22 November 2004

Ralph Klein on journalism

Premier Ralph Klein dispensed nuggets of journalistic wisdom at Mount Royal College while campaigning in his constituency last Friday. The television reporter turned politician’s best gem of wisdom: "If you ever lose your objectivity … get out of the business and find something else. That’s what happened to me."

Bias, it seems, tripped up Klein’s journalism career. So he tossed his hat in the electoral ring in 1980, saying to his then skeptical news director before a morning story meeting, "We’ve got Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum and I think I’m going to run." Klein unseated the incumbent Calgary mayor, ushering in his colourful and controversial political era.

Looking lively and wearing an olive-tone jacket, crisp white shirt and oddly matched chartreuse tie, the premier addressed a group of hastily assembled students while touring the new Centre for Communications Studies facilities.

"How things have changed," he remarked incessantly during his brief, off-the-cuff speech. Avoiding overt politicking, he commended the students for their career choices in communications and recounted tales of working with ancient technology during his reporting days. Klein spins a good yarn. With a folksy, aw-shucks style that has endeared him to so many Albertans, he spoke of the arduous task of splicing film, cutting and pasting tape and recording an "actuality" (now known as a voice clip).

In Klein’s day, few journalism schools existed. An elocution teacher suggested he smoke Buckingham cigarettes and sing in the shower to improve the resonance of his voice. "That was the essence of my broadcasting education," he said, laughing.

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Klein probably understands the media better than most politicians and forces journalists to know their material before posing a question. Decades after his elocution lessons, he enrolled in Mount Royal’s public relations program, but couldn’t find enough time to put his "rump in a seat," so he transferred to Athabasca University. Journalist Don Martin gives a different account of this story in King Ralph, his biography on the Alberta premier. He notes that a poor grade in Klein’s directed field study project may have prompted the switch. The project’s title: "How does one run a successful election campaign?" It critiqued his successful 2001 re-election bid. He received a C.

Martin's book also details how Klein practiced public relations and reported on city hall in the 1970s. By all accounts, he plied his crafts well, but moved into activist journalism towards the end of his reporting career. Apparently, Klein made a documentary that was critical of a proposed downtown redevelopment. The changes would have radically altered an area he held a "sentimental attachment" to and flattened many of the future mayor's "favorite watering holes." The piece fomented enough opposition to force a plebiscite on the issue.

During last Friday's visit, Klein said nothing on the touchy subject of drinking - one of journalism's most notorious vices. However, in a Reader’s Digest interview late last year, he blamed his past problems with alcohol on – you guessed it – journalism.

After his remarks, the Premier left without a question and answer session. Moments later, a few intrepid students cornered him in a hallway for a brief media scrum, which one of his handlers ended after a few minutes by saying, "All right kids, that's enough." Like his entire campaign, his visit highlighted nothing of pressing importance and probably left the young audience wondering why he ever showed up or called an election in the first place.

Originally published in the Reflector.

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