I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

Burying the Murdochs

I have to start off by saying that the troubles and scandals now threatening to bring down the Murdoch empire are both long overdue and well deserved payback for a decades of disreputable journalism, not just in the tabloids, but on television channels like Fox News as well. There is no excuse for breaking the law in order to ferret out a story. There is certainly never a reason to hack the phone line of a missing teenager and to delete messages that, by their absence, send false signals to her parents and the police.

I’m sure you are all waiting for the “but,” the turn in the story. Well here it is: I am sick of all the holier-than-thou folks out there who say the Murdochs and their Hench-people should have known about everything that was happening at The News of the World.

Yes the buck stops at the bosses. True the Murdochs are responsible in the end. They do own the newspaper in question. They did create and condone the sick milieu that gave birth to the journalistic atrocities that we are all now hearing about. But when the news analysts and irate journalism types say they can’t believe the Murdochs didn’t know what was going on when the phones were being hacked and the rules were being broken I have to take issue.

I believe it is entirely plausible. Hey these guys are running a huge enterprise with lots of newspapers all over the world, TV stations and satellite and specialty stations. I do not find it hard to believe that they may not have known exactly what was going on at The News of the World.

I was at CTV when W5 produced a story on Chinese students keeping Canadians out of Canadian universities. It was a crock, fabricated by a senior producer on the show. Chinese groups in Toronto organized and protested for weeks. The result was an apology and a lot of red faces at CTV. My point here is that I am certain Murray Chercover, then president of CTV had absolutely no idea that W5 was fabricating a story. Heck I am sure Don Cameron who was V.P. of the news operation had no idea. I even believe that Lionel Lumb who was the show’s producer didn’t know his story was based on lies and untruths. We’re talking about a pretty small network and an even smaller news operation, yet the bosses did not know what was going on. So why is it so hard to believe that Rupert and son didn’t know about the telephone hacking?

Does anyone think CBC President Hubert Lacroix knows everything that is going on at The National or local news in Vancouver? I think Hubert has bigger problems to deal with.

Is it possible that all of us journalism types are ready to throw the Murdochs under the bus because they are exactly the kind of people we have come to despise in news game? They run a company that is most famous for its right wing biases and its penchant for playing fast and loose with the truth. There is so much to condemn them for that there is no real need to attack them for their declaration of innocence.They say they didn’t know about the telephone hacking and the payoffs. So be it. There is no way to prove this one way or the other right now and I assume we all still believe in the principle that people are innocent until proven guilty.

This whole affair, not the wrongdoing, the virulent attacks on the individuals from within their own journalism community reminds me of how Canadian news people reacted to Conrad Black and his troubles. We didn’t like the way he treated the news, too right wing. We were upset by the way he treated his employees, anti-union and worse telling them what their opinions should be when they wrote for him. We hated the perceived arrogance of the man. All of the above meant he was guilty before any trial. All the proof we needed was that it was Conrad Black.

All of that being said, the Murdochs are responsible for the actions of their employees. They did set the tone that created the perceived need to illegally hack telephones so that their tabloids could scoop everyone else. They did create an empire that allows politics to overrule facts. Every day they allow Fox New to publish half-truths, lies and innuendo to further a political agenda. Let’s condemn them for what we know they did wrong and let’s act like the journalists we say we are and stick to the facts when we go after them. Stooping to the Murdoch’s level makes us as bad as they are.

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Free Press

Sorry for the long layoff, I have just returned from China. This was my fifth or sixth trip to China, and the second in just over two years. The country never ceases to amaze. The rich in the country appear to be super rich. A walk along Nanjing Road or in the French Concession reveals half a dozen auto dealerships. I saw an Astin Martin dealership, a Maserati dealership, a Jaguar dealership, and the cheapest car I could see to buy in downtown Shanghai was a Land Rover.

In the big cities the people you see on the street are for the most part very smartly dressed. There are far fewer beggars than I would see on the Danforth in Toronto.

