Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Who Watches the Watchers (Part Three)

Journalism today stands at the proverbial fork in the road. No one can deny that the public has been losing interest in mainstream media, which has had advertisers look to other sources to invest their dollars. So that has put the societal watchers at this fork agonising and self-diagnosing their potential future. Three of the roads of the fork are paved with yellow bricks of illusion and denial. The fourth is the dirt track of reality; it's rough and hard to travel down there but at least it can lead to a substantial solution.

Democracy needs journalists, after all it is the watcher's job to keep democracy on track, at least that had been the concept journalists had tried to maintain. This ideal is not simply a punchy line for an ad campaign, and many brave journalists had laid down their lives to bring to light events and stories that the powerful would have preferred to keep in the dark. Censorship of these courageous individuals was simply unacceptable. In fact censorship must be unacceptable to all, denying its existence simply aides its ability to slowly erode the foundation of true democracy.

The St. Catharines Standard is the largest newspaper in the Niagara area, now owned by Postmedia. Its journalists lay claim to national newspaper awards and presumably followers of the ten commandments of journalism. In fact one of The Standard's journalists, Karena Walter, appears in an ad for JournalismIs. Over her face are these words: “Essential to Democracy. With a few keystrokes you can sample thousands of opinions, afloat in a sea of information. But as the volume increases, the accuracy and reliability of professional journalism is essential. Gathering and sorting the facts, weighing and interpreting events, and following the story from beginning to end is more important than ever.”

On the front doors of their office at One St. Paul Street are the words “Where the Community Lives.” The Standard over the last six years has breached and mangled the most basic component of democracy, and it has imposed self-censorship by its publisher, editors and journalists. Karena Walter herself sat in the City's Council Chambers on April 29th 2016 and listened to a presentation requesting changes to local by-laws. Residents had spoken out regarding the City's inaction for years over serious issues that had affected their quality of life. An email was read out publicly which had been sent by the Mayor of St. Catharines Walter Sendzik to the publisher of this site. Mayor Sendzik admitted to the City's knowledge that the business owner had broken the law for years and that the City had done nothing about it. Prior to the meeting documents had been sent to Karena Walter, including a copy of this email which proved City's full knowledge and cover-up of the breaches of law. As the City Hall reporter for The Standard newspaper, Karena Walter selectively censored the information publicly presented at Council from the community.

Karena Walter is not the only journalist at The Standard with such credentials. Longtime reporter Marlene Bergsma openly lied in an article on the front page in 2010 to protect the former mayor. It was election time and evidence had been brought forward of fine fixing supported by the voice of a ward councillor. Marlene Bergsma, who is no longer with the newspaper, chose to lie about the facts to protect the mayor at the time, Brian McMullan.

Still the luminaries at the St. Catharines Standard continue to impress. In a recorded interview on January 9th 2016 with the former mayor's ex-wife, the ex-Mrs. McMullan revealed another shocker. The ex-Mrs. McMullan said that she had contacted Doug Herod, another longtime reporter at The Standard, and gave him documents relating to her seeking a divorce. Those documents revealed details which included an affair between her then husband, Brian McMullan, and a fellow sitting regional councillor. According to the former wife of Brian McMullan, Doug Herod kept all the documents for several days, then said that his hands were tied and did nothing. Who tied Doug Herod's hands as a journalist? Who decided that the news should be censored from the community?

Today The Standard has a new star, Grant LaFleche, a journalist who extols the great value of his 'craft' and the importance of community newspapers. Out of the ten commandments of JournalismIs, number nine is, “telling the whole story,” LaFleche somehow missed that one. In mid-2015 a situation exploded on the news scene in the Niagara Region when a Regional Councillor had made some less than professional public statements relating to same-sex marriage. Regional Councillor Andy Petrowski had made comments on Twitter likening gay marriage to murder, he had ridiculed President Obama over it, and more. At the very least Councillor Petrowski showed a lack of professionalism and a serious lack of judgment in his online comments, after all as an elected member of government everything he says publicly is in the end accountable, or should be.

On July 8th 2015, Grant LaFleche wrote an article 'Obama, gay marriage, God and Petrowski', beginning his journalistic jihad regarding the Petrowski anti-gay marriage comments. In 'A council without courage', July 10th 2015, LaFleche mentions that Petrowski closed his Twitter account, then on July 13th 2015 recorded a podcast interview with Andy Petrowski on gay marriage, then on July 17th 2015 another article 'Apologies, Politics and Petrowski' mentions the gay marriage issue. In 2016, on January 21 LaFleche goes in detail again in his article 'Petrowski quits police board', finally ending on March 8th with his article 'Demand better from Petrowski'.

