Category Archives: Opinion

Posted in Media, Opinion

Death to unsigned editorials

A lot has been said about newspaper endorsements just prior to Monday’s federal election.

As we now know, the Globe and Mail bizarrely endorsed the Conservative Party of Canada but not its leader, leading to mockery online. And Postmedia, my employer, ordered its newspapers to write editorials endorsing the Conservatives. That decision led to spiking an Andrew Coyne column that would have argued differently, and Coyne resigning as comment page editor for the National Post.

Despite what the editorials in question say, there are some serious questions that can be asked about why so many mainstream media outlets are openly calling for the re-election of a government that has been so hostile and unhelpful toward the media during its last mandate.

But even then, it doesn’t bother me so much that newspapers endorsed the Conservatives. (They’ve been doing that for a few election cycles now.) What bothers me is that the endorsements happened under the cover of anonymity.

It wasn’t until the Globe and Mail got Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey to confirm it that it was clear the order came from up top, that the editorials represented the positions not of the individual papers’ editors-in-chief, or publishers, or editorial boards, or collective of journalists, but of executive management of the parent corporation. The fact that each newspaper wrote their own editorial (except the Sun Media papers, which ran a common one) seemed, frankly, deceiving.

Even I didn’t know who made the call on this. And I work there.

And it’s not just Postmedia. Last year, the Globe and Mail overruled its own editorial board, switching an endorsement from the Ontario Liberals to one of the Progressive Conservatives.

If the editorials had carried the boss’s byline, or a line that said the endorsements were the position of executive management, at least it would have been clear. Everyone would have had all the information needed to evaluate the endorsements’ value. And they would be evaluated based on their content and source, not the process used to get them published.

Without that information, we’re left with opinions whose sources are unclear. We are in effect granting anonymity to the source of an opinion piece, one with the power of the newspapers’ reputations behind it.

I’m not outraged, but I am disappointed. Despite all the challenges, despite all the changes that have caused quality to suffer, despite all the decisions made that I’ve disagreed with, I remain proud of the work I and my colleagues do at the Montreal Gazette, and will continue to defend it against those who say it’s worthless. And the Globe and Mail’s reputation remains excellent, as do many other papers caught up in this.

Because I know this isn’t about “evil corporate media”. It’s a lot more complicated than that. While there was outrage over front-page advertisements that banked on newspapers’ reputations to try to sway the election (The Gazette wasn’t one of those papers, it had a Linen Chest wrap that day), Postmedia has taken steps to make it clearer to readers how advertisers are influencing their content. Advertorial content is clearly disclosed, and generally uses a different layout style and fonts than editorial content. Where there’s a possibility of confusion, there’s a note saying the story was written by the advertising department instead of the newsroom.

Newspaper election endorsements are such a silly issue to me. When was the last time your mind was changed on something because of an unsigned newspaper editorial? And yet it seems to be the only time when upper management at Postmedia, the Globe and other papers seem to care enough to impose their will on editorial boards.

So I say death to unsigned editorials in newspapers. If the CEO or publisher or whomever wants to veto an editorial board’s decision and issue an election endorsement, let that person have the courage to put his or her own name on it.

And that goes for all other editorials, too. If it’s a collective decision of the editorial board, list their names. If it’s the publisher, put the publisher’s photo next to it and email address underneath. That would also have the effect of better shielding journalists from the public’s blame for those editorials.

“As far as we’re concerned, if you’re the editor, you support the editorial position of the newspaper,” Godfrey is quoted as saying in the Globe and Mail article.

I’m with Coyne on this. It’s not wrong for colleagues to disagree on things. It’s not wrong for the media to publish opinions they disagree with. In fact, these things should be encouraged. Because employer-enforced groupthink isn’t how society progresses.

But this isn’t the hill I’m going to die on. Because I can work for people I disagree with.

Posted in Media, Opinion

Transcontinental kills the Chronicle and Examiner, the last of its English newspapers in Quebec

It’s true. Transcontinental, the publishing company that owns community weekly newspapers across the province, has confirmed that, for financial reasons, it is ceasing publication of the West Island Chronicle and Westmount Examiner. Their final issues are next week.

The Montreal Gazette has the details, as well as some comments from former Chronicle/Examiner reporters.

But as much as people are reminiscing the official passing of two institutions (the Chronicle dates back to 1924, the Examiner to 1935), the mourning began long ago. The newspapers aren’t so much being shut down as they’re finally being put out of their misery.

The fact that only three people are losing their jobs because two newspapers shut down should be as clear an indication as any of how far these papers had fallen in recent years. Where once they each had a small team of reporters and editors covering stories as best they could, at the end there was only a single reporter being shared by both papers. At that point, to call what’s being done journalism might be a bit of a stretch. The reporters that have gone through there have accomplished herculean tasks, and many have better jobs at larger media outlets now, but there’s just so much that can be done with no resources.

You need only take a look at the Chronicle’s last issue to see how thin it has become, or how much of it is ads, or advertorials. There’s journalism there, too, but nothing even remotely close to what it used to be.

Fortunately, Transcontinental will give them one last issue, just after the federal election, where they can publish results and maybe say goodbye.

The shutdown follows the conversion of the former N.D.G. Monitor to an “online newspaper” in 2009. That no longer exists, its old website URL redirecting to Métro. And this summer, Transcontinental turned another old newspaper, the Huntingdon Gleaner, into an insert in a French-language weekly, getting rid of the Gleaner’s staff. (I’ll have more on that in a future story.)

So now what? Transcontinental made a reference to the western Montreal market being served by alternatives. In the West Island, there’s the weekly West Island section of the Montreal Gazette (my employer). In Westmount, there’s the Westmount Independent. And in both, there’s the Suburban. Will one or more of these boost their resources to attract the closed papers’ former readers (and their advertisers)? Or will less competition open the door to them cutting back?

More coverage:

UPDATE: A “wake of sorts” in memory of the West Island Chronicle is planned for Nov. 11 at Le Pionnier in Pointe-Claire.

Posted in Opinion, TV

Another step in Global’s faking of local news

When Global TV decided to have late-night and weekend newscasts for its less popular markets anchored out of Toronto, it described it as an innovation, a way to increase local news instead of reducing it.

The day before it began in Montreal, it was described as something that will “allow for more local news gathering in the field.”

