I'm Mad as Hell


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.


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

The Reporters that got away

I was talking with a few friends recently, most of them still hard at work in the media, and eventually the discussion focused on the quality of television reporting. In general we lamented the poor reporting that makes its way on to the country’s airwaves. There have always been great reporters, there have always been competent reporters, but for the most part poor reporters seldom lasted, especially at the national level. Today we see far more of the latter and way fewer of the former. The merely competent remain in place at all the national network shows.

After a while we disagreed as to what was the cause of so many bad reporters plying their trade. Some say it is the incompetence of the bosses who wouldn’t know a great report if it hit them square between the eyes. Some blame the lack of a local feeder system at CBC that at one time provided all of the networks with the best talent and more important, a place to train where quality counted and a support structure was maintained to train young journalists in the fine art of story telling and performance. Still others say the workloads preclude quality. Once you have to do two, three and even four hits per day, you will never have the time to make your primary story excellent. One person blamed the “journalism” degree. He said we are graduating students who know how to shoot, edit, write and perform but there is little or nothing behind it. These graduates have no degrees in politics, economics, science, literature, history, geography, etc. They only know how to be journalists. In the past, before the journalism degree was a prerequisite, reporters came with degrees in all of the above mentioned areas and more. They had a level of knowledge and learning they could bring to a story or an event. To be fair there are many exceptions…reporters who are doctors and lawyers, correspondents with Masters degrees who majored in something other than journalism and the odd few who somehow overcame the bias towards a degree in journalism.

In truth there are elements of all of the above in the problems being faced today by those attempting to produce the best newscasts.

While we disagreed about the causes we all concurred on one thing: there are too few really great reporters to fill three network news organizations. Having said that, the position CBC finds itself in is all the more puzzling. Considering the fact that they lost their feeder system how could they let so many really terrific correspondents get away? The joke is, if you want to see the very best CBC television news reporters watch Global and CTV.

The CBC has never in my lifetime had a more mediocre to poor reporting staff. Sure they still have some very excellent reporters, my list includes Terry Milewski, Paul Hunter, Adrienne Arsenault, Neil MacDonald and Wendy Mesley, your may differ. Beyond these few holdouts from better days, the pickings are mighty slim. So you have to ask yourself, what were the honchos at CBC News thinking when they allowed so many of their best correspondents to get away? It’s a real poser.

At CTV Paul Workman and Tom Kennedy are two of the finest television reporters in Canada. They both came from the CBC. The circumstances were very different, but the result the same. Kennedy was never given the opportunities he deserved at the corpse and he fled. Workman was pushed out by incompetent managers who insisted he leave Paris and Europe where he had been a stalwart for decades. CTV also has Martin Seemungal whose enterprise as a one man band in Africa for the CBC was doing groundbreaking work; and Kevin Newman who was mistreated at CBC and practically forced to go to ABC in the United States. Wouldn’t Kevin look great hosting a political program on CBC? While anyone would be better than Evan Solomon, Kevin could make that show must viewing for political junkies. He would also be really great to have in the fold as the heir apparent to Peter Mansbridge.

Over at Global, someone had the very good sense to grab up Patrick Brown, the best Asia correspondent we have ever had in Canada. Nobody is more knowledgeable or comfortable with that posting. One of the CBC’s greatest blunders was allowing him get away. Also at Global Eric Sorensen is doing a great job. He was never given an opportunity at CBC. I tried to hire him when I was at Global. I could see that he had what it took to become a fine reporter and I have been proven right.

These six excellent correspondents alone could transform CBC news back into what it once was, a leader in the Canadian news business. They all came from CBC. They were all either ignored, pushed or mishandled. CTV and Global are richer for the blundering of CBC management. CBC is by far the poorer.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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)

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

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.

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

CTV embarrasses itself

CTV called it “A Conversation with the Prime Minister.” I have a few alternate names for the program. How about: A Cure for Insomnia? Or even better: An Hour of My Time Wasted. Just a few weeks after my return from India where I noted the toughness and preparedness of the Indian interviewers and hosts, CTV has managed to make my point better than I ever could. Robert Fife, CTV’s Ottawa Bureau Chief, and Lloyd Robertson, the soon to be former anchor of CTV National News hosted a snooze-fest with the Prime Minister at Christmas.