Throughout this storm Councillor Andy Petrowski claimed that his comments online were completely personal based on his fervent Christian beliefs. He said that he did not make those comments as a public servant and that he had no other motivation behind them. On July 10th 2015, Councillor Andy Petrowski tweeted a photo of Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. This photo has Premier Kathleen Wynne and her partner standing with a number of people who had been part of a Gay Pride Parade. With this photo Petrowski tweets, “Ontario's First Family – how nice pic.” Andy Petrowski is a staunch Conservative supporter, Kathleen Wynne heads a Liberal government in Ontario. Was it God who made him do it, or was it something else?

Although Councillor Petrowski closed his Twitter account temporarily, former City Councillor Andrew Gill screen captured all of this and tagged Premier Wynne. To her credit and dignity Premier Wynne ignored such a petty and cowardly attack. LaFleche wrote in 'A tale of two tweets' July 13th 2015, “At the very least, the argument that online comments like this are purely personal and do not relate to his job at council don't entirely fly. Regional Council has to regularly work with Queen's Park on issues from GO Transit to funding for social programs. The current premier is Kathleen Wynne – a married, gay Christian woman. Petrowski's statements could prejudice the premier against him or the council and its chairman who refused to say anything about it.”

Andrew Gill follows Grant LaFleche on Twitter, how is it that this investigative journalist missed this? This same journalist on February 17th 2016 said, “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.”

In August of 2013 another storm broke on the St. Catharines' political landscape. The front page of The Standard rang out with 'St. Catharines mayor calls police on councillor' as a headline. This would not be considered as a fluff piece and the details were spread over the local news for several weeks. Both the accuser, former Mayor Brian McMullan, and the accused Councillor Andy Petrowski were interviewed, each throwing out their side of the story. All the accusations and counter accusations took a turn towards the bizarre when former Mayor Brian McMullan had the court issue a peace bond against Councillor Petrowski and a Summons to appear in court on January 24th 2014.

On the 24th of January 2014, Councillor Petrowski made his appearance with a Mr. G. Radojcic as his counsel. Mr. M. DelGobbo was council for Brian McMullan, but he appeared on his own as the former mayor decided not to show up for court in a matter he had initiated. Journalist Grant LaFleche had spoken with Mr. DelGobbo outside the court house and decided not to write about the judge's dismissal of the action. Brian McMullan showed little respect for the judicial system and LaFleche proved once again that censorship at The St. Catharines Standard was and is its first commandment.

The three amigos: Mary Agnes Welch of JournalismIs, Journalist Madelaine Drohan and MP Hedy Fry made it sound like they did indeed pound the bricks to gather diverse comment on the issues facing traditional journalism. Yet had they really, or was all of this simply kept within the closed doors of industry insiders and those with a vested interest? JournalismIs claims to provide a “voice to the voiceless,” presumably referring to the public-at-large. An email was sent to Mary Agnes Welch on March 11th 2016. The email raised the issue of self-imposed censorship and the relationship of such a situation to journalism's ten commandments. Ms. Welch did not respond and kept the idea of public debate silent.

In an attempt to find comment or a discussion on such a serious issue an email was sent to Madelaine Drohan, author of the report 'Does serious journalism have a future in Canada?' Surprisingly Madelaine Drohan responded within some three hours, and in her response said; “I was surprised at your comment that the report did not deal with the issue of trust. I refer to it several times and there are two different charts showing how the traditional media ranks poorly on this issue. While I don't site the examples you have given, I don't think it's fair to say the issue was untouched.”

On July 8th 2016 another email was sent to Ms. Drohan, as a response to her communication with an offer to provide documentation as absolute proof of censorship, even an offer to meet face-to-face with her to discuss the issue. Madelaine Drohan did not respond to the second email.

So to be “fair” let's examine those two charts that Ms. Drohan refers to proudly. The first is on page 10 of the report titled, 'Who do you trust? Confidence in Canadian institutions – 2013', the source for this chart was from General Social Survey on Social Identity, Statistics Canada. This report was based on responses that had claimed to have a 'great deal of confidence' or 'some confidence'. Its categories were Police, School System, Banks, Justice System and Courts, then Media, Federal Parliament and finally Major Corporations. It would be difficult to have too many respondents who had more confidence in media over the police who protect them, a school system that educates their children, banks who hold their money or a justice system which is the foundation of society.