According to the people I met and talked to, mostly guides and middle class family people, things are just terrific in China. Yet on two occasions I had conversations that amazed me. They were both about the same thing. I was asked what I do for a living in Canada. I said I was a retired journalist. The people asking the question seemed overly interested in this fact. The next question I was asked is whether as a journalist I could write the truth. They wanted to know whether I could write about what I see or whether the government tells me what to publish.

Interestingly, the Chinese were actually surprised that the press was basically free to tell the stories they wanted to tell, and more important to them, the truth. It is a concept that they can get their heads around logically, but something they have never seen, or at least believe they have never seen.

When asked to describe their television news or their newspapers, the Chinese people I spoke to said there was no point in watching or reading. There was too little truth in their media and everything was censored. They went on to describe their news media as a propaganda arm of the government, telling me that Chinese journalists garner no respect from the populace at large. Of course they are correct.

I was not surprised by the lack of free press in China. Heck we all know the regime is tyrannical and controlling. What did surprise me was the fact that everyone seems to know the situation. I have never lived in a totalitarian nation so I have nothing to compare it to. Hey, but most Chinese have never lived in a democracy with a free press. So how did they become so savvy to their own situation? This is a question nobody could answer. I got shrugs and remarks like: everyone knows what’s going on. I guess it is the equivalent of an underground economy, in this case an underground information system that passes on the truth to better informed citizens.

What this experience and these discussions raised in me was the strong realization that we in Canada and the West take our press freedom for granted. We seldom give it a second thought. Perhaps that’s a good thing. It speaks to the freedoms we do have. But it also makes me wonder when outlets like Fox News in the U.S. and now Sun TV in Canada play fast and loose with the facts. How much does this demean our system and worse how does it affect the perception of the people who were raised to believe in the facts presented by a free press. And to be fair, it’s not just the Fox’s and the Sun’s. The Iraq War was a textbook case of the major U.S. networks refusing to report the facts of both the political and the military situation leading up to and during the conflict.

The bottom line question all journalists should ask themselves is whether we are killing a good thing and where that will lead in the future. While I was away I actually got to see the now infamous Sun TV interview that Krista Erickson did with the Tory Heritage Minister James Moore. The minister made minced meat of Krista mostly because she would not let the facts get in the way of her story idea. The best line for me in the interview was when Moore said to Erickson that she had very different ideas when she spoke to him as a CBC employee and all she could do was blubber for 20 seconds about where she works today. Had she had her facts right, she might have been on the way to making a reasonable point about the CBC’s dumbed down programming initiatives, but she was far more concerned about spreading misinformation to make a stronger point. It reminded me of Donald trump and the “birthers.”

Two things are happening at the same time and neither one is good. First, journalism is being subverted and dragged down by manipulative practitioners who are only interested in using the media to spread a point of view. If this continues it will bring all journalism into disrepute. Second, an increasingly ignorant population is being fed false information and accepting it as fact. This results in a vicious cycle of increasing ignorance that allows the purveyors of misinformation to be more and more effective.

I wish all of those so-called journalists who refuse to cherish fact based reporting could spend a little time in places like China and Cuba. If they could see how valuable and important free journalism is, perhaps they would be less inclined to subvert it.

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Promises, promises…Sun News

Has there ever been a more hyped new television network than Sun News? After months of build up, promising to change the way Canadians view news and opinion, all I could see and hear was a great big thud.

Sun News is terrible, almost unwatchable. I have spent the last few days tuning in to as much of Sun News as I could stand. Usually I like to wait at least a week before talking about a new show or network. That gives the producers and the talent time to work out the bugs and get some kind of head of steam. On Sun News however, I see no hope of overcoming the problems they have within a week or even a month. Don’t get me wrong, I would like to see the channel succeed. I believe Canadians need a quality news and current affairs channel and we need to hear new and different opinions. I don’t have to agree with the content. I do have to be able to sit down and watch the content. I dare anyone to try to watch Sun News for any length of time.

The problems with Sun News are many. I will attempt to tackle the most basic failures I have seen so far.

