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Thursday 16 February 2017


When the media choose to be bystanders, willingly complicit in propagating Nalcor’s persistent falsifications, is there anything to be done but wait for the fallout such misdeeds inspire?

The silence that now envelops the squandering of $4 billion by Nalcor on the Muskrat Falls project a sum expected to go higher constitutes an inspiration for some head scratching. We surely need to ask why the perpetrators deserve protection from questions of accountability.

When all the ‘normal’ checks and balances of a modern democracy fail, isn’t that when the media should be on the top of their game?

While the public must take ultimate responsibility for being informed, one aspect of that job should be to keep an eye on how the media treat the social licence that is the claim of their profession.

None of us is oblivious to recent changes in how people get their news, nor to the fragmentation of media and advertising revenues. Undoubtedly, a much altered marketing paradigm has impacted the staffing of many newsrooms.

But even if the ‘old-fashioned’ news junkies have, by and large, surrendered their craving for ‘hard’ news in the face of defeat by an explosion of what is euphemistically known as ‘soft’ news respect for good and fair reporting is still strong. 

Reporters today spend too much time dissecting weather, news about weather, incidents caused by weather, and the urgencies of impending terrible weather most of which blows out to sea. On occasion, they perform well such as the Dunphy Inquiry, where important questions are being asked about bad judgement and possibly a less-than-professional even mendacious police culture. 

But when an outfit like Nalcor engages not just in mendacity but in decisions which threaten our essential economic well-being, and its favoured method of accountability is persistent and calculating political spin exceeded sometimes by lies on what basis are they due the benefit of the doubt?

I suggest most people don’t define freedom of the press as merely their right to be free from restrictions or coercion by the state. The public’s patience alone suggests that they acknowledge that it is the right of the press even to maul the news. But that does not amount to an affirmation by the public that reporters should be tolerant of the political and bureaucratic leadership or willing to advance their propaganda agenda.

Nalcor’s press release confirming the recent lay-offs by Muskrat sub-contractor Pennecon is instructive on this point.

The Telegram’s (Feb. 3, 2017) headline declared: “Over 200 workers at the Muskrat Falls site were sent home on Feb. 3. The story read::

The workers are on site with Pennecon, a sub-contractor of GE Grid, and are part of a planned reshaping of the workforce, according to…

“This is to ensure the workforce is the right size and that their work is executed in a prioritized and productive way to achieve best value for the transmission project at the Muskrat Falls site in Labrador…

told TC the 225 workers should be back in a few days. She said they are working with GE Grid to ‘revise the scope of work definitions and execution priorities.’

“This is a large and dynamic project and it isn’t unusual to have to take the time to clarify work scope and ensure that our workforce is efficient with the project needs and we’re all on the same page when it comes to execution priorities So that’s what we’re doing, taking a step back, high-level big-picture conversations.”

What journalist would not have felt they had just been drowned?

The “guts” of the Press Release are bolded  obviously to magnify (as if it was needed) the immense gobbledygook employed to explain the Pennecon lay-off.

It should have been painfully obvious not just to a reporter but likely to anyone that Nalcor/Pennecon wanted to obscure the reasons for the sudden issuance of 225 pink slips. Yet the Press Release was reported verbatim with all the meaningless buzz-words and phrases that could be packed into a single press statement, still leaving the reader ignorant of any discernible basis for the decision.

And, not just by one member of the media.

VOCM, for example, initially reported the "reshaping" of the subcontractor's workforce. The news story stated:

“Calls to the VOCM Newsroom Friday indicated that a large number of people working for Pennecon were told they were going home on Friday. One caller described the scene at the camp in the wake of the news "chaotic", as arrangements were being made to get workers, some of whom had only arrived days earlier, back home.”

But that report was soon “updated” with the one straight out of Nalcor central casting the same one used by the Telegram empty of words like “chaotic” or even the best denier of corporate planning, the words “workers… had arrived only days earlier…” Instead, the more corporate-friendly and sanitized version took precedence without qualification including Nalcor’s assertion of “high-level big-picture conversations”. The 225 people sent home must really have felt wiser with those explanations.

Likewise the CBC, the public broadcaster, put no effort into Nalcor's diatribe in spite of its self-acclaimed investigative practices. It too chose to report Nalcor’s verbatim press release  with hardly any circumscription. I did not see what NTV reported.

I emailed a contractor at the Muskrat Falls site for some clarity, stating “… the Nalcor press release is indecipherable.”

Within minutes I received a reply, which in part read: “Press release was a con job, hiding the truth… contractors will be looking to get many extra costs covered (as a result of the sudden stoppage of work) and the show is just starting …”

It is not new for the media to publish corporate- or government-issued press releases verbatim. Many relate to ongoing issues, and the bafflegab they contain is less offensive possibly because most are innocuous.

Muskrat, though, has never ever enjoyed that status. Now elevated in the public lexicon as a “boondoggle” a consequence of Nalcor’s inexperience, incompetence, and deceit — it is an economy killer. Besides, what is not newsworthy about yet another “chaotic” situation on this doomed project?

Why can’t the media call out Nalcor’s BS? Who are they afraid of offending? Is journalistic licence a joke in small local markets? Do the media cower before advertisers like Nalcor? Could there be another reason?

There are local journalists who do solid work. One is the Telegram’s Russell Wangersky. And, coincidentally, his most recent commentary Sifting through minutiae for the truth, describing his concern for the plethora of news stories, updates and sources of uncertain veracity — much of it minutiae invading our increasingly dodgy news world — is well worth reading.

The acclaimed columnist commented that he “doesn’t always know what’s true and what’s hype.” But he had this sage advice to offer:

Plenty of chaff, not much wheat. And I don’t blame anyone for getting lost in that, or getting lost in any of the other conflicting stories. I agree we’re part of the problem, delivering too much that doesn’t matter, but at the same time, if you listen to a politician and think they’re stretching the truth, remember that you have tools like never before to go back in time and see what was actually said. The only thing you have to do is have the civic energy to bother.”

Wangersky goes on to say:

Sometimes, I forget a face. But you know what? I never forget someone who lies to me.

Wangersky’s piece is good advice for a public far too disengaged. But I suggest that he should also send that memo to many of his media colleagues  just to remind them that notions of “alternative facts” did not originate with 'the Donald'. The propagandists, too, have a strong claim to the ‘oldest profession’.

When reporters rush to plug a hole in the news line-up, when bafflegab is coming off the wire faster than Ed Martin can say “hundred year project”, they need and, yea, as a matter of journalistic licence, have an obligation — to remember the ones who lie.