The Role of the Political Journalist

“The journalistic mission remains at its simplest: know your patch and use your knowledge to try to tell readers what’s actually going on.”– Katharine Murphy, Journalism Professor & Guardian Australia’s deputy political editor.

Is it right for a political journalist to simply quote a politician’s comments without challenging their veracity or wisdom?

The answer in Alberta, and I wager most of the civilized world, is no.

Don Braid, a political columnist for the Calgary Herald, learned this lesson the hard way.

Braid, a seasoned political journalist, got a hiding this week for a column on what Jason Kenney has heard from rural Albertans.  As much as I like Braid, the criticism was justified.

Kenney said the UCP’s rural supporters are worried about (1) the escalation in rural crime and (2) Alberta’s response to BC’s objection to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.  Braid set out Kenney’s response to these issues; but did not ask Kenney to explain why his solutions had merit.

By allowing Kenney’s words to stand unchallenged, Braid failed to tell readers “what’s actually going on”.

Who, What, Where, When, Why and How  

Here’s what Kenney told Braid:

Rural crime:  Kenney said the province needs to confront rising rural crime with more RCMP officers and faster response times.  He said the problem must be tackled “even if that means more spending” because public safety is a government’s top priority.

Given that “more spending” is conservative code for “increased taxes” and given Kenney’s sensitivity to the T-word, Braid should have pushed Kenney to elaborate.

The province provides rural RCMP policing under a contract with the feds.  What is Kenney advocating:  a province wide tax hike to cover the cost of rural policing, a local levy for additional police protection in crime prone areas, or an increase in the federal share of rural policing?   The first suggestion impacts all Albertans, the second two do not.

Trans Mountain: Kenney wants Ottawa to declare Trans Mountain to be in the national interest.  He’d be tougher on BC and would consider denying permits for oil already in the pipeline on its way to BC, imposing tolls on BC natural gas moving through Alberta to the US, and retaliating against BC goods coming through Alberta by stopping such goods for “safety inspections”

These are ridiculous suggestions.

Braid should have pressed Kenney to explain how he would bring them about.  Specifically, Braid should have asked Kenney:

  • Why is declaring Trans Mountain to be in the “national interest” helpful given the pipeline is already under federal jurisdiction?
  • What statute gives Alberta the jurisdiction to retroactively “deny” permits for oil that were granted by the federal regulator (NEB) when it approved the Trans Mountain pipeline in 1953.
  • How would Alberta impose tolls on BC natural gas given the authority to approve and increase tolls resides with the NEB, not Alberta, and were set by the NEB when it approved pipeline applications made by companies like Westcoast, TransCanada and Alliance after a bid process among the pipeline companies and their shippers.
  • Why does Kenney think it’s okay to waste taxpayers’ money to pay safety inspectors to “inspect” BC goods coming into Alberta. What about rail cars and airplanes carrying goods from BC and overseas, would they be harassed, ahem, “inspected” as well?

No one is suggesting Braid should sign up for university courses in pipeline regulation and interprovincial trade, but a few “who, what, where, when, why, and how” questions would have exposed Kenney’s suggestions for what they are–political puffery totally devoid of substance.

When Braid failed to call Kenney on his proposals he gave them credibility and left Albertans misinformed.

Rise of the Reader

Katharine Murphy says the Age of the Great Disruption (shift to digital journalism) triggered the rise of the reader.  Readers are no longer content to give feedback on the letters page, they’re busy talking to and hassling journalists in the comments section, on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

scoop2

Journalism before The Great Disruption

Braid experienced this first hand after he published his column.  Economist Andrew Leach and others took Braid to task on Twitter for reporting Kenney’s suggestions without adding a countervailing perspective.

Braid responded by saying “it’s noteworthy that after writing about eight positive columns in a row about Notley, I quote Kenney extensively in one and get raked over.”