While it’s still early to judge something so new, after watching a few episodes of the newscast, I think I can at least evaluate Global’s promise of “more local news gathering”, at least as far as it concerns those newscasts:

It’s total bullshit.

The amount of local news gathering is about the same on weekends. What’s different is that it’s now presented by an anchor who has at best a vague understanding of the local market. Not that one is necessary for most of the show because after the first 10 minutes or so it stops reporting on local news.

Let’s break down the newscasts to explain this.


The show starts with the usual teasers and an announcer saying “From the Global News Centre, the Evening News with Kris Reyes.”

Global’s use of green-screen virtual sets means Global can make Reyes appear to be anywhere just by inserting the word “Montreal” behind her in a computer.


The same goes for the Montreal skyline inserted behind her at the desk when she presents more local news. It almost looks like she’s in the Global Montreal studio.


Coming back from the first commercial break, the background changes. Suddenly she’s in front of a control room that has lots of screens but no people. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this corresponds to the part of the local newscast devoid of local news. Putting Reyes in a generic could-be-anywhere set allows Global to produce part of a newscast filled with national and international news and copy-paste it into local newscasts across the country.

This is similar to what they’ve done with the Morning News, which goes back and forth between local and national segments.


Another commercial break and we’re back to the Montreal cityscape, and an usual sight for Global, the weather presenter sitting at the anchor desk. This wasn’t possible before because the weather presenter has been in Toronto for years. Moving the anchor there too means they can be seen on camera together instead of in a double box.

Judging by the radar maps used, the weather segments appear to be recorded 1-2 hours before the newscast. That’s not much worse than before — because the weatherman was shared with Global Toronto, they were prerecorded before this change too. And weather forecasts don’t change that much in an hour (says the guy whose newspaper includes weather forecasts which, by the time anyone reads them, are at least 12 hours old).


Back to Generic Set, and Reyes introduces Megan Robinson doing the sports roundup. Previously, Global Montreal’s local newscasts didn’t have sports segments because they didn’t have sportscasters. (They’d do quick highlights of local games, but that’s about it.)

Of course, the Blue Jays are the top story. Even though Michael Sam had made history the previous night in an Alouettes game, neither Sam nor the game made the Aug. 8 sports roundup. But you’ll be happy to know that they got in a roundup of the Shaw Charity Classic golf tournament in Calgary.


After more time-filling news stories from elsewhere, Reyes does a goodbye that seems to be carefully generic so it can be copy-pasted anywhere. Heck, they could just rerun the same clip at the end of every newscast every day. She might not be wearing the same dress next time, but if viewers haven’t spotted all the other trickery going on, they probably won’t notice that.


Finally, a 30-second collection of cityscape videos that appear to have been taken in the spring because people are wearing sweaters and winter jackets, we’re off to Global National.

The first newscast had two packaged reports from local reporters. I found this suspicious because normally there aren’t that many local resources available on weekends. Sure enough, the next weekend it was down to one local reporter.

Even with those two local reporters, the total amount of local news represented only six minutes of the local newscast. If you add the weather segments, which are also done out of Toronto, it goes up to 10.5 minutes. Add the 30-second cityscape montage to close the newscast (looks like the timing was off for the first show), and it’s 11 minutes, out of a 22-minute newscast.

Production-wise, the newscast went smoothly (aside from being a bit short). There were no technical errors or awkward silences or glitches that I could see. Having the newscast anchored out of Toronto didn’t seem to be that noticeable, except for the changing backdrops and the awkward pronunciations of French names and the use of terms like “Honoré Mercier” (for the Mercier Bridge) that are dead giveaways that someone isn’t from around here.

Day 2, 3…

For the first late newscast, it was much of the same, except that the sports segment began with a roundup of that night’s Montreal Impact game. A 22-second roundup. Followed by a minute and 20 seconds on the day’s Toronto Blue Jays game.

Day 2, the evening news started four minutes late because of golf, but still finished on time. The evening news sports segment consisted entirely of highlights of the Blue Jays game. At 11pm, it also included PGA golf and the Shaw tournament, and ran through a list of Quebec athletes who won medals at the Parapan Am Games in Toronto.

The second weekend is, I’m assuming, more representative of what we should expect from this newscast. I watched the Aug. 15 6pm newscast with a stopwatch and broke it down. Those elements in bold are local stories:

  • 0:00-0:43 Intro
  • 0:43-3:00 Billy Shields on missing man
  • 3:00-3:24 Accident brief
  • 3:24-3:42 Lane closures brief
  • 3:42-4:34 Horses brief (SOT)
  • 4:34-4:58 PKP wedding brief
  • 4:58-5:36 Roosh V Toronto brief
  • 5:36-6:47 Weather short-term forecast
  • 6:47-7:40 Slide the City brief (SOT)
  • 7:40-8:06 Promos
  • 8:06-10:25 Commercials
  • 10:25-11:08 Trudeau on the campaign trail
  • 11:08-11:38 Fires in western Canada
  • 11:38-13:29 California drought/fires
  • 13:29-15:05 Beijing explosion
  • 15:05-15:35 Promos
  • 15:35-18:21 Commercials
  • 18:21-21:27 Weather forecast
  • 21:27-24:26 Sports with Anthony Bruno
  • 24:26-24:43 Promos
  • 24:43-27:53 Commercials
  • 27:53-29:30 Straight Outta Compton story from Florida
  • 29:30-30:00 Outro

Added up, this amounts to five minutes and eight seconds of local news. Add in the four minutes and 17 seconds of local weather, and you have 9:25 total in that half hour. Another 8:15 were commercials, 2:36 consisted of promos and the goodbye, 2:59 on sports, and the other 6:45 were national and international news stories. Broken down percentage-wise:

  • 17% local news
  • 14% local weather
  • 10% sports
  • 9% promos and filler
  • 22.5% national and international news
  • 27.5% commercials

When there’s more national and international news than local news, you wonder if it can really be called a local newscast.

Saturday’s late newscast was about the same, though it included a story about Michael Sam leaving football again. The story, whose original reporting consisted of a Skype interview, was reported by Jennifer Tryon out of Toronto.

If only all local news could be reported that way.


