11.08.2010 07:55 AM

A cautionary media tale

Last Friday, I spoke to an Ottawa Citizen reporter.  He asked me general questions about criticizing one’s opponent in an election.  I said to him – I keep records of these things – a politician’s “personal life is off-limits.”  That’s a quote.

On Saturday morning, the reporter’s story showed up in the paper.  To call it bullshit is to understate things.  So I wrote a note to his editors, both of whom I have had the pleasure to work with.

Dear Gerry and Drew:

I hope you are both well.

Yesterday, I spoke with the paper’s Lee Greenberg.  This morning, he has a story that has the following hed:

McGuinty Liberals take aim at Tory leader’s wife as pre-election messaging heats up

Within the story, the words that Lee apparently feels support the allegation above are:

“In what promises to be a bloody political war in Ontario this year, one of the first targets could be Deb Hutton, the wife of Conservative leader Tim Hudak.”

And:

“Now, a senior Liberal strategist is hinting she is fair game in the ongoing battle between Ontario’s two chief parties.”

And:

“Warren Kinsella, who has run the Liberal war room in the past two provincial election campaigns, says a recent Tory advertisement might have opened the door to attacks.”

And:

“Kinsella also took a dig at the couple, saying Hutton “has, quite frankly, had much more involvement in politics than Tim,” while also questioning the party’s choice to put her in an advertisement.”

(I’ve added emphasis to make my point clearer.)

Those words seem to be the sum total of the evidence Lee marshals to support the headline, which is not factual.

In my conversation with Lee, a record of which I kept, I clearly stated to him that a politician’s personal life should not be the subject of criticism.  At no time did I state what the headline does – namely, that the Liberals are “taking aim” at Ms. Hutton, who I know and like.

I also told Lee that I have no title with any future Liberal campaign, I have been a volunteer on past ones, and I have no idea – none, zero – about what will be the focus in the election that is about a year away.  Speaking as a proud alumnus of the Citizen newsroom, I would say that peppering a story with “could bes” and “hintings” and “might haves” is lousy journalism, and something that would not have been permitted when I was there (and I fail to see how stating that Deb has lots of political experience is a “dig” at her, by the by; from my perspective, it’s not an insult).  None of this speculative writing assists the paper’s readers in any way.

I would therefore ask that there be a correction published, as soon as possible, to make clear those readers that, at no time, did I state that Deb is going to be “targeted” by any future Liberal campaign.  That is flatly and outrageously false.  In the meantime, I won’t be speaking to Lee again, and I’ll be encouraging my political friends – of all stripes – to do likewise.

I look forward to hearing from you as soon as possible, and hope you have a nice weekend.

Sincerely,

Anyway.  I quickly got a note back from the paper’s editor, who said “I think the head does go further than the story and should be amended.” The story – which had not shown up in the paper edition – quickly disappeared online.

Today, the Citizen has published a greatly diluted version of the original story.  In it, there is this line, which the reporter had perhaps forgotten to include in his original story:

“[Kinsella] added that he does not support broadening electioneering to include family members.”

So, um, I guess that is the opposite of what the reporter originally wrote, isn’t it?  As in, what he wrote the first time was unadulterated bullshit?

Yep.

I’ve spoken to Conservative friends about this reporter.  They now tell me that this reporter was trying to whip them up, and falsely told them that my words were far worse, in order that he could get a suitably outraged reaction.  They didn’t fall for it.

So what’s it all mean, Virginia?  Well, it’s a cautionary media tale, I guess.  Sometimes you can say one thing, and a dishonest journalist will print the exact opposite.

The moral of the tale?

Don’t ever talk to Lee Greenberg. I sure don’t plan to.

26 Comments

  1. Scott Tribe says:

    The other moral of the story is perhaps always keep notes of what you say to any reporter to compare to what they actually write?

    • Warren says:

      I tape them. They’re taping you, so be sure to return the favour.

      • That’s the advice I give. I had someone complain they were misquoted until I asked him if he had any interest in listing to our interview. All I did was print what he said, word for word, without leaving anything out.

        Not my fault he did not like his words in ink.

        A record of an interview is the only protection on both sides.

  2. sj says:

    The ‘no touching a politician’s family’ rule goes out the window if the spouse has a formal role in the campaign or in developing policy. It would be antithetical for a feminist to argue otherwise. (Women fought long an hard to get a serious role in politics, so they should not hide behind the little wife defence if they are actually working on the campaign.) If a wife’s (or husband’s) role is to support the person running, they are off limits. But if they are any part of the process beyond smiling and waving (or even appearing in their kitchen in a brochure shot), I think it is fair to discuss that role and what impact the spouse might have on the politician if they are elected. But I recognize it could be a slippery slope to full on attacks of families.

