Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Trouble with "Balanced" Journalism, II

Russell Wangersky is at it again this morning, offering another excuse for Danny Williams.

After discussing his own penchant for jokes and then moving to the Raitt scandal, Wangersky raises the "public vs. private" binary and says this about Williams:

"Premier Danny Williams recently said in public that people at Eastern Health "should be shot" for putting out a press release on cancer testing errors late on a Friday afternoon, and without making anyone available to comment on the information in the news release.

Williams used a pretty common colloquial expression - but it wasn't so much the language he used, as it was where he decided to use it.

And he's worn it ever since - even though it's something plenty of other people have said, and that plenty of other people will say again."

Don't forget, it's hard to have a perfect public face."

As I said at the time, the problems with Williams' hyperbolic language is not just its offensiveness but rather the fact that he let himself off the hook:

Far from having "worn it ever since," Williams received fairly light criticism, with the bulk of negative commentary restricted to bloggers.

I wish Wangersky would stop trying to justify Williams' bullying, but he seems determined to impose a balanced interpretation on imbalanced actions. There are, of course, always two sides to a story -- the proverbial "he said, she said" -- but that does not mean that both sides are equally correct or equally justifiable. Trying to find a balanced explanation for why Williams said health care officials should be shot only serves to justify his verbal bullying and public scapegoating of civil servants.

The problem is not, as Wangersky would have us believe, a question of where Williams made his remarks. This incident cannot be written off as an accident of geography.

It was the deadly serious way he uttered the threat: this was not meant to be funny and no one laughed.

It was the deadly serious subject -- cancer testing -- and the highly emotional environment in which he spoke publicly before the cameras.

It was the important issue of responsibility, and the effort to deny that the provincial government should shoulder any blame. As I noted at the time, Williams insisted on calling Eastern Health "them," while he freely uses "us" for other analagous agencies:

It cannot be written off as a common local colloquialism, either. The phrase "someone should be shot" is not as common as Williams' defenders like to pretend. It cannot be excused as a facet of some unique local dialect, used frequently in the East End. I spent most of my life in St. John's, and I cannot think of a single time (other than out hunting with my father), when I heard someone say that something should be shot. The phrase is no more common -- and is no more acceptable -- than on the Mainland.

It cannot be excused as a simple slip-up, something that we should overlook because no one can be expected to be perfect in public. If this was simple mix-up -- if Williams' misspoke, as it were -- then all he needed to do was say that he misspoke. A simple explanation that he misspoke in the heat of the moment would mitigate the seriousness of the incident. Politicians slip up verbally all the time and apologize all the time when they do. We don't expect them to be perfect, but we do expect them to own up to their mistakes.

When weighing the type of neat public/private formula that Wangersky lays out, we need to keep a couple of things in mind.

First, we should put ourselves in the shoes of the target and think about how we would feel if we were on the receiving end of such a verbal threat.

Second, we should think about the effects: what did the verbal shooting incident accomplish? It focused attention towards Williams and his anger and away from the actual chain of responsibility.

It was only after tenacious investigative reporting by CBC that the truth began to come out, months after Williams insisted that Eastern Health alone was entirely to blame:

In the meantime, the problems with cancer testing continue:

Finally, we need to address the question of identity. Wangersky makes it seem that it's just a question of public versus private, not one of who is doing the talking. This may hold water when we're talking about private citizens, but it does not apply when we're dealing with elected officials, particularly the premier when he is speaking as leader of the provincial government.

No one expects perfection. We expect and deserve accountability.

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