Turmoil and the politics of journalism [BOOK REVIEW]

James McLeod’s account of the past two years of provincial politics is both irreverent and thoughtful. And that’s precisely the problem with it.

James McLeod, political reporter for The Telegram, has written a book. This, of course, is the Thing-To-Do for aspiring journalists, and not a bad idea either. As McLeod notes in his introduction, reporters unearth all sorts of fascinating insights and facts which don’t make it into the enforced brevity of a newspaper article. Sometimes, taking a step back and offering the bigger picture about something – whether it’s a specific investigation or a broad social phenomenon – can offer a useful public service to the individual reader and their society alike.

McLeod has chosen a less-than-interesting topic for his debut, however. Turmoil As Usual: Politics in Newfoundland and Labrador and the Road to the 2015 Election covers, well, the road to the 2015 provincial election. McLeod makes a case that “the two years leading up to the 2015 election were among the most turbulent in the province’s history.” Were they really? Certainly a lot happened, but then a lot always happens in politics, particularly when it’s your job to cover it. But do the past two years really stand out in the grand sweep of Newfoundland and Labrador’s dramatic and quirky, 184-year history of representative politics? 

McLeod shows a great deal of promise as a writer, but as a book Turmoil comes across as a bit premature. What is lacking at this stage is experience, both in terms of sufficient wealth of interesting escapades to relay (being asked to dance by former Premier Kathy Dunderdale, or hanging out at karaoke with Liberal MHA Paul Lane, make for interesting stories at a dinner party but are hardly of interest to a serious reading public), as well as a broad sense of history to put these observations into context. It’s unclear at times whether McLeod is trying to write a serious book, or publish a series of blog rants. What often begin as interesting broaches of a topic inevitably descend into tired and worn clichés. 

These clichés themselves offer an interesting insight into McLeod’s perspective on politics. 

Turmoil As Usual: Politics in Newfoundland and Labrador and the Road to the 2015 Election was published by Creative Books Publishing last month.
Turmoil As Usual: Politics in Newfoundland and Labrador and the Road to the 2015 Election was published by Creative Books Publishing last month.

“It’s not about principle. It’s not personal. It’s just politics. It’s just about the relentless pursuit of victory, and doing whatever it takes along the way.” 

“Winning is winning.” 

“Nice doesn’t cut it in politics.” 

“Politics is really hard. It’s an ugly, ruthless, hyper-competitive world, and most people wind up as losers.” 

“People who don’t run, don’t matter.” 

“The bleak reality of politics is that losers just don’t matter.” 

McLeod sees politics very much in television drama terms, and this limits his analysis. Politics is not just about winners, and power, and hyper-competition, however much equally trite CBC program titles like Power and Politics reinforce this intellectually lazy notion. 

McLeod shouldn’t be singled out for blame here though; the tendency to treat politics like a Netflix series is a disturbing and growing tendency among journalists, fed by the fact that journalistic agencies are increasingly run by marketing agents and not journalists, as well as the shrinking breadth of their coverage.

As media agencies cut jobs and contract out to underpaid freelancers, political coverage has seen beat reporter positions slashed (labour reporters and community coverage, for instance) in lieu of telling a smaller number of journalists to spend more time on social media. More time spent tweeting instead of forming meaningful relationships with a broader range of people and institutions means a book like this, ostensibly focusing on “politics in Newfoundland and Labrador,” winds up talking almost exclusively about elected (or aspiring) MHAs.

Shallow waters

Broad criticisms aside, lack of journalistic depth manifests in the smaller details, too. Take for example McLeod’s comment on the controversy sparked by Frank Coleman’s history of involvement with anti-abortion rallies: “Abortion was a hot-button issue two decades ago, but most of the world had moved on. In the minds of most people, a woman’s right to make her own decision about abortion is a settled political issue.” 

I’m not sure what constitutes “most of the world” in McLeod’s view, but it probably refers to a small segment of urban Ontario. In “most of the world” these rights are far from assured, in places like the U.S. they are backsliding at an accelerated pace, and even in Canada access to abortion has shrunken alarmingly due to subtle political manoeuvring on the right, legal rights notwithstanding. The focus of the book is not reproductive rights, but the use of sloppy generalizations like this bring the overall analysis into question.

