I'm Mad as Hell

Icon

and I can't do a thing about it

Getting it wrong again…

It’s been a lot of years since the Oklahoma City bombing but it seems we have learned very little in the intervening years. If you remember, in the minutes and hours after the devastating blast, journalists and experts rushed to air and to print with the probability that the U.S. was attacked by Muslim extremists. It was an easy call, who else could commit such a heinous crime?

Today we know it was the work of homegrown terrorists. Right wing fanatics who see the American government as some sort of socialist conspiracy determined to take away their guns and their freedom (if only).

Now along comes an equally terrible story in Norway and the world press once again rushes to judgment. The Muslims have attacked Norway scream headlines in Britain and Europe and of course CNN and Fox bring in their expert annalists to point to al Qaida as the culprit.

What the heck is happening to journalism? When did we stop reporting the facts we knew and begin stooping to conjecture? Where are Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley now that it appears we need them most?

In case you missed it I have copied most of an article by Charlie Brooker from the Guardian online. Here it is:

The news coverage of the Norway mass-killings was fact-free conjecture
Let’s be absolutely clear, it wasn’t experts speculating, it was guessers guessing – and they were terrible
I went to bed in a terrible world and awoke inside a worse one. At the time of writing, details of the Norwegian atrocity are still emerging, although the identity of the perpetrator has now been confirmed and his motivation seems increasingly clear: a far-right anti-Muslim extremist who despised the ruling party.
On Friday night’s news, they were calling him something else. He was a suspected terror cell with probable links to al-Qaida. Countless security experts queued up to tell me so. This has all the hallmarks of an al-Qaida attack, they said. Watching at home, my gut feeling was that that didn’t add up. Why Norway? And why was it aimed so specifically at one political party? But hey, they’re the experts. They’re sitting there behind a caption with the word “EXPERT” on it. Every few minutes the anchor would ask, “What kind of picture is emerging?” or “What sense are you getting of who might be responsible?” and every few minutes they explained this was “almost certainly” the work of a highly-organised Islamist cell.
In the aftermath of the initial bombing, they proceeded to wrestle with the one key question: why do Muslims hate Norway? Luckily, the experts were on hand to expertly share their expert solutions to plug this apparent plot hole in the ongoing news narrative.
Why do Muslims hate Norway? There had to be a reason.
Norway was targeted because of its role in Afghanistan. Norway was targeted because Norwegian authorities had recently charged an extremist Muslim cleric. Norway was targeted because one of its newspapers had reprinted the controversial Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
Norway was targeted because, compared to the US and UK, it is a “soft target” – in other words, they targeted it because no one expected them to.
When it became apparent that a shooting was under way on Utoya Island, the security experts upgraded their appraisal. This was no longer a Bali-style al-Qaida bombing, but a Mumbai-style al-Qaida massacre. On and on went the conjecture, on television, and in online newspapers, including this one. Meanwhile, on Twitter, word was quickly spreading that, according to eyewitnesses, the shooter on the island was a blond man who spoke Norwegian. At this point I decided my initial gut reservations about al-Qaida had probably been well founded. But who was I to contradict the security experts? A blond Norwegian gunman doesn’t fit the traditional profile, they said, so maybe we’ll need to reassess . . . but let’s not forget that al-Qaida have been making efforts to actively recruit “native” extremists: white folk who don’t arouse suspicion. So it’s probably still the Muslims.
Soon, the front page of Saturday’s Sun was rolling off the presses. “Al-Qaeda” Massacre: NORWAY’S 9/11 – the weasel quotes around the phrase “Al Qaeda” deemed sufficient to protect the paper from charges of jumping to conclusions.
By the time I went to bed, it had become clear to anyone within glancing distance of the internet that this had more in common with the 1995 Oklahoma bombing or the 1999 London nail-bombing campaign than the more recent horrors of al-Qaida.
While I slept, the bodycount continued to rise, reaching catastrophic proportions by the morning. The next morning I switched on the news and the al-Qaida talk had been largely dispensed with, and the pundits were now experts on far-right extremism, as though they’d been on a course and qualified for a diploma overnight.
Some remained scarily defiant in the face of the new unfolding reality. On Saturday morning I saw a Fox News anchor tell former US diplomat John Bolton that Norwegian police were saying this appeared to be an Oklahoma-style attack, then ask him how that squared with his earlier assessment that al-Qaida were involved. He was sceptical. It was still too early to leap to conclusions, he said. We should wait for all the facts before rushing to judgment. In other words: assume it’s the Muslims until it starts to look like it isn’t – at which point, continue to assume it’s them anyway.
If anyone reading this runs a news channel, please, don’t clog the airwaves with fact-free conjecture unless you’re going to replace the word “expert” with “guesser” and the word “speculate” with “guess”, so it’ll be absolutely clear that when the anchor asks the expert to speculate, they’re actually just asking a guesser to guess. Also, choose better guessers. Your guessers were terrible, like toddlers hypothesising how a helicopter works. I don’t know anything about international terrorism, but even I outguessed them.
As more information regarding the identity of the terrorist responsible for the massacre comes to light, articles attempting to explain his motives are starting to appear online. And beneath them are comments from readers, largely expressing outrage and horror. But there are a disturbing number that start, “What this lunatic did was awful, but . . .”
These “but” commenters then go on to discuss immigration, often with reference to a shaky Muslim-baiting story they’ve half-remembered from the press. So despite this being a story about an anti-Muslim extremist killing Norwegians who weren’t Muslim, they’ve managed to find a way to keep the finger of blame pointing at the Muslims, thereby following a narrative lead they’ve been fed for years, from the overall depiction of terrorism as an almost exclusively Islamic pursuit, outlined by “security experts” quick to see al-Qaida tentacles everywhere, to the fabricated tabloid fairytales about “Muslim-only loos” or local councils “banning Christmas”.

