Category Archives: Opinion

Posted in Opinion, TV

Is it ethical for TV news to shill for the network?

The Rogers Media upfront in Montreal on June 7.

The Rogers Media upfront party in Montreal on June 7.

The beginning of June is a big time for Canadian TV networks. They invite journalists and advertisers to fancy parties and announce what new programming they’re adding to their schedules for the next season. In the case of Canada’s big three English commercial networks, Bell Media (CTV), Shaw/Corus (Global) and Rogers (City), that’s mainly acquired U.S. programming.

They’re called “upfronts”, and their purpose is clear.

But these broadcasters also own news outlets, and it might come as no surprise that the news side, and shows that are news-like in function, tend to cover only their parent company’s upfront presentation, even though they all announce their programming within a week of each other.

CTV’s eTalk has an entire special section on its website devoted to CTV’s upfront, including interviews with Hollywood stars hawking their new shows. CTV Toronto devoted five minutes to a live report. On ctvnews.ca, the network posted a Canadian Press story about Bell’s announcement, but not the CP stories about Shaw/Corus and Rogers.

Global News added plenty of videos to its globalnews.ca website of interviews with big stars during the Corus upfront presentation, but these weren’t journalistic reports. They just dumped raw video from the advertising event on their website. Global News Toronto devoted a bit more than two minutes to a packaged report about Global’s fall lineup (starts at 29:49). ET Canada, of course, focused plenty of attention on Corus’s announcement and none on anyone else. Online, there was a report with a journalist’s byline, but that turned out to be a straight-up copy-paste of Corus’s press release with some light re-wording at the top. It was only after I pointed that out on Twitter that an editor’s note was added to explain that.

Rogers doesn’t have a national news network like CTV and Global, and I couldn’t find anything on CityNews about upfronts. On Rogers’s news radio station websites, there was only Canadian Press stories about the upfront announcements, mostly because those websites republish every Canadian Press story. (An exception was 570 News in Kitchener, which republished a Rogers press release and credited it to “news staff”)

None of this is new, of course. Lots of journalistic outlets downplay or ignore their competitors’ good-news announcements. But the bias is never as stark as it is during upfront week.

We all accept that this happens, but is it ethical?

Last year, Bell Media’s president was fired after he interfered in CTV News’s coverage of a CRTC decision affecting Bell Canada. The message sent was clear: CTV News’s journalistic standards have no exceptions, even when dealing with the parent company.

But are upfronts an exception?

To find out, I asked the heads of CTV News and Global News to comment about their one-sided coverage of upfront announcements.

In both cases, it was noted that the daily entertainment shows (eTalk for CTV and ET Canada for Global) do not fall under the news division, which I find interesting.

Matthew Garrow, Director of News, Local Stations, Sports, Discovery Networks & Community Investment at Bell Media, offered this statement:

We can assure you that at no point does CTV News suspend its journalistic practices under any circumstance. All CTV News staff are trained to follow the strictest editorial guidelines designed to ensure impartiality when making our editorial decisions, which are safeguarded by both the CTV News Policy Handbook and Bell’s Journalistic Independence Policy. These policies are designed to ensure that, at all times, CTV News upholds the highest standard of journalistic independence.

I asked him why, if this is true, did CTV News cover Bell Media’s announcement but not its competitors’. I got no response.

Troy Reeb, Senior Vice President, News, Radio and Station Operations at Corus, was a bit more forthcoming:

Global News was not invited to our competitors’ upfronts which, like the Corus Upfront, were private events by invitation only. That’s not to say we do not provide coverage of competing networks’ programs and events when they are in the broader public interest. We certainly do, and our archives are filled with many stories about CTV, CBC, Rogers and Netflix.

Our commitment to fairness and balance doesn’t translate into an obligation to cover everything that happens. Editorial integrity doesn’t mean you have to do a story on The Bay because you did one on Sears. Every media outlet makes choices daily about what it will cover and what it will not.

That the major networks are announcing their fall schedules is not exactly breaking news, and clearly falls into the category of discretionary coverage. That we would cover Global’s announcements and not CTV’s should surprise no one since we are in the business of serving Global viewers, just as CTV is in the business of serving theirs.

In keeping with our Global News journalistic principles and practices, I can assure you that at no time was our news division or our reporters given any directive on what to cover or how to cover it. Coverage decisions were made by Global News based on audience interest and the accessibility offered to key players in the fall shows.

The point about not being invited to competitors’ upfronts is valid. (Maybe that would change if they covered each other’s announcements more?) But that doesn’t stop news outlets from reporting what’s announced in press releases and posted online.

And while news organizations have been self-promoting since the dawn of time, in an era of vertical integration, it’s not just CTV talking about CTV and Global talking about Global. It’s about CTV News, eTalk and BNN talking about CTV, Space and Discovery Channel, while Global News and ET Canada talk about Global, Showcase and Food Network, and Breakfast Television talks about City, Viceland and Sportsnet.