Chart number two is on page 24 of the report and is titled, 'Familiarity breeds content – percent who trust online information created by each author – 2015-2016', its source: 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer, Edleman. Here the categories begin with My friends and family, An academic expert, Companies that I use, Employees of a company, A company CEO then A journalist.

These two charts are supposed to have dealt with the issue of trust in Madelaine Drohan's report. One could mention another chart on page 9 titled 'In Google we trust', but perhaps that should be left alone.

Finally Hedy Fry who heads up the Commons Committee delving into the depths of what journalism is or should be had an email sent to her on July 7th 2016. Some eight days later a response came from MP Hedy Fry's office, it said “Dr. Fry does personally respond to all correspondence she receives.” Nothing has been heard from her office since.

Regardless of who it is, whether some self-proclaimed expert or industry insider, ignoring the most crucial aspect of this downfall of traditional journalism will not be beneficial. Trust is not some side issue that some childish chart will explain. Nor has the public's trust in journalists been so strongly shaken by legal threat of defamation suits. Legal suits are often weapons to silence public discussion.

  • Postmedia/National Post sued by journalist Arthur Kent
  • CBC sued by Liberal Senator Pana Merchant, Tony Merchant
    and the Merchant Law Group LLP
  • National Post; former publisher Gordon Fisher and columnists; Terence Concoran, Peter Foster and Kevin Libin sued by BC MLA Andrew Weaver
  • www.mayorgate.blogspot and publisher Alexander Davidoff sued by
    former Mayor Brian McMullan

The real issues of trust extend much further than these lawsuits. Journalists can become targets who need to be silenced yet when journalists become puppets of the powerful then democracy is bruised. It is when journalists decide to censor information from the community then democracy is challenged to its foundation.

Today Welch, Drohan and Fry play at a game of finding a solution to the sinking situation that traditional journalism faces. Much of the discussion surrounds the loss of advertising dollars and the fast encroaching modern world. Nothing will come from these three in the end, and nothing will change as to how traditional journalists go about their business.

Amongst all the empty and hot rhetoric, amongst the denial of the truth one fact emerges stronger than ever. The watchdogs of the past are being watched. Serious bloggers do exist and they are getting stronger. Unlike these traditional egos and their publishers, serious bloggers have no alliances, no political or big business interference.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Who Watches The Watchers (Part Two)

The depth and scope of material that was required to be examined for this article has necessitated a part three for a conclusion which brings forward direct examples of journalistic mishandling of news and information. None of the three separate entities looking at the issues surrounding mainstream journalism today has found a reason to acknowledge these issues, and the question remains why?

Where does mainstream journalism stand today? It is a fact that the world is dramatically changing and audiences have at their disposal a myriad of choices. If this was the only reason for a shift in how journalists are now perceived then would it not be logical to simply reinvent their strategy on how they should deliver the information and news to the public? Instead the battle lines between bloggers and journalists appear to be becoming more explosive, and any notion of a symbiotic relationship only a utopian notion.

In Texas, however, there exists a fully realised example of this symbiotic relationship. Since 2009 the Dallas South News has used traditional journalists together with citizen journalists, as well as bloggers to provide news and commentary to its community. Is this simply an anomaly where journalistic egos have not outgrown their stables, or a model worthy to emulate?

Canada, it appears, has taken a different route to come with some form of solution to its industry's woes. No one can deny that there are serious issues to address with major newsrooms combining operations, closing long standing publications, and others deciding to discontinue hard copy print publications in favour of online production. Can all of this be conveniently blamed on the encroaching spread of the internet? Or is there a far more serious underlying issue that is being ignored, and why?

On June 12th 2015 a coalition of professional associations, unions and media organisations, such as UNIFOR, Canadian Association of Journalists (CA), The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Metroland Papers, Postmedia and others launched an advertising campaign called JournalismIs. The goal of this coalition is, in their own words, “highlighting the value and benefits of professional journalism,” proclaiming that “professional journalism is more important than ever.”

The JournalismIs campaign proudly announces that “journalists are thoroughly trained and deeply committed to their profession, and you see the results every day in news stories that are interesting, reliable and always striving for the truth.” Mary Agnes Welch is a former president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press, and spokesperson for the JournalismIs campaign, and with these words has labeled all journalists in Canada with the same golden attributes.

