On Politics, Religion, Sex & Shutting Up Already

Blitz Magazine, November 2003

Remember the rule of the dinner party? ‘In polite conversation, one does not discuss politics, religion and/or sex.’

Who canceled that rule? When? And why? Because now, we not only discuss the above-mentioned, but everybody evidently feels compelled to beat each other over the head with their politics, religion and sexuality.

straight1In BC, magazines and newspapers are PST-exempt. We don’t collect it, and we don’t pay it. If we happen to pay it in the course of producing our publications, we get it back. And the BC Liberal government was hired, by the people of BC, to dig the province out of a desperate financial situation created by the left-wing New Democratic Party. And part of that administration’s duty is to efficiently collect taxes owing to the people of BC.

The Georgia Straight is a 36 year-old Vancouver newspaper. It’s unbound, on newsprint, available free at public outlets, and serves as an advertising vehicle for Vancouver retailers. It consists of pages of stacked ads, and a little editorial. Presumably, someone at the tax office saw this and said ‘Hey! The Georgia Straight is not a newspaper or magazine, because it has more advertising than editorial. So it’s not exempt.’

The tax office told the newspaper to pay $1 million in un-remitted Provincial Sales Tax.

Although it lists itself in Canadian Advertising Rates & Data’s community newspaper section, the Straight’s masthead says it’s ‘Vancouver’s News & Entertainment Magazine’. Either way, it claims that it has enough editorial to qualify as a magazine, because it prints free events listings, which its publisher says is “one of the ways in which the Straight serves the community.”

The tax guys claim that those listings are advertising.

I pick up the October 9th edition. It is 108 pages, including 21 pages of editorial and 7 of events listings. But the cover is a letter from Straight publisher Dan McLeod, in which he complains of the tax request, calling it “harassment, a “threat”, a “bizarre misuse of power”, and a “witch-hunt”.

MacLeod would have us believe that, because the Straight is left-wing, it is a target—that Liberals gathered one day and someone said: ‘OK, how can we shut down this paper!’ After evoking Richard Nixon (?!?!), MacLeod calls the tax request a “direct attack on all the arts and cultural and business life of the city,” [sic] and urges members of these groups to swear out affidavits in support of the Straight.

(Actually, money is what arts and cultural groups need, and they’d get more from the government if profitable businesses paid their taxes.)

I digress. Inside this issue, there is a 2/3-page editorial headed ‘Q&A About the BC Liberals’ Plan to Terminate the Straight.’ There is a cartoon of Premier Gordon Campbell with a screw emanating from his groin. There’s no by-line, so I assume that MacLeod wrote it. He refers to his paper as being threatened by politics and, believe it or not, mentions the Canadian Charter of Rights & Freedoms, announces a conspiracy between the BC Liberals and CanWest Global, and erroneously (way) claims that the Straight is the only independent journalistic enterprise in Vancouver.

What irks me is that MacLeod is saving his own political flag in our faces. He might as well be saying “I’m a Socialist and you have to join me in my fight against a government that is not Socialist so I can get out of paying my taxes!’

MacLeod runs a profitable enterprise. His paper sometimes covers issues that other papers might not, but it is, in fact, more of a lucrative business than a tool for social support, and people don’t need to hear about his politics or his conspiracy theories. He repeatedly mentions the Straight’s journalism awards, and refers to its ‘journalistic duty’ to fight the government, but appealing to left-wingers’ sensibilities in order to avoid paying taxes is journalistic abuse.

Also this week, a representative of the Catholic Church, irate about same-sex marriage, used the media to tell the Canadian Prime Minister that he ‘will burn in hell’. Who does he think he is? After what the Catholic Church has to answer for concerning the sexual practices of its representatives, condemnation of anyone’s sexual behaviour is hardly appropriate.

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Then I’m watching the ball game and the doorbell rings. A man stands at my door, clutching a copy of the Watch Tower. I don’t answer. Back to the game. A week earlier, I’d noticed that almost every member of the Florida Marlins crossed himself when he stepped up to the plate or makes a play. Now, the Sox are doing it. And the Cubs. They hit the ball and point to the sky. They make it to base and pull garish gold crosses out of their jerseys to kiss and flash. After one guy hits a game-saving home run, he tells a reporter: “I didn’t hit the ball. Our Lord Jesus Christ hit the ball.” (No, millionaire moron, you hit the ball.)

So now we have to tolerate spiritual exhibitionism in baseball? Didn’t Jesus purportedly say that we should keep our religious beliefs to ourselves and that proselytizing is a bad thing?

