When They Push, We Push Back
Illustration by Graham Roumieu

On a warm afternoon, July 31, 2018, Lisa MacLeod, Ontario’s Minister of Children, Community, and Social Services, stands in Queen’s Park’s Ontario Room to announce the government’s plan to scrap the basic income pilot project. As per the new normal, she then takes a limited number of questions. Toward the end of the Q&A, when the Toronto Star’s Rob Ferguson asks how much money the cancellation will save taxpayers, MacLeod grows defensive. It’s not about saving money, she says, prompting several other reporters to ask how much it will save, breaking the five-question, one-at-a-time rules that have been in force since Ontario’s 42nd parliament began—earlier than expected—three weeks ago. To quell the uprising, Progressive Conservative staffers at the back of the room burst into applause and drown out reporters.

The clapping tactic started on the campaign trail with supporters applauding and chanting while then-candidate and PC leader Doug Ford slipped out of press conferences and rallies, and has continued through the administration’s whirlwind start. In July alone, Ford’s government has moved to cancel an under-construction green energy project the former Liberal government approved; cancel the cap and trade program; reduce Toronto’s City Council from 47 wards to 25; roll back the province’s health and physical education curriculum; and, now, cancel the basic income pilot project—giving journalists plenty of things to ask questions about, if only they could get a word in.

For weeks, frustrated Queen’s Park journalists have grumbled about the rookie government’s efforts to control them, but this time they clap back. “Don’t do that!” shouts Colin D’Mello of CTV News, turning around to face the staffers crowding the back of the room. “Can you please stop clapping? This is a professional environment. Stop it. Take that into the Legislature if you guys want to act that way.”

“Shameful behaviour. Shameful.” Randy Rath of CHCH News, a veteran Queen’s Park reporter known for his blunt questions and gruff personality, quickly piles on. “What’s fuckin’ wrong with you guys?”

Ferguson follows up, admonishing, “It’s not kindergarten, for god’s sake.” As interim president of the press gallery, he is usually diplomatic, but not this time: “Jesus Christ!”

Some staffers look at their feet. Others pretend not to hear, staring past incensed reporters at the podium MacLeod has vacated. Eventually, they trickle out and return to their offices.

Though the incident is not the last instance of clapping staffers drowning out reporters, it marks a change in press corps’ attitude. Reporters such as Marieke Walsh of iPolitics, Travis Dhanraj of Global News, and Cynthia Mulligan of CityNews—a veteran at covering both Rob and Doug Ford—begin shooting video of staffers clapping and posting the spectacle on Twitter.

The incident gains traction in the news cycle. The day after, iPolitics publishes a Walsh story pointing out that, technically, staffers are using taxpayers’ money to clap at press conferences. Three days later, The Agenda’s Steve Paikin, in a TVO blog post, hails press gallery journalists for fighting back. On August 9, CBC Radio online calls the phenomenon “unprecedented” and runs a photo of PC staffers in mid-clap.

On August 13, journalists assemble in the Ontario Room to hear that staffers will no longer mark the conclusion of press conferences with clapping. Jessica Smith Cross, a QP Briefing reporter, attributes the change, in part, to reporters shouting back. “There was significant concern from the press gallery,” she says. “[We] publicized what was going on.”

This Ontario-centric relationship between governments and the journalists who cover them reflects a larger dynamic. North American political journalists must cover bellicose politicians such as Donald Trump and Doug Ford in an age of media distrust, limited access, and an internet-powered news cycle that runs too hot. In today’s battles between journalists and those they cover, there is a kind of informational Maginot Line. The barriers are massive, yet journalists are finding new ways to work around them.

“Queen’s Park journalists have grumbled about the rookie government’s effort to control them, but this time they clap back.”

On August 15, 2018, the editorial board of The Boston Globe published a call to editorial boards across the United States, urging them to act against Trump’s assault on the free press: “For more than two centuries, this foundational American principle has protected journalists at home and served as a model for free nations abroad. Today it is under serious threat.”

