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#SOMUCHMUD

The federal election has begun with more mud than Saturday bath night at a pig farm. Alas, Convivium contributor Peter Menzies says, too many reporters are jumping in and further sinking journalism’s #credibility.

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Topics: Culture, Journalism, Media, Government
#SOMUCHMUD September 19, 2019  |  By Peter Menzies
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It was predictable. #sopredictable. And sad. #sosad

Journalists covering Canada’s federal election became one of the biggest social media stories of the campaign’s first week, overwhelming news regarding the contesting parties’ policy platforms.

Unfortunately (#sounfortunately) this means that while it remains an open question which politician will prove to be the winner at the ballot box a month from now, the biggest loser is poised to be journalism’s reputation.

Caveats apply. There are a lot of good journalists out there providing professional coverage. My morning read of The Globe and Mail provides a refuge of sanity and a lot of very good and balanced work. I don’t agree – and shouldn’t – with all the commentary but I almost always learn something from it. Their staff and those of many other organs avoid expressing opinions or engaging in debates on Twitter, a space often mistaken by those within the political bubble as being representative of the public square.

I feel badly for them and I feel badly at times that I ever had anything to do with what people increasingly seem to be viewing as a very shabby business. It has made me regret – more and more frequently – that I spent 30 years of my life within it.

But as the saying goes, newspapers don’t report when airplanes land safely and there is no escaping the fact that something has happened in the past week that should never happen: Journalists often became the one thing they should never be: the story.

The public broadcaster is always likely to be viewed with suspicion when it comes to political coverage because its funding is a matter of public policy. These circumstances demand an excruciating level of rigour on its part. Recent successful demands from others, such as the newspaper industry, for federal funding have added to public suspicion, particularly when partisan positions are taken by some of those involved in the funding framework. 

All of this combines to demand ever higher adherence to standards of fairness, accuracy and balance if the craft is to maintain the public’s trust, essential as it is to maintaining journalism’s role in society. One can’t, in other words, merely self-identify as objective. One needs to be broadly perceived as such. 

Alas, those imperatives appeared to crumble right out of the gate with the perception among many on social media that the CBC’s Rosemary Barton – who can be outspoken – went out of her way to downplay the significance of Robert Fife’s reports in The Globe and Mail. Those stories, for those who missed them, outlined in the campaign’s opening days how the RCMP had interviewed former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould regarding l’affaire SNC-Lavalin and that the Mounties’ efforts to interview others with knowledge of the event had been stymied by an unwillingness among the powers that be to waive cabinet privilege.

Attention was then diverted (Quick! Look over there!) to which among the politicians had ever been in the presence of notorious right-wing gadfly Faith Goldy, a story that appeared to enthrall media more than the fact that Liberal leader Justin Trudeau had skipped the campaign’s initial debate and was not taking questions. And so it was that the incumbent Prime Minister had to issue a statement clarifying that, no, he had never taken Ms. Goldy for drinks.

There have been other very odd moments such as when the CBC’s fact check revealed that Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s promise of a universal tax cut was questionable because many Canadians don’t pay taxes, and when Katie Simpson, also of the CBC, took time to draw attention to herself and the difficult nature of some of the critical comments posted on her Twitter feed. 

But the most notable event occurred when Trudeau chose to offer a serving of poutine to the unfortunate David Cochrane, also of the CBC, while explaining to him that the Liberal Party would always support his employer. The network, which I assume was appropriately embarrassed, then removed video of the event. 

I don’t know Cochrane but I am sure he is a good man and honest journalist whose reputation was sadly challenged by this stunt. The first reaction of many of his colleagues was to rush to his defence. That such would be their instinct as friends is understandable. What was most odd about this, though, was that it would be their first action. 

As a young journalist I was taught to never let anyone involved in my coverage – or my potential coverage – buy me so much as a cup of coffee. This may seem trivial for such small matters, but it was not. It was a constant reminder to all involved of the formality of the relationship. We were not friends. 

Later, in different roles, I have had occasion to share coffee or a drink with journalists and, as a matter of routine courtesy, offered to pick up the tab. My offer was always politely declined, followed by my “oh, of course, sorry, I forgot” somewhat awkward response. So I, like many, was surprised that while Cochrane’s general integrity was defended, the act of accepting the “gift” was not more widely characterized within the craft as a mistake – particularly given the current state of public trust in journalism.

I can’t emphasize enough how awkward this must have been for Cochrane. Few among us could say we would not have similarly been duped. And yet, I can’t shake the idea of what a moment it might have been for him and the beleaguered press corps if his response had been “I’m sorry sir my professional ethics don’t allow me to accept gifts would you comment please on why you won’t waive cabinet privilege on the SNC-Lavalin affair?” 

If journalism was going to be the story last week, what a story that would have been.

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