My biggest upset is that the channel hypes non-stop and then doesn’t deliver. Almost every commercial break has a promo that talks about the new direction, the fight for freedom, the different way of doing things. So far the content is all too familiar and predictable. I saw the interview with Bob Rae on David Akin’s show, Daily Brief. There wasn’t a single tough question. There was no new angle. This interview could have run on CBC NN or CTV News Channel and felt right at home. It was as boring as any political interview I have seen by Evan Solomon but with the added non-attraction of watching unrelated footage that not only had little to do with the story, but was looped so I could see the same images over-and-over again. Worse still, I saw all the footage earlier covering a phone interview with the Sun Reporter on the campaign trail with Stephen Harper. You can’t start off by selling stale product and expect to stay in business.

Charles Adler did an interview on the first night about Cuba on the anniversary of the Bay of Pigs. Was the guest an expert? An ambassador? A professor? Even a journalist who has covered Cuba? No chance. The interviewee was a rock DJ from Alberta who has taken two vacations in Cuba. At first I thought this was a joke, especially when the DJ said he knew little about any politics, let alone Cuban politics. Sadly it was an attempt at a serious interview but provided neither heat nor light. It amounted to a waste of air time.

These of course are just examples of what I can best describe as third rate television, far less than one expects from a national network. So far the content speaks to a lack of preparedness, a need for far more research, producers and guest bookers who are at best inferior, and journalism that is at best unprofessional.

My second big beef is the incredible lack of on-air talent. Sun News has managed to put together a roster of people who are not ready for prime time on national television. The stumbling and fumbling, even from long time radio host Adler is completely off putting. The inability to find the camera to speak to time-after-time speaks to unprofessionalism that I have seldom seen anywhere, even in the classroom at Ryerson and Centennial College.

Ezra Levant’s non-stop whining and digs at the CBC have made a man I have always thought interesting, into a blowhard and a bore, even when I agree with him. An hour of Ezra, unfocused, unedited, unremitting is a test a strength I am afraid I have failed. Just to make it clear, this is not about left versus right or agreement versus disagreement. I totally agree with Levant about the CBC’s Vote Compass for example, it is wrong-headed and often biased. But a good commentator makes the point in a couple of minutes and doesn’t drone on-and-on for an entire segment repeating the same facts and charges three or four times. Further, Levant’s rants tend to the personal as opposed to a man speaking to national issues. Do I care about his lawsuit in Alberta months after the fact? You’re on the air today, at least try to be relevant.

The other on-air personalities and hosts are no better than Levant and Adler and most are worse. It is a team that has been oversold in ability and experience. It should come as no surprise that they have failed to deliver on the promises of Sun News management and the advertising hype.

I could go on to talk about the garish sets, the lack of enough pictures to tell stories, the poor studio direction, but I think you have already gotten the idea, Sun News is only different in that the level of incompetence far surpasses what we have come to expect from main stream broadcasting and journalism. Sun is not Fox News North. Fox News is hosted and produced by people who know how to do professional television. Even when I hate them, they are entertaining and watchable. Sun is neither. I was hoping for a Canadian network that would push CBC NN and CTV News Channel to improve. So far there is no chance of that. Let’s hope Sun News improves in the near future before it becomes totally irrelevant and fades into the Canadian sunset.

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Lie to Me…the CRTC says it’s okay

Anyone who has paid any attention to the rulings, musings and operations of the Canadian Radio Television and Telecommunications Commission can be excused if they are confused and amazed. Every time I think the CRTC can’t get any worse, they confound me and most fellow Canadians with something crazier than they have ever considered before.

Believe it or not the CRTC has chosen this time to suggest a loosening of the rules that demand truth and accuracy in radio and television news. I know, I know, the first question is why the heck would anyone want less truth and less accuracy? Especially in the days of Fox News and all the havoc that they have wreaked on the American public.

