Archives for category: Journalism

Image: Torontoist.com

It was while I was bailing out the back yard that I realized that this was quite a rainstorm. Like a lot of people, I was neither expecting nor prepared for the amount of rain we got and what it did to Toronto.

I see the storm as one of those events that makes us realize we are now firmly in a new weather paradigm – one that is shaped by climate change.

For years, I worked in the sustainable energy sector. Occasionally, I would meet someone who insisted that all the evidence on climate change wasn’t in and that there’s not much we can do about the weather in any case. I don’t see much point in debating the science with someone like that, but this week’s storm made me think about what happens even after we acknowledge climate change.

Acceptance is one thing, but action is another. And even if we still can’t put a price on carbon and manage to find ways to reduce our use of fossil fuels, there is still the issue of how to deal with what we face right now. If you thought the storms of the past while (Calgary, Toronto) are outliers, think again. In fact, the city’s Parks and Environment Committee already considered this question, and came up with a report that says our city’s infrastructure is not adequate for Toronto’s new weather paradigm. By the way, the chair of that committee was Councillor Norm Kelly, who suggested we not make a big deal about it, since climate change is still “contentious.” I wonder if Norm’s opinion is shifting after the rainiest day in the city’s recorded history.

We should not balk at answering the hard questions about how we now understand the impact of global warming and extreme weather and our state of preparedness. Part of this is about looking at how we build and develop our city and what mitigation measures we can integrate to protect us and our infrastructure from flooding. Another part is about ensuring the city’s entire ecosystem can absorb water, or simply have it run off concrete and asphalt and flood our basements, backyards, subways, underpasses, hydro system and major highways.

A third part is about how we understand weather forecasts, what they mean and how they impact our decision-making. Monday’s deluge was an excellent example of the entire city getting caught in the rain. Somewhere between the meteorological scientists at Environment Canada and the weather reports you get, something is lost.

I could go on about this, but I would just be getting in the way of you reading this excellent blog post by The Grid’s Ed Keenan about this exact topic.

The storm revealed a lot about how unprepared we are, as individuals and as a city. It almost makes the transit debate looks minor.

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The pessimist in me has accepted that the video will never come out and that Rob Ford isn’t going anywhere. So, my thoughts naturally turn to the next election; who will run against the incumbent and how Toronto’s political organizers are starting the process of assembling a campaign to take on Rob Ford. I’m thinking I want to see more media coverage that looks past Crackgate (which has spurred some of the best journalism in recent years) and to the next election. And I figure I can’t be alone.

I was talking to a friend about this on Sunday; we were discussing how easy it would be to split the progressive vote among several candidates and therefore allow Ford to win again. We figured many Torontonians are looking past the crack video story and hoping – since Ford isn’t giving up office and has left no doubt he will run again – that some media will start to focus on the next election and particularly the effort to unseat Ford, with his seemingly large and unmovable support. The next election is in 16 months — not a ton of time, politically-speaking.

I’m interested in hearing about the conversation in political circles on whether the imperative to pick one progressive candidate to run against Ford will trump the individual ambition of a handful of potential candidates. I’m equally interested in learning about any efforts to mobilize the enormous potential anti-Ford vote. Who is looking to get out new voters? Who is looking to organize the young, the cyclists, the hipsters, the downtown condo dwellers, the anti-crack voters, the ashamed, the embarrassed and even the cynics?

Yes, much of this discussion is taking place behind closed doors. But, has there ever been a situation like this? And given that the business of the city has slowed down somewhat, what better time to turn our attention to what would be possible without a hamstrung mayor?

So I’m hoping to soon see more stories that look past the current issues and toward the next election.

Because as a voter and news consumer, this is what I want to know.

Brian Johnston confronts the inevitable media scrum as he leaves his job (Image: Toronto Star)

Normally, the departures of political staff are of little interest to most people; only hard-core political junkies, insiders and observers can take any real meaning from staffing changes.

But these are hardly normal times. As the exodus of staffers from Rob Ford’s office continues, the amount of media attention given to the issue will only increase. Since Rob and Doug Ford are still in blanket denial mode, and since their credibility is in free fall, the media must look elsewhere for clues to what is going on in the mayor’s office. Hence today’s media focus on the exit of advisor Brian Johnston and EA Kia Nejatian. Expect continued media focus on the mayor’s staff and expect those remaining staff members to be asking themselves some critical questions about how to balance their job responsibilities and obligations with other considerations.

I’ve been a political staffer on several occasions, as well as having covered politics as journalist, and I can say that the decision to leave that type of work is often more complex and emotional than a more conventional job, even more so when the heat is on your boss and the media are camped outside your office every day.