This outsourcing of local news is just the latest step in a long process of saving money by centralizing work for small local stations. Even before the change, evening and late-night newscasts were produced in another city, with a weather presenter in Toronto and only local journalists and the local anchor in Montreal. And even before the change, much of these half-hour local newscasts, especially on weekends, were filled with reports from other Global markets or foreign news services.

And though the union has protested the whole way, the last time the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission looked at it, it passed on the opportunity to conclude that Global was no longer producing local programming.

Does the location of the anchor make much of a difference here? We might see the commission be forced to re-evaluate the situation. But it’s hard not to think the boat has already sailed here.

On one hand, Shaw Media is a private company, so it can do what it wants. If it wants to treat local news this way, it can. If it believes that copy-pasting prerecorded segments in Toronto results in a better product than a live local newscast made in Montreal, it can do that.

But on the other hand, it’s trying to sell us on the idea that it’s adding local newsgathering resources when it’s not, and more importantly it’s pretending to the CRTC that this constitutes 30 minutes of local programming when less than a third of it is in any way local.

I understand Shaw’s motivation. The late-night and weekend newscasts have poor ratings. (There wasn’t exactly any protest online when this change happened, because so few people were watching anyway.) And it is adding some resources, including a soon-to-launch noon local newscast.

But I don’t like being deceived, especially by journalists. And so much of this new system seems designed to deceive us into thinking that this is a local newscast when at best it’s half that. If you’re going to anchor a Montreal newscast out of Toronto, just be straight with us instead of using TV magic to try to hide it.

I get that local news doesn’t pay. But local programming is what broadcasters are expected to provide in exchange for the privileges that come with having a television station. If Global doesn’t want to do local news here, maybe it should consider some other form of local programming, or just offer the airtime to community groups that can offer something that truly reflects Montreal.

Because having a Toronto anchor introduce a story from Calgary and calling it local Montreal news is an insult to our intelligence.

The Toronto-produced Evening News and News Final air at 6pm and 11pm, respectively, on Saturdays and Sundays. The weeknight News Final will be similarly moved to Toronto starting in September. Global News at Noon starts Aug. 27.

News at Noon begins

Today was the first episode of News at Noon, a new half-hour local newscast that is produced out of Montreal. Jamie Orchard is the permanent host, but Camille Ross took over those duties today while staff is shuffled because of vacations.


The show had about what you’d expect from a noon newscast: two live hits from reporters in the field (morning reporter Kelly Greig and evening reporter Tim Sargeant), a packaged report from the previous night, and some briefs.

I won’t do a detailed breakdown because I suspect the first show might not be representative of what we should expect on a regular basis. I’ll wait until a future date to give this a more thorough evaluation. But it followed a formula similar to the weekend newscasts, with the first half of it local news and weather and the second half mainly national news and packages and video from other Global stations, particularly in western Canada.

Two of the briefs dated to Saturday, which is a bit of a stretch for a Monday noon newscast. Worse, Global failed to send a camera to the Péladeau-Snyder wedding in Quebec City, so it relied on TVA footage, photos posted to social media and file video of the couple attending Jacques Parizeau’s funeral instead.

Despite all this, it went better than I expected. The production was smooth and it felt more live and local than the stuff I’d been watching on the weekend. We’ll see if they can keep that up.


I don’t know what hope this newscast can have against CTV News at Noon, which has far more reporting resources and viewer loyalty. But it’s better to have this than not to have it.

Posted in Opinion, TV

The federal leaders’ debate was good, but the analysis of it was awful

Though it was in the middle of a busy newsroom close to deadline, I tried my best to watch and listen to the federal leaders’ debate last night. It could be the only time during this election season that we see those four party leaders on a stage together.

If you missed it, it’s on YouTube (I can’t embed it here because Maclean’s doesn’t want me to).

Especially in the context of a simultaneous circus of clowns south of the border, it was nice to see four smart, articulate leaders lay out their policies and policy differences under the bright lights. I saw Stephen Harper defend his record on his own without his party machine behind him. I saw Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau set out their economic policies and criticize the current government on its record, all without losing their temper. And I saw Elizabeth May, my pick as winner of the debate, establish herself as an excellent debater with a solid grasp of economic issues.

Sure, there were some annoying things about the debate itself, like the constant interrupting, the repeating of scripted talking points, and the useless closing messages. And limiting the debate to four topics meant a lot of stuff did not get addressed, which is a big issue if Harper doesn’t want to engage in any more general-issue debates in English.

But in general, I was pretty well informed. Maclean’s, moderator Paul Wells and broadcaster City TV deserve credit for this.

Unfortunately, I also watched the hour-long post-debate analysis show, as well as three useless non-commercial breaks during the debate, and it sent me into a bit of a rage.

Rather than discuss whose economic policies make more sense, or fact-check what the leaders said, or really discuss the issues in any way, we got the same old post-debate “who won” discussion, as if leading a country is more about showing off your dramatic presentation skills than having a better plan.

It’s one thing if you don’t take yourself too seriously (like BuzzFeed), but I expected better from the official broadcaster of the debate (even though Rogers pushed the analysis show to OMNI so it could air another U.S. primetime drama on City).

A discussion of a useless Facebook poll after about 20 minutes of debate.

A discussion of a useless Facebook poll after about 20 minutes of debate with Kevin Chan, right.

After the first half-hour, City took a three-minute break to give us an interview with a journalism student in Toronto and a Facebook poll that its analyst admitted wasn’t really based on anything said during the debate because people hadn’t had the chance to listen to the leaders yet. Even though the result of 50% for Mulcair should have been a dead giveaway that the poll is not at all reflective of the Canadian population, they went with it anyway. They also broadcast results showing Canadians almost unanimously in favour of proportional representation and carbon taxes, even though actual scientific polls don’t show anything even remotely similar. And there was the stunning revelation that people in Alberta talk more about oil than the rest of the country.

How this was useful to viewers is beyond me.

Twitter's Steve Ladurantaye, left, discusses how much people were talking about the leaders.

Twitter’s Steve Ladurantaye, left, discusses how much people were talking about the leaders.

Then there was the Twitter discussion, in which they analyzed how much people were talking about the leaders. What they were saying, of course, wasn’t important, and wasn’t discussed.

I guess what we can learn from this is that Donald Trump would make a great Canadian prime minister. Because volume is more important than content.

