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 firstname.lastname@example.org.