I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

Another Prime Ministerial Love-in

Every year around this time I look forward to the annual CTV News and CBC News interviews with the Prime Minister. They have become as much a part of the festive season as Christmas trees, carols and indigestion. Each year I hope for the kind of interview I remember from the past, but as time goes by I wonder if these sit-downs were ever any good. Is this a case of false memory syndrome on my part? I wonder.

This year’s first Prime Ministerial gabfest was with the new anchor at CTV, Lisa LaFlamme. Anyone who is a regular reader of my blog knows I have been a fan of Lisa’s since long before she came to network television. I was looking forward to some real journalistic third degree. Lisa has always struck me as fearless, therefor I thought she would be all over Stephen Harper. Sadly it was not to be.

Look, I know it was head and shoulders better than last year’s anemic effort where Robert Fife and Lloyd Robertson tossed softballs at Harper and never asked a follow-up question when it was obvious the prime Minister was dodging or ignoring the original query. The two senior CTV reporters embarrassed themselves and their network by skipping many of the most controversial subjects of the year.

A year ago, Peter Mansbridge’s one-on-one with Stephen Harper was only slightly better. He got around to all of the important issues, but you may see a pattern developing here, he too missed every opportunity to ask a follow up question when the Prime Minister was fudging or refusing to get specific.

So this time it was Lisa LaFlamme’s turn. Her first. I knew it was going to be painful almost from the start. Her first few questions were about the economy, immigration and health. Every question was too long, most double-barreled, and each one contained a way out for Harper. LaFlamme seemed to be saying, before I ask this question, and please forgive me for asking it, understand I am a nice person and I won’t force you to get specific. She looked like she was there to please the Prime Minister, not the Canadian public. It hit bottom when she prefaced an economy question by pointing out how tough a time it is to govern before she moving on to say that Harper is seen as a strong fiscal manager by most Canadians. Hello, who wrote this stuff, the P.M. press aides?

Needless to say Harper’s answers were typically long on generalities and almost completely devoid of specifics. Also, needless to say, there were never any follow-ups and at no time was he asked to explain.

From here the interview got a little better. Peter MacKay’s seeming spendthrift ways, and the Arab Spring were broached. These were the kinds of subjects Fife and Robertson ignored a year ago. Here the questions were asked at least, even though Harper’s explanations were never questioned.

The came Kyoto and the environment, on this subject LaFlamme developed a backbone. When Harper tried to explain that he got out of Kyoto because the biggest polluters had not signed on, she asked if he was blaming China and India for the environmental problems. She also asked Harper whether it was incumbent on Canada to show a little leadership on the subject.

LaFlamme followed this up by pressing Harper on the Eurozone crisis and the global economy. There was good stuff here about selling Canada’s oil to China and India, the Keystone Pipeline and the Canada-EEC free trade talks. When Harper said the negotiations were proceeding towards an agreement, LaFlamme asked what the Harper Government had put on the table. She didn’t get an answer, but she did ask the pertinent question.

Then it was back to the love-in. Harper was congratulated for endorsing a state funeral for Jack Layton and was seriously let off the hook for his government’s handling of the Attawapiskat situation.

The final quarter of the interview was with Laureen and Stephen Harper together. This section was filled with the usual People Magazine material: Harper’s kids (they seem so normal), life in the age of Facebook (the kids can’t post there for safety reasons), Laureen’s ability to comment (Stephen is almost always right but we do talk at breakfast), Christmas shopping and who cooks the Christmas dinner.

All-in-all a very pedestrian interview that shed little or no light on the troubles of the past year or the government’s expectations for the year to come. To prove how un-newsy the interview was, on a night when re-gifting and the World Junior Hockey Championships took up a too large portion of the newscast, CTV couldn’t find a single clip or highlight for their national newscast.

We get so few opportunities, especially from this Prime Minister, to spend the kind of time it takes to do an in-depth interview, it seems criminal to me to waste it without asking the really tough questions and demanding answers, or at least pointing out when the answers are not forthcoming.

I will give Lisa LaFlamme another chance because it was her first solo try, but my expectations will be for a much better effort next year.

P.S. The production values left a lot to be desired too. The camera pointed at Harper was too high and therefor always looked down on him and the camera was placed so that Harper was always in ¾ profile. Lisa’s camera was pointed directly at her, they should have done the same for the Prime Minister. Also, as the interview went on Harper started to sweat, especially above the upper lip, and he became shiny in the TV lights. I’m certain they could have paused to powder his face. They didn’t.

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TV doesn’t know Jack

Anyone can be a great manager, boss or journalist when everything is going right and one is able to plan for the events of the day. It’s when the manure hits the fan that the real management and journalism stars  begin to shine.

This has been an amazing week of news in Canada and abroad. There was a terrible plane crash in Nunavut, a devastating tornado wiping out large parts of Goderich, Ontario, the end of the line for the cruel and criminal Ghadafi regime in Libya, and as if all of that is not enough to fill the plates of our national newscasts and newspapers we were all shocked and surprised by the announcement of the death of Jack Layton.

That’s an awful lot of important news to consider.

Any journalist worth his or her salt lives for this kind of news week. It is always better to deal with too much to cover rather than be stumped on how you are going to fill your newspaper or newscast.

In other words, this week was an opportunity to shine.

For my money the brightest star on the block was the Toronto Star. I don’t see the local dailies from across Canada so forgive me if I missed some excellent work from outside Toronto. (Let me know what I missed.)

