A dozen broadcasters file into the Speaker’s gallery at Queen’s Park, a legislative locker room perched high above Ontario’s elected MPPs. They’ve reported dutifully for the annual Speaker of the House election, but their attention is focused, more or less, on another man: Steve Gilchrist. The Conservative minister of municipal affairs and housing is under Ontario Provincial Police investigation after allegedly telling developers to go through his own personal lawyer, Tory fundraiser Peter Proszanski, to get an audience with him – a privilege that’d cost them $25,000 each. Even juicier, Gilchrist has a criminal record for tax evasion dating back to 1984, shared with his father, who was at the time a federal Tory MP. It’s not quite Zippergate, but it’s something for the boys and girl in the Speaker’s gallery to yak about anyway. “Let’s get one more shot of Gilchrist for the archives,” cracks one reporter as the rest assume slouched poses on the carpeted bench seats or lean over the polished wood rail. Their barbs are halfhearted though: they need good shots of Gilchrist, but his communications staff has been doing its best to avoid that, staging photo op after photo op to force the cameras to focus on the brighter side of Tory life.
As the House is called to order for the election, the acerbic gossiping in the press gallery quiets down a little. “Oh my god, look at his hair!” hisses one reporter in a stage whisper, referring to an MPP below. “I guess the pre-electoral dye job is growing out.” Camerapeople and reporters take his lead, trash-talking the politicians below on everything from their intelligence (or reputed lack thereof) to their weight – anything to make this part of the day go faster so they can get to the good stuff.
After the election, they scurry out to the hallway. Cameras ready, they congregate, waiting for their last shot at a quality mike-in-face picture today. Gilchrist has got to come out sometime, and if it’s to say he’s resigning, they’d better get it on tape.
“We’re gonna ask him about the housing thing. If he’s already resigned, he’ll have to say so,” says Neal Kelly, Global’s Queen’s Park producer. It’s a sacrifice of sorts, an easy question designed to provoke a good clip for tonight’s newscast. The “housing thing” was a press conference held earlier that day by Toronto Parkdale-High Park MPP Gerard Kennedy protesting a Gilchrist-approved rent increase of as much as 50 percent. Kennedy, sitting at a brown desk in front of a grey curtain, flanked by two unhappy tenants just wasn’t “sexy” enough for the increasingly flashy evening news – only CBC attended.
As MPPs file out, CBC’s Adam Vaughan, now with Citytv, randomly asks them, “Are you the new minister of municipal affairs? Areyou the new minister of municipal affairs?” It’s a feeble joke and the MPPs walk right past him – none of them smi- ling, many not even bothering with a dirty look. This waiting game has been going on for almost two weeks now. And it’s getting desperate. Yesterday, the media followed Gilchrist down this very hallway for almost half an hour. “I don’t think he said anything but, ‘I’m walking to my car,'” says Kelly. “But it made for some good pictures seeing him running away like that.”
As Gilchrist emerges, the reporters squeeze in around him. With microphones in his face and lights in his eyes, the minister coolly rationalizes his support of the rent increases, thanks the media and walks away with a tight smile on his lips. The reporters pack up. “Damn!” says Kelly. “That was a waste of time.”
Across town just a few hours earlier, a grinning Grade 2 student named Stephanie was helping Premier Mike Harris make the most of his time at Harwood Junior Public School. Basking in the attention of a roomful of reporters, she spoke about her vision of Ontario in 2020 to the other 17 kids in the classroom, the principal, her teacher and – if the communications staff who organized the event would have its way – the rest of the province. Afterward, Premier Harris and Helen Johns, minister of citizenship, culture and recreation, gathered the children around to read from My Ontario, a collection of student works being put together as part of Ontario’s Millennium Project. It was vibrant, adorable and, most importantly, not remotely related to the Gilchrist affair.
