Wednesday, May 16, 2007

When editors stump at political rallies

Managing editors wear many hats, god knows. But one of them should not be appearing as a speaker – make that cheerleader – at an emotionally-charged political event.

It is my view that Ryan Cleary (right, photo by Duncan De Young/The Muse) made such a mistake, by speaking at the Stand Up For Newfoundland & Labrador political demonstration Friday at Confederation Building.

I was also disappointed - though less so - that Randy Simms, host of VOCM’s Open Line, was emcee for the event. It is fine for Simms to offer political analysis on ‘Here & Now’, but hosting a political rally is something altogether different. However, Simms does an admirable job of staying unbiased during Open Line, and I’ve even heard him play devil’s advocate against causes he apparently believes in. So I am willing to forgive him this momentary lapse.

Cleary’s case is different. He is not a traffic cop on a call-in show; he decides what does and doesn’t get printed in a newspaper that some see as influential.

The Independent is often compared to the now defunct Sunday Express (where I worked) because the latter was controversial and nicely designed. But that is where the similarities end.

The Sunday Express was a newspaper that broke more than a dozen stories every week, whereas The Independent might break one or two. The Sunday Express was an objective newspaper that carried a brief for no one, whereas The Independent is a propaganda sheet that has become a cheerleader for the Williams government and Newfoundland nationalists.

I am not the only individual to question Ryan Cleary’s judgment on appearing at this event. CBC Radio Noon host John Furlong raised exactly this point with Cleary, in a live interview via cell phone from Friday’s event. Here’s an excerpt:

Furlong: Ryan, what about your role as a journalist? Are you worried that you are compromising your impartiality by taking a stand?

Cleary: You know, you asked me that question earlier this morning John, and the first thought that ran through my head was, ‘I wonder, did you ask that question to David Cochrane when he appeared before the Board of Trade, or Craig Westcott, when he gave a speech a while ago to the offshore oil (industry)?’

Furlong: Well, David Cochrane analyzed the political climate. He didn’t take a stand on a public issue. And he was invited to speak. There’s a big difference.

Cleary: Well, I don’t see that as a big difference. I’m here as a Newfoundlander…

But here is what Cleary said in the same interview, just two minutes before that:

I’m here today basically as the Editor In Chief of The Independent, but I am also here I guess primarily as a Newfoundlander and Labradorian first.

Thanks for, um, clarifying that.

Like a politician, Cleary dodges Furlong’s questions about impartiality, bridging immediately from the sticky subject of ethics over to the ‘rah rah Newfoundland and Labrador’ line, just as a politician would. In fact, Cleary’s speech overflowed with political rhetoric and bombast. (The full text was published as Cleary’s column in Friday’s Independent, and is posted at their web site .)

The paper’s nationalist stance is widely known and understood, despite Cleary’s occasional half-hearted denials. Just a few weeks ago, on April 20, Cleary reaffirmed this in his column. He was commenting on a guest column by political science professor Michael Temelini, who advocates “opening a discussion” about separating from Canada.

“(Temelini) says there’s nothing wrong with asking whether there’s a better way. True, but people are afraid; they feel threatened. I say Newfoundlanders and Labradorians must finally face their fears.”

Cleary closes that column by saying that the “the bigger dragon to slay will be the media,” a suggestion perhaps that other media aren’t giving separation the attention it deserves. What the other media aren’t doing is selling out their credibility by pumping their fists in the air at political rallies, or wedging their noses firmly – if figuratively – between the nether cheeks of our premier.

In the above noted column, Cleary wrote that: “I do not stand before you to cheerlead for Premier Danny Williams, although I do walk beside him in his quest to push this place forward.”

Look at the fawning treatment the paper gave Premier Williams last week, by printing verbatim his entire speech to the Economic Club of Toronto, without a shred of analysis or commentary, except to say that the Premier “set the record straight” about Newfoundland and Labrador.

Michael Harris, the Editor-In-Chief of The Sunday Express, was quick to praise Premier Clyde Wells if he supported his stand on a particular issue. But Harris kept this praise confined to editorials, didn’t let it filter into the news pages and would never, ever have stumped for a premier at a political rally.

Maybe Cleary is planning to run for provincial or federal politics, or perhaps land a job in the Premier’s office. He has every right to do so. And it is not against the law to turn what could have been a decent newspaper into a political manifesto.

However, it does cause problems for the journalists who work under him. The columnists are somewhat insulated from this, since they bring subjectivity to the mix, but the reporters need to be objective – and perceived as objective. How can they claim this when the paper itself is so obviously biased against all things ‘Canada’? When their Editor In Chief is out stumping for the premier?