Also, here’s a small segment from a Christopher Hitchens commentary in Slate Magazine:
A Ridiculous Rapid Response
Why did so many “experts” declare the Oslo attacks to be the work of Islamic terrorists?
By Christopher HitchensPosted Sunday, July 24, 2011, Having had 16 years to reflect since Oklahoma City, we should really have become a little more refined in our rapid-response diagnoses of anti-civilian mass murder.
Here is a secular Scandinavian social democracy, which is currently contributing forces to Western military efforts in Afghanistan and Libya. This consideration was what originally led some more orthodox conservatives to descry a “link.” (Even though, for example, it is unclear whether the jihadist groups in Norway identify with Muammar Qaddafi or his recent calls for suicide efforts against NATO.) Moreover, the lethal attacks were launched against the youth movement of Norway’s ruling party, that stout bulwark of multi-culti good feelings and outreach to Muslim immigrants. This might not have been the first objective of a terror faction striving to take Norway off the military chessboard.

So, once again the free press of the democratic west found a way to get it completely wrong. We targeted the innocent before we had even the basic information needed to report on the Norwegian story. I guess it is more important for Fox or CNN to be first on the air with all of the answers than it is for them to be accurate. It’s important for all those newspaper and broadcast web sites to be on top of the latest breaking news. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. Only in this case we chose the wrong targets and as usual we did not have the grace to apologize to the people we slandered or just as bad, to the millions of viewers, listeners and readers we mislead.

I often get criticized by some of my younger readers for questioning journalism and journalists in the 21st century. Sorry, but I have another question. How can you justify reporting on speculation rather than facts? When did the rules change? What happened to two independent sources?

Filed under: Media Commentary, , , , ,

The Guessing Game in Egypt

The Egyptian Revolution was and still is a remarkable story. Thousands of people taking to the streets and squares of an autocratic country, standing up for the rights and freedoms we take for granted in Canada. For close to three weeks we watched and listened to world shaking events live as they happened half a world away. Once again the power of the people was too much for a dictator to deal with. We have seen similar scenarios play out in places like Berlin and Manila. We have also seen it go the other way most recently in Teheran and decades ago in Beijing. I suppose it is the failures in China and Iran that make the story so poignant in Egypt. It is the possibility of brutality, ugliness and doom that make one turn on Al Jazeera or CNN to witness what’s going on, all the while hoping and praying for the success of the brave folks who are standing up to their undemocratic leaders.

While musing on the events in Cairo it is impossible for me to not also think about the successes and failures of the journalistic coverage of those events. It was truly the best of times and the worst of times for 24 hour news stations.

Trying to cover and understand live events, especially massive events like a revolution is a daunting task for even the best minds in journalism. In Egypt it was the possibilities not the actual events that were so riveting. Let’s face it, except for the day when the protesters were attacked by Mubarak supporters on camels, there was not much to see. Tens of thousands of people milling about, sleeping, arguing and most of all, waiting don’t make for great pictures. What kept the story going was the speculation. What would the Mubarak government do? Would Mubarak call in the troops to force an end to the protest? Would Mubarak attempt to negotiate a peaceful end? Would he finally have to quit the leadership as the crowds were demanding?

It was truly exciting because we did not know how it would end. And this is where the networks failed. To be fair, I don’t know if it was possible to succeed, but for eighteen days and more viewers were bombarded not with facts but with speculation: one former ambassador to Egypt speculating that Mubarak could not be forced out; an academic who guessed that Mubarak had no choice but to leave. On and on the experts droned for hours that morphed into days and weeks. The poor viewer was left with a cornucopia of opinion. It’s too bad no two experts seemed to agree on anything. The facts were few and far between. The details did not add up to any real understanding of what was going to happen in the end. It was closer to sports play-by-play than it was to journalism. Between periods or innings we went back to the experts, the former players and managers to assess what they were seeing. Only when there is little or no action, what the heck were they basing their comments on?

The day before Mubarak left we were told that he was going to make a statement. All the so-called experts announced that he was quitting. Wrong again. Mubarak said he was staying until the next election and asked the people to go home and allow the economy to get back to normal. So that was it. The insiders and pundits quickly offered that the revolution was almost over. Mubarak would stay. He would change his style of government but he was not going anywhere. That speculation was still going strong when Mubarak abruptly left for a resort in the Sinai and his vice president, Suleiman, was left to announce that Mubarak had finally quit. Jubilation ensued, not just in Egypt, but all around the world. The experts were back and proclaiming the revolution over and won by the people of Egypt.

I hope they are right this time, but let’s face it, while Mubarak is gone, it is the army that has taken power. The generals are saying all the right things…new constitution, free elections in six months or more, but hey, from here it looks like another military dictatorship, at least for now.

In the last few days we have begun to read and hear about the root causes of the revolt. Soaring food prices and massive unemployment emboldened the people of Egypt. As Bob Dylan said, “When you ain’t got nothin’, you have nothin’ to lose.” There are even some questions beginning to trickle out about whether the military will readily give up power. Good. But where were these questions and background while the story was happening? If you believed CNN and Fox it was only the successful revolt in Tunisia that led to the Egyptian uprising. Al Jazeera English was better, but they too got caught up in the speculation to the sometimes exclusion of the facts.

24 Hour news once again had a great story to tell. As far as pictures and images were concerned, they did a great job, especially considering the pressure they were under from the Egyptian authorities. But as far as concrete information was concerned, all news was a wasteland of speculation, guesswork and boring interviews with out-of-touch experts that were sitting hundreds or thousands of miles from the action. Like I said earlier, I don’t know if there was any way around this problem. The longer a story lasts the more difficult it is to find new angles and new talkers, but I do know that some context about conditions in Egypt that allowed for all those people to spend 18 or more days in Tahrir Square would have helped me to understand the story.

Oh, and once again as a major story breaks, CBC NN and CTV News Channel become almost completely irrelevant. I have asked this question many times before and I ask it again: why would anyone who has access to Al Jazeera English or CNN watch a major international event on CBC NN or CTV News Channel? Unless Stephen Harper is in trouble, or Bev Oda is fudging the truth again, why would I watch a Canadian all news channel at all? It’s not the fault of the CBC and CTV news staffs that they are badly outgunned by the big international networks. But it is a fact and calls into question the ability and usefulness of Canadian all news networks unless Bell Media and the government of Canada are willing to properly fund such enterprises.

Filed under: Media Commentary, Political Commentary, , , , ,

Rick Sanchez: “The Uninformant”

I have been inundated with questions about Rick Sanchez since he went after John Stewart and the Jews who run broadcasting and was subsequently fired last Friday. The most common question I’ve been asked is: “Would you have fired him.” I think the bigger question one should ask is whether I would have hired the man.

