Sunday, July 5, 2009

That job belongs to the fringe media

Harvey Oberfeld is a retired news guy now expressing opinions without limits from editors or advertisers. His blog, "Keeping it Real. . ." is a sometimes amusing, always readable collection of thoughts informed by a long print and TV news career. Harvey believes that reporters, as agents of the public, should maintain uncomfortable warmth on the plutocracy's lower extremities. He understands the perilous symbioses between politicians and media members and worries that some reporters in B.C. have grown too comfortable with their subjects.

Oberfeld recently was the first guest on Simi Sara's new TALK1410AM morning show. He expanded on recent blog comments about questions surrounding the loss or destruction of e-mails between the Premier and cabinet members from 2001 to 2005. Harvey "rapped on the knuckles" of the B.C. media, complaining about their failure to follow up scandals arising from the sale of BC Rail. Along with Victoria political science Professor Dennis Pilon, he criticized media for lacking the zeal exhibited during administrations of Vander Zalm, Clark and Harcourt.

An interesting comment by Harvey was that some of his old news colleagues have been offended by these and similar comments. He mentioned no names but one might logically suspect long time practitioners of local political punditry. Of course, Canwest Global would be home to most suspects.

Vaughn Palmer briefly raised an eyebrow when someone else "dug out the big news that the government-owned BCR paid Patrick Kinsella $300,000 in consulting fees." He's written too about massive investment losses suffered by the Northern Development Initiative Trust. Funded by proceeds from the railway sale, the Trust hid information during the election campaign by delaying financial statements from legally required disclosure. Palmer also admits that the railway sale has been "under a cloud" since 2003 and that the public liability to CN for tax indemnities has risen beyond half a billion dollars, with the meter still turning. Yet, Palmer's writing lacks passion or even minor outrage. He complains the whole BC Rail story is too complicated and therefore maybe not a real scandal. He notes that BCR fuels a cottage industry of reporting and speculation but sneers at citizen journalists, describing them as cult members.

Harvey Enchin, also writing for Canwest, has been onside with privatization of BC Rail from the beginning and continues reporting beneficial elements while downplaying negative details such as tax indemnities and other contingencies that may eliminate more than half the alleged sale proceeds. Disregarding the company's incredible land bank, he falsely declares that BC Rail's assets consisted largely of "rusty rolling stock, abandoned sidings and creaky loading facilities and Enchin called the BC Rail workforce bloated and overpaid. If being bloated and overpaid is an appropriate measure, shouldn't Enchin be calling for sale of the Premier's Public Affairs Bureau as well?

Victoria's most pervasive commentator may be its most insidious. Fallacy specialist Keith Baldrey, Global's legislative reporter, appears on radio and television and in print with columns published by Canwest community newspapers. Baldrey treads cautiously when discussing Gordon Campbell's Liberal Government. He is protective and tends not to criticize directly. Instead, often using a straw man argument, he allows that unnamed others raise issues or hold perceptions. For example, writing about secrecy and disappeared e-mails in a July 2009 column in community newspapers:

There is a bit of hysteria attached to some of the reactions to this news. Those who still think the police raid on the legislature almost six years ago will bring down the government any day now think the disappearance is yet another clue to the vast conspiracy that surrounds much of the BC Rail saga.

And there are those who think (wrongly) that all e-mails are automatically classified as "documents" that must be preserved forever as part of the public record.

It should be pointed out that hundreds of thousands of documents (including thousands of e-mails) have already been disclosed to the defense in the BC Rail raid case, so the notion that the disappearance of a much smaller number of e-mails is going to jeopardize the fairness of the trial sounds silly.

The truth is that unless they are specifically filed as a saved document by whoever received them, e-mails are automatically erased from the government computer server every 18 months, a policy that also exists in many private companies to, in part, create enough space for users to continue sending and receiving such missives. (Quick now, how many people reading this still have e-mails from 2005 in their inboxes.)

Note his methods. "Those who still think (straw man) the police raid . . . will bring down the government (hyperbole) now think the disappearance is yet another clue to the vast conspiracy (hyperbole and belittlement) that surrounds much of the BC Rail saga."

