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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

#Peegate: or a Dubious Case Of Media Espionage?

CBC TV's investigative program, "Marketplace" discovered that it had a major "leak" in Canada's election campaign.

In 2012, the show did an exposé of a service contractor named Jerry Bance, caught using a coffee mug in the kitchen where he was working. He wasn't drinking from it. He was caught on camera peeing into it. After rising it out, he put in back in the cupboard.

Nice job, Marketplace.

But an astute producer noticed that the Conservatives are running a candidate with the same name in a Toronto constituency. And of course, hilarity ensued. 

The Conservatives (who should have done a better job at vetting Bance) quickly disowned him and the search is on for a new candidate. Will they find one a month away from the vote? Depends!

Ok. Enough with the snide jokes.

I think that kudos are deserved over at CBC TV for showing this. After all, who wants a Member of Parliament who doesn't know where his member should go.

(Sorry...couldn't resist).

But aside from showing what sorts of candidates the Tories are proposing, there are serious issues at stake.

I worry that when many are concerned about the numerous digital intrusions into our lives, that there seems to be no restriction on news organizations when they decide to snoop "in the public interest."

Governments and corporations know more about us than ever. Yet when privacy concerns are raised, we are told by our economic and political elites, just to trust their good judgments and intentions. That's not good enough.

The same should apply to news operations. Media organizations also need to have some sense of limits and public accountability. I think the CBC was right to expose now ex-candidate Jerry Bance and his dubious hygiene practices. But as I recall, there used to be a severe restriction at the CBC against doing this sort of hidden camera reporting.

This could only be done with the approval of a Vice President or a President. More importantly, there had to be a demonstrated, overwhelming public interest to engage in this practice. I question whether showing a repairman behaving in an unseemly way was quite up there with Watergate.

It would be better if the CBC reminded us under what circumstances are these sorts of journalistic practices allowed and who must approve them.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The End of the Tories? Canadian Journalists' Wishful Thinking Exposed

These are early days yet in the Canadian election. Despite the unusual length of the campaign (eleven weeks instead of the traditional 37 days) which benefits the ruling party, the scribes and their various media organizations have been calling for an end to nine years of Conservative government.

It may yet happen. The polls show a majority of voters says they are fed up with the Harper government. Elite and legacy news organizations are filling the dog-days of journalism with op-eds denouncing the various and dubious practices of the government. The capstone is the Duffy Trial now on display in Ottawa. For non-Canadians who may have missed this episode, it involves one Mike Duffy, a Tory-appointed Senator (yes, Senators are appointed by the government of the day for services rendered. One wag once described the Senate as "the taskless thanks.").

Duffy has been charged with 31 instances of fraud and breach-of-trust in his expense claims. Although the amounts are measly by American standards (about Can$90,000, or US$69,000), the growing implication is that this amount was hush money to get Duffy and his questionable housing allowance out of sight of Parliament and the media.

(Full disclosure: in the 1980s, I was a TV producer at the CBC's Ottawa bureau and I worked with Mike who I always found to be charming and a pleasure to work with. He also didn't mind if we called him "The Senator" as befitted his aspirations, even back then. We thought it was a joke. Apparently, the joke was on us...).

Polls say the Duffy trial is now having an impact on voter intention. As the details emerge about how many people in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) knew about Duffy's financial problems and the willingness of Prime Minister Harper's Chief of Staff to pay the amount out of his own pocket, the public appears to be souring on the Harper government. The Prime Minister claims that he was never informed about this payment, which seems unlikely given the Harper's micro-managerial tendencies.

The media are having a lovely summer with this story and are reporting that the polls show the end of the Tories is nigh.

That may as well be. But I tend to a certain skepticism about the polls for a number of reasons.

First, the polls have been less than stellar of late. They have missed the mark on a number of issues, even as polling companies claim to a higher level of astuteness and accuracy. The polls failed to predict the UK election, the Israeli election, and closer to home, the recent elections in British Columbia and Alberta.

