A Lesson in the Journalism of Insinuation, Research Time, 20/11/2014

Here’s another example of a tenuous link that could blow up into an embarrassing mess for an organization that matters a lot to me: the New Democratic Party of Canada. My political beliefs aren’t exactly a secret; I blog about political issues all the time. I self-identify with the left, even though I don’t exactly conform to any specific left-wing doctrine. 

Ryan Holiday’s first-person experiences and considered analyses of the online media economy, network of incentives, and the tendencies of discourse this creates have helped me better understand the event I’m about to describe. In particular, I understand just how much of it is a matter of insinuation, speculation, and conspiracist thinking instead of deeply investigated journalism, despite the protestations to investigative bonafides that come from the website that publishes it.

My old friend Dinner once described an important principle to keep in mind as you navigate a complicated business world. It was why he never ate food from a restaurant in old-town central St. John’s called Pizza Pros. “You already own and operate a business from which you earn a living making pizza. That fact alone constitutes knowledge that you are pros, and you do not need to tell me that you are, in fact, pros.”

Recent NDP rhetoric of empty centrism has not only
helped cost them elections, but contributing to grassroots
activists growing suspicious of its leaders.
So a friend posted on his Facebook page a link to a news item from Martin Forgues of Ricochet Media, a donor-funded left-oriented online journalism organization. The story implies that the federal NDP has hypocritically begun to use the famous revolving door of political staffers and lobbying firms. In this case, it refers to Erin Jacobson. She’s worked in the NDP communications staff since 2008, served as a high-level communications worker for Jack Layton in his last year, and was retained by Thomas Mulcair’s office.

Jacobson left that position this May, transitioning to Edelman, one of the biggest PR firms in North America, working as a vice president for digital affairs. The document leaked to Forgues is called the “Grassroots Advocacy Implementation Plan,” an action plan Edelman staff wrote for its client TransCanada. It’s a guide for Edelman to identify local actors in Canada who support the Energy East oil pipeline project, extending a pipeline that currently runs from southern Alberta to the eastern border of Ontario to reach a new terminus in Saint John, New Brunswick. 

The document describes Edelman’s plan to improve public support throughout Canada for the pipeline extension and TransCanada’s long-term interest in hydraulic fracking. It lays out the strategies that environmentalist organizations have used to kill public support for TransCanada’s most famous petroleum project, the Keystone XL pipeline. It identifies groups that could support the pipeline and strategizes ways to engage them into action on behalf of getting the pipeline extension to New Brunswick built.

On the document’s final page, it identifies Jacobson as the digital action and strategies lead of Edelman’s team in their plan to build a coalition to support the Energy East pipeline construction. It’s a single line in the document where they identify human resources at TransCanada and Edelman who will lend their support to the project, normally an innocuous closing element to any communications plan.

Layton's legacy included a public image of the NDP as
more ethical than Canada's other political parties.
Two levels to what I have to say, the immediate potential firestorm and the media analysis.

The immediate. Anyone can tell how bad the optics are on this. The NDP brand is as the political party that stands against the usual moral compromises and anti-democratic collusions with business of lobbyist politics. Although PR firms aren’t technically covered under restrictions regarding former government staff becoming lobbyists, Jacobson's move displays the same basic structure of just such a corrupt move. And although Mulcair’s NDP is a vocal opponent of Keystone and Northern Gateway, they’ve been relatively silent on Energy East, a pipeline that cuts through less famous ecological zones than the BC temperate rainforest, Quebec south of the St. Lawrence River and New Brunswick. 

When a high-ranking communications staff member jumps ship to a PR firm that not only represents TransCanada, a company of whom the NDP is a visible opponent, but who is assigned to the TransCanada file, Mulcair’s NDP look like hypocrites. Any opponent of the NDP can point to this leaked file and do serious damage to its reputation. It can also cost the NDP a lot of support among its own members. Mulcair’s ascension to the leadership came with serious resistance, and distrust of him lingers because of how he’s perceived as a pragmatist who sacrifices ideals and as an inauthentic political machine thanks to his former post in Quebec’s Liberal government.

Media analysis. Ricochet is a donor-funded online publication. It may not subscribe to the economics of the monetized click-through, but it still takes part in the same discourse. Ricochet succeeds by encouraging viral spreads of its articles, and as such it must play up the sensationalism of everything it publishes. So here are two questions that Forgues’ post never bothers to pose, let alone find answers to, which he should have asked in assembling this story.

1) What were Erin Jacobson’s reasons for leaving the NDP? Has she come to abandon a devotion to particular environmentalist principles which the party as an institution still shares? If she’s comfortable having a pipeline and fracking company for a client, then her attitude might not have blended well with her co-workers in an environmentalist political party. Forgues never asks this question; it would have required him to talk with officials in Mulcair’s office, as well as members of Edelman’s TransCanada task force, including Jacobson. 

Given the critical stance the NDP takes to the oil industry,
any apparent hypocrisy in this regard would be especially
damaging to their reputation.
The pressure in online journalism to publish at all cost as quickly as possible would have mitigated against this. Forgues’ post consists only of speculation about the implications of Jacobson’s name appearing as the head of digital media on Edelman’s communications plan for TransCanada. The story as it is describes only the leak itself, leaving its meaning to speculation. Investigation would mean Forgues would have had to confirm or deny the possible speculations. If Jacobson's situation turned out to be innocuous, then Forgues wouldn't have been able to run it, and the generally piecework pay that online journalists earn creates a disincentive to disconfirmation because no one can afford to work on a story that doesn't end up generating content. 

2) Who leaked Edelman’s communication plan in the first place? Of course, Forgues never indicates the source of his leaked document; a journalist, no matter the press, must maintain the privacy of sources. But that duty implies an obligation to the public that a story in its entire presentation can’t consist only of the sourced document. A single leak has to start an investigation, providing the basis for a wider inquiry about, in this case, whatever might lie behind Jacobson’s easy career transition to advocate for a company to whom her previous employer was vehemently opposed.

Otherwise, the news is only about speculations of what might be, instead of reasonable evidence as to what is the case. When speculations are allowed to run unchecked by the complex facts of the world, mental associations and gut feelings are all people have to draw the connections among suggestive, vague events with uncertain connections. That way lies paranoid conspiracy-mongering, when your understanding of the world is too simplified and reductive to function effectively. 

More simply, because the allegations implicit in the speculations that the leaked document encourages are very shady in their worst optics (and the story is so thinly investigated that optics are all we have), smearing Mulcair and the NDP to look just as morally compromised as any other political party would be very beneficial to their opponents going into an election year. It would certainly be in the interest of a Conservative Party hack – or a Liberal Party hack – to leak this document to a source that wouldn’t have the incentive to investigate it well enough to disconfirm its most sensational possible interpretation. 

The saddest part is something else that Ryan Holiday taught me. Even my just writing this post criticizing Forgues’ and Ricochet’s compromised journalistic practices still draws attention to their article. I will draw page impressions to their piece, further encouraging them to write such potentially damaging speculative articles that barely follow up on their leaked information. Yet I can’t help advance an alternative viewpoint, and possibly contribute somehow to the reform of online journalism away from its yellow incarnation if I let it lie. And I can’t contribute to the chatter of an effective defence for a political party that, some differences aside, I still believe in and support.

A very Joseph Heller moment.

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