What we know (and don’t) about the Lisa LaFlamme story

In case you’ve been in a coma since Monday, you know that CTV News has ended its contract with Lisa LaFlamme, the chief anchor and senior editor of CTV National News.

Since then, every day has brought new revelations, questions and rumours about what happened and why. I have no original reporting on this, nor any insider knowledge or insight, but I do have a good sense of what reporting can be trusted as fact and what sizes of salt grains should be taken with the rest. So here’s my compilation of what’s been reported so far:

What we know

CTV ended its contract with LaFlamme: LaFlamme stated in a video she posted online that this was Bell Media’s decision to end her contract, and that she was “blindsided” and “shocked” by that decision. Bell Media has not contested this recounting of facts.

Omar Sachedina replaced her starting Sept. 5: Sachedina is a CTV News veteran and a respected national journalist, but he caused some controversy with his only tweet on the matter, which seemed tone-deaf right after LaFlamme’s video. He gave five-minute interviews to local CTV newscasts on Monday, but otherwise was quiet until he started his new job. On his first night as anchor he read a brief message about “important discussions” taking place, and acknowledged LaFlamme as an “inspiration and mentor”.

The contract ended early: The Globe and Mail reports LaFlamme had “just under two years left on her contract” when she was let go. (The Globe does not explain how it knows this, but the Toronto Star also reported her contract ended early.) This fact is significant because it means (unless there was a negotiated agreement otherwise) Bell Media would still be paying her until the end of that contract. If this was strictly a cost-saving decision, it would make more sense to wait until the end of that contract before bringing in someone new and paying two people.

LaFlamme continued working after she was told: In her video, LaFlamme said she was informed on June 29 that she would be let go, and was asked to keep that information to herself “until the specifics of my exit could be resolved.” (She doesn’t explain what that meant.) It’s unusual for a broadcaster to keep working after they have been told their contract is being terminated, because of the danger of someone with nothing to lose and an ax to grind being given a microphone.

Bell Media doesn’t want to explain itself: Bell Media executives have turned down countless attempts to seek comment about the decision. Besides the original announcement, the only statement was made Friday, saying it “regrets the way in which the news of her departure has been communicated.”

When it was finally BCE CEO Mirko Bibic’s turn to make a comment, he didn’t say much beyond denying ageism, but he did confirm that there was some sort of non-disclosure agreement: “we are bound by a mutual separation agreement negotiated with Lisa, which we will continue to honour.”

CTV management is controlling how its news outlets report this story:

In Sachedina’s interviews with various CTV News outlets, the introductions and questions were all the same: What do you hope to bring to the new role? (Continue to build trust, be objective, connect people geographically) What are you most excited about? (Continue working with the team) What are some of the stories you have covered so far in your career that have stayed with you? (Ukrainian refugees fleeing to Poland) What is your message to loyal viewers of Canada’s most-watched national newscast? (We’ll continue earning your trust). You can play the interviews simultaneously and it almost sounds like a choir: (CTV News Channel, CTV Montreal, CTV Kitchener, CTV Winnipeg, CTV Regina, CTV Edmonton (at 28:15) — but give Northern Ontario some credit for asking Sachedina how he would differ from LaFlamme)

The text of the story about Sachedina’s appointment carries no byline beyond “Staff”.

Reporting about yourself as a major news outlet is tricky. There are generally three ways to do it:

  1. Make it an announcement instead. Put the byline of a senior manager or make it an editor’s note, don’t pretend it’s a news story.
  2. Run a story from another independent service (usually The Canadian Press) that isn’t controlled by you
  3. Run a de facto press release and treat it like it’s a news story.

It’s unfortunate that outlets like Bell Media and Corus have so often chosen option 3, particularly after Bell promised CTV News would remain independent after the Kevin Crull scandal.

LaFlamme had the chance to say goodbye on air: An internal memo says LaFlamme was given the chance to say goodbye on her newscast, and she chose not to. Most likely because of conditions placed on that offer. The Toronto Sun reports she would have had to lie, saying she had chosen to retire.

There were internal tensions at CTV National News: Reporting from the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail shows LaFlamme butted heads with managers about budgetary issues. That isn’t surprising — journalists always want more resources. What role that conflict had in her termination is unclear.

