Village of Valemount, Robson Valley, Thomas Rohner, small town politics, media communication, journalistic priniciple

Small town politics aren’t so different, sadly

 

“Thanks for breaking my balls,” the mayor said to me when I came home for lunch.  He cracked a smile. “Nah, It was a good article.”

 

Things had been tense for the past week or two while I worked on a story about an accident on an unsafe accessibility ramp at the local community hall—owned and operated by the Village—that left a 98-year-old man and a pregnant woman injured. The tension was mostly in my own my mind, but not entirely.

 

Email communication I had with the Mayor’s office and other Village staff in researching the story was chafing me.  It had been convoluted and difficult.  And the complications of living with the Mayor, being friendly with Village staff on the streets, bumping into them in the most informal of settings like the grocery store or coffee shop, was starkly contrasted with the inaccessibility and formality of official correspondence.

 

For example: I had emailed the building inspector and public works officer at the Village requesting interviews to cover this story. I got an email reply from the Chief Administrative Officer saying that all media requests went through the mayor, “his Worship”. Balking at the formality, I wrote an ironically formal email to the Mayor with the same interview requests. That irony was lost, though, as the mayor didn’t respond, and then the weekend was upon us.  He avoided the topic when I saw him at “home”, so finally on Sunday night I asked him what the status of my interview requests were. He told me the CAO was going to handle it after all. So on Monday I emailed the CAO asking when I could have an interview. She had forgotten to send me an email the Mayor sent her before the weekend in response to my questions. She had vetted the email, added some comments (who knows what other edits) and then forwarded it to me.

 

My initial response was akin to rage.  Could an interview request really be satisfied by an officially vetted email response?  If physical interaction can be made obsolete between journalists and interview subjects then journalism fails. I was angry at the Mayor, who used to run his own newspaper because it was a “great way to stir up shit”, for not acknowledging the journalistic principle at stake here. I was angry at myself for assuming that communication between media and municipal officials in a small town would be more straightforward and honest, not like the antagonistic and cynical rapport between media and municipal officials in Toronto.  And I was disillusioned with the CAO who I thought was a very sweet person on the few occasions I’d met her, and now had no choice but to view her kindness as a façade behind which she operated, foremost, as a bureaucrat.  The kind, sincere bureaucrat is a journalist’s formidable foe.

 

But whenever I have a strong emotional reaction to a situation, and especially when righteousness is involved, layers are revealed with time and the simple, strong conviction I first felt is burdened and enlightened with context.

 

“I’ve been making a documentary about my fall into politics,” the Mayor said to me on the night after my story was published.  He had been working on a documentary in private for the past few years, chronicling his transition from media into politics, which he obviously had a guilty conscience about.  In an honest attempt to be a good politician, and probably to mitigate the guilt, he was reading books on non-violence, Abraham Lincoln and diplomacy.  “Maybe you can help me with the documentary. We have to get you comfortable in front of a camera,” the Mayor said.  Unlikely, but I appreciated the Mayor’s candor and personability, despite the constraints and challenges in mixing formal and informal life.

 

In fact it inspired me to wax idealistic.  This antagonism between media and politics is unnecessary, I said.  And this situation of living with you, the mayor, in a small community was a perfect situation to prove that. What it boiled down to, I said, was being conscious of communication.  The influences that made us react defensively or offensively found controlled but unacknowledged outlet in “formal” communication.  We could hide behind the facades of our professionalism. The structures in place not only made that possible, but encouraged it; in fact nearly dictate that we nurture an antagonistic rapport. But if we committed ourselves to monitoring those defensive and aggressive reactions in our communication, which are emotionally based, we could define a new type of relationship between media and politician.

 

I’m not sure anything will come of those ideals, or even if they’ve been formulated and articulated carefully enough to be true. But in trying to navigate the complicated boundaries between reporting on municipal affairs and living with the mayor, two of his often-expressed sentiments come to mind: government can’t please everybody and shouldn’t try to, on the one hand, and the insecurity of what people are thinking about him on the other.  He has good intentions and noble ideals and his attempt to bring those to office is inspiring. But his desire to appear honest and his conviction in communicating honestly leaves something to be desired. And without an ongoing, frank dialogue on motivations, that discrepancy will only become entrenched. The best way to appear honest, after all, is, simply, to be honest.

 

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