And those independent broadcasters not owned by the big media companies? Don’t expect to hear about your programming on the evening news, because they’re only in the business of serving their viewers.

It’s nice that no official orders were given from on high to manipulate news coverage. But if you’re a journalist at one of these organizations, how much freedom do you really have to choose not to cover your parent company’s press event, or to cover your competitor’s?

I certainly wouldn’t want to test it.

Posted in Opinion, TV

Rogers throws desperate hail-Mary with OMNI mandatory distribution request

Rogers calls it a “win-win solution”. But it would be just as accurate to describe it as a request for a government-imposed bailout of a private broadcaster whose business model has failed.

In an application that is being considered as part of Rogers’s TV licence renewals, the company has asked the CRTC to impose mandatory distribution of ethnic TV network OMNI across Canada, and to impose a fee of $0.12 per subscriber per month (which is the same as Canadians currently pay for CPAC).

This will give OMNI $14 million a year from subscribers, and in exchange Rogers has made several commitments related to programming:

  • 4 daily, national, 30 minute newscasts 7 days per week, in each of Italian, Mandarin, Cantonese (produced in Toronto with contributions from Vancouver and reporters in Montreal, Ottawa, Edmonton and Victoria) and Punjabi languages (produced in Vancouver with contributions from Toronto and reporters in Victoria, Edmonton, Ottawa, Montreal);
  • 6 daily, local 30 minute current affairs shows 5 days per week, in each of Mandarin, Punjabi and Cantonese language (produced in Toronto and Vancouver);
  • The creation of national cultural affairs series produced in Alberta that are designed to showcase important cultural and social contributions from Canada’s ethnocultural communities;
  • Original Canadian Scripted ethnic and/or third-language dramas and documentaries through a PNI commitment of 2.5%;
  • 10 hours of local independent production in Vancouver, Toronto and Alberta (Edmonton and Calgary combined) each week, measured on a monthly basis.
  • A commitment to devote 80% of OMNI Regional’s schedule to the exhibition of ethnic programming, while maintaining the requirement to devote 50% of the schedule to third-language programming;
  • A commitment to devote a minimum of 40% of OMNI Regional’s annual revenues to the production of Canadian programming;
  • A commitment to re-establish in-house production in all of the markets served by OMNI’s OTA stations;
  • The elimination of all U.S. “strip” programming that is not relevant to ethnic or third-language communities and a commitment to limit the amount of U.S. programming exhibited on OMNI Regional to a maximum of 10% of the schedule each month

A lot of this sounds good, but it also sounds a lot like just bringing back the services (like daily third-language newscasts) that OMNI cut recently as part of budget cutbacks, moves that its unions argued broke the spirit of its CRTC licence obligations.

The proposal is a bit complex. Rather than one national OMNI feed, the initial proposal called for three regional feeds, based on what OMNI stations broadcast in Vancouver, Alberta (Calgary and Edmonton have identical programming) and Toronto (which has two OMNI stations). Those living in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto would still be able to watch OMNI for free over the air, but would also be required to pay 12 cents per month through their cable or satellite company.

To complicate it even further, Rogers amended the application earlier this month to include a fourth feed for Quebec, which would carry OMNI’s newscasts but also local programming from ICI, the independent ethnic station based in Montreal. The additional commitments for this channel include:

  • 3 hours of original local ethnic programming in French each week;
  • 1.5 hours of original French-language programming and a half-hour original English-language programming each week; and
  • 14 hours of original local independently produced programming each week.

The law

My initial reaction to this application was there’s no way it’s going to be approved. The commission set a high bar the last time it reviewed mandatory channels in 2013.

Under its policy, it will only invoke article 9(1)h of the Broadcasting Act, allowing it to force TV distributors to require all subscribers add a particular channel, when that channel meets the following criteria:

  • It makes an exceptional contribution to Canadian expression and reflects Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas, values and artistic creativity;
  • It contributes, in an exceptional manner, to the overall objectives for the digital basic service and specifically contributes to one or more objectives of the Act, such as Canadian identity and cultural sovereignty; ethno-cultural diversity, including the special place of Aboriginal peoples in Canadian society; service to and the reflection and portrayal of persons with disabilities; or linguistic duality, including improved service to official language minority communities; and
  • It makes exceptional commitments to original, first-run Canadian programming in terms of exhibition and expenditures.

The commission has highlighted the word “exceptional” here, and has used lack of exceptionality to deny several applications for mandatory distribution.

Plus, there’s another complication. Asking TV distributors (and by extension their customers) to pay over-the-air TV stations (called “fee for carriage” or “value for signal” depending on what spin you want to put on it) has been discussed before. And in 2012 the Supreme Court weighed in on the matter, finding that the CRTC did not have the jurisdiction to impose this.

