Saturday, December 13, 2014

CBC: More Needed Than Ever - Just Not in its Present Form
The assumptions published by the Financial Post in Philip Cross’s rant against the CBC are a recitation of well-known anti-public service outrage. It’s quite an indictment: the public broadcaster is accused of "intellectual bigotry, Toronto elite disdain, assumed superiority and biased programming."

It is a litany of bad media behavior, or so it would seem. But after the charges are read out, where is the evidence?

Mr. Cross fails to provide anything beyond than his own fevered impressions and antipathy. He certainly does not like Michael Enright or Peter Mansbridge. But he never tells us why. Mr. Cross is entitled to his opinion, but he is not entitled to his own facts.

The CBC has been accused of many things including repeated attempts to placate conservative critics with well-known and outspoken pro-business journalists and personalities such as Kevin O’Leary and Rex Murphy.   

They are hardly a bunch of aging hippies seeking to join the next available Marxist cell.

Mr. Cross conveniently overlooks the efforts made by the CBC to present a reasonable reflection of Canadian points of view. That is in fact, the role of the CBC: a public broadcaster is not the captive of any one point of view. Mr. Cross would prefer that the CBC looks and sounds like his personal ideological gathering that reflects his own brand of politics. Sorry Mr. Cross, but that’s not what a public broadcaster does.

What, in fact, is the role of a public broadcaster in this intense digital environment? The CBC is not alone in wrestling with that idea.

Other broadcasters including the BBC, American Public Media and Radio France, to name a few, are also trying to re-invent themselves. The pressures on public broadcasters everywhere are intense in light of the demands of the marketplace and the fragmenting of audiences caused by the Internet.

No one has come up with a perfect solution. All media are trying to figure out how to retain their audiences, how to use new media to best effect and how to stabilize a precarious financial situations. Newspapers, above all, are struggling with this.

Some public broadcasters (Israel and Greece) have even gone so far as to go off the air in order to re-tool their programming with a promise to return sometime next year.

It’s not an easy time to be a public broadcaster. Many are asking whether they should simply pursue ratings, above all else, and to hell with any mission-driven concepts of public service?

Should they provide the high-minded, and expensive programming that commercial broadcasters avoid? Or can they provide a combination of the two and satisfy enough of the public to assure the trust and support of the politicians who fund them?

Tough choices. And not an easy place to be. Combined with that dilemma, the CBC has not done itself or its audiences any favours with its recent screw-ups involving Jian Ghomeshi.

Yet the role of a public service broadcaster in Canada is still needed, just as we need public policy decisions to keep our country and its culture alive. The question is, in what form and for whom should a public broadcaster be part of the Canadian media landscape? 

Mr. Cross claims that Canada would be better off without a public broadcaster entirely. He implies that all other media (one assumes they are without any ideological baggage) could easily fill in behind in a CBC-less Canada.

But is the private sector able, willing and appropriately resourced to provide programs that inform, enlighten and entertain Canadians as required by the Broadcasting Act of 1991? That seems unlikely.

Or should the private sector simply do what it does best – entertain the public in order to make a profitable return on investment for its shareholders?

That is precisely what a public broadcaster must not do.

The public broadcaster in Canada needs to find a role for itself that understands the media consumption needs of the audiences. At the same time, it has to provide services that commercial media simply are unable or unwilling to do.

The public broadcaster in Canada is in need of serious re-invention. It must create high quality and contextual news and information. It must generate entertainment that is both popular and original. In short, to provide content that will both surprise and delight.

A public service broadcaster must be both aspirational and realistic on behalf of the public it must serve. That doesn’t mean being boring (low ratings) or so popular (aka sleazy) that it demeans the purpose of the public broadcaster. It needs to be a service that enough Canadians want to justify the annual Parliamentary appropriation of around $1 billion.

It also should be strictly non-commercial so that its values remain one of service to the country, not to create just another media commodity that is indistinguishable from the rest.

A revitalized CBC must have the originality of Danish TV in its wonderful series “Borgen” and the capacity of a great news service such as NPR.

Mr. Cross would prefer that Canadians (and implicitly, the federal government) should abandon the concept of public service broadcasting altogether.