The Star was all over the Jack Layton story. They had it covered from almost every angle. The best story of any I have seen was a touching description of the bond between Jack and his wife Olivia Chow by Linda Diebel. But there were many terrific stories in the paper about the man, his politics, the future of his party, and the future of Canada. It was a great effort that proved to me that The Toronto Star editors are on top of their game, thoughtful and thorough, even in the face of a fast breaking story at a particularly busy time.

The Globe and Mail did a pretty good job too. They too had most of the angles covered but their material felt more institutional. The Globe stories were on target but failed to get personal or capture the sadness that Layton’s passing brought to Canada and Canadians. I must admit, had I not read the Star’s coverage I would have been impressed with the work of The Globe.

That all being said, where the heck was television? Are too many people on summer vacation? Was the staff sunning itself on a downtown patio sipping lattes?

You knew it was going to be a terrible day at CBC when the best guest that CBC NN could get in the morning was Peter Mansbridge. My first question was why isn’t he hosting the thing? My second, why is an announcer being interviewed when the city and the country is filled with people who were close to Jack Layton and knew him intimately?

Neither CBC News nor CTV distinguished themselves. Both networks resorted to the cheapest and easiest form of reporting, I won’t call it journalism, talking to people in the street and trying to coax reactions from them. I’ve always hated this. It’s unthinking, uncreative, unjournalistic.

Both networks did the big obituary, and both did it well. Heck the material was all there. The story line was obvious.

The CBC especially took a turn that showed how unprepared they were and how little thought they put into their coverage. If all you can come up with is a commentary by Rex Murphy that was as usual for him, long on words and short on insight or emotion, I worry about their commitment to their work. Then, to add the political panel of regulars, people I like by the way, to discus the subject of Jack Layton’s death as if it were another political turn in the never ending twists that politics take in Ottawa, what were you thinking? Where was your imagination?

CTV and CBC News should be forced to read this morning’s Toronto Star. Perhaps they will begin to understand the possibilities that were open to them, the personal and the political.

It was a sad day for all Canadians, whether you voted for the NDP or one of the other parties. Jack’s loss is greater than his position as Leader of the Opposition. It is the compelling story of a man who was just beginning to make his mark on the history of his country. A man with a seemingly great future, lost at far too young an age. His loss deserved far more than the formulaic response that I saw on CBC and CTV. Jack deserved coverage that matched his thoughtfulness and humanity. On TV at least, he didn’t get it.

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Bland on Bland

The other day I was reading an article in one of the newspapers that was basically an interview with the U.S. actor with the highest TVQ on television. TVQ is another name for star quality. An actor the viewers respond to positively. In this case they respond more positively than any other actor regularly seen on television. It was a big surprise to me, and unless you read the same piece, it will be a big surprise to you too. It’s Pauley Perrette. She plays the tall goth scientific investigator on NCIS. With her crazy clothes, spider web tattoos and huge platform shoes it is hard to believe that the character she plays, let alone the actor could be so popular in a country as right wing and closed minded as the United States.

Ms. Perrette’s popularity, and the popularity of the other stars of the show, especially Mark Harmon and Michael Weatherly, goes a long way to explaining why a show that has seldom had good reviews and is generally ignored by the entertainment media is on most weeks the most watched drama on American television.

A long time ago, a very smart television producer taught me that most viewers watch television in one of two places…either their living room or their bedroom. He went on to explain that nobody invites anyone into their home that they are not very comfortable with. He further pointed out, if you like someone you will have them back to your house more and more often. The lesson is obvious. If you want to produce a successful television show, the stars should be the type of people that the viewers want to spend time with.

A few years ago at the Cannes TV Market, MIP, I sat in on a discussion of how reality TV is produced. Some of the top reality producers explained how they draw in the big audiences. They explained that they send every day’s rushes back to focus groups to test the TVQ of all the contestants. What they found, and the way the show works, is that everyone on the show who is well liked gets to stay. They adapted the TVQ theory a little too because everyone the audience hates also gets to play longer. Their formula gets rid of the players who are bland, who do not create any response at all. How they get rid of the players they don’t want is grist for another story. Suffice it to say that they manipulate the cast to try to end up with a man versus a woman as the final pair, and if all goes right, one contestant the viewers will cheer for and another the audience will cheer against. Perhaps this explains the popularity of House.

So what does all of this have to do with television news in Canada?

It seems to me that the people who produce news and current affairs in this country have yet to learn the lessons that drama, reality and comedy programmers have known for years.

It’s not that News producers don’t know. Ask anyone who works at any of the major newscasts and they will tell you who their stars are. In most cases they will explain that their stars are great journalists, but if you let the conversation flow you will find they will begin to talk about the great performers. The people with personality that shine through the TV screen and brighten up a room. At CBC Adrienne Arsenault stands out today. She is immediately recognizable. Sure, she does a great job, but she also has high TVQ. In the past Mike Duffy was a star even greater than his ability as a journalist or his girth. At CTV I see more and more of Omar Sachedina. Yes he’s a talented reporter, but he is also a performer who is welcome in the homes of Canadian news viewers. Craig Oliver was one of the great reporting stars that CTV had. Everyone knew Craig in the same way they knew Mike Duffy. CTV has also had Harvey Kirck and Lloyd Robertson. You couldn’t walk on any street in Canada and not see immediately how people responded positively to them.