Does the fact that OMNI is ethnic somehow change the nature of this ruling? Or the fact that Rogers would be seeking mandatory carriage instead of negotiating deals with cable providers?

Tough choices

But just saying “no” wouldn’t solve the problem. OMNI is bleeding money, badly. CRTC data, which I can only get indirectly, suggest OMNI stations lost $33 million in 2014-15 on revenue of $24 million. When you’re spending more than twice the amount of money you’re bringing in, that’s a recipe for disaster.

Rogers states in its application that the OMNI business model has crumbled recently because their strategy of strip reruns of U.S. shows like Two and a Half Men and The Simpsons is no longer tenable in an era in which these programs are available on on-demand platforms like Netflix, both because viewers have a more convenient option for watching them and because their price has gone up as a result.

The application ends: “We believe this is the last opportunity for OMNI to adjust its business model so that its operations can become sustainable.”

The evidence points to that being true. Though Rogers did not state this explicitly, it seems very likely that without approval for this change, OMNI’s future could be in jeopardy. (Rogers did include separate licence amendment requests if the mandatory distribution request is denied, suggesting they’d at least be willing to try keeping it going.) “If this application for mandatory carriage as part of the basic service is denied, OMNI’s future viability is in question as we see no other long term solution other than our proposed national service and a new distribution model,” it writes.

If we assume that OMNI can’t survive without a de facto government bailout, the CRTC must decide whether ethnic over-the-air television in Canada is worth saving in its current form, or whether it should allow OMNI to die in the hope that someone else might take up the challenge. (Requests for new over-the-air television stations are virtually non-existent, but ICI presents a possible alternative — a family-run station that brokers programming using independent producers, running as more of a producers’ cooperative than a for-profit station.)

OMNI cutting its newscasts and replacing them with less expensive current affairs programming has made the case for bailing it out harder (even though a lot of those newscasts were mainly repurposing City News reports). But for many communities, particularly in Toronto, it remains a rare outlet for them to connect with their members.

The commission’s stuck between a rock and a hard place here. Say yes to OMNI’s demand, and you undercut the pick-and-pay policy you just started implementing, forcing people to pay for something they already get for free, and propping up a service that is already failing to meet people’s expectations. Say no, and OMNI risks going out of business, and you’ll be the one they blame for it. Ethnic communities across the country, but particularly in four of its largest cities, will lose access to programming that speaks specifically to them, and there’s no guarantee that someone else will come in and bring it back.

In the end, the debate could come down to a single, fundamental question: Is OMNI worth saving?

Comments on the OMNI application (which can be downloaded here), and licence renewals for OMNI and other Rogers television services, are being accepted until 8pm ET on Aug. 2 (it’s been extended to Aug. 15). Comments can be filed here (select application 2016-0377-0 for the OMNI mandatory distribution request). Note that all information submitted, including contact information, becomes part of the public record.

UPDATE (June 28): OMNI has launched a website to drum up public support for its application.

Posted in Opinion, Radio

Radio host Jeff Fillion fired for insensitive use of sarcasm, emoji

Today, we learned that even Quebec City’s trash-talk radio has its limit.

Or, well, we learned that again. Because it’s happened several times before, including with the man at the centre of the issue today, the king of the format, Jeff Fillion.

At exactly 1pm on Wednesday, Bell Media and CHIK-FM (Énergie Québec 98.9) announced that Fillion, who hosted the afternoon drive show from 3-6pm weekdays, no longer works for the company. (It’s not explicitly clear if he was fired, quit or some mutual agreement was reached, but it’s clear this was more the company’s doing than his.) The station has put Maxime Tremblay in his timeslot for the time being.

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Posted in Media, Opinion, Sports

Sports broadcasters should wake up and smell the sexism

Let me ask you a question: When was the last time you heard a woman do play-by-play for a National Hockey League game?

When was the last time you heard a woman do colour commentary for an NHL game?

When was the last time you saw a woman be asked for her opinion during a pregame, intermission or postgame show of an NHL game in Canada?

Chances are the answer to all these questions is never. Because it doesn’t happen.

Sure, there are women involved in broadcasts, but they’re in the roles of anchors (usually with a man), hosts (asking male analysts questions but rarely answering themselves) or reporters (just the facts, ma’am). Often they’re even physically separated from the men, either rinkside during a game, or in the case of Hockey Night in Canada in an area so far from the main desk they’re practically in a different room.

And it’s not just an NHL thing. Watch any NFL broadcast and you’ll see women on the sidelines instead of in the broadcast booth or at the analysts’ table. This isn’t just a coincidence, it happens so often it’s become a de facto template.