"Body language expert" Mark Bowden, right, criticizes Elizabeth May's glasses and dress during OMNI's post-debate analysis show with Gord Martineau, left.

“Body language expert” Mark Bowden, right, criticizes Elizabeth May’s glasses and dress during OMNI’s post-debate analysis show with Gord Martineau, left.

But what infuriated me most was when they brought on a body language expert to literally discuss style over substance. Setting aside the sexist criticisms of Elizabeth May’s attire (there was no mention of how any of the other leaders were dressed), the segment reinforced the fact that during a debate, what you say isn’t as important as how you say it.

Throughout the three-hour broadcast, there were panel discussions about who was winning the debate. Some of that discussion was based on what the leaders said, but much of it was about how they said what they said. Were the leaders confident? Did they make any gaffes?

Don’t get me wrong, the leader of a country should have good public speaking skills. A big part of being a leader is being able to convince people to do things for you, so style matters. But this incessant focus on treating the debate like a boxing match or tennis tournament just hammers in the idea that the issues don’t really matter. That if you want to be a politician, it’s better to hone your skills in theatre school than law school.

We Canadians like to think we’re better than the Americans when it comes to our politicians. We look at Donald Trump and we laugh. But based on what I saw of this debate analysis, I don’t see why, if Trump was in this debate, the media wouldn’t have been unanimous in concluding that he would have “won” it.

Posted in Media, Opinion

7 things francophone media pundits say (or imply) Jay Baruchel said or thought that he didn’t

It was a simple Q&A as a sidebar to a Saturday feature about Montreal actor Jay Baruchel, but the recounting of Baruchel’s reasons for leaving Montreal for Toronto has prompted a lot of debate in Quebec, particularly among the francophone media. We’re barely back at work on Monday and already five francophone pundits have written to condemn Baruchel’s statements, at least one of whom is demanding apologies, and another is diagnosing a mental disorder.

Nevermind that his reasons for moving are clearly more about economics (English movies are made in Toronto, not Montreal) than about politics, or that he’s hardly the first person in history to find Quebec identity politics to be tiresome and annoying. Jay Baruchel has attacked Quebec, and his personal feelings about his life here are apparently incorrect.

It’s notable that none of these reaction pieces actually interviews Baruchel to expand on his 300 words of commentary about Quebec politics. And perhaps for that reason, a lot of the stories about his comments exaggerate his comments, make inferences about his thoughts that are not supported by evidence, or just plain shove so many words into his mouth I’m worried he’s going to choke.

Here’s the pundit count so far:

And here are seven opinions these pundits are outraged over Baruchel having that the story doesn’t say he actually has.

What he’s accused of saying: Quebec is like Syria (Bock-Côté, Durocher, Longpré, Petrowski, Ravary)

What he actually said: N.D.G. “happens to be located in a pretty difficult part of the world.”

It’s perfectly legitimate to criticize Baruchel for lacking some perspective, to point out that there are far more difficult parts of the world than Quebec. But Baruchel never compares Quebec to a third-world country or to war zones like Syria. He merely says it’s difficult.

What he’s accused of saying: Quebec sovereignists are stupid (Durocher, Ravary)

What he actually said: (In referring to the referendum debate) “Aside from that silly stuff, which I wish would just go away but it won’t…”

I guess French doesn’t have the proper translation for “silly”, but there’s a difference between calling an issue silly and saying the people talking about it are stupid.

I disagree with Baruchel. I think the Quebec sovereignty debate is an important one. But I can also sympathize with the argument that we’ve had two referendums already and there’s no serious move to have another one because it’s clear the province doesn’t want it.

What he’s accused of saying: Francophones celebrating their culture and defending their language gives him a headache (Bock-Côté, Durocher)

What he actually said: It’s the “kind of poisonous ethnic dialogue, which really, really left a sour taste in my mouth. It didn’t feel like the place that Mom wanted me to live in.”

Baruchel makes it clear he likes the diversity of language in Montreal. But it’s the “editorial subject matter in Quebec” and the political debate over language that is making his head hurt. He also wants to be able to go outside and speak in English without it becoming “a loaded or political deed of any kind.”

What he’s accused of saying: Montreal has been taken hostage by sovereignists who refuse to die (Bock-Côté)

What he actually said: Nothing that under even the most ridiculous of interpretations could come close to saying this.

What he’s accused of saying: He’s afraid the Charter of Values will return (Bock-Côté, Durocher)

What he actually said: It’s the “poisonous ethnic dialogue”, not the law, that was the problem.

The Charter isn’t coming back, at least not in the form presented by the PQ. But the people who defended it are still here. The debate hasn’t disappeared.

What he’s accused of saying: French should not be the language of power in Quebec (Bock-Côté)

What he actually said: (In Toronto) “when I go outside and speak English, it’s not a loaded or political deed of any kind.”

There’s a difference between what language someone speaks on the street and what language is spoken in the National Assembly.

What he’s accused of saying: He was traumatized by the 2012 election because the PQ won it (Longpré)

What he actually said: “The last election was very traumatic in a way.”

Longpré assumes Baruchel is either wrong or being misquoted, and provides no evidence for why her interpretation, based on a translation of an article, is more correct than the original article it’s based on.

Baruchel’s comments are controversial even if anglos quitting Quebec for both political and economic reasons has been a cliché for decades. And let’s have a difference of opinion with him over those reasons. But let’s not be outraged about things that were not said.

UPDATE (June 4): Unsurprisingly, some of the columnists mentioned here (Durocher in particular) challenge my assertion that they’re putting words into Baruchel’s mouth by saying they’re not quoting him saying these things.

To be clear, I’m not accusing anyone of making up direct quotes. But it’s clear from the texts they write that they’re attributing opinions to Baruchel that he doesn’t actually express. When Durocher writes “Indépendance = idiot” in a headline, one reasonably infers not that this is her opinion, but that she thinks this is Baruchel’s. When Bock-Côté writes “la défense du français, c’est super vilain”, it’s clear he’s sarcastically mocking what he believes is Baruchel’s opinion. And when just about everyone mentions Syria, it’s clear they’re challenging a comparison they don’t believe is fair.

We can play semantic battles over what precisely was quoted or alleged here, but the implications of these columns and blog posts are clear, and what matters is what conclusions a reasonable reader would come to after reading them.