Trump’s disdain for journalists and Ford’s clapping staffers might seem alarming, but they are not the first leaders to strike combative poses with the press. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, 1901–1909, shook up the traditional relationship, summarily banishing reporters he felt had wronged him and granting near unprecedented access to those he trusted. Roosevelt also popularized a disparaging term for investigative journalists: “muckrakers.”

Another American president, Richard Nixon, 1969–1974, became obsessed with control, perhaps rattled by the negative reception to his televised debate with John F. Kennedy during the 1960 presidential campaign. He set up the first White House communications office to stage special television events.

Canada’s history of rough patches between government and press extends back to the beginning of our nation. Of Sir John A. MacDonald’s administration, 1867–1873 and 1878–1891, John Willison, then the Ottawa correspondent for the Globe and Mail, said, “It was difficult, if not impossible, to secure information from public departments.”

On April 17, 1965, writer and activist June Callwood penned an article for Maclean’s Magazine in which she lamented a decline in the government’s respect for the press. “Along with such epithets as ‘drunks,’ ‘incompetents’ and ‘deadbeats,’” she wrote, “the gallery has been belabored with ‘dull and pedestrian’ (Frank H. Underhill), ‘servile’ (John Diefenbaker), and ‘mediocre’ (Douglas Fisher).” Callwood posited that authorities of the day largely felt “that the gallery pounces on a government’s mistakes and magnifies them, presenting a distorted picture to the voters which speedily leads to a change in government,” a view reiterated in complaints of “fake news.”

More recently, former prime minister Stephen Harper, 2006–2015, stifled journalists from the beginning of his first mandate. He reduced media access after his swearing in, cutting hallway scrums and official press conferences. Conservative MPs were heavily scripted, shifting the meat of scrums and press conferences from policy briefings to promotional material. And staffers encroached on the reporters’ physical access, removing their seats at important news conferences.

Harper also indirectly restricted access to information by ending important sources such as the long-form census, an experimental lakes project, and the long-gun registry. In February 2018, the Information Commissioner of Canada published a report detailing her investigation into a complaint by Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the Environmental Law Centre, about policies set out by the Harper government that prohibited government scientists from sharing information with the media and the public. The investigation, led by former information commissioner Suzanne Legault, found that six government departments and agencies under Harper violated the government’s communications policy, as well as “formal commitments to foster and promote Open Government” by preventing scientists from “responding to the information needs of the public.” Harper also buried important changes to government in massive omnibus bills, ushering them through with little debate or supporting evidence.

This era of journalists, not used to this level of animosity, fought back. Three months after Harper’s election, they met with communications director Sandra Buckler and aired their issues with Harper’s controlling ways. The full transcript of which they made public three days later. Still, the battle between the Harper government and the press raged on.

Other approaches used by journalists included aggressively mining public documents, a staple of investigative journalism. With the government itself providing little access, reporters such as Mike Blanchfield and Jim Bronskill of the Canadian Press sifted through thousands of pages obtained through access to information requests. Others, such as Sun Media’s David Akin, Stephen Mahler and Glen McGregor, began using unofficial and anonymous sources. These weren’t necessarily revolutionary methods, but they were an adaptation to an unwelcoming environment.

“Alongside the rise of the term fake news was the quantifiable decline of public trust in journalism.”

Journalists and journalism itself have a growing image problem, a situation the press has, until recently, essentially ignored, and populist governments, in particular, have seized upon. Google Trends, for example, shows a dramatic spike in web searches across the globe for the term “fake news”, starting in November 2016—the same month Trump was elected president. Trump himself first Tweeted the phrase on December 10, 2016, shortly before his inauguration, and has since claimed he invented it, which is untrue. One of his mantras, the phrase crops up frequently in Trump’s interviews, press conferences, speeches, and Tweets. Search frequencies for the term have remained elevated ever since, and Canada and the U.S. are among the top ten countries with the highest search volumes.

