Monday, June 27, 2016

Who Watches The Watchers (Part One)

The issue of what journalism is today and whether traditional journalists have any justification in their attacks on bloggers, resulted in researching an extensive amount of material and necessitated separating this article into two parts.

The battle lines between journalists and bloggers had been drawn years ago, and most of the salvos have been fired by journalists. On February 17th 2016, Grant LaFleche, a reporter with The Standard, a Postmedia owned newspaper in St. Catharines, Ontario, presented an article 'Why do you need a community newspaper' in their opinion column. Throughout this self-aggrandizing, opinion piece LaFleche raises what he calls his “craft” to new heights, and then drops this: “Blogging gives anyone with an Internet connection a voice. However, with only a few exceptions, blogging isn't journalism. Bloggers aren't doing interviews or poring over government and scientific reports, they aren't doing the kind of investigative work journalists do every day.”

It appears now 'journalist' LaFleche has found a way to delineate the line between journalists and bloggers, with a chorus of ra-ras from his peers as background music. Yet the truth is something these backslappers prefer not to see. On February 18th 2016, Neil Macdonald of CBC News wrote an article titled 'The Rebel and the NDP, why not to provoke Ezra Levant', with a by-line, “Thanks Rachel Notley, for helping define what journalists are, or maybe aren't?” After February 18th Neil Macdonald maybe sits alone at the local journo-watering hole.

This article opens up with, “Journalists entertain all sorts of self-aggrandizing notions about what we do. The big one is that we are a profession, which we pretty clearly are not. We don't even really qualify as a trade. Professions generally have minimum qualifications. Not a journalist. Journalists don't even have to finish high school.” Now if a blogger had said this he or she would have UNIFOR and the whole chorus line attack with threats of lawsuits and demands for withdrawal with apologies, but this is Neil Macdonald.

Who is Neil Macdonald? Macdonald is a senior correspondent for CBC News currently based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent 5 years reporting from the Middle East. He often presents articles with courage and hard facts rather than a 'yes master' attitude.

He goes on to say, “If lawyers or doctors or pharmacists breach the clear ethical rules governing them, they can be formally charged and punished by their peers. But regulating journalism? Out of the question, for the sake of democracy itself, my peers would argue. There are no national journalistic standards and no way to enforce them if they existed.”

Newspapers, and the journalists who write for them, are facing a new world and it's not only because of what Neil Macdonald has raised in his article. The general public is becoming harder to fool. The Internet has provided many more sources of information which too often expose the lacking ethics and integrity of published stories in traditional press, or those presented on television.

At the same time traditional media faces a populace that demands ease of access to information without limitation on choice. The Canadian Daily Newspaper Circulation report provided figures for a total weekly circulation for 2009 at 36,987,591 with that total dropping to 31,765,434 in 2014. In response to the decline in sales of newspapers, Postmedia, a giant in the newspaper business, cut 90 jobs, combining newsrooms in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa.

In 2013 La Presse launched its unique tablet edition, La Presse+, and in January 2016 it was the first major daily newspaper in the world to end weekday print editions. Guy Crevier, publisher of La Presse has said, “This project was a solution to transform our declining business into a growing one. La Presse+ has known constant substantial growth for almost three years now, while most traditional press is declining” (La Presse successful shift away from print, Marianne Bouchart, 17 February 2016 on GEN-GLOBAL EDITORS NETWORK). Tablet users had accepted La Presse+ well, providing a daily circulation at an average of 250,000; prior peaks in its long 131 year history were in 1971 with 221,250 copies, and later in 2009 with 207,769 copies. The decision to end daily print editions was simple logic.

Traditional press has found the ground beneath its feet being pulled out from under it, and unless it finds a way to float, to hover through the limitless boundaries of the Internet, it will disappear altogether. Big city newspapers can combine newsrooms, cut staffing and take other measures to streamline costs, but not the smaller ones. The Guelph Mercury was facing this encroaching modern world and had no choice but to stop the presses and shut its doors. Started in 1854, it was one of the country's oldest newspapers, but age cannot stand against the tide of change and survive without the willingness to adapt.