John Stewart easily proved that Rick Sanchez is a know nothing boob who did not have the knowledge necessary to do his job. Lisa de Moraes, in The TV Column writes: One example of Stewart’s derision came on March 2, when Stewart’s show ran clips of Sanchez anchoring CNN’s live coverage of a Chilean earthquake and the accompanying fears of a tsunami. In the clips, Sanchez is seen mistaking the Galapagos Islands for Hawaii and asking an expert to explain to him what nine meters means “in English.” Stewart called CNN “the most trusted name in overcaffeinated control freaks,” and Sanchez’s photo was shown above an identifier that read “The Uninformant!”

How does a guy who doesn’t know what a meter is or where America’s 50th state is located get an anchor job on a U.S. national network? Further, you may ask, doesn’t anyone at CNN ‘vet’ the hires? Don’t they check the background, knowledge and prejudices of the people they foist on the public and describe as journalists and news people?

The obvious answer is that they don’t do their due diligence and they don’t seem to care unless the guy or girl loses their cool and blurts out a racist remark. Sanchez was fired for his comments about Jews, not his ignorance of basic facts. I for one, find that a frightening proposition because it demeans all journalists, all journalism and certainly everyone involved with broadcast news. All we have is our authority and the trust of the audience. If we lose that we will cease to matter.

The anchor position in a newscast has undergone many changes in the past few decades. There was a time when all you had to do is read what others wrote and look good doing it. Good hair and smart suits were more important than good news judgment and smarts. Thankfully, that began to change in the era of Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. These guys were authority figures. We knew we could trust what they said because we knew we could trust them to know what they were talking about. They weren’t what we later called “meat puppets,” they were newsmen, journalists.

Eventually that rubbed off on local news. It took decades, not years, but we finally reached the point where if you want to be an anchor in Calgary, Dallas, Halifax or Minneapolis, you had better have reporting experience. Sure there are a few old time announcers hanging in, although at the national level Lloyd Robertson is likely to be the last, but they should all be gone sooner rather than later.

Authority and trust, I thought, had become the most important attributes in choosing a new news anchor. That however, is beginning to change and it’s the all-news channels in the U.S. that are leading the movement towards blow-hards and shock-jocks. Fox may be the worst offender, but as Rick Sanchez and CNN have proved, they are not the only ones. Jeffrey Dvorkin wrote a terrific analysis in his blog, Now the Details http://www.nowthedetails.blogspot.com, he said, I do blame CNN: it allowed Sanchez (and others like him) on the air and seems unable to find its role, squeezed by the bloviators on Fox and the more thoughtful journalism to be found elsewhere on TV and radio. He also points out that in the U.S. there is actually nothing new in this trend: There is also a long tradition in American broadcasting of extreme opinions going back to Father Coughlin in Detroit in the 30s and 40s. Walter Winchell became equally paranoid in his later career and was one of the more effective red-baiters in the Cold War. Sanchez, Beck, O’Reilly and Limbaugh are entirely within that tradition.

This is where you are thinking that the recent hires at the national networks in both the U.S. and Canada have been experienced news people who take their roles seriously and for the most part, that’s true. But I remember the days, and it wasn’t that long ago, where newscasts were filled with solid news content and nothing but solid news content. Paris Hilton couldn’t buy her way onto a newscast and to get the results of last night’s American Idol, if it had existed, you would have to watch American Idol. Then came shows like A Current Affair and eventually Entertainment Tonight. They blurred the boundaries. I met people who said yes, they saw the news, and it turned out they were watching A Current Affair. I have seen that style infect serious newscasts and grow to be an everyday part of what we now consider news.

Is it possible that Glenn Beck will eventually infect the role of the anchor? I hope not, but it is possible. Have you seen the ads for Dawna Friesen on Global? The marketing people at Global go out and hire a serious news woman with all the right credentials and then try to sell her to the public as a soccer mom. Where’s the authority? Where’s the journalist? Were Cronkite or Brinkley sold to the public as dads? Is it because she is a woman? It makes you wonder to what lengths Global will go to sell their news. Perhaps if Friesen doesn’t work out they will follow Fox’s lead. It seems far-fetched today, but then if I had told anyone in the news business 30 years ago that clips from Survivor would make it to a newscast they would have laughed and said it could never happen.

Filed under: Media Commentary, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Boredom ‘R’ Us

Back in the olde days, when I was running Canada AM and that show was a serious news and information program, I had a boss and mentor, Don Cameron, who was easily the most brilliant television producer I have ever met. He had a visceral understanding of what made information television work. If he were alive today he would be shocked by what passes for current affairs in today’s multi-channel universe.

When I took over Canada AM, Don gave me a list of rules to follow. His first rule of great television still makes sense to me even though it is now broken dozens of times every day: never interview journalists or university professors. His point here was that television is an emotional medium. It is people who have strong views, who take a side or are somehow attached to the story, that make us sit up and take notice. Facts work in newspapers and magazines but emotion carries the day on TV. The viewer remembers the distraught parents, the beautiful child, the homeless man…the viewer forgets how many, how high, and how much soon after the story ends. With this in mind Don Cameron insisted on booking people who had a real stake in any story we covered. A cabinet minister has to defend the government’s viewpoint. A mother tells a personal story. A worker who lost a colleague has an emotional response.

Journalists and professors are very knowledgeable but by the very nature of their work they step back and look at all sides of a story and inevitably they deliver the dreaded, “on the one hand and on the other hand.” This is boring to all but other journalists and university profs. The proof is in the numbers: CNN is last among U.S. all news and information channels, CBC NN reaches fewer viewers than local news in Saskatoon and CTV Newsnet has fewer viewers than local news in PEI.

Don’s second rule banned all regular panels. He said if you have an Ottawa panel every Friday and the big Ottawa news breaks on Monday, do you not discuss it on Monday and save it for your panel? Or does the panel ignore what is now old news on Friday? Either way doesn’t work. Don didn’t like regular panelists either. He felt that over time their answers become predictable. I, for instance, hate seeing Richard Gwyn on TV. I know he knows his stuff but I also know every position he will take on every story because I have read and seen his take for over 30 years. No matter what he says, to me it is same old, same old.

