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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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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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.

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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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