The Independent has some good reporters on staff (though they could be breaking more stories), and some decent columnists. The back section is fabulous, as is some of the intellectual ferment on the opinion pages (to their credit, the paper does publish letters that question its nationalist stance or criticize the premier). Where it falls down is its blatant nationalist agenda, which was lampooned nicely by the Muse a while ago when it wrote "NL gets raw deal, See story every page". Even fans of the newspaper will agree that this bias is there – it’s why they read the paper. But do they trust it to deliver objective reporting?

No, The Independent is not impartial.

It is not even ‘independent’.

It is propaganda.


Edward G. Hollett said...


Consider the letter is in the mail.

Of course, there will be denials that the Indy crowd even read your column/blog yadda yadda yadda.

WJM said...

Double ouch!

I was wondering when you'd weigh in.

Mike said...

I completely disagree with your assessment of Cleary’s attendance at this rally Geoff.

Cleary is a managing editor of a newspaper. He is also a resident of this Province who takes an open stand on what he believes is best for it. I admire him for that. There should be more like him.

More media should openly bring forth their beliefs and positions and not hide behind the thinly worded veil of media objectivity.

Do you think for one minute that those who watch or read various media think them to be unbiased? If you do then I suggest you are indeed gullible in the utmost.

There are times Cochrane makes me cringe with apparent bias. Westcott makes me cringe even more but then again that’s how he gets his status. A media shock jock.

Labeling the Independent as a cheerleader for Williams and Company should be beneath you. I would expect this type of behavior from Ed Hollett as illustrated in his comment. The mere mention of Williams name sparks rage within his soul and a possible bubble in his substantial brain. Hollett and his disciples are constitutionally incapable of accepting that the Williams government can do ANYTHING good. His whole approach is so out there that I suspect it does him more harm than good. At times I find it predictable and boring. Are you going that way?

Did you attend the rally? Did you hear what was being said by all other speakers? They spoke of supporting the Provinces position in dealing with Ottawa. Were all of them shilling for the Premier too? Was Lorraine Michael or George Sweeny shilling for the Premier? Were all those who spoke as representatives of their various organizations?

I submit they were supporting a principle on the Prime Minister's failure to hold to a promise. They were taking a stand on THEIR beliefs. You may not necessarily agree with them but at least they take one and are prepared to be public with that. They were supporting a principle and not a personality.

If the media or any part of it sees itself on some sort of an ethical pedestal then I encourage it to have a good look at itself. Media has a long history in Newfoundland and Labrador as favoring one side or the other. Mention the Daily News, the Shoreline, NTV and yes, your revered Sunday Express. I have heard many who believe they were Liberal Rags or Tory Rags or Smallwood boosters or merchant money past times. That doesn't make it true though.

I take issue and disagree with Ryan Cleary and/or Danny Williams on many things. I compliment them for speaking at the rally. I compliment all who came out on that sunny Friday to have themselves heard. I compliment the Independent for its stand. I compliment the Independent for standing up for the Province.

It’s sad though when it appears that you want to set yourself on a pedestal to preach media ethics. It doesn’t suit you.

Geoff Meeker said...

Mike, what I like most about your comment is your ability to express a strong opinion without getting nasty about it. If we could all do that, this province would be a much better place. (Yes, the tone of my original post got a little nasty once or twice, but Ryan dishes it out like that every week so I'm sure he can take it too.)

I don't agree with many of your comments, but you certainly have a right to them. I know that there is "bias" in media, and that all reporters have opinions on issues of the day. But these can be expressed in various ways, including columns, editorials and guest panels but not, I submit, at a political rally.

As for your final remark about being on a "pedestal", this is not what I am about. Ethics are important to me. During my career as a journalist, I resigned my position on three different occasions rather than roll over and feel compromised. I don't stand on pedestals, I stand on principle and have earned the right to comment - not "preach" - on this subject.

Mike, I see that your profile is private, which makes you anonymous to me. Is there anything we can do about that, or do I have to delete you? :)

Anonymous said...

Well said Mike. You made some good points.

As well, it concerns me that the only people who can anony comment on this blog are journalists. Seems a little elitist.

I do enjoy reading this blog but I don't feel you should differentiate posting comment based on ones employment whether they can anony comment. Some people have jobs (are not journalists) that require keeping their opinions to themselves but see anonymous comment as a medium to voice their concerns but not affect their job status. You should either have no anony comment on your blog or free posting of anony comment and remove derogatory postings. thanks, but I guess this prob won't be posted

Geoff Meeker said...