That would be a terrible mistake. It was a Conservative government that created the CBC in 1936. It could be a Conservative government that should now restore the concept, if it has the courage and the imagination to take on the task.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

CBC Radio: Lament for a Notion

I've hesitated to write anything about the latest awfulness inflicted on Canada by the Jian Ghomeshi scandal because it's so unspeakable. As George Steiner wrote about an even more appalling event, "when confronted by horror, silence is the only response."

Only a week ago, the story broke thanks to Jesse Brown's relentless pursuit of rumours and insinuations. We owe him our thanks.

But it occurred to me and many others who continue to follow this slow-motion, relentless car wreck, that the outpouring of sadness and anger is misplaced. It's not just about Ghomeshi and his appalling (and unacknowledged - by him) practices. It's about how Canadians have suddenly realized that the national treasure known as CBC Radio hasn't been there for quite some time.

Commenting on Ghomeshi in the blog Vulture, Adam Sternbergh, a former CBC-er now in New York says:

It’s that the scandal represents a further undermining of a treasured — possibly the treasured — national cultural institution. It’s a tremor that shakes the fortress and leaves it more unstable. Lots of listeners like and even revere Ghomeshi, but their relationship with CBC Radio is more intrinsic and profound. However it all plays out, the CBC can certainly survive without Jian Ghomeshi. But most of Canada, I’d venture, would not even like to consider the prospect of surviving with a diminished CBC.

CBC Radio still has some bright spots: Michael Enright's substantial The Sunday Edition, Tom Allen's witty and charming Shift, Laurie Brown's hip The Signal and locally, Matt Galloway's passion for Toronto on Metro Morning. So there are still some possibilities. But fewer of them than we deserve and less than there used to be.

Yet CBC Radio has been diminished and has been in decline for a some time. It was easy and unfair when Radio people would quietly mock the troubles that would occasionally beset their colleagues in TV. No one's mocking anyone now.

The reasons for Radio's decline are many and complex:  an institutional smugness, governmental indifference, a decline in funding, and a senior management culture that must believe that the state has no real role in public broadcasting.

At the same time, there was a widespread delusion that CBC Radio could still be a "light unto the nation," as it were....that Radio would still be able to create a sense of national community and conversation in this cacophonous digital age. I thought so along with others. We were wrong.

The same questionable and deforming values of ratings and star-status that have been so damaging to CBC TV have also had its effect on CBC Radio. We were in denial.

Over the years, the country has changed. It is not the communitarian culture that it once was 20 years ago. A program like Morningside with Peter Gzowski couldn't exist now. We live in a far too fragmented digital culture.

If Ghomeshi was seen as a possible successor to Gzowski, it was a deeply wished-for scenario. And it almost worked. But in the end, it was a mirage. Our national lament for a missing CBC Radio may be for something no longer be possible. That's what has people so upset.

Q was seen as too big to fail and Ghomeshi as too important to manage. Now the results can be seen and heard outside this one program and this one disgraced host. Other producers, journalists and radio staffers have been warning about a managerial vacuum for years. Now, those particular chickens are roosting all over the CBC.

Some optimists are saying that this dreadful episode will soon pass, that the public will forget Ghomeshi and the CBC can "return to regularly scheduled programming", as the saying goes. That is unlikely to happen.

This is not about one man's libidinous foolishness. It is about the institution that he served so poorly. This is a crisis of truly existential proportions for the CBC. Nothing short of a complete re-invention of public broadcasting in Canada can save it. And if it can't be saved, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Why It Feels Like Entropy is Everywhere

View from the Leopold Museum, Vienna
A few days away from Toronto did some good.

Instead of the relentless bad news about ISIS, Ebola and the Ford brothers, I spent the time visiting friends, seeing some art in London.

In Vienna, more "Wiener Werkstätte" art plus an evening hearing some Mozart in Mozart's house. A little sachertorte didn't hurt either.

But it was impossible to escape reality entirely.

While I was in London, The Guardian published an amazingly sharp critique by a young Indian essayist and novelist, Pankaj Mishra. In a long article, Mishra explains why his confluence of disasters is the logical outcome of economic and political missteps by western countries and western culture. Entitled "Once Upon a Time In the West" it is well worth reading.