Look closely at CBC and CTV news however, and you will not be blown away by the personalities you see night after night. For the most part you would be hard pressed to recognize them on the street if a camera was not pointed at them. I sometimes wonder how some of the very bland people became on air television reporters. Was it by default? They were, like Mount Everest, there. What’s the process that allows such nondescript people to get these few and important jobs telling the stories of Canada to Canadians?

One incident speaks of the failure of Canadian news broadcasters more than any other to me. When Pamela Wallin was whizzed from CBC News one of the greatest opportunities to create audience for The National opened up. The person with the highest TVQ at CBC news at the time was Wendy Mesley. If ever there was a true news star at CBC it was Wendy. Add to that, she is a terrific journalist and a good interviewer. She was a natural to replace Pamela. Oh, and as if all that is not enough, she had just divorced Peter Mansbridge. The pairing would have earned audiences off the charts for news in Canada in my estimation. People would tune in just to see how the former couple got along on air. The great journalism would have been a bonus. But it was not to be. I have asked CBC people why it never happened and have heard all kinds of answers, none of which have made any sense. I do know, however, if it was NBC, ABC, or CBS Peter and Wendy would have certainly been co-hosting and perhaps, the ratings they created together might have saved The National from the changes that led to the predicament that CBC News faces today.

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Election Coverage: Bland Beats Boring

So far today I have talked to four people about the election night coverage. They range in age from 31 to mid-sixties. I know, this is not a scientific poll, but the fact that everyone is saying the same thing, including me, I feel very comfortable in asking the question: how could such an exciting night politically result in such lackluster coverage?

The only thing that kept audiences awake was the fascinating results. The news teams at CBC and CTV did little to add to the heat or the light. The performances sometimes rose to mediocre.

The worst offenders were the hosts. I have been a fan of Lloyd Robertson’s ability to “traffic cop” the big events for three decades. Last night Lloyd stumbled and bumbled his way through the night. At times it felt like he got more names of ridings wrong than right. Worse, he could not read his own graphics and passed on information that was at odds with what we were seeing. It seemed to me that either Lloyd was having an off night or he is past his best before date. Either way it resulted in one of the worst CTV election nights I have ever seen. In the past CTV seldom competed with CBC for pure information and analytical comment. Where they always won was by capturing the excitement of the night and presenting it in the most entertaining fashion. Not last night.

Peter Mansbridge may have had an even worse time but I am not sure it was his fault. Peter seemed hesitant all night like he didn’t know where he was going next. I have to believe that the people in the control room were slow in deciding where to go and left Peter hanging time and again. He hemmed and hawed all evening before passing the mic to another reporter or analyst. The CBC set didn’t help him either. When he was talking to camera someone in the background was managing to distract the viewer away from what he was saying. Rex Murphy spent the first hour of the show overtly munching on his dinner right behind Peter. Others on the set seemed to be watching and staring at the show instead of getting ready for their next appearance.

Having said that, I think CBC did win the night. They were saved by one expected source and one source that was a big surprise.

It should have come as no surprise that CBC’s “At Issue” panel was excellent. Time after time Chantal Hebert, Andrew Coyne and Allan Gregg brought perspective and understanding to what was going on. They were a ray of light on a very dark journalistic night. My only complaint is that the CBC did not go to them nearly enough once it became clear that the Tories would win a majority and that the NDP would be the Official Opposition.

More surprising was the wonderful job that Diana Swain did. She may have had the most difficult task of the night, reporting on more than 100 Ontario ridings that were splitting crazily among the three major parties. Every time Peter went to her she was clear, concise and had information that was important and relevant. She was by far the best performing CBC journalist on the night.

The worst performer on set was easily Evan Solomon. He added nothing and did it badly. He mangled his messages to the point that they were unintelligible. Did anyone understand his point about “holds still to come” for the Tories? Evan has proven on his daily show on CBC NN that he is not a political journalist. Last night he cemented that opinion in my mind.

As poor as the CBC coverage was, CTV was worse. Pamela Wallin was a major disappointment on the panel. Besides being a born again Tory she was a longtime professional TV host. Still, she managed to bore us with platitudes all evening while adding little or no insight into what was giving Harper his majority and how the Conservatives would use the majority to remake the country. Judy Wasylycia-Leis was even less informative. On a night where she should have been reveling in the NDP gains she managed to make one point and repeat it every time she appeared: great news, the Bloc is gone from Quebec. David Smith was the most useless member of a bad panel. He needed to explain the Liberal losses with more than a shrug and a promise that the Grits would rise again. Only Antonia Maioni was a terrific panelist. She was there to comment on Quebec and she did this with aplomb and the insight that was missing from the rest of the panel.

CTV made a huge error in putting Craig Oliver in Calgary at Harper’s headquarters. It’s not that he did a poor job, in fact he was great as usual. He brings the kind of experience and enthusiasm that makes election night coverage special. He should have been sitting beside Lloyd rather than the always deadly boring Robert Fife. Fife may know his stuff but he has little ability to rise above his material and excite the audience about what is taking place.

CTV also had two people who deserve kudos for their performances. Nik Nanos never failed to entertain while explaining the nuances of the vote and Omar Sachedina was a revelation. Sachedina was doing the same sort of thing that Evan Solomon was doing on the CBC coverage. The difference was obvious. Sachedina always had timely, insightful information to report and he did it clearly and engagingly. Of all the people on CTV’s set, I would rank him the most likely to be a star in the future.

