‘He became their useful idiot:’ Prof critical of Don Martin’s Scud Stud article

A journalism ethics expert says an article written about a former television reporter's election campaign coming off the rails was based on "spurious information" and should never have been published.

CALGARY — A journalism ethics expert says an article written about a former television reporter’s election campaign coming off the rails was based on “spurious information” and should never have been published.

Jeffrey Dvorkin, director of the University of Toronto’s journalism program, testified Friday that the article appeared to be a deliberate attempt by columnist Don Martin to publicize his opinion that candidate Arthur Kent “was an election disaster waiting to happen.”

“It doesn’t meet the standards of journalism at any level,” said Dvorkin, a former managing editor and chief journalist at CBC radio and former news ombudsman for National Public Radio in the United States.

“I just think it was mean-spirited and does not have the interests of the public at heart.”

Kent alleges in a lawsuit against Postmedia, the National Post and Martin that he was defamed during his unsuccessful campaign to win a Calgary legislature seat for the Progressive Conservatives in the 2008 Alberta election.

Kent became known as the “Scud Stud” for his reporting on Iraqi missile strikes for NBC during the Gulf War. The column at issue ran under the headline “Alberta’s ‘Scud Stud’ a ‘Dud’ on Campaign Trail.”

It used unnamed sources to portray Kent as a loose cannon who was difficult for the party to deal with. It also said a number of his key campaign members were threatening to quit.

One of those sources, Kent campaign lawyer Kristine Robidoux, has already testified that she shared private emails with Martin that included complaints between the Tory campaign chairman and party brass about Kent not abiding by the rules.

While she said the resulting article made her “physically ill,” she acknowledged under cross-examination that she was angry at Kent and was considering quitting the campaign because he seemed to be at odds with the PC party and leader Ed Stelmach.

Postmedia denies Kent’s accusations and argues it was practising responsible journalism. Lawyer Scott Watson has emphasized to the court the media’s role in informing voters about candidates’ policies and actions.

Dvorkin wrote a report on the column at the request of Kent’s legal team and was called by Kent’s side to testify.

He said the use of anonymous sources made the article dubious.

“It was based on spurious information that was fed to him by sources that were unreliable,” Dvorkin said. “What Don Martin did was he became basically a mouthpiece for those opponents of the Arthur Kent campaign.

“He became their useful idiot.”

Dvorkin said it’s common for journalists to be tempted to use anonymous sources, even though their not something the general public trusts.

Journalists shouldn’t trust them either, he said.

“There is that kind of willingness to be manipulated because there is that illusion you are close to power and journalists, especially political journalists, are very susceptible to those siren songs from politicians.”

Dvorkin added it was unacceptable that there was no comment from Kent in the piece.

He said the column appears to violate the journalistic code of the National Post and the Calgary Herald, which is part of the Postmedia chain, that requires ensuring stories are balanced and fair.

The finished column didn’t appear to have been edited at all, he said.

“Everybody needs an editor. Everybody needs a rewrite. It doesn’t feel like it was edited to me.

“It’s journalism by insinuation. This article should never have been published.”

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