I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

CBC: Fire your non-budsman

Every once in a while, even though it feels like I’ve been around forever, I can be shocked or surprised by something that happens in and around the profession of journalism. The latest surprise was the CBC’s Ombudsman report that came out last Friday.

The background, I’m sure you all remember the incident in question, was when Marg Delahunty (Mary Walsh) of This Hour Has 22 Minutes showed up in the driveway of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Ford reacted by first running away from the CBC cameras, back into his house, then by calling 911 to get the police to remove the CBC crew from his property.

These are the events everyone agrees on.

Afterwards it was alleged that Ford tried to use his position as mayor to get he 911 operator to react more quickly and that he called the operator names and used the “F bomb” to drive his point home.

The problem is that Ford argues that he never said many of the things he has been quoted as saying. He agrees he used the F-word, but he says he never used his position as mayor and he never called the operators bitches. Further, since the days events and the charges and counter charges, the Toronto Police Chief, Bill Blair, has listened to the 911 tape and he agrees with Rob Ford’s version of the events.

At the CBC the case grew even more bizarre when CBC Online wrote a story about the events and actually put the words Rob Ford had allegedly spoken to the 911 operator in quotes as if they had the actual tape or at very least had heard it. Truth is other than Bill Blair, the 911 operator and Mayor Ford nobody knows what was actually said. Worse Ford and Blair say Ford never said what the CBC quoted him as saying and the 911 operator has been mum on the subject. Therefore it is completely and totally clear that the CBC breached journalistic ethics and the CBC’s own journalistic policy in the reporting of this incident.

Had the CBC reported the incident as a he said, they said case with no one being certain as to what was actually said…you remember, the way it has been done for decades by upstanding news operations, nothing would have blown back at the CBC, but as is the case more and more often in journalism, shoddy reporting, unsourced information and the need to get on top of a story were all more important than getting the facts right and delivering a report that was true to the facts that were known and could be proved.

The fact CBC dropped the ball is hardly big news. It happens too often now-a-days to even comment in normal circumstances, but this case was referred to CBC Ombudsman Kirk Lapointe because of a complaint from Mayor Ford’s office. This is where the shock comes in. The case should be clear to any first year journalism student, the CBC blew it. They reported a quote as if it was a fact. So far, because we and they have not heard the 911 tape, it is not a fact. It is conjecture.

How the heck can Kirk Lapointe, a seasoned journalist with years of experience rule that the CBC’s reporting including its use of anonymous sources, satisfied its policies on good journalism. To call this ludicrous would be an understatement. It crossed the line, it’s obvious, and Mr. Lapointe has made matters worse than before by condoning it. How can anyone ever trust the CBC Ombudsman ever again? Why bother to complain to the CBC about coverage when Kirk, “Rubber Stamp” Lapointe will eventually rule in favor of his bosses.

The stupidity goes even further. Lapointe himself admits that he does not know what was on the 911 tape therefore he doesn’t know if the quote is correct. He actually says “In this matter only one of them is right. It just isn’t clear whom.” Duh! Then how can CBC journalists report what was said as a quote? Mr. Lapointe? To make matters worse Lapointe questions the reliability of Chief Blair because as Lapointe puts it, the chief is dependent on the mayor for his budget. Lapointe all but calls the police chief a possible liar without a shred of evidence. Mr. Lapointe it is time to resign. You have proven your worthlessness without a doubt. From now on you are liability to the CBC. Hubert Lacroix, I sure hope you are listening, get rid of the clown.

In the end we may find out that the CBC was right, although I suspect the 911 tape will never come out while Rob Ford is mayor. That doesn’t matter. The point, and the only point is that CBC reported something as fact that they cannot prove and that the folks who know what happened say is not true. Case closed.

Oh, and one more tidbit, the CBC had the Ombudsman’s report for at least 24 hours before informing their own news service of the ruling. The CBC journalists learned about the ruling from the Toronto Star. Then, to add insult to injury, CBC Online spiked their story about Lapointe’s ruling. It was never published. I guess what CBC brass wants is to make this breach go away.

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A short word about the passing of Larry Solway. I had the pleasure of working with the man for two television seasons when he took over from Pierre Berton doing a half-hour daily interview program.

I have worked with some very fine and talented people over the years but not one was more dedicated and hard working than Larry. He never interviewed an author without reading his or her book. He always did his homework and looked for areas to probe that others had backed away from. He was a brilliant man who never shied away from preparation and hard work.

Larry should have been a star in the journalism and TV world in Canada. Somehow his honesty and principled approach to his profession worked against him.

One of my favorite Larry Solway stories was when he was hired to be a correspondent with CBC News. It was during the Biafran War and the news bosses decided that Larry’s first assignment should be covering the war. Larry pointed out that he had never reported before, had never been to or seen a war, and questioned whether he was ready for this assignment. All of this makes perfect sense to me, but the bosses at CBC News fired him on the spot…the more things change…

Goodbye Larry…those of us who knew you and worked with you will miss you.