Why do I bring this stuff up now? This week a new head of CNN was named, Ken Jautz. It will be Ken’s job to lift CNN out of its current doldrums and back into the game they originated. When interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter Ken all but admitted that CNN is now mostly boring, but especially in prime time. He said, “We need to make our prime time more compelling and engaging, sometimes more fun, you could even say. We are going to adhere to our basic programming strategy of nonpartisan information inclusive of all different points of view. But we need to be livelier and more engaging.”

Jautz intends to improve the numbers at CNN by changing the hosts. I for one will be glad to see Larry King gone, his expiry date was sometime last century and his softball approach and kissing up to his guests was never very palatable to me. Maybe more important, he wants to up the ante on opinion, “By the time you get to prime time, in today’s media environment, there are so many websites and outlets, people know basic facts. In addition to facts, they want analysis, they want context, they want perspective and they want some opinion. And yes, I think we should provide them with as many points of view as possible, but we should provide them from all different ends of the political spectrum and from newsmakers as well as pundits.” Newsmakers…a full spectrum of opinion…this is a language I understand and agree with. This sounds like the ghost of Don Cameron.

Now if we could only convince the people who produce current affairs television in Canada. In my opinion the failure here has grown out of fear and laziness. The fear is that the producers will not be able to fill all of their time slots. Panels and regular guests present the guest bookers with a guarantee that they will easily fill a large portion of their hour or half-hour. No chance of dead air or the host talking to himself. (In my 5 years at Canada AM this never happened to me and we had to fill two hours every day, but the fear persists.) Regular guests and panels can also be depended on to not cancel and they know how to make it to the studio on time. It’s safe…boring but safe.

The laziness grows out of the fear factor. Why search for good guests when you have a tame pack of regulars who provide all the content without any of the work? Regular guests provide their own research and one easy phone call gets them to the show. Why look for a new and exciting guest who may or may not freeze on air or not deliver the needed patter? Why try to coax a newsmaker to take part in your show?

International panels are a major bugaboo for me. Here we are in this amazing multicultural country with brilliant people from every corner of the Earth living in our midst and how do we discuss a crisis in Pakistan? We book Richard Gwyn and Janice Stein. There are dozens of wonderful Pakistani people who understand both Pakistan and Canada. They can relate to all sides of a Pakistani issue and they know how to explain it to Canadians. Gwyn and Stein read The Times of London and New York Times. They may even call someone in Pakistan but when it comes to an emotional attachment they are severely lacking. They provide information not entertainment.

The folks behind “Fox News North” are right about one thing, our all news television in Canada is boring. If they were to comment on our talk shows, it is my guess they would have the same comment. For the most part I agree with them. There are remedies for our boring talk TV. Heed the words of Don Cameron and get off you fat, lazy asses and do some hard work finding great guests who will surprise, engage, entertain and inform us.

Filed under: Media Commentary, , , , , , , ,

Disaster! What Disaster?

For the first time I can remember, I have read more comment about the lack of coverage of an event than I have had the opportunity to read and see coverage of the event itself. While not completely ignoring the devastating floods and human disaster in Pakistan, the western press has certainly treated the massive loss of life and the humanitarian crisis with little more than a figurative yawn. Where are the teams of CNN journalists? Where’s the CBC and CTV? Where is ABC, NBC and CBS? I hear Al Jazeera English is all over the story though.

As almost all the commentators have done, it is reasonable to compare the coverage of the Haiti earthquake and the events of the past two weeks in Pakistan. In Haiti it took but a few hours before news teams were on their way. They took every imaginable route to the disaster defying the difficulties of an airport that was out of commission and a port that was in ruins. Most came in overland from the Dominican Republic but many chartered their own boats and even helicopters to land in Haiti.
Beyond the news media, rock stars organized fund raisers, everyone, it seemed, had a plan to come to the aid of the Haitian people. The world mobilized and the money poured in.

Now let’s look at Pakistan. Yes, a flood is not as dramatic as an earthquake. Sure the numbers of immediate deaths are small in comparison to Haiti, 300,000 to 14,000. But in Pakistan there are more than triple the number of homeless and if help is not forthcoming disease and starvation may drive the numbers of dead up to Haitian levels or worse.

I’ve heard of no concerts for Pakistan. Anderson Cooper hasn’t moved to Pakistan for a few months to cover the events and rail against the lack of aid. After a few days the news from Pakistan made few front pages of daily newspapers.

The commentators are asking why the lack of interest by the media and in turn, the public. They all give their reasons. Most prominent among the reasons I’ve read has been the idea that there is a disaster fatigue. In other words, we are tired of disasters. Haiti took it out of us. It’s hard to get up for a new human crisis just a few months after we mobilized for Haiti.

Another reason I have read a lot about is that it is summer. TV viewership is down, many correspondents are on vacation, staffs are stretched and frankly why waste the big bucks it would take to do a proper job on the relatively small vacation time audiences.

While I believe there is some truth in both of the above excuses, I do not believe either one comes close to the two real reasons the world press are avoiding Pakistan.

The first “real” reason is that in these days of austerity and budget cutting no network has the money to go all out on Haiti and Pakistan. Haiti is already done and so is the budget. Maybe if the flooding had taken place after Labor Day, the traditional start of the new TV season for newscasters, the news bosses might have been more willing to part with a few bucks and few more resources to cover the flood and its aftermath. Let’s face it, at this time of year you can hardly get Peter Mansbridge and Lloyd Robertson to host their own newscasts, let alone fly off to Islamabad and beyond.

In my opinion the networks and newspapers are breaking one of the golden rules of news coverage. When I got my first executive producing job at CTV, my brilliant boss, Don Cameron, gave me this advice: never spend money you don’t have to spend and NEVER let money get in the way of covering an important news story. I wish Don were alive today because I know if he was, CTV at least, would be all over the Pakistan flood.