Now I’m not calling for 50-50 parity here. I understand that for sports like pro hockey and football, where former players tend to become analysts, you’re going to have a lot of dudes. And that’s okay. But there are plenty of guys giving their opinions about hockey games that have never played a single minute in the NHL. And don’t pretend there aren’t women out there who have strong, informed opinions about hockey.

Sportsnet, TSN, RDS and TVA Sports, to say nothing of ESPN, NBC, Fox and others in the U.S., need to do more to desegregate their broadcasts along gender lines. Chantal Machabée is great, but if she’s the only female hockey personality on RDS, that’s a problem.

Andi Petrillo recently made history as the first woman to get a full-time job hosting a sports radio show in (English) Canada.* The fact that this took until 2016 is shameful. In Montreal, of the three radio stations that air sports programming regularly, the best we can do so far is an hour a week on TSN 690 Sunday mornings hosted by Robyn Flynn.

We can do better than this. We can do better than pretending it’s not an all-boys club because we have a pretty girl interviewing coaches on the sideline. Especially when you consider all the stuff that pretty girl has to do on a regular basis to ward off anonymous stalkers and potential rapists. The Erin Andrews case alone should give us pause, force us to reflect on the real-world consequences of treating women on TV as sex objects, or putting them in a position where the viewer sees them that way. (Remember that the guy who secretly filmed her through a peephole he created in her hotel room did so not because he was some disturbed pervert but because he figured he could make a lot of money off the footage.)

We can do better than even the few women’s hockey games broadcast on TV being announced by male play-by-play announcers because there are no women qualified to do it. We can do better than all-male analyst panels all of the time, with at best a female moderator.

This isn’t a theoretical hope for some non-existent women. There are real women out there doing hard work who would love an opportunity to be considered for jobs that have, either consciously or unconsciously, been locked out to them.

More women need to be trained in play-by-play, which is a very tough job that doesn’t in any way require the person doing it to be a former player or to have a penis. Put women in these positions at lower levels, calling minor-league games and regional broadcasts before upgrading them to big national ones. Women need to be encouraged to express their opinions on the air rather than always defer to their male colleagues, and they need to be asked what they think. You might be pleasantly surprised by the answer.

Because there are a lot of women out there with opinions worth sharing. Whether it’s Andi Petrillo, or Andie Bennett, or Robyn Flynn, or Katie Nolan, there’s a perspective that we’re sorely missing.

Considering all the crap they have to go through in this business that their male counterparts never even have to think about, I think the absolute least you could do is let them have a voice.

Happy International Women’s Day.

* It’s happened in Quebec. Once. (Thanks Francis for pointing this out.)

UPDATE: If you don’t think sexism exist in sports broadcast media, check out Andi Petrillo’s story.

Posted in My articles, Opinion, TV

Canada’s TV industry still needs to get its act together on streaming

Want to watch the Super Bowl tonight online or on mobile? No problem. You just have to prove you’re subscribed to CTV through a participating TV provider.

Now, that might sound a bit ridiculous, since CTV is a free-to-air television network and doesn’t collect subscription fees, but it’s nevertheless true. Bell Media is streaming the Super Bowl only on its CTV GO app, and that application works only if your TV provider has a contract with Bell Media to provide it.

Unfortunately, while English Canada’s big providers — Rogers, Shaw, Telus, Eastlink and of course Bell itself — are participating providers, Videotron and Cogeco are not. It doesn’t matter how many RDS or TSN channels you subscribe to, you can’t get mobile access to the Super Bowl or other Bell Media sports content until they make a deal. And there’s no word on when that’s going to happen.

I explore this frustration a bit in this business story, which appears in Saturday’s Montreal Gazette. It quotes Videotron saying they’re negotiating, and noting that they have Global GO, TMN GO and some other services, but that’s it.

There are gaps all across the compatibility chart. I can’t find one cable provider that offers all TV everywhere products, nor any broadcaster that’s available on all cable systems.

Quebecor seems to be the worst offender on both sides. Videotron subscribers don’t have access to most Bell Media, Rogers or Corus applications. Meanwhile TVA Sports has live streaming available only to Videotron and Cogeco subscribers.

Why is it like this? Because as Canada’s vertically integrated media companies get bigger, they’re more able to play hardball. Negotiations for carriage become more complicated, and a company like Quebecor trying to hold out for a better deal for itself and its customers ends up getting left out.

(Of course, since negotiations are secret, we have no idea which side is being unreasonable in its demands.)

Online streaming isn’t regulated directly by the CRTC, but vertically integrated companies have been told to play nice on TV everywhere products linked to licensed channels. The problem is that a deal can be considered “commercially reasonable” and still be a bad deal.