Stacey Hannem Assistant Professor, Criminology Laurier Brantford wrote this in the Brantford Expositor:

The CRTC is currently in the process of proposing changes to its regulations for news media which prohibit the publication of “false and misleading” statements in the guise of “news.”
Under the proposed changes, media outlets would be prohibited from broadcasting statements that they know are false and misleading statements only if said statement also “endangers or is likely to endanger the lives, health or safety of the public.”
Let’s get this straight. This means that the CRTC is willing to allow media outlets to broadcast known falsehoods as news; that is, opinion, slander, and outright lies, as long as they think it won’t hurt anyone.
I ask you, how do they know which lies will be harmful? Can they predict which lies will cause unnecessary stigma, divisiveness in communities or between ethnic groups? Can they predict which lies will cause unnecessary fear among the public? Can they predict which lies will cause Canadians to vote in ways that they might not otherwise and completely change the political and social trajectory of our nation?
How can they define or predict the harm that will be caused by the publication of lies as news?

So far as I know, nobody, no organization has publicly asked for these changes. It is possible that some broadcasters have secretly demanded the right to be less than honest in their reporting, but I am sure they would never make this request publicly. Why? Simple, because then we would all know or be free to conclude that the broadcaster that requested the changes was willing to lie or bend the truth and the result being that the broadcaster would lose all credibility and hopefully all their viewers or listeners.

So I ask again why? Without any obvious explanation one has to wonder about the fact that the new right wing talk and all-news station is about to hit the airwaves this year. Will the new rules allow them to emulate Fox and publish inaccurate stories? Fox is still questioning President Obama’s birthplace even though the facts have been clear for more than two years. Is this unfair to the new television station? Perhaps it is, but pundits and analysts are scratching their heads trying to figure out where this came from and they are looking for the obvious when no other explanation is forthcoming from the CRTC. One Toronto Star letter writer put it this way:

It is bad enough that the CRTC is allowing a politicized Fox-like station to mount its operations in Canada, a country so admired for its standards of truthfulness and values that should not be undermined.

We are the country that should be emulated, not lowered to the standards of others. It is worrisome that the CRTC would contemplate watering down the requirement of broadcasters to air factual – not misleading information.

Janet Denton, London Ont.

Janet gets it even if the CRTC does not. But that’s not all the CRTC has been up to. Konrad Von Finckenstein’s mates have decided that Bell and Rogers are not making enough money from their internet services. Hey I know we all feel sorry for the poor sods at Bell and Rogers. It’s tough to keep squeezing more billions from consumers when there are so few new services they can offer.

So Bell and Rogers, I presume, got together with Konrad and his pals at the CRTC and came up with a great plan. Let’s allow the big internet providers to charge based on usage. We’ll call it “usage based-billing” and we will let Bell, Rogers and Telus force it down the throats of all their customers, especially the small ISPs (Internet Service Providers) who buy access for their service from the big boys. We’re not talking about small changes either. One company, Tekksavvy, which allowed its customers to use 200 gigabytes per month has advised its users that they will only be allowed 25 gigabytes from now on. That’s 1/8th for the same price. Where does that leave their customers? Canadian internet subscribers will be paying more for less in the future. That means any small company, hey, any large company, that depends on or uses the internet will have its costs driven up substantially. Guess who will end up paying for that in the end? Too easy. Us. The consumers.

Here we are in a country that already sees us paying way more than our competitors in the U.S. for mobile phone services and the internet and what does the CRTC do? Allow the corporate giants who are already making huge profits to gouge us for even more.

Peri Maric of Vancouver said all that has to be said in a letter to The Globe and Mail:

It’s a repugnant corporate money grab, sanctioned by the federal government, directly aimed at exploiting…our citizens, the most active national internet community in the world.

The mandate of the CRTC, I checked their website, clearly states that they are supposed to “serve the Canadian public.” It also says, “the CRTC works to serve the needs and interests of citizens…” Yeah right. When does that start happening?

Maybe the time has come to reform the CRTC or completely replace it with an agency charged with the primary responsibility of protecting consumers. The telephone companies and the cable companies already share very close to a national monopoly on all forms of communications and they are expanding their holdings with the help of the CRTC. Their power needs to checked not enhanced by the federal government.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Need for Speed

A little while ago, it was a few days after the” balloon boy” incident caught the attention of CNN and erupted into the leading story on every major news station and newscast in America, a friend of mine from Boston opined that since the all-news networks came into existence Americans seem to be less well informed. Year after year since CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and CNBC have become major sources of news coverage the American people seem to know less and less. He asked the pertinent question: Is all-news television making America stupid?