I’ve added the words “or imply” to the title of this post for added clarity, but I still believe these columnists are challenging opinions they have projected onto Baruchel that he didn’t express.

Posted in Media, Opinion

Can CTV News and BNN be trusted to report on themselves? Depends on Kevin Crull’s mood

Was Bell Media President Kevin Crull misinterpreted by the managers under him? Bell won't say.

Bell Media President Kevin Crull made a major gaffe that cost CTV News its integrity.

CTV News has a solid reputation for integrity, built from decades of strong journalism and a deeply entrenched culture of professionalism. It’s not perfect, and it’s vulnerable to the same biases that affect all other media, but I have no doubt that if a source tried to use financial or other pressure to affect how a CTV News story was told, that person would justifiably be told to get lost.

So when people start spouting conspiracy theories about CTV News coverage, I’m very skeptical. Yeah, them not reporting on some minor thing involving a competitor could be direct orders from Bell Media’s president, but more likely it’s because some assignment editor didn’t think it was newsworthy.

Now, I’m starting to wonder if I should rethink the assumption that CTV News wouldn’t throw away decades of work building its reputation because of a senior executive’s narrow-minded attempt to intentionally bias a story.

On Wednesday, the Globe and Mail reported that Bell Media President Kevin Crull interfered in news coverage of last week’s CRTC decision involving channel packaging, effectively ordering CTV News President Wendy Freeman to forbid Bell-owned news outlets from interviewing CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais.

The report, based on sources that would not be named publicly, was damning:

Mr. Crull told Ms. Freeman he was in charge of the network and that Mr. Blais was not to appear on air again that day, according to accounts of the exchange.

After the call, sources say, Ms. Freeman contacted CTV staff to tell them of the directive from Mr. Crull and not to use clips of Mr. Blais, telling some she felt she would be fired if they did not comply. Other CTV employees were concerned for their jobs, according to a source.

Hours later, Blais issued a statement expressing concern about CTV News’s editorial independence. It amounts to little more than a wag of the finger, and does not suggest any consequences if Bell continues to act in this way. It says complaints should be directed to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, but doesn’t say the CRTC itself or its chairman will complain.

Finally, after initially downplaying the story through a spokesman, Bell Media issued a statement credited to Crull apologizing for his actions:

I reached out to the CTV News leadership team to let them know I felt the focus on the CRTC itself by CTV and other Canadian news organizations would be better placed on a broad and necessary discussion of the impacts of the CRTC’s decisions on consumers, our team members, and our business.

It was wrong of me to be anything but absolutely clear that editorial control always rests with the news team. I have apologized to the team directly for this mistake. Indeed their strong and straightforward reaction to my intrusion only heightens my appreciation of their independence, integrity and professionalism. It is crucial to note that CTV’s coverage of the CRTC’s decisions was fair, balanced and extensive, and stands up in comparison to coverage of the issue by any Canadian news organization.

In short, I’ve re-learned a valuable lesson from the best news team in the business.

Re-learned indeed. Because this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. In 2013, Crull was accused of trying to meddle in CTV News coverage of a policy issue affecting Bell. There too, Bell’s statement said news decisions rest with the news team and are not directed by Crull. I asked Bell’s spokesperson if there was a failure of communication there, and if the news team should have been better educated that Crull does not direct news coverage. The response I got was a refusal to comment further.

Crull’s apology is a good step, but an entirely empty one. It contains no mention of any measures to prevent this from happening again. It fails to address the accusation that Crull told Freeman “he was in charge of the network” or reassure CTV News and BNN employees that their jobs are not in jeopardy if they cover a story in a way that Crull or BCE don’t like.

Crull credits the “strong and straightforward reaction to my intrusion” even though the reaction was the exact opposite of that. No one called Crull to defiantly say he had no business interfering in news coverage. They followed his order until finally by the time of CTV National News they decided to ignore it. Then they anonymously complained to the Globe and Mail. Nothing about this was straightforward.

That’s not a complaint against CTV News staff. It takes a lot of guts to go against the boss. My point is that if he thinks he has no influence over CTV News, he’s out of his mind. If the Globe’s report is accurate, Wendy Freeman thought she’d be fired. That’s serious, and it requires a much more serious response than “oops my bad but it was no big deal”

Crull also says “CTV’s coverage of the CRTC’s decisions was fair, balanced and extensive” which means either he thinks it doesn’t matter that they censored the commission’s chairman because they eventually stopped censoring him, or he doesn’t think it’s important for a TV story about a major CRTC decision to include comments from the CRTC.

If Crull is serious about respecting the editorial integrity of CTV News and protecting it from himself, some serious measures need to be put in place, because otherwise we have only Crull’s assurance that this won’t happen again after it already happened at least twice (and possibly more — Dwayne Winseck quotes a BNN employee saying it was common for Bell brass to get special treatment in their news coverage).

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council is not the appropriate body to deal with this. It acts based on complaints, and if anonymous sources hadn’t come forward to the Globe and Mail, no one would have known about this intrusion.

Crull needs to do more than apologize. He needs to launch an independent investigation into the editorial integrity of Bell Media’s news operations when dealing with stories about Bell. He needs to put a stronger wall between himself and CTV News/BNN, which prevent him from contacting news managers about news coverage. And he needs to offer guaranteed assurance that whistleblowers exposing attempts to meddle in CTV News coverage won’t be punished for coming forward.

Meanwhile, other large media companies should similarly put in place measures to protect their newsrooms’ integrity: Quebecor, Shaw Media, Rogers, Cogeco, Transcontinental and others often put their journalists in positions where they have to report on their parent companies. What assurance do we have that they aren’t getting similar orders from their CEOs about how to do it?

Yes, this is an argument about vertical integration. But non-integrated companies are not immune to this kind of interference. Even the smallest community newspapers can have publishers who put the bottom line above journalistic integrity. The difference is that CTV News has the budgetary resources to hire an ombudsperson or other independent person who the public can trust to blow the whistle whenever journalism is threatened by self-interest.

Until these major steps are taken to restore and preserve trust, unfortunately Mr. Crull’s actions have caused CTV News to lose the benefit of the doubt.

UPDATE: CTV National News included a story about Crull. It did not include any interviews with Crull or anyone at CTV News.

And the Globe and Mail’s Tabatha Southey has a more satirical take on the news.