TV newsmakers need vivid images to illustrate their stories. Harris’s Tories, easily the most communications-savvy provincial government this country has ever seen, are delighted to oblige – on their terms. They dodge negative coverage at every chance and will go to ridiculous lengths – giving preferential treatment to friendly reporters, shutting out critical ones and staging elaborate, unrelated events – to avoid it. Because they know the demands of getting on the news are a lot like the demands of the Miss Universe pageant: you’ve gotta be sexy, you’ve gotta have charm and you’ve better have something interesting (but not too complicated) to say.
With expectations so superficial, many television journalists are losing the incentive and initiative to go out and chase stories beyond the pre-packaged photo ops offered up by government communications staff. Even if they want to go beyond these prefab items, with shrinking political reporting staff and dwindling resources, they can only pursue one or two stories a day. Government PR people know this and are prepared to make it easy for journalists to get their precious pictures, provided the coverage doesn’t end up being too hard on them. The result is political coverage that serves no purpose other than promoting a government that’s already very good at promoting itself.
In the crowded Global bureau, reporter Monica Kim is chatting with Doug the cameraman. “I was talking to a journalism student today about how television reporting compares to print reporting and right in the middle of our talk, a viewer phoned to ask where I got my hair done!” she says, tittering, as Kelly returns. Looking rumpled but determined, he searches for a press release on his desk, a jumble of binders, Post-it Notes, Beta tapes and dusty editing equipment. He failed to score a lively clip at the scrum, and he still doesn’t have a visual hook to update the story. Kelly sits to discuss the plan with Kim. “Okay Monica, so you’ll do a summary of today. Start with the school thing.” He knows the event was a deliberate deflection from Gilchrist, but he needs pictures and this is all he’s got. “It’s Harris, and it’s something visual we can put in the story,” says Kelly. “Of course we’re going to say what they’re really doing.” Score one for the Tories.
Head games like this are played every day between reporters and communications staff. Veterans are fond of telling rookies (and a journalism student writing on the subject) about the time in October 1984 when Lesley Stahl said on air what President Ronald Reagan was really doing: she called him on all the prom-ises he had failed to keep, particularly to the poor, since his election, calling him a president who “highlights the images and hides from the issues.” But minutes after the CBS Evening News Broadcast was over, Richard Darman, Regan’s deputy chief of staff and Michael Deaver, a republican political consultant, called to thank Stahl. They’d watched it with the sound off, and without her verbal assault, it was just five minutes and 40 seconds of sweet, wholesome pictures of the American president with balloons, the president with the flag and the president with needy children.
As Stahl found out, consistently getting the right pictures on the evening news is a PR tactic designed to keep government in the public favour. Harris’s communications staff, many of whom are trained by Republicans in the U.S., subscribe to the Mike Deaver school of thought: they know they can’t control what journalists say, but they do their damndest to control what they show. Robert Fisher, a Global anchor and host of Focus Ontario, a weekly half-hour political analysis show, says he’s never seen such tight control by a premier’s office in his 19 years of political coverage.
“This government, unlike any governments before it, is absolutely obsessed with image,” he says, “whether it’s what shirt the premier wears or what the bus looks like or what backdrop he’s in front of. I don’t remember governments before being that concerned. If they stood in front of a grey curtain, they stood in front of a grey curtain. I’ve seen these guys change the curtain because it clashed with the premier’s suit.”
Harris does look good on camera. On a sunny day last May, he stood before a crowd of supporters, his blue denim shirt neatly pressed, his silver hair glinting in the sun. “McGuinty’s been making a lot of promises,” Harris said of Liberal candidate Dalton McGuinty, his competition for the provincial election, a playful glint in Harris’s eye belying the stern expression on his face as he surveyed the crowd. “So many, in fact, that we had to use this special spend-o-meter to keep track of Dalton.” At this, Harris gestured stage left and the cameras focused in on a giant, orangy-red, rectangular structure. A piercing kazoo sound squealed, a siren mounted on top of the monstrosity flashed and a big black needle traversed a photo that made McGuinty look like an oversized weasel caught in headlights. As Harris listed McGuinty’s proposed spending initiatives, the needle crept incrementally across his face. “That’s something Dalton just doesn’t get. That it’s taxpayers’ money that he wants to spend.” The playful glint gave way to a broad, triumphant smile as cheers erupted from the crowd. No doubt an accurate preview of his communications staff’s reaction as they watched the event unfold again and again on all the major news stations in the province that evening.