He’s missed the point.  The fuss isn’t about writing positive columns about Notley and quoting Kenney once, it’s about giving Kenney’s ludicrous suggestions credibility by failing to point out they’re factually groundless.

Placid Journalism

Katharine Murphy says the days of the placid news cycle which amplified “…the messages of politicians in [an] orderly and linear fashion…” are long gone.  Today’s news is a cycle of “constant cross-current, contention and disruption.”  Murphy admits it’s hard “to keep … your nerve and your clarity in such conditions.”

But political journalists have an obligation to try regardless of who’s sitting across the table spinning fantastic stories about why they’re the best choice for premier.

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37 Responses to The Role of the Political Journalist

  1. Sam Gunsch says:

    It seems that Braid’s losing his hold on being the last semi-serious fig leaf of reasonable coverage in Calgary MSM which has otherwise for some decades now been in the tank for RW/corporate political parties, e.g. Corbella, Nelson, Gunter, Bell.

    • I agree Sam. I hope Braid was just having a bad day and had to get something out under a pressing deadline because that column was nothing more than a UCP press release. Katharine Murphy says political journalism requires “deep scepticism” in order to deal with “the political class who are always intent on cajoling, hectoring or otherwise persuading you to accept the rightness and inherent virtue of their various propositions.”
      We expect Braid to think about what Kenney is telling him, not just repeat it verbatim.

  2. ema says:

    Don Braid lost the thread years ago, most notably after he left Edmonton and apparently got embedded with that good ol’ conservatism, that is so deeply rooted in southern Alberta. On top of that, he has fallen for the Postmedia RW spin at virtually every opportunity. It is so tiresome to read him anymore, given that he once had a much less jaundiced style.

    • Ema, you raise a good point about the Postmedia RW spin…it’s becoming more extreme with each passing day. That’s why it’s so disturbing when political journalists fail to think about what they’re reporting. Herald reporter Licia Corbella justified the Okotoks rancher shooting a trespassers by saying he was trying to “discourage” the trespassers by “discharging a firearm”. You can “discourage” a trespasser by “discharging a firearm” into the air, not right at them. Rather than pointing this out Corbella painted the rancher out as the victim. There seems to be a lot of victimhood rhetoric in the UCP right now.

      • Sam Gunsch says:

        As you point out, the rancher, like any of us, could have fired into the air. I have rifles. I’ve fired them at a range and hunting. Everybody I know would run away at the sound, except those trained to stand and fight, e.g. soldiers and police/RCMP. And some of them would duck and run. Corbella’s defense is BS.

  3. Mj says:

    Great column Ms. Soapbox, as usual.

  4. J.E. Molnar says:

    Don Braid, like most everyone over at the Calgary Herald these days, seems to have morphed into Fox News North in an attempt to manufacture consent for Jason Kenney and the UCP.

    Pretty sure we can expect more of the same from other Postmedia scribes, as the 2019 election draws near. Then look for Stephen Harper-like full-page advertisements of UCP support on Election Day in a Postmedia publication near you.

    • J.E. it’s interesting you mention Fox News. I have friends who’re worried sick about their relatives who get all their news from Fox News. They’ve lost the ability to critically assess what they’re being told, being content to accept whatever Fox tells them (they love Trump). It’s not surprising that Kenney pushes the same fear based rhetoric, but I really chafe when the mainstream media plays along to sell subscriptions.

      • Dwayne says:

        Susan: The media is being manipulated. It has been evident for years. This is an attack on our democracy.

  5. Douglas says:

    Great piece on shedding light on what passes for journalistic commentary these days and you are so right.
    Journalists are living on the professional reputation of decades ago and are out of gas in so many ways. Today’s media pundits are often simply stenographers for free mouthpieces who are only too ready to provide ready made content of a “story”. With Braid, as a stenographer of Post Media, he is just following the company ideology and pious zeal. Must be end of fiscal year performance review time.
    Secondly, Braid is notoriously thin skinned, as evidenced by his phony umbrage of being called out after his self assessed ” positive” products. Squealing like a stuck porcine comes to mind.

