WHEN JOURNALISTS GET MAD

Are Canadian journalists having a Howard Beale moment? (Photograph by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Are Canadian journalists having a Howard Beale moment? (Photograph by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

“I’m mad as Hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

That was how some journalists seemed to respond last week to an open letter I wrote about how government communications staff are helping to kill democracy.

But, if we want to save it, we’re going to need to do more than just throw open our windows, stick our heads out and yell about the non-answers we often get from those spin doctors.

In that letter, which was published in J-Source, The Tyee, DeSmog Canada and the Yukon News, I wrote about how those non-answers are actually a refusal to “provide the public with information. And if the public doesn’t know what their government is actually doing, it can continue doing things the public wouldn’t want it to do.”

Those words were shared on Facebook and retweeted hundreds of times, with one reporter in the Yukon stating, “I think it’s fair to say the frustration levels of journalists in this country are rising.”

That frustration has been well-earned.

Compared to the United States, Canadian governments release fewer public records that reporters can use to find stories that don’t come from a news release or news event.

Our governments also confound access to the records they don’t release by having weak freedom of information laws.

And many public bodies have policies that restrict or prohibit their employees from speaking with reporters.

That means communications departments (the spin factories and propaganda shops of government) can be one of the only sources journalists have for timely information.

Opacity is winning the war against transparency. And if Canadian journalists want to turn the tide, they must do more in the fight against that secrecy – something some American news outlets expressly allow their reporters to do.

For example, in a recent statement to Politico, a New York Times spokesperson stated the newspaper is “not neutral on the issue of press freedom. We have vigorously opposed actions that inhibit legitimate reporting.”

Meanwhile, National Public Radio’s ethics handbook, which prohibits political activities, makes an exception for “issues directly related to our journalistic mission (e.g. First Amendment rights, the Freedom of Information Act, a federal ‘shield law’).”*

Here in Canada, I simply recommended in my open letter that journalists should let our audiences know when spin doctors don’t respond to our questions, provide non-answers or interfere with attempts to interview public officials.

Perhaps journalists should even include that protocol in the emails we send to government spokespeople, letting them know that we also won’t be using their non-answers for the sake of false balance?

In some way ways, that would be similar to David Carr‘s approach to reporting. Speaking to National Public Radio’s Terry Gross, the late New York Times media critic explained:

If it’s going to be a hard story, one of the things I always say is, ‘This is going to be a really serious story and I’m asking very serious questions and it behoves you to think it through and really work on answering and defending yourself…And if they don’t engage, I just tell them, ‘Well you know what, you better put the nut cup on because this isn’t going to be pleasant for anyone.’

If we did the same thing with government communications staff and their tactics, they won’t surprised when a reporter such as the Georgia Straight’s Travis Lupick thinks about writing a sentence such as this: “A [Canadian Border Services Agency] spokesperson repeatedly ignored questions and read unrelated bullet points written by an anonymous spin doctor.”

And that way, maybe we won’t hear those unrelated bullet points at all.

Postscript: Last week, CBC Daybreak South succeeded in getting Andrew Wilkinson, the minister responsible for British Columbia’s spin doctors, to address complaints about the state of government communications (including my open letter).

Provincial flacks “initially declined” to respond to those complaints. But Wilkinson made an appearance on Daybreak South after the program tried contacting “each and every MLA” in its listening area about that issue.

You can listen to the interview for yourself on Soundcloud. But suffice it say Wilkinson, somewhat appropriately, appeared to have his own talking points for that conversation. So, just as appropriately, I’ve filed freedom of information requests to obtain them.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• The Canadian Press reports a new government policy requires all possible breaches of cabinet confidentiality – “however slight” – to be “immediately reported to the Prime Minister’s Office or officials in the Privy Council Office, the government’s bureaucratic nerve centre.”

• In an interview with the Ottawa Citizen, Parliamentary Budget Officer Jean-Denis Fréchette said he wants a “coercive baseball bat” that will force government departments to provide him with economic and legislative data “on a timely and free basis.”

• CBC News reports, “A former top adviser to then-Employment Minister Jason Kenney has had his knuckles rapped by the federal ethics watchdog for accepting gala tickets from companies and interest groups registered to lobby his own department.” During that investigation, Ethics and Conflict of Interest Commissioner Mary Dawson also found the adviser, Michael Bonner, “could not provide me with any emails related to my examination because he had deleted them, as his usual practice was to delete emails every two weeks. He added that deleted emails of ministerial staff remain on the server for about four weeks, but are then lost forever as they are not ‘archived.'” (hat tip: Mike de Souza)

• Greenpeace Canada’s climate and energy campaign Keith Stewart has two suggestions for the bureaucrats running the system that allows Canadians to file access to information requests online. First: “Why not let us set up accounts so we don’t have to re-enter all my deets each time?” Second: “It’d be awesome if the receipt for the $5 fee included the text of our ATIP request.”

• The Globe and Mail’s Lawrence Martin writes that even though Stephen Harper “may well hold some sort of record for prime ministerial secrecy and attempts to stifle access,” many of his predecessors have also “held the fourth estate in low regard.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• Harper isn’t known for “being terribly accessible to journalists,” reports the Huffington Post. Nevertheless, he sat down for an interview with Costco Connection, the “lifestyle magazine for Costco members” – something that “raised some eyebrows on Twitter.”

• Vice Canada reports the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has denied an access request for the amount of money it paid to cellphone and Internet providers to informally obtain customers’ personal information. Such informal requests were deemed unconstitutional following a June 2014 Supreme Court of Canada ruling. (hat tip: CJ Ciaramella)

• The Canadian Press’s Steve Rennie tweets that a recent access to information requests yielded 15 pages from the Privy Council Office. But the only page that wasn’t exempted was the one with the Government of Canada’s logo.