Yet it is not only traditional press that face huge challenges in the future. Magazines are feeling equal pressure regardless of how glossy or stylish they may be. Some try and send out free subscriptions to a select number of the public, in the hope this fire sale attitude works. Others offer large incentives for online subscribers, which normally is more attractive. Canada Post also has felt the growing pressure of the digital world. Deepak Chopra, its President & CEO, opened their Annual Report of 2014 with his president's message, a warning in many ways. He said, “The unprecedented volume decline of lettermail places enormous pressures on our finances.” Like any large corporation, Canada Post hit its workers first in its attempt at streamlining, setting up a system of community mailboxes and cutting out door-to-door deliveries. Executives rarely feel the pinch.

The Canadian Internet Registration Authority Factbook for 2014 states, “Canada continues to be one of the most wired countries in the world with nearly 87 percent of Canadian households connected to the Internet. Canada ranks 16th globally in terms of Internet penetration in 2013. This is up from 80 percent in 2010. Among its G8 counterparts, Canada ranks second in Internet penetration behind the UK.”

How much more proof is needed that the public's demand for information and its availability is changing alongside with the methods of communication? Yet journalists still choose to denigrate bloggers with labels, herding all bloggers into one corral. One of the old boys of journalism, Morely Safer, had said that he would trust citizen journalists as much as citizen surgeons. Safer had no formal training in journalism, in fact he only briefly attended the University of Western Ontario. Safer's experience is exactly that – experience, gathered through years of reporting and learning 'on the go'. No one can deny the value and richness of his work, yet that does not provide the right to attack others without foundation.

Tim Knight, another ol' boy who wrote an article for Huffington Post titled Watching the Watchdog: Why Citizen Bloggers Aren't Journalists. He opens his article with, “Seems I've suddenly become a journalism guru to whom young people with stars in their eyes and All The President's Men in their future's flock for wisdom.” Can anyone read these words and keep a straight face, other than Tim Knight?

Glenn Greenwald, co-founding editor of The Intercept is a journalist, a constitutional lawyer and an author of four New York Times bestselling books on politics and law. His two co-founding editors are Laura Poitras, a filmmaker, journalist and artist, and Jeremy Seahill, who is an investigative reporter and war correspondent. On January 28th 2015 The Intercept published an article by Glenn Greenwald titled The Petulant Entitlement Syndrome of Journalists. Even though The Intercept deals predominately with socio-political issues relevant to the US, the commentary in this article easily transcends any border or demarcation lines.

Greenwald comments on how “Prior to the advent of blogs, establishment journalists were largely immunised even from hearing criticisms.” Can this in any way explain the motivation behind the vitriolic sentiment of traditional journalists towards bloggers?

Here in Canada that sentiment is somewhat more passive, sprinkled with rose-coloured water. Traditional journalists attempt to sell the virtues of journalism opposed to what bloggers lack in their posts. After all 'real' journalists do research, pore over government and scientific reports, and conduct interviews to present insightful and truthful reports. At the same time bloggers in Canada have rarely attacked or even commented on traditional journalists, until now.

In his article Glenn Greenwald continues, “What made the indignity so much worse was that the attacks came from people these journalists regard as nobodies: just average people, non-journalists, sometimes even anonymous ones. What right did they have even to form an opinion, let alone express one? As NBC News star Brian Williams revealingly put it in 2007:
You're going to be up against people who have an opinion, a modem, and a bathrobe. All of my life, developing credentials to cover my field of work, and now I'm up against a guy named Vinny in an efficiency apartment in two years.”

Whether it is the adulatory praise of The Standard's Grant LaFleche for his 'craft', or the full frontal mustard gas attack of NBC's Brian Williams, the delusions continue. The American Journalism Review, August/September 2005 Feature Journalism's Backseat Drivers, opens with “These are beleaguered times for news organisations. As if their problems with rampant ethical lapses and declining readership and viewership aren't enough, their competence and motives are being challenged by outsiders with the gall to call them out before a global audience. Journalists are in the hot seat, their feet held to the flames by citizen bloggers who believe mainstream media are no more trustworthy than the politicians and corporations they cover, that journalists themselves have become too lazy, too cloistered, too self-righteous to be the watchdogs they once were. Or even to recognise what's news.”

