Category Archives: news media

Claire Hoy: Still making stuff up

The last time Claire Hoy managed to attract my attention was during that thing we loosely refer to as a referendum on voting reform in Ontario. At that time, he was playing a bit fast and loose with the truth. Now he pops up on my radar again, this time writing about the United Church of Canada and its new Moderator, Mardi Tindal, who also happens to be my mom. And again, he’s sayin’ stuff that simply aint true.

For example, regarding the United Church and Israel, Hoy writes:

But as we saw in the publicity leading up to the recent United Church gabfest, once again a host of seriously anti-Israel and yes, anti- Semitic resolutions were being pushed by church activists. To be sure, they didn’t get the church body as a whole to approve them, but then again, the church did the old typical United Church cop-out, and rather than denouncing some rather hateful resolutions, simply set them aside for further study.

Wrong, Hoy. The meeting didn’t receive the offensive material for study, it repudiated all of that background material in almost no time. Further, the way the church’s General Council handled the whole of the resolutions was “met with cheers by the Canadian Jewish Congress and its chief executive officer, Bernie Farber.”

Then, Hoy criticizes the Moderator claiming that she “dismisses the word ‘faith’ as ‘too static….'” Since Hoy did not actually interview the Moderator for his rant disguised as a column, one assumes he was attempting to quote a profile that appeared in the National Post. Problem is, the quote that he uses is almost the complete opposite of what Tindal actually said in the Post, which quoted her correctly:

“For me the word ‘faith’ is part of a new paradigm … the word belief sounds too static, where in fact in faith we are invited to participate relationally.”

Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the required background knowledge to figure out which things Hoy makes up and which things are real. When someone’s writing is contaminated to such a degree, I think it’s probably best to just avoid it altogether.

All the news that’s fit to crib

Photo by Mark J Hunter
Photo by Mark J Hunter

One of the most important functions of newspapers, we are told, is that they produce professional content that no one else can. Investigating and breaking news stories is the most commonly referenced example. “If newspapers didn’t exist,” the argument goes, “bloggers wouldn’t have anything to write about.”

There is some truth to that statement: the vast majority of chatter in the blogosphere is reaction and commentary rather than original reporting. Even opinions and analysis are usually rehashed from professionals. Last month at the 2009 Interactive Exchange (IN09) Richard Stursberg, Executive Vice-President of English Services for CBC, repeatedly insisted that blogs and web 2.0 websites do not create content, they only distribute content. “If old media dies,” Stursberg told conference attendees, weeks before announcing massive layoffs at his corporation, “I don’t know who’s going to make content.” (Paraphrased from memory.)

On the one hand, I agree that a professional news media is and has been a critical component of democracy. The fact that this model is breaking, and will probably break completely before a replacement is found, is of concern. But what also concerns me is the fact that old media appears to be going out of its way to hide and deny the positive contribution that new media is making. One specific event this past week helped to convince me of that. (More on that below.)

Listening to newspaper veterans speak you’d believe they have a monopoly on overturning rocks and introducing new information. That’s nothing more than a wishful delusion. The fact is that by its own criteria, the news media has been doing a bad job, and others have started to pick up the slack. One Canadian political example that comes to mind is the blog Buckets of Grewal, which played an important role in uncovering some key facts regarding the Grewal tapes scandal. (I’ve had a few much more humble achievements myself. For example, I’ve not seen anyone else report on the connections between a supposedly independent study about the Hummer and the Hummer’s manufacturer, nor do I know of any columnist who noticed some disturbing parallels in two news events separated by a few years.)

Instead of being honest about examples of bloggers contributing to the news industry, old media, and newspapers in particular, would rather bury those examples in favour of promoting the popular image of bloggers as parasites to media companies.

When I was on staff at Torontoist, a popular Toronto news, events, and culture blog, we accepted with a sense of inevitability that whenever we were lucky enough (or, dare I say, good enough) to get an exclusive story of any significance it would usually appear in Toronto’s newspapers the next day without credit. Proving that we were the source of many of these stories was almost impossible of course, but there was a definite pattern, and I’m told journalists at the Toronto Star sometimes confided privately that we were indeed being cribbed. And then there were some situations, including this January 2008 incident involving the Toronto Sun, where full sections of our writing happened to appear word-for-word in print without attribution. (In that case, the Sun ended up apologizing, kinda.)

