Thursday, October 09, 2008

Journalists So Daft They Are Incapable Of Noticing Their Own Impenetrable Daftness

Of all the non-news idiocies of the federal election campaign so far, this gets first prize with bells and ribbons.

The Star: WINNIPEG–Conservative leader Stephen Harper emerged shortly after a broadcast interview aired showing Liberal leader Stéphane Dion struggling in English to grasp a simple economic question, suggesting his answers showed he was unfit to lead the country.

The CBC: Stephen Harper pounced on Stéphane Dion after an English-language interview in which he asked repeatedly for clarification on a question about the economy, saying it's a sign the Liberals don't have a plan.

Dion's supporters are coming to his defence, saying it's because Dion suffers from a "hearing problem," I see. But there's more than a hearing problem at work here, and it's not about a "simple economic question," and it's certainly not about Dion "struggling in English," either.

The problem begins with the journalist doing the interview, Steve Murphy, who struggles in his own native English to such a degree as to betray an inexcusable inadequacy to the task of basic competence in the construction of questions in plain language. And he's supposed to be an English-language journalist, remember.

Here's what Murphy asked: "If you were prime minister now, what would you have done about the economy and this crisis that Mr. Harper has not done?"

Now look at the horrible, tense-bent interrogative mess Murphy makes of that sentence. What the hell is it supposed to mean, for mercy's sake? Look at it closely: If you were prime minister now, what would you have done about the economy and this crisis that Mr. Harper has not done?"

Absent the subordinate clause, the idea is pretty straightforward, so it would have made some sense, sort of: What would you have done about the economy and this crisis that Mr. Harper has not done? Chucking in that redundant hypothetical case, in a different tense form "If you were prime minister now" makes a dog's breakfast of the whole idea, and it's precisely what Dion has the decency to gently inquire about, trying to contain his frustration all the while. A less polite person might have asked: What in damn hell are you carrying on about, you stupid boy?

Now, the otherwise-sensible Norman Spector is spinning the take-two, can-we-try-again interregnum as something that would have constituted a breach of journalistic ethics had it not been broadcast, because it would have done Dion the favour of cutting him undeserved slack. In fact, the greater ethics breach here is CTV's decision to offer an unprofessional undertaking to Dion's staff ('we won't broadcast the mess') and then to renege on that undertaking (and we wonder why mainstream journalists aren't trusted), and then having the brass balls to publicly confess to this, as though CTV managers had suffered some last-minute crisis of conscience.

Further, the re-take itself ends up serving as an undeserved favour to Murphy and CTV - certainly not to Dion - because it allowed Murphy to try again, although he manages to screw things up even more (first, "What would you have already done" and then "If you were the prime minister during this time, already. . .") and it allowed one of Dion's aides to make an effort at translating the mercilessly butchered syntax of Murphy's attempt at a comprehensible question.

If you can watch this and not feel at least a twinge of sympathy for Dion's predicament here, you're either a partisan hack, or you're just cold, damn cold:

UPDATE: Andrew Coyne makes sense:

"That Dion was unable at first to offer an answer has nothing to do with any hearing problem, and I would judge is only marginally to do with English being his second language. It’s mostly a matter of over-thinking the question. So, okay, he has an embarrassing moment. Who cares? Why is this news? Show it bottom of the newscast, as a “whoops” story, maybe. But convening a panel of MPs to analyze it? Reading all sorts of deep significance into it? Lordy. . . it's hardly news."

UPDATE II: Warren Kinsella notices the important part:


Blogger The Plump said...

What is even more extraordinary is the solemn self righteousness of the journalist as he fails to identify his own incompetence.

4:21 AM  
Blogger The Contentious Centrist said...

I don't feel a twinge of sympathy at all. Dione was all graciousness in the way he handled the botched question. Why is he even being blamed for it I can't imagine. If anything it shows that he refuses to just take the opportunity to ramble on, as most politicians do when asked a question they don't much get or care about. He really wants to understand what is being asked so that he can provide an accurate response. That's the academic in him, I suspect.

7:28 AM  
Blogger Kurt Langmann said...

It's this sort of thing that is making Dion look better in my eyes, as election day approaches -- even though it may not work that way for the readers-viewers who only get the "sound byte."

4:34 AM  
Blogger richard said...

Yeah, a strange vignette: CTV looks like a hack network these days, at best stretched too thin, and we're left feeling more or less OK with the spectacle of a possible PM who can't figure out how to answer a question.

I think that Dion was annoyed by the question, myself, and that his emotion threw him off. I mean, Murphy should know at least a dozen significant differences in economic policy between the parties, which take some time to generate difference. If Dion had been elected two weeks ago, he'd be just as buggered as Harper is, because there would have been zero time for change; if Dion had been elected two years ago, he'd have had a chance to do something different - which may not have had an impact, but he'd have had the chance.

9:12 PM  
Blogger Graeme said...

And yet the other party leaders don't get shit when they struggle with the French language.

Harper speaks decent, though by no means excellent, French. Half the time Layton can't even correctly conjugate his verbs (ironic, then, that one of the reasons he was chosen to lead the NDP is because he speaks French) and listening to Elizabeth May speak French is an assault on the senses--she speaks gibberish.

Not a word about this in the French media, mind you. Nobody gives a shit.

Stephen Harper is such a prick. I would pay good money to see him buggered by a pack of feral dogs.

2:05 PM  

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