The straw man argument continues when he says "And there are those who think wrongly (who, where, when?) that all e-mails are documents that must be preserved forever (hyperbole). . ." As always, the straw man does not accurately represent typical criticism. No reasonable person suggests that every message must be preserved forever. We might fairly expect that every document of substance, including e-mails, letters, contracts, etc. should be preserved for a reasonable period. Government is quite accustomed to that principle. Baldrey could ask tax auditors to explain. As to the question about having e-mails from 2005 in my inbox, yes I do have copies of all important messages. In fact, I have multiple copies in various archive files in my backup system. And I don't conduct public business of any kind.

Baldrey discounts the significance of missing e-mails. He says thousands of other e-mails have been disclosed. So, where did they come from Keith? You said that e-mails are automatically erased. Some, not others? Here, the entire record is missing. Were none significant enough to be kept? Not one? Is it a paranoid delusion to be troubled by this?

My long ago training as an auditor emphasized that a party under review never selects the audit sample. Free access to everything is a necessity for accurate review of records. Turning over tons of irrelevant information never excuses failure to make all relevant documents available.

Baldrey notes that Campbell's Liberals promised to run the most open and accessible government in history. He then says that some (straw man, again) have accused Liberals of weakening FOI, perhaps even ignoring the spirit of existing legislation. Baldrey does not state that this criticism is valid, although it is; he says the thought is merely a perceived weakness that is tending to become entrenched among some. No doubt, those perceptions are held only by hysterical, out-of-step, unreasonable paranoids who believe that something is amiss and therefore, the world as we know it should end.

There is one amusing but sad anecdote demonstrating the abdication of main media from their role as investigative eyes and ears for citizens. ABC Nightline anchor Ted Koppel had been questioned about ignoring a particular political story. He replied, "People shouldn't expect the mass media to do investigative stories. That job belongs to the fringe media. . . We don't have the facilities, we don't have the time. I have only 50 employees. . . " When he said that, Koppel was being paid about $10 million a year. Last I looked, most bloggers work alone and earn exactly zero from their reporting.
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6 comments:

  1. A brilliant piece Norman. I could not have done a better job at summing this up. But then again, I'm just another member of the cult-like fringe media...

    Posting a link to this on my site today,as this is something no one should miss.

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  2. Thanks for your mention of my blog Keeping It Real and your kind and accurate comments about what I am trying to do there. Although retired, I still really care about media standards and public issues ... like my current post on a bill in Ottawa that would make it almost impossible for Western Canadian jurists to get appointed to the Supreme Court. I hope someday the B.C. political media will get off its rear enough to go beyond press releases etc ... so I can finally really retire. :)
    Harv Oberfeld

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  3. I definitely enjoyed the "zeal" that Clem Chapple exhibited during Vander Zalm. He was positively apoplectic when Vander Zalm did not resign when Clem figured he should. Another fine example of maistream media. There is a reason that the fringe toil in unpaid anonymity except unto themselves.

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  4. I remember when the "Queen of the North" sank, Keith Baldrey was invited by David Hahn to fly up with Hahn to view the site and get the story. Of course it became a feed and Baldry was just a mouth-piece for BC Ferries and the government.
    I said this before but I think it bears repeating.

    I remember reading I F Stone, one of the most respected journalists in the US. He said he would not interview politicians because they always lied. When he wrote, he analyzed what they did , not what they said. He wrote a successful independent newspaper called the IF Stone Weekly.
    Too many of our journalists just repeat what politicians tell them. The journalists think they are great because they have close contact with the politicians in power and they don’t realize they are being used to spread the politicians’ propaganda.
    They could ask them the right questions, but they should do an honest and rigorous analysis of what they have been told.

    As an aside, I hear that the BC Liberals may be hiring Dick Cheany to offer advice with their office and communications procedures. He was always proud of the fact that he never communicated by e-mail so none of his directives, scoldings or general thoughts could be traced.

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  5. Anonymous, read the next post that goes up here. It is a way of saying something similar to the idea that I.F. Stone expressed.

    The famous 20th century writer was an admirable journalist, a progressive who paid great attention to detail and accuracy. He had to because the establishment and main media vigorously criticized everything he wrote.

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  6. Great Piece Norman.I have questioned a couple of the MSM Liberal mouthpieces directly but all I got back was questions. So now I will be going after one in detail.(because he questioned my questions rather than give me an answer)

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