During his long career at The Telegram, Russell Wangersky has commented upon — and quoted — people from a broad spectrum of society. He has given voice to the gamut of viewpoints, running from wisdom to nonsense; yes, even the wide berth that separates Voltaire and Danny Williams.
Quoting the eighteenth-century French philosopher and writer: “If you want to know who controls you, look at who you are not allowed to criticize.” The local scribe was suggesting that, “in these sensitive times, it feels safer to use someone else’s words as a buffer.” He was being only a little facetious. He didn’t invoke Williams’ name in the piece, but he didn’t need to.
While some critics dislike the lashings of one schooled in the sublime arts, Wangersky was never intimidated by bombasts. The Telegram columnist reminded us on one occasion, as the Muskrat Falls Project ran amok, of a parable elevated to the status of gospel by Williams’ fan club, the St. John’s Board of Trade. “That’s the very nature of megaprojects,” Williams told them, adding, “You can’t make excuses for overruns, but by the same token they’re a fact of life and they happen.”
Wangersky might have said: if it was so predictable, why did you not see to it that Ed Martin included prudent allocations both for risk and incompetence? Instead, the journalist, as if defending one’s right to say stupid things — Voltaire’s creed — appraised the assertion with his usual eloquence: “The story on cost overruns now is that they were always to be expected.” Indeed.
The columnist, writer and poet announced recently that, after a long career in this province, he is leaving to take up a new post — in Saskatoon. A dubious choice to be sure — it ain’t Florida in the wintertime — his decision to move on is a real loss at a time when independent journalism, especially thoughtful speak, is in serious decline, especially here.
It is not fun peering through mind-numbing press releases and the “spin” of pseudo-bureaucrats who couldn’t make the cut in either journalism or public relations.
It is also a rare person who refuses easy “access” to the CEO’s or the Premier’s Office; the price too high when the exchange rate exacts a compromise that amounts to one’s objectivity.
This Blog has rarely been kind to journalists. On one occasion in 2012, as Kathy Dunderdale and Jerome Kennedy did their damnedest to ram through approval of the Muskrat Falls project, a post asked if “news [must] always be limited to pedestrian issues — all the time.”
A February 2017 piece called “Reporters should remember the ones who lie” railed against media who reported news “straight out of Nalcor central casting…” taking no effort to screen the “corporate-friendly and sanitized version”. I was damn mad and asked: “Why can’t the media call out Nalcor’s BS? Is journalistic license a joke in small local markets?”
But the derisive tone and content did not apply to all. The piece went on to read: “There are local journalists who do solid work. One is the Telegram’s Russell Wangersky…” whose commentary, “Sifting through minutiae for the truth”, admitted that he “doesn’t always know what’s true and what’s hype”, but was able to offer this sage advice:
“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.”
Then Wangersky added this admonition: “Sometimes, I forget a face. But you know what? I never forget someone who lies to me.”
In each instance, he could be believed.
In 2016, as the Muskrat Falls debacle continued to unfold, Wangersky wrote this strident warning: “Get out if you can. That would be my advice.” The award-winning writer had evidently concluded that it was time to caution his neighbours of an impending economic tsunami.
“If you’re young, not tied down by investments like a home you might take a financial bath trying to sell, if you have an education or a trade that you can use to get a mainland job, just go. Go because we made this mess and you shouldn’t be forced to pay for it.”
It amounted to a lament for a place submerged not just by debt but under the weight of fools. My god, I suggested facetiously: he's giving up on Danny!
Wangersky had kept a watchful eye on Muskrat and budgetary excess. He had frequently warned Williams and Dunderdale about the path they were on, as the Liberals, the NDP, and the cheering classes (that’s us) urged the government on. This time, Wangersky would not hold back:
“To my kids, to all kids: go. You do not deserve to have to pay our bills. You shouldn’t have to pay for our mistakes. Come and visit, for sure. But we made the mess. We should have to clean it up.”
Jokingly, I wondered aloud why he had not joined the “I believe in Newfoundland and Labrador” crowd and their “fusion of submission, denial and illusion.” But he did not suffer fools and it was not in him to embrace their “prayer to delicious greed… and gratuitous patriotism.”
Of course, he understood them all too well, much as he did Ed Martin’s corrupted calculations of “intergenerational equity” on which even the “low-balled” cost estimates relied. It was a courageous piece; a tough call. I suspect that SaltWire, the current owners, would have taken his pen.
Someone of his integrity and insight will be hard to replace, the effort hardly likely when every media platform is scrambling for survival.
We should thank him for his insights and analysis and for leaving behind the best footprint of his trade — integrity and professionalism. He is due every bit of our appreciation and respect.
Possibly, some will be happy that he is gone.
As people get ready to pay for their fiscal sins, he won’t be around to remind us why we must, and who is responsible.
On the one hand, that is most unfortunate.
On the other, more than a few politicians will be relieved.