Now to the second “real” and least discussed reason for the lack of coverage of Pakistan. Nobody wants to come out and say it because it sounds more than a little racist or anti-Muslim, but come on folks, don’t you think that news people in the west look at Pakistan and see a whole lot of people, many even in the army and the government, who are all too willing to help Bin Laden and the Taliban to kill our boys and girls in Afghanistan. Don’t you think news people see many of the people of Pakistan as fundamentalist Muslims who want to destroy Christianity and kill Jews. Don’t we see Pakistani’s as a source of terrorism in the west and worse a possible source of nuclear terrorism. I haven’t even mentioned the treatment of women or the attacks in Mumbai. Add to all these things the very real fear that if they go, journalists I mean, to western Pakistan there is always the possibility of being kidnapped and beheaded. All of this has to add up to a very natural reluctance to cover any events in Pakistan, let alone the floods.

Logically I can sit here at my very safe desk in Toronto and say yes, all of that may be true, but the millions of poor Pakistani’s who are suffering are human beings, they are victims of a terrible disaster and they are being further victimized by prejudice and the possible fact their religious and political leaders may have committed what we in the west consider crimes against us. It’s not fair, but unless we confront the truths behind our actions we will not be able to do it better next time.

I believe it is really important in the aftermath of the Pakistani floods to take a good look at how the western media reacted to the floods, the homelessness, the starvation and the disease. We must ask ourselves why we gave these event short shrift and we must examine the kind of response that we feel was needed. In the end, journalists may say it was too expensive or too dangerous. They may even say it wasn’t worth the money to report on people that westerners show little compassion for. I would argue the other side. But let’s have the argument so that we know how to react next time instead of letting the story pass by default.

I highly recommend that you all go to the J-Source website, http://www.j-source.ca and read a most thoughtful piece by Claude Adams. Claude is an excellent journalist who has covered these sorts of events all over the world. He speaks from experience and he makes more sense than any other commentary I have read on the subject.

Filed under: Media Commentary, Political Commentary, , , , , , , , ,

Badly Served in Canada

My wife is constantly amazed that I read every page of the newspapers that are delivered to my door every morning…seven days a week. Of course I watch a lot of news on television too. That makes me a bona fide news junkie. According to the statistics I read in one of the newspapers, it can be difficult to differentiate when you are plowing through so much news, I am not an uncommon Canadian. It seems we are a country of news junkies in comparison to our American neighbors. The market for quality news coverage is still very strong here. So why are Canadian news outlets from print, TV and radio following the U.S. down the road to coverage of non-events, non-stories and celebrity garbage…I mean gossip?

Each day it feels like it takes me less and less time to read the papers. The Sunday Toronto Star is an empty shell that can be perused cover to cover in about ten minutes. I barely know who Lindsay Lohan is and what makes her famous yet I am bombarded with her brush with the law and her impending jail term. I’m sure Lohan’s incarceration will have little effect on the world economy other than to sell a few more newspapers.

When I was at CBC my bosses conducted a poll of news viewers; which station they watched, why they chose to watch a specific newscast, their age, education background and yearly earnings. The results were obvious. The CBC’s viewers were older, richer and better educated than CTV, Global and CITY viewers. CITY-TV viewers were the youngest, poorest and least educated. But put that way, it is highly misleading. The difference in average age from CBC to CITY-TV was about 5 years, 44 for CITY and just under 49 for CBC. CBC had the most university grads but most CBC viewers barely finished high school.

I remember thinking at the time that CITY’s rock and roll news was a great thing for CBC. Younger folks got hooked on the news watching Gord Martineau and his gang. They developed the news viewing habit in simple bite sized, picture stories. The way I saw it, when they matured and wanted more, they would graduate to CBC News. CITY was news with training wheels. CBC was the 18 speed racing bike.

The world of television and TV news is far more complicated today. It is as much about style as substance. There are far more choices. The internet and all-news channels provide way more options. A friend told me that watching network news in Canada today is like watching yesterday’s newscast. He has seen all the stories during the day on the net and has no time for the déjà vu provided by the TV newscasts.

Given all of the above I have to ask what CBC, CTV and Global are doing. Instead of creating a new kind of in depth version of a newscast with fewer stories and more context, they are still competing with CBC NN, CTV News Network and the internet. They are still trying to cover all the stories without getting down to what is important and giving those stories more time and effort. In Canada this is doubly stupid because the networks own the services they are competing with.

When Newsworld was first created I believed it would be the best thing that happened to national newscasts. It would free them from having to be everywhere covering stories large and small from across the country and around the world. I expected the news bosses to choose six or seven important stories and give them in depth coverage. Why not? The small stories about the snow storm in Calgary and the 20 car pile-up outside Chatham were now taken care of. There would be more time to look at the cost of the G-20 and whether we really need a census any more. (By the way, we still have not seen a single investigative report on how our government spent $1.2 billion on a summit that cost everyone else a tenth of that sum or less.) Alas, this has not happened. Today’s newscasts in Canada look very similar, in coverage, to what they looked like before Newsworld and CTV News Network. If anything, CBC especially, has taken many steps backward. They have done away, for the most part, with their excellent long form journalism and replaced it on most nights with fillers and fluff that should not have a place on a serious national newscast.

Why did I expect change? Because CBS, NBC, and ABC changed when CNN came along. They realized the futility of challenging CNN for speed. They understood that they couldn’t cover in half-an-hour what CNN had 24 hours to report on. Before CNN a typical network newscast in the U.S. packed 12 to 14 stories into their 30 minutes minus ads every night. Since the advent of CNN, the average American network newscast averages 6 to 8 stories and on many nights an investigative feature on an important subject is one of those stories.

In Canada we may be a nation of news junkies but we are not being well served by our national institutions. The CBC, Global and CTV are mired in formats that were out of date in the 90’s. The Globe and Mail seems to be providing less and less serious news coverage and little investigation into important stories, in some cases preferring to be touts for their own (CTV Globe Media) Olympic coverage or even stooping to stories on which dance team was eliminated from a CTV reality(?) show. CBC Radio is the lone exception but rumors abound that Richard Stursberg is coming to make radio news as inane as he has made TV news.

With new hosts coming to CTV and Global and a renewal process at CBC TV that is an abject failure, perhaps the time has come to take a long look at what network news is doing and look to the future rather than the past to bring about the kind of change that a news hungry population craves.

Filed under: Media Commentary, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sun TV Rises

The Hill Times recently had one of the best and most substantive looks at the new Sun TV News channel and its ability to succeed or fail in the Canadian television marketplace. If you get the chance read the article at http://hilltimes.com/page/printpage/foxtv-06-28-2010. The article lays out the business reasons why a channel that has been created to emulate Fox News in the United States has a real chance to succeed in this country.