From the Canadian side of the border it has always seemed that Americans are incredibly ignorant of the world around them. Perhaps that’s just the way super powers are. I’ve heard Czechs and Poles say the same sorts of thing about the Soviet Union and Russians.

More likely there is more than a little truth to this idea. What the all-news networks have created is a need for speed. Getting on the air first and running with a story is the be-all of CNN and Fox News. This has resulted in journalists not doing their primary jobs as journalists: verifying their sources and facts to be true and accurate. The excuse: who has the time anymore?

The biggest losers in all this rush to air are the viewers, listeners and readers of news. We are reaching a point where the consumer does not know who to trust. Heck the “balloon boy” was the lead on ABC, CBS and NBC. It wasn’t just that the story ran, it was that it ran without question. Looking at that strange silver flying object I know I wondered “where could a kid be in there?” I didn’t see a bulge. I didn’t see feet or arms trying to find a way out. It seemed highly implausible. Yet there were no serious questions on any newscast I viewed until after the incident ended and the boy was found in his own attic. Why? Why ruin a great story is only thing I can think of.

The “balloon boy” wasn’t the only story in recent weeks to draw questions about how U.S. news operations are doing their jobs. A much scarier incident for the public as well as all journalists took place on September 11th, the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. CNN ran with the story that there was an impending terrorist attack in Washington, DC.

Here’s how Jamie McIntyre in BS Detector, IMHO, Media Watch, saw the incident:

What fooled CNN into “breaking news” mode was realistic-sounding radio
transmissions from the Coast Guard as it conducted a routine drill to
practice procedures to be used in the event a private boat attempted
to breach the security zone it set up on the river.
There’s an irony here. CNN is one of the few networks that still
routinely monitors police radios to get a jump on news. It’s a bit
of a lost art. As an old radio reporter I listened to scanners all
the time. And they produced plenty of scoops for me over the years,
but as any good police reporter knows, you never, NEVER, report
information heard over a scanner without getting verification. Never.
It’s basic journalism 101. And it would seem that CNN, believing it
would get a jump on a potential major story, violated this inviolate
rule. (When I was at CNN I got plenty of tips from our desk that came
from overheard police or fire department transmissions, but that’s
what they were – “tips,” to be checked out. Not “initial reports” to
be put on the air only to be corrected later.)
Now CNN is certainly not the first major news organization that has
allowed its competitive instincts to overwhelm its better judgment.
Nor will it be the last. But how this story played out illustrates a
number of ways the “new media” environment has lowered standards that
are already hovering dangerously close to the ground.

There have been dozens of similar cases. Recently a media conference by a man claiming to be from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce resulted in Reuters, the New York Times and the Washington Post rushing to publish his astounding pro-environment statement. Fox Business News was actually on air reporting on his remarks when the real Chamber of Commerce folks arrived to put an end to the hoax. It turned out the faker was a man who routinely pulls anti-corporate pranks. None of the journalists there bothered to question his credentials.

Yes we have the tools to report almost instantaneously from anywhere on the globe at any time. But if we don’t use those tools properly, what’s the point? Why has speed become more important than accuracy? I suppose the answer is self evident, competition and ratings. When there’s an election to cover, or there’s an economic crisis, people will tune in to all-news television thus driving the ratings up. On a ho-hum day of normal news there is no reason to switch from ESPN or Oprah. So getting the big story and hyping it is a simple strategy to get viewers to tune in. If you are wrong, so what? So long as you drive the ratings up. Here’s more of what Jamie McIntyre had to say about the Coast Guard incident on September 11th:

