I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

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.

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Quitting Solves Nothing

Okay, okay, enough already, for three days I have been getting calls, emails, posts and pleas to wade in on the Kai Nagata story. Kai’s the former CTV reporter who worked in, or should I say was, the Quebec City bureau. He has walked away from his job at the naïve young age of 24 but not before writing an impassioned essay on why he left and what is wrong with broadcast, no, all of journalism.

Kai’s screed has been an internet sensation among those of us who call ourselves journalists. Not just because it was passionate and well written, but, because there are too many sorry truths to ignore in his ramblings.

Kai says he quit his job “…because the idea burrowed into my mind that, on the long list of things I could be doing, television news is not the best use of my short life.”

Nagata’s main criticisms of his former profession are all right on the mark. He decries the need for good looks as a television reporter and says that sometimes, perhaps many times, looks are more important than the ability to report, write and produce top quality stories. He felt he could not do the kind of reporting he thought was necessary. He especially thought reporting on the Harper Government was a non-starter because his bosses did not want to tackle what he saw as the flaws in policy, those include Harper’s foreign policy which Kai believes has diminished Canada on the world stage, the lack of funding for science and research which he calls a “war” on science, and the Harper plan to increase prison sentences at a time when the crime rate is falling.

It appears that Kai was especially upset by the wall-to-wall coverage that Will and Kate got for more than a week on their Canadian tour. The royal romp across Canada seemed to upset him for two reasons, first, that while so many major stories were percolating all over the world, TV journalist wasted their efforts and broadcasters wasted their air-time on what is after all a very unimportant story. Second, he was disappointed to see and hear some of televisions best journalists stoop to become breathless groupies gushing over the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

As I said, Kai was right on all counts. So I ask myself, why am I not as impressed with Kai as it seems most of the rest of my world seem to be?

First and foremost Kai answers my question by reporting that he had lots of journalistic freedom to cover the Quebec Assembly and Quebec politics. This was after-all his job and by his own admission he was allowed to do it and do it reasonably well. When he took the job in Quebec City he did not expect, or did he, to cover federal government policy.

Second, and probably most important, while it is true that broadcasters and newspapers sometimes abdicate their job, that of covering the most important stories, this so that there will be more room for the most popular stories of the day, the stories that will bring in many, many more eyeballs and perhaps help pay for the expensive services that journalists provide, it should be pointed out that over time journalists have done an excellent job of breaking extremely important news. On the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, I should not have to tell people what kind of work journalists can and do accomplish. Ask the starving people of Ethiopia if Brian Stewart’s expose of the drought was effective journalism? What about the coverage of Chretien government’s sponsorship scandal that may have brought down a political party? From tasers to tainted tuna we have all witnessed some excellent journalism by broadcast journalists who didn’t let the coverage of Princess Diana or the Bollywood film awards get in the way of the vital news they had to deliver.

I see people like Terry Milewski and Craig Oliver continuing to hold authority up to scrutiny. I see a new young guard of people like Omar Sachedina and Adrienne Arsenault who deliver the kind of stories that Kai says he wants to see. I see what could have and should have been an opportunity for a bright young man to take on the system and make it better. Alas he quit. He walked away when there was work to be done.

This is a case where being right doesn’t mean you are doing the right thing, I know because I made the same mistake once. I was news director at Global TV when the Oka Crisis was happening just outside Montreal. My boss, the vice president pulled my crew out of Oka without asking or informing me. I was shocked. I stormed into his office and asked him how he could pull our news crew away from the most important story in Canada? His response: Howard, we don’t have to cover it anymore. We got our license renewal on Friday.

I went down to my office and wrote a letter of resignation leaving 75 people to deal with an ignorant boss and a new toadie who would take over the newsroom.

To this day I regret the rash decision because I was in the process of turning Global News into a serious force in Canadian journalism. My departure left the wolves in charge of the hen house and it took a decade and new leadership at Global before they could start to claw their way back to credibility.

Kai Nagata seems like just the kind of young journalist the industry and the profession need to survive and prosper. Nobody has ever changed things for the better by walking away. By leaving he has in fact, helped those that seek to trivialize broadcast journalism and ceased to be of aid to those who want to make it better.