One more point I want to make. After Michael Ignatieff’s speech both CBC and CTV panelists spoke at length about what a brilliant and great guy Iggy is. They also reported that Ignatieff, in fact, ran a great campaign. Besides the obvious fact that the Liberals came in third with under 20% of the vote, I think it should be noted that for 37 days CBC and CTV seldom reported on Ignatieff’s strong campaign. While Harper was allowed to get away with nothing but photo-ops and canned messages, and while Jack Layton’s surge was stuff of headlines, Michael Ignatieff was just the guy who couldn’t connect. For an entire campaign the networks fell in love with polls and forgot to report the stories. As has become usual in Canada, the horse race was more important than the issues. I believe the network reporting has done a great disservice to the Canadian voting public. Hey, maybe the results would have been the same had CBC and CTV done a better job, but we’ll never know.
(For more on the coverage please read Jeffery Dvorkin’s blog: And Now the Details. nowthedetails.blogspot.com)

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A Royal Pain

Here we are on the eve of what could be one of the most momentous elections in Canadian history, an election with two incredible possible results, either one of which could change the very fabric of the country. And where are our top journalists? They are sitting thousands of miles away in London covering an event that has nothing to do with journalism and everything to do with star power and gossip.

As Canada prepares to elect a Tory majority that could swing the country further to the right than it has ever been, or failing that, to make Jack Layton the first social democratic Prime Minister supported in an alliance or even a coalition with the floundering Liberals, Peter Mansbridge, Lisa Laflamme and Dawna Friesen are off covering the royal wedding Of William and Kate.

I suppose I should make my personal beliefs known here. I don’t like the royal family. I despise the monarchy. I don’t believe anyone should have the right to their government backed job by virtue of who their parents are or were. Further I believe the British royals to be an inbred and stupid family who never fail to do the wrong thing or say something stupid. I know, I have heard all the stories about the Queen and how great she is. It’s a crock. This is a woman who never understood the importance of Diana and had to be forced into taking part in her funeral. She is the mother of a man who once professed that he wanted to be a tampon so that he could be that close to his lover. Her daughter is a joke in Britain for everything but her ability to ride horses. Both her children have divorced. Elizabeth is one of the richest women in the world but that doesn’t stop her from squeezing millions and millions of dollars out of the British taxpayers annually…even in a recession, even when the British economy is in terrible trouble.

Okay even without all of that bitterness, I have to wonder what the heck is going on when in the middle of an election campaign every major network in Canada is sending some of their best political and reportorial talent to cover an event for which there is little to say other than nice dress. I think the folks who host the Santa Claus Parade, or the nightly entertainment shows would be the best able to cover the events in London. They know how to comment on the clothing of the bride and her bridesmaids. They revel in the pomp and circumstance of the rich and famous. They marvel at the bejeweled guests. They love to gossip about who was invited and who was left off the invite list. I ask you, is this really a job for Peter Mansbridge?

Just so you know, I produced the coverage of the last royal wedding for CTV, you know, the one with Charles “the tampon” and Diana. Let me tell you from experience, journalism is all but banned from the coverage. Most of the cameras covering the events will be BBC pool cameras. The BBC camera operators will be working under strict rules that ban them from shooting anything other than the official events. There will probably be demonstrations against the royal family, British involvement in wars in the Middle East and even the possibility of ant-poverty groups demonstrating against the massive waste of money that could be put to better use. You will not see these events, no matter how large they get. Even if they interrupt the proceedings, the cameras will look the other way.

The U.S. nets will probably have some of their own cameras on the streets in case there is a real story, but the Canadians are not likely to want to cover anything but the lovely nuptials. The other stories will be saved for later, much later, when The National or CTV News come on the air more than half a day later.

The truth is that a royal wedding is a tourist event in Britain. It’s a way of separating the rubes from their hard earned dollars. The British government, in cahoots with the royals, try to plan at least one event a year, preferably in the tourist season, to draw big crowds of tourists to London and Britain. That’s okay, we would do the same if we had Liz and her family living in Ottawa. The question I have is: how does this wedding festival morph into a journalistic story that takes up half of our daily newspapers, a large percentage of our television news coverage and more importantly, detracts from the real news of the day?

Interestingly I have never met a Canadian journalist who wanted to cover a royal wedding. It is akin to being assigned to cover the Easter Parade. There’s no story. It’s just pretty pictures. The news bosses are less upset about coverage because they believe it will bring in big audiences and help to sell their news packages and news stars. In the past this was a given. The good news today is that recent polls suggest that most Canadians don’t care. A majority say they would rather watch a political debate than a royal wedding. Congratulations Canada, perhaps we are growing up as a free and democratic country. Maybe if enough of us ignore the wedding this time, we won’t be subjected to this crass spectacle the next time one rolls around.

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CBC and the talent deficit

“So it appears Laura di Battista will be the next “outside the CBC hire.” She’ll take over the afternoon show on radio, probably early in the new year.

“So in the past few months the powers-that-be have hired Dwight Drummond (City) and Anne-Marie Mediwake (Global), Tony Parsons (BCTV) – never mind the stream of City people over the years (Stroumboulopoulos, Richler, Laurie Brown).

“Does anyone else see a strange pattern of CBC News dismissing the competition with contempt, and then turning around and hiring their on-air talent? Why doesn’t the CBC have these people in its system if it’s so important to them – or is the CBC’s system so flawed that it doesn’t have people with the type of on-air experience/talent/look that is what management believes it needs to compete?

“Our news programs on TV and radio are now so close in content and look to the private stations that there’s almost no difference – even editorially … especially editorially.