Alongside the rise of the term “fake news” was the quantifiable decline of public trust in journalism and the media, both globally and in North America. According to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, Americans’ trust in the media declined five percent following the last U.S. presidential election. In Canada, trust in media dropped from 55 to 45 percent between 2016 and 2017. In a talk at the Ryerson School of Journalism in January 2018, Kyle Pope, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, blamed this decline in trust on journalists themselves. “I remember waking up the morning after Election Day last November and thinking that we had just witnessed one of the great failures of journalism,” he said. Despite other significant factors, such as Wikileaks, James Comey’s intervention, and Russian interference, Pope added that journalists had failed to understand the changing electorate and journalism had gotten “too much into its own head.” Much of the coverage surrounding the election was somewhat condescending, Pope said. Voters and readers recognized they were being talked down to, and they turned it off. Protecting the first amendment—which protects citizens and the press’ right to speak freely—is something we now need to worry about, Pope said, and new initiatives taking place across North America suggest that many industry leaders agree.

An international example of journalists collaborating in the name of restoring confidence and combatting derogatory government statements is The Trust Project, developed at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics out of Santa Clara University. In development since 2012 and launched in November 2017, The Trust Project is a relatively new initiative in journalism ethics. News organizations, including the Washington Post, Italy’s La Repubblica and Canada’s The Globe and Mail, participated in the initial launch, and have since been joined by dozens of others. In terms of Canadian media, the Toronto Star, CBC, the Canadian Press, and The Walrus have now joined the Globe.

The main goal is to advance a set of “transparency standards that help [readers] easily assess the quality and reliability of journalism.” This includes a set of “rust indicators” to be displayed on collaborators’ article pages and websites. Trust indicators include information about the expertise and experience of the journalist(s) that worked on the story; how the information contained in the story was gathered; and best practices of the news organization publishing the story.

Before joining the center, the Star took steps to increase trust among its readership with its own Trust Project, which launched in May 2017. Kenyon Wallace, a Star investigative reporter who has written numerous features for the initiative, confirmed the project was launched at least partly in response to attacks on journalism south of the border. “In the world of Donald Trump, who has effectively labelled things he doesn’t like as fake news, we’ve seen in some circles a decrease in trust in the media,” says Wallace. “We felt a way to combat that was to be more transparent about how we do our journalism.”

Though the direct impact of these trust-building measures is difficult to gauge, there are signs the effort may be working. The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer reported that trust in journalism among the general population has risen to 47 percent globally, up three percentage points—44 to 47—from 2017.

“Politicians have become much quicker to call fake news or demonize the press.”

Access to information has been an issue at Queen’s Park under Ford. Like the reporters under the Harper government, Queen’s Park reporters have demonstrated a resolve to soldier on despite fractious relationships with MPPs and their staffers. At the time, Smith Cross had trouble getting Lisa Thompson, Ford’s minister of education, to answer basic questions in media scrums. Throughout the first month of the Ford government’s first session, Thompson retreated from post-question period scrums and was absent for days at a time. The problems continued into the fall. “Everybody is so desperate to get some clarity from her on the sex-ed issue,” SmithCross said in a September interview, “that other education stories might be getting missed.”

More recently, Star Queen’s Park bureau reporter Kristin Rushowy says Thompson hasn’t had any issues with scrums “for some time,” but she avoids one-on-one interviews. CBC reporter Meagan Fitzpatrick has been documenting her attempts to secure a one-on-one interview with Thompson on Twitter. Despite making dozens of interview requests since August, Fitzpatrick has not yet been able to secure one.

While Ontario government-media relations have seen plenty of tension lately, it’s worth examining how other provinces with newly elected governments are faring. Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, and Quebec have elected new premiers within the past one to two years, and most have avoided the tactics of Queen’s Park.

Despite Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and Ford presenting a united front on challenging the federal carbon tax, political journalists in Saskatchewan report that the Moe government has, so far, not tried to push journalists away. Global News reporter David Baxter says, “We really haven’t seen any of that negative media interaction coming out yet, which is definitely refreshing.” Alex MacPherson, a reporter for Saskatoon’s StarPhoenix, says Moe and his ministers have been accessible and has no concerns about anti-media rhetoric. “I haven’t seen anybody with a platform ratcheting up the anti-media rhetoric. Reputable outlets are still trusted here,” he says. “The premier himself, if you look at his Twitter feed, he fairly frequently shares or retweets stories from a variety of outlets.”

