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RICK MACLEAN: Rulers come out

Politicians are the first to bring out rulers and measure stories to compare coverage.
Politicians are the first to bring out rulers and measure stories to compare coverage. - Bill McGuire

Behind-the-scenes reporting can be risky, especially when it comes to covering politicians

Politicians use rulers. They measure how much space they get in a newspaper compared to the other side.

As an editor for 15 years, I knew what to expect every election. A phone call: ‘You hate us, you love them, you’re not being fair, they’re getting more coverage than we do.’

Like clockwork.

So, when a grad of our journalism program dropped by before Christmas with a question, I was intrigued, but ready to issue a warning.

Melanie Jackson was considering what we call a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ project. She’d travel from time to time with Dennis King, a candidate for the leadership of the Island’s Progressive Conservative party.

She’d write what she wanted, from her own perspective, and publish it on a blog. She liked him, liked the idea and wanted to know what I thought. I was blunt.

‘It could lay waste to any plans you might have – if you have any – for a career as a journalist. Especially a journalist who has to cover politicians.’

Politicians like to be liked. They want their good news message – it’s almost always a good news message – reported exactly the way they said it. That never happens, mostly because the spin is too obvious and there are many sides to most issues.

So, politicians distrust reporters. And they really distrust anyone they think might be a fan of the opposition. Write a blog about a leadership candidate and you’ll wear a scarlet letter around your neck forever, I feared.

She just smiled. I knew what that meant: ‘I don’t care what people think. It’ll be fun and I’m going to do it.’

This week, her efforts went live online as the blog The Backroom, part of the website the candidate has set up for his run at his party’s top job.

“I first met Dennis in 1997, when I was working as a receptionist at the department of transportation. He had just been hired as Mike Currie’s communications guy,” she writes in her first entry.

“Mike – Minister Currie as I knew him – was parading Dennis around the floor, introducing him to staff. When he got to my desk, the first thing I noticed was his yellow dress shirt.

“It looked like he had just taken it out of the plastic wrapping it had been neatly folded inside. Fresh off the store shelf.

“The creases were still in it, vertical and horizontal, and the white ‘undershirt’ he had chosen to wear beneath had a logo on it that was showing through the pale, yellow material. Likely a free t-shirt he got from some baseball or hockey tournament, I bet.”

That kind of reporting has a long history.

Journalist Gay Talese released The Kingdom and the Power: Behind the Scenes at The New York Times: The Institution That Influences the World in 1969. He named names and irritated a few people in high places. It was a bestseller.

Timothy Crouse published The Boys On The Bus in 1973, a look at what it was like covering the 1972 presidential election, when Richard Nixon was re-elected in a landslide. He named names and upset a few people. It was a bestseller

I can’t predict what The Backroom will do, but I will be watching. So, will many others, some of them with rulers. Sounds like fun.

- Rick MacLean is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.

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