Ethics and trust are two simple concepts traditional journalists have lost touch with, and the general public can no longer be fooled as easily as these watchdogs of the past think. Scandals have ripped through what Grant LaFleche call his 'craft'. Brian Williams faced the moment of truth regarding his reporting of a helicopter flight and whether it was fired on, or by who. As a star of NBC News, Brian Williams found forgiveness for his misreporting and he continues to smack the airwaves. In Canada Evan Solomon, a former star of the CBC, found that providing self-serving guests for his on-air interviews was seen as less that ethical. In this case Solomon's equation of news coupled with financial profit hit the scandal sheets. Yet once again fame and connections far outlasted the potential of consequence for such breaches of ethics. The Toronto Star had one of its heavyweight reporters Antonia Zerbisias caught publishing an article where comments made by her were not entirely true. Zerbisias later admitted that she did not verify her information prior to publishing. Every new journalism student has two major rules drummed into them from almost the first lesson: verify your source and verify your facts.

True, no journalist, whether it be Morely Safer, Tim Knight, Brian Williams or even Grant Lafleche, had ever said that bloggers had no right to blog. If they had then they would have to face off against Article 19. “Article 19 is an international human rights organisation, founded in 1986, which defends and promotes freedom of expression and freedom of information worldwide. It takes its mandate from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression and information” (The Right to Blog, Policy Brief 2013, Article 19).

In their Policy Brief, The Right to Blog, Article 19 makes two major and extremely challenging statements. The first is from the brief's Executive Summary: “Where the printed press and broadcast media were once the main sources of information, the Internet has made it possible for any person to publish ideas, information and opinions to the entire world. In particular, blogging and social media now rival newspapers and television as dominant sources of news and information.” Then Article 19 argues that it is no longer appropriate to define journalism and journalists by reference to some recognised body of training, or affiliation with a news entity or professional body.

Dr. Axel Bruns, a senior lecturer in the Creative Industries Faculty at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, and author of several books, presented a paper, News Blogs and Citizen Journalism: New Directions for e-Journalism. In it he delves into the history of mainstream journalism, bringing forth concepts of gatekeeping and gatewatching to explain the flow of news, from the input stage where information was to be considered as being newsworthy or relevant, through to the output stage as fully formed news reports. Gatewatching as described by Dr. Bruns requires the ability to retrieve and search information conducted on a decentralised and crowdsourced basis.

As intellectual theories both the gatekeeping and gatewatching concepts neatly describe the evolution of the news industry, though non-mainstream journalism, blogging, or citizen journalism, whatever you wish to call it, has resulted from a greater need. Dr. Axel Bruns finishes his paper with this thought: “For mainstream journalists, in current industry practice claims to professionalism are already highly problematic: levels of journalistic training and induction to professional ethos and ethics vary widely across and within individual news organisations, and often depend more on the process of a journalist's socialisation into the work environment than on their formal professional education. Indeed, the very term 'journalist' has been broadened to include not only core news professionals, but also commentators, hosts, and a variety of other media personalities; as news blogger and journalism scholar Glenn Reynolds has put it, 'correspondent' now often simply has a meaning of “well-paid microphone holder with good hair” (Weblogs and Journalism: Back to the Future, Glen Harlan Reynolds, 2003). As we noted earlier, at this point in the early information age, the mainstream journalistic industry overall may be experiencing a gradual decline which is at least in part of their own making and due to a slippage in professional standards.”

Whether one pays attention to this comment by Dr. Axel Bruns, or those made by Glenn Greenwald, a single major point remains clear. True, the age of the Internet as a whole has found profound impact on mainstream journalism, and no one can change what is becoming a new reality. Yet that alone is not the sole reason for journalists to be concerned over. In the end one question based in antiquity resounds – quis custodiet ipsos custodes, 'who watches the watchers'? Today the answer is simple, and that is the reason why mainstream journalists, from media stars to little wannabes, attack.

Governments and big businesses have found a way to develop a symbiotic relationship with mainstream media. Now that relationship has been shaken by individuals who do not necessarily have a desire to form alliances and in fact are considered to be insignificant compared to the traditional media organisations. Still journalists fear these individuals and look for anything to discredit their desire to question the status quo.