    As your fun with the Citizen, it is a certainly a cautionary tale. It seems like someone wanted to do a story about the spouse with serious party ties and it went off course when you didn’t provide the quotes they wanted.

    • Warren says:

      Yep.

      Anyway, no Liberal wanted to talk to this guy, because he has a long history of torquing the shit out of stuff. Being trusting in my old age, I figured he might be accurate, for once.

      I was wrong about that.

  3. Matt says:

    You do realize, I hope, that in most newsrooms the reporter has little say what the headline for their story will be. Those men and women, the deskers that design the paper, typically do that. And if there is an editor overseeing the final product, they can still make changes before it’s printed.

    Since your greatest beef with the article seems to be the headline, which doesn’t really fit the story, I’d think twice about blacklisting the reporter.

    • Warren says:

      The headline writer can only work with the story he or she was submitted. If the story was bullshit, which it was, the headline writer will have a bullshit headline.

      Like this one.

  4. bc says:

    Sucks to be Lee Greenberg.

    What’s the expression though? You made your bed, now sleep in it.

    • Warren says:

      Yessir.

      Welcome to the blog age, Lee: there are now thousands of fact-checkers out here in the ether. If you mess up – and you did – you’ll be hearing about it.

      • Michael S says:

        The fact that Lee Greenberg survived the layoff round indicates that this is going to become the norm, not the exception, as the Citizen needs to claim eyeballs.

      • bc says:

        You bring up a great point.

        For all of the negatives that internet anonimity/blogging brings, it also allows us to a) get the word out on shoddy journalism in record time, and b) check over said shoddy journalism and hopefully quell whatever non-story they are trumping that day.

  5. MJH says:

    Such spinning (another word for lying) by Greenberg is not uncommon when journalists want to crank up a story. When this goes on Canadians dont know who to trust.

  6. JH says:

    WK good warning for all political types and handled excellently by you! They all should follow the taping advice.
    It kind of reminded me of way back in the early Obama days when folks got a little outraged by opponents attacks on Mrs. Obama, when she was so to speak on the fringes of the campaign – of course the outrage dissapated pretty quickly, as she got even more full engaged in her husband’s election. Once a spouse starts making speechs, advising on policy etc. then they are fair game because they are ‘in’ the game.

  7. Michael S says:

    Story is still there, via their own search engine:

    http://www.ottawacitizen.com/news/Spouses+fair+game+bitter+battle+Ontario/3792349/story.html

    Given that, you better demand a full written retraction.

  8. Cameron Prymak says:

    “Welcome to the blog age, Lee: there are now thousands of fact-checkers out here in the ether. If you mess up ? and you did ? you?ll be hearing about it.”

    *Used to be* said that one should never argue with a guy that buys his ink by the barrel.

    Maybe not so much anymore.

  9. Wow. Talk about career suicide on Lee’s part. As a journalism student in my second and final year of study, I would never have tried to pull that one. I’ve pushed some sources to talk, but would never put a lie in someone’s mouth.

    Good work on calling this guy out.

  10. J. Coates says:

    Never underestimate that a journalism degree could be gotten out of a box of cracker jacks. I had a date with a woman, a Carlton or Ryerson grad, who hadn’t heard of or read Lord of The Rings. Allan Fothingerham wrote a delightful column once about what a journalist should have. I wish I could find it again.

    • Be_rad says:

      Getting a Journalism degree requires the same efort and ability as any arts degree. It’s the ethics, integrity, hard work and insight that are hard to come by. And I’m sorry, but measuring a journalist’s creds by whether they have read a fantasy trilogy or not is just lame.

  11. EMW says:

    Hey Warren,

    Did you ever hear that Scharpling and Wurster bit about “Toilet Rock”? I don’t want to spoil it but you should seek it out, it’s a hilarious take on this kind of reporting.

  12. J. Coates says:

    I still have the Maclean and Maclean LP Toilet Rock. I recall them performing in front of MacEwan Hall at the U. of C. way back when. They were so drunk or stoned they could barely perform. They were passing back and forth a bottle of Hudsons Bay Overproof Rum. Oh to be young and foolish again.

  13. some guy says:

    While I agree the original story by Lee Greenberg represents the worst kind of journalism, what responsibility do the Citizen’s editors bear? They (presumably) proof-read it, they made the final call that it was fit to print, heck, they may have even been the ones who sexed it up! At any rate, they gave it the green light, so they are equally to blame, in my eyes. I understand Gerry and Drew are friends of yours, Warren, but they are every bit as responsible for this atrocious piece of journalism as Mr. Greenberg is.

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