The primary argument raised by Kory Teneycke, the former Federal Tory mouthpiece and the man who seems to be the driving force behind the new station, is “We think there’s a big space in the market. I think most of what’s on cable news, today, in Canada is pretty flat. I don’t think it actually gets to the heart of debate on most issues; I think the news stories that end up on the air are too often of little relevance to Canadians and I base that opinion on the fact that most Canadians aren’t watching and that rates of viewership in Canada are much lower than they are in other countries, so all of that, from a business perspective, speaks to the fact that there is an opening in the marketplace and that’s the opening that we’re hoping to fill.”

So far so good. I agree with everything Mr. Teneycke says here. CBC NN is just about as boring and obscure as it is possible for an all news station to be. There is little to grab the imagination and get one’s blood boiling. Issues are discussed but tough questions, even, or should I say especially, on Evan Solomon’s political show are non-existent. One gets the feeling that Mr. Solomon is worried that if he makes it too tough on his political guests they will not appear again on his program again. Hey Evan, they need you more than you need them—get a backbone.

At CTV News Network discussion is rarer than a Leafs Stanley Cup run. For most of the day and most of the week all CTV News network does is run the same stories over and over again until the audience is so sick of them they must change the channel. It’s like CNN headline news without the constantly changing and updating stories.

Both networks are handicapped by not having their own reporting teams. They must depend on CBC and CTV network reporters and their availability. CBC and CTV networks have too few reporters to do the job for themselves, let alone staffing their all-news cousins. All-news in Canada has been a scam on the public. The stations were created as a way to raise money by subscription for the main networks without having to be a properly staffed news organizations. Last year CBC NN, or Newsworld as it was called, made over $60 million for CBC with few viewers and little of interest on the air. CTV News Network, with even fewer viewers, less than a typical Blue Jays – Orioles crowd, managed to bring in $15 million. The reason for the big profits are twofold, first the “must carry” designation. Cable and satellite companies must make the news channels available to all their customers. Second, every subscriber pays a monthly subscription fee, whether they watch the channels or not. Next year they lose their “must carry” status and it will be interesting to see if they can survive in a real marketplace where viewers actually have a choice.

So Sun TV News plans to fill the void that CBC NN and CTV News Network are leaving. Their argument is that since Fox, CNN and MSNBC have so many viewers in the United States and CBC NN and CTV News Network have so few viewers in Canada there must be an audience for real all-news and talk TV here. They believe Sun TV News will be the station to capture that audience.

This where I disagree with Mr. Teneycke. I see no reason to believe that Canadians, who so far have rejected extreme right or left wing views and who it is my experience producing talk television, both resist and resent people shouting at each other or the audience, will be prepared to watch Fox News Canadian style. Sun won’t even have the advantage of must carry that CBC and CTV had when they created their news channels. Sun will have to sell their channel one subscriber at a time and one cable and satellite company at a time. In this polite country where “sorry” is the most used word in our lexicon, is there really a market for what Sun and Mr. Teneycke are selling?

Changing the subject, few television viewers today will remember the giant who passed away last Saturday. Murray Chercover was the driving force that helped turn CTV into the most successful network in Canada. As President and then CEO Mr. Chercover was the glue that held together the disparate stations that made up the CTV network. When CTV was created it was ruled by the station owners from across the country. Murray had to get them to agree to whatever the network planned. No easy task with owners like the Bassets in Toronto and the Peters’ in B.C. Somehow he succeeded. He made CTV number one with the brilliant acquisition of American programming and the creation of a strong news and current affairs team that to this day bests CBC in the ratings with less than a quarter the staff and budget.

How did he do it? I can’t say I was close enough to the action at CTV to know but I did work with Murray Chercover a few times and I can tell you what I saw. Murray was always kind to his staff and the people around him. He was team builder. He allowed people to take chances and he rewarded his best employees by hiring from within. He had a sharp mind and always seemed to ask the most important question.

My fondest memory of working with Murray Chercover was when I was chosen to produce the Terry Fox Telethon just days after Terry Fox had to stop his run across Canada. On a Wednesday the network decided to produce a telethon on the upcoming Sunday night. I was a thirty-year-old producer of Canada AM. Murray called me into his office and asked if I could do this. Being young and stupid I said yes. I was lucky. Terry Fox was so popular and his deeds so breathtaking that almost every celebrity we asked was willing to take part. My dilemma was that I had too many guests for the three hours we were allotted. I went to Murray and asked for another hour. I’ll never forget what he said to me: “Howard, I’d rather see a four show in two hours than a two hour show in four hours.” He then asked me if I still wanted the extra time. I said yes and Murray Chercover trusted my opinion.

The bottom line: The Terry Fox telethon was the most successful telethon in raising money and audience ever in this country. I produced the show, but Murray Chercover made it happen.

Filed under: Media Commentary, , , , , , , , , , ,

Fox North

The media is buzzing. The newspapers are writing stories every day. TV commenters are filling the blogs and web sites with gloom and doom. University teachers are being called for their take on the impending story and op-ed pieces are being penned by learned experts. I’m sure the editorial writers across the land are sharpening their pencils in readiness for the big announcements. And what’s all the fuss about? It seems that Quebecor is about to attempt to launch a right-wing news and talk television service that has already been dubbed “Fox North” by the naysayers.

As far as the Canadian media are concerned, and you can count me among them, Fox News is the antichrist of TV networks. I have no problem with their conservative viewpoint. But I object strongly to their lack of honesty and their continued and unfettered spreading of false and unsubstantiated facts that are the lifeblood of the service they provide. Call me old fashioned but I still believe the number one rule of journalism is that you get the facts right. You can comment and spin all you want but you can’t publish false or unprovable information. Fox News and its band of crazies led by Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck are guilty on all these counts.