Here are some factors present in today’s media universe that
contributed to, and culminated in, CNN’s inexcusable lapse:
Too Good to Check?
The first and biggest mistake CNN made was rushing to air without
waiting to get confirmation from the Coast Guard. This seems so
basic that it’s mindboggling how it could happen. But here’s why.
CNN absolutely believed it had a big story on its hands, and it had
heard it with its own ears. Everything fed that perception. The
Coast Guard was saying nothing. If it were only a drill, usually they
would know that right away. But if something were going on, only then
would authorities be reluctant to give a statement until they could
gather the facts. I’m sure if the people listening to the police
radio had heard any hint that indicated the event might be an
exercise, it would have prompted CNN to employ more caution. But
everyone in the newsroom listened as the radio crackled with the
chilling transmission, “We have expended 10 rounds.” Adrenaline
flowed. The President was nearby. It was Sept 11th. Twenty minutes
had passed and the Coast Guard seemed to be stonewalling, insisting it
still didn’t know what was going on. Finally CNN could contain itself
no longer. Convinced it was sitting on a major story, the folks in
charge rolled the dice and went with it, and figured they would get
confirmation later.
First with the Scoop, First with the Correction: Win/Win!
CNN knew it didn’t have the full story. But in the internet age, no
one waits for the full story anymore. Not even newspapers, which
publish quick writes on their web pages to stay competitive long
before a more thoughtful version is published in the paper. In fact
the 24/7 information marketplace seems to reward rushing to air or the
web with initial, incomplete, and often inaccurate reports. This is
not seen as irresponsibly spreading information before it’s confirmed,
nailed down, or fleshed out, rather it’s seen as getting on the record
with the news that something is happening. Then, as the story is
calibrated, corrected, downscaled, and sometimes dropped by the end of
the day, each revision is treated as a separate scoop. So instead of
scoring just one “first” with a single accurate, complete report, the
news organization racks up a series of “firsts” intended to keep the
viewers/readers coming back for more. First with the bad report,
first with the better report, and finally first with real report.
It’s a win/win/win!

Another insidious aspect of the “rush to be wrong” trend is the
speculation that fills the information vacuum until facts can be
unearthed. In this respect, all-news television can reinforce the
worst tendencies of its reporters. It is fed by the desire of
producers to keep the coverage going on a breaking story even when
they have run out of fresh information. They call their
correspondents and contributors with this question, “Can you play?”
Meaning can you come on the air and say something about what’s going
on. The standard here is, can you “say something,” not “do you have
something worthwhile to say?” This results in a lot of people
babbling on the air who should be out checking the facts, instead of
offering facile and fatuous observations. CNN did this by calling on
its experts and correspondents to weigh in even when they obviously
knew nothing about what was going on. As a friend of mine, a veteran
reporter, commented to me, “What I did not hear anyone say was,
‘according to my sources at the FBI, or according my sources at the
Pentagon…’ “.

As the ratings stand now, CNN has plummeted to 4th place among the all-news networks. They have, for the most part, taken the high road when it comes to opinion and politics. That worked for them during the primaries and election campaign, but now, without the big story, they can’t compete with the bombast and bull over at Fox. It seems, in America you can’t draw an audience with even handedness when there is no big story. The big lies about health care and President Obama’s roots lend themselves to the windbags at Fox. The result is that CNN has had to sensationalize to be noticed.

Are we seeing this in Canada? So far, only to the extent that we have so few resources outside the country that we are dependent on the news people at CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS and Reuters, the very people who are committing the lapses. I am also worried about the new CBC National and CBC’s all-news television channel. They too need ratings. They are resorting to far too much to the talking reporter as opposed to the reporting reporter. What I mean is that they are asking reporters to go on air and tell us what they are hearing rather than what they know. It is a dangerous way of doing business. And in Canada it is not only done for ratings purposes, it is also done to fill time. How can you fill a newscast with relevant news if the report is not yet completed? Simple, have the reporter come on air and spout innuendo for a minute. The viewer gets the impression of news even when there is none.

Is there an answer to this sorry state of affairs in journalism? I suspect we are in the middle of a revolution in news gathering business. How the internet, TV, radio and print settle out in the next few years will determine where journalism will land. One can only hope that journalism goes back into in the hands of the journalism professionals, not the bloggers, sensationalists, accountants, ad salespeople, TV doctors and bureaucrats who are all playing too large a role today.

