Crossing the line


HuffPostThere’s a story on ipolitics that in part echoes my own thoughts about media and responsibility. Yet the author draws different conclusions than I believe I would have, were I still in the media.

It’s called “Paul Calandra and the tale of the naked senator” and it’s written by Paul Adams. Worth reading regardless of whether you agree or not.

Adams writes about the quandary many reporters and editors find themselves in: trying to define the boundary between public interest and privacy. It’s an issue that has raised its head many times in the past, but moreso this past year.

This debate must have raged (or at least I hope it raged) in the editorial offices of the Toronto Star in late 2013, when the paper decided to release a video of Mayor Ford - apparently intoxicated and raging – that clearly had nothing to do with Ford’s political office or his abilities. And, since there was no way to identify the context of of Ford’s comments, the viewer had no way to tell who he was ranting about, even if it was a real person rather than a TV show character.

The Star itself admitted:

The target of the mayor’s anger in the video is not in the room and is not known to the Star.

yet it ran the video with a lengthy story to accompany it.

To me, the Star opened a Pandora’s box. If the mayor has no private life outside his office when he is not in the public eye, then should that be true, too, for the Star’s staff? If it is fair to show a video of a private moment (surreptitiously recorded in someone’s home, not a public place), then why would it not be equally (and morally) correct to show videos of TorStar editors and reporters at their worst?

The argument is often made that elected politicians represent their office 24/7, so they have no private persona when in office, just a public face. But is that not also true of police? Of doctors? Pilots? In fact, we associate most people with their jobs and their social positions regardless of the time of day, or their location. They represent their position, their employer 24/7, even when not in the job, just like politicians. Thanks to social media, we have no clear definition of private and public lives.*

If our personal behaviour reflects on our roles and jobs no matter whether we are in our office, in private, on our Facebook page, in a restaurant or on a golf course, so it must be equally true of the media. After all, can a reporter stop being a reporter or representing the paper he/she works for  when out of the office any more than a mayor stop being a mayor? I don’t think so. That’s one reason why the Star should have been reluctant to release the video.

But the real reason is discretion. What purpose does such sleaze serve? is there a greater good in ridiculing and embarrassing the mayor over a private matter? All it does is smear the city’s reputation worldwide, make the entire city the butt of ridicule. And discredit the Star.

Adams says the parliamentary press corp has,

“A highly developed prurient interest coupled with a equally powerful culture of discretion about what should be shared with the Canadian people.”

That should be refreshing, but I doubt it’s a sentiment shared among all journalists, as the TorStar video release shows. In fact, I’d suggest that it wasn’t discretion at all, but rather partisan politics that made the media act as it did in Adam’s tale of two events.

Adams begins his piece with an anecdotal aside about how the press corp buried a tale about a senator walking around his senate office in the nude, visible to those reporters (and any bystanders) who assembled outside to watch. And apparently, many did, complete with cameras and video equipment.

But the story was never aired or saw print. It was quietly buried because of the press corp’s “culture of discretion.”

Adams seems to think it’s commendable to bury news – happening in front of his eyes – about one of the identifiable, public leaders of this country behaving in a visibly erratically and socially unacceptable manner while in office – both figuratively and literally. He was parading in the buff in a Senate office, owned and paid for by public funds. This wasn’t at home.

The moral of this tale, Adams seems to be telling us, is that parliamentary media are so wisely and prudently discreet they will ignore personal peccadilloes that don’t affect how the senator performs his official duties.

So noble. Such hogwash. Are Canadian parliamentary media so skitterish that they are reluctant to described a naked man walking around his office? Or was it something else?

Adams wonders aloud,

I think you can imagine what the British media would have done with this journalistic “opportunity”.

Report it, I have no doubt. I myself wonder why the Canadian media chose a coverup, as should anyone reading the piece.

Who were these discreet media protecting? Not the public interest. Certainly the senator’s. Perhaps the interests of the party to whom the senator belonged. Maybe the media didn’t want to embarrass a prime minister who was a darling to them.

Then, in discussing a story about the personal affairs of an elected politician – Paul Calandra – a story that Adams says he initially refrained from sharing on social media, but later regretted not doing so – he says his first thoughts were:

I would not want to go down the road where a politician’s family life, sexual orientation or personal entanglements were routinely fodder for the news — certainly not in the absence of any direct link to their public responsibilities.