Media organizations still insist of reporting polls for a number of reasons: first, they are an easy news story that in these times of diminishing newsroom resources, a polling story is great to fill the yawning news holes. Especially if you don't have the reporting horses to go out of the newsroom. Polls are too often, the enablers of poor journalistic practices.

(At NPR, I once suggested at the morning editorial meeting prior to the 1998 midterms, that we stop reporting polls for the week before the vote. The reaction was overwhelming: "But what will be have to talk about?" said one horrified host).  

Second, I'm increasingly convinced that the pollsters are insufficiently skeptical of the answers they are getting. Anecdotally, I am told that people like to lie when they are contacted by polling companies, especially when the poll is not conducted by a live person on the end of the phone line.

Third, even as the Conservatives look less and less appealing, people are unwilling to openly state their continued support for the ruling party. There is a bandwagon effect and voters want to appear to be on the side that's winning, even if it's not their choice.

Finally, journalists like to talk amongst themselves and tend to reinforce their own thinking, often without giving sufficient pause to the "what if we're wrong" scenario.

The coverage in Canada (and in the US) is making me nervous. I sense that journalists are (once again) going down a rabbit hole that appeals to them personally, but ill-serves the public.

What's missing is some real reporting outside the confines of the campaigns.

And the cozy confines of the Mike Duffy trial.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Looting of the CBC

Much has been written about the latest scandal to roil the public broadcaster. This time, a respected radio and TV journalist, Evan Solomon, was fired after it was revealed he used his high-profile position to act as an agent for an art dealer.

This comes after a more serious charge involving Jian Ghomeshi and allegations of violent behaviour against women. He too was fired. His case is now before the courts.

Others accused of breach of trust have fared somewhat better: Rex Murphy, Amanda Lang and Peter Mansbridge (among other high profile CBC-ers) took speaking fees from lobby groups. After an alleged management wrist-slap, they resumed their roles. And their salaries. The practice of taking fees for speeches has (mostly) been stopped.

The question remains as to why CBC management keeps allowing these to happen. Is management intimidated by their own employees? Or more precisely, what is there about at the CBC where people feel they can do these things with impunity?

Insiders say the management presence is increasingly M.I.A. Certainly, there are managers. Lots of them. But the level of interaction with the shop floor seems to have diminished. Working journalists say they don't know to whom they should report. At the same time, the growing ranks of middle management are kept busy with administration tasks (frequently undefined and once described as "adminis-trivia").

Where there is a managerial vacuum, odd behaviours can occur.

I don't mean the usual petty pilfering of ballpoint pens. But more ominously, the notion that one's loyalty may not be to the organization that pays your salary.

Most journalists I have worked with, have a sense of loyalty. Sure, they complain about everything from working conditions and lousy coffee to incompetent bosses. It's part of the culture of skepticism, crankiness and gossip that makes the journalistic working life so damn interesting.

But when high-profile (and highly paid) journalists start to engage in a form of looting by trying to game the job by squeezing the system for more, that's when management should admit it is no longer in control. To do anything less is a form of managerial collusion.

The level of trust among CBC employees toward their employer has now declined to such an extent, that even highly paid staffers feel they need to rake it in while they can, or before the CBC is shut down.

Warnings by the government that is is "displeased" with the CBC don't help. Neither is the stacking of the CBC board with Conservative Party hacks who openly vent their distrust of the organization they are supposed to support. 

Shutting the place may not happen, but the constant sense of impending doom that has beset the public broadcaster has created an atmosphere of "every man (and woman) for themselves."

It is starting to feel like end times for the public broadcaster. It is still possible for the CBC to correct its direction. But it's getting late.

And it feels like the ship is getting perilously close to the rocks.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Has Journalism Become Too Dangerous for Women?

City TV's Shauna Hunt Confronts the "Boys"
The recent high profile stupidity of a couple of drunken yahoos making crude and obnoxious remarks to female TV journalists in Toronto and Calgary has opened up a well-known but long avoided issue for women in newsrooms.