TV everywhere compatibility has gotten a lot better over the past few years, particularly as Bell, Rogers and Shaw signed deals to make their programming available on each others’ systems. But if the industry wants to show the CRTC and the government that the free market works better than government regulation, if it wants to show customers that cable is still better than over-the-top streaming, it needs to grow up, sit down together and make this work.

TV everywhere should work everywhere. If it doesn’t … well, just remember how easy piracy is these days.

Posted in Opinion, Sports

NHL fans bullied John Scott, and blamed the NHL for it

January was quite the month for John Scott, a hockey player who started out as the butt of a joke and ended up as the National Hockey League All-Star Game Most Valuable Player.

There’s been no shortage of think pieces about Scott, especially over the past week. Most have decided to blame the NHL’s senior management for mishandling the issue, for holding a fan vote, for having Scott be eligible, for trying to convince him not to go and then for mysteriously engineering a trade that conveniently sent him to an American Hockey League team 5,000 kilometres away. (The league denies trying to prevent him from coming, but Scott himself said they tried to shame him out of it by invoking his kids.)

There’s no doubt the league mishandled the situation after Scott was chosen, and fumbled its way through trying to make good on it. But the NHL didn’t pick Scott for the all-star game. The NHL didn’t decide that humiliating a journeyman NHL player would be hilarious without caring what it would do to that guy. The fans did that.

So why aren’t they getting the blame from anyone (besides Don Cherry)?

I followed the John Scott story closely over the past little while, partly because he’s now in the Montreal Canadiens organization, but also because I related to him.

I was bullied in high school, pretty badly. There might have been one or two people in my high school who got it worse than me, but on the social hierarchy I was pretty near the bottom. I won’t bore you with details, but the torment was pretty standard for high schools in the 90s.

It was in my last year or two of high school, when during the lunch period there was some sort of vote on something. I don’t remember what it was, what the prize was, but I remember my surprise when one of my fellow students — one of the many who regularly bullied me — called out my name.

I didn’t get it. I hadn’t suddenly become popular. Why did these people vote for me? Why were they happy I won?

Then there was that time that a pack of girls brought me into an AV room and flashed me. (Well, not really, they were lightning fast and didn’t lift their shirts all the way, so I never saw anything.) What the hell was that about?

Had I become so uncool that I was now really popular? Like a reversal of coolness polarity?

No, I was still the butt of a joke. Things got better as people matured (including me), but my classmates didn’t look up to me, they were still looking down, and laughing.

I thought of that while following the John Scott story. He experienced something similar, but on a much larger and more public scale.

NHL fans decided to vote him in as a joke (and let’s not kid ourselves, that’s how this started), but Scott refused to bow out and instead approached the event with an enthusiasm that brought many more fans to his side. The love-in only got stronger through the events, culminating in him being hoisted on his teammates’ shoulders after scoring twice in the All-Star Game.

But that doesn’t shift responsibility for the fan vote that got him there. That doesn’t change the fact that John Scott was the victim of bullying on a massive scale.

Greg Wyshynski, the Puck Daddy blogger who first blurted out Scott’s name during a podcast, which sparked the campaign to vote for Scott, accepted some responsibility for starting it all. But while he spent a few seconds mocking Scott, he didn’t orchestrate the campaign to flood NHL all-star voting with votes for him. The Internet trolls on Reddit and elsewhere did that.

They need to accept responsibility for what they did, and not take the storybook ending as proof that the ends justified the means. They’re the villains of this story that Scott vanquished, not the fairy godmothers that gave him a happy ending.

The NHL has some responsibility here, too, of course. The idea of voting in someone as a joke has been around for years, since Rory Fitzpatrick almost got selected in 2007. And the selection of Zemgus Girgensons, while for positive reasons (Latvia wanted an all-star, and its citizens made it happen), should have reinforced the idea that fan voting can have unexpected consequences. And if it’s true that the league tried to pressure Scott or even forced the trade that may have banished him to the AHL, it needs to apologize for that.

And maybe there should be changes to the all-star selection process. Not a preselected list of qualified candidates, but some minimum qualifications, such as a minimum of NHL games played. The league might also consider measures to encourage more people like Scott, role players who never lead the league in scoring but are beloved by fans and teammates alike, to join the all-star festivities.

But the biggest change I’d like to see is in fans’ mentality. You’ve proven you have the power to manipulate the results of an online vote. Now maybe you’ll give it some more thought before making some poor hard-working guy you’ve never met the butt of your stupid joke.

In the meantime, congratulations John Scott. I hope you had as much fun participating as we did watching it. And I hope we’ll get to see you scoring some goals in Montreal soon.

Posted in Media, Opinion

Bell Let’s Talk: Are all of Bell Media’s newsrooms independently choosing to cover it?