Whether it be Glenn Greenwald and the Intercept, or a respected journalist like Neil Macdonald, serious questions are being raised regarding the direction mainstream journalism has taken. Professionalism, it seems, is a concept which varies from one individual to the next. After all there is no real governing body to administer a code of conduct, and as Neil Macdonald said, no way to really enforce one if such a thing existed. Each media organisation has the wealth to retain legal storm troopers who are called into action if on the rare occasion one of their journalists brushes against issues of law; otherwise it has been business as usual for decades.

These egos are now facing change in the guise of bloggers and they don't like it. Unlike mainstream journalists bloggers have no alliances to appease, no giant salaries to be concerned about, they are only interested in the information to be made public. Each blogger has his or her own motivation for doing what they do, yet each shares a commonality and each wears the criticisms.

The battle lines were drawn out of egotism and fear of being challenged, of being held accountable for every word published or aired, and worse, for what was censored from the public. It is the nature of humanity to change, to evolve, and there is no stopping it. Instead of fearing this evolution journalists should look at re-evaluating what they are, and how they serve the public-at-large. Independent bloggers are not going anywhere, they will gradually reach greater numbers of readers because of their independence. Now one could ask whether there can be room at the table for both the mainstream journalist and the independent blogger building a symbiotic relationship.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Are By-laws Real? Not In St. Catharines.

The issue of law, its equality and the fairness of enforcement has brought about not only demonstrations by the people of nations, but revolutions. Modern democratic society thrives on a foundation of such equality. Here in Canada we draw refugees from lands torn by tyranny with a promise of equality and justice. Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees such equality for all Canadians regardless of their origins. At least as a concept, as an ideal, it sounds reassuring. The reality is somewhat different.

Today society does not labour under the blinds of naive faith in Canada's justice system. The recent Duffy trial and the scandal facing the Senate was enough to blow any self-righteous bubble of equality. Well paid lawyers use their tongues to weave and maneuver around all the concepts of equality and justice. Loopholes and corridors, language and semantics are the tools for these practitioners of 'justice for all,' and no one can be surprised where their loyalty lies. That being said, do the people of this country have a right to expect that those who are elected into public office at all levels, and those paid to enforce the laws and legislation with public monies, have a loyalty to the concept of equality and justice?

In the City of St. Catharines those concepts appear to have been long forgotten, or worse – exchanged for something else. Throughout this country municipalities formulate a variety of by-laws under the jurisdiction and authority granted by the relevant Municipal Acts. These regulations regulate zoning, building and development, remediation of soil and landfill requirements, even parking on the streets of the city or town. Without these by-laws our cities would look more like carnival sideshows than pleasant environments to live and grow in. As with any law in Canada these by-laws are equally enforced in the community so that no one individual has privilege over another.

On April 18th 2016, The City Council for St. Catharines heard a proposal to amend the Garden City Plan and Zoning By-law 2013-283, to permit indoor storage at 88 Merritt Street. The owner of this property is identified on city records as 418159 Ontario Limited; it is a business called Sun Collision owned and operated by Sam Demita. On April 18th every concept of equality of law was swept aside by elected members of council and the city mayor, Walter Sendzik.

This property has a long history of abuse of law and legislation, its owner has shown not only disregard for the law but an apparent total contempt for it. Prior to this council meeting Sam Demita stood before council and requested amendments to both the Official Plan (file# 60.30.310 Vol. 2) and Zoning By-law (file# 60.35975 Vol. 2), on April 29th 2013. At that meeting, as with the council meeting of 2016, a Corporate Report was prepared by the City's Planning and Development Services, and presented to both the council and public by its Director James Riddell.

James Riddell, Director of Planning and Development Services, presented his corporate report #PDS-103-2013 and page 3 of 15 had this to say: “In recent years, the site has been occupied with outdoor storage (sea container units and vehicles) on the majority of the site. This use is not permitted in the existing Environmental Protection Area (EPA) zone, nor would it be permitted by the proposed amendment. At the time of writing this report, the outdoor storage remains in place on the majority of the site.”