What we don’t know

Why: It’s the most pressing question, but has yet to be answered, even through unofficial channels. There’s speculation about personality conflicts, sexism and ageism, or a new manager wanting to assert his authority. But all Bell Media will say is that it’s a “business decision” to go in a new direction.

Who made the decision, and who approved it: Michael Melling, who was appointed vice-president of news at Bell Media in January, is getting the most attention in news coverage, and it seems reasonable to assume he was the one who made the decision. But Melling has bosses, including Karine Moses, Senior Vice President, Content Development and News, and Wade Oosterman, Bell Media’s president. A decision like this would probably require these people at least be consulted, and maybe even BCE CEO Mirko Bibic.

What Bell Media wants to change: At a town hall meeting on Thursday, reported by various media, staff repeatedly questioned Melling and Moses about why LaFlamme was let go and what they want to change about CTV National News. Their answers were vague and evasive. Did they want some sort of new focus and LaFlamme resisted that? Did they just not like LaFlamme? We don’t know any of this.

What was negotiated between June 29 and Aug. 15: LaFlamme too was vague, talking about the “specifics of my exit” being “resolved”. Does this mean Bell needed time to hire Sachedina, or was there some negotiation between Bell and LaFlamme over things like severance pay and what would be said publicly about her departure?

What we can reasonably assume

This decision won’t be reversed: While you can never guarantee anything in life, this is hardly the first time Bell Media has terminated a beloved on-air personality, nor the first time it has faced backlash, even petitions for reinstatement. Those movements have always failed. Reinstating someone you just fired would be expensive, awkward, undermine your authority and would not turn back the clock. For LaFlamme to be reinstated, every manager who approved her termination would likely have to lose their job in the process. Don’t expect that to happen.

She’s not moving on to something better: The second stage of public reaction, once they realize the first option is unrealistic, is to hope that their beloved personality moves on to another job that is even more prestigious, forcing those evil managers to regret their decisions. But LaFlamme was at the top, anchoring Canada’s top-rated national newscast. Even in the unlikely scenario where Global or CBC decide to bring LaFlamme in and ditch their own national anchors (which would just start another round of this), at best it could be considered a consolation prize. If LaFlamme wants to keep being involved in public life, it would have to be in some other field, like becoming governor-general or something. (UPDATE Sept. 9: Rogers announced it has hired LaFlamme as a special correspondent covering the Queen’s death. It’s unclear if she will have a role at Rogers following that coverage.)

No one is untouchable: This was pretty clear to me years ago, as more and more high-profile personalities got suddenly ejected from Bell Media. But whether because they make too much money or they’re too resistant to the kind of change management wants, no one can claim to be immune from the hatchet.

Morale will be low for a while: Even if this was the right decision, it comes at a cost. Employees who were either loyal to LaFlamme or believe in newsroom independence are not happy and this could seriously affect their performance going forward. They will be looking over their shoulder wondering if they’re next, or what other changes will be imposed from the higher-ups who seem to care little about transparency or the people working under them. It’s tough to rebuild trust.

The facts won’t really matter in the end: I’d like to think the entire country will read this post and keep it in mind, but the narrative has already been set. Melling and other Bell Media executives are the bad guys, and they fired LaFlamme because they didn’t like her, either because she’s a woman, she has grey hair, she’s got too much integrity, or some combination thereof. Any attempt now to rewrite that narrative will be seen as self-serving and dishonest.

But then, Bell Media may or may not care about all that. Unlike Rogers, Shaw or Quebecor, Bell isn’t controlled by a family. Its ultimate loyalty is to its shareholders, none of whom have significant control. So long as it makes money, how people feel about its decisions is secondary.

And in any case, as much as people will profess otherwise, this story will eventually die down. If you were loyal to Bell Media and CTV News before LaFlamme was let go, then you either aren’t paying attention or you’ve quickly forgotten about all the other people they’ve dismissed, so why should they bother caring what you think?

11 thoughts on “What we know (and don’t) about the Lisa LaFlamme story

  1. Dilbert

    It’s another one of those wonderful stories where proves to be incredibly tone deaf to public relations and getting the public on their side. Like most Canadian media ‘gloms, they do things suddenly in dark corners and then act like nothing happened. When they get called out, they say vague things and ignore public concerns.

    My take is that Bell (or at least the new News head) wanted LaFlamme gone. It sort of reads like a battle between new boss seeking to consolidate power and long time leading employee with a lot of operational clout. If they were not getting on the same page, one of them has to go.