On Monday, CTV News President Wendy Freeman appeared at a CRTC hearing in Gatineau looking into the future of local television, and she was asked about the editorial independence of Bell Media’s newsrooms, particularly in light of the Kevin Crull scandal, and journalistic independence code that followed it. Here’s what she said, from the transcript of that hearing:

It’s actually working out very well and what we have done is we’ve put a journalistic independence policy in place and basically so that there is never any interference from anyone that no one can ever influence our news division.

And if someone — anyone that works for CTV News feels that they are being pressured or influenced by someone, that they can come to me and that I now have a place to go if I feel that I am being pressured or influenced. And in the end, it is my choice on what we cover and what we do, and I have the final say.

But the independence policy was distributed across the company and in the end it basically says that no one has the right to interfere in our news gathering and in our news, and in our news editorial decision-making. And it has been going well. Thank you for asking.

Bell Media hasn’t published this independence code, but apparently its journalists can go straight to Freeman with any issues, and she reports directly to BCE CEO George Cope.

Two days later, there’s a test of this independence code as BCE does its annual Let’s Talk campaign to raise money and awareness for mental health. A laudable cause, to be sure, but it’s also an ad campaign with Bell’s logo all over it. (I first wrote about that aspect five years ago, and there was a followup counterpoint a year later.)

This year, as it has previously, Bell Media sent out a press release promising wall-to-wall coverage across its properties, including CTV News Channel, CP24, TSN, RDS, BNN, local CTV News stations and news-talk radio stations, plus newsy shows like eTalk and Innerspace. Everything under the Bell Media umbrella was going to talk about this issue.

So how does that square with the journalistic independence code? How are journalists supposed to feel independent if BCE is having them all report on a Bell campaign?

I put the question to Freeman, and here’s what she wrote back to me:

Thanks for checking in. I can confirm with complete certainty that all decisions to cover Bell Let’s Talk day and it’s mental health initiatives by CTV News outlets are made completely independent of corporate influence. CTV Newsrooms are unequivocally free to choose the news they cover.

Bell Let’s Talk Day is a news story every year that is of significant national interest.  It is being covered by a wide range of news outlets, including the CBC.

Millions of Canadians are engaged, making it Twitter’s #1 trending topic nationally and #2 worldwide. From politicians and the royal family to celebrities and athletes,  Bell Let’s Talk Day is clearly of interest to many, and as a result, newsworthy.

With regard to the press release cited in your note, we often announce in advance our coverage plans for news of national importance and of interest to viewers, always subject to change of course depending on the news of the day.

I’m still a bit skeptical about the influence Bell has over its newsrooms’ coverage. Here in Montreal, CTV News at noon had a five-minute remote interview with Mary Walsh near the top of the newscast (she did the rounds of CTV stations), and later another five-minute interview with a pro wrestler. During both, there was a graphic overlay of how many texts, calls and tweets were contributing to the campaign. That graphic, of course, used Bell’s logo, its colours and its fonts.

Mutsumi Takahashi interviews Shayne Hawke on CTV Montreal

Mutsumi Takahashi interviews Shayne Hawke on CTV Montreal

Does anyone believe CTV News would be doing this if this was a Telus campaign? Or a Manulife one? No, it would probably be covering it like CBC and others are covering today’s events: as an average news story about a trending topic, not a news event that requires special attention.

I certainly wouldn’t expect newsrooms to announce their coverage plans days in advance.

But who can be angry about more attention to mental illness, right? It’s a good cause, so why would a news director choose not to report on it, unless out of some malice? Is it so bad to hand over CTV News to Bell’s corporate PR people for a day for some joint venture for charity?

I’m a bit concerned that CTV News and other Bell Media news outlets are being a bit too passive about corporate interference, despite what Freeman says. I certainly wouldn’t expect any of their newsrooms to note the fact that Bell has many employees that don’t enjoy mental health insurance coverage, for example. (Though that’s a larger issue about freelancers and contract workers replacing permanent employees that’s affecting lots of sectors in the economy.)

But I’m more worried about the slippery slope. When CTV News, Bell Media and BCE see themselves as part of the same family, with journalists and corporate PR working so closely together, it’s easier for people to get the impression, like Crull did, that they have the same interests, or even that one is subservient to the other.

Maybe I’m just being paranoid. Maybe all of Bell Media’s newsrooms independently choosing to cover the same issue on the same day is normal and has nothing to do with the fact that the issue is being pushed by Bell Media’s parent company.

Or maybe I’m just being heartless because I’ve never had a mental illness and I should just shut up and let this one slide.

Posted in Opinion, TV

Does BazzoTV deserve a tax credit?

Marie-France Bazzo's BazzoTV is financed in part through a Canadian government tax credit.

Marie-France Bazzo’s BazzoTV is financed in part through a Canadian government tax credit.

The scandale du jour in Quebec media: The government has cut funding to BazzoTV, forcing the Télé-Québec current affairs show to shut down for good after this season.