The property titled 88 Merritt Street was zoned as an Environmental Protection Area and did not permit outdoor storage or dumping of mounds of asphalt and other material. Originally this site was a natural ravine which had been filled with material that had no documentation. So at the time when this report was prepared and presented the City knew of the intentional abuse of law by Sam Demita. No one at City, not the Mayor of the time Brian McMullan, Director of Planning and Development Services James Riddell, acting City Solicitor Christopher Cooper, the CAO Dan Carnegie, nor City Clerk Bonnie Nistico-Dunk could deny this fact.

Further, page 9 of the 2013 Corporate Report states, “Staff note that the existing use of the site for outdoor storage is not consistent with the proposed amendments. Staff will be pursuing enforcement of the Zoning By-law, once the proposed amendment takes effect.” Why would Planner I, Jessica Button, who prepared the report bother to put these words in? Judy Pihach, Manager of Planning and Building Services, approved this report, and James Riddell as Director of Planning and Development Services in his monotone voice presented the report to council and knew that “enforcement of the Zoning By-law” was not going to happen.

The years between April 2013 and April 2016 found no change in the actions of the owner of Sun Collision nor were there any attempts at enforcement by City. Mayor Brian McMullan was gone from office after the Municipal Elections of 2014. In addition to a new mayor being installed some of council saw change as well. New mayor Walter Sendzik was contacted via email with photos provided of the site, that exchange resulted in an email from the Mayor's office on December 31st 2015. It stated, “the owner has used the site for various outdoor storage uses, contrary to the zoning by-law. The City's inspection team has been out a number of times over the past few years seeking compliance with the zoning by-law. The site has improved with the removal of numerous sea containers however the outdoor storage of vehicles remains an issue.”

Mayor Sendzik lied with those words and the photographs proved he lied. The mayor also said the City had been “seeking compliance” over the past few years. Words to a politician as to a lawyer are of extreme importance and when used improperly carry the burden of serious consequence. Does Walter Sendzik know what seeking means? It means the City of St. Catharines came with a hat in hand attitude to an individual who breaks the law daily and pleaded with him. The email further stated that, “The Manager of Planning is arranging an inspection of the site again based on the most recent photos provided.”

Judy Pihach is the Manager of Planning and Building Services, so it was Pihach who submitted and approved the 2013 Corporate Report and did so again in 2016. She has been fully aware of the apparent contempt exhibited for the law, and as a senior member of city staff is conversant with the Municipal Act, at least that is an expectation.

How can it be possible that the law be set aside for one individual as a meaningless collection of words on a piece of paper? This question had been asked of James Riddell, Director of Planning and Development Services, without an answer or explanation in response. The same question was asked of Mayor Walter Sendzik, he responded admitting to full knowledge of the abuses of law and then lied. Who is Sam Demita? He is the owner and operator of Sun Collision, a small business with 10 or less employees. Demita is listed as a Director and Secretary for Merritton Developments Inc. in a Corporation Profile Report together with Nino Donatelli as President and Director.

No answers appear on the surface to any of the questions and on April 18th the farce began again. James Riddell in an email dated December 21st 2015 said, “The owner has used the site for various outdoor storage uses and our inspection team has been out a number of times over the past years inspecting the site. The result has been the most recent planning application. If you wish to be notified of the upcoming meeting please provide us a mailing address. Thank you for inquiring about this site,” Riddell simply ignored every question raised of him.

At the April 18th Council Meeting Sam Demita was a no show and was represented by Stephen Bedford of Stephen Bedford Consulting Inc. As in 2013, a corporate report was prepared by Jessica Button, submitted and approved by Judy Pihach, and once again it was presented to council by the monotone voice of James Riddell. On page 3 the report states, “In recent years the site has been occupied with outdoor storage (sea container units and vehicles) on the majority of the site. This use is not permitted in the existing Mixed Use (MI) zone, nor would it be permitted by the proposed amendment.”

Reading this statement brought feelings of dėjá vu, here again the City of St. Catharines, through its Planner Jessica Button and her Manager Judy Pihach, admits to full knowledge of the abuse of law. Only this time there are no false promises of enforcement once the amendment is approved.

Several local residents brought forward their objections not to the new development plans but to an issue that began with the filling of the massive ravine. In 2009 hundreds of truck loads of fill with no documentation was dumped into a natural ravine, which is what the city keeps referring to now as, “The site has been graded and is relatively flat.” Prior to that illegal dumping of fill this neighbourhood had never experienced any flooding, and the most common term used by these residents is that they “never had any problems prior to Demita's dumping.”

