Canadians understand the quality of modern journalism has declined because media businesses, particularly newspapers, suffer from a broken revenue model. If you can’t afford experienced journalists, you get kids out of J-school willing to work for peanuts. – and not even enough of those. But wouldn’t it make sense, then, to use what limited resources are left to produce the best possible reporting and op-ed writing ? Apparently not, because Edmonton Sun columnist Lorne Gunter still has a job.
Readers may be surprised to learn that Gunter’s alt-right bias isn’t what bothers me. Alberta is full of wacky fringe conservatives and Gunter is free to write for that audience. Just like his buddy Ezra Levant is free to organize anti-Muslim rallies and post anti-semite videos on the Rebel Media website.
The issue of increasingly biased and incompetent journalism from Postmedia came to mind recently when someone posted a Gunter column on my Twitter feed. Gunter has written some laughable stuff over his not so illustrious career, but “More pain comin’” – about how the Notley NDP government is single-handedly responsible for the recent tough times of the Alberta economy – is over-the-top execrable – the polite writer’s term for “wow, that was shitty.”
What’s bothers me is Gunter’s poor regard for the trade we both practice.
At the heart of good journalism is the on-the-record interview. Most journalists are not subject experts. We aren’t economists or engineers or corporate executives or policymakers or analysts – the list of what we are not is a long one.
Instead, we interview those sources.
I record every interview and have it transcribed. That way, I’m not relying on hastily scribbled notes or shorthand, as reporters commonly did when I entered the business 30 years ago. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I rarely misquote a source or get a fact wrong. If I do, the fault is mine alone.
Back in the golden age of journalism, reporters were told to have a minimum of three sources for a story. And facts weren’t facts until they were checked. Journalists took immense pride in getting it right and doing a better job than their competitors.
Alas, that gold standard is tarnished. Newsroom resources have dwindled to such a degree that taking a full day to interview sources, do the background work, then write 800 quality words, is damn near impossible.
But modern newsroom reality doesn’t excuse Lorne Gunter’s utter disrespect for that standard. Or his editors turning a blind eye – perhaps even encouraging? – that disrespect. Postmedia can and does better. Why not with Gunter?
Take the column above. Because I’m an energy journalist, I focused on the energy-related “facts” in the column.
Edmonton Sun managing editor Dave Breakenridge declined my request to be interviewed and Gunter himself did not reply to my email.
I did, however, interview University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe, whose remarks follow the sentences copied directly from Gunter’s column.
Gunter: Our economy has fallen farther than the economies of other oil-producing provinces and states, and is recovering more slowly.
Tombe: It’s hard to say how quickly it’s recovering relative to others because provincial level GDP comes out with such a significant lag. Stat Can only last week provided the GDP numbers for 2016, so to get a glimpse about the speed of recovery and the 2017 growth rates, we will have to wait until May of next year.
Gunter: No other oil-reliant jurisdiction has suffered as great a loss of investor confidence.
Tombe: Like, every sub-national jurisdiction in the world? It’d be tough for me to know off the top of my head, but presumably if [Gunter] provided a list of every other jurisdiction in the relevant metric and Alberta came out worse, then I guess. Ed. Gunter didn’t provide any metrics to support his claim.
If we want to think about whether the level of investment in Alberta is high or low, there’s data on this, and we can look at the amount of capital expenditure intention for 2017 that Statistics Canada puts out. And Alberta has a higher level of cap-ex per person than any other province, except Newfoundland, which is because offshore investment relative to a small population. So, we have a high level of investment in Alberta, higher than any other province, even when you exclude oil and gas.
Gunter: No other jurisdiction in North America — oil-producing or otherwise — has seen its income, business and property taxes rise so fast.
Tombe: Is that a statement about rates? Rates have changed by different amounts and different points of the income distribution and it’s not as though the Alberta government’s total revenue has gone up that much. Their tax changes relate to the [PC Premier Jim] Prentice budget were a net kind of wash. The carbon tax though is a net increase in government revenue certainly, but the largest tax increase of any oil and gas jurisdiction on earth? Again I’m not in a position to evaluate that given how many potential alternative jurisdictions are out there.