Still, is there really good reason for Canadian media to react the way it has? I guess I’m not ready to get upset just yet. First and foremost there is a huge hurdle that the new network has to climb. They are asking for “must carry” status from the CRTC. That would mean that all cable and satellite companies would have to find a prominent place for the new service on their dial and that all Canadians who subscribe to cable or satellite would have to pay a monthly fee for the channel whether we want it or not. In order to get “must carry” Quebecor would have to prove that they are a necessary and missing piece of the broadcast fabric that exists in Canada today. That’s a stretch. With three English all news networks already out there they would first have to prove that the others, CBC NN, CTV News Network and CP24 are either totally biased and blind to conservative views, or that a conservative viewpoint is missing from our TV choices and that being conservative is enough reason to make it essential. That’s a real problem even in Stephen Harper’s Ottawa. I don’t believe they will get “must carry”. Then what?

That will mean they will have to do deals with all the cable and satellite companies to find space. Then they will have to depend on Canadians’ willingness to ante up for the new channel. It will become our choice as viewers as to whether we want to buy another all-news and talk channel. That could be a tough sell with the costs of cable and satellite rising and most Canadians looking to pare down their media choices.

It is important to note that the existing news, talk and current affairs channels in Canada are not exactly catching on with the viewing public. CBC NN and CTV News Network have so few viewers that I suspect it would be cheaper to put their content on DVD and deliver it to the 25,000 or so folks who tune in. CP24 is one of a handful of stations that people watch but don’t listen to. Whenever I see the channel in offices, gyms, bars, the sound is turned off. It is a weather and time channel. CPAC, has anyone watched this channel lately, actually gets the same size audience as CBC NN for most of the day. Documentary Channel should do better but it remains an afterthought for viewers.

So why does Quebecor think another all news and talk station is a good idea? I suppose it is the fact that all the other news and talk stations are doing so poorly. They must believe that there is actually a void, as far as viewers are concerned, in the market. That void would have to be engaging television. The truth is that unless there is a big story breaking there is no reason to watch all-news TV. Worse, if a big story breaks anywhere outside Canada, the home grown networks can’t compete with CNN. So what will make us tune in to “Fox North”? The people at Quebecor think that strong right wing views and personalities will cause the kind of stir that will attract a large enough audience to make the station the kind of hit that Fox News has been in the U.S.

So far very few right wing media organizations have succeeded in Canada. The National Post can barely give their newspaper away. Alberta Report faded away. Sun Newspapers (owned by Quebecor) have been losing money and laying off staff for two years. So where is the market? It might be the talk radio crowd. They seem to gravitate to the wild right but every poll of their listeners has shown them to be older, lower income and lower educated. Not the crowd that the advertisers are looking for.

The bottom line for me is that the Canadians I know, even the very conservative ones, tend to be more moderate in their ideas and their expectations. In the land of “sorry” I am not sure that media crazies will be a welcome addition. Quebecor’s track record for picking winners in English Canada is a poor one. I expect we are getting our shorts in a knot prematurely.

In the meantime I welcome any organization that can create new jobs for journalist and TV producers and I even welcome the addition of an opposing point of view. I wish the Quebecor people good luck and hope they can deliver a strong but fair conservative view to Canadians. If the rumors are correct they have already helped the CBC by stealing perennial screw up reporter Krista Erickson. I guess she will now be free to date Tory MPs and maybe take a few free flights at the taxpayers’ expense.

Filed under: Media Commentary, Political Commentary, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Time to Lose All-News

I have just recently returned from China where just about the only English channel that was available to me was CNN. Tuning in the news became an end of day ritual similar to ending the day in Canada with The National or CTV News. Interestingly I was struck by the incredible lack of news on what purports to be an all news television service. For two weeks it seemed the only thing happening in the world was the U.S. health care debate. In the last few days of my trip the Israelis, never overlooking an opportunity to commit a major diplomatic faux pas, announced the building of a slew of new homes in Arab East Jerusalem, this while Vice President Joe Biden was in town trying to make nice to the Netanyahu government in hopes of restarting the peace process.

Two weeks, two stories of any consequence. It became clear to me that that’s what is wrong with the concept of all news television. There are no local stories. There are only big stories. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately big stories don’t come along all that often. Thus channels like CNN and CBC NN are left to hash and rehash the same story over and over again. What I’m saying here is that on days without a Haiti earthquake or a primary election involving a black candidate and a prominent female candidate CNN can be really, really boring. Watching the news networks’ attempts to heighten, that’s a nice way of saying sensationalize, a story can begin to be an antidote to insomnia.

It becomes very clear very quickly why CNN has dropped to fourth place among American news networks. Without an election or an earthquake it is far more interesting to watch Fox News. Why? Because the people at Fox are willing and mostly able to ratchet up a story in the most unethical way. They don’t care about the facts, they only care about the ratings. Sad to say it is more interesting to watch the ranting of an over the top bozo who has never let the facts get in the way of a good story than to watch another dry panel discussing the ins and outs of the minutia of health care or a different dry panel discussing the history of the U.S. and Israel.

I learned very early in my TV career that television is an entertainment medium. When I was producing local news my biggest competitor was not CTV or CITY, the ratings winners were Three’s Company and game shows. When I was at The Journal the audience giant was Hill Street Blues. Heck, I remember my host, Peter Kent, now a Tory M.P., refusing to go to studio for taping until the episode of A Team he was watching ended.

What does all this mean? What struck me was that CBC NN and CTV’s all news channels have little opportunity to ever gain a serious (in size) audience. They have too little going for them and far too much stacked up against them.

If CNN with reporters and crews all over the world is having a hard time finding enough stories to grab and keep viewers what chance does a Canadian all news network have?

Here are the facts. The Canadian news channels have to share a small band of Canadian reporters and a ludicrously tiny few international reporters with the main network they are attached to. If a story breaks anywhere outside of Canada they are ill prepared at best and hopelessly over matched as a rule. When Haiti broke did anyone tune to CBC NN for the story? If you did you missed the super coverage provided by CNN and for the record, most Canadians found their way to CNN.

Even if a big story breaks in Canada the news networks are ill prepared. Not because they can’t get cameras to the scene but because the reporter with the best ability to cover the events has his or her eye on that evening’s national newscast. The main network newspeople hire the reporter. They pay the reporter. The reporter’s future is dependent on the folks who run the national news. Until CBC NN and the CTV all news channel have their own reporters and their own bureaus worldwide they will never excel at what they are licensed to do: fast, complete coverage of breaking news stories. Don’t hold your breath, that will never happen. If they can’t do that, why bother to exist at all.