In the southern US states, there are Christian groups claiming to be planning to take over Israel and kill the Jews. There are Muslim nuts who want to kill all non-Muslims. American television is saturated with programming where members of the Religious Right tell people how to live their lives—and that if they don’t it right, in all senses of the word, they’ll be damned.

All of a sudden, people just have to go public with their beliefs. Why do they assume that others care what they believe? Or that we should care? Or that they have the right to insist that we care? In spite of all of our education and worldliness, and our knowledge of history, we’ve degenerated into a culture of spouters of the worst kind of rhetoric, all of which boils down to: ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us.’ ‘If you don’t practice what we practice, you’re on the wrong side.’ ‘If you don’t love correctly, we will oppress you.’ ‘If you don’t believe what we believe, we will kill you.’

Religion is about intangibility. Belief in the intangible requires that faith trump reality. Government is about facts, figures and stark reality. Ergo religion has nothing to do with governing. When people claim otherwise, I remind them of what happens when religion permeates government—Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Israel, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland and, increasingly, the USA. Religion is for the faithful only. It has no place in the practical reality of everyday life and it has no business trying to foist itself on society at large.

This same-sex marriage thing also puzzles me. I’ve been surprised at my friends—even the most liberal are appalled at the idea. As one friend put it: ‘Marriage is taken. Let them have their civil contracts.’ But, in this country, not allowing ‘them’ to marry has been deemed discrimination. And the law is the law—in a perfect example of the beauty of Separation of Church and State.

straight5I admit that watching two men or women making out can be off-putting—maybe gays and lesbians feel squeamish when they see heterosexual couples kissing. I don’t know. And I don’t care. I don’t care who consenting adults sleep with and I’m sick of hearing about it. From gays, from lesbians, or from anyone else.

Pierre Trudeau said that the State has no place in the bedrooms of the nation. But that goes further. The Church also has no place in the bedrooms of any nation, or in the government of any nation. And publishers are not supposed to use their products to launch groundless accusations of conspiracy against governments who want them to pay their taxes. The same Charter of Rights & Freedoms that MacLeod leans on also allows gays and lesbians to marry and religions to freely operate.

Conversation and debate are healthy, and essential, to a free society. Trying to appeal to the worst elements of human nature, and trying to drag an agenda through a situation in hopes that people’s ignorance will stick to it, is extremely unhelpful. In a time of mass communication, it’s also dangerous.

I wish people would go back to the etiquette books. Practice their religions. Practice their politics. Practice their sexuality. Run their businesses. Live their lives. But quit using the media, and mendacious and intimidating tactics, to frighten others into joining their teams.

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On Citizen Journalism

Blitz Magazine, January 2008

Late-night host Craig Ferguson regularly stabs at tabloid stories when he says (wink) “If it’s written down, it must be true.” Which is funny, until you realize that millions of people actually do think that everything they read—just because it has been published somewhere—must have some factual basis. That’s not at all funny.

citizenIn my particular pocket of the world, the majority of people are supposed to be well-educated. But at the check-out counter at the local grocery store, I notice that the racks for the National Enquirer and the News of the World are either depleted or empty. Publications such as these have long made millions by printing doctored images and ridiculous fiction about real people. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s always asked: ‘Who reads this stuff?’, ‘Why do people read this stuff?’ and ‘How is it that these publications haven’t been sued into bankruptcy?’

The answer to the first two questions are, in my mind, that those who buy tabloid junk are either intellectually-challenged or find some escapist value in reading dreck. The answer to the third question is unknowable—perhaps the victims think that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, or they don’t want to give credence to junk by responding to it. The main reason could be that defamation suits are difficult, time-consuming and expensive.

All of this is now made much worse by the Internet, which has spawned blogs and vlogs and this new creature called ‘Citizen Journalism’. Now anyone, anywhere can say literally anything about anybody, with impunity. Anyone with an axe to grind can broadcast any fiction to millions of people, and the victims of any misinformation, slander or defamation will not be able to do anything about it—if they even know about it. Between language barriers and the vast size of the Web, it is impossible for corporations, governments and individuals to monitor what is being said about them.

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A recent example of the damage this can do popped up when a disgruntled ex-employee of Tommy Hilfiger used the Net to spread the notion that the company actively discourages black customers. By the time the company learned about it, millions of emails on the subject had been sent out—I got one from a friend, who believed it because she got it from her sister, who (egads) is in senior management at a Crown corporation, and she believed it because, it was ‘in print’. Hilfiger had the resources to fight back, and duly did the talk-show rounds to set the record straight. Only his accountants can say how much damage was caused by this particular lie.