According to Mary Agnes Welch this campaign is designed to bring about a wider conversation on the values that journalists are guided by in their profession. Ten core principles were identified, and they are as follows:

  • An independent voice:
    In a world of competing interests, journalists are committed to the principle of independence, and the pursuit of accuracy and fairness.
  • Essential to democracy:
    A strong and independent media is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy. Journalists hold officials accountable to the people they are elected to represent, and they help citizens and communities to be informed.
  • Relentless
  • Committed to the public interest
  • Getting answers
  • Committed to telling the truth:
    It's about uncovering and reporting the truth
  • Storytelling with a purpose
  • Creating a forum for public debate
  • Telling the whole story
  • A watchdog over the powerful:
    Journalism asks the hard questions. It plays a vital role as a watchdog over those in positions of power and influence.

JournalismIs, at the end of the day, is only an advertising campaign as eloquent as a polar bear on his shrinking ice cap still needing his bottle of cola, or truck racing up a dusty hill accompanied by a voice over of a lion's roar. Unlike most advertising campaigns though it is claimed that there is a desire in “creating a forum for public debate, to giving a voice to the voiceless.” An email was sent to Mary Agnes Welch asking for any comment on an issue of censorship self-imposed by journalists. Ms. Welch ignored the email, ignored the issues raised and ensured that any semblance of 'public debate' was just another punchy slogan.

Setting aside this advertising campaign, one can reach out for a report titled, Does serious journalism have a future in Canada?, written as the 2015 Prime Minister's of Canada Fellow at the Public Policy Forum. The author of this report is Madelaine Drohan, Canada's correspondent for The Economist and former columnist for the Globe and Mail. Here the delivery is more eloquent without any punchy lines, but this report also prefers to ignore one major issue facing traditional journalists.

The Public Policy Forum is a not-for-profit organisation which advises government on policy formation. It is comprised of ex-government staffers, businessmen, and journalists like Madelaine Drohan. Its President, Ed Greenspon, was himself a former Globe and Mail editor and reporter. Can such an organisation show bias in its discussions? How will these professional individuals see journalists as part of a media industry which fights for the advertiser's dollar, or will there be any discussion on the quality and standards of journalism?

Madelaine Drohan in her report, 'Does serious journalism have a future in Canada,' opens with this statement: “Defining serious journalism proved trickier than I expected. The definition that I've come to believe now fits the best is about what it is supposed to do: provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies and their governments. An informed public is control for good public policy and a well functioning democracy, which is why freedom of the press is enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Serious journalism – fair, accurate and independent of special interests – gives Canadians the tools they need to hold their government to account.”

This report took some time to prepare and in an opinion column published in the Toronto Star, “Five things you need to know to save journalism,” only a day after its release, Ms. Drohan summarised her report into five headings. She begins with number one as “It's not just journalism,” pointing to the changes that have hit other industries like music, accommodation, taxi “and even porn video.” Heading number one concludes with “The point is that powerful, global forces that transcend national borders are at work.”

After such an ominous warning those five things we need to know to save journalism continue with number two as “Direct subsidies won't work.” Here most would agree with Madelaine Drohan, why should even a cent of public money be considered to be handed over to millionaires who made their money from the public? Number three is “Journalists are no longer the gatekeepers of information,” somewhat related to the first of the series, and once again pointing a finger at the “powerful global forces.” Four is much the same, “The tech giants are both an opportunity and a threat,” only now those forces are identified, given a fact though still with another warning, “Partnering with tech giants could be their salvation or the beginning of the end.”

Finally we are taken to the last thing we should know, “The audience has changed.” Is there room to disagree with this claim, not at all. Today's audience does seek convenience that new technology provides, but it has also changed to questioning those who provide the information. Here the report claims that “Audiences want a relationship” and that an audience has a “desire to be involved in the creation of journalism in ways that were imaginable before the advent of the Internet.”

Throughout 'Does serious journalism have a future in Canada?', whether in this abbreviated forum or in its original long form, two major themes waffle through the air. First there is the Internet and the “powerful global forces” which are either to be seen as harbingers of the end for serious journalism, or a mistress tempting journalists with an alternative. Then the attention is turned to trying to explain how the advertising dollar has been seduced away from traditional media. Nowhere in this report does the author bring into discussion the one serious and gravely important issue, the loss of trust by the audience in “serious journalism.”

