COMMENT: When “media” wallow in the public trough

Harvey Oberfeld
By Harvey Oberfeld
December 7th, 2012

In the business we call it “going to the dark side”: when reporters leave the news profession to take jobs as corporate spokespersons or, even worse, become political appointees to the staffs of particular parties or governments.

But let’s keep it real.

Deserting from journalism to become a corporate fart-catcher or hired gun, or partisan pusher is not that hard to understand: some media careers just don’t work out as people had hoped or don’t offer much room for growth,  and not everyone can then become a journalism teacher, administrator  or author.

And I have no problems with some of those who have gone over to the dark side, but still manage to maintain, at least off camera, a fair degree of openness, frankness and integrity with their media counterparts.

But I have no toleration for media types who–often after lengthy, fairly successful careers in the craft–accept political appointments and, in my view, wallow in the public trough as much as, and maybe more, than those they used to cover.

Which brings me to three Senators, former members of the media I knew personally when I covered Parliament Hill: Pamela Wallin, Jim Munson and Mike Duffy.

Wallin had a distinguished media career, ending up as CTV’s Ottawa Bureau Chief and then went over to the dark side, accepting an appointment under Prime Minister Jean Chretien as Canada’s Consul General in New York.

That always bothered me: just the idea of a reporter selling out, in my opinion,  and then going on to live high on the hog at the public’s expense, in one of the world’s most expensive cities. For four years. With a salary and likely dining and entertaining, living in high-end fancy digs and with expense account at levels that would boggle the mind of most taxpayers.

In 2009, Prime Minister Stephen Harper confirmed Wallin’s move to the dark side by appointing her to the Senate where the pay, perk, pension and privileges–all at public expense of course–will ensure her relative luxury for the rest of her life.

Well done, thou good and faithful servant.

And that’s not bitter grapes.  I could never see myself, in any way, as a communications type or political servant or mouthpiece. And even when I worked on the Hill in Ottawa, I had this quirky respect for saving taxpayers’ dollars to the point I always used the blank backs of press release to write my notes, messages and even script, even though members of the National Press Gallery were provided with mountains of free pads, stationery and bright white paper to use to their hearts’ content.

That’s just me–and it’s why I look so unkindly on reporters who go “rogue” and accept political appointments/rewards, not just jobs.

Like Senator Jim Munson.

Munson also worked at CTV’s Ottawa Bureau when I was there for BCTV, and to be honest, I cannot recall him ever asking a really tough question.

Not like my pressing Bloc Quebecois Leader Lucien Bouchard for his hypocrisy, an exchange that actually made it into Lewis Martin’s biography of Bouchard.

Or the time aspiring Liberal leadership hopeful John Turner made his Ottawa announcement of his return from his Bay Street exile (saying he would seek a seat in Vancouver) and I pressed him, in front of his adoring media crowd, what made him any different from any other Liberal who promises the West a lot but then turns their backs on us once elected.

Turner responded with a kind of “I’ll be different” line but then, back at CTV, Munson denounced my cheekiness, telling me “that’s why you’ll never work for the Network!”

“Good,” I replied, “I couldn’t take the cut in pay.” Another staffer then had to intervene when Munson lunged for me.

So you’ll understand why I wasn’t surprised in 2002 when Munson joined Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s staff as director of communications.  Or when, two days before retiring from office, Chretien appointed Munson to the Senate.

Pure pork!

Mike Duffy, another CTV alumnus, was appointed a Senator by Harper in 2008.

Funny thing: that was the same year that the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council ruled Duffy had violated its broadcast ethics code by not being “fair, balanced or even-handed”  in airing some false starts by Liberal leader Stephane Dion in an interview AND also for misrepresenting the views of a panelist on his show–a Liberal MP.

Now he’s a Conservative Senator wallowing at the public trough.

And his spending and expenses have drawn attention from his former journalistic colleagues.

In fact, just this week, Duffy is in the spotlight for claiming $33,000 from the taxpayers in Ottawa living expenses even though he has been a decades-long resident there.

How does he do it? Officially Duffy represents a PEI riding in the Senate and has a property he bought there in 1998, although has reportedly spent most of the time in Ottawa, where he has worked for more than 30 years.  But Duffy officially claims the PEI is his” home” and his Ottawa home therefore qualifies under special Senate rules that allow senators from afar to claim living allowance in the capital.

Stinks to me!

I could never live like any of these media-senators do, but I can tell you I sleep very well every night knowing I have always tried to stay true to journalistic integrity. Despite paying the cost.

Scary thing: the sellout senators probably sleep well too!

Harv Oberfeld is a retired journalist and broadcaster. This column originally appeared in his blog, Keeping It Real. Reprinted with permission.

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