The downside of Internet-based misinformation does not stop at celebrities and corporations. It is now creating massive problems in academia. Thanks, in part, to Wikipedia, the online volunteer encyclopedia that we now all use. In universities everywhere, students are regularly failing important exams because they’re taking their ‘facts’ from Wikipedia entries. Professors everywhere are now are forbidding students to use anything from Wikipedia.

According to Wired Campus, “Even Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, says he wants to get the message out to students that they shouldn’t use it for class projects or serious research. Wales gets about 10 email messages a week from students who complain that Wikipedia has gotten them into academic hot water. “They say, ‘Please help me, I got an ‘F’ on my paper because I cited something I found on Wikipedia and the information turned out to be wrong.”

Citizen Journalism is terrific for the exchange of opinion and ideas, and the concept is great for fostering freedom and democracy. It can help catch criminals, of all sorts. It can educate, inform and inspire. The up-side is definitely there.

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But the down-side is more pronounced. Any charlatan can file ‘reports’ on ‘new’ medications, treatments, cures. Any idiot can say “a clinical study has proven that drinking water is bad for you,” or that “the government of Somewhere is poisoning its citizens’. Lots and lots of people are not very bright; millions will send money to support the citizens of Somewhere, believe that they should stop drinking water, and buy those concoctions.

In every corner of the globe, there are people who go on-line, see tons of fascinating information, all dressed up with pretty pictures, ‘quotes’, charts and graphs. It doesn’t occur to these people to check the sources of the information; to find out who the authors are, check their credentials. They may not understand the concept of advertorial; it may not even occur to them that the guy in the white coat is an actor. They just assume that, because it has been ‘published’, it must be true.

In the civilized world, it is still only the masthead, station call letters, or network logo that allows us to believe and trust in the information that it being given to us. When we see a reporter at the site of an incident, we can trust that that reporter has done the work and is telling what he or she believes to be the truth. When it comes to political reportage, most of us know enough to read between the lines, to recognize that a columnist or talking head has a particular political bent.

We also trust that dishonest journalists will be exposed, as they have famously been at the New York Times and the Washington Post, for example, and that the penalty for their deception is banishment from their profession and new careers as cab drivers or gas station attendants. The fact that we will never hear from them again is proof that mainstream journalistic entities are committed to providing accurate information, and the educated, fact-based insight that people need in order to properly understand their world. The measures taken to guarantee credibility are, of course, to safeguard corporate survival, but they are also taken in support of ethical positions and a professional dedication to protection of the public trust through the dissemination of fact and truth. Like it or not, professional journalistic entities are still the gate-keepers.

The trick is to define ‘professional’. An awful lot of Americans, on the under-educated side, think that the information they get from Fox News is true, thanks to the insane persuasiveness of the odious Bill O’Reilly and the network’s not-so-merry bank of bobbing vitriol-spewing heads. With the pervasiveness of religious fanaticism in the southern states, you have to wonder at how much of their local information is controlled by heavy-hitters with decidedly off-kilter agendas. (This is becoming an issue in Canada, as well.)

The one which could have the most negative effect on future societies—is with the under-30s, who are now used to getting all of their information from the ‘Net. Canadian children may be some of the world’s best-educated, but you can see them in the malls and internet cafes, surfing, reading and passing on information that, they assume, must be true. Because it’s ‘in print’. Then they get to university and discover, the hard way, that this is not at all the case.

citizen1They don’t think about where their information comes from. What the motivation was behind its collection and dissemination. Whether or not the people who created it had any journalistic training—what questions were asked, how they were asked, if facts were checked and images authenticated.

If Citizen Journalism is meant to be good for freedom and democracy, those involved in it may have to think about the larger ramifications. Because the fact that so many people will believe anything they read, without thinking about its genesis is, ultimately, seriously detrimental to everyone.

Television & Another Summer of Discontent

Blitz Magazine, July 2003

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It’s a hot, humid night—too hot to read, and the dog won’t be walked. So, there’s TV.

The Miss Universe Pageant. This is so redundant and so insulting, it doesn’t bear discussion. But wait! Miss Canada is one of the finalists. Hoping for a Canadian victory, I keep watching. Donald Trump, owner of this ultra-passé travesty, is hunched in the front row, wearing his signature pout and cheap dye job. The co-host asks the Soap Star judge how he’s doing. The dough-head responds: “Well I’m sure glad they narrowed down the selection for us!” Oh? Who narrowed down the selection? Could it be that the judges have nothing to do with choosing the winner? That the whole thing is fixed in advance? Surely not!