Hi anonymous... please elaborate on your point, that people have jobs which won't allow them to express an opinion in public. Can you offer some examples? I need to be convinced.

Edward G. Hollett said...

Mike, it's rather interesting to see that you defend those you agree with as being principled but yet when it comes to others you seem to impart some personal or other motivations that are far less than noble.

That's certainly your right, but it does nothing to advance a sustainable argument. It's also a complete and utter load.

This sort of comment, for example, is nothing but hysterical nonsense: "The mere mention of Williams name sparks rage within his soul and a possible bubble in his substantial brain."

It makes personal what is not personal either with respect to the Premier or to me. You impart motives that are not substantiated.

The positions I take are based on as much principle as anyone else's and, to be perfectly frank, they contain more emphasis on fact than a great many, yours included.

Your suggestion that Cochrane and Westcott are biased is merely a reflection of your own views - damn the critics of your side and praise others as angels.

Your contention is baseless however and the evidence bears it out. If you look at it from another perspective others accuse them of being biased the other way.

Cochrane certainly spoke about that and he is absolutely right. Liberals accused him of being a Tory and now Tories accuse him of being Liberal.

As long as I have known him and a great many other reporters - Westcott included - I couldn't tell you their partisan views if you put a gun to my head. In Westcott's case, I can assure you he was as relentlessly critical of regimes of a different political stripoe as he has been of the current one.

That said, what you and a host of other people absolutely refuse to acknowledge is that Westcott has covered the business scene in this province thoroughly and impartially. He's done such a fine job of boosting the industry that the Premier himself read extensively from the Post in the House of Assembly to bolster his own argument.

That was before Paul Oram accused him - stupidly - of being always negative.

In this case Cleary gains your approval for nothing other than the nonsense that he is "standing up for the Province." This is the sort of self-righteous drivel, the sort of self-serving nonsense, that has infected any discussion of public issues today.

No wonder you are so upset with Cochrane; he rightly pointed out the way that patriotism - jingoism would be a better word - is used to stifle discussion. You wrap your heros in the flag and they get your unwavering praise.

Well, frankly, neither you, nor Cleary nor the Premier have a monopoly on high motives and patriotism. Once you get past that, let's have a discussion of the substance of issues and see what happens. Let's see which position is in the best interests of the province.

Bravo for venting your spleen. Sadly, though you did nothing to discuss the ethics of a newspaper editor taking so blatant a political position, not in his capacity as an individual but as Cleary put it himself, the editor of the newspaper.

So now that we clear the jingoistic foolishness out of the way, is there something of substance you'd like to discuss?

Mark said...

It is about time we "called a spade a shovel" and started asking some serious questions about whatthe Independent is, how it magically resurrected itself from the brink of finanical disaster, and why it is alwasy there when a certain premier requires it.

Editors speaking at political rallies is the kind of activity that I would expect of Ezra Levant at the Western Standard, but even he has the scruples not to cross this kind of a line.

Now that we have "fixed election" dates, it is well worth all of our attention to monitor how much government advertising shows up in "friendly" papers for the next several months.

Finally, to Mike's point about "accepting that the Williams government can do ANYTHING good" I am more than happy to concede that Williams is very capable of doing good things. But in order for a thin to be good it has to be done. What has he done?

Some of us criticize Premier Williams for the same reason we criticize Gerry Reid, or Lorraine Michael. Because all of them ought to be held to account, challenged at times and commended at others. And someone has to do that job in order for a democracy to function.

Clear(l)y, (typo intended), the media isn't performing that task.

And lastly, in response to this: "Cochrane makes me cringe with apparent bias" - bias to what or whom?

If the majority of our population cannot differentiate between criticism and bias, then we might as well turn off the lights and pull the plug. The lunatics are truly running the asylum.

David Cochrane said...

Wow. How did I get dragged into this one?

Mark said...

Simple. The CBC is a federal entity. That makes you, well... evil?

Edward G. Hollett said...

David, you got into it by daring to make public comments that did not conform to the current dogma.

You are therefore unpatriotic.

Which is what you said would occur.

David Cochrane said...

No, I mean THIS particular debate. If you want to talk about Cleary, talk about Cleary. Leave me out of it.

WJM said...

There are times Cochrane makes me cringe with apparent bias.

For, or against, whom?

Simon said...

Sorry David but it looks like you have not only been dragged in but you have been lumped in with Mr. Cleary.

Of course there is a huge difference between Cleary's performance at the rally on one side (clearly partisan to a point of view) and fair commentary on public affairs.

Cochrane asks questions; Cleary pronounces answers.

Edward G. Hollett said...


