Psst: your bias is showing

A recent story by Andrew MacDonald in the online journal included the following sentence:

NSP has begun slowly moving its 500 workers out of the Barrington Tower office to a new $54-million HQ on the Halifax waterfront, dubbed the Bennett Bunker for NSP ceo [sic] Rob Bennett [emphasis in the original].

The phrase, “dubbed the Bennett Bunker,” is noteworthy for having been cast in passive voice, a grammatical form journalists often decry as a way for politicians and similar miscreants to evade responsibility for their actions. Who exactly “dubbed” NS Power’s office building “the Bennett Bunker?” Why, AllNovaScotia, that’s who.

It invented the phrase on July 3, 2008, the day conversion of the building (which is actually rebuilt, not new) was announced, and shortly after Bennett assumed the company’s top job. As best I can tell from a Google search, no one other media outlet has ever used it. This failure to gain traction elsewhere hasn’t discouraged AllNovaScotia’s writers, however. The journal has used “Bennett Bunker” in 35 subsequent stories. Wouldn’t the honest thing be to write, “which we at call the Bennett Bunker?”

The cutesy alliteration hasn’t caught on because it conveys no fresh insight about the building or Bennett’s term as head of NS Power. Writers usually apply “Bunker” metaphorically to the fortified redoubt of an uncommunicative public figure who hides out to avoid critics or public accountability. The record shows that, as chief executives go, Bennett is reasonably forthcoming. He testifies before the Utility and Review Board, makes public appearances, takes questions, speaks to editorial boards, gives interviews, and participates in public engagement sessions.

AllNovaScotia’s use of “Bennett Bunker” is of a piece with the starkly hostile coverage NS Power receives from some of its writers, and from Nova Scotia media in general, who report electricity cost issues as if NS Power were solely responsible for rising world energy prices, ever tighter environmental regulations, and the Buchanan government’s understandable, but now regretted, decision to overcommit to coal generation in the 1980s.

The fact that unhappiness over increasing electricity costs has focused public hostility on NS Power does not relieve journalists of responsibility for reporting the reasons for those cost increases competently, honestly, and evenhandedly. (And, yes, the same could be said of opposition politicians.)

[Disclosure: I have done occasional contract work for NS Power, mostly writing.]

The Herald’s misreporting – ctd.

Sharon Fraser is a Halifax journalist, women’s rights advocate, and the wife of Dan O’Connor, the chief of staff to Premier Dexter embroiled in a controversy over inaccurate reporting by the Chronicle-Herald over the weekend. She describes the events at the heart of the Herald’s misreporting:

I have no desire to keep this going eternally but I wrote this summary this morning and thought you might be interested.

Here’s what happened:

On Friday, the Herald published a front-page story reducing an important government initiative and its announcement to the amount of money that was spent over several months in its preparation.  The headline — the government announcement was about wind-power and other forms of renewable electricity — was “Blowing money.”  The headline and lead stated that the cost of the announcement included the cost of preparing the new five year renewable electricity policy.

There were other inaccuracies in the story and its whole premise was based on the Herald’s contention that the government was squandering taxpayers’ money.

Dan wrote a comment to the Herald online forum, strongly criticizing the story, its inaccuracies and the fact that Opposition Leader Stephen MacNeil had been called for a comment for the story but no government representative had been called.

At this point, the Herald had choices:  It could have said, “we stand by our story,” and published Dan’s comment.  Or, as it seems to know who its anonymous commenters are, it could have called Dan (or another government representative) and interviewed him about the alleged inaccuracies and do a follow-up story about the government’s position on the story — and on the original event.

The Herald didn’t make either of those choices.  Instead, using the same reporter who had done the original story, it went after Dan, ultimately smearing his reputation by falsely claiming he had twice “denied” writing the comments, then writing that he had “confessed” after “repeated questions.”

I was standing right beside him during the phone calls.  The reporter called him twice.  In the first call, she asked him if he had sent an email to the paper that day.  He said no.  She called him back, very shortly after, and said she had asked the wrong question.  She then asked if he had sent comments to the online forum.  He said he had.  There were no denials, no repeated questions, no “confession.”