Choosing the political life means you need to have certain characteristics. Political staffers must be loyal. That is particularly the case for those with bosses who may try the patience of their staffers. Staffers also must be appropriately deferential. They must be discreet, especially when your boss is accused of drug abuse. Ideally, the staffer should be able to speak truth to power and be able to do it on a regular basis without appearing obstinate and disloyal.

The benefits of working in politics – the network and connections, the understanding of the political process, the knowledge of how to get things done – are partly meant to position staffers for interesting and lucrative work later on. But it’s a trade-off; the hours are long, the tempo is unrelenting, the crises are frequent, the compromises can be uncomfortable.

But there may come a point when you are asked to do something you think is wrong or harmful to the larger political interests of your boss. Or maybe you’re expected to sit by silently as disastrous decisions are being made (decisions that you must help clean up).  Are you more loyal than self-interested? Can you be discreet about the choice you are facing? What if other staff departures might create opportunity for you to advance? You might consider running away in order to limit the damage to your career, but what if potential employers perceive you as being disloyal?

And then, even if you decide to leave, there are questions about how to do it. Not many staffers could imagine doing a media scrum in the City Hall parking garage on their way out, moving box in hand, saying that your former boss is batshit crazy, or has substance abuse problems, or is putting the city and its reputation at risk. But what if that’s the reason you decided to leave? What if you felt that your concern about the city (or your career) outweighs your loyalty to the mayor? What if you felt the only reasonable strategy is to put more pressure on the mayor to step down?

In the case of Rob Ford’s office, I suspect that once Mark Towhey was fired, most of the staffers started asking themselves some of these questions and calculating the costs of hanging around – despite the sudden opportunities for promotion. Part of this calculation would involve a wondering how effective one can be when the office is in 24/7 damage control mode, when the mayor and his family are circling the wagons and denying everything and when the Chief of Staff is seemingly tossed overboard without a second thought?

And once your colleagues start running out the door, everyone accelerates the cost/benefit analysis of staying. The trickle then inevitably becomes a stampede and the reasons for remaining become few in number and harder to defend. Then comes the decision about what to say to the media as security escorts me out. Do I speak diplomatically, or do I – out of concern for the mayor and the city – offer some real insight into what’s going on?

Expect more parking garage scrums to come, and expect more cautious media statements covering up the frantic “Should I stay or should I go?” questions being asked inside the mayor’s office.

Image: Cannabisculture.net

I grew up in the 80s and – full disclosure here – didn’t deal hash.

But there were always drugs around, as it to be expected when you have the necessary ingredients of bored young people with spare cash and free time. I’m not suggesting that every Canadian in their teens and early 20s consumes drugs, but there are compelling statistics to show that it’s not unusual.

Unless, of course, you are Rob or Doug Ford. Everything we have learned about the Fords (even before Saturday’s Globe and Mail story on Doug’s hash-dealing days) suggests that they are familiar with drugs and alcohol. So it wasn’t such a surprise to learn about Rob’s alleged crack use and Doug’s history as a hash dealer.

Yet, the Fords continue their damaging and inexplicable denials of any and all allegations. I won’t even bother to list the names they have used to label any reporter or media outlet that dares to report on their encounters with drugs and alcohol.

I suspect the Fords, coming from a wealthy and conservative family, do not allow themselves the freedom to actually acknowledge that they had a childhood that – like many other of the same generation – includes using drugs and alcohol. Barack Obama, on the other hand, openly admitted his use of grass and cocaine before he was president. It is this enormous and obvious hypocrisy on the part of the Fords that is helping Toronto voters decide who to believe. It also shows that the Fords are so blinkered in their approach to these issues that they refuse to accept any reasonable advice from their own staffers on how to communicate to the people who elected them.

It’s a shame that the Fords can’t see that every blanket denial on drug or alcohol use only makes them look more and foolish, stubborn and self-defeating. This is a perfect case of how to prolong the story, destroy your credibility and ensure that the media dig more cases out of the shadows.

Yesterday… What a news day! What a day for journalism!

I had the interesting task of summarizing the big stories of the day on a four-minute phone call with my wife (who’s out of the country). I was spoiled for choice.

Duffy’s quit the Conservative caucus, I say. About time, comes the reply. No doubt, I add, the PMO got tired of waiting for Duffy to do it himself.

Then comes the second story: Paul Godfrey gets summarily axed as Chair of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation – and the rest of the board resigns in protest. The order came from Premier Wynne. The plan to expand gambling, including the downtown Toronto casino proposal, is now pretty much dead.

But it gets better, I say, much better. The Star is running a huge page one story saying there’s video of Rob Ford smoking crack. And they’ve seen it. Our mayor could be a crackhead!

After the call, I felt sort of vindicated after thinking about how people are now going to view Ford, as one of my first posts was about why I would believe anything I heard about Ford. Many people will believe this story, and the Star has no doubt nailed down and lawyered the story several times over. Even Ford Nation will have second thoughts about going to the barricades for their man.