“Funnily enough the woman that hosts the extremely popular Cityline (Tracy Moore) was a reporter at CBLT who was continually turned down for a full-time job.”

This was an email I received recently from a very concerned and highly respected CBC employee. It made me think about the history of mistakes the bosses at CBC have made in dismantling local news.

Let me start with a little bit of history. In the ‘50s CBC Television was the only game in town. Many call it the golden age of CBC-TV. It was a time of experimentation. New shows, new kinds of programming, live dramas and of course the building of local news teams in markets from coast to coast. The network and the medium were growing. Personalities were being created…Wayne and Shuster, Juliette, Percy Saltsman, heck even the actor who played the Esso dealer on Hockey Night in Canada, Murray Westgate, became a big star across the country. Wherever CBC opened a local station they created a local news program and a local news team.

For the next three decades the local news became the training ground for some of the finest television journalists that this country has known. People like Mike Duffy, David Halton, Peter Kent, Eric Malling, Peter Mansbridge, Wendy Mesley, Craig Oliver, Steve Paikin and Paul Workman to name just a small fraction. From the ‘50s to the mid ‘80s if you wanted to know who the reporting stars of the future were going to be you had to tune into the local CBC Newscasts in Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina, St. John’s, Vancouver and the rest of the country. So what happened?

In 1984 and 1985 the federal government began to cut the CBC’s budgets. What followed was a massive blunder. The Vice President of CBC English, Denis Harvey, decided that in order to save the budget of the CBC’s national news service, he would take a butcher knife to the budgets of the local news. He misunderstood two very important facts at the time. The first was that local news had double the viewers of The National. Yes it was spread across more than a dozen CBC stations, but hey, The National’s audience came from all those same stations plus the affiliates. Harvey was cutting the successful newscasts in order to save a service that was rapidly falling behind CTV.

His second error was in not comprehending the inherent value of local news. Study after study in the U.S. has shown that strong local newscasts build ratings that create strong local stations. Those high ratings for local news result in bigger audiences for network programming throughout the evening. They got this at CTV and in the United States. Their networks are built around strong local affiliates that build in their turn around highly rated local newscasts. CBC was throwing out their babies with their bathwater. There is an argument to be made that the ratings of The National were actually undermined by the cuts in local news.

The rapid decline of CBC local news continued unabated. It was a vicious cycle: staffs were cut, ratings plummeted, money became scarcer, so staffs were cut further, rating fell even more and ad revenues all but disappeared. Soon many local news operations were shut down and the idea of regional news raised its ugly head. Can Edmonton and Calgary share a newscast? Apparently not. By the new millennium local CBC news was all but non-existent. In Toronto audiences fell from highs of over 300,000 viewers in 1985 to under 40,000. The results were similar in Calgary, Vancouver, Halifax and Montreal. People were not watching because CBC was not providing a serious newscast.

Today we are left with the legacy of those times and those decisions. Sure, local newscasts are sort of back. Ninety minutes of information that repeats more than my mom’s garlic burgers. Staffs that are one-third the size of those who produced just sixty minutes in the past. Worst of all, rather than follow CBC’s historic striving for quality news coverage, they are emulating the worst of the privates’ local news coverage. They are chasing ambulances, fire trucks and police cars with hardly an attempt to look at local issues.

Under the circumstance it should come as no surprise that CBC has to go outside to find talent. It should also come as no shock that the talent they are hiring fit the CITY-TV mold far more that they resemble what we used to expect on CBC.

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The Female Anchor

It’s been a relatively quiet week in the TV and television news business. While I was contemplating what to write about this week I got a phone call from a friend who is one of the top journalists in Canada. He was incensed at a couple of things that I barely noticed. Perhaps it was the afterglow of watching my daughter get married last week, but I failed to make the connections he had made.

The first thing that rankled was the reaction to Global and CTV announcing female anchors for their national newscasts. Two things here are wrong. Every newspaper we saw had at least one commentary that suggested that CBC would have to get rid of Peter Mansbridge so that they could hire a female anchor too. It was as if CBC was left out of the party.

Look, I think it is time for Peter to think about leaving his anchor post, but not because CTV named Lisa Laflamme to take over from Lloyd Robertson and Global hired Dawna Friesen. After more than a decade of failing to grab very good ratings and a year of dreadful response and massive audience loss, it is obvious that Peter Mansbridge is not connecting to the majority of news viewers. Since Walter Cronkite anchored the CBS Evening News there has been a simple test for the success or failure of a news anchor. When an anchor’s name becomes synonymous with the newscast you have a winner. Nobody in the 60’s or 70’s said they were going to watch CBS Evening News. Few even knew the real name of the program. It was just ‘Walter.’ I’m watching ‘Walter.’ Let’s watch ‘Walter.’ Did you see ‘Walter’ last night? The same is true at CTV. It is as if the name of CTV’s national newscast is ‘Lloyd.’ I watched ‘Lloyd’ last night. ‘Lloyd’ had a great story on the G-20 summit. I have never heard anyone call The National ‘Peter.’

Further, I don’t think CBC has to get a female to replace Peter. I think CBC has to get an excellent communicator that can create a bond with the Canadian news audience be it a male or a female.

In fact the comments about Peter are actually demeaning to both Dawna Friesen and Lisa Laflamme. From where I sit they earned their new positions the hard way. They worked for them. They were both first rate reporters who climbed the journalistic ladder with solid work. They didn’t get their jobs because they are female. It wasn’t some kind of publicity stunt to attract viewers. They were chosen by their news bosses as the best qualified for the job. The writers who perpetrated this farcical angle should be ashamed. So should the editors who published this nonsense.