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The Fifth’s Estate

Sometimes when I look at the CBC I just want to shake my head and ask what could these people possibly be thinking? CBC has some very successful programming. Hockey Night in Canada continues to roll along with more than 2 million viewers each week even though the presentation and style are deeply rooted somewhere in the last two decades of the last century. I believe it is a testament to Canada’s love of hockey and has nothing to do with what CBC Sports adds to the value of the production.

Dragon’s Den has captured a substantial audience. Over a million Canadians seem to love to watch new business ideas, both creative and crazy, being either praised or panned by a panel of so-called experts who we are told have the funds and the experience to bring a good idea to market. It’s reality TV that works, but for the record, it could just as easily run on CTV or Global and it is a bought “format.” This show runs as a local production in dozens of countries.

CBC has always done a great job of producing sketch comedy. This Hour has 22 Minutes, Rick Mercer Report and the late lamented Royal Canadian Air Farce.

Where the network has fallen down most is in producing high quality, high concept drama and situation comedy. Little Mosque on the Prairie manages to be mostly humorless and a throwback to 1950’s style situation comedy. In Security is just plain embarrassing, unfunny, unwatchable.

The Republic of Doyle just manages to be okay as it combines a 1980’s TV private detective idea with the beauty and zaniness of Newfoundland. Finally, shows like Being Erica and Heartland have never really drawn the numbers CBC needs and they have never managed to be special or Canadian in any way I can see.

The shocking thing for me is that CBC may have the very best Canadian produced program and they have buried it where few people can find it, and worse, where the potential audience is the smallest available in prime time.

Hello! Kirstine Stewart! Have you ever watched The Fifth Estate? If you have and you allow it to continue to run on Friday evenings you don’t deserve to hold the esteemed position you now have at the CBC. If you haven’t, shame on you for not caring enough about the kind of programming CBC has done best for six decades, the programs that built the CBC. From the days of This Hour has Seven Days, to Newsmagazine, to The Journal, to Marketplace, to Ombudsman the CBC has consistently produced some of the best current affairs programs anywhere.

The Fifth Estate is as good as journalism gets on TV and further it is as great a program as any produced in this country. Every week Linden MacIntyre, Hana Gartner, Bob McKeown and Gillian Findlay churn out excellent hour long documentary reports that never fail to engage the audience. Usually the stories open our eyes to events, people or ideas that we knew little about or they provide context and clarity to some of the most important stories in the news.

Last week Linden MacIntyre hosted a wonderful backgrounder on the rise and fall of Libyan strongman Mouammar Kadhafi. Not only was it a thorough and well produced backgrounder on a leading figure in the news, it brought international perspectives from the likes of Tony Blair and Condoleezza Rice. This was a show that all Canadians should have had the opportunity to see. With all eyes turned toward the uprisings in the Middle East the interest here among both news junkies and casual news viewers should have resulted in an audience of over 1.5 million. Too bad the show is buried. Even more heinous is the lack of publicity given to a program that is so important.

Two weeks ago The Fifth Estate deconstructed the shenanigans surrounding the police handling of the G-20 Summit in Toronto. I thought I knew that story inside out and was prepared to change the channel. I tuned in and I was hooked. The reporting was excellent and the insights were important. Once again I wondered if anyone knew this show was on.

This year The Fifth has covered stories ranging from the code of toughness to hockey to two episodes on Colonel Russell Williams. In the past The Fifth has blown the whistle on lottery cheating and even the sale of tainted tuna. Folks, the quality of The Fifth Estate is not hit and miss. It is consistently great journalism and even better, it is consistently great TV.

The time has come for the CBC bosses to recognize what they have. A prominent time slot on a Sunday or Monday evening is needed. More important, the powers that choose who gets the publicity dollars have to let Canadians know what’s on this program consistently and effectively. I guarantee that if Canadians knew about the content of The Fifth Estate and if it was aired at an advantageous time and day, the audience would soar to the numbers that Rick Mercer gets and more.

I should add that Marketplace needs the same kind of treatment. It should be on the air from September to May. It should have a decent time slot. It deserves to be publicized.

The CBC brass has shown its disdain for current affairs since the day Richard Stursberg showed up on their doorstep. Building a big audience has been the mantra spouted by everyone in charge. The result has been for the most part mediocre drama, bad sitcoms and a reliance on reality TV. What hurts most is that the tools were there to build audience all along. Shows like The Fifth Estate and Marketplace can be ratings winners. David Suzuki’s show still produces excellent science programming. These shows are cheap compared to drama. They have drawn big audiences in the past and they can do the same in the future. From where I sit they are the answer to the CBC’s problems. Too bad nobody in head office realizes this.

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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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