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Thursday, January 06, 2011

Hacks, Flacks and Politicos

The good, the bad and the ugly:

“We all know journalists make bad politicians,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper reportedly told one of his new MPs back in 2006.

“Politicians know they have to stick to a message. That’s how they are successful. Journalists think they always have to tell the truth.”

I can't imagine anyone as world-weary as the Prime Minister saying that "journalists think they always have to tell the truth." If Canadian journalists - as a class - were so keen on the truth, particular seeking truth in the public interest, why the relative silence over Caledonia? Why the consistent misrepresentation of the American health care system? And the selective reporting of Medicare's failings? Why the obsession with silencing and slandering Canadian conservatives and libertarians?

As a Tory hack once told me, no matter how diverse the party grassroots became, at every meeting they attended, the MSM camera crews would only shoot the old white males in the room. Sure journalists love the truth, but it's the truth as they see it. 

Michael Ignatieff was once a journalist of sorts, chatting about international relations for the BBC in days gone by. What compels an intelligent, well educated man to leave the relative obscurity (and relative decency) of political punditry, for the infamy of politics? Since Iggy has no strong convictions, one can only assume vanity or madness. Either is plausible.

Alan Fotheringham, now in semi-retirement due to illness, quipped of Garth Turner's run for the Tory leadership (in 1993) that: "Any columnist who wants to become a politician is like a jockey who wants to become a horse."

I don't believe columnists are jockeys. Does anyone really take a columnist's opinion seriously? In aggregate the pundit class are formidable, but only in the sense that repeating the same thing again and again, somehow, gives it the force of suggestion in the semi-consciousness mind of the Canadian voter.

If you write and say, over and over again, Brian Mulroney is an arrogant crook, people will believe Brian Mulroney is an arrogant crook. That his political opponents were never plausible candidates for the honesty and good fellowship award, need not be noted. The point is made that you shouldn't trust people we don't like.

The above article notes the tendency for journalists to "cross the street" in Ottawa, meaning the easy way the hacking class saunters across the blurry line dividing afflicters of the comfortable, and the paid pillow fluffers of the very same comfortable. It's not because of financial security. Being part of a minister's exempt staff has less job security that being a busboy at a Gatineau greasy spoon, though the salary is usually better. My own bet is this: It's curiosity mixed with vanity and lust.

Spend enough time with elected politicians - an actively at least as hazardous as inhaling second tobacco hand smoke - and you begin to acquire a healthy contempt, both for the type and humanity in general. The so-called star candidates, people who leave real jobs to seek their political fortunes, are often the most amusing to the cynical hack's dark mind. Scripted and handled (sometimes literally manhandled by their staffers) to within an inch of their lives, they talk and act like robots.

The true masters of the political dark arts, like Papa Jean Chretien, or Bill "the Buck Stops Here" Davis, by contrast, could seem quite natural and engaging in their public interactions. They could telegraphy empathy, interest and strength of character, all while saying precisely nothing. Davis could rattle on for hours, saying on the one hand definitely maybe, on the other hand perhaps definitely. He was beloved by nearly all, no matter how many times he played the ends against the middle. 

Now imagine being a humble hack, with your tape recorder (or the modern equivalent), confronting the political species. The so-called star candidates are simply pathetic. The ordinary politico is a mediocrity who has survived through name recognition, partisan allegiance and the elected official's best friend, blind luck. The thought must cross the mind, at least once in the many tight media scrums, only inches away from the powerful politico, his blow-dried hair slowly wilting from the camera lights: I can do better than this idiot.

That's the vanity bit. The curiosity comes from observing the Zen Masters at their finest. How does a man with no firm convictions become Prime Minister of Canada? And win three majority governments in a row? You want to know what makes the bugger tick. If only for future reference. Once you've seen the other side, some of the weirdness might begin to make sense.

Then there is the lust. Being a journalist is kind of like being the proverbial eunuch at the metaphorical orgy, inside the modern version of a royal court. You can talk about power all you want, the gossip, the backstabbing, the shabby deals, but you're basically a power virgin. Right across that desk, evading your carefully drafted gotcha questions, is a man (or woman) who at the stroke of a pen can fire, bankrupt or help thousands of people. You smell it. It's almost as strong as the minister's drugstore cologne.

Edmund Burke is suppose to have coined the term the fourth estate, and introduced into the world the idea that journalists are suppose to keep governments accountable. To help perform that valuable civic duty, the journalist has to carefully avoid conflicts of interest. Don't get too close to the story and its protagonists.

Yet the most dangerous conflict of interest isn't one of friendship, business dealings or back-room nods and winks, it's the ideological conflict of interest. If you agree with what the politician is trying to do, with his version of the New Jerusalem, what prevents you from avoiding unpleasant truths? Unpleasant not just to the politician, but to your own world view?


Posted by Richard Anderson on January 6, 2011 | Permalink


And the MSM still have not figured out why they continue to lose credibility with an increasing number of people. I saw enough ideological brainwashing attempts at university to be fool enough to pay for more of the same from journalists.

Posted by: Alain | 2011-01-06 1:54:51 PM

A few years ago I was flying in the Bella Coola area on a project and I learned from another forester that he had flown by helicopter with a well known Vancouver News anchor and they had just come from covering a Greenpeace protest on King Island. The protesters were mostly Germans who had chained themselves to logging equipment (the loggers should have covered them in Oolichan Grease and left them for the Grizzlies but I digress). As I flew over an adjacent Island where a beautiful second growth stand had emerged as a great example of sustainable forestry and this was presented to the News Anchor to see for some perspective on what was being protested she angrily replied, "that's not News". To her, the News was these "environmentally concerned protesters drastic actions " not eco-colonial corporate fascist square-heads trying (successfully) to idle hundreds of thousands of hectares of some of the most productive forests in Canada. The media types are more contemptible than the slimiest shyster Ambulance Chasers.

Posted by: John Chittick | 2011-01-06 6:25:15 PM

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