This past week, my old Torontoist colleague Jonathan Goldsbie authored an excellent example of the kind light that bloggers can shine through the cracks that news stories pass through as they fall. Responding to a reader letter, Goldsbie decided to get to the bottom of a Virgin Radio bus ad that some found offensive. (And by “some,” I mean anyone who thinks it’s not particularly funny for advertisements shown in the transit system to make jokes about subway suicide.) Goldsbie did a lot of original research, connected dots that others had missed, and ultimately was the catalyst for having the ads pulled.

It’s a big story, and it was covered prominently in Toronto’s newspapers the next day. But while the Globe and Mail at least gave some small credit to Torontoist for bringing the ad to the TTC’s attention, the Toronto Star’s article was aloof and vague on the question of who actually broke and developed this story. And neither paper, in my opinion, gave Goldsbie and Torontoist the credit they deserved.

There’s a reason newspapers are behaving this way. Their industry is in free fall and they don’t know what to do about it or where the bottom is. No one does. So they’re afraid, and fear triggers “behaviors of escape and avoidance.” (Wikipedia)

That’s a reason, but not an excuse. The smart thing to do would be to embrace what may be early glimmers of the future of journalism. Unfortunately, there are indications that at least some papers are more comfortable clinging to the declining models of the past.

ps. Right before I hit publish on this post, John Dickerson of Slate magazine tweeted about another great example.

Mark J. Hunter photo from Flickr.

Bad news

I’m hearing the same message from many friends: it’s awful out there. With the economy going from bad to worse, we’re all focused on keeping our heads down and doing our jobs. Some of us have taken on more than one title at the same company in the hopes that it will make us less disposable. For the first time members of my generation know what it’s like to have their job security threatened en masse. We know that if we don’t do our jobs, someone else gladly will.

My current business, newspapers, is no exception. In the United States, Tribune Co. (owner of the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, and other daily newspapers) has filed for bankruptcy and the New York Times looked to mortgage their building to generate funds. Here in Canada, Sun Media cut 600 jobs in December, and in back-to-back announcements this month the Globe and Mail eliminated 90 positions and The Chronicle Herald cut 24 reporters, or almost a full quarter of their newsroom. Meanwhile Canwest, which owns daily local papers across the country as well as the National Post, has seen their stock plummet to less than a dollar a share and is desperately attempting to sell assets while having their borrowing ability curtailed. In other words, the newspaper business is in serious trouble.

John Honderich, former publisher of The Toronto Star, recently argued in said publication that the decline of newspapers “should concern us all:”

For me, it relates directly to the very quality of our democracy. In order for all of us to live meaningfully and participate in our community, we must be appropriately informed.

In this regard, the quality of public debate, if not the very quality of life in any community, is a direct function of the quality of media that serve it. Indeed, the functioning of a healthy democracy is predicated on a well-informed populace.

By that measure we must deem the news media in recent years to be a complete failure.

The “quality of public debate” has not been lower in living memory. Politicians fuel their campaigns entirety on spin, void of substance, never fearing that anyone will call them on it. Once elected, even Parliamentarians in the highest offices can be counted on to sink to the lowest levels of discourse. Members of the government recently went so far as to describe actions of the opposition as “treason” and a “coup d’état” when they were, in fact, operating well within the rules of our Parliamentary democracy.

Enter the “well-informed populace,” which, not knowing any better, believed the government’s blatant lies. A survey conducted by Ipsos Reid for the Dominion Institute shortly after the coalition debacle revealed that the majority of Canadians lack an understanding of some of the most basic elements of how their democracy functions.

And what of that “healthy, functioning” democracy? Far better than the countries that have none to be sure, but a far cry from where it should be too. We remain one of the last parliamentary democracies on Earth to use an antiquated voting system that delivers results we did not ask for. This, despite the fact that when citizens have studied the issue, they have chosen change. Of those entrenched institutions standing in the way of democratically-driven voting reform, few have been as staunch as newspapers (including Honderich’s).

By these measures, the news media is not doing its job, and that should indeed concern us all. It should also concern the media, because if you don’t do your job, someone else gladly will. And right now, even a comedian from Newfoundland with a standard definition TV and a one dollar pointer is giving you a run for your money.