With which I heartily agree.

Our culture has become too heavily conditioned by supermarket tabloids and the paparazzi to regard privacy as a transparent barrier anyone can trespass on. And the tabloids treat everyone like the glitterati, making no distinction between targets of the tales they grind out. Everyone’s private lives becomes grist for their story mills, and they have no qualms about publishing gossip, rumour and even outright lies That has seeped up to other media.

We have also become a culture of low attention spans and a passion for both the trivial and the flashy spectacle. I wrote about this last year in my review of Chris Hedges’ book, Empire of Illusion and the End of Literacy. Media – even traditionally staid, conservative (small c) media have chosen to align with the trend in their online products, rather than compete with the attention-grabbing, prurient trash we get in lurid stories about celebrities. Non-events like wardrobe malfunctions or a failed romance become news for everyone to gawk upon, not just the gutter press readers.

Adams tosses in a caveat here, with the word “routinely.” It seems there are exceptions when media intrusions into private life are acceptable. And he justifies it by his dislike of the Prime Minister. That unwinds the whole fabric of his justification: personal like or dislike is not a valid method of weighting any moral choice, nor in determining the newsworthiness of a story. he suggest it is okay to be intrusive if you don’t like the prime minister:

But this is not just about Calandra.

Every single person involved in this Senate unpleasantness was appointed by Stephen Harper — all the senators involved, as well as his chief of staff.

Calandra got his job as the prime minister’s junkyard dog only because his predecessor, Dean Del Mastro, had to resign from caucus last summer after Elections Canada laid charges against him for campaign irregularities.

Associating Calandra with Del Mastro is simply sleazy. One’s actions has nothing to do with the other’s.

Adams decides that,

So, sorry. The prime minister is well past the point where his appointees have a right to escape a full and intrusive public vetting.

Well, now we heartily disagree. Who decided what or when that “point” was? Who drew the line in the sand that decided the media had the right to be intrusive and overtly partisan based solely on its dislike of the prime minister? When did Adams and the parliamentary media become the moral censors of our nation?

I have no love for Stephen Harper or his appointees. But I like to believe that would not affect my editorial perspective, were I in the writer’s shoes. There are millions of Canadians who agree with and like the PM. That has to be taken into account, not merely personal perspectives.

What Harper and his appointees say and do in public or in office is fair game, open to exposure and comment. Even, as Rob Ford learned, to ridicule. But where is the line drawn in the private-public debate when the target is not in office? What right does the media have to intrude?

Calandra’s story is not about public statements or actions. It is about a private “ugly family dispute” that was “apparently resolved in 2008″ before he was elected to office.

This is not something new, not something that relates to his current job, nor to his performance as an MP now.

What is the point of raising a five-year-old internecine dispute that has long since been put to rest?

Aside, that is, from trying to score points in a personal pissing match with either the PMO or the PM himself. That’s not good reporting; that’s not newsworthy and it’s not a credit to the paper for publishing it.

The media has jumped all over the Senate of late, flagellating errant senators without mercy, but handing out the worst drubbing to those appointed by the current Prime Minister. Yet a potential scandal about a naked senator got swept under the rug. There’s a serious ethical flaw here.

Is this how parliamentary media works? Coverup for your friends, expose your opponents? That’s not journalism: it’s just muckraking. Partisan media coverage at its worst.

I don’t like Calandra. I think he’s a buffoon and a loudmouth. I wouldn’t vote for him even in a Soviet election with him as the only candidate. So what? That’s not news. It’s an opinion. So what if he and his family engaged in a legal spat five years ago? It was a civil matter, not a criminal one. My opinion of him is based on what he’s doing now, not what he did in a former role.

If this is meant to reflect on the poor quality of the choice the PM made in appointing Calandra to his post, then it should have been raised when the appointment was made, not six or more months later. Raising it now just looks vindictive and petty.

What Calandra says or does in office either as an MP or as the PM’s parliamentary secretary is fair game. What happened before he was elected, especially something that is clearly personal, resolved and not about his office, isn’t.

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* It’s an issue that plays into social media, too, and has caused great debate in HR circles about when an employee’s comments are personal or reflect the corporate persona.