My heart sinks as Miss Canada confesses to having a university degree (one of her co-finalists, Miss Montenegro, is a malnourished 18 year-old whose Interest is cats—she loves cats.) Then, Oh no! Miss Canada tells the interviewer that she’s “not into the hair-and-make-up thing”! Wrong thing to say in this crowd, baby! Bye bye!

CSI Miami. While it’s flattering to see a hit US show that’s a direct knock-off of a Canadian show (Da Vinci’s Inquest—inspired by the current Vancouver mayor’s career as a coroner and RCMP officer). Both CSI franchises are increasingly silly and far-fetched. But they’re educational. I’ve learned that, in this version of real life, er death, the police are secondary and don’t do any crime-solving. I’ve learned that, in Las Vegas and Miami, CSIs only work on high-glamour murders. I’ve learned that CSIs can have no personality whatsoever. And that, if you’re a woman who wants to be a CSI in Miami, you have to have implants, wear the tightest clothing you can find, be willing to spend hours on your hair, and wear more make-up than the local Mary Kay rep.

The unfortunate Miss Canada has, therefore, lost out on another career choice.

Click. Commercials. BC Gas has changed its name; the ad publicizing this has two grammatical errors. Tim Horton’s has the audacity to run, for a second season, what was already a seriously stupid commercial, wherein a young couple goes gaga over a strawberry tart that looks like a bloody botulism/polypropylene mutation. Then a ray of light: the VISA ‘Sing For Your Supper’ spot. Brilliant.

Next up, something called For Love or Money. There’s a group of women, all freshly botoxed and sun-bedded with bleached teeth and voices like chain-smoking Valley girls. (This awful voice seems to be the new American Girl sound—and it’s migrating north at a frightening pace.) And there’s a guy who thinks he’s supposed to fall in love with one of these creatures. He doesn’t now that they’re in it for a million dollars. At the end of the show, he has to dump some of the girls, keep others. No one on the show is in the least embarrassed by participating in this inanity. I sure am. Click.

Dog Eat Dog. Survivor.  American Junior. American Senior. American Lampshade. Surely I’m not the only one who sees the craze for tacky competition shows as degrading to participants and viewers. It’s human humiliation as entertainment. Intellectual battery as commerce. Click.

tv6Wonder of wonders, a bad Volkswagen commercial. A couple is worried about getting a goldfish home. The fish is in a large, water-filled tank. Don’t goldfish like large, water-filled tanks? And the driver needs directions to get to her own home. Then, Egads! The Dreaded Swiffer commercial. The voice they hired has managed to transmit her vocal sounds directly through her nose. Someone should ram the broom down her throat and give it a good swiff. Click.

Ah, another SARS press briefing. This is good—I’m not hearing enough about SARS. I’m wishing that someone would start a SARS Channel, so the whole world can get All SARS All The Time. A reporter from the Toronto Star asks a question. She uses the non-word ‘irregardless’. Ugh.

The Larry King Show. The usual suspects are busily trying Scott Peterson, discussing evidence, dissecting, speculating. I speculate that the only untainted jury candidates available will be those who find it intellectually taxing to watch CNN. I hear OJ chuckling.

Law & Order. Bravo! wants the hour to run to 50 minutes, and it wants to be able to pack in as many commercials as it possibly can. So it’s editing each show to fit its parameters. I know this because I’ve seen each episode so many times that I often know what characters are going to say before they say it. On Bravo!, what those characters once said is just plain missing—along with those pesky clues, confessions and revelations.

In addition, the Bravo! folks feel the need to insert a viewer warning after every single commercial break: “This program contains scenes of violence and mature subject matter. Viewer discretion is advised.’ Although, I guess this is a good thing, given that there are 4 year-olds all across Canada fighting to stay awake at 8:30 p.m. to watch the hilarious antics of Jack McCoy and Lennie Briscoe. Click.

The Mercedes Ice Cream commercial. Genius. But wait! It’s the dreaded Herbal Essence Shampoo ad! I wonder if the people behind these ads realize what kind of reaction the profoundly idiotic ‘Yes! Yes! Yes! is met with. If they know how many women are thinking ‘No! No! No! I’ll never use that product because I don’t want to become a bimbo!’ The bit was funny in When Harry Met Sally; that’s where it should stay.

Back to the CBC. More on mad cow. One sick cow and it’s the Story of the Century. A farmer finally complains about the media saturation. He should. All the coverage of slaughter, the depictions of how these animals are treated, and the facts about testing, about what cattle eat, what we end up eating…it’s back to Vegetarianville for me.