One resident, Mr. Minnes, produced photos of his backyard under water, flooded in 2016 when the area experienced one of the mildest winters on record. He brought to public attention the empty promises from 2013; how the city would work on the flooding issue, and how the city had done nothing. Councillor Jennie Stevens for Merritton stood up, all surprised at the inaction of the City and all kinds of motions began to fly around the chamber. David Haywood, the second Merritton Ward Councillor, fumbled over and over with empty words till Mayor Sendzik finally interrupted him, asking what was his point.

Mayor Walter Sendzik's email of December 31st 2015 was read out on record, and the issue of law raised in relation to equality and Demita's continuous abuses without any consequences. As the email was read, Sendzik visibly buried his face in his hands, while other councillors either showed a lack of interest or a snickering grin like that of Councillor Elliot. The result was simple: the law and its equality was swept away once again.

At the end of this presentation Councillor Carlos Garcia stood up to raise some questions regarding the issue of the city's lack of enforcement. Councillor Garcia's voice sounded as if his performance was a purely perfunctory response for the audience. Director of Planning and Development Services, James Riddell answered Garcia's questions that “there have been site visits and discussions with the applicant.” As more questions were asked Riddell simply washed it away with, “we try to work with the applicant but we will be vigilant. It's been a difficult challenge situation and our philosophy is to work with the applicant.”

Once Riddell finished and Councillor Garcia had sat down with only a whimper displayed, Stephen Bedford came forward to present the grand plan. At first Bedford fumbled with his button attempting to impress the audience with images of the site's history. He finally opened with the past incarnation of this site as a building supply yard with bricks and other materials. Then a photo of the leveled and graded site as it is today. Stephen Bedford avoided, in fact intentionally omitted, to show photos of the natural ravine which had been filled illegally.

Bedford continued his presentation to council admitting to the fact that some “outdoor storage which is illegal is on the site” and then quickly added, “the owner could not develop this property in the manner he wished.” This last statement was somewhat difficult to understand, as he did not elaborate any further.

As his trump card, Bedford brought forward a planned water management pond that will be established on the property. According to the plan, “all the water that is dropped on this property, it will end up in the water management pond. The pond will only deal with the water that falls on the ground, it will not deal with the water that is underground as it's fairly flat, that surface absorbs water.” Depending on which end of the property this “water management pond” is located then a glaring question demands answering. What happens to the water at the other end of it? Such a pond as described, intended to catch surface water, is simply only a comical waste and potentially a public health issue with breeding mosquitoes.

Regardless of how ludicrous this “water management pond” may be Councillors' eyes lit up. Both Councillor Stevens and Haywood seemed to be excited by such a proposal. Their questions made it appear that such a “pond” would have the potential to alleviate flooding problems that had damaged homes, yards and the public park. All in all it became an opportunity to divert attention from the real issues brought to public notice.

The gems to remember from this council meeting come from Director of Planning James Riddell and Stephen Bedford of Stephen Bedford Consulting Inc. Riddell in his presentation of the corporate report said, “literally we are just adding a use by removing the site storage use, there is some open storage on the site that is proposed to be removed once the amendments are approved.” Then Stephen Bedford said during his presentation, “when I walk the site, there is what I would call a ravine, it's still there.”

Here we have a situation where the representative of the owner of the property admits to “illegal” use, the Director of Planning and Development and Manager of Planning and Building Services, James Riddell and Judy Pihach, admit to illegal use of the site. Mayor Walter Sendzik admits in writing of problems and illegal use of the site, and yet the amendments are passed. Throughout this farce both of the city's newspapers were represented. Scott Rosts from Niagara this Week tweeted some points, The Standard's Karena Walter, who had documentation sent to her prior to the council meeting, completely avoided the issue of law. Journalism at its best; even the email by the mayor was not found newsworthy.

Riddell had said at the end of his presentation that “this proposal does not offend any of that area.” The council meeting was on April 18th 2016 and the amendments were approved in favour of Sam Demita again. These photos were taken showing the site in its present day condition.