I only mentioned you because the comment from someone named Mike said:

"There are times Cochrane makes me cringe with apparent bias. Westcott makes me cringe even more but then again that’s how he gets his status. A media shock jock."

Then of course, in his interview with Furlong, Cleary invoked your name in a sort of defence of himself.

Furlong sorted that one out and some of us chimed in, me included, to reinforce the distinction between your comments and those of others.

Candace said...

Geoff: "Hi anonymous... please elaborate on your point, that people have jobs which won't allow them to express an opinion in public. Can you offer some examples? I need to be convinced."

I'm not the anonymous commenter, but I can give you some examples.

Having previously held a role in sales, I was not comfortable identifying myself in blog comments, particularly where politics are discussed. You never know who is reading, and whether they agree with you, and more importantly, whether you are meeting them tomorrow. I can live with a first name, as it's not enough to identify, at least without a bit of legwork.

Employees of public companies have to steer very clear of political and/or prejudicial comments.

Need more?

Geoff Meeker said...

Thanks Candace: I know there are some valid cases where a person would want to remain anonymous. Government employees also need to watch what they say. But if someone expresses their opinion in a reasonable way (neither extreme nor hateful) I think they are generally safe in doing so. Debate the argument calmly without attacking the person.

I honestly don't care about anonymous posts when the person is talking sensibly. The problem is that, too often, they take the form of "drive by smears". These get deleted immediately.

If someone wants to remain anonymous, they should email me at geoff_meeker(at)yahoo(dot)com and say why.

Edward G. Hollett said...

Well, Geoff, we need wonder no longer who 'mike" is.

Turns out it is Mike Kehoe.

He sent his comments here to the Indy as a letter to the editor.

The Indy printed it, without context beneath Ryan's column. Of course he proudly admits that his agenda is "Newfoundland and Labrador."

Bravo. As I noted to Mike, what we seem to have here is patriotism as the excuse or sometimes the only reason for anything.

Anonymous said...

When a politician bases a large part of his public relations towards manipulating the feelings and personal understanding of many people. There is a requirement for those in the media to react in a very personal level. If Danny Willams never used more than facts and figures, the media would have to respond in kind, and simply offer balanced commentary regarding those numbers and dates. It is completely the opposite, the political climate is falling apart and Danny Willams is the leader of an overtly radical political campaign which almost always, uses personal attacks or rhetoric to make points. Therefore, it is absolutely required that intelligent people respond with comments that take the debate to a level playing field, and calls out the BS that is the base of this propaganda and personal bias. In this matter Ryan Cleary is merely choosing a side, it is not a matter of telling him he isnt right to voice his opinion, if anything he should be more clear and more open about what his intentions are. The only way to respond to him, is to show how wrong he is, and why all his ideas are crap and he is supporting Danny Willams in a circus of public relations. Being straight to the truth is more effective anyways.

Anonymous said...

Cleary is not a journalist; he is an activist. I'm sure he often hosts little rallies in the heated inner sanctum of his brain, where he is the guest speaker, placards waving and banners snapping in the wind, and the adoring crowds urging ever onward to that glorious day of independence.

Katie said...

I know this issue has long since been dropped, but I was just informed about your blog by a friend and colleague today, so I decided to check it out. Perhaps I am being picky, or maybe even narcissistic, but I just wanted to correct you in saying that in the April 20, 2007 edition of The Independent there was an article written about Michael Temelini (by me), but not a column. Mr. Temelini did write a column for the paper, but it was featured in the May 4, 2007 edition.

Thank you,
Katie Hyslop

Frank Carroll said...

First of all, let me declare my own biases. Ryan is an old friend of mine, and I wrote a column for the Independent a few years ago. I disagree with many of his nationalist opinions, and it would not have been my choice to speak at a rally. However, I have a few issues with your piece. First of all, what's wrong with an editor taking an editorial position? Ryan's appearance at a non-partisan rally (albeit a political one) is not as serious as it would have been had he still been a reporter. His stance does not necessarily prejudice his paper's reporting. Second, I think it's going too far to raise the rhetorial question (a statement in disguise) of whether Ryan was somehow jockeying for a political appointment. Third, Ryan was not "stumping for the premier." He was expressing an honestly held opinion at an issue-oriented rally that was not organized any any political party. He expresses the same opinions in his editorials. Finally, it's a bit much to suggest that Ryan is brown-nosing the premier. Do you honestly think he's on the premier's Christmas card list given the articles the Independent has written about House of Assembly scandal?

Sorry I'm so late commenting on this piece. I just read it last evening. I'll check in more often. Cheers.