NYPD Blue. Why is this stale old show still on the air? Still with the bad lighting, the cheesy set design and the jerky camera. Does anyone know anyone who actually speaks the way these characters do? Don’t homicide detectives ever laugh? Click.

In an interview, Katie Couric asks Laci Peterson’s mother if public support has ‘booeed’ her spirits. How much does Couric earn? Maybe they need to pay her more.

Commercial: Nike is telling inner-city kids that its shoes are cool—but that it’s also cool to own snarling Pit Bulls and Rottweilers, and keep them tied to fences. I’d like to have a word with the creative director.

tv1I’m sorry to keep going back to the 9/11 thing, but I always look for the possible benefits of bad situations. I remember, just after the awful event, seeing Dubya at a meeting with Hollywood bigwigs—Lansing, Spielberg et al. At first, I found this chilling, because I figured it meant lots of propaganda. I was right—we soon saw Band of Brothers, among many other shows with the theme of Military Hero! and American Values!

But then I thought that the disaster could produce another result—that it might force the entertainment industry to get its act together. That the networks would insist on it. That viewers, and advertisers, would insist on it. I thought that it would make producers realize that there’s a huge responsibility involved in communicating with millions of people. That their audience is filled with different types of people with myriad experiences and stories and goals and fabulously rich histories. I thought that producers might get creative, and make shows that would inform, entertain and educate—in an intelligent fashion. So people could learn, laugh, appreciate other people and maybe be forced to think.

You’re thinking: “You were wrong, Dorothy.”

I certainly was. What we got was John Ritter in a tizzy over the fact that his teen-age daughter is growing up (gasp here), a mini-series on Adolph Hitler, and a guy on Will & Grace telling someone not to put his penis up someone’s bum.

I’m not asking for a steady diet of BBC-quality historical drama all the time, but come on.

tv4Yes, the lazy hazy days of summer. But is everyone on vacation at the same time? No. Is everybody partying every night of week? No. So why, I wonder for the millionth time, do network executives schedule fill the summer season with nothing but fetid, putrid, drivel-dripping crap? If it’s because they assume that no one’s watching, then shouldn’t advertisers make the same assumption and pull their ads?

I tune out altogether. I go to the bookcase, close my eyes and extract the first book I touch. It’s Ulysses. Yikes. Well, why not. I certainly can’t watch television.

Fed Up With Hypocrisy : Bad Journalism Sparks a Rant

Blitz Magazine, March 2003

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Winston Churchill, a man famous for his powers of recall, remarked that a good memory was often a sorrow and an inconvenience (to him and, I presume, many others). And the only thing, I’m sure, which I have in common with Winston Churchill is a mind like a steel trap.

This is relevant because I used to be a social columnist. For three years, I covered up to 20 events a week. And not just galas and luncheons, but political events, sports events, functions involving law enforcement and military types, small parties, large parties, parties in honour of people from all walks of life and celebrating, or raising money for, an endless array of things.

This became relevant when BC Premier Gordon Campbell found himself living the nightmare of his life, after he was charged with impaired driving while on vacation in Hawaii. It was national news but, in BC, it was a feeding frenzy. The man’s mortification was gleefully compounded by everyone from journalists, to unionistas, to ‘pundits’, to people on the street. Local stations repeatedly devoted as much as 30 minutes to the story—some sent journalists to Hawaii, for Pete’s sake. I was as embarrassed by the coverage as I was for Campbell. The Hospital Employees Union is now using the incident in radio ads, and you can bet that the left is planning to dredge it all up in the next election.

So I’m watching, listening and reading the opinions of these people and the ol’ Winstonian memory is ticking like a stopwatch, and I’m thinking ‘Hey, but don’t you remember that night at the press club when you….?’ and ‘Wait a minute, what about the night you…?’ and ‘Surely you haven’t forgotten the incident at….!’ ‘And how did you get home?’

The only time I was tempted to actually speak up was when Opposition Leader Joy McPhail spoke up. Her party has (for good reason) only two seats and she is the most hypocritical, odious and opportunistic politician I’ve ever encountered. This is a woman not known for her, shall we say, demure social behaviour. ‘Lucky for her that my notebooks from those years are buried in a crammed crawl space, and that I’m too lazy to dig them out.