So we started with JournalismIs its punchy core principles, or the ten commandments of Mary Agnes Welch. Then a fellowship, a report, and the five things we need to know to save serious journalism according to Drohan. Now we find the third amigo in this troupe, MP Hedy Fry, of the Canadian Heritage Committee. Apparently the Commons Committee will embark on an expansive study of “how Canadians and especially local communities are informed about local and regional experiences through news, broadcasting, digital and print media,” in the words of Committee Chairperson MP Hedy Fry.

The Commons Heritage Committee has already begun hearings with a total of six roundtable gatherings planned, where experts are invited to debate journalism's woes. Media and journalist representatives will be at the head of the line, followed by business and some government staffers thrown in for the measure. All of this expertise will be a one sided view from penthouse windows, and as far as ground floor representation or comment, don't expect any. When all the debates are finished a final symposium is planned for this coming Fall when 'the plan' might be thrashed out.

Once again tax dollars, the public's money, is being spent and the question remains why? It matters little which of the three amigos you look at, each has ignored the major issues, yet this Commons Committee is the biggest slap in the face of reality. Government itself is one of the major problems journalism faces.

According to the ten commandments of Mary Agnes carried on her tablet, the first and second proclaim the importance of an “independent voice” which is “essential to democracy.” Yet government's interference with journalism is there on a daily basis and one of the major reasons why the audience has lost trust in journalists.

Hedy Fry's roundtable hearings or debates with invited experts, included Postmedia's CEO Paul Godfrey. Does Fry know anything about Mr. Godfrey or would she prefer not to talk about it? Regardless she should read Bruce Livesey's article, Postmedia empire falters while CEO Paul Godfrey earns millions National Observer, November 27, 2015. True this article was not edited or sanitised by friends of Mr. Godfrey but it cannot be ignored as Godfrey has requested public tax dollars to prop up his troubled business.

Paul Godfrey is a very powerful and astute businessman and according to the author of this article, Bruce Livesey, he has been able to circumvent Canadian tax law. In Canada tax laws discourage foreign ownership of Canadian media companies, yet “Godfrey managed to get around this by issuing separate shares to Canadian shareholders,” and had the Conservative Government of Stephen Harper sign off on the deal. Yet the real control of Postmedia remains in American hands by way of two hedge funds, Golden Tree Asset Management LP and Silver Point Capital LP.

Government influence over mainstream media has polluted true freedom of the press far too long. Whether through backdoor power politics of Mr. Godfrey who then influences his newspapers and their editors on the direction of editorial content, or the equally corrosive political alliance of Torstar publishers who do the same on the other side of the table, leaving objective commentary behind and reporting only a farce.

Today, journalism is not only pushed and pulled by politics. Big business, which provides the advertising dollars, has increasingly flexed its muscle of influence over media. Whether you are to believe the allegations surrounding Dan Murphy, a longtime staff cartoonist for the Province newspaper, and his skirmish with Enbridge Inc., big business today translates a big influence. Former National Post editor Ken Whyte had said that it is commonplace for advertisers to demand favourable editorial content for their money. “Before newspapers might have stood up and said we will let that million dollars go, we won't prostitute ourselves. Now they'll see they will be way short on their budget and need the money.” (Bruce Livesey, Postmedia empire falters while CEO Paul Godfrey earns millions,, November 27, 2015)

Journalism has succumbed to influence from both politics and business years ago and any discussions about journalistic woes without acknowledging this becomes a farce. Today's audience has few illusions and therefore its trust is shaken dramatically. JournalismIs, the Canadian Heritage Committee, and Madelaine Drohan's report all speak of community news as one of the pillars of democracy. So what happens to all the journalistic integrity, those ten commandments, or those five things we simply must know, when intentional censorship becomes the issue? This is not Paul Godfrey demanding obedience and favourable editorials for his chosen political party. Nor is it an oil company versus climate change and the idea of millions in advertising dollars.

A free press is an essential component of democracy. This concept has been enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in the US Constitution and in every free and democratic nation. It is the right of the public to be informed of issues relating to elected government and daily occurrences in their communities. Censorship of the press is an unthinkable possibility in any democratic nation, as far as self-imposed censorship by the press, that cannot be permitted. That being said, it is impossible to fathom any reason why these three: Mary Anges Welch of JournalismIs, Madelaine Drohan of Public Policy Forum and MP Hedy Fry heading the Canadian Heritage Committee had decided to ignore such a crucial issue.