Blaine Higgs, who assumed office as premier of New Brunswick on November 9, 2018, has also received positive reviews. CBC journalist Jacques Poitras calls the government’s level of access in scrums “an improvement” over previous governments, applauding the frequency of scrums in the first few weeks. Poitras says Higgs’s press secretary is a former CTV journalist and may have had something to do with the smooth transition: “She so far has had a role in persuading them that it is better to be available than not.”

Journalists reporting on federal politics have similar qualms. Jessica Vomiero, a Global News national online journalist, says the government-media relationship with Ottawa “is as complicated as it’s ever been,” with journalists and politicians sometimes butting heads, and elected officials being reluctant to reveal too much information. She has noticed the rhetoric becoming more negative. “Politicians,” she says, “have become much quicker to call fake news…or demonize the press.”

Andy Blatchford, an Ottawa-based reporter for the Canadian Press who has covered both the Harper and Trudeau governments, says current members of parliament are more available to the press. “Although that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s more information.”

Quebec’s new premier, François Legault, assumed office on October 18, 2018, and, like Ford’s, his transition has been bumpy. Several of Legault’s ministers are newcomers to the political scene, many with a background in economics, which has made for a slow start, says Raquel Fletcher, National Assembly correspondent for Global News. “There have been challenges for the government as well as the media covering them,” says Fletcher. “They’re not aware of what we do as journalists and the access that we want. That’s been our biggest challenge.”

“In today’s battles between journalists and those they cover, there is a kind of informational Maginot Line.”

In the face of stonewalling by governments, many journalists have responded by doubling down. “It’s our job to find out information and to pass it on to our readers,” says Ferguson, who insists he treats the Ford government no differently than any other, despite the difficulty in accessing information. “We just have to do it in different ways…You’ve got to put out feelers more.” The Ford government has not been entirely withholding but is also not channelling its efforts into traditional routes. Increasingly, the focus has drifted from media organizations toward the publicity website Ontario News Now (ONN), which launched shortly after the provincial election.

As the title indicates, ONN brands itself as a news network, despite being government–run and taxpayer–funded. Lyndsey Vanstone, who has worked as a radio and TV broadcaster, is the Ford government’s director of communications. She delivers standups in the style of a news report and broadcasts messages from Conservative ministers and MPPs as though they were real news interviews.

In December 2018, Queen’s Park journalists reported that Ford would not be conducting year-end interviews, which are a tradition at the legislative assembly. Instead, the premier gave his annual review to ONN, a move that Queen’s Park Today editor Allison Smith calls a “dangerous attack on” and “failure to work with the media.” Press gallery reporters have thought of ONN as “silly” in the past, says Smith, but increasingly it has become a cause for concern. “There are times that Queen’s Park Today has had to rely on ONN to figure out something,” she says, “because it’s the only way that the government is passing on some of this information.”

Former U.S. president Barack Obama, 2009-17, also had an obstructive relationship with the press. In October 2013, the Committee to Protect Journalists published a report titled “The Obama Administration and the Press” that wrote the administration was undergoing “aggressive prosecution of leakers of classified information and broad electronic surveillance programs [that] deter government sources from speaking to journalists.”

Likewise, a 2017 review of Obama’s time in office published by The San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board referred to his administration as “the least transparent and the most antagonistic toward the media since the Nixon administration.”

Trump, of course, has also been selective. His administration banned CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins from a press event in July and, more recently, attempted to suspend the press credentials of Jim Acosta, also of CNN.

To compound this capriciousness, journalists face what Daniel Dale, the Star’s Washington correspondent, calls “the avalanche problem,” or a sudden influx of content to cover. Since Trump’s inauguration, Dale has been fact checking the president’s dubious claims. As of writing, the number of falsehoods has climbed to over 4,500. Some of these false claims are easy to categorize as either trivial or important, says Dale, but many fall into a “grey zone” where it’s difficult to predict the impact of letting them stand uncorrected.

One solution, Dale says, is to fact check everything. This commitment to “aggressively confronting the dishonesty” is crucial to keep the public abreast of the government’s conduct. “People are so confused,” Dale says. “There’s a push from a number of outlets to try to break these things down for people as they’re flooded with news.”