Stephen Harper rarely makes himself available to journalists and has continuously shown his disdain for them during his time in office. So, when the opportunity arrives to grill the man it must be taken seriously. This has not been an easy year for our P.M. At a time when the Leader of the Opposition is proving to be a difficult if not impossible choice for most Canadians and Jack Layton is losing ground, Stephen Harper has managed to lose support. We can argue back and forth about why Harper can’t find the votes to secure a majority. We can even disagree about some questionable political moves like getting rid of the long gun registry and playing politics with the census, but there is no question that there are an abundance of issues to tackle when you get a chance to interview the Prime Minister. CTV missed that boat…they had a ticket, but couldn’t make the departure time.

For an hour Fife and Robertson lobbed softballs at Stephen Harper and the P.M. in turn batted them out of the park. In the first section on the economy Harper said his government was doing a great job. He even mentioned that “the deficit continues to fall.” I don’t know what universe the Prime Minister lives in but it is clear from his own Finance Minister that the government debt is still expanding and the Canadian economy has slowed to a crawl. Flaherty has even had to extend measures to support spending and job creation. Yet there was not a single rebuttal, not a query about the pronouncements. Hello! Robert, Lloyd, time to wake up.

The interview continued in the same way through the second segment on Canada’s relationship with the U.S. and the “Continental Security Perimeter.” Whatever Harper said was accepted at face value; never a follow up, not even a difficult question. When the P.M. was asked whether there was a chance the government could fall on the issue his answer was, “I don’t go around making threats.” Perhaps a question about past Harper behavior might have been in order here. Never happened.

To be fair, Fife did try to ask a few tough questions about Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan. Are we supporting a crooked regime? Isn’t the Taliban getting stronger? Are we wasting our troops and our money on a war we cannot succeed at? These are old questions that Harper can easily handle and in any case, they were not followed up on. It’s not good enough to ask the tough question, you must then question the answer if you have information that doesn’t jibe with the answers you are getting. Either Fife and Robertson didn’t do their homework or they chose to give Harper a relatively free ride.

The interview with Harper ended with a series of questions about the possibility of an election in 2011. This was the most egregious portion of the program. On several occasions Harper talked about an “opposition coalition.” He made it seem like the NDP, Liberals and Bloc were in cahoots to bring down his government. He went out of his way to question any deals that included those nasty separatists in the Bloc Quebecois. Was this not the perfect opportunity to finally question, among other things, Harper’s past working with the Bloc when he was in opposition and his attempts to unite the opposition parties at that time? Hey, and what’s wrong with a coalition? It is a perfectly legal tool used in the parliamentary system. I might have mentioned that Great Britain is currently being ruled by a coalition government. Harper has railed on-and-on about the terrible possibility of a coalition government. He always seems to make it sound illegal or at least un-parliamentary. It is neither, and a good interviewer should not allow him to get away with the characterization. Heck a poor interviewer should catch this one.

Okay, so those are the things that were actually discussed. This interview was more disheartening for the issues that were never brought up. Stephen Harper was never asked to explain his government’s stand on the Canadian census. The long gun registry was not used as ammunition for debate, but for me there were three issues that demanded tough questions and an effort to get real explanations. Why is Canada now rated last of the industrialized powers in dealing with the environment? Canada’s handling of that issue has embarrassed Canadians of all political stripes.

Nobody in the federal government has been asked to explain the fiasco that was the G-8 and G-20. The huge waste of money for which there has been no explanation. The choice of downtown Toronto as a venue. The disappearance of civil rights. Harper has a lot to answer for here. He can’t answer if he is not asked to.

Finally, the government’s Middle East policies. Whether you agree or disagree with Harper, you have to ask the questions. Is the P.M.’s support for Israel counterproductive in getting a deal between Israel and the Palestinians? I think President Obama would think so. That doesn’t make it right or wrong, but it sure makes it ripe for questioning, especially after Harper went on at length about better relations with our American partners.

