Alberta Premier Danielle Smith – a former newspaper columnist and talk-show host – likened journalism to entertainment in remarks she made over the weekend. While suggesting stories about things such as city council decisions and constitutional crises are akin to some sort of amusing diversion might be good for a giggle – and thus somewhat entertaining – a premier’s critical lack of understanding of the media is no laughing matter.
Ms. Smith’s remarks were made at the United Conservative Party annual general meeting in response to questions from reporters. The questions were about negative comments she had made previously, during a livestream, about an agreement between Alberta Health Services and the World Economic Forum.
“I was on an entertainment forum for a long time, Corus Entertainment. I recognize that you’re in the industry of making sure that you find the most outrageous statements so that you can get a lot of clicks.”
(Ms. Smith has been extremely effective at providing such statements, including on her first day on the job, when she said unvaccinated Canadians were the most discriminated group she has witnessed in her lifetime. After the comment was widely condemned, she walked it back, but did not apologize.)
Her depiction of journalism as a clickbait endeavour was more than a shot at reporters; it demonstrates a dismissal of a fundamental aspect of democracy – and perhaps more concerning, one she should be intimately familiar with.
I recognize where her confusion may come from. Way back, in Toronto, I too was a talk-show host for a Corus radio station. Every time we walked through the heavy door leading into the suite of studios, we would encounter a sign reminding us that what we were doing was show business.
This was meant to be inspirational. Don’t forget to entertain the listeners! Fair enough – especially since we shared space with the real money-maker, our sister station that earned far higher ratings playing rock music than we did discussing the issues of the day.
Even so, even then, I understood the distinction between sometimes outrageous phone-in segments and the actual journalism we managed to do in revealing and hard-hitting interviews, and in newscasts at the top and bottom of the hour.
I grew weary of the main talk-show assignment, which was to make the phones ring – the 1990s equivalent of clicks. (To this day, I have actual nightmares about pitching a topic to listeners and watching as not a single phone line lights up.)
Talk radio has its place and (arguably) its value, but it’s not representative of what most journalists do.
And while reporters, when appropriate, strive to make their stories somewhat entertaining – i.e. interesting – so people will keep reading or watching, that is not the same thing as journalism being the equivalent of entertainment. The fact that Ms. Smith doesn’t understand what isn’t even a nuanced distinction speaks volumes and should ring (more) alarm bells.
There’s a huge difference between a quick hit on James Corden’s treatment of wait staff at a New York brasserie or the role of Olivia Wilde’s special salad dressing in the breakdown of her marriage, and an in-depth investigation of the treatment of thalidomide survivors or the use of solitary confinement in our prison system. Globe and Mail stories about the latter two have led to tangible and meaningful change.
Off the top of my head, I can provide a long list of other recent examples of journalism that has made a difference: reporting on the Hockey Canada scandal, coverage of the war in Ukraine, the dogged pursuit of the Catholic Church in relation to abuse of Indigenous children at former residential schools.
This is not entertaining. This is essential.
I recognize that this might come off as self-serving. But journalism serves the public. Without it, what wouldn’t you know about? What could be swept under the establishment rug, with nobody poking around, asking uncomfortable questions? There are too many cities across North America experiencing firsthand the lack of accountability that results from a death of the local newspaper.
We don’t do this work for kicks, or clicks. We afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted because we have a profound concern for the world around us.
Ms. Smith should know that. Or maybe she does – and she’s still trying to make those phones ring.