    • Douglas, apparently Braid isn’t the only one who’s thin skinned. I’ve seen a number of comments on Twitter about National Post journalists who’ve blocked followers for simply “liking” a critical tweet written by someone else. While I fully understand the need to block people who attack you and your followers with racist, sexist and stupid comments (they add nothing to the dialogue) this seemed to go beyond that. Interestingly these NP journalists were the old guard who took great umbrage at being challenged.

  6. Keith McClary says:

    “What about rail cars and airplanes carrying goods from BC and overseas, would they be harassed, ahem, “inspected” as well?”
    I seem to remember airplanes restricting booze service while flying over certain provinces. Did that really happen, or was it just a bad dream?

    • Keith I don’t know if that happened, but if it did wouldn’t it be the airline’s decision to restrict booze service, rather than the result of a “safety inspection” conducted once the plane landed on the ground in Alberta?

  7. norm kelly says:

    Hear, hear!
    I’m not advocating ‘cross-examination’ of public figures/politicians/officials; but a bit more of that spirit in asking political questions is essential.

    • I agree Norm. As you know, to conduct an effective “cross-examination” or even an effective interview you need to know something about the topic. Given that Braid’s beat is politics in Alberta he should have a good handle on the biggest revenue generator in Alberta (the oil patch and the pipeline industry) and asked better questions to test Kenney’s proposals. Failing which Braid could have asked CAPP (Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers) and CEPA (Canadian Energy Pipeline Asso) for input.

      • norm kelly says:

        I like the latter approach; allows the critique to come from an informed Source. Allows the reader to then take it all in with whatever grain(s) of salt they choose.

  8. David says:

    It is almost as if some Alberta political journalists are starting to censor themselves and we are going back to being a one party state, where it is not wise to question or criticize conservative orthodoxy very much.

    The Calgary Herald could have learned a valuable lesson from the last civic election, but it appears to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing so far. Yes, there are fewer journalistic resources available now, but using that as an excuse for being a mouthpiece for the establishment will only reduce its credibility further. People may be reluctant to pay for news, but they are even more reluctant to pay for political pablum.

    • David your point about self censorship is interesting, especially in light of the polls that predict the UCP will win in 2019. Reporters who believe this prediction may be reluctant to ask Kenney probing questions for fear they’ll get frozen out like they were in the Klein years. Katharine Murphy talks about the importance of remaining independent even though it comes at a price. She confirms what we all know–petty politicians will give stories to journalists they like and “accidentally forget to brief” those they don’t like. Missing out on stories hurts a journalist’s career unless he/she works for a newspaper with integrity…which leads us right back to where we started, namely the “challenge” of working for a paper like Post Media.

  9. Dwayne says:

    Susan: I remember when newspaper columnists had integrity. Mark Lisac comes to mind. That has changed with the Alberta PCs, under Ralph Klein and Rod Love. They would chastise any columnist/reporter who took them to task on their wrongdoings. It reeks of the Social Credit Party of old and how they thought they could control Alberta’s print media. That was put to rest. However, what the Alberta PCs did, was not put to rest. The print media in Alberta (and in Canada) is alligned with the right winged political parties in Canada. Most of the time, it is Notley did this wrong, Trudeau did that wrong, and so on. Before the 2015 provincial election in Alberta, the print media, like the Sun, had columnists who were strongly urging Albertans to vote for the PCs, regardless of their proven corruption since the Getty days. The media also gets polling companies, like Mainstreet to do polls, which support right winged political parties in Alberta and in Canada. I think columnists lack objectivity and critical thinking. It seems someone is pulling their strings. What do you think of my comments? Your blog is spot on.