The truth is, and no broadcast journalist wants to deal with this, the highest rated program on CBC’s all news channel was The Antiques Road Show. Since the changes at CBC NN no program has come close to the numbers that showed garnered.

Worse news still, CP24 gets better ratings than either CBC NN or CTV. Why? Because it makes better background viewing. You tune to that channel without actually watching it. The weather is right there. The time is always there. The business numbers are constantly there. If a great story is breaking you can catch it as it scrolls by and tune in to CNN for the details. There’s no need to pay attention and there are no discussions and panels ad nauseum to focus on. In fact it is a better station with the sound turned off.

The time has come for CBC and CTV to face the facts. All news TV in Canada is not a great idea. It’s a waste of time, effort and most important dollars. CBC and CTV would be far better off using the channels as a kind of CBC 2 and CTV2. The news people could still jump in if there were a breaking story. The National could still have a second home during the hockey playoffs and everyone would be a winner, especially the viewers.

Filed under: Media Commentary, , , , , , , , ,

No News is Bad News

At the end of the year it’s traditional to look back at what occurred during the past twelve months and pick out the highs and lows. Most years there are a few examples of each. 2009, however, has proved to be one of the most dismal years for news and current affairs in Canada ever. I can’t think of a worse period in my lifetime.

Everybody has already noted the disaster that is the new National at CBC: thin gruel masquerading as news, the worst reporting staff in CBC Television history, the inability to fill sixty minutes with relevant stories, and this doesn’t even refer to the ludicrous and totally unmotivated standing around to read the news and do interviews. The good news is that the audience numbers are way down. Perhaps this will induce the CBC bosses to see the error of their ways. I’m not holding my breath.

The CBC’s last great journalism show has also been diminished. The Fifth Estate has been moved to the dead zone of Friday night where it is almost impossible to garner decent ratings. The reason for the move: a better night to run Being Erica. Now I’m all for Canadian drama but why do the schedulers at CBC need to promote Canadian drama at the expense of their flagship current affairs program?

CBC fell further under the leadership and thrall of the evil emperor, Richard (Darth) Stursberg. He and his hand-picked minions of “yes” people seem to be doing the best they can to wreck CBC News and Current Affairs. Under his rule we have seen the degradation of national news, the moving of The Fifth and local news to dead zones, the virtual disappearance of the once popular program Market Place (it finally reappears after New Years), the now almost non-existent documentary, and I haven’t mentioned the terminally unwatchable CBCNN. There are those within the network, the cynics I guess, who believe Stursberg wants to see news and current affairs fail miserably so he can take the money and spend it on new drama, comedy and reality. If that’s the case the man has not looked at the history of television. News has been, and still is, one of the best ways to build an audience for your entire schedule. Hello, Dick, is the CBC still the CBC without Little Mosque on the Prairie and Being Erica? Is the CBC still the CBC without The National and The Fifth Estate?

CBC Radio has fared a little better but those in charge there believe it is purely a case of benign neglect and they fear that neglect is coming to an end. One producer of a flagship current affairs program on radio told me that Stursberg and company are beginning to look at radio. Scary. Ratings are good, but they can better if the shows are “dumbed –down” like over in CBC-TV land, at least that’s the idea the radio producers are getting from their bosses.

Over at CTV and Global the news is not much better. The bulwarks of “Capitalist Broadcasting” are coming to the government cap-in-hand begging for money in the form of cable and satellite fees. Their hook: they want to save local TV. Local TV, isn’t that the part of their empire they have abused and chopped going way back before they had a small financial dilemma? To prove how much they care about local TV they have been closing local stations even before they find out whether the CRTC will grant them their millions in unearned cash and they have steadfastly refused to guarantee that the dollars they squeeze out of cable and satellite subscribers will go to local TV. Save our shareholders! I guess that doesn’t sound so good in a television ad.

In the meantime CTV still runs W5 but buries it by running it against hockey on Saturday evening and if and when they invest in a documentary, it always airs in the W5 timeslot.

Over at Global, they bury their current affairs in their schedule too. Hands up anyone who has seen or heard about a Global documentary. I saw one on the rise of religion in Canada but that was only because a friend produced it and was kind enough to let me know when it was going to air.

CTV and Global news do a much better job of appealing to Canadians than CBC News does. For proof of this I only have to point out that both get over a million viewers regularly while CBC has trouble reaching half-a-million. Both are better produced and slicker than CBC’s effort but there is little room for celebration. Neither makes any attempt at depth or context. In a world where ABC, NBC and CBS have long understood that fewer stories told more completely is the best way to compete with all-news TV; CTV and Global are still doing newscasts the same way they were done pre-CNN and the internet. Here too CBC News’ failure may be a key. CTV and Global have always done a better job when they were pushed by excellent coverage at CBC. Now that the “Corpse” news has sunk below CTV and Global’s level there is no need for the privates to try harder.

In the U.S. we have witnessed the disintegration of the CNN audience with the odious Fox News being the main recipient of new viewers. Serious stories go unreported south of the border while the balloon boys, disappearing politicians and “birthers” dominate the airwaves. Sensationalism is winning and stories like Copenhagen are losing. Worse still the all news folks are challenging each other to see who can distort or get the facts more wrong. Any coverage of the health care debate by Fox or MSNBC is sure to make a Canadian’s eyes roll.

The good news? Well 60 Minutes somehow continues to tell excellent stories and surprise, surprise, gets a big audience too. The Fifth Estate still has the ability to do the best research and find the best stories. PBS’ new Newshour format is even better than it was before. CTV’s reporters, as a group, are as strong as any reporting team I can remember; perhaps that’s because they took their best and added some of CBC’s best to create a kind of dream team of news reporting. The Agenda with Steve Paikin gets better every year and deals with the kind of topics that only PBS and TVO tackle; oh, and surprise, surprise, they get pretty good numbers doing it in the middle of prime time against the toughest competition. CBC Radio has so far stayed the mostly fine course (we can only pray that lasts). And finally, Lou Dobbs is gone from CNN, this alone could be reason to celebrate the New Year.

Filed under: Media Commentary, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

About the Author

Howard Bernstein is a former TV producer. He has worked at CBC,CTV, Global and has produced shows for most Canadian channels as an independent producer.

Pages

Categories

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 31 other followers