On a far darker note, newspapers, TV newscasts and radio news also went way over the line in trying to create a story where none exists and perhaps ignored an important story in the process. Last week Michael Ignatieff began a cross country election style bus tour of Canada. He is hoping to make personal appearances in hundreds of communities across the country. So far so good. Unfortunately his bus broke down on the first day of the campaign style tour.

That’s when the knives came out in the most unfair way possible. Ignatieff’s leadership was blamed for the breakdown.Instead of reporting on the stops Ignatieff made that day, rather than comment on what he had to say or the relative size of the crowds he attracted, people who call themselves journalists reported on the bus breakdown and how that breakdown is an example of Ignatieff’s failure as Liberal leader.

I am no fan of Ignatieff’s leadership so far. He has shown little political skill, he has not connected to voters, and he has seemed weak in the parliamentary give and take. But I do not think the fact that his rented bus broke down has anything to do with his abilities or failures as a potential Prime Minister. So far as I know he didn’t build the bus, he wasn’t the mechanic that sent it out on the road, heck, he wasn’t even the bus driver. What does the mechanical failure of a mode of transport have to do with anything and why is every political journalist connecting the broken down bus to Ignatieff’s leadership. Worse still why dwell on what is at best a symbol without actually covering the real story.

Isn’t it interesting that although Ignatieff was able to get to his next meeting and in the days since he has successfully made his way from town to town and from event to event, the Canadian media has once again gone back to ignoring the political story here: a desperate leader of a floundering party is desperately looking rehab his image and connect with Canadians. Is he succeeding? I guess the press will never let us know. How can that story compare to a broken down bus and all that we can learn from it?

It is becoming more and more difficult every day to apologize for the faltering journalism standards in this country. There was a time when I was proud of the work we did. Now, more often than not, I am embarrassed

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Lloyd and Lisa

While we are waiting for Global to announce their new anchor and looking at CBC and wondering what they will do to first to fix a badly battered newscast and a new formula that is obviously not working as far as the viewing public is concerned, and second deal with the future of Peter Mansbridge, I want to take the time to discuss Lloyd Robertson and Lisa Laflamme.

I remember quite vividly the shock of Lloyd coming to join Harvey Kirk on the CTV anchor desk. At the time I was at CTV producing Canada AM. Harvey was the most popular newsman in Canada. He was a big lovable bear of a man who was most popular with his co-workers and contrary to what has been written in the past few days, still the star of CTV News in the minds of the public. Harvey didn’t work very hard at it, but when he was called upon he proved to be a very good writer and journalist. He sat in on Canada AM a few times when Norm Perry was on vacation and quickly endeared himself to my staff and the audience. He was actually a very good interviewer.

At the time Lloyd said he was leaving CBC because the union rules didn’t allow him to take part in the writing and producing of the news. He was only allowed to be an announcer. At CTV we were expecting Lloyd to come in pumped up for his opportunity to write and take a full part in the preparation of the broadcast.That never happened.

Lloyd wasn’t taking any chances, however. He was not going to play second fiddle to Harvey. He brought his own producer to run the show, Tim Kotcheff, and together they worked to minimize Harvey and maximize Lloyd.

Internally that created some small problems. It turned out that Lloyd really couldn’t write and he backed off doing that very quickly. The newsroom staff had far more respect for Harvey’s abilities than Lloyd’s. The boss, however, always favored Lloyd with the best assignments. It took a few years but Tim and Lloyd created a process to rid the staff of Harvey loyalists and of Harvey himself. The problem here being that CTV had by far the best newsroom staff in Canada at the time and over the years it has had to be trebled and quadrupled to accomplish the same amount of work that a brilliant pre-Lloyd newsroom could do.

But as it turned out Lloyd was not without an abundance of talent. With Harvey gone he made the news his own. Not with writing or journalism, but with star power and trustworthiness. Lloyd shone as an anchor. He had the ability to speak to everyone in the audience as individuals. People responded to him, in my opinion, because he was honest. What you saw on air was what you saw in person. He was a good man who enjoyed what he was doing and cared about the quality of his work and his show.

For his co-workers there was another talent that was only revealed when Lloyd began to host specials like elections, budgets and live events. He was masterful. He had the ability to control the feel and pace and content of events that were coming at him from all sides. In the parlance of TV news, he was the best “traffic cop” in the business. He had a prodigious memory for facts and he always did his homework. Perhaps most amazing was his ability to listen and talk at the same time. When I produced the Royal Wedding of Charles and Diana, Lloyd had both an ABC and a BBC feed beaming into his headset and further he had me interrupting him telling him where we were going next. He could listen to all three, actually hearing and repeating important information and never miss a beat talking to the audience. He was truly a savant.

Lloyd speaks to ordinary Canadians because he is deep down, after the seven figure salary, an ordinary Canadian. He’s a good family man. He is serious about his religious beliefs and he is not afraid to let his feelings and basic people instincts show. He will be a hard man to replace and he will be missed in the Canadian news business.

I never worked with Lisa Laflamme but I have admired her work for a long time. I remember when she was a local reporter in Kitchener and I was running CBC News in Toronto. On many, many occasions I asked the people around me who was this young local small town reporter who was producing pieces to equal most of the work being produced on CBC and CTV at the national level? A few years later I watched as began to do a lot of anchor work in Kitchener. She took to it naturally. She was comfortable behind the desk from day one and had the ability Lloyd had to talk to her audience like she was one of them.

