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It’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you

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Perhaps it was no coincidence that on Tues., Nov. 15, the same day the Free Press published a column on on Mayor Sam Katz and his failure to show up at Remembrance Day ceremonies, I had an opportunity to speak to a political science class at the University of Manitoba. The class, taught by the extremely well-informed Robert Ermel of the Manitoba Institute for Policy Research, wanted to discuss the relationship between the media and politicians. They couldn’t have picked a better day.

My column took direct aim at Katz for failing to attend Remembrance Day ceremonies. It was particularly easy to pick this fight because it was so incredibly odd for the mayor of a big city to miss this one particular day, given its incredible political importance. We punctuated our case by showing photographs of the legion of other big-city mayors who did attend Remembrance Day.

(Parenthetically, as demonstrated by the parenthesis to the left, I was not able to get any answer from Katz or his handlers about where he was on November 11. Thanks to sources and citizens, we have been able to confirm he was at his vacation property in Phoenix, and left the Wednesday before Remembrance Day.)

Katz would not talk to the Free Press about his decision to pass on November 11. He did, however, go on CJOB radio where, after refusing to actually say where he was, he complained that the Free Press in general and me in particular were "out to get him." At Ermel’s class, I denied that was the case, arguing that the inner workings of political office, and decisions such as the one Katz had made, were relevant issues that deserved debate. Thus, our justification for exposing it.

To my surprise, not everyone in the class agreed with me. One student made a strong argument that it was a rather meaningless story. Moreover, that this was less about news and more of an effort on my part to embarrass the mayor. I didn’t agree with her, for obvious reasons, but I will acknowledge her forceful argument does provide food for thought.

Was this story just mischief? I will agree with the dissenting student on one point: not everything I know about politicians is news. I know a great many things about the professional and private affairs of politicians. It’s inevitable that the more time you spend talking to genuinely connected people in politics, the greater the chance you’re going to hear some pretty sensitive things. However, not all of them deserve to be published. I couldn’t tell you exactly where the line is drawn, but each revelation needs to be carefully weighed on case-by-case basis. Truth may be a good defence, but it is not complete justification for publishing any and all things you learn about a prominent person.

So, what about Sam and his absence from Remembrance Day? I did not suggest that Katz had committed a crime against humanity. I argued it was an unusual strategy for someone holding elected office. The people who greatly value Remembrance Day are people who vote. Missing a chance to show those people you care about them is an odd way to curry their favour. As evidence, we showed that every other big-city mayor in Canada attended Remembrance Day ceremonies; only one used November 11 for an extended long weekend.

I also noted that to date, this kind of stuff hasn’t hurt the mayor at election. That’s probably why he continues to ignore prominent cultural, political and philanthropic events. And why he’d rather suggest that journalists who take issue with his decision to bypass events that are normally considered part of the mayor’s job description are "out to get him."

Was it a legitimate story? The mayor does not think so and will hand-pick the media outlets to push that point. The Free Press, on the other hand, will likely continue to watch the mayor’s comings and goings to determine if he is fulfilling his mayoral duties. We are certainly out to get that story.

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