Mishra claims that the West has lost the power to shape events in its own image, "as recent events from Ukraine to Iraq make all too clear." He asks why does the West still preach the pernicious myth that every society must evolve along western lines?

Ebola is both a disease and a metaphor. It continues to horrify and fascinate the Europeans as much as it does for North Americans.

While the epidemic is serious and still remains a danger (mostly to West Africans), the anxiety especially in America seems disproportionate and a good example of the media sowing moral panic.
  • CNN's Brian Stelter tweeted that his on his show, Reliable Sources, the ratings went up 50% when they talk about Ebola.
  • Even the CBC has been infected. On Tuesday, October 21st, the CBC is having an day of programming about the disease which, according to one manager is a chance for the CBC to show "there is great value in creating a brand around our Ebola coverage and reinforcing for our audiences that we are THE destination for Canadians to go to for the Facts behind the Virus."
The mind reels at the heartless cynicism of this.

I was encouraged to watch the BBC's World Service television in my hotel in Vienna. An interview with a Canadian doctor pointed out that 1) the epidemic is slowly getting under control and 2) countries such as Ghana and Nigeria have excellent methods of containing the outbreak, thus demonstrating that Africa is still capable of handling this issue without the help of the West.

Media organizations in the West seem to need Ebola to reframe the question about the hapless and hopeless Africans. And if the ratings get a bounce while they are at it, even better.

Pankaj Mishra may be more prescient than he knew.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Why Toronto Should be "Grateful" to Rob Ford

Now Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has stomach cancer and has withdrawn from the mayoralty campaign. His brother Doug will run for mayor in his place, but like his brother, seems unlikely to win. Rob Ford announced he is running for his previous seat on council. At least in theory. Right now, his cancer is the defining issue for him and his family.

Ford is now receiving chemotherapy to treat his particularly virulent form of the disease. He will undergo two bouts of chemo and each will last three days. After each, there will be 18 days of recovery. He will emerge from this treatment on October 30. The election is October 27. Whether he will be in any shape to take his seat as city councillor (there is no doubt that he will win), is another question.

Assuming that Rob Ford's political career has ended at least for now, it's worth looking at the legacy of the Ford years.

Even before he was elected as Mayor, Rob Ford, as a sitting councillor for the previous ten years, was an affront to right-thinking Torontonians. His public displays of drunkenness, drug use and bully tactics may have offended the elites. For many suburbanites, that mattered less. His instinct for retail politics played well. He never met a pothole he didn't want to fix. Even with a tenuous understanding of what constitutes a conflict-of-interest, his frequent displays of mis-behaviour garnered quiet approval simply because he so easily offended the FOOFs (Fine Old Ontario Families) and the media that back them up. More to the point, he didn't give a damn who condemned him.

As mayor, Rob Ford accomplished very little. He was only one vote among 40 + councillors. His objections to various bills were regularly ignored. He claimed to have halted reckless spending, but not so anyone noticed. He said he kept taxes low, but in fact they rose while he was mayor.

What Rob Ford accomplished over the past four years, more than anything, was to demonstrate that Toronto's thin veneer of inclusiveness and diversity was not much more than an urban myth, perpetuated by the same downtown elites that used to run Toronto until Ford became mayor.

Toronto is a city whose race and class divisions are now more exposed than ever before. And Rob Ford is responsible for that. Ford in his coarse and vulgar way, flipped the bird at the old WASP establishment (to which, it must be said, he is somewhat connected), and working class suburbanites love him for that. They may tut-tut his "drunken stupors" as he himself described them, but they were prepared to overlook them as long as he was able to "épater les bourgeois." And did he ever épater them.

Those class and racial division suddenly occurred to me: A few weeks ago, I was walking along Bloor Street West at Spadina Avenue, on the edge of the tony Annex and the downtown campus of the University of Toronto.

At that corner, there are three Heritage Plaques placed by the City of Toronto. They commemorate historical events around the city.

These plaques commemorate when a tunnel called the Spadina Expressway was stopped by a concerted effort of locals and environmentalists. The Expressway would have connected the suburb of North York with downtown Toronto. It would have brought a lot more traffic to the city and it would have massively disrupted life for residents of the Annex with its artists, intellectuals and professorial classes. The great New York urbanist Jane Jacobs had moved to Toronto and she was instrumental in stopping the project in 1971. Downtowners were thrilled and still point to this event as a highpoint in urban integrity and activism.