Posted in Opinion, TV

CRTC says Canadians will get to watch U.S. Super Bowl ads as of 2017

It’s a decision that surprises me somewhat, though it’s consistent with the more populist pro-consumer approach taken by chairman Jean-Pierre Blais: simultaneous substitution, the rule that allows Canadian TV stations to force cable companies to replace U.S. network feeds with their own when they air the same program simultaneously, will be eliminated — only for the Super Bowl, and only as of 2017.

It’s weird to make an exception for a specific event, but the Super Bowl really is an exception. It’s the only time during the year when people actually want to watch the U.S. ads, and every year it’s the most common complaint the commission gets from consumers.

But this decision comes at a cost. Bell Media pays big money for NFL rights. We don’t know how much, or how long those rights are for (it was a “multi-year” deal signed in 2013), but we do know that the Super Bowl had 7.3 million viewers on CTV last year, and the Globe and Mail says the network can charge up to $200,000 for a 30-second spot during the game. With about 50 minutes of commercial time available, that’s several million dollars in revenue at stake. (UPDATE: Bell puts it at about $20 million for each year until its contract runs out in 2019.)

It’s hard to say what the fallout of this will be. Bell Media buys NFL rights as a package, so it’s not as simple as saying they’ll just give up rights to the Super Bowl. And the rest of the season, including the January playoffs, are still subject to substitution, and that still means a lot of money for the network.

Some people have suggested that CTV could get creative as a way of keeping viewers. Offering value-added content, or getting Canadian advertisers to improve their ads. The network has certainly tried the latter, but the economics just don’t work in its favour. A national Super Bowl ad in the U.S. costs 20 times as much as it does in Canada, which means advertisers’ budgets are 20 times higher. And as for value-added content, CTV can’t compete with the big U.S. networks. Plus, this whole exemption is so that we can watch the U.S. ads. How does CTV show the game and the U.S. ads and find space for its own advertising without cutting anything off?

Medium-term, it will be interesting to see how this changes the economics of NFL rights. Will Bell get a discount on its next deal (or does it have a clause that gives it a discount on this deal if it extends beyond 2016)? Will the U.S. network broadcasting future Super Bowls have to pay more to the NFL because their ads make it into Canada now? And will that result in higher rates on the U.S. broadcast?

Or will any of this even matter in a few years when we stop watching linear TV the way we used to?

Quality control — and red tape

For the rest of the year, the CRTC decided it would put in place measures to punish broadcasters and providers who screw up substitution, resulting in Canadians missing programming. We don’t care about the U.S. ads during these times, but we do care if Saturday Night Live comes back late or the Oscars cut out early.

Blais said the commission would adopt “a zero-tolerance approach to substantial mistakes” which sounds like an oxymoron. Broadcasters who make mistakes could lose the rights to substitute programs in the future. Distributors who make mistakes would be forced to provide rebates to customers.

Those both sound great, but how do you manage such a system? The CRTC suggests it would be done through its usual complaint resolution process:

To ensure procedural fairness to all broadcasters and BDUs, the Commission’s findings on such matters will be determined on a case-by-case basis and in the context of a process during which parties will have an opportunity to present any explanation for the errors, including whether the errors occurred despite the exercising of due diligence by a broadcasting undertaking.

In other words, if you lose 30 seconds of a Saturday Night Live sketch, you’ll have to complain to the CRTC, who will then launch a proceeding asking the two sides for comment. The broadcaster and the distributor will proceed to blame each other, and a few months later issue a decision that might result in three cents getting deducted from your next cable bill.

This sounds like an awful lot of red tape and extra work for everyone involved.

OTA stays

In its other decision on local television today, the CRTC said it would not allow local TV stations to shut down their over-the-air transmitters while retaining all the privileges of local stations, such as simultaneous substitution and local advertising. To emphasize the point, Blais gave his speech in front of large TV receiving antennas that consumers can use (but most are unaware of) to get local stations for free.

Beyond a takedown of arguments by Bell and the CBC, there isn’t much to this decision. It essentially keeps the status quo intact. But the CRTC says it will look more closely at the issue of local programming when it reviews its community television policy in the 2015-16 year. The scope of this review will be expanded to look at local TV in general, and the implication is that the commission may get more serious about forcing local TV stations to be more local.

More coverage of today’s decisions from the Globe and Mail and You can also watch the livestream of Blais’s speech here.


Kevin O’Leary says this decision is “completely insane”, for what it’s worth, saying the CRTC is working against Canadians and Canada is like North Korea or Cuba. You know, his usual understated style.

Michael Hennessy of the Canadian Media Production Association looks at the downside of this decision for the industry, both directly and indirectly.

Diane Wild of TV Eh? says the CRTC should eliminate simsub entirely so Canadian broadcasters are encouraged to create their own content.

Michael Geist defends the decision, pointing out that simultaneous substitution is on the out anyway and the Canadian television industry is already too reliant on the government.

Meanwhile, Bell apparently sought a private meeting with the commissionners to get them to reverse their decision, a request the CRTC turned down.

And at, suggestions that this could be the beginning of the end of vertical integration in Canada.

Posted in Media, Opinion

Nobody is above conflict of interest — but everyone thinks they are

What is a conflict of interest?

Simply put, it’s a situation where one person’s duty to an organization, a cause, a person or something else is in conflict with that person’s relationship to some other organization, person or cause, where the best interests of one might not be in the best interests of another.

It sounds a bit vague, but conflicts can be all sorts of things. You could sit on the boards of two companies doing business with each other. You could be in a relationship with your supervisor. You could be a police officer arresting a family member. Or you could be a journalist whose reporting might affect a company that is earning you income on the side.

This past week, two examples have come up of high-profile journalists being in potential conflicts of interest because of their side jobs, and of failing to disclose such conflicts to their audience. And in each case, the mentality of the person at the centre of it all seems to have been that since they would never allow themselves to be corrupted by money, they’re not in a conflict of interest.

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Posted in My articles, Opinion, Public transit

Crunching the numbers in the STM’s budget

A week ago, the STM hiked its fares yet again, making it more expensive to take public transit in Montreal. The hikes represent about a 50% increase over a decade, well above the rate of inflation.