Wallace Pidgeon, who worked as Harris’s press secretary from fall 1997 until last fall, doesn’t come off as a man who would cheer out loud. In fact, entering from his new office into the lobby of Hill and Knowlton (a Toronto PR firm known around the Queen’s Park television bureaus as the place “where Tory hacks go to die”) he is barely noticeable. Both the man and the surroundings are subdued in overwhelmingly neutral tones of blue, beige and grey.
Pidgeon isn’t big on facial expressions. He speaks to everyone in the same way, like a PR form letter, inserting the name of whoever he’s addressing frequently and jamming each sentence with PR-speak. “We’re dealing with professionals, Kali. They know what they’re doing. It’s a matter of us looking to journalists, Kali, looking to the industry, looking to television and trying to figure out how we can best get our message out,” says Pidgeon. “My job is to build the trust, the understanding that I’m able to help you get your story out, and you’re able to get my message out.”
While Pidgeon doesn’t stand out in a scene, he devotes his life to creating them. Once media place themselves in his trusty hands, his next goal is to make the rest of the process as easy as possible for reporters and, more importantly, camerapeople. “That’s probably the greatest thing I concern myself with,” says Pidgeon. “Making sure, for example, that when the cameraperson is walking down the street backwards, and you know there’s a mailbox or a garbage can there, that they have the confidence in you that you can just grab their belt and say, ‘Hey, Doug. It’s me, Wallace. I’m right here. You can back up another five steps.’ Then they can get their shot.” Pidgeon also prides himself on having an ample supply of steno pads, pens and even quarters for the phone. Anything to help. “Little things like that go a long way,” he says. “That’s what keeps them coming and that’s the intention.”
Pidgeon really knows how to work the little things. He believes his most inspired contribution to the 1999 election campaign was shuttling Harris and a giant jar of loonies from one small-town diner to another so the premier could enjoy a casual cup of coffee with taxpayers. “It became a very good and effective way for us to get out the message that there was a tax cut, the tax cut was working, and here’s what people are able to see back,” says Pidgeon.
It was also a pretty easy gig for journalists. The table was always placed in the middle of the room so that there was plenty of space for the cameras to manoeuver, there was always good light and there were plenty of outlets. “They had to be able to catch reactions,” says Pidgeon. “If there were smiles and the loonie jar, then the message gets out. If there were no smiles and no loonie jar in the shot, then we didn’t succeed. But we always did.”
Reporters like Robert Fisher remember the loonie tour with a little less reverence but concede that it was one of the more successful publicity stunts. “It became a bit of a joke really. He lugged this damn jar of loonies everywhere he went,” says Fisher. “And Deb Hutton, one of Harris’s senior advisors, it became her job to polish the jar. So help me, this woman – probably the most hated woman at Queen’s Park, but very powerful – had a cloth and she would take the fingerprints off the jar and shake the loonies so they looked all even. Talk about being obsessive-compulsive.”
Being offered flawless pictures isn’t the kind of help reporters need, but it’s the only help they’re getting. CTV’s Queen’s Park bureau, which had three full-time reporters in February 1997, now depends on one CFTO reporter. Global also has just one. The Ministry of Health, however, has a communications staff of 40. “I’ve sort of adapted to it more, maybe because I’m younger and I can go with the flow a little more,” says Kelly. “But it drives guys like Robert Fisher nuts. In his day, we always did issue stories, issues were important.” Fisher admits the decreasing emphasis on solid political reporting does aggravate him, but he recognizes why it’s happening. Issues don’t usually make for good pictures and, once reporters commit their meagre resources to a superficial event, they can hardly afford not to cover it.