On Saturday, the Herald filled much of its front page with a story (and full-length photo) — centred on the fact that Dan had submitted anonymous comments to the online forum and the fabrication that he had lied about it.  His comments, which they had refused to post on Friday, were on Saturday’s front page.  Well into the story, the Herald reported the government’s objections to the inaccuracies in the original story, and the first comments from a government representative about the previous day’s front page story.  (In conversations with several government representatives, the Herald never denied fundamental errors in the original story, but refused to correct them, refused to apologize, and said they “stood by” the various editorial staff who decided to write, edit and present the Friday story.)

On Saturday, I sent a comment to the online forum under my own name, disputing their version of events and accusing them of fabricating what they had written about Dan.  My comment was not published and within a short period of time, the story was closed to further comments.

On Monday, the Herald ran an editorial that was presented as a defense of the original story without ever ever repeating its premise or endorsing its errors.  The editorial added information that changed the topic from the renewable electricity announcement to the use of consultants — which had not been the subject of a Herald news story or news gathering.  The editorial said not a word about the earlier inaccuracies or the failure to offer the government a chance to participate in the story and concluded by suggesting the government should simply send out press releases when it wants to make an announcement.

And speaking of begrudgery – updated

In response to this, someone called Peter Watts or perhaps Paul Buher, writes from a cryptic email account:

You, sir, are a pig, and no different than Darrell Dexter.

You hide under the guise of a political blog during the day, only to be writing for the NDP at night. A $15,000 pay cheque isn’t too bad I suppose. Good for you.

I have news for you. Anything you write on that virulent blog from this day forward is tainted with the stink of NDP orange, corruption, and self-serving interest. As I said, you sir, are a pig.

I wonder how Mr. Whateverhisrealnameis would feel to learn that Rodney MacDonald’s Tories hired me to write that government’s energy strategy.

Andrew Terris chimes in:

15K for 26 pages of text with lots of white space?


On the other hand, an erstwhile Daily News colleague writes:

That was a breathtakingly shoddy piece in the Herald this morning. Seems like Dan et al have made up their minds about the Dexter government.

I’ll leave it to others to decide whether the Herald’s shoddiness was breathtaking in this case, but I do think Judy Myrden’s story falls into a category of invidious reporting sensible people can see through without knowing much about the topic. She calls it a $42,000 press conference, but cites only $11,000 in costs (including transportation, catering, audio-visual, and event-management) related to the event.

The other $31,000 was part of the process of producing the plan, an effort that included several government departments, and discussions with interested companies, organizations, and individuals. Myrden falsely conflated production costs with news conference costs to make the latter appear four times larger than they were.

The sad thing about this is that if Myrden, or any other Herald reporter, would bother to read the energy plan, they would find it choc-a-block full of issues vital to Nova Scotia’s future—questions that could use robust discussion, debate, criticism, and even, dare I say it, investigation. Alas, that would take time, effort, imagination, and intelligence. Unlike finger-wagging.

Perhaps all provincial announcements should take place in Halifax, the centre of the known universe. Perhaps government should aways communicate with one hand tied behind its back, issuing reports written in bureaucratese and printed in gray ink on newsprint, Enver Hoxha-style.

[Update:] Stan Jones writes:

Sorry, Parker, but when you are sucking $15,000 from the same tit as the MLAs I really don’t think your opinion is going to sway me.

Perhaps Mr. Jones, who bills himself as a consultant specializing in social, health and educational research, is too pure to take government money. I’m not. About a quarter of my consulting work is with government. I relish these assignments because they give me a chance to work on the most important and difficult public issues facing our society, and to interact with thoughtful, energetic, well-motivated people.

The cynical assumption at play here is that doing government work automatically makes one corrupt. If that’s true, then it stands to reason that the most important and difficult decisions of our time will be worked on only by corrupt people, while all the good people (like Jones, Terris, and Watt) stand on the sidelines. Enjoy your purity, folks. Some of us want to tackle these issues.

Less pure readers can check out the Energy Plan here. They tell me it’s a pretty good read.