    There can also be a question of wanting to take things in a new direction. The entire media universe at this point is a pile of shifting sand. Things are changing daily, particularly consumer consumption methods and delivery methods. The internet, streaming, and even time zone jumping cable system delivery means that the traditional 11PM newscast isn’t always the sole focus.

    You could imagine that the new boss would maybe want to make some changed that might involve more hours, or more time in front of the camera, or changes in the overall production process. It’s possible that her contract didn’t allow for it. If she was asked to change and she declined, they may have decided it was better to show her the door.

    There will always be questions of sexism, ageism, and the like. They may have looked at her age (58) and the time left on her contract (2 years) and decided that she was no longer the right person to be the on screen face for their product going forward. This is especially true if they would go through all of the process and then 2 years from now she would be leaving or replaced anyway.

    For me, it comes down to two sides not able to agree on the future, and instead coming to an agreement to terminate her contact early so they can move on. LaFlamme clearly isn’t happy about it, Bell has clearly messed up the process and the PR, and lost their chance to have a nice public handover that would allow the viewing public to be happy. Just plain scrubbing her out of existence is typical Bell and always a total failure in the public’s eyes.

    Reply
  2. Michael Black

    What bugs me is this is all about “Bell Media”. A controlling company making decisions, rather than the people at CTV making the decisions. Bell Media shouod only be making broad decisions, “cut some costs” rather than making low level decisions like this

    Reply
  3. Karen Schlogel

    This is not new for CTV. Look at the reporters who have been let go across the country over the past 10 years or so. It is now the chief player. The game will go on, but nothing will be the same. Trust has been lost.

    Reply
  4. Wayne MacDonald

    I read the transcript of the staff and management “town hall” and wondered how an organization like Bell Media could be so clumsy and unsophisticated in trying to manage the fallout. Big, big titles at the front of the room with small ideas and a complete inability to clearly answer any staff questions. Lots of talk about vision, a vision (if there really is one) that no one could explain. In my little experience in media management, a top-down “vision” can never succeed if it is rammed down the throats of the people who have to execute it—especially journalists. And as for pushback from Laflamme on resources to cover the unplanned and very important Ukrainian war, what would you expect. Journalists always want more resources. And so they should. Those are the good ones. But it doesn’t always mean they get their way. It’s called good management compromise.

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  5. Anonymous

    The main reason I watched CTV National News was because of Lisa. She had a way of making the cruddiest news story seem interesting with her flair and pizazz. Omar certainly has big shoes to fill to keep up her phenomenal ratings, which may dip because of disaffection and undeserved anger at him. Network newscast viewing habits in general reach mostly a demographic of 50 and over these days. Baby boomers and their aged parents are the only ones who have that habit to tune into local and national newscasts regularly. Lisa catered perfectly towards that demographic, and if CTV thinks that Omar will pull in the 40 and under crowd, they will probably be in for a big surprise come the next ratings results.

    Reply
    1. Anonymous

      I think the truth of her termination has already been revealed to us: Bell media executives bungled the execution of the new direction the enterprise wants to (or thinks it needs to?) take in their treatment of Ms. LaFlamme and should be terminated for cause. And the “new direction” they think they need to go has to do not with the colour of her hair but, rather, the colour of her skin.

      Reply
  6. Anonymous

    People still watch this crap, and consider it news.
    I’ve stopped watch the national network news programs.
    I can’t say when it actually happened, but over the past 20 years, one by one I would turn them off.
    I realized that they where wasting my time with bullshit.
    No news here, all form and no substance.

    If CTV ran reruns of “The Littlest Hobo” at that 11pm time slot, I might bother to tune in.

    Reply
  7. Yvette Brault

    I loved Lisa LafFamme’s reporting. She was my favourite. I would faithfully tune in to CTV every evening to see her reporting. She was like a longtime friend to me. I miss her. I no longer tune into CTV news.
    Sincerely missed,
    Yvette Brault

    Reply
  8. Maynard G. Krebs

    One thing’s for sure. Sandie Rinaldo, Canada’s nicest newscaster, now has the safest job in the country.

    Reply
  9. Lawrence

    So disappointed in ctv i watched her show like she was an old friend i will never watch ctv again. Poor management, all staff there should be on guard that if it could happen to her it can happen to any of them.

    Reply

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