    • Dwayne, good comment. Yes I remember Mark Lisac from the days when he ran the independent newspaper Insight into Government. I agree that he was a journalist of integrity. I too have heard stories about how Klein or Love would tear into a journalist who wrote something they didn’t like. If I recall correctly Braid wrote a very flattering column about Love after Love died. It included an anecdote about Braid and his family going on a driving holiday when Love called Braid in the car. Braid picked up the phone and Love tore him to shreds about something Braid had written. Love sounded awful and I couldn’t understand why Braid would include that story in his column. It certainly didn’t make either of them look good.

  10. David says:

    Journalism is not about taking sides – unless it’s the side of truth, as we can know it

    • Bob Raynard says:

      Many years ago I heard an interview with Ted Byfield, back in his Alberta Report days. While there isn’t much Ted Byfield says that I agree with, I thought he made a valid point when the CBC interviewer challenged him on his biased reporting.

      Byfield’s point was that no matter how hard a media person tries, there will be bias. He then went on to argue that at least his bias was out in the open.

      Byfield’s idea that ‘there will be bias’ was a good one. Imagine a reporter preparing a story. During his/her research he/she uncovers 25 facts. Unfortunately, due to newspaper or time space (depending on the medium) there is only room for 15 facts. The facts the writer chooses to include or leave out will affect the slant of the story, even though every word will be true.

      Bias also comes out subtly with photos chosen to accompany the story. Look how often CBC stories involving Donald Trump show Trump with some kind of snarl. I expect the photos Fox News runs are considerably more flattering.

      We need to get the message out that people need to read about a story from more than one source if they are going to try and get a thorough idea of a situation.

      Sadly, this is a lot harder than it used to be, given how media outlets often re-run a story printed by someone else.

      • Bob, I didn’t have much use for Byfield either, but he raises a valid point. I like your suggestion of encouraging people to seek out diverse sources of news.
        In addition to bias I’m concerned about misinformation and fake news. Given how easy it was for Russian hackers to meddle in the US election, we need to focus on this problem. A recent edition of The Economist described how Germany and France took steps to protect their elections from foreign interference, and how Finland teaches media literacy and its national press cooperates to purge fake news and correct misinformation. I’m not sure what Canada is doing about this threat to democracy but telling Facebook and Twitter to smarten up isn’t enough.

    • David, nice segue into Bob’s comment… 🙂

  11. GoinFawr says:

    “He said the problem must be tackled “even if that means more spending””!

    What? But I thought the neoliberal answer was to privatize everything; ‘smaller gov’t’ and all that cal? Privately owned police forces/judicial systems would be just super wouldn’t they? (as long as you personally owned the biggest, baddest one, I mean).

    Re:Trans mountain. Three words: Alberta Government Refinery (are you listening Ms.Notely )
    And then to heck with sending the product west, east, or even south; run a line up to the Northwest passage that is ~about to thaw into a seaway. The NWT would be happy to take the business the last time I checked.
    I mean, as a taxpayer I would much rather have invested a ‘large’ in a potentially lucrative enterprise like that than, say, spent 1500 CAD so that Daryl Katz can get hisself a brand new sports arena.

    • Yes GoinFawr, I too was surprised to hear the words “more spending” trip lightly off Kenney’s tongue. Although the question of WHO is going to do the spending is not so clear. Is it the feds, the province, the municipality, a combination of all three, who knows, it’s enough just to throw this out there with no specifics whatsoever, so he can signal to the rural voters, “I feel your pain and am going to do [???] to help you”. Trump uses this tactic extremely well. It bothers me to see Albertans fall for it hook, line and sinker.
      I agree with your point about refining bitumen (at least partially) here. I suppose Kenney wouldn’t countenance that because it involves strategic (ie long term) thinking …where are the votes in that?

  12. ed henderson says:

    Over the past 10 or so years there have been astounding changes in the media world. It must be quite difficult for Mr Braid and his cohorts to adjust from his normal..”I tell it as I see it” to..”If I want to continue getting paychecks I have to kowtow to some graduate of some two bit journalism course”.
    The business of the Herald is to make money to survive. I think good reporting has been a casualty of our new media.
    Mr Braid might do better if he attempted something like Susan does here but there would undoubtedly be a lot to learn first.

