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and I can't do a thing about it

Disaster! What Disaster?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The CBC Shuffle – Not a new dance show.

The CBC and especially CBC Newsworld are in the midst of shuffling their staff, both on air and behind the scenes. I have spoken to half-a-dozen news and current affairs staffers at “the Corpse” and cannot find a single person who can figure out what’s going on. In fact, they are being told by their bosses that they too have no idea what the plan is. What everyone seems to agree on is that the CBC has discovered CNN and now wants to recreate itself as some sort of northern reincarnation.

Why CNN? Because they’ve had great ratings for their “all news” channel for well over a year. As always at the CBC, there is no point in creating something new when you can steal ideas from someone else. It feels like almost every new CBC show for almost a decade has been purloined from successful British or American formats, think, The Greatest Canadian, Triple Threat, Antiques Road Show, do I have to go on.

This plan, CNN North, is doomed to failure if ratings are the sole reason for the changes. First let’s look at why CNN has had such a great eighteen months: it’s been the best damn news year since 1945. Obama versus Clinton, Obama’s presidential campaign and the collapse of the economy have kept even those least interested in the news glued to their televisions. CNN was going to have a great year whether they did a wonderful job or not. In fact CBC News had a great year, so why change?

CNN’s other success has been in putting together one of the strongest “all news” on-air rosters of talent anywhere, what they like to call “the best news team on television.” Stars, whether we think they deserve to be or not, like John Roberts in the morning, Lou Dobbs in the evening, and Anderson Cooper and Campbell Brown at night, CNN has hosts you love or you love to hate. Either way you want to watch them.

Who does the CBC have? Does Carole MacNeil really have the kind of star qualities it will take to win viewers away from House or CSI? I think not. Is Evan Solomon going to be “must see TV” from Parliament Hill? I hope so, but I fear not.

From my perspective there are only two on air hosts with the ability to be stars who are left at CBC: Wendy Mesley and Linden MacIntyre – and so far neither are being mentioned as Newsworld stars and further, both have other jobs they seem to like and excel at. You may disagree. You may even have a few more – or different  – on-air ideas that appeal to you but you have to agree the CBC does not have a lot of bench strength.

It would have been very different a decade and more ago when the CBC was crawling with talented interesting news people. Mike Duffy immediately comes to mind. He had what people in the business call “TVQ”: star quality. Joe Schlessinger was a reporter you could trust. Jason Moscovitz was memorable and unique. Brian Stewart had gravitas. Don Newman made himself one of the deans of Ottawa journalism. They also had Wendy Mesley, Linden MacIntyre, Pamela Wallin, and even Knowlton Nash. Not to be hard on Carole MacNeil and Evan Solomon who are talented hosts, but compare them to the names I came up with. Right! No comparison.

How did this happen? How did CBC News become so devoid of exciting and interesting people? In fact, where are the great or even good reporters?

Take away Terry Milewski today and few of the remaining CBC reporters would have even been considered for a national reporting job, let alone a hosting job, just a few years back. Today’s CBC reporters go from the incompetent to at best, adequate. Personality is no longer a prerequisite, it seems CBC News sees being interesting and exciting to watch as a detriment. Where are the Dan Bjarnasons and Patrick Browns? The guys you knew as soon as you heard their voice or saw them on TV.

Finally, the CBC shuffle is about speed, they say, about getting the news on the air fast, whether on Newsworld or the main network. This is a great thing to aim for. It’s something other networks have always done.

When I was at CTV News in the ‘70s and got the first interview with the just inaugurated Jimmy Carter for Canada AM it ran on the National News first. When Craig Oliver broke the story of the Canadians hiding the American Embassy staff in Teheran and helping them to escape Iran it ran on Canada AM, the first available news program. We are told that at CBC you have to save your scoop for The National thus taking the chance that another network will get the story on the air first. Consider, this is decades after Newsworld has been created.

In any case it’s the CBC’s intention to end this lunacy at least. Okay, that’s good.  But, being CNN and acting and reacting with speed takes money. CNN has reporters, stringers and deals with international reporters all over the world and the United States. How will CBC cover a breaking story in a place they have no reporter? I’m afraid they will do it the way they always have: get someone on the phone, buy some BBC footage and get a reporter to the scene within three days. That’s not speed. If you want to be CNN you have to be everywhere. That takes big bucks by CBC standards. Are the powers that be prepared to increase the CBC News budget? On the contrary, they are looking for cuts. They are nickel and diming the flagship service at the same time they are talking about a grandiose shuffle.

Don’t bet the farm on the success of the changes at CBC News and be prepared in six months or a year for the same-old-same-old. You all remember Prime Time News. Perhaps you don’t. It lasted a minute or two before the news moved back to ten and a few sacrificial lambs were axed.

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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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