Sometimes, too, the analysis is inconsistent. He opens his discussion of the PC leadership campaign by suggesting that Steve Kent “was the only candidate who stood a real chance of winning the next election for the Tories,” and that Kent was robbed of his chances by the premature timing of the PC leadership debates. It’s a great point. Yet at the end of the section, McLeod concludes, “[i]f it wasn’t for the fact that so many people viscerally disliked Steve Kent, he probably would’ve won hands down.” 

Well, which was it? That the delegate selection happened before the campaigning, or that people simply disliked him? In an effort to conclude with an irreverent dig, McLeod undermines his own much more intelligent and well-articulated argument with which he begins the section. 

Another example of the tendency to choose trite digs over analytical depth is his analysis of Kathy Dunderdale. 

From one angle, McLeod is quite charitable to her, arguing that she was nice and did a lot of good things she didn’t get enough credit for. But his analysis of why she didn’t get credit slips into stereotypically gendered terms. Dunderdale is good and personable “in low-key meetings and unscripted situations, although it doesn’t do her a whole lot of good,” he writes. “Politics, when you rise to the very top, is about surviving the crucible. Whether it’s question period in the House of Assembly, or the Big Speech delivered during an election campaign, or a frenzied press conference with reporters shouting questions, some people thrive in those high-pressure moments. Some people just don’t.” 

This would have been an excellent opening to critically analyze the gendered nature of politics in the province. Instead, McLeod goes with the flow, criticizing Dunderdale for not meeting that macho standard, rather than questioning whether the standard by which female politicians are judged ought to change.

People tell him, and he agrees, that she’s good when you actually listen to her and give her the chance to talk about her policies. “Too bad that’s not how politics works,” is his retort. Is that the sort of logic he’d apply to Mike Duffy’s doings — that honesty and virtue are good qualities in theory, but “that’s not how politics works”? 

Journalists are expected to question and challenge prevailing norms and standards, not simply accept the status quo and elite interests as presented. At the convention, he skips out on her speech to the party’s Women’s Association, opting instead for the more dramatically titled “Leader’s Report”. This is not a reporter who is exploring the gendered nature of the party’s politics and trying to understand its leader.

His other descriptors for Dunderdale reflect many of the clichés male journalists use to describe female politicians: “she often came across as arrogant or stammering or angry”; “that imperious tone, that stubborn insistence”. He even finds cause, for some reason, to discuss her position on dieting and exercising, and manages to insert a quote from her about having “a great ass.” And in the end, “She’d be happier in retirement. Instead of spending her days being denigrated in the media, she’d get to spend more time with her grandkids.”

 Journalists are expected to question and challenge prevailing norms and standards, not simply accept the status quo and elite interests as presented.

Lack of depth also characterizes his criticisms of the NDP, which appear to consist of the fact they won’t sacrifice their principles to get elected, and that they spend 10 minutes at their convention outlining an anti-harassment policy. What’s wrong with this he doesn’t bother explaining — and countless examples such as the ongoing events in Spaniard’s Bay clearly demonstrate why a solid anti-harassment policy is a good thing. In fact, it’s a perplexing comment for McLeod to make given he’s the journalist who broke the story on sexual harassment in provincial politics last year. McLeod’s superb series of articles made for some of the finest journalism The Telegram published in 2015. Readers would be right to expect better from a journalist who has shown himself quite capable of it.

McLeod’s tendency to speak in broad and unsubstantiated generalizations becomes annoying. Examples abound. He writes off the NDP as “historically… more of a downtown St. John’s arts and university crowd,” ignoring the fact the party’s first elected seat (in 1984) was in Labrador; their strong support among unionized mining communities also led to electoral success there in the late ‘90s. 

It’s fine to engage in generalizations, but one must make a better effort to ensure they stand up to a bit of historical scrutiny. McLeod sometimes has a tendency to act as though Newfoundland and Labrador history didn’t happen before 2008 when he arrived here. 

Then there’s moments like his assessment of Dunderdale’s PC convention Leader’s Report: “I won’t get bogged down in the detail on it, except to say that probably 20 per cent of the speech was absolutely true, another 40 per cent of the speech was arguably true, and the remaining 40 per cent was straight-up misrepresentation and spin. But never mind the facts.”