Bazzo’s production company issued a statement, the show posted a page on its website, Marie-France Bazzo herself tweeted about it and there are plenty of news stories about the change, with Bazzo not being afraid to express her opinion on what this decision means for the future of television.

Reaction has been negative toward the government and supportive of Bazzo. One Journal de Montréal blowhard called it murder.

So what happened, exactly?

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Posted in Opinion, Public transit

It’s time for the STM to get serious about New Year’s Eve service

The STM wants you to consider public transit if you’re going out to a New Year’s Eve party tonight. It’s promising “3700 designated drivers” to help take you home after you’ve been drinking.

Which is great. Except I can’t find any evidence that the STM is doing anything to improve service to make it easier for people to use public transit tonight.

This would seem like a perfect opportunity for the STM to run the metro all night, but it doesn’t do that. Nor is it running later than usual. Hell, they’re not even running it on a Saturday schedule, which would keep trains running an extra half hour. Instead, it’s the regular weekday schedule, which means the last trains leave Berri-UQAM just before 1am, and leave the terminuses as early as 12:30am. On the blue line, the last trains leave at 12:15. Which means to take one of them you basically have to yell “Happy New Year” as you’re walking out the door.

If you’re taking a bus to the metro, especially from somewhere like the West Island or Laval, you have to leave before midnight, which kind of defeats the purpose.

Demanding the metro run all night is a common request of STM users, and I understand why it can’t be met. Overnight is when the STM does maintenance on the tracks and in the tunnels, stuff that can’t be done while the trains are running.

But the metro has run all night before, such as during the annual Nuit Blanche event in February. Would it really be impossible to run it overnight one other night a year? Even at a reduced schedule, with trains every 20 minutes, would be far better than people waiting outside in the cold for buses.

Sure, it would cost money. Employees would have to work overtime, and because it’s Jan. 1 they’d get stat pay on top of that. But all the metro stations are open at the stroke of midnight, so metro employees are already missing the chance to drink champagne after a countdown.

Buses don’t solve the problem

The STM points to the night bus network as a way to get home after the metro is closed. And as a regular user of night buses, I can attest to their usefulness. But I can’t find any evidence that the STM is increasing service on night buses tonight, either. Instead, it’s the regular Thursday night schedule, in which most lines are running only once every 45 minutes. That’s a long wait out in the cold.

And of course the night buses don’t go everywhere. There are places in the West Island, St-Laurent borough and east end where the closest night bus stop is more than 1.5 km away. Starting from a home in Kirkland? You could be looking at a half-hour walk to the nearest stop.

Putting regular and night bus service on a Saturday schedule would be the least they could do. But they’re not. Or at least it’s not being announced, and if people don’t know the buses are coming they’re as good as useless.

This isn’t a complex problem to solve. It’s one night a year where a couple of extra hours of service would make a huge difference.

But instead, the STM is doing nothing except advertising “3700 designated drivers”, the vast majority of whom won’t be available after midnight tonight.

Posted in Media, Opinion

How independent are newsrooms from their owners?

Depending on your preconceived notions, there is either something very weird or very understandable going on in Las Vegas.

Recently, the century-old Las Vegas Review-Journal was purchased by a company that, bizarrely, refused to disclose who owned it. Eventually it was determined that the owner is Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire who seems intent on spending a lot of his money supporting Republican candidates for political office.

It gets worse. After Adelson bought the paper, but before anyone found out it was him who owned it, reporters were told to investigate judges who were unfriendly to Adelson. Not asked, ordered. And perhaps the most bizarre part of this story is that the newspaper that broke it was the Review-Journal itself.

A newspaper deliberately embarrassing itself is not something you see every day. And the fact that they did that seems to be the main argument in favour of convincing readers that their editorial integrity remains intact.

An editorial published last week includes this unbelievable passage:

You can be assured that if the Adelsons attempt to skew coverage, by ordering some stories covered and others killed or watered down, the Review-Journal’s editors and reporters will fight it. How can you be sure? One way is to look at how we covered the secrecy surrounding the newspaper’s sale. We dug in. We refused to stand down. We will fight for your trust. Every. Single. Day. Even if our former owners and current operators don’t want us to.

How often does a newspaper vow to protect itself from its owner?

And yet, for all the proclamations that the new owners will protect the newsroom and only control the editorial page, the fact that the newspaper’s editor suddenly left the paper doesn’t inspire confidence. Nor does that whole judge thing, which still hasn’t been explained. It’s definitely still a scandal, and one that’s getting national attention.