    • Thanks Ed. I smiled at your comment about a graduate of a two bit journalism course. A couple of years ago I attended a meeting of the College of Physicians and Surgeons. They were debating an issue that had hit the headlines. The meeting was well attended by the public and the TV and print media. In the meeting the College registrar made it clear that the College’s position on the issue was X NOT Y. After the meeting he was beset by a bunch of young journalists. They turned on the cameras, shoved a microphone in his face and asked “Why is the College supporting Y?”. The registrar patiently took them through exactly what he’d said in the meeting, the College was NOT supporting Y, it was supporting X. It was like the journalists hadn’t heard a word he’d said, preferring instead to ask questions about a manufactured controversy. The registrar showed amazing restraint, I’d have throttled the lot of them.

  13. Carlos Beca says:

    Jason Kenney is behind 20 years in terms of reality.
    I have already commented enough on him and I think that Albertans will pay a heavy price if they vote him in when we have elections again.
    Here is an article worth reading and confirm.

    https://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2018/02/23/Fantasies-Keep-Pipeline-Plans-Alive/

    In this case I do not even believe a public investment is right. This is a loosing proposition. The world is changing and as we get pushed against the wall of pollution and climate change, it will go even faster.

    • Carlos, thanks for the link. I don’t know how we can get all Albertans on the same page here…will it take a major climate crisis before everyone finally recognizes there’s a problem?

      I certainly agree that Albertans will pay a heavy price if we elect Kenney, not just because he’ll reverse everything the government has done to shift to renewable resources, but because he’ll attack public services, arguing for privatization on the basis that the private sector is more efficient and the government budget is the same as a family budget (the stupidest analogy I’ve heard in a long time). The economist Trevor Tombe says Alberta’s budget deficit is large, but it’s due to our past reliance on royalty revenue, it’s not due to a weak economy. He concludes that Alberta’s economy is strong and growing.
      Here’s the link: https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/data-may-be-grim-but-albertas-economy-stands-strong/article34912443/?ref=https://www.theglobeandmail.com&

      • Carlos Beca says:

        Thank you for the link to Trevor Tombe’s article.
        I think he is right but to Jason Kenney it does not matter. Nothing is good until he is there. In fact he has already stated what he thinks of Trevor Tombe.

        You are right that only a major crisis will finally accelerate our care for what is around us. Somehow we convinced ourselves to be outside of nature which is absolutely amazing.
        Jason Kenney being elected could be the end of Alberta the way we know it. Unfortunately many people do not think so.

  14. Kelly D says:

    Kenney needs to be commended for standing up for strong conservative principles, the antithesis of this extremist and out of touch NDP government.

    • Derek says:

      Kelly D a strong conservative principal is breaking the law and stopping private businesses from being able to sell their goods?

  15. Kelly D, I’m with Derek here…I’m not sure which strong conservative principles you’re referring to or how they will benefit Albertans. Our economy, even with the oil shock of 2014 is better than every other province including Saskatchewan. Latest figures show the 2017 economic growth rate to be 4.5%

  16. Harce says:

    Brad just nails it. The inherent left-wing bias of social media as quoted by this blogger: “it’s noteworthy that after writing about eight positive columns in a row about Notley, I quote Kenney extensively in one and get raked over.”

    • GoinFawr says:

      Hey Harce, maybe the reason for what you perceive as ‘bias’ is not what you think it is;
      ie. perhaps just a larger slice of the population are ‘decency-based’, rather than ‘market driven’.
      NOw there’s a “Cold, Hard Truth” ( or would that be a “Warm, Soft Truth”) you wouldn’t want to face, eh?

      That said, in my opinion you can get ‘raked over’ for pretty much any opinion these days, regardless of its ‘bias’; just ask Trudeau and his “people-kind”

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