Politicians, social activists and regular transit users complained, as they do every year, that this is unacceptable, making it harder for those who don’t have money to get to and from work. The STM and its defenders point to the fact that public transit in Montreal is still much cheaper than Toronto and other comparable cities. The other side comes back with the argument that income and costs of living are lower in Montreal, so you can’t compare cities like that.

A few weeks ago, I started wondering whether the STM’s rate increases were truly reasonable, so I started going through its budgets and plugging numbers into a spreadsheet. I also got some numbers from Statistics Canada, such as the consumer price index in Montreal, the population of the city, the median family income.

The result is a story published in Thursday’s Gazette that tries to give a quantitative picture of the situation. The headline is that the increase in fares, at least for the years 2005-2013 (we don’t have figures for 2014 yet), corresponds to an increase in service in both métro and bus service, all going up about 30% over that period.

But is that the proper way to measure whether it’s reasonable? The increased service came with an increase in the number of users, which means more fare revenues. Should that be taken into account? What about our ability to pay?

With the help of the Gazette’s data guru Roberto Rocha, we put together an interactive chart with the story that allows you to make comparisons for yourself of how things have changed since 2005. Fare price versus total trips. Total salaries and benefits vs. total bus service. Revenue per trip versus total passes sold. Total revenue versus population.

But even that’s only a subset of the data analysis that can be done. So I invite you to do your own: Download this spreadsheet and compare numbers to write your own story.

STM fares in context (.xls, 42kb)

The figures don’t all look good for the STM. Salaries and benefits are going up higher than the amount of work done to justify them. And the amount of subsidies from the Quebec government has gone up more than 200%.

But before you blame the unions or some other invented bogeyman, consider that the cost per hour worked at the STM went gone up about the same as the median family income in Montreal.

Missing numbers

There were some comparisons I wanted to make that I couldn’t. Reading the comments below the Gazette piece, people point to executive salaries. I wanted to include that, but it’s hard to quantify because of the changes in executive pay. For example, I could put in the salary for the director-general of the STM. But that salary went down significantly when Carl Desrosiers took over the position, and in the latest numbers were still lower than his predecessor (though not much).

Another is the price of oil. Including its value could easily give the impression that the fare hikes are more than reasonable. But the price of crude has plummeted in recent months, which would not be reflected on these charts because they end in 2013. So I asked Jeanine Lee, our graphic artist, to take it out of one of the charts we were using.

And there are numbers that can’t be easily calculated, like the number of overall users. Or numbers that are subjective, like customer satisfaction.

What metrics would you use to judge the STM’s performance? And what do those numbers show?

Posted in Media, Opinion

Logical arguments for and against publishing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons

I woke up yesterday to horribleness. My Twitter feed was filled with people tweeting and retweeting breaking news about an attack on a publication in France that left many people dead. It didn’t take long to conclude that these people died because of things they drew.

Later, and again this morning, there was a lot of debate over whether other media should republish the cartoons that Charlie Hebdo created that so offended Muslims, particularly those that depicted the prophet Muhammad. Depicting the most revered figure in Muslim history is forbidden by many in that religion, because it could lead to idolatry.

In the case of Charlie Hebdo in particular, many of its cartoons have been denounced as racist toward Arabs and other races associated with Muslim countries. The publication regularly pushed the boundaries of good taste and respect, sometimes intentionally just for its own sake.

So is it appropriate to republish them? Arguments have been made on both sides. French newspapers in Quebec generally republished them out of solidarity with the people who lost their lives for the sake of satire. Media pundit Jeff Jarvis makes a passionate argument in favour. CBC’s Neil MacDonald makes a more eloquent argument:

English media, including my employer the Montreal Gazette, chose not to out of respect for Muslims who had nothing to do with this attack. The Globe and Mail’s editor-in-chief explained the decision, so did the New York Times and CBC, and the Gazette’s editor-in-chief has been doing the media rounds explaining its decision.

The rhetoric on social media has been particularly vitriolic, accusing those who published the cartoons of being racist, and accusing those who didn’t of caving to terrorists.

I’m not here to cast judgment, merely to lay out the arguments on either side. But before I do that, let’s lay down some things we all agree on:

  • No one deserves to die for making fun of someone else, for saying something discriminatory, or for offending anyone or anything.
  • Freedom of expression means the freedom to decide for yourself whether you will or will not publish something.
  • Denouncing a decision related to freedom of speech is an exercise of that same freedom of speech unless it somehow prevents the other person from expressing him or herself.

Now, onto the arguments. If you come up with good ones that aren’t on these lists, put them below in the comments and I’ll add them.

Arguments in favour of publishing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons

  • This is what these people died for. Continuing self-censorship does a disservice to their memories.
  • The public can’t get a complete idea of the story without seeing the cartoons at the centre of it.
  • What about non-offensive cartoons depicting Muhammad? This isn’t about racism, this is about being scared of religious backlash.
  • Where does it end? If a religion finds the colour red to be offensive, would we be obligated to refuse to use that colour out of respect?
  • We talk about and publish all sorts of things that offend people, while explaining that they’re offensive. People are smart enough to understand that it’s not an endorsement.
  • Because regardless of everything else, we must stand on the side of free speech.

Arguments against publishing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons

  • If publishing the cartoons would have been offensive before, that shouldn’t change because some people died.
  • The story can be explained without having to show the cartoons.
  • We don’t know which cartoons (if any) are the cause of this attack.
  • The cartoons are racist, and we should not propagate hate speech out of a sense of solidarity.
  • If this had been a similar story, but the offending images were signs that said “kill all [N-word]s”, would we be obligated to publish them uncensored or would simply describing them have been sufficient?
  • We could publish the less offensive cartoons, but that would be misleading, because it’s the most offensive ones that led to the attack.
  • The media routinely censor disturbing imagery, including video of a police officer being shot dead in this very story. How is that different?
  • Because Ezra Levant. (Seriously, what’s changed since the Jyllands-Posten affair that he’s no longer the only one who wants to republish the cartoons?)
Posted in Opinion, TV

24 myths about the CRTC, TV and Netflix

CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais has had to answer for decisions that the CRTC hasn't made or positions it hasn't proposed.

CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais has had to answer for decisions that the CRTC hasn’t made or positions it hasn’t proposed.

Over two weeks of CRTC hearings over the future of television in September, I monitored discussion over Twitter. And I saw a lot of crazy ideas being thrown out about the commission, some of which I might simply disagree with, but much of which is just plain inaccurate or misinformed. Since then, the volume has died down, but the same points keep getting brought up.