By now you get the point. I hated the interview for the waste of an important opportunity and for, in the end, contributing to Canadians lack of interest in politics. It was beyond boring, it was just plain bad. CTV News and Robert Fife should be embarrassed. Lloyd Robertson was never an interviewer of any note and shouldn’t have been there. Let us all hope that when Lisa Laflamme, a real journalist, takes over the anchor position and when the new news bosses settle in at CTV that abominations like this one can be avoided.

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

Self-Censorship: The real failure of Canadian journalism

I have just recently returned from working in India for over a month. I won’t go into what I thought of the world’s biggest democracy, this blog is not a travelogue. I did get the opportunity to watch quite a bit of Indian television. You won’t be surprised to hear that there are quite a few English channels in the country, at least two of which are all-news, all talk stations. While I did dip into BBC-International and CNN-International, these stations were not readily available on my travels, so I found myself trying to find any news that was available.

I struck it lucky on two counts. The first being the visit by President Obama to Mumbai and Delhi while I was India. The Indian stations provided an interesting take on the president’s visit. I got to see a range of opinion that I never would have seen or heard at home. The bottom line in the coverage, as it would have been in Canada if Obama was visiting Toronto and Ottawa, was what is in it for us. How are the U.S. promises going to affect India? Parochial? Not really. It amounts to serving the viewers with information that is important to them.

The second stroke of luck was to be in India during both an election campaign and the aftermath of the Commonwealth Games. It was here that Indian TV revealed itself to be far different to the Canadian and American mold we have become so used to. I was shocked and pleasantly surprised to see interviewers and panels that were hard-nosed, tough and sometimes incendiary. I don’t mean unfair, I mean pointed.

On one occasion I saw an election panel made up of one sitting cabinet minister and seven other men running for parliament. Each guest was a member of a different political party. The subject of the interview was primarily public works, buildings, bridges, but in fact the real crux of the conversation was corruption. In Canada you might expect the opposition candidates to attack the cabinet minister and in India they did too. But here was the difference, the host went after the cabinet minister with a gusto I have never seen in North America. He pointed out the scandals. He pinpointed the lies. He called the minister out by explaining what he said in the past and what he had done. There was no Canadian style pussy-footing. He finally asked the minister why anyone should ever believe a word he says and further why would any sane voter choose him or his party? This is the party in power, remember.

I was glued to the television. It was great theatre but more important it was great journalism. It left me feeling empty and despairing however about the brand of political interviewing and the level of polite political discourse practiced by Canadian interviewers and TV hosts. Anyone who has watched CBC NN or CTV News Channel, let alone The National, Global National, or CTV News would feel the same way I felt. The comparison to the beige news and current affairs we are treated to was stark. Anyone who has ever seen Evan Solomon and one of his panels hem and haw through a nice polite discussion would be embarrassed by the difference.

A few days after that discussion, on a different channel I saw a news program eviscerate the two most important men, both politicians, behind the Commonwealth Games. They had, it seemed been going after these guys for months. They had interviews with them done over the course of those months. They chronicled the changing stories of the Commonwealth Games’ leaders. The shone a bright light on the lies being told throughout the process. They investigated the funding and the waste. In the end they took full credit for the fact that they were responsible for the firing and political downfall of two more corrupt Indian political leaders.

There is a fearlessness in Indian TV that is remarkable. In Canada, journalistic organizations seem to be afraid to take on the government. Not so in India. In Canada I have heard important interviewers say they can’t go after their guests because if they offend them they won’t come back and perhaps neither will anyone in their political party. In India this excuse doesn’t play. It is time for Canadian journalists to understand that they are in no way beholden to our political and business leaders. When the government has a story they want to get out they will come calling. When business has a new product to sell they will be available for comment. Politicians and business people need the media more than the journalists need them. When did we forget this fact?