Gunter: Calgary has the highest unemployment rate (9.3 per cent) of any major city in the country, while Edmonton at 8.4 per cent is in third place. The number of Albertans who have been out of work six months or longer is roughly four times what it was when the New Dems came to office…Then there’s the fact that in Saskatchewan unemployment is only six per cent — more than two full percentage points lower than in Alberta.
Tombe: In terms of the labour market indicators, Alberta is doing better than Saskatchewan despite the high headline-grabbing level of unemployment. It’s definitely true that Saskatchewan’s unemployment is lower than Alberta but a good chunk of that is because they have a lower participation rate than Alberta: Alberta’s rate is 73%, Saskatchewan’s is 69%. Unemployed workers are only counted as such if they want a job and are searching for one. Workers that give up searching and just withdraw from the labour force are called discouraged workers and Saskatchewan has more of those than Alberta.
If, roughly speaking, 120,000 unemployed Albertans were to withdraw from the labour force, our participation rate would fall and equal Saskatchewan’s but our unemployment would only be about 3.5%. So, it’s inappropriate to simplistically compare unemployment across jurisdictions especially when those jurisdictions have very large differences in our participation rates.
Markham: Absolutely not. Saskatchewan oil production in 2016 was 458,139 b/d, according to the Saskatchewan government. Alberta oil production was 3.323 million b/d – approximately 7 times that of its eastern neighbour – as of Feb. 2017, according to the Alberta Energy Regulator. That was a record output for Alberta, whose production is forecast to increase another million b/d by 2025.
Gunter: Provincial GDP is nearly eight per cent below where it was when the NDs took over, according to the province’s own figures. Even if, as predicted, our province leads Confederation in growth this year, our economy will still be nearly five per cent smaller than on this date two years ago.
Tombe: That does depend on what you mean by GDP. Eight per cent is the real GDP in 2016 relative to 2014. Roughly half that decline took place in 2015, and not all of that year was under the NDP. But the nominal GDP, just the total level of income, is down nearly 20%, so it is a substantial decline, certainly. But even at worst, even at bottom in 2016, our GDP per person was about 10% higher than Saskatchewan.
Gunter: Total investment in the province is off 36.5 per cent and investment in the oil and gas sector is off 57.8 per cent. To put that into perspective, oil and gas investment in Texas and North Dakota was off less than 40 per cent during the same period — and it is returning faster there, too.
Tombe: Investment is certainly lower in Alberta and it’s also lower in Saskatchewan, as well. It’s hard to attribute that to changes in policy, especially in oil and gas. The only change that we’ve seen that would materially affect investment would’ve been the royalty review, which on net was probably a plus for investment in that sector given that they improved the efficiency of the system. Total capital expenditures in Saskatchewan between 2014 and 2016, is down about 30%, and in Alberta it’s down about 35%. So yeah, Alberta’s down a little more, but that is not a substantial difference at all. And per capita, Alberta still has a substantially higher level of investment than Saskatchewan.
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Gunter: And when they start limiting oil sands production.
Markham: Current oil sands greenhouse gas emissions are 70 million megatonnes. The Alberta government set a cap of 100 million megatonnes. The Canadian Energy Research Institute recently released a study that outlined six “technology configurations” producers could implement to reduce emissions. I interviewed lead author Dinara Millington and she said choosing any one of those pathways would guarantee that oil sands remain where they are for the next 10 or 20 years.
Gunter: Already natural gas for heating homes has gone up more than a third — and that is only the start.
Tombe: The price, not the bill. Our home heating bill has a large fixed cost component that didn’t change as a result of the carbon tax. But yeah, the carbon tax added a dollar per gigajoule, which, at the time was roughly 30-40% increase in the price. The average household in Alberta will see about a 10% increase in their home-heating bill. That’s not saying anything about them also getting rebates in most households as well and one-third of Alberta households will get rebates that are in excess of the carbon costs that they pay.