To those calling for Campbell’s head, and/or planning to use this incident it to fulfill their own agendas, I suggest that they search their memory banks to see if they’ve ever broken the law, whether the violation involved rolling through a stop sign, speeding through a school zone or neglecting to mention purchases at Canada Customs. They should be absolutely certain that they’ve never driven a vehicle after having too much wine, or after smoking a joint. Once they’re sure that they’re pure and innocent, they can squawk all they want. If they’re not blameless, they should shut up and let the man do his job.

sword1Journalistic free-for-alls are all-too-common these days. The rules seem to have been discarded. In the US, the FBI fabricated a story about five terrorists who had crossed the Canadian/US border to conduct a New Year’s Eve attack on New York. No journalist bothered to check the facts—one idiot working for a CBS affiliate claimed that he had shared a bus ride from BC with one of the ‘terrorists’—a man who was happily living in Lahore and had never been anywhere near Canada. The story was everywhere, Canada was blamed for everything. When it turned out that the story was false, there were no admissions of journalistic negligence.

‘Hard to believe that Pat Buchanan, one of the most dangerous men in America, has his own television show. Alas, he does and he spends a lot of time blaming Canada for America’s inability to guard its borders. He seems to forget that the US/Mexico border is one of the world’s most porous; indeed, I doubt that the US government could even hope to calculate the true populations of Florida, California and New York. (If he actually did the research, he’d know that 1% of people who illegally enter the US do so through Canada.)

And the National Review? Could there be a more precious organ for the paranoid and redneck? I can’t even stand to skim its website, never mind touch the physical product. This magazine is replete with inaccuracy and historical revisionism. To wit, a recent article which had the gall to suggest that Canada should be grateful to Americans for “all we’ve done for them”. Oh? Well, what would that be? Hmmm. I’m not really coming up with anything. Maybe the US lost a good chunk of its male population while staving off the enemy in WWI, while Canada took two years to show up? No, that’s not right—it was the other way around. And again in WWII? No, it was the Americans who were three years late…

I still feel for California politician Gary Condit who, by all accounts, was an honest and hard-working professional. Following the disappearance of one of his interns, he was quickly convicted, by the press, of murder. His career, finances and reputation were ruined. Trashed. The charge was led by Larry King and his posse of ‘crime experts’, and abetted by Vanity Fair, which allowed both Dominick Dunne and Judy Bachrach to absolutely skewer Condit. But the nail in his coffin was probably his decision to sit for what was an obscenely ridiculous interview with Connie Chung. Chung used the interview to revive a flat-lined career and was rewarded with her own show on CNN. We now know that Condit had nothing to do with the disappearance of the victim. Has anyone apologized to him?

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Closer to home, there have been alarming signs of journalistic decline. CTV Vancouver, for example, recently showed post-event ‘footage’ of the scene of an incident, without bothering to tell viewers that what they were seeing was shot after the incident took place. The same station reported the urban myth that a well-wisher snuck a puppy into Vancouver General Hospital to present to the victim of a dog attack. And the Seattle networks have taken to luring viewers to their newscasts by referring to Vancouver news stories as ‘Northwest Stories’.

And all over North America, in the US in particular, what one looks like is way more important than what one is saying. Anchor make-up is thicker, hair is more helmet-like, the clothing budgets higher but, increasingly, what we’re seeing and hearing on television news is sensationalistic, maudlin and biased. Reporting the actual facts, and providing the required background, is just so secondary. That sends credibility out the window. As I’ve said before, no credibility, no viewers/readers/listeners. No audience, no advertisers. Bad journalism is bad business.

The best journalists are always, and have always been, people who couldn’t wait to get out of high school before beginning to investigate the world—if they even bothered to finish high school. And there is no doubt that ‘journalism school’ is a colossal waste of time and money. People cannot be taught how to write well. People cannot be taught to be succinctly articulate, or to simultaneously think broadly and in terms of detail. People cannot be taught to develop instinct and curiosity. They cannot be taught to acquire integrity, discretion and love for the truth. People can only be taught the rules. And it’s increasingly obvious that people cannot be taught to remember, or care about, those rules.

Public Relations ‘Professionals’ : The Damage Done

Blitz Magazine, January 2004

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Some of the PR people out there may have noticed that I’m not returning their calls. If they want to know why, they need only look at the recent issues of their favourite magazines. They’ll notice that these publications are markedly thinner than they were two years ago, six months ago. This is what happens when magazines lose the support of those who need them. We can no longer blame 9/11; the Canadian economy is healthy. I place the blame squarely with the Public Relations industry.

