Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Trouble with "Balanced" Journalism

Russell Wangersky's column in today's Telegram offers an excellent example of the problem I discussed yesterday. Wangersky offers a thoughtful analysis of Williams' condescending attitude towards Lorraine Michael, but near the end of the column he pulls back to offer this balance: "It's a nasty trait, and one that is not an attractive side of a type-A provincial politician who has otherwise managed to use his combative personal approach to serve this province quite well." http://www.thetelegram.com/index.cfm?sid=259007&sc=86

Wangersky didn't follow up on this assertion, so we're left with no evidentiary basis on which to judge his claim that Williams' combative personal approach has served NL well. But Williams' ability to bully Paul Martin in 2005 is the exception that proves the rule. Perhaps there is a rich body of evidence out there to demonstrate that Williams' combination of hyperbole, rage, bullying, name-calling, threatening, and recklessness has worked where a less combative approach would have failed. But journalists, like historians, labour under the burden of positive proof. If Wangersky wants to assert that Williams' "combative personal approach" (a sanitized term for bullying) is largely effective, then he should provide evidence for this claim. If there is a way to justify a style of leadership that invokes death threats and charges of treason, I'd like to see it. If there is a way to provide a balanced justification of why Williams can say "someone should be shot over there," it speaks volumes about the sorry state of NL's political culture.

On the other hand, there is ample evidence that Williams' politics of rage and revenge has not served the province well. From the so-called fiscal "shaft" to the failed foreign policy initiative, Williams' combativeness has hurt NL. With health care and the fishery stumbling from one crisis to the next, it's hard to imagine how personal combativeness has helped to do anything except distract the public from policy failures. Not only that, but in a number of cases, Williams' combative approach has actually created new problems, such as the ongoing leadership crisis at MUN, the unresolved issues with the NLMA, the refusal to investigate electoral irregularities, the failure to pass whistleblower legislation, et cetera.

In trying to provide a balanced approach to Williams' bullying, Wangersky undermines the very point that he is trying to make: Williams' condescending attitude toward Michael is unnacceptable. By claiming that this combative personal approach has otherwise served the province well, Wangersky seems to be suggesting that the problem here is not with Williams' behaviour but with his target. He seems to be saying that while it's unacceptable to bully Lorraine Michael, it's acceptable (indeed, it serves the province well) for Williams to wage personal war against others.

Most of the time, I admire Wangersky's journalism. While I find his meandering metaphorical style sometimes irritating, I respect his judgement. And I know it's easy for bloggers to criticize journalists who have to be careful not to burn political bridges. But there is something wrong when professional journalists feel compelled to balance criticism of Williams by justifying his pattern of bullying. Williams' treatment of Michael was not an isolated incident but rather part of a long, well-documented pattern of abuse that includes public death threats.

We need to recognize that we're facing a public choice. Either Williams' histrionics matters or it doesn't. Either it's a serious public issue or it can be dismissed as mere political theatre. I believe that it's a serious issue, and I think many journalists do, too. But I also believe that we cannot cherry-pick incidents and overlook everything else. There are times in political history -- and we're living through such a time right now -- when trying to balance criticism with defence actually perpetuates and enables the very problems that journalists seek to remedy. By claiming that Williams' histrionics has otherwise served the province well, Wangersky is feeding the pernicious myth that bullying is acceptable because it delivers results.

In assessing Williams' leadership, yesterday's editorial in the Telegram asked, "Wasn't it Lady MacBeth who doth protest too much?" http://www.thetelegram.com/index.cfm?sid=258567&sc=80

A more apt Shakespeare reference would have been to "Hamlet," when Marcellus says "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."

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