The problem with this is that McLeod hasn’t presented any facts. And while he suggests that he’s being kind by not getting “bogged down in the detail,” when you’re essentially accusing the premier of lying in a speech, some detail would be nice.

Stuff like this is one thing to write in an email, but publishing it in a book is lazy and questionable.

Putting it in context

The most irritating thing about this is that it’s not even entirely fair to McLeod; a glance at some of his articles in The Telegram show a journalist who’s quite willing to pull up his sleeves and do strong research and analysis when he wants to. But his book all too often sacrifices precision and analysis for Twitter-esque silliness.

It’s also important to recognize that while the 2015 election seems unique to us by virtue of our having collectively lived through it a mere few months ago, in the larger picture it’s likely to go down as a fairly insignificant blip on the historical radar, and hold as much interest for the reader five years from now as “The Road to the 2012 London Olympics” would have for, well, pretty much anyone today. And apart from the politicians who want to read it to find out what was said about them, does the majority of the reading public really want to re-live the past two years of political history again?

Having premier-designate Frank Coleman resign after winning the party leadership (and premiership) but before taking office was titillating, for sure. But compare the doings of Dunderdale, Coleman and Davis against those of William Lloyd, the prime minister of Newfoundland who in 1918 seconded a motion of non-confidence against his own government. Or Richard Squires, the former prime minister who also led a defection against his own governing party and supported a motion of non-confidence that brought it down (all largely in order to escape criminal charges). 

The party revolt and floor-crossing of NDP MHAs Dale Kirby and Christopher Mitchelmore raised eyebrows, but pale by comparison to Joey Smallwood’s leading a defection movement against the Liberal party that he himself helped to found (not to mention his refusal to concede the premiership for several weeks despite losing the election in 1971), drawing supporters into his rival Newfoundland Reform Liberal Party. 

The past couple years have no doubt been good for newspaper ratings, but they’re child’s play compared with some of the turmoil in our province’s history. Waiting a few more years and collecting a broader range of interesting anecdotes would have made for a much stronger book. 

Still, it’s a useful and interesting contribution to the historical record, and for the effort that McLeod has put into chronicling this period historians and the interested public alike have reason to be thankful. He does raise a number of useful and insightful points. 

Photo by Graham Kennedy.
The two years leading up to the 2015 provincial election “have no doubt been good for newspaper ratings,” writes Hans Rollmann, “but they’re child’s play compared with some of the turmoil in our province’s history.” Photo by Graham Kennedy.

His critique of the way parties don’t really “debate” resolutions any more, but simply go through the motions of discussing resolutions that have already been vetted and approved by insiders, is important. Parties need to stop micromanaging their own internal policy debates: it’s not healthy for any democratic entity when the leadership exerts that level of control and doesn’t allow the membership to genuinely and substantively debate issues. This critique could be aimed at a growing number of institutions in our society, from political parties to labour unions, and McLeod is right to flag it as a concern.

He also flags the lacklustre delegate selection meetings that increasingly belabour the parties (in this case, the PCs). This, like the lacklustre debates at conventions, all reflect an unhealthy attitude toward democracy right at the heart of democracy’s most critical institutions. 

He raises, briefly, the exorbitant sums of money spent in leadership races — Ball’s $255,000 and Cathy Bennett’s $156,000, for example — which are also not a reflection of a healthy democracy. 

All of these things are useful and important insights, but McLeod mentions them only in passing, and without really exploring them in any depth. This is unfortunate, as his book would have been far more interesting if he had. 

With the one conceptual issue he does explore in depth — access to information — he concludes that it’s okay for journalists like him to be barred from access to cabinet deliberations and commercially sensitive information. While his position is not uncommon, it is less common among journalists — whose job it is to gain access to secrets — and seems more in line with the view touted by the politicians he spends so much of his time with. 

The book as a whole conveys the impression of being torn between two opposite tendencies. On the one hand, a desire to launch into a serious, sustained critique of the province’s political culture and politicians, which comes across beautifully in the last couple of pages, where he launches an unrestrained attack on the vacuousness of Dwight Ball, reinforced by quotes from Ball’s speeches that demonstrate the contradictions in his campaign promises.  