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• The Toronto Star reports Ontario still lacks a “standard notification system” to alert journalists when court-ordered publication bans are being considered.

• The Vancouver Sun reports, “Poultry marketing boards are refusing to release biosecurity audits of farms after the avian flu outbreak in the Fraser Valley citing, in part, the potential for farmers to be targeted by animal rights activists.”

• The BC NDP has introduced a Whistleblowers Protection Act that would safeguard “people reporting government mismanagement, negligence or wrong-doing. It also calls for more routine public disclosure of government operations.” As an opposition private member’s bill, the Act has almost no chance of passing the province’s legislature.

• CBC News reports New Brunswick’s access commissioner Anne Bertrand has launched one of two investigations into “controversial trips to Larry’s Gulch, the government-owned fishing lodge…The controversy started when a newspaper editor accepted a free trip to Larry’s Gulch in 2013 with Daniel Allain, the chief executive officer of NB Liquor.” Bertrand is looking into whether documents related to that trip were “deliberately altered before being released.”

• “Ontario’s independent budget watchdog is finally being unleashed – 21 months after the New Democrats forced the Liberals to create the post,” according to the Toronto Star.

• In response to a freedom of information request by freelancer Bob Mackin, the British Columbia government writes there were no briefing notes or issue notes prepared for the province’s transportation minister when he announced the delay of a major transit project.

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• The City of Winnipeg’s administration is refusing to “make public any of the reports” that justify the need to “expropriate 20 acres of land it sold to a developer four years ago,” according to the Winnipeg Free Press.

Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.

* = I am indebted to an article by The Atlantic’s David Graham which cites NPR’s impartiality policy, as well as the New York Times spokesperson’s quote. All the credit for finding that article goes to my department’s librarian Margy MacMillan.

4 thoughts on “WHEN JOURNALISTS GET MAD

  1. phytomet

    Sean: A useful addition to last week’s commentary. Like so much about communication it is all about setting a standard of communication. We have become pedantic about citing the margin of error and sample size when it comes to reporting survey results – or at least we should but conveniently seem to miss out on citing Press Release attribution. The example you gave of Travis Lupick is a useful start however it misses the most common example where a journalist simply picks up the latest press release and more or less repeat its contents changing an occassional adjective or adverb and rarely put the extraction into quotes. Too few journalists explicitly cite that “their” article is based upon a press release and provide little background or alternative points of view. Worse than the recycling of press releases is the dreadfull habit of uncritical echoing of another type of press release – the pre-publication scienctific and technical article. Perhaps editors need to help their writers to be more forthcoming when it comes to regurgitating press releases. How about “Article by x, with background materials by the BC Liberal Government”?

    Rob

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  2. scotty on Denman

    The captors of information must be satisfied when journalists express frustration at effective prohibitions against free access to it—-“Job done!” High-fives all around! They’ve succeeded. For lack of information it has to remain purely conjecture, although it seems perfectly reasonable, that the total black-out of any given requested text would not be held in very high regard by the captors: it’s not particularly artful—even a monkey could do it (in which case the field, as well as the text, would probably get dunked in a pail of black ink); the partial “redaction” , though not necessarily disqualifying every monkey, would have to be considered something more of an art, allowing technical discernment akin to a painter’s palette or style. (Dedicated misinformation, perhaps aesthetically blacked-out in part, must be regarded as the pinnacle of the art-form.) There certainly seems to be some smirkingly cultivated frustration too, completely inconsequential stuff blacked-out simply for the purpose, preposterously prohibitive copying charges, or maybe a regular series of redacted dummy texts affecting acceptance-by-repetition, like “The Big Lie”—-or maybe just “The [redacted]”.

    But it seems to me, in theory anyway, that certain laws are offended, like conflict-of-interest, for example. How can anyone tell if there’s “a perception of conflict” when all one sees is “a [redacted] of [redacted]”? If conflict-of-interest laws are to work, then perception of conflict (without going into why conflict rules have to be this way—which I’m sure y’all know) has to work too. In fact, could not the redaction itself be considered a perception of conflict? I mean, isn’t freedom of information primarily a legitimate invigilation of public service?

    Frustrating freedom of information can only be legitimized by real public safety/security concerns, and, in this, we can only trust the judge who decides whether the info in question qualifies as such (that is, there can be no perception of partiality on the judge’s part). Otherwise it boils down to the captors abusively frustrating FOI by forcing applicants to pony up court costs, an even more effective frustration than prohibitively high copying fees (don’t forget, a government affords appeals and re-trials at public expense). If we are to stop abusive frustration of FOI, we have to make it hurt to those who do it—and if it’s a matter of money, we have to find out how much and how to get it.

    PS: As far as I know, all legit societies and associations are required to keep minutes; how is it allowed that public servants can discuss public business without recording it. I mean, I’ve seen cases where public officials got into trouble for “editing” minutes (recorded minutes compared to independent records of the same meeting), you know, the more artful form of info suppression.

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  3. Dzrew

    I believe I posted this before from “Necessary Illusions” by Noam Chomsky, but I think it bears repeating. It was published in1989. Its subtitle is “Thought Control in Democratic Societies.” Here is a paragraph from page 10.

    “Case by case, we find that conformity is the easy way, and the path to privilege and prestige; dissidence carries personal costs that may be severe, even in a society that lacks such means of control as death squads, psychiatric prisons, or extermination camps. The very
    structure of the media is designed to induce conformity to established doctrine. In a 3 minute stretch between commercials, or in 700 words, it is impossible to present unfamiliar thoughts or surprising conclusions with the argument and evidence required to afford them some credibility. Regurgitation of welcome pieties faces no such problem.”

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