clarenville

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Recent comments

  • Eugene from Town
    February 19, 2011 - 23:12

    Russell, bit surprised by not your opinion, but the way which you argue you it by erroneously identifying Bob's motivation. I read through again and nowhere therein did the columnist say that future tragedies may be averted by running the tape, only that those charged with regulating safety in Newfoundland's offshore industry, "will ever be allowed to forget the deadly price that has been paid, and will continue to be paid, by men and women earning a living offshore". We have images and sounds that inform us on a visceral level about historic and tragic events; it is the media's responsibility to bring this to the public so that we are informed in ways that words are inadequate in capturing. It's not a pretty picture but the video of John Kennedy's assasination, the space shuttle explosions, and snippets of still images and captured audio (deemed releasable by authorities or captured by media or the public) are part of our life experience and connect us more closely on an emotional level than the facts reported in black and white. CBC and the TSB should have made all concerned families aware of the public release of the audio and the air time, but by all means we should, like the Ocean Ranger transmissions come to remember these unfortunate last words and vow "not again".

  • An Investigative journalist should probe into the give-away of our resources.
    February 19, 2011 - 17:12

    Russel Wangersky said: :"Strangely, I always thought there was more to journalism than simply picking up raw tape and slapping it on air. Or, to put it another way, I have always thought that good journalism meant breaking a deeply-hidden story through the dint of hard work, or bringing out an unpopular but necessary message at great personal risk to yourself". Then why don't you and Bob Wakeham dig into the tragedy of what happened to our natural resources, which left us destitute here for jobs. As one politicial scientist was quoted as saying in today's The Telegram, "the province of Newfoundland and Labrador still has plenty of natural resources. Well then along with its great strategic location, why are we languishing here in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador in a jobless economy. I wish the Political Scientists at MUN would start toeing the line for the province which pays them their salary instead of them toeing the line for Ottawa. Mr. Wangersky your paper, because it is considered the principal newspaper of Newfoundland and Labrador should be delving into what has gone on with our province's natural resource base and how it was appointed and by whom. We certainly are not on par with the rest of Canada with infrastructure or on anything, despite as the professor said our province, NL still has plenty of natural resources. Plenty of natural resources and a good strategic location should have been enough to have made this province wealthy with a buoyant job filled economy. We would, no doubt, have come up with the brains to have done so somewhere, but I am sure we would have found them in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. As you said in your article you should never be afraid to bring out an unpopular message at great personal risk to yourself.

  • Ursula Dowler
    February 19, 2011 - 16:33

    Note to Kerry Hann , sorry for the temporary hijacking of your job .

  • Colin Burke
    February 19, 2011 - 12:34

    Someone once pointed out to me that the CBC keeps telling us how shocking or sad are the stories they're about to relate, instead of just telling the stories and letting us be shocked or saddened if we are so disposed. It's irritating when you notice it, and anti-climactic anyway. Equally irritating is the tendency of print media to "tart up" their stories with tricky leads to make the news interesting. But news, when really news, is almost by definition interesting. Just look for the most interesting part of the story, lead with that, and put it in context, if necessary, further down. I did that for more than 20 years and was well paid.

  • Fintip
    February 19, 2011 - 12:24

    Far from me to defend the CBC. Once known as Mother Corp, decades of ineptitude and arrogance have prompted its current, more fitting nickname ‘the corpse’. Local management has even resorted to mingling local, national and international news on its poorly rated Here & Now program so viewers won’t notice just how little local content there is. So sagging ratings might well be the main reason for airing the final moments of Flight 491. And I shudder at the thought of defending Wakeham. He and Wangersky both feted on the same CBC corpse before finding their way to the carcus of what was once a highly respected newspaper. But there they part. Wakeham may have a surly streak but he is no hypocrite. Whatever CBC’s motives, the decision was the correct one (even if badly executed) and Wakeham’s defence of it is sound. We feel for the bereaved but I suspect even among those families there are many who feel that more coverage, not less, is the best guard against history repeating itself. When the first young victims of the ill-conceived Afghanistan war were being brought home in body bags, the PMO insisted that it be under the cover of darkness and that the press be kept at bay to avoid stirring raw emotions. So it is with officialdom that it seeks habitually to sterilize life and death sounds and images that might otherwise prompt voters to question the judgement and competence of their political leaders. This latest bit of gibberish from Wangersky hails from someone who regularly rails against government’s proclivity for secrecy. But then Wangersky is full of contradictions. In one breath he accuses Wakeham of concocting ‘after-the-fact logic’ to defend the CBC and in the next applauds his sincerety. Square that circle. As a young widow of Flight 491 points out elsewhere in today’s paper, this accident was entirely preventable. Enquiry reports underscoring that fact will be read by only a handful of people – much of their impact lost in the din of the next big story. But the voices of the victims – the haunting last minutes of the pilots who laboured in vain under false assurances of the aircraft’s operating limits – are less easily ignored. And so it should be.

  • Wayne Pittman
    February 19, 2011 - 10:21

    Since both ‘the right to know' and 'journalistic objectivity' are nothing more than 'empty' concepts to Mr. Wangersky, the frequent publication of columns in which he strenuously argues for greater 'access to information' in this province must be nothing more than the result of ‘pragmatic business decisions’ made for the ‘bold, but not brave’ purpose of selling more papers. Quelle horreur! Wayne Pittman

  • Ursula Dowler
    February 19, 2011 - 09:16

    Russell , on a smaller , more personal scale you maybe guilty of that of which you are accusing Wakeham . . I have made it no secret that I think that you are a first rate journalist . Awhile back you stated publicily that you had voted for the Williams government , and would do so again . I thought that was a "bad move" on your part , impartiality and all that . I am of the opinion that with your position as managing editor of a fair size daily , that a little personal discretionary control should have been exercised . I have no doubt that you have lost readers because of that , or did it even itself out , some readers didn't like your sometimes anti-government rhetoric , but if it looked like you are pro Williams , then you are ok . It is a tough call you have made on Wakeham's decision ,but, it points out the observation that we often see in others , that which is also within ourselves .