But McLeod’s critique repeatedly falls short, sacrificed to the desire to get in pithy digs and one-liners that don’t contribute any useful analysis and are sometimes flatly incorrect. Perhaps this reflects the unhealthy impact of Twitter-culture on journalism, where one’s reputation is better served by saying something witty than by saying something intelligent. 

Politics is more than politicians, and journalism is more than clichés 

It’s also interesting to consider what does not make it into this book. There’s little here about anyone who’s not an elected politician, per se. There’s little to no discussion about the impact that lobbying, advocacy and activist groups had on the parties, policies and election. Perhaps McLeod thinks they had no impact, but there’s no evidence he even tried to find out. This is an all-too-common characteristic of contemporary journalism — to focus on the elected politicians and their press conferences, and ignore the vibrant political culture which exists outside of that small bubble.

This is the effect of journalists getting too close to their subject matter and suffering from an inability to gain objective perspective of the whole broad picture. Political journalists should not be spending their days sitting in the House tweeting, or in hotels covering leadership conventions. They should also be in the church basements where community groups meet, on the picket lines and in the streets where everyday Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are trying to enact change, in the shelters and group homes where residents of the province are finding their own ways to navigate the challenges of the present era. 

A snapshot of provincial politics that dwells only on elected politicians not only offers a misleading and partial image of provincial politics, but it risks shaping the perceptions of public and politicians alike as to what matters. And that is irresponsible journalism. It also reinforces the impression of journalists and politicians as sharing an exclusive club, and as being more interested in speaking to each other than to the public. 

 Journalism, like politics, is a public service, and the journalists have an obligation to the public to broach and share dialogues about the things that matter in our society, not to simply accept as tacit reality that politics is “just about the relentless pursuit of victory, and doing whatever it takes along the way.” 

George Orwell, who in addition to producing his famous novels also wrote extensively as a literary critic, once commented on why he did not pursue friendships with other literary people. “I don’t mix much in literary circles,” he wrote, “because I know from experience that once I have met and spoken to anyone I shall never again be able to show any intellectual brutality towards him, even when I feel that I ought to, like the Labour M.P.s who get patted on the back by dukes and are lost forever more.”

This is the same problem encountered by journalists: familiarity with your subject-matter becomes a double-edged sword. On the one hand, familiarity offers a certain degree of insight and understanding into the politicians; the more you know them, the more you understand their personalities, their motivations, their sense of internal logic. But the more you know them, the more you come to see the world as they do, and the more you come to share their broad sense of what is real and possible. The more you come to understand how they think, the more you come to think like them, or at least within a common frame of reference.

This is why politics often seems like a private club shared between the politicians and the journalists — there comes to be little difference in their broad conception of what politics is and should be.

Certainly, journalists will still be critical of individual politicians, but their criticism generally stays within a sort of mutually accepted playing-field, where the performance of particular players might be questioned, but the broad rules of the game are never scrutinized even when it should be the responsibility of the journalist to do precisely that. 

And here’s where the problem arises: the job of journalists is precisely to question the broad rules of the game, and to let us know when and how those rules are working and when and how they are not. Which is to say that journalism, like politics, is a public service, and the journalists have an obligation to the public to broach and share dialogues about the things that matter in our society, not to simply accept as tacit reality that politics is “just about the relentless pursuit of victory, and doing whatever it takes along the way.” 

How does a shallow assessment like that contribute to the journalist’s public responsibility to use their reporting to improve their society, which means to improve politics? It’s one thing to criticize a particular politician or party for acting on shallow motives like this, but if a journalist writes off the whole system, what does that contribute to public dialogue and to improving the democratic system?

“Economic and political domination relies on clichés,” writes Pablo Iglesias, leader of Spain’s Podemos party, in his recent book Politics in a Time of Crisis: Podemos and the Future of a Democratic Europe. If the job of journalists is to expose, question and challenge domination and power, then they will have to do a better job of avoiding clichés. McLeod is a good writer and a promising journalist, but he will have to decide whether he wants to focus his energies on being a journalist or on being a comedian. Here’s hoping he opts for journalist: he’s got a lot to offer. 

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