There was a time, following the Watergate scandal of 1972-74, when it seemed as though every young person in North America wanted to be a journalist.
Journalism promised excitement and glamour. Universities could not keep up with the demand for new journalism schools. A survey at the time found there were more students in J-schools in the United States than there were jobs on all the country’s daily newspapers.
That was then.
Today, traditional journalism is battling for survival. The internet has destroyed the once-healthy advertising base of newspapers, television and radio. Audiences are defecting to social media. Reporters who are fortunate enough still to have paying jobs are forced to do double duty – feeding websites, twitter, YouTube and so on, as well as writing conventional news reports for their employer.
The work can be scarily dangerous – the murder and dismembering of the Washington Post’s Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul being the vilest recent example of the peril that journalists can face when they cross the powerful and unscrupulous.
Closer to home, President Donald Trump delights in inciting crowds at his midterm election rallies by attacking the news media – “crooked media …fake news,” and on and on. He says although he doesn’t like reporters, he wouldn’t actually kill them, but …
“Kill them, kill them,” chanted the crowd attending at least one recent Trump rally.
All this is by way of preamble. Against the background of job insecurity, physical risk and presidential intimidation, comes a new book, a Canadian book, that restores a measure of sanity as it takes readers inside the craft of political reporting.
“Power, Prime Ministers and the Press: The Battle for Truth on Parliament Hill,” by Robert Lewis, the former editor-in-chief of Maclean’s, serves up a combination of education and entertainment.
(Full disclosure: Bob Lewis is an old friend. He and I arrived in Ottawa – he for the Montreal Star, I for the Globe and Mail – within weeks of one another in 1965, at the height of Diefenbaker-Pearson war. Over the years, we worked together in the Parliamentary Press Gallery, at Time magazine and ultimately at Maclean’s. His treatment of me in the book is more than generous.)
On one level, it is a history of the press gallery, an institution as old as Canada itself. But it is more than that. It introduces, foibles included, the human side of many journalists who passed through the gallery over the decades.
More important, I think, it offers a history lesson on the great issues of the day – from conscription in the Second World War and the Suez crisis to the rise of Quebec separatism and the backstage battles over patriation of the Constitution – as seen through the eyes of journalists who were there reporting the news in real time.
It documents the gradual, grudging acceptance of female reporters on Parliament Hill, issues with journalists who get too close to their political sources, and the ongoing trend to news management by the Prime Minister’s Office.
There’s humour to leaven the sober stuff. I had not been aware of an incident that occurred one First of May aboard a press bus carrying members of the gallery back from a cocktail party at the summer residence of the Commons speaker. As they went down the Gatineau Parkway, a reporter ordered the driver to stop, jumped off with a young woman in a short white dress and led her into the nearby woods, not to return.
In due course, the park police were summoned to search the woods.
Years later, Mila Mulroney returned a croquet mallet, part of a set that columnist Allan Fotheringham had given the Mulroneys for one of their wedding anniversaries. The close Fotheringham-Mulroney relationship having been rent asunder, the prime minister’s wife sent the mallet with an abrupt note instructing “Dr. Foth” what he could do with it.
So what did the park police find? What did Mila’s note say?
Off the record or not, the answers are in the book.