In effect, how to handle the recent spurt of hoser eruptions where crude and sexist comments are yelled on camera by men as female journalists try to do their jobs.

There have been sexual assaults on women journalists (notably CBS News' Lara Logan) reporting from Arab countries. They have been condemned by western media organizations. In the countries where the offense occurred, not so much. In the West, we smugly assumed that couldn't happen here. But in fact, a version of that (more verbal than physical but also revolting) has been happening here for a while.

Until now, the highest profile case of sexual harassment came out via the Jian Ghomeshi incident. That led a small delegation of my female students to ask if they should risk applying to the CBC for internships. I was surprised when they asked, but it was clear to them, that the CBC was a dangerous place to work. Worse, that management seemed not to care. I assured them that it was safe. I hope I'm right.

A number of women journalists have posted on Facebook about various incidents that happened to them. And it seems to be getting worse as media organizations cut back on staff. Now a reporter goes out with only a cameraperson, if she is lucky. Increasingly, the reporter is expected to shoot the visuals and report all on her own.

But why now? In fact, the gutsy response of Shauna Hunt from Toronto's City TV News brought the issue into prominence by her own willingness to confront the harasser (quickly fired by his employer).

So a couple of ideas: first, the prevalence of the digital culture with its tendency to anonymity has allowed for a higher level of public crudity. If you can say it online, why not in person? Isn't that part of  the digital democracy? Maybe it was always there. We are just able to witness it more than we once did.

Second, the pornification of popular culture has allowed for these attitudes to be expressed. I know I sound like a conservative on this. So be it.

Third, media organizations may talk a good game about supporting their employees, but in fact, as staff positions are replaced with freelance contractors, newsrooms are less inclined to provide the level of support they once did.

One female employee told me that as she was being harassed by a couple of drunken yobbos, her cameraman ran away to protect his gear, rather than the reporter. This would not happen if a field producer were there if the story was designated as a "dangerous assignment."

That might be something for the next round of union-management negotiations. But a more immediate response and solution is needed now.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

No Playing it Safe: Why Journalism Must take Risks to Tell the Truth

I teach in a university with a very high proportion of non-Anglo-Canadian students. At the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus, the majority of the students in my journalism classes are from families who have come from China, South Asia, Iran, the Middle East, Africa, and the Caribbean.

So there is a certain tension when the subject comes around to how journalism should handle "uncomfortable" ideas such as race, sexuality and satire especially when directed toward identifiable groups.

When the Charlie Hebdo massacres occurred, we talked about whether media organizations can or should be limited in what they can do. What is the purpose of anti-hate legislation? Should any of the cartoons be republished? And if not, why not? What are the limits, if any, of free speech in a digital culture?

The discussion was quite frank. One Pakistani student felt comfortable enough to ask me privately, why the media has so many Jewish employees and employers. He also asked why is it ok for the media to criticize Islam but not the Holocaust? (He knows I'm Jewish). I responded by saying that it's not fair to criticize either. But it is fair to question the violent actions of of both radical Muslims and Jews. I also pointed him to an excellent article by Roger Cohen in the New York Times.

If journalism were only comforting, it wouldn't be journalism, I told him. On the other hand, if it only reports the worst aspects of humanity (often the most newsworthy), we would be doing a disservice. Finding that elusive balance is what makes journalism so interesting, so challenging, and so fierce.

Now the Pen Gala is being challenged for giving an award to Charlie Hebdo for its commitment to free (and offensive) speech. Some serious writers have said they will not attend because of their sense that the cartoons pillory an already oppressed minority.

The debate is intense. And appropriate. And it fits in perfectly with the anguish I witnessed in my class where students of colour felt nervous about re-posting the cartoons while white students thought it was a proper journalistic service.

Now the CBC is in another internal crisis over how its programs should or should not describe what happened to Armenians a hundred years ago.

Was it genocide, as many governments (including the Canadian government) have allowed? Indeed was it the first genocide that paved the way for future genocides of Jews, Hutus, Bosnian Muslims and others?