When I went to Global to be news director I thought, wow, here’s an opportunity to hire Lisa away from CKCO. Unfortunately I had the dumbest and worst VP of news that I have ever had the misfortune to work for or even hear about. We needed a reporter who could fill in on the anchor desk on weekends and holidays. Lisa was doing a spectacular job in Kitchener so the fit seemed perfect. I went to Doug Bonar (ah, what an apt monicker) and told him I was going to offer the job to Lisa. He asked to see her audition tape. I showed it to him. He refused to allow me to hire her. Why? Did he not like her reporting skills? Truth be told, he wouldn’t know a good reporter from a can of cream soup. Did he not like her anchoring skills? He knew as much about anchors as he knew about astrophysics. No, I couldn’t hire Lisa Laflamme because Doug Bonar did not like her hair!

It worked out for the best for Lisa. I know she has the talent and ability to be a fine replacement for Lloyd Robertson. Her biggest problem will be that Lloyd is a mighty hard act to follow.

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

Bad News – Good TV

The G-8 and G-20 summits have come and gone and I dare any news organization to ask Canadians what the world powers accomplished in Toronto. I do not believe that 1 percent of Canadians know what was in the final communiqué. But, ask Canadians what happened on the streets of “Hogtown” during the weekend and you are sure to get in depth responses. There is no better magnet for airtime than violence, destruction, fire and mass arrests. I say this because it highlights the incredible failure of our police forces and politicians.

Based on what I saw on TV and what credible reporters are saying it is patently obvious that the security plan was flawed at best and really, let me be clear here, it didn’t serve the people of Toronto and Canada.

The police missed the boat on Saturday. They were so busy worrying about the politicians behind the security fence that they forgot about the citizens outside the barrier. The result was widespread destruction along several major shopping streets in the city, police cars trashed and burned, media trucks vandalized and televised pictures of the rioting taking over the airwaves. Free access for the “Black Bloc” looked to me like it was part of the police plan…I’m not saying they wanted or condoned vandalism, I’m saying they didn’t care to stop it. Keeping the protesters away from the fence was their only priority.

So then comes a Saturday night where journalists quite rightly question the police tactics and frankly make the security people look unprepared for the reality on the streets. The mayor of Toronto was questioned. The Toronto police chief was grilled. The federal minister in charge of security was dragged into the mess even though he never left Ottawa. The police failure was denied by everyone in charge. The pictures and reports made liars of all the officials.

The criticism worked. Only it worked too well. The security forces reacted to the criticism by going overboard on Sunday. On a day when it sure looked to me like all the protest was generally peaceful the police began rounding up anyone and everyone who hit the streets. Among the arrested were TV camera operators, yup the police claim they couldn’t tell who was a protester and who was a rioter, fair enough. But did they think a guy carrying a $40,000 dollar camera with network decals was a rioter? They arrested reporters. They arrested teenage schoolgirls. They arrested dentists. They arrested anyone wearing black clothes. It was beyond stupid and undemocratic.

As the arrested were let out, one-by-one they told their stories of police brutality and of putting people in small cages and keeping the handcuffed for hours and hours. One man was refused treatment for a broken arm. Another was ignored when he explained he was diabetic and needed insulin. For one strange afternoon Toronto became Tehran and you know, the politicians and police sounded a lot like their counterparts in Iran.

There is no excuse for the vandalism and rioting that took place in Toronto on Saturday. The folks in black should have been stopped arrested and had the book thrown at them. If the police were where they should have been, protecting citizens and property, they would have been able to do just that. Their claim that they couldn’t find the rioters who were using tactics to mislead the police do not hold water. The TV cameras found them. The radio and newspaper reporters found them.

Which brings me to some excellent and some not so excellent work done by the media in covering the events on the streets. First kudos go out to local reporters and crews from CTV, CITY and CBC-Toronto who did a credible job of telling the story while the network reporters were all but invisible. The Toronto Star had the best coverage of events all weekend and the best take on the events after the weekend was over. CBC Radio did an excellent job.

The losers in the coverage this weekend were CBC and Global. When Peter Mansbridge arrived to cover the events live, late Saturday afternoon and he was saddled with nothing but old tired shots we had seen for hours on CBC NN and only one national reporter, Susan Ormiston who seemed overwhelmed and was reduced to using the pictures gathered by local crews. The coverage was better before the network arrived. By Sunday night’s National the CBC was left in the dust. CTV was all over the mass arrests, the police overreaction, the scene at the detention center. CBC was still rehashing Saturday’s events using the same old pictures. The National was a day late and as the saying goes, a dollar short. CTV was terrific.

I only mention Global because they did what they do historically. They didn’t compete. Global never made it to air Saturday afternoon. I guess a second rate golf tournament could not be interrupted. I remember when I was at Global and got a major scoop. We received a leak of the federal budget. The powers at the network refused us airtime because we were running “Wiseguy.” The more Global changes, the more it stays the same.

Much of the discussion today has turned to citizen journalism. Everyone with a mobile phone is now a news source. Better get used to it people, this trend will not go away it will only grow. I’m not sure what to make of it. As far as pictures are concerned I am supportive, but when it comes to commentary I worry about the sources.

One outstanding use of the new technology came from Steve Paikin. He used Twitter to inform faster than any TV, radio or newspaper could. His tweets were informative and right on the money. It was some of the best journalism of the weekend. Great work Steve.