Editorial interference in Canada

There have been several cases north of the border in which the question of ownership interference in newsrooms have come up. Among them:

  • Bell Media president Kevin Crull twice attempts to direct CTV News coverage of an issue affecting Bell. In the first, it’s chalked up to a misunderstanding. After the second, in which Crull’s orders were eventually ignored by CTV National News staff, Crull is fired. Bell cites the actions of its journalists, and its decision to fire Crull, as proof that Bell Media’s newsrooms are independent. But there is not a single measure in place to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again.
  • Postmedia (my employer) orders Alberta papers to endorse the Progressive Conservative party in the Alberta provincial election. Months later, all Postmedia papers, including its recently purchased Sun Media chain, endorse the federal Conservatives, apparently on orders from Postmedia brass. The editorials in the Sun Media papers are signed “Postmedia Network”, while those in the other papers are unsigned, leading readers to believe they were written and decided on by the individual papers’ editorial boards. Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey states that it’s understood that ownership decides on endorsements, a statement that the chair of the Toronto Star board didn’t agree with.
  • Quebecor Media’s controlling shareholder remains Pierre Karl Péladeau, the leader of the Parti Québécois. Péladeau has placed his shares in trust, but it’s not a blind trust because the trustee cannot sell the shares. Because he is not a member of the cabinet, he is not obliged to use a blind trust, but the rules on conflict of interest weren’t designed for a case where the asset is a media giant. Though it’s whispered and rumoured everywhere that Péladeau was a control freak before he entered politics, there’s little proof that he personally attempted to interfere in any news coverage. When Enquête looked into the issue in 2011, the best it could find was a case where a Journal de Montréal manager tried to fix the results of a list of most influential personalities. Péladeau has repeatedly said that Quebecor’s newsrooms are independent, and specifically points to its collective agreements as proof, even though the Journal de Montréal just about dismantled its union in a long lockout.
  • Groupe Capitales Médias, a company owned by former politician Martin Cauchon, buys six newspapers from Gesca — every one but La Presse. Though there’s been no suggestion Cauchon attempted to interfere with editorial, he refuses to disclose where the financing came from for this purchase (or even the amount). That has led to unsubstantiated allegations from people in the Quebecor camp that Cauchon is merely a puppet of Power Corp., which owns Gesca.

There are countless other examples at smaller players, or cases where newsrooms act in such a way as to promote their owners’ interests (a Saturday Night Live preview in a Global TV newscast, or cross-promotion between the Journal de Montréal and TVA).

But how does it work on a daily basis?

I have limited experience working in other newsrooms, though I have plenty of friends and contacts who work for various media. And I can tell you two things for certain:

  1. It’s a caricature that owners, whether a single mega-rich person or the CEO of a publicly traded corporation, call up newspaper editors on a daily basis or write their own front-page headlines or decide how a TV newscast is lined up. The reality is that they don’t have time to do stuff like that, and most of the time they don’t care.
  2. Anyone who tells you a newsroom is completely independent of its ownership is lying.

There are plenty of cases of overt interference. Endorsements are a good example. It’s one of the few times an owner of a chain of newspapers will care about their editorials. There are also cases that are relatively benign, such as Bell Media putting all its news resources into promoting the annual Bell Let’s Talk charity campaign. And there are cases in between, where an editor is asked to run any particularly sensitive stories up the chain to get ownership’s okay, but the latter won’t censor news just because it might make them look bad.

But then there are all the cases of self-censorship, cases in which a journalist or editor will choose not to cover a story that makes the owners look bad, even if there wouldn’t have been any repercussions for doing so, even if they’re protected by their union, even if the owner has promised not to interfere.

I honestly don’t know — and most people in newsrooms I speak to don’t know for sure — whether owners pick up the phone and bark orders at middle managers on what to cover. I can only speak to what I see on the front lines, which is that journalists are almost always free to cover stories as they warrant. And when reporters are reined in, it’s almost always because of a legitimate, journalistic reason.

But it’s not absolute. And when one newspaper owner (Postmedia’s Godfrey) says it’s obvious ownership sets the editorial direction and another newspaper owner (Quebecor’s Péladeau) says it’s obvious newsrooms are independent of ownership, the only thing that’s obvious to me is that people don’t know which is true.

How do we fix this? Well, readers and outside organizations should continue to hold media owners’ feet to the fire to demand transparency, accountability and independence. And owners should make it abundantly clear that their newsrooms are independent, putting in place measures to prevent them from interfering, whether it’s a public editor or ombudsman or other independent body that has the power to expose any such interference.

But I think the better solution is healthy competition in media. If different outlets have different owners, it’s hard for one owner to keep a story under wraps. And if consumers make transparency and trust a priority when choosing what media to consume, the media will do whatever it can to earn that trust.

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.

glb-intro

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.

glb-skyline

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.

glb-backdrop

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.

glb-weather

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).

glb-sports

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.

glb-outro

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.

glb-jackets

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.

“Innovation”

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.

glb-camille

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.

glb-jessica

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.