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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

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

Time for Al Jazeera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ottawa reporters and the “pack” mentality

Canada’s Natural Resources Minister has caused more than a few headaches for her Conservative colleagues in the past few days. First one of her briefing books was left at a CTV News bureau in Ottawa. Then, just when the trouble seemed to blow over, she gets caught on tape badmouthing a fellow cabinet minister and seemingly enjoying the “sexy” medical crisis caused by the Chalk River Reactor shut down.

These events are not what most people expect from their political leaders and they bring up important issues. Too bad for Canadians though, our Parliamentary media are not interested in the important issues. As usual our media are interested in the gossip and the political infighting.

Have any Ottawa reporters asked how Lisa Raitt will be able to work with Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq after doubting her ability to help solve the medical isotopes crisis?

Furthermore, have they questioned Ms. Raitt on how she let the problem, the lack of medical isotopes, devolve to crisis level if she considered it such a “sexy” issue? What has she and her government been doing since the last time Chalk River had to be shut down in 2007?

I haven’t seen or heard anyone of our Ottawa reporters ask these questions.

There are real issues that affect real people at play here. Put yourself in the place a cancer patient waiting for radiation  and wondering whether there will isotopes available for your therapy.

So far the only things noticed by the media in Ottawa is the fight over whether Lisa Raitt will keep her job and how this will affect Stephen Harper and his government.

Okay, so this is not a major scandal, or at least it shouldn’t be, but it does allow me an intro into one of my biggest pet peeves about Canadian media: our Ottawa bureaus are so caught up in the horse race, who is ahead in the polls, to run the country that they seldom cover what’s important in the stories that come out of Parliament.

For instance, I don’t care how the budget will affect the Conservatives’ election prospects, I want to know how it’s going to affect my budget and my life.

I don’t care what the Liberal leadership change means in the polls, I want to know what Michael Ignatieff intends to do with his leadership and what his plans are for the country if he should become Prime Minister. Forget that, that would take some work. It’s much easier to follow the polls and report on who is winning today or to cover the political back and forth in Question Period or the scrums on Parliament Hill.

The Ottawa bureaus of all the major media are a captive pack of jackals feeding off the meat the politicos leave out for them. The political parties are vying for your votes, therefore what they plant in the media is meant to either directly help their chances of winning the next election or to hurt the other parties’ chances of winning the next election. It’s not rocket science.

But the Ottawa reporters don’t seem to understand this.  Can it be because they only talk to two kinds of people: politicians and their aides and fellow Ottawa journalists? They don’t seem to notice what the rest of Canada cares about or wants to know. In fact they make Ottawa news very boring to the rest of us. I believe the fact that so few Canadians vote is at least partially due to the wrong-headed pack mentality that’s  exhibited by our Ottawa news people.

When I worked for Global News we did a study of what people wanted to watch in their newscasts and what turned them off. Ottawa news led the list of stories the public did not want to see or hear about. Is this because Ottawa news is inherently boring? I think not. It’s because our Ottawa correspondents make it uninteresting to the general public who are not political junkies who get excited when the latest copy of Hansard arrives in their mail.

I do have a suggestion that will never be followed, I so love a lost cause. Take all the reporters off Parliament Hill. Leave a few camera people and researchers to get quotes from the politicians on the hill. Cover the stories that come out of Ottawa all over Canada. If there’s a new energy bill, let the Calgary and Montreal reporters look at the implications. If there’s a new health bill, let a Vancouver or Toronto journalist look at what it means to the public. When a Minister screws up, as Lisa Raitt did in Halifax, let the Halifax reporter find out what the people of Halifax think the consequences to Ms. Raitt should be and let the health reporter dig into what the fight between the Health Minister and the Natural Resources Minister means to the possibility of getting radiation therapy any time soon in Canadian hospitals. These reporters will not be beholden to the politicians for their stories. They will not know what all the rest of the pack are going to cover and just follow suit. And, they will not be totally plugged into and mesmerized by the latest political polls.

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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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