There’s a company in Western Canada that provides firms with short-term marketing and advertising personnel. Blitz is the perfect advertising vehicle for this firm. Its president, an MBA and years of marketing experience, was about to sign a one-year contract with Blitz. Then he called to say that he had changed his mind, and had entrusted his entire marketing budget to a PR consultant. The PR consultant is sucking up a good portion of that budget in fees, is industriously spitting out news releases and has placed all of his client’s allocated advertising dollars into the sponsorship of golf tournaments. ‘Strange, and dumb, but true.

I start getting said releases. Aside from the fact that they’re replete with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, they’re irrelevant. Do I care that this company is sponsoring golf tournaments? No—it doesn’t fit my editorial mandate. But the consultant doesn’t know that because he didn’t do his homework. He can’t write, he’s lazy and he’s sabotaging a firm that had great potential but which, I now believe, will not be around for long.

(My favourite is the Web marketing thing. People channel their marketing dollars into developing their websites. They pay PR firms to send out endless news releases announcing their new sites. Then, instead of advertising the sites, they sit and wait for Net surfers to stumble upon them.)

There’s much talk these days about ROI, which everyone wants. Lately, the word is that advertising isn’t bringing in ROI. But, despite what people say, ROI is very difficult to measure. Media buyers look at numbers of people reached, who those people are and the costs to reach those people—they don’t demand guarantees that the advertising will work, because they know better. What advertising does is keep a company’s name and services in people’s faces. It supports all other sales and marketing efforts. It’s not the magic bullet for increasing business—it’s the gun.

Last week, a certified PR professional said to me: “We provide tangible ROI—the evidence is in the write-ups our clients get in newspapers and magazines, or radio mentions, or whatever.”

Or whatever. It’s illogical, and foolish, to assume that mentions in the media will bring increased business. There’s no guarantee that an editor will do more than glance at a news release. If a release piques interest, there’s no guarantee that the release will culminate in a positive story—it could end up sparking a career-ending expose. And so what if your company gets a positive media mention? Is that going to send consumers scrambling for your product? Of course not.

PR people are great persuaders. But those who sell PR as a solution, rather than as a small part of an overall communications strategy, are doing huge damage. They’re not bringing their clients closer to ROI nirvana. They’re wasting tons of money, they’re hurting their clients’ long-term prospects and they’re damaging the media properties that cannot stay in business without advertising dollars—plus all the designers, writers, producers etc., that rely on those media properties.

If PR ‘professionals’ continue to divert dollars into their own pockets, and away from advertising vehicles, they’re not going to have any media properties to contact. They can send out all the news releases they like, but there will be no magazine editors left to read them.

 

On the Bad Business of Selling Editorial

Blitz Magazine, March 2002

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We’re all familiar with the practice of selling editorial. It’s nauseatingly common. Blitz does not engage in this practice. Why? Because everyone can tell when editorial is paid for and, once they realize that, that piece of editorial has no credibility. Then everything else in the magazine has no credibility. No one wants to read a magazine that has no credibility. And, since advertisers want their ads read by the magazine’s audience, there’s no point in advertising in a magazine that no one believes and/or reads. Forget journalist ethics—selling editorial is bad business.

I speak of magazines because (call me naive) I tend to think that newspapers aren’t as easily swayed by outside interests. There are many instances of editors and columnists going ‘too far’ and consequently having to apologise (on the insistence of their publishers) to representatives of ethnic groups, trade groups. But I like to think that these PR moves do not keep serious reporters from continuing to do what they should do, which is find the facts and truthfully and objectively report them.

My philosophy is: if it’s true, print it. If someone’s insulted, they’ll get over it. If a journalist reports on shenanigans at ABC Widgets, and ABC Widgets pulls its advertising, fine—it can find another way of reaching your valuable audience and other advertisers will be smart enough to stay with you because yours are the publications that people will read. Because they have credibility. Objectivity and fearlessness, therefore, are not only good for journalism. They are essential for the success of your publications.

Oh look. I seem to have slipped into saying ‘your’ and ‘publications’. I’ve somehow begun speaking to the Aspers, whose CanWest/Global Communications now owns the majority of Canada’s daily newspapers. What with the mess being created by media convergence and the negative ink that CanWest is getting over its convergence efforts, I have mixed feelings. This is a positive move for media buyers and sales reps. I think it’s a great idea to use CanWest journalists for cross-promotion. But I feel absolutely sick about the fact that CanWest, as a corporation, appears to intend to dictate the content of its newspapers.

The slope couldn’t be more slippery. CanWest is a huge company. Its owners (duh) could have corporate and personal financial interests in all sorts of conflicting areas.