Dale’s fact-checking has provided a strong foundation for such efforts. But the volume of work takes a toll. “If I wasn’t spending half of Saturday and all of Sunday doing fact-checking, maybe I would have thought of some smart feature. . . some other kind of story,” Dale says. “I’m still covering all the big stuff, but what am I not thinking of because my mental energy is going to this?”

Other news organizations have opted to focus on the most news-making topics. Pete Vernon, a reporter for the Columbia Journalism Review, says they created “Covering Trump,” a vertical that provides critique and analysis of reporting on Trump when it became clear that the president’s “relationship with the media was going to be significantly different.” A big part of this difference is the way Trump uses Twitter. “Journalists let Trump be our assignment editor,” says Vernon, although, he says there has been an improvement. Though he acknowledges journalists have been learning to adapt to Trump’s way of speaking his mind over the internet, there is no consensus on how to respond. “When he either attacks a certain journalist or the press in general, or when he spouts a falsehood, should the press speak up in defence?”

During Trump’s campaign and at the beginning of his presidency, Vernon says, major news networks broadcast his rallies in ways they didn’t for other candidates, “allowing him unfettered access to the public and giving him the propensity to spout misinformation and outright lies.” One adjustment has been to quell the urge to cover the click-worthy statements Trump makes to focus on deeper issues. Vernon also suggests instant fact-checking—displaying corrections of Trump’s statements in real time during broadcasts of speeches and rallies.

Canadians are also feeling the effects of this accelerated news cycle. Fletcher says the feeling of heightened intensity she had while reporting on Quebec’s provincial election was new and that engagement with her articles on social media added an unexpected layer to her reporting. “You would tweet, and then you would see people who were supporting a political party use your work…as ammunition against the other side,” she says. “I was really uncomfortable with that, using journalism as a political weapon.”

Fletcher says she began to tweet less and be more careful about the content of her tweets to avoid people with biases using it for their own purposes. The politicized engagement with her articles caused her to think differently about readers’ perspectives. “[I started] thinking: ‘If I tweet something just about the Liberals and not about all of the political parties, who’s going to use that? Who’s going to share that? What is it going to be used for?’”

“Canadians are also feeling the effects of this accelerated news cycle.”

In September 2017, Daniel Dale received a Twitter message from a Trump supporter. A couple of days prior, he had interviewed Bruce Brown, a man with diabetes from rural Pennsylvania, about a Trump-backed healthcare plan that would result in major cuts to Medicaid. Brown loved nearly everything about Trump, and believed Hillary Clinton should be “shot or put in prison.”

Dale, who used Brown’s comments to lead an in-depth Star story, braced himself for the backlash. As a Canadian, his American sources tend to view him with less suspicion because he doesn’t “have a dog in this fight.” Dale believes establishing a good rapport leads to a good story. He prepared for the inevitable tirade.

“Wow,” Brown’s Twitter message reads. “I kind of knew he wasn’t truthful much of the time, but not to the degree of hundreds of lies in such a short period of time. Thanks for opening my eyes.”

Perhaps to be expected of the political upheavals of our time, in the end Brown changed his mind back. Dale recounted the story in a series of tweets, saying that he had unknowingly blocked Brown on Twitter for spreading false information in his replies about mass Democratic voter fraud.

The disheartening thread was not all doom and gloom, though. “I still argue regularly with despondent Democrats who tell me that all Trump voters are a lost cause for facts,” Dale wrote in his final tweet. “Even just during the midterms, I met a bunch who’d turned on him for various informed reasons; they were paying attention.” That journalism could make any Trump supporter realize their president played fast and loose with the facts is just one victory over the forces in society that challenge the quality, or even necessity, of journalism at every turn. Even when it seems like we’re taking one step forward and two steps back, this is why it’s so important to keep pushing.

Journalists all over the continent are working on their own versions of Dale’s fact-checking crusade. Whether it’s making a public commitment to trust and transparency, taking a more critical approach to tweeting, or re-evaluating the content of their reporting, journalists have begun to lay out a framework to improve their public perception one small but essential step at a time.

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