This budget-induced apathy is compounded by the stations’ general disinterest in traditional political coverage. Bill Fox, author of Spinwars, who has been both a political journalist and a communications advisor for Brian Mulroney, says news executives are giving up too easily. “Behind a lot of this focus on dumbing the news down is the belief that you can’t communicate anything of substance on television. But the academic research indicates the opposite. Used properly, television is an excellent medium to communicate very complex issues,” he says. Used improperly, local news becomes more vulnerable to communications initiatives. “You won’t have the time to get behind the pre-packaged announcement,” says Fox. Over time, consumers will realize that and move on. North Americans are already giving up the evening news as a source of daily information. In the late 1970s, 92 percent of Americans watched one of the big three stations’ evening news but that number, according to Fox, is now below 60 percent.
Toronto news organizations don’t seem deterred by these statistics and, according to Kelly, are perpetuating the dumbing-down trend. “We’re an inch thick and a mile wide,” he says. “TV news has always been very shallow and in the past five years we’ve become even more so. It’s shorter clips, shorter stories, more pizzazz. Reporters are focusing on doing fun things, entertainment things.” Indeed, the shelves of the Global bureau are lined with beta tapes of such things: Harris with the spend-o-meter, Harris flipping burgers, Harris being nice to animals. Kelly, pointing out these examples off-handedly, mimics the credo handed down by his superiors: “‘Don’t give me serious, big issues unless you can make them sort of fun and sexy. You’ve got pictures? Great. I don’t want to hear the story. Don’t give me details, just get me the pictures.’ That’s the new rule of TV. It’s gotta hit you.”
Leon Korbee, CFTO’s lone Queen’s Park reporter, clenches his fists when the topic of sexy news is broached. An old-school newsman, he still believes that substance and honesty are more important than flash, and refuses to see himself as the loser in the communications vs. reporter bout. As he speaks, his voice echoes slightly in the breezy room and sunshine tumbles in through the floor-to-ceiling windows, illuminating the dust on the three empty desks in the bureau. “The litmus test is, Do the images match reality? Do the images reflect fact or what I see as a journalist to be fact?” says Korbee. “If they don’t, you have choices to make.”
Korbee chose not to attend Harris’s event at Harwood Public School. Instead, he did a stand-up from the bureau. “I could have used those pictures, but I wasn’t doing that story. The Tories would have dearly loved it if I had used those pictures because it was right in the middle of the Gilchrist thing,” says Korbee. “And if you don’t use their pictures – it’s not televised radio – you’ve got to find an alternative picture. Unfortunately, that will usually mean that I use the far more boring television picture.”
By December 22, Neal Kelly was more interested in getting ready for Christmas than in the Gilchrist saga, which had been dragging on since September. But, when the call came that the OPP report on Gilchrist was in and Harris would scrum at 1 p.m., he rushed from Global’s Don Mills office and headed to the Park. Pulling into the gallery parking lot, he noticed Gilchrist’s gold Dodge, and assumed he’d been cleared and would comment.
He was right – sort of. Kelly arrived in the midst of the Premier’s statement “While the police found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, in every comment a minister makes, he or she must exercise the good judgement that I expect and that I believe the public expects from members of my cabinet.” By the time Kelly left, the gold Dodge was gone. “The premier obviously spoke to him that morning and didn’t want him to face the media,” he says. “He called the scrum and Gilchrist hightailed it out of here.”
Gilchrist’s departure amounted to less than two minutes of coverage on Global’s evening news. An innocent verdict and a quiet exit are hardly the ingredients of sexy television, after all, and the PR staff made sure reporters never got a hold of anything jucier.
“They’re good at what they do,” admits Global’s Robert Fisher. “I’ve got to give the devil his due.”