Symbolically, those Heritage Plaques must personify what Rob Ford dislikes about downtown Toronto: they tell suburban fellow-citizens, in so many words, that "we don't want your kind around here...stay on your own side of town..."

It's the same sentiment that stopped the DC Metro in Washington from being extended into Georgetown. And the same resistance stopped (temporarily) the building of the New York subway into the Upper East Side.

Rob Ford may be on the verge of departing the political scene. But Toronto owes him a curious debt of gratitude for exposing the real divisions in this city. And whoever wins the office of mayor will face an enormous task.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Are Western Journalists Missing the Story from Ukraine?

The editor of the Kyiv Post, Euan Macdonald has been critical of western media in their coverage of the Ukraine-Russia conflict:
"The Kremlin propagandists know that Western journalists are risk-averse when it comes to reporting - they know that while each one of them is desperate to get the story FIRST, it must also be CORRECT. Mistakes will haunt you long after the story has broken and the brief glory of the breaking story has faded. This risk-aversion can be exploited by simply tearing off the shoulder patch of a Russian soldier. Western journalists can no longer report "Russian soldiers are in the process of annexing Crimea." They can't identify the soldiers for sure - they can't risk being wrong, even though it's completely obvious, even to themselves, who these soldiers are. Ditto unmarked Russian T-72 tanks in Ukraine. They can't report what they know personally to be the truth."
A friend and colleague from my CBC days, Alex Sprintsen posted this on facebook:

What Western journalists need to remember about covering the situation in Ukraine: there AREN'T two sides to every story and sometimes if you see what looks like a duck walking, it IS a duck. Will a time come when media managers adjust? Not their principles and values, but their approach to reporting the truth when the rules of the game are different from the norm.
Alex asked me for a response:

Alex - what part of the story has not been reported by western media? As I have been following it (mostly in the NY Times and the BBC which seem to have a ringside seat to the story), the issues that Mr. Macdonald raises are ones that have been covered. I don't sense any particular attempts to paint Russia in some neutral way. There is a Russian perspective (you may not agree with it) that has been reported, even by the CBC. That's the view that Putin has revived a spirit of pan-Slavism (just in time for the anniversary of WW1). It has elements of Sovietism and evoking Mother Russia. Obviously that makes former Soviet republics very nervous. 

And for good historical reasons. Putinism is also an expression of the new Russian crony and statist corruption. And the new Russian imperialism is designed to cover up various failures of Russian politics, economy and society. Nationalism has served that role for quite some time, as we know. So what am I missing here? I'll tell you what I haven't read: the return to a bipolar balance of power. 

Putinism may be a crude counter to the failures of American policies that began in 1989 and took an odd and troubled turn after 9/11. I leave these analyses to the Council on Foreign Relations et al, but we might consider that we could be on the verge of not only a new cold war, but a new international balancing of reinvented that which might presage a new era of international stability, punctuated as before by small clashes but no open warfare. 

This would likely happen at tremendous costs to political freedoms and human rights. But there would be great power stability and that's something both the US and Russia are moving toward. As for the journalism, I think that the art of reading the Russians was shelved back in 1989, (end of history etc.) but it is now being revived. We need more journalists like you Alex to figure this out. And yes, Stephen Cohen, you can come back in now...

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Should We Ban Laptops from the Classrooms?

It occurred to me that one way to get my students' attention is to remove their digital distractions for a couple of hours.

I am teaching a first year course called Introduction to Journalism. The learners in this class at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus are 18 or 19 years old, mostly from the area, very computer savvy and as I suspected, easily distracted.

Now in my fourth year of teaching at UTSC, I noticed I was competing with whatever they were looking at: facebook postings, twitter feeds, websites that were evidently more appealing than what I was talking about.

But journalism is about, among other things, listening. What if I insisted that they close their laptops and shut off their cellphones for two hours, once a week? Would they listen more closely? Would they be more or less engaged in what the discussion was about?

