Danielle Smith and the Media Drop the Gloves
It was a strange week in Alberta politics, one that Premier Danielle Smith would likely rather forget.
It all adds up to the Premier and her government on one side and the news media on the other. It will pave the way for a bumpy ride between now and May 29.
The Middle Finger Newser
The week kicked off with a bizarre news conference outside an Edmonton-area medical imaging clinic. Before it was over, Premier Smith faced some tough questioning from Global Edmonton TV reporter Saif Kaiser and photographers like the Edmonton Journal’s David Bloom were getting a great shot of a health care worker giving the Premier a hidden middle finger salute. Jason Franson of the Canadian Press got a similar shot.
The premise of the news conference must have riled reporters right away. There was Premier Smith, who repeatedly has talked in the past about Albertans paying out of their pockets for things like doctor’s visits, pledging to uphold free health care in Alberta. Former Premier Jason Kenney made a similar pledge.
Déjà vu all over again.
The announcement was obviously political and done to try to shore up concerns voters have about turning the health care keys over to the UCP for another four years.
It was Kasier who ruffled the Premier’s feathers when he asked her how Albertans can take the pledge seriously when she has made comments supporting people paying for their health care and a UCP candidate recently blaming people for having heart attacks.
Smith handled the questions well, but it was clear the media was starting to get aggressive with the Premier. It’s a trend no government wants, especially less than 50-days from an election.
The following day, the front page of the Edmonton Journal carried Bloom’s photo at the top of this blog. The decision to use the photo must have led to some interesting editorial conversations in the Journal newsroom.
It Got Awkward
Around the same time last week, it was the CBC’s Janet French squaring off with the Minister of Transportation and Economic Corridors Devin Dreeshen.
Dreeshen resigned his position in cabinet last November. He issued a statement saying his personal conduct with regards to alcohol had become an issue for the government and he promised to focus on improving his personal health and wellness, which is a polite way of saying stop drinking.
At a news conference with his counterparts from Saskatchewan and Manitoba to announce expanded economic corridors (whatever they might be) French went off the menu to ask Dreeshen if he had done anything while out of cabinet to deal with his drinking problem.
Dreeshen was obviously surprised the question was coming at that time, mumbled something about it being a personal CBC question and never answered the question, despite being given a second chance by French.
Although it came at a time Dreeshen didn’t want and certainly took the newser in an awkward direction, it was a fair question. His drinking led to a lawsuit against government that likely cost taxpayers a ton of money. If he promised to clean up his drinking and he’s now back in cabinet making multi-million dollar decisions, he needs to be held accountable.
When the government holds a news conference, it wants the media to report on what it’s announcing. It does not want reporters asking questions that are off topic, because it knows it’s those questions and answers that will show up in the media and online. That not only takes away from its message, it often hijacks it. What people need to understand though is, reporters can’t normally walk up to the Premier, or a cabinet minister in the legislature and have a quick interview about a controversial topic. It generally has to be done when the politician is in front of the microphones.
This can lead to unpredictable questions from reporters. However, as I often tell my media training participants, prepare for the worst questions and if they don’t come, then no harm no foul.
By the way, Janet French asked politicians some equally tough questions before she got to CBC.
Then the One Question Limit
When things rolled around to Friday, Premier Smith was again in front of the media for another newser, but this time she announced from now on reporters would only be allowed to ask one question. Her reasoning was that an election campaign is on now and there are more reporters to ask questions, so everyone should get an equal chance.
There’s a technical term for that. It’s called bullshit.
The Premier and the people around her have seen what’s been happening with the media. They noticed how the tone of questions from some reporters has changed, so they’re going to the tactics that worked nicely during COVID, when reporters had to ask questions over the phone and only got to ask one question.
This move allows the Premier to give whatever answer she wants, without the reporter coming back with a follow-up by simply saying “But you didn’t answer my question.” It’s a nice media move on the government’s part.
It’s easy to fix though. If questions are clearly being avoided, the next reporter in line can re-ask the question that didn’t get answered. I wouldn’t be surprised if this started happening.
The other thing that we’ll see is reporters asking longer questions, and making more editorial statements as they do so. That’s not good either.
If reporters get their backs up, this could get nasty.
The gloves are off between the media and Premier Smith and others in the UCP. Say what you want about reporters only being there to report the news, it’s clear the media is tired of being trolled by the Premier and her government.
That’s not a good thing for the UCP. We’re about six weeks away from the election and the media won’t make it comfortable for the UCP the rest of the way, especially if their candidates keep talking about schools showing elementary school kids porn and people needing to take responsibility for their heart attacks.
Image credit: David Bloom, Edmonton Journal
It's a shame that the already strained relationship between Alberta-based journalists and the provincial government is becoming more adversarial and combative. It doesn't bode well for anyone.