Canadian media has lost its mojo, its power. Not because of what is being done to them, but because of what they are doing to themselves. Canadian journalism is for the most part too timid and too worried about the backlash from the people they cover. In today’s media world there is no place for the tough investigator, the crusaders are all but gone. It is a polite world of you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. I saw this happening at the CBC in the Mulroney years when we backed off stories that might affect our budget. CTV was once led by men like John Bassett who wore his political views on his sleeve for all to see. You didn’t have to agree with them, they didn’t care.

Today self-censorship may be the biggest roadblock to good journalism. If you don’t believe me, watch Indian TV.

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

Tom Clark

I was saddened to read in today’s newspapers that Tom Clark is leaving CTV. I met Tom a few times years ago when I worked for CTV and he was with our Toronto affiliate, CFTO. I met him again while planning for provincial election coverage and debates in Ontario elections and for leadership contests while I was at CBC. What I remember most vividly was that Tom was not the guy that I expected. For some reason I had preconceived notions about what Tom would be like based solely on the fact that he seemed to be the on air political mouthpiece for John Bassett, the then owner and president of CFTO television.

At that time, in the late 70’s and early 80’s John Bassett demanded that all political coverage on CFTO be as pro-Tory as he was. Tom Clark was the chief political correspondent at CFTO and thus had to take the Bassett party line in his reports and interviews. His reputation therefore, became that of a right wing mouthpiece. We all knew that Tom was smart and exceedingly knowledgeable politically, but could he do his job at the national level where he would have to be much less partisan? I am embarrassed to say that with his blond hair, boyish good looks and right wing persona he earned the nickname, never to his face mind you, ‘the little Nazi.’ Nobody has ever said that newsrooms were kind places.

Having met Tom I soon realized I, or should I say we, were completely wrong. Tom is a class act. We were right about how smart he was and his depth of political knowledge. We were wrong about his ability to perform at the national level. When Tom went to CTV I like to believe that we saw the real Tom Clark for the first time. Without John Bassett controlling him he blossomed into one of the best political reporters in Canada. He could be depended on to deliver excellent stories from Ottawa and Washington. He was always well informed and never once did he seem out of his depth. I never again felt that I could see his personal politics entering his reports. In fact I can now say I do not know what his personal politics are.

On top of all that excellent work, I always found Tom to be kind, helpful and respectful of the people he worked with both at CTV and at the competition. He seemed to get along well with everyone he met and used his personable qualities to great effect in getting stories and networking. This led to many scoops and inside stories during his fine career at CTV.

I understand that Tom was upset that he didn’t get Lloyd Robertson’s job. After more than three decades of hard work, it had to have come as a severe blow to see someone else get the job he had coveted and felt he had worked so hard for.

I don’t know why Lisa Laflamme got the job. I do know that CTV’s original plans were for Lisa and Tom to co-host the news. Where that went awry I don’t know. I have heard some people speculate that with Katy Couric and Diane Sawyer taking over U.S. newscasts, CTV decided to make a splash by hiring a woman. I have also heard speculation that some considered Lisa’s age (she’s much younger than Tom) the deciding factor. I think Lisa was a great choice. I believe it is unfair to bring gender into the discussion. Lisa did everything the network asked and more. She is a fine journalist and a credit to CTV News. Would Tom have done just as well? We’ll never know. I do know that Tom would have worked just as hard and been a credit to the job. Would audiences have responded to Tom as they seem to be responding to Lisa? I’d like to think so.

I hope Tom Clark lands on his feet somewhere. He’s too good a journalist and a broadcaster to disappear. If I had my druthers he would take over from the obviously over-matched Evan Solomon at CBC NN. Tom would have the guts to ask the tough questions and he would have the contacts and personality to attract more politicians and fewer reporters as guests on what has become the most vanilla political program on Canadian TV.

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

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

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.

Recent Comments

barbara pedersen Aha… on A Failure to Communicate
evilstew on The Rape of Citytv
Raymond Hietapakka on The Rape of Citytv
Jason on The Rape of Citytv
theeuprise on The Rape of Citytv