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Bob Wakeham: Newsroom bosses should have said no

['Finance Minister Cathy Bennett speaks to reporters Monday about her own experiences with cyber bullying  and online harassment.']
['Finance Minister Cathy Bennett speaks to reporters Monday about her own experiences with cyber bullying and online harassment.']

A few days after Cathy Bennett conducted her women-only press conference to draw attention to cyber bullying (a goal she certainly accomplished), I received an email from a now retired, former colleague who was critical of the decision by newsroom managers to allow the finance minister to decide the gender of those reporters invited to pay heed to her denunciation of vile and obscene attacks on social media.

Bob Wakeham column

More to the point, he wondered how I would have responded if I was still in charge of the “Here and Now” operation, and such a request (or demand) had come across my desk.

My answer would have not a trace of ambiguity: I would have rejected such an overture and, as highfalutin or dogmatic as it might sound to some, especially those not versed in, or have no interest in, the nuances and principles of journalism, would have argued that permitting a politician — or, for that matter, anyone in a position of trust or authority — to dictate the attendees at a press conference or the interviewer in a one-on-one question and answer session is a decidedly unhealthy scenario.

The danger, of course, is that journalistic independence can be seriously compromised once the potential news maker or the interviewee is given the freedom to pick and choose to whom he or she will talk, a stipulation obviously being made while in search of a sympathetic or an obliging (the latter just a shade clear of co-opted) ear.

Granted, the issue to which Bennett was focused, and one which had affected her greatly, was not exactly your run-of-the-mill political story, not her biased spin on the deficit (although I noticed she couldn’t help at one point but make a characteristically partisan complaint about the financial predicament she and her government had inherited from the Tories).

This was her very personal take on the vulgarity and bile that all too often punctuate the varied methods of communication exploited by anonymous poltroons, cowards with the guts of a jellyfish.  

And I get that, believe me, I do.

I’ve been subjected to some nasty, personal attacks and threats throughout my career, much of it, I’ve concluded, that has come with the territory, but still has been, on occasion, hard to take, and has provoked in me a Dirty Harry dream to confront my attacker face-to-face.

Bennett, of course, believes that the majority of frightening attacks on social media are directed towards women, and that, I presume, is the reason why she felt it was only female reporters who would have empathy with her desire to give this cause as wide a journalistic hearing as possible.

And that was her prerogative. She would be far from the first soul with a laudable cause to seek out media types thought to have a philosophical bent that would help spread the message. Or the first soul with perhaps a less laudable cause or with political goals (these are sometimes very subjective matters) to try and convince a newsroom to assign a reporter he or she could manipulate.  

But that’s why it’s so critical that newsroom bosses not surrender that incredibly important aspect of their jobs.

For what it’s worth, and as the risk of sounding defensive, I’ve covered what many would think of as “women’s issues” over the years — abortion, domestic abuse, sexism — and have been heavily involved in the assigning of reporters to such stories, and although I’m hardly flawless, I would think I’ve brought a professionalism, integrity and objectivity to that journalistic process.

And, in my day, I would have ensured that the story Bennett was telling received legitimate coverage (with or without her co-operation); after all, it was one that demanded attention. A no-brainer, as they say.

But I would never have allowed Bennett to decide who should or who should not do the story. That’s an awfully slippery slope.

I certainly acknowledge that this was a relatively unusual situation, this Bennett press conference, arising, as it did, by her apparently sincere desire to tackle a profoundly consequential subject, a subject that has affected her directly.

And, as my colleague and friend Pam Frampton noted in a characteristically thoughtful manner this past week, it placed female journalists like her in a conflicted position.

Ultimately, though, if in a position of authority, as I once was, I would have given the request from Bennett the thumbs down.

There would have been hell to pay, from certain quarters.

But worth it.

 

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com

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