You tell me, Dear Readers: Did I unfairly beat the Wildrose finance critic like a piñata?

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PHOTO: Your blogger, at right, wearing the brand new string tie he just bought in Santa Fe, takes a whack at Derek Fildebrandt, the Wildrose Opposition’s finance critic. Actual Alberta politicians and political commentators may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: The real Derek Fildebrandt; Globe and Mail reporter Carrie Tait; the famous Globe headline about Mr. Fildebrandt.

Have I been unfairly beating Derek Fildebrandt, the Wildrose Party’s finance critic, like a piñata for his now-famous observation that Alberta’s NDP government misled voters by actually implementing its campaign promises?

Moreover, was the Globe and Mail unreasonably sensationalizing Mr. Fildebrandt’s point with its characterization of his comments as meaning the Alberta NDP had “hoodwinked voters into believing it would lean only slightly left and is now implementing ‘hard-core ideological’ policies”?

FildebrandtThe now-famous headline on the Globe’s story read: “NDP duped voters by implementing its promises, Wildrose finance critic says.” This seems to have caused general hilarity around the entire small-g globe, in addition to bringing record numbers of readers to this post, for which I am grateful.

“The NDP platform was never intended to ever be implemented,” Mr. Fildebrandt told journalists during a scrum outside the ballroom where Premier Rachel Notley had just spoken to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce on Oct. 9.

He continued immediately: “The NDP platform was a hardcore ideological document which was meant, in opposition, to pull who everybody expected to win the election, at least when the writ was dropped, in a particular direction. It was meant to make an ideological point, and to pull the government in a direction. It was never actually meant to be implemented as real policy.”

That Mr. Fildebrandt has been ill used by the brouhaha that followed reporting of this statement is the considered view of the Wildrose Party, as a party official has made clear to me. You must forgive me, though, for not being displeased by the image of me, a mere blogger, beating Derek Fildebrandt like a piñata.

Nevertheless, I am a fair-minded person and my intention is to outline the Wildrose defence of Mr. Fildebrandt clearly in the context of what transpired, as his supporters would, and leave the judgment to you, Dear Readers. That said, I assure you, I will not deprive you of my opinion.

So, my understanding of the Wildrose take on this matter is as follows:

  • The Globe’s reporter, Carrie Tait, sensationalized Mr. Fildebrandt’s remarks in her paraphrase and explanation of his comment
  • That none of the most sensational words in her report, such as “duped” and “hoodwinked,” were actually spoken by Mr. Fildebrandt
  • That the portion of Mr. Fildebrandt’s comments reported by the Globe was only a small part of a much longer disquisition by Mr. Fildebrandt
  • That none of the other reporters who attended the same scrum reported the story in the same way

Among the reporters there, I am reliably informed, were the Calgary Sun’s Rick Bell, the Calgary Herald’s James Wood and a passel of nameless radio hacks.

CarrieTaitOn the day the Globe’s report appeared, Mr. Fildebrandt himself angrily Tweeted that Ms. Tait was a “B-list reporter who wrote an intentionally torqued … story.”

I am confident that the Wildrose Party has pressed the Globe for a retraction or clarification, and, as you can see by going to the story online, no such statement has been published by the Globe. This would indicate the Globe is confident Ms. Tait got it right.

The Wildrose Party provided me with a transcript of the group interview, as well as a recording. The red passages in the PDF, indicating reporters’ questions, were highlighted by the Wildrose Party, not by me. The reporters are not identified, but the most controversial passage appears to have been made in response to a question by Ms. Tait.

Now, I promised you my own opinion, and here it is: The Wildrose Party’s complaints about Ms. Tait’s report fail on all counts.

Mr. Fildebrandt, in my opinion, blundered and said something foolish. He ended up with egg on his face. The fact he said what he did in a convoluted way is no defence, or at least not much of one.

First, it is said here that the passage from the story by Ms. Tait summing up Mr. Fildebrandt’s comments is a reasonably accurate summation of his argument and intent.

Second, that using words like “hoodwinked,” while colourful (a quality generally admired in journalism), was not sensationalistic given the intended meaning of the speaker. Had I been writing the story, I likely would have summarized the comment in question, quoted at length above, in much the same way. Moreover, you simply cannot write journalistic accounts of what people say without explaining the context, and sometimes the meaning of what someone has said.

Should the reporter have asked, “did you really mean to say …”? Perhaps. But scrums do not lend themselves to thoughtful supplementary questions. Mr. Fildebrandt’s inference was obvious.

GlobeHeadThird, the fact that the comments were only a small part of a long discourse is irrelevant. It’s a reporter’s professional duty to report the news, that is, what’s new. Most of the rest of the interview is boilerplate Wildrose argument. It’s entirely appropriate and expected in such circumstances for journalists to take unexpected comments “out of context.”

Fourth, it’s no argument to say that other reporters missed the story, or ignored it. The Alberta media is notoriously timid when it comes to reporting on right-wing parties and their views. As readers can see and hear, one male reporter is practically feeding Mr. Fildebrandt his lines. I would commend Ms. Tait for her effort. It should come as no surprise the publication that published her story was not based in Calgary.

Finally, it was not very graceful for Mr. Fildebrandt to insult Ms. Tait as a “B-list reporter” for the way she did her job. As any A-list politician should know, even if you’re privately very angry, you’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Mr. Fildebrandt is playing in the big leagues now. He’s been elected to one of the most important jobs in our Constitutional system, Member of the Legislative Assembly. He’s been promoted by his party leader, not just to the front benches, but to arguably the second-most important job on the front bench.

He is not bloviating for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation any more, and he can’t count on the media to respectfully parrot everything he says as if it were a CTF press release. Typically, Canadian media assign their best reporters to cover political stories, so if a politician is going to get asked tough questions, that’ll be the place.

I’d say Mr. Fildebrandt needs to up his game! One way for him to do that would be to think carefully about what he’s going to say before he says it.

As Opposition finance critic, he’ll be in the spotlight on Tuesday, when Finance Minister Joe Ceci tables the NDP’s first budget. So this might be a good time for Mr. Fildebrandt to think about this.

If the Wildrose Party has a complaint, it’s with the headline in the Globe’s print edition, which (intentionally, I suspect) reduces Mr. Fildebrandt’s argument to absurdity. As folks in the news business know, and “civilians” generally don’t, reporters rarely write their own headlines. But was even the headline really that unfair? You be the judge.

Indeed, I encourage readers to read the transcript and listen to the tape. It’s an unusual opportunity for non-journalists to delve into and think about a situation reporters and the people they report on confront almost every day.

Am I right about this? Or is the Wildrose Party? You tell me. (And them.)

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Categories Alberta Politics