When it comes to press relations, do you like Obama or Harper?

- February 21st, 2009

Well, it depends.

Now, in Canada, you've probably heard about the famous “list issue”. It's been around since the spring of 2006, shortly after Harper first took office. Let me catch you up: If PM Harper gives a press conference and you're a journalist who wants to ask a question, you tell Harper's press secretary Dimitri Soudas ahead of time and then he calls out your name and away you go. If, as yesterday, Harper is only taking a limited number of questions, then all the journalists present huddle up (usually the English language reporters huddle is separate from the French language reporters) and choose, usually by consensus, who will ask the questions and what line of questioning that individual will pursue. Usually in these huddles, if you come up with a good question or topic, you will get to ask the question. But sometimes, a journalist with a good idea for a line of questioning knows that someone else in the group is better at actually phrasing and asking the question so maybe that person will ask a question decided on by the group.

Now, yesterday, with a rare chance to put a question to the world's most powerful and popular politician (um, that would be Obama, I'm talkin' about), it was, shall we say, a more heated discussion than usual in the Canadian journos' huddle. (I'm afraid, as I was not there, I must report this on second-hand information from others who were present.) The Canadians and Americans at the presser got precisely two questions each to ask. But even though there was some haggling, votes, and heated discussion among the Canadians, it was journalists – and not bureaucrats or political staff — who made the decision about who would ask the questions. And that's why you saw Radio-Canada's Emmanuelle Latraverse and Canadian Press' Jennifer Ditchburn ask what they did. Some, including Obama, seemed to dis Jennifer's question because she tried to shoehorn about five questions into one but I say, right on! (I've done it often, to the snickers of my press gallery colleagues). I say, if you get just one question, you squeeze in a pile of them. And I should note that she generated two good responses. Obama's “I love this country” came from Jennifer's multi-pronged question and Harper's vow on security came from Jennifer's question. But, again, these questions and the identity of the questioner was left up to the journalists. All Harper's press secretary Soudas did was call out the names of those other journalists had chosen.

Still, I should note that, normally, that's not good enough for some Canadian news organizations such as The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star who, two years on now, still refuse to participate in Dimitri's List. Though they can speak for themselves on this issue, I believe a reasonably accurate summation of their position is that while they believe it's up to the politicians to decide if they want to take questions or not and politicians can decide what the answer will be to those questions, it's up to the press to decide who asks the questions and what those questions will be. For the record: The organization I work for, Canwest News Service, would, by and large, agree with that and, indeed, participated in the boycott of The List for a period of time when it was first introduced in 2006. But after several weeks in which no one from the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery would or was able to ask the PM a question (the PM, quite happily, left Ottawa where reporters from regional news organizations were quite happy to go on The List and ask the PM a question), Canwest was one of the first to go back on the list in the belief that we were doing a disservice to our readers and viewers (who, ultimately, we try to represent) if we continued to abstain from our job of holding politicians to account by questioning them on their actions. Other news organizations, such as CTV, TVA, La Presse and so on quickly followed Canwest back on to The List.

But the PMO's attempt to control the Press Gallery via The List is nothing, it seems to me, compared to the control the White House has over the press corps there. “Canadian journos decide on their own who gets ?s and what they will ask. We, on the other hand, at Gibbs' mercy” wrote Christina Bellantoni, White House correspondent for the The Washington Times and one of those who travelled with Obama on Air Force One to Ottawa to get a first-hand comparative look at the issue. (Robert Gibbs is the White House press secretary.) The Wall Street Journal, too, has reported on how Obama has cherry-picked reporters to ask him questions at some of his events: “We doubt that President Bush, who was notorious for being parsimonious with follow-ups, would have gotten away with prescreening his interlocutors. Mr. Obama can more than handle his own [just like Harper can - Akin], so our guess is that this is an attempt to discipline reporters who aren't White House favorites,” the Journal wrote.

This comes shortly after journalists, and I'm one of them, were thrilled that, on his first day in office, Obama issued this presidential memo:

The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve. In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public.

All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government. The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA.

The presumption of disclosure also means that agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public. They should not wait for specific requests from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government. Disclosure should be timely.

Fantastic! But then his administration goes and undermines those heady words by playing silly head games with the White House press corps.

Harper and the Conservatives campaigned, to their credit, on reforming and broadening access to information laws and while they took some steps towards that, their promise on access to information remains largely unfulfilled. And, as I reported this week, there's still big problems just getting basic information and the government simply has not given its access to information offices enough resources (a story, I note, which the Opposition Liberals have picked up on.)

In any event: I think we come back to a point I've long held about any government be it Conservative, Liberal, Democrat, Communist, or you-name-it. Governments like to control the press. Period. We don't like to be controlled. Period. This is the way it has always worked and will always work. It's up to a responsible press to find ways to report accurately and fairly on politicians of all stripes. Politicians must recognize the vital role and responsibility that a free and fair press has in the maintenance of our democracy and refrain from any steps — however petty they may seem to those who hold power — that would infringe on those freedoms. At the end of the day, an engaged and informed citizenzry will hold both the press and politicians to account.

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Categories: Politics/Conservatives, Politics/Liberals

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4 comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Long live The Huddle!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Harper looked yesterday as if he had just been embalmed. Perfect hair. Perfect makeup. Perfect smile. Perfectly artificial. Perfectly boring.
    So, stage managing a press conference should come as second nature.
    And these guys have done more to shut down ATIP than the public will ever imagine. Most notably the centralized list of prior ATIPS is gone.
    As for Obama's image managing, His halo is getting dimmer daily.

  3. Anonymous says:

    “Governments like to control the press. Period. We don't like to be controlled. Period.”
    As an insider, that's your perspective. But may I offer an outsider’s perspective?
    As you've outlined in your post, PG members who wish to ask a question get their names on the list, and away they go.
    Members of the public like myself who prefer seeing/listening to those pressers without the filter of the MSM want to hear the question and WHO is asking it. That system makes for an ORDERLY procedure. Nobody shouting out questions, or drowning out someone else, as is the case in scrums – totally useless exercises as far as I'm concerned.
    Of all the press gallery members who have volunteered their names for THE LIST, has anyone ever been refused? Has anyone been told what questions to ask or to avoid? When putting their names on the list, do the journalists also have to furnish the question? Has the PM ever refused to answer a question? Are the same journalists chosen all the time?
    If yes to a number of those questions, then I would say you've got a case that this government wants to control the press.
    However, I would argue instead that this government, like all governments, wants to control the message, which is a different story.
    I don't know how many times I've heard the PM say something, only to see a report or an interpretation of the PM's words which were contrary to what was actually said. Is it willful misinterpretation, or is it a lack of comprehension on the journalist's part?
    Even Pres. Obama alluded to something similar during the press conference. A reporter named Jonathan quoted him as saying that now is not the time to reopen NAFTA, and Mr. Obama said “Well, first of all, Jonathan, I'm not sure that was my exact quote” and went on from there. In other words, sometimes politicians ARE misquoted.
    Another recent example of what I mean: the PM said in the press conference with Pres. Obama that “Canada has had great difficulty developing an effective regulatory regime alone in the context of an integrated continental economy. It's very hard to have a tough regulatory system here when we are … competing with an unregulated economy south of the border.” Remember that both the Clinton and the Bush administrations declined to get on board the Kyoto train.
    How was that interpreted by an Ottawa columnist? “In fact, incredibly, he is suggesting that his government has long been keen to tackle the issue, but was thwarted by the do-nothing George W. Bush administration!”
    I realize that op-eds, columns and the like are not the same as reports, but still.
    So, can you understand why many of us unrepentant conservatives – well, OK, I'll speak for myself – often cry bias?

  4. Anonymous says:

    And now for something entirely different and O/T, if I may.
    Yesterday, I stumbled upon this site:
    http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/09/02/19/Liveblog-canada-trip/ VIA http://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing_room/
    And read this:
    “Thursday, February 19th, 2009 at 9:20 am
    Liveblog: The President in Canada (Update: photos)
    President Obama is on his first foreign trip today — to Ottawa, Canada's capital city. He'll meet with Governor General of Canada Michaelle Jean, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and Leader of the Official Opposition Michael Ignatieff, as well as US Embassy employees and their families. White House New Media staffer Jason Djang is along for the ride and will be liveblogging from the road.
    9:12 a.m.: Just loaded press bus bound for Parliament. We landed ahead of AF1 and will get to Parliament ahead of POTUS, so no reports on him. Ottawa is white, and the snow’s still coming down. Police are on snowmobiles. About to head out. …”
    “Police are on snowmobiles”???
    I watched the CBC coverage and saw the streets of Ottawa were a little wet … so how could snowmobiles … did I miss something?

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