So to try to clear things up, here are some things people are saying about the CRTC and how television is regulated in Canada that could use a reality check.

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Posted in Media, Opinion

Montreal Gazette loses senior manager to sudden death

Ross Teague (photo: Allen McInnis for the Montreal Gazette)

Ross Teague (photo: Allen McInnis for the Montreal Gazette)

On the copy desk of a major newspaper, like in other newsrooms, the employees have developed somewhat of an immunity to the horrors of life. On a daily basis they deal with terrible stories about people dying, whether it’s in war overseas, in a car crash in your home town, or in unusual circumstances just about anywhere. We make macabre jokes that could easily cost us our jobs if they were ever made public. Not because we don’t care about the lives lost, but because it’s how we have learned cope with the exposure without sacrificing our souls.

Ross Teague knew all about this, because he was one of us. He started working at the Montreal Gazette in 1990, and spent many nights working late putting the paper together on deadline (back when paper was the only medium, and the only deadline that counted).

By the time I got to the Gazette in 2005, Teague was a manager with a day job. In fact, he had just become the paper’s city editor, replacing the man who hired me and got poached by the Journal de Montréal before I started my first shift. Most recently, Teague was the “executive producer” of, the man responsible for everything having to do with that website.

Until Tuesday night, when he died suddenly. A heart attack, I’m told through the grapevine. He was 56.

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Posted in In the news, Media, Opinion

Some things to consider before your next Jian Ghomeshi think piece

This post was updated Oct. 31 with some new information that has come forward, particularly about how the CBC handled this affair.

When news broke on Friday that Jian Ghomeshi, one of CBC’s biggest personalities, was taking a leave for unspecified “personal reasons”, it seemed suspicious. When news broke on Sunday that the CBC had terminated its relationship with him, it seemed unbelievable. And then it got worse: a $55-million lawsuit, and reports of eight women (oh wait, make that nine) coming forward and saying he abused them, with stories that seem disturbingly similar.

I don’t have any exclusive reporting on the subject — Toronto media personalities are not my specialty and there are plenty of Toronto journalists covering that — but I’ve been seeing so many misinformed comments on social media that I thought it would be useful to round up what is being said and make a few points to better educate those who are talking about this. I’m not an expert in employment law, human sexuality or most other fields, so I’ll try to link to experts where possible. Feel free to suggest other points or improve existing ones if you’re more of an expert than me.

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Posted in Media, Opinion

When “confirmed” doesn’t mean “true”

Was there a second shooter? Was there a shooting at the Rideau Centre? Was the victim dead? Was the gunman carrying a rifle or a shotgun? What was the name of the shooter? What was the name of the victim? Was it the sergeant-at-arms who finally took the gunman down? Was this an act of terrorism?

Throughout the day on Wednesday, these questions were asked, answered and in some cases those answers were retracted by the media. It’s the nature of the beast when dealing with a breaking emergency situation like this — nobody really knows the answers at first, even the authority figures you normally go to for those answers.

What does “confirmed” mean?

After these kinds of events, there are inevitably media criticism think pieces telling us that we need to verify facts before publishing them, that we can’t repeat rumours that are unconfirmed, that getting it right is more important than getting it first.

But those kinds of pieces always annoy me, because they assume there’s some standard of correctness that a piece of information can achieve, and once it has it’s guaranteed to be true.

As we learned in Ottawa, it’s a lot more complicated than that. It was the Ottawa police that said there was an incident at or near the Rideau Centre shopping mall, only to retract that statement later in the day. It was a federal cabinet minister who tweeted on his verified account that the victim in the shooting had died, only to later walk that statement back. In the end, one of those events turned out to be false and the other true.

But in both cases they were referred to as “confirmed” by the media. When those confirmations were walked back, the power of the word diminished.

Attribute everything

As Craig Silverman (the local expert in media getting things wrong) would say, an important question to ask a source when compiling information is “How do you know this?” A source may seem official because they’re a police officer or an official spokesperson or a company CEO or an expert in the field, but that doesn’t necessarily mean their information is rock-solid.

In emergency situations, asking those kinds of questions is a luxury, and often impractical. But one thing that is neither is attribution, even when the information appears to be fully verified and unquestionably accurate.

Strictly speaking, the statement “Ottawa police posted on Twitter that there was an incident at the Rideau Centre” is correct, even though there was no shooting there. It’s not just about covering your ass; it provides a publicly verifiable trail of information, and breeds trust in the news outlet while it breeds skepticism in the news.

There’s a tendency for news organizations to want to seem authoritative, to say things like “we have independently confirmed“. But that statement is meaningless if the confirmation comes from the same anonymous source as the initial report, and just as likely to be wrong.

On the other hand, there’s a different tendency to be vague when referring to competitors, to refer to vague “reports”. This can give the illusion of authority, even when all the reports out there inevitably come from the same source.

These things cause facts to spread, and the more they spread, the more people believe them to be true.

Show your work

One way to avoid this is simple: everything should be attributed where possible. And that’s not just good advice in reporting on breaking news, it’s good advice in general. It may not look cool, but I’m more likely to trust a report that explains how it knows what it knows.

In math class, we’re asked to show our work, to prevent us from using calculators to find the answers to problems or simply asserting the conclusion without understanding how it got there. We should ask the same of journalists.

Rather than criticize the media with the benefit of hindsight, let’s use Wednesday’s events as an example of what to do. When the name of the alleged gunman came out from a CBS News report, many Canadian media attributed it to them. If CBS got it wrong, then we’d know the Canadian media got it wrong too, and there wouldn’t be “conflicting reports”.

I personally think more caution should be exercised before naming someone in a case like this — the media got the shooter’s name wrong in Newtown, remember, and getting this kind of thing wrong, attribution or no attribution, could have serious consequences for the person named, his or her family and people who know them. But if it has to be done, attributing it is the way to go.

That way, we can better evaluate the credibility of information, and just as importantly, so can other media, so we can all separate what’s been “confirmed” from what’s just been repeated. And we can give the audience as clear a picture of the facts as possible, even if the facts are murky.

I think, in times of emergency especially, that’s the least we can do. And kudos to those journalists who did exactly that.