This was a great day for public interest journalism and for those who care about public debate. A buffet of fantastic, important stories that lay bare the trenches of political fighting over public policy issues, political personalities and media coverage of said fights. Each story exploded on Twitter and led to gigantic conversations about transparency, credibility and the pervasive cynicism of politics. Despite the sadness of the stories, I sensed a great degree of positivity in the online conversation because the details of the stories were coming from a wonderful combination of quality journalism, public interest and social media engagement.

I hope tomorrow is as fascinating and engaging as yesterday was. It was heaven from my perspective; stories that push public policy issues out into the light, allowing us to learn about them, debate them and make up our own minds. Even if yesterday’s news made you feel tired and powerless, just imagine how much worse you’d feel if you didn’t learn about the credibility of a senator, the institution and a prime minister; Ontario’s approach to gambling, the money it generates for the government and the emerging character of a new premier who is throwing her weight around; and the reality-tv story of Rob Ford that just gets better and better.

It’s addictive, this stuff.

Few things irritate me as much as politicians (and certain sycophantic elements of the media) who pay lip service to “science” and “evidence” while pursuing policies that are based on pure bullshit – sometimes called “common sense”.

In a contemporary context, much of the debate about global warming and climate change in the U.S. and Canada is infected with this, as is much of the debate over crime and punishment (another post on this will arrive soon, by the way).

A good example of this arose recently when Justin Trudeau wondered why domestically radicalized terror suspects (from the alleged VIA train bombing plot) chose the path of political violence. Barak Obama asked the same question about the Boston suspects. Stephen Harper, however, said this is not the time to “commit sociology” because it would detract from his government’s condemnation of the plot.

And with this, science was once again tossed aside in the service of pure partisan exploitation of a very serious issue. Who cares why this stuff happens, after all? That’s for academics.

Here’s an excellent opinion piece on why Stephen Harper’s comments – and the values they represent – are worth thinking about.  I’m posting it not because I dislike conservatives, but because ignoring science and fact is no way to make smart decisions about public policy. Because ultimately, we all pay for bad policy.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the media coverage surrounding the verdict of Richard Kachkar.

He was found Not Criminally Responsible (NCR) for running down a Toronto police officer with a stolen snowplow.  I bemoaned the media coverage for failing to balance the tragedy of the death with facts about how those found to be NCR are treated by the justice system and by the mental health system.

A recent Canadian documentary from director John Kastner called NCR: Not Criminally Responsible focuses on exactly this issue, and the conclusions are that it is an appropriate and effective method of dealing with those mentally ill who have committed terrible crimes.

This review of the film, and the information provided to contextualize NCR, would have been very good to see in the media at the time of the verdict. In particular, the documentary shows how the authorities tasked with overseeing the treatment and socialization of those found to be NCR are doing a pretty good job – and how they are not being influenced by the sadly predominant school of thought that considers punishment behind bars to be all that we need.

Too bad it took a documentary to spur the kind of media coverage we should have had weeks ago. On the other hand, documentaries provide some of the best journalism and storytelling around these days.

The Star, in particular, has been busy filling in the gaps. This story, and this one, should be checked out. As well, this CP story about criticisms of the Harper government’s proposed changes to the law overseeing NCR should not be missed.

NCR: Not Criminally Responsible is playing at the Toronto Hot Docs festival.

A Toronto Star story on a recent poll shows a slim majority of GTA residents reject the various taxes, fees and levies proposed to pay for the Big Move, the plan for long-term transit expansion.

No doubt there is value in a pollster asking the question, and absolutely it deserves to be covered as a story, but I honestly can’t completely trust a poll that isn’t more transparent. As a reader, I’m given the sample size, the geographic spread of the respondents and the date of the poll, but not the questions (A similar poll in late March by the same pollster generated similar results). The details of the poll are not available to the public.

Why do I consider this important?

This was an “interactive voice response telephone poll”, or IVR, which means respondents aren’t talking to a human, but a pre-recorded voice that asks them to push a button to indicate their response to specific prompts. Without knowing what exactly was asked and how the issues are defined to the respondent, it’s easy to imagine that respondents can be guided into a certain kind of response or perception.

Image: Megasat.de

IVR polls favour simple questions; it’s not the ideal method to capture opinions on complex public policy issues – such as various types of taxes and fees on everything from road use to property development to payrolls.

This is where the journalist’s job comes in. Without having the poll script dropped into the story, it is the journalist’s job to ensure the poll is not misrepresenting public opinion or not skewing opinion by presenting subjective or leading information to the respondents.

I’m not saying I don’t believe the results of the poll. And I have absolutely no reason to doubt the professionalism of Forum Research, the company that conducted the poll. But consider this: we’ve been bombarded for years with messages