What if a CanWest bigwig owns a large share of a pharmaceutical company and it releases a Wonder Dug—let’s say a cure for baldness. A Vancouver Sun journalist finds incontrovertible evidence that the drug attacks the liver. He does the story, head office finds out, the story’s yanked. No competing journalists find out about the problem. People take the drug, their hair grows, sales soar, profits rise. A year later, those customers are waiting for liver transplants and the other investors in the pharmaceutical company have lost their money.

What if the Aspers have a particular religious position?  Political position? Could this policy lead to the end of any reportage that goes against their grain? Of course it could. Should we care? Well, yeah. Every day, millions of us make decisions based on information taken from newspapers. If that information is tainted by the influence of private interests, our lives can be so tainted.

Should those in business care? Sure they should. Businesses of all types rely on print advertising—in most cases, a marketing plan without print advertising is no marketing plan. Further, because PR is often as important as advertising, businesses want their activities (well, most of them) reported in publications which are deemed to be legitimate.

Newspapers are integral to the smooth functioning of a society. But if people think that the material in their papers is inaccurate, incomplete or biased, the trust is gone. No trust, no credibility. No credibility, no readers. No readers, no advertisers. No advertisers, no newspapers.

It ain’t brain surgery. If you own newspapers, you leave your journalists alone. Your only communication with them should be your signature on their cheques and the order to ‘Find the Facts, Then Tell the Truth’. The worst that could happen is that your papers develop stellar reputations and your profits go up.

On the Post-9/11 Plague

Blitz Magazine, November 2001

On September 9th, it was time to start another book. I randomly plucked one from a shelf and began to read. The book was The Plague, by Albert Camus. By September 12th, I realized that the choice was an eerie coincidence.

plagueThe Plague, published in 1947, is the story of a city visited by the bubonic plague, and of the psychological and functional changes forced upon the city’s people. However, the plague is only a symbol. What Camus was really writing about was the German occupation of France.

We are now the plague-stricken, with our affliction being terrorism and everything that created it. The parallels between the novel and what we are now experiencing, and what we will experience, are too numerous to cite—you’ll have to read the book. But in it, Camus touches on the media and writes about how, when journalists become bored with reporting the death tolls, and on the frustratingly-slow recovery process, they turn their society’s disaster into morbid entertainment. Their news becomes limited to the information supplied by the Prefect. In the time of crisis, they lose all credibility.

In the aftermath of the September 11th attack on New York, I’ve been sickened by the media/Hollywood treatment of it. The image of the plane crashing into the World Trade Center just had to be shown again. And again. And again. And again. The major news organizations used it as a logo. There were/are the Creative Writing 101 titles: ‘America Under Attack’, ‘Helping America Heal’, ‘America’s New War’. The White House joined in, with Dubya’s speechwriter making him say things like ‘Dead or Alive!’ then helped with the branding of it all with the incredibly ridiculous ‘Operation Infinite Justice’. Dateline is still busy wringing every last melodramatic ounce from the disaster. Advertisers are running promotions around it: ‘Buy an RV and we’ll give $100 to the New York relief effort!’, and ‘Buy a 2002 SUV and help keep America moving!’

Other truly nauseating examples were the special editions of the magazines. Those from Time and Newsweek were little more than collections of photographs taken on and around that horrible day. As what? Keepsakes for scrapbooks and photo albums, to be pasted in along with the baby pictures? On September 16th, Fox scheduled Independence Day for its Sunday night movie. On the already moronic Entertainment Tonight, the story from the odious Mary Hart was how ‘The Stars’ managed to get home from the Toronto Film Festival. Then she interviewed a producer, who unwittingly summed up all that’s wrong with Hollywood when he said: “This kind of thing is entertainment as long as it’s fantasy. Once it happens, it ceases to be entertainment.”

plague1In The Plague, the citizens struggle to live their lives normally, in denial, helplessly going through the motions, obedient to every edict from the Prefect. Dissenters are quashed.

The novel’s main characters are heroes; doctors and volunteers, who spend their days lancing the buboes on the bodies of the stricken, in hopes that release and disposal of the noxious fluid will help bring an end to the pernicious plague.

There is only one character who self-destructs—the profiteer. This man makes a lot of money by appealing to the base instincts that arise in people during times of crisis; once the plague has run its course, he loses his mind, his friends and his freedom.

Camus was writing about World War II, and we know that this type of situation, and its effects on any society, has been the same for centuries. But the nature of media has changed; its scope and capabilities have changed. One would hope that, with all this sophistication, the behaviour of those who work in all forms of media would change for the better. I’m not seeing it.