CBC guardians of editorial standards have issued this notice:

For instance, historians consider the Holocaust an attempted genocide of the Jewish people. Despite the strong views of a few fringe communities, the Holocaust can be considered an attempted genocide without qualification. Nazis murdered six million Jews during the Second World War.
By contrast, Turkey has refused to classify the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during the First World War as genocide. Turkish authorities consider the deaths a legitimate military response to revolution and banditry. Canada and more than 20 other countries have formally recognized the killings as genocide, including Belgium, France, Italy and Russia. So has a United Nations commission and the European Parliament. Critics, however, have questioned whether the killings between 1915 and 1916 were actually part of an orchestrated, systematic attempt at extermination - a key component in their definition of genocide. Many Armenians were killed. Others died of starvation or disease.
For this reason, the common term Armenian genocide should be qualified when used in our reporting. Examples:
  ***  In what's widely referred to as the Armenian genocide ...
 ***  ... The UN, Canada and more than 20 other countries recognize the slaughter as genocide. But Turkey disputes the term ...
Proper nouns are OK but still require context:
Millions of people around the world mark April 24 as the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. More than 20 countries, including Canada, recognize the slaughter of Armenians during the First World War as genocide. But Turkey rejects the term.
There's no need to use a word such as "alleged" to describe mass killings that are known to have taken place. But when facts are in dispute our audience should be informed. (Armenians say 1.5 million died, for instance, while the Republic of Turkey puts the number at 300,000.) While some governments and many scholars label the killings genocide, it's important to acknowledge that Turkey and others do not. By mentioning both official positions, CBC News maintains balanced coverage.

This has outraged a number of CBC journalists who wonder whether this is an attempt to avoid any sort of outside criticism.

It would make my Pakistani student wonder about the "courage" of western media.

I do, as well.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

"q", Shad and Public Broadcasting in Canada

Shad - CBC's Latest Host
CBC has launched the newly rebranded pop culture show "Q" - now officially in lower case as "q." That sends a message that the CBC is going low profile for a while. After the drama of Ghomeshi, journalists taking fees for speeches from lobby groups and hundreds of layoffs, that may be a reasonable strategy.

The new host is a hiphop artist named Shad and he seems like a good fit to search out that elusive 18-35 demographic. It will take time for the program to find its own voice and sensibility. But so far, the show sounds like another solid piece of CBC Radio  - fitting in nicely, nothing too alarming and basking in the massive internal CBC media attention being paid to it after the  Corp's serial public relations disasters. No pressure, Shad and break a leg!

"q" is being heard on more than 150 public radio stations in the US. And a brief survey of my former colleagues at NPR-member stations indicates they are glad the show is back with a new host who sounds appropriate.

One difference between "q" in Canada and "q" in the US: on the CBC the program airs at 10 am. In the US, most stations are running it in the evening where it attracts the specific demographic.

In Canada, my guess is that age group isn't listening to the radio at 10 am; they are either at work or still asleep after the previous night's revelry...In public radio-speak, it's called "daypart" and it means putting the right shows, with the right content on the air at the right time of day for the right kind of listeners. "q" will likely struggle to grow that audience if it stays on at 10 am even if most CBC managers (of a certain age) are awake and can listen to the show from their offices.

Andrew Cohen, a friend and colleague who teaches at Carleton University in Ottawa has written an excoriating critique of where the CBC is right now...And more specifically, where it isn't.

The problems at the CBC are extensive, but they are not in specific radio programming. We can acknowledge that the public broadcaster can still produce great journalism and shows.

The problems are much deeper as Andrew suggests: a managerial culture that doesn't either understand or value public broadcasting, an over-emphasis on ratings instead of service and a governance structure that deforms and endorses patronage instead of competence. Also a propensity to value TV over Radio with scant attention to the oncoming digital train. 

There is also the problem of an over-reliance on government-sponsored information. Thanks to the consultants from Magid and Associates, CBC News now over-reports crime. Also weather and traffic. All come from government agencies. 