Late addition: Mea Culpa. It seems that Global did break into their golf coverage at least twice for about 15 minutes each time. Not the kind of coverage CTV, CITY and CBC NN were providing but Kevin Newman anchored the short hits.

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

A National Failure

What Fadden said to Peter Mansbridge about foreign influence: (from the CBC News website)
“We just don’t keep information to ourselves. In the case of the couple of cabinet ministers we are in process of discussing with the centre how are going to inform those provinces.
“Question: The centre being?
“Answer: Sorry, the Privy Council Office. The prime minister’s department. We are trying to get a sense of how we would best let them know that there may be a problem. I am making this comment because I think it’s a real danger that people are, be totally oblivious to this kind of issue.”

Richard Fadden’s appearance on CBC’s The National this week has caused a huge uproar. That’s as it should be. The director of CSIS cannot and should not declare that certain unnamed politicians and bureaucrats are under foreign influence unless he is prepared to name names. It doesn’t take a sage to understand that pointing fingers at anonymous politicians with ties to foreign powers taints all of the ethnic elected officials in Canada. Depending on which side of the political spectrum you come from the tactic smells an awful lot like McCarthyism or Soviet era pronouncements in Russia. What Fadden did on television this week does not have a place in what we consider a free and democratic society. The fact that he blurted out his comments before informing his bosses at the Privy Council and Parliament makes the whole affair more than questionable, it crosses the line into a dirty smear campaign.

Of course the timing, on the eve of the G-8 and G-20 summits, just after the Air India Terrorism Report and in the middle of the federal government doing all it can to hide its complicity in torture in Afghanistan is fodder for every cynic and conspiracy theorist. I have read that Harper put Fadden up to it to relieve the pressure on him, to change the subject of Canadian discourse. I have also read that Fadden and the CBC conspired to make Harper look bad with the Chinese and other foreign leaders arriving on Canadian soil. I am not a conspiracy theorist. I believe it was self aggrandizement and incompetence that led Richard Fadden down this poorly thought out path. He was trying to impress Peter Mansbridge and the people of Canada with his work and his knowledge.

As far as Richard Fadden is concerned there is only one course of action that is acceptable: fire the man. Get him out of CSIS and the government as soon as possible. I would have done it before the summit meetings, but just after will have to do.

So far the media have done an excellent job of going after Richard Fadden and his unsubstantiated statements. But they have missed another important story that should have come out of this affair: the CBC’s complicity in allowing Fadden to do his dirty work.

As any regular reader of this blog knows, I have been a fan of Brian Stewart. I have been impressed with his journalism for decades. Not this time Brian.

Brian’s second documentary on CSIS this week gave an unhindered platform and left unquestioned the tarring of every ethnic politician and bureaucrat in Canada with the brush of serving foreign masters. It’s not good enough to ask the questions. A journalist must hear the responses and react to them. Stewart had to respond to Fadden by asking him to name the provincial cabinet ministers and municipal politicians who are serving foreign powers. He had to tell Fadden, on air, that he is tainting all without regard for the reputations of the innocent. He had to get Fadden to name the “5 or 6” countries recruiting Canadians. Without doing so China, Iran, India and Israel become obvious targets. Some of these countries may be guilty, but some may not. General statements pointing fingers at unnamed countries does sound like CBC is taking on the role of Pravda.

Peter Mansbridge followed up with his interview with Richard Fadden and sort of asked the questions. He did it with a big smile on his face and never pressed the issue. Peter then allowed Fadden to report that CSIS has actually monitored the politicians in question. Fadden said he has seen a shift in policy from these people. Yet Peter never asked why he didn’t report this to his superiors and why the Provincial Premiers involved had never been informed. Finally Peter went along with Fadden’s charge that foreign governments were using their diasporas to recruit and to affect changes in Canadian policy. Again, allowing Fadden to cast suspicion on every Canadian who was not born in this country. In places like Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver that is more than half the population.

I believe that Stewart and Mansbridge were so caught up in the scoop, the fact that they got the CSIS director to commit to an interview and they were given access to CSIS that they forgot their role as journalists who must try to answer the question why have we got access? Why is Fadden saying this stuff to us? What is the CBC’s role in publishing damaging and unsubstantiated charges leveled at unnamed people and groups? A little more work. A little more digging. Maybe waiting until they could come up with some answers to these questions was necessary before rushing this content to air.

Here’s what a couple of CBC viewers had to say on CBC’s own website:

Bard29 wrote: What makes me laugh about the stupidity of this episode is that there are about 43,000 students from the People’s Republic of China in Canada, and all 43,000 of these are potential friends of Canada within China in the future. Instead of recognizing the benefit of this to Canada, paranoid idiots within this country (notably the supporters of Fadden) are throwing away the golden goose for fear that one of its eggs might be rotten.

Wake up and smell the coffee. I know many Chinese students and I haven’t met a rotten one yet.

Ouroboros wrote: What sort of disingenuous crap is this?? I can’t believe that someone of Brian Stewart’s stature is offering a half-assed excuse for why and how the interview aired.

Very clearly, both CSIS and the CBC knew the content of the interview. If they didn’t know they were playing with political dynamite – especially during the G conventions – they should all be fired.

Please, Brian, don’t be a dupe for whomever put you up to writing such fatuous drivel.

I find myself agreeing with Bard29 and Ourboros. This was not The National’s finest moment. The scoop has turned into what should be an embarrassment for all concerned.

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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