(Prior to each class I email the notes for that week's discussion or the powerpoint.  There is no need to take detailed notes in class).

Some colleagues said it would be a losing battle on the fields of pedagogy. The lure of the laptop is just too great.

Other thought it might be worth a try.

Yesterday was my first class for the term. In a class of almost 90 learners, I took a leap of faith and told them to close their laptops.

There was some surprise but almost no protests. I also said that since newsroom journalism is a contact sport, they have to talk - forcefully - about what we will discuss. In previous years, I found the students were reluctant to voice an opinion. Partly this is because (I believe) they come from a conformist high school culture and being (mostly) Canadians, they are polite and deferential to a fault. International students, even more so.

The first class starts at the beginning and is called "What is Journalism?"

Within the first ten minutes, I saw that they were listening. Really listening. And it wasn't long before hands started to go up to discuss, argue and question. They couldn't use the laptop screen as a buffer to avoid being engaged.

It was, thanks to the absence of technology, the best first lecture I've had and the expressions of appreciation from the students at the end of the class, confirmed this.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Did the Media Get the Israel-Hamas War Right?

Not very well, according to a former AP Jerusalem correspondent Matti Friedman.

In his blistering critique, Friedman claims that his own organization blew it. Big time.

Friedman blasts his former employer the Associated Press news service for a variety of sins. These include, over-covering the story ("The agency had more than 40 staffers covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories...more news staff than the AP had in China, Russia or India, or in all of the 50 countries of sub-Saharan Africa combined...").

He questions his editors' editorial judgment: "The AP's editors believed, that is, that Syria's importance was less than one-40th that of Israel..."

"Every flaw in Israeli society is aggressively reported...I counted 27 separate articles, an average of a story every two days."

"A story on Hamas intimidation...was shunted into deep freeze by...superiors and has not been published..."

"...A significant peace offer to the Palestinian Authority (in early 2009)...but the top editors at the bureau decided that they would not publish the story."

These are damning accusations. So I asked the AP for a response. In a polite email from the AP's director of media relations, Paul Colford wrote "we'll refrain from commenting on the piece and the writer in question."

I tend to agree with much of what Friedman writes....or at least I recognize some of the thinking...
The media's obsession with Israel tends to be exaggerated in many cases. And there is a media bias in general toward any group in the conflict that advocates for a peaceful outcome.

But Friedman's essay evoked a couple of thoughts: one, the murder of James Foley has now I believe, shifted opinion in a significant way. More people are stating (quietly thus far) that the values of Hamas and the IS are not so different. Criticism of the war on Gaza and of Israel's prosecution of the war, is declining, in part because the worst of the TV images have ended, but also because to do otherwise runs the risk of being lumped in with the IS barbarians.

Two, aside from the appalling European anti-Semitism which one ignores or downplays at one's peril, there is a growing fatigue with the Israel story. There is a sense that the situation is truly hopeless and the parties are unable to settle this either militarily or otherwise. The next step seems to be an American imposed deadline for a settlement, followed by the imposition of an agreement. 

Finally, Friedman's observations are - to my way of thinking - very much from the shop floor. Decisions made by editors and managers (who often don't communicate very well) have a way of appearing to be thoughtless or deceitful. At their worst, they give an impression of being anti-journalistic at best and craven capitulation at worse.

It sounds like Friedman did not do a lot of reporting on his bosses. He may not have asked them why they took the positions they did. That way, it's easier for beleaguered journalists to believe the worst of their bosses and the role of aggrieved-reporter-as-vicitim-of-management gets further petrified.

My bias stems from years in the management trenches, with my motives and decisions often being second guessed by the reporters and editors. Explanations from the corner office can be dismissed as self-serving and unduly defensive. 

So while Friedman makes some interesting observations, it feels a bit short-sighted to me and plays just as effectively into the trope of mendacious media management as much as he wraps himself in the victim flag.

I've known a few AP managers. It is an excellent and trustworthy news organization. Like all news orgs these days, I'm sure there are the usual assortment of characters - some more beleaguered than others, whose motivations may be less pure than Friedman's. 

But his unproven assumptions about those motivations feel like the musings of a disgruntled ex-employee thus reducing the value of an otherwise interesting column.