It gives off a strong whiff of state broadcasting, not public broadcasting. And at a time when crime rates are dropping, crime reporting, especially on the CBC is up. A study by the Dart Center in the US shows that the media's disproportionate focus on crime has a damaging effect on communities and tends to drive voters to support  so-called "tough-on-crime" politicians, usually on the right. No doubt the same trends are happening in Canada.

And there is the constant promotion of TV people into Radio (example: CBC TV's Tom Harrington to replace CBC Radio News reader Bernie McNamee*) is more of the creeping televisionization of CBC Radio. Tom is a great TV journalist, no doubt. But reading newscasts is not the same as being an investigative reporter. Moreover, it sends a message that Radio broadcasters are not particularly valued in todays' CBC.

The problems at the CBC are much larger than these specific issues. If public broadcasting in Canada can be saved, it will now require a major intervention from the public and from the government. Should the Tories be re-elected, it's doubtful that will happen. Other parties might be more amenable.

Assuming a change in government, here are some suggestions for radical change to begin the discussion:
  1.  A complete governance restructuring so that the President is accountable to the Board and not to the Prime Minister. Likewise the Board must be appointed by a disinterested blue ribbon panel of citizens.
  2. The President must hold office at the pleasure of the Board for a limited period.
  3. Public representation on the Board must be an essential element.
  4. The CBC should be financed by an annual Parliamentary appropriation, but should move to a non-commercial model and learn to live within its budget. 
  5. A new Broadcasting Act must be passed by Parliament to recognize the role of the public broadcaster in a digital era. The last Act was passed in 1991 when journalists still used typewriters.
* Thanks to Talin Vartanian for correcting my misspelling of Bernie's name. Apologies to Bernie.


Thursday, March 26, 2015

CTV Management 1: CBC Management 0

 Once in a while a senior media executive gets confused and thinks that he owns a widget factory instead of an idea-generating enterprise. This person actually believes that he can get a group of journalists to do what he tells them to, allegedly in the interests of the company (aka, himself).

Journalists are often accused of disloyalty by management because if it comes to a choice between the values of journalism and the reputation of the organization, most journalists tend to opt for the former.

Not in all cases, it must be admitted. A journalists' own loyalty to his or her paycheque often places the scribe in impossible conflicts. But as a general principle, most journalists would prefer to plant a flag in the soil of doing what's right, journalistically.

Some media managers have to find out the hard way as did Kevin Crull, the president and CEO of Bell Media, the conglomerate that owns, among other media properties, CTV, Canada's most popular and still commercial television network.

Crull was reported outraged at seeing the head of the Canadian broadcast regulator, Jean-Pierre Blais, interviewed on CTV programs. This, after the regulator, the CRTC ruled in favour of cheaper cable costs and against the commercial broadcasters and the cable companies. So in Canada, beginning next year, the cash-cows of Canadian cable must offer a much cheaper (aka "skinny") basic cable for $25. Individuals may then opt for additional programs and pay more for the choice.

Seeing Blais on "his" networks apparently outraged Crull. He ordered the head of the news network to ban him from appearing. Wendy Freeman, the president of CTV News passed along the fiat, which was quickly disobeyed by her senior journalists including, it is said, the host of the flagship newscast, Lisa LaFlamme and the senior Parliamentary correspondent Robert Fife.

When presented with a revolt based on journalistic principles, Crull caved and was forced to back down. He released a statement of apology.

Sources inside CTV say that this is not the first time Crull has attempted to influence the editorial staff and in fairness, even the boss should have a chance to get his point of view across. Whether journalists feel they must obey or be fired, is another matter. And presumably, it will not be the last time this happens. Next time, it may happen with a bit more managerial finesse.

Meanwhile over at the public broadcaster, the CBC's editor-in-chief, Jennifer McGuire has announced more than 140 job losses in local news in English Canada. Another 100 are going in French-speaking parts of the country.

No statement of apology for this wilful dismantling of a once proud news organization.