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Time for Al Jazeera

Many years ago when I was producing the news at CBC Toronto I found myself in a typically ferocious friendly argument with one of the smartest people on my staff, a man who was a close friend then and remains so to this day. He was very upset that I was planning to have Ernst Zundel on one of our programs. Zundel, of course, was one of Canada’s leading Nazi supporters and Holocaust deniers. My friend argued that we were giving a platform to a dangerous point of view and that hate speech had no place on Canadian airwaves.

I believed that exposing Zundel’s remarks to the public would do more to shine a light on his inane points of view and stupidity that this man represented than censoring him. I pointed out that the Nazi’s were banned in Germany in the ‘20s and look how well that worked out.

The irony was that my friend is Christian and I am Jewish, although to be fair, neither of us is particularly religious.

I tell this story because of the fight over whether Al Jazeera should be allowed to enter Canada as a cable and satellite station. I cannot say I know much more than what I have read about the network. I have heard groups argue for and against Al Jazeera’s availability to Canadians.

Those against are quick to point out the anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli rhetoric they say is a hallmark of Al Jazeera in Arabic. I have never heard the same said about their English language service. I suspect it is pro-Palestinian, pro-Arab and pro-Muslim, but we allow U.S. news into Canada and I don’t believe Fox news is any less slanted and unfair, probably it’s a lot more biased.

Those for Al Jazeera are quick to point out that Tony Burman, the former head of CBC News, a Canadian, is running Al Jazeera, so how bad can it be. Tony was responsible for some pretty bad newscasts in Canada, but that’s not what the proponents are saying. They believe a Canadian at the helm of Al Jazeera proves it is not unfair, anti-West and irresponsible. Having seen some Middle East coverage from CBC under Tony Burman it’s not an argument I would be comfortable with. In any case who cares? Since when is balance and fairness in news coverage a requirement for getting on the air in Canada? I have already mentioned Fox, but the coverage of the Iraq War by ABC, NBC and CBS was egregious. It could have been written and reported by the State Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Coverage of the Separatist Movement in Canada was no better, at least on the English side, and the War in Afghanistan seems a-ok with our three top television networks, see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. You know them better as CBC, CTV and Global.

What most folks are really saying is that you can be unfair and unbalanced so long as we agree with the side you are taking.

All these years after my Ernst Zundel debate I have not changed my mind. I think the best way for Canadians to understand where other people are coming from is to hear their points of view. I don’t have to agree. But I certainly cannot agree or disagree if I don’t know what they are saying. The Arab viewpoint is sorely lacking in Canada. All we get is coverage of the coverage. I would like to see what Al Jazeera is saying about Obama, Israel, terrorism, the troubles in Pakistan and perhaps even Canadian Middle East policy under Stephen Harper.

Most of the rest of the world already gets Al Jazeera either in English or Arabic. Heck, Israeli’s can watch the network. What are we afraid of? Are our beliefs and opinions that fragile? If Al Jazeera were to say that Jews control U.S. foreign policy and the International Monetary Fund, as I have read they have reported in Arabic, will well educated Canadians automatically believe it? I think not. Some bigots may use Al Jazeera to bolster their beliefs but they will find their path to bigotry whether Al Jazeera is available or not.

I am told that, in fact, quite a few Jewish journalists work for the English Al Jazeera network. I don’t know whether this is true. I do know that many Israeli politicians have gone on Al Jazeera to try to get their viewpoints across to Arabs.

Let’s grow up as a country and live up to the standards we say we believe in. Freedom of speech is always a good thing. Knowledge is always a good thing. Understanding your enemies as well as your friends is always important. A diversity of opinion in a land as diverse as our own should be a given. If Al Jazeera screws up there will be plenty of Canadian voices willing to point out their failures. If they break our libel or hate laws we can prosecute them. But muzzling them hurts us more than it hurts them, it’s time, bring on Al Jazeera.

Filed under: Media Commentary, Political 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.

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