Watchdogs or lapdogs?

The media’s reaction to the “Kokanee grope” story has been interesting.

The background, as reported by Anne Kingston in MacLean’s magazine is that “The facts are these: in August 2000, Trudeau was the subject of an editorial in the Creston Valley Advance, a local B.C. paper. The former prime minister’s son—then a 28-year-old high school teacher two months from delivering a stirring eulogy at his father’s funeral—was upbraided for reportedly touching one of the paper’s female reporters (“groped”  and “inappropriate handling,” according to the paper) at the Kokanee Summit, a music festival. Trudeau apologized “a day late” to the unnamed journalist, the editorial stated, who was also reporting for the National Post and Vancouver Sun. Trudeau is quoted: “I’m sorry. If I had known you were reporting for a national paper I would never have been so forward.” … [and] … Trudeau’s response, words he’s never disputed, reflect the power dynamics that routinely underline encounters later written off as “forward.” Maybe Trudeau was trying to be funny. But his words also suggest that touching a woman in a manner that bothered her would have been okay if she’d only been a reporter for some Podunk paper. The editorial picked up on this: “It’s not a rare incident to have a young reporter, especially a female working for a small community newspaper, be considered an underling to their ‘more predominant’ associates and blatantly disrespected because of it.” Trudeau’s quasi-apology also bristles with awareness of his image on the national stage. An unseemly mention in the Creston Valley Advance is one thing, in the National Post another.

Screen Shot 2018-07-05 at 08.09.50Some media outlets, most notably Lorrie Goldstein in The Sun papers and some social media commentators, most notably the very estimable Norman Spector, have worked very, very hard to give the story ‘legs,’ to keep it alive … they, and several others, say that Justin Trudeau set the bar for sexual misconduct at a certain level and now he needs to clear that same bar.  The Team Trudeau response has been, in my opinion, weak and overly legalistic. Ms Kingston reports that “Trudeau, normally front and centre of such discussions, went mute. The PMO issued a statement echoing his past remarks: “As the PM has said before, he has always been very careful to treat everyone with respect. His first experiences with activism were on the issue of sexual assault at McGill, and he knows the importance of being thoughtful and respectful.” It ends: “He remembers being in Creston for the Avalanche Foundation, but doesn’t think he had any negative interactions there” … [but] … Coming from a prime minister with a reported history of dealing with “issues of consent, communications, accountability, power dynamics,” the statement was tone-deaf and oblivious. It doesn’t even rise to the standard of an “I’m sorry if you were offended by my behaviour” non-apology. It’s an “It never happened, I don’t think” answer with enough wiggle room should the woman ever decide to come forward and take on a prime minister (notably, the PMO statement focused on Trudeau being in Kokanee to attend a charity fundraiser, downplaying the fact it was also a beer-company-sponsored music festival).

Some Canadian media outlets, most notably The Sun chain, Global TV News and the National Post, ran with the story, others, notably the CBC and the Globe and Mail seemed to try to ignore it, in some part, I guess, because the complainant, who was a young journalist 18 years ago, does not want to discuss it ‘on the record,’ as is her right. But then, even without her identification, it went global, being picked up by both tabloids and the ‘quality press‘ in America, Britain and around the world. The issue now seem to be, as Ms Kingston says, that “The troubling power dynamic underlining Trudeau’s 2000 statement—”If I had known you were reporting for a national paper I would never have been so forward”—that conceded unwanted behaviour had occurred is again on display. If the woman was so affected by an alleged interaction with Trudeau that it become the subject of an angry newspaper editorial, it’s safe to say it was “negative” from her point of view. And her point of view is what matters here, not what Trudeau “doesn’t think.” It’s not about him. Anyone sensitive to the nuances of reporting about any form of personal assault should know that.” Prime Minister Trudeau was the one who said that we have to believe women when they complain … or does that only apply when he is not the object of the complaint?

In a day or two the prime minister will be locked in an airplane for several hours with a pack of journalists as they make their way to Latvia and then to Brussels for a top level NATO heads of government meeting. I expect that some of those journalists are going to be less interested in e.g. President Trump’s complaints about Canada’s defence spending or about Canada’s (small) military commitment to NATO in Latvia than they are about the 18 year old “Kokanee grope.” I think the PMO’s attempt to ‘change the channel‘ has failed. The prime minister now has a range of options:

  • Hide from the media;
  • Continue to parrot his “no negative interactions” as far as he can recall line; or
  • TRUDEAUFess up and say something like, “Look it was almost 20 years ago … at a beer festival, you’ve seen the pictures … I may have done something that a young lady found inappropriate, I really don’t recall, but I apologized in what i hoped was a humorous way but that, obviously, failed. It was a mistake on my part and I am sorry for what happened. You must know that’s not the kind of person I am, but I failed to live up to my own standards and I deeply regret that.”

None of those are likely to satisfy his critics ~ me included, but the last one might satisfy some major media outlets and that may be just about the best for which he can hope until President Trump says or does something outrageous that will deflect media attention back to Liberal friendly issues.

The media like to call themselves our watchdogs, keeping an eye on the doings of our political leaders; some observers, like Norman Spector, are now calling them Liberal lapdogs. They, and that includes the cautious CBC and Globe and Mail, have done a lot of digging; some editors apparently feel that without a formal, public complaint, the story lacks a sound factual base. Maybe they’re right but the failure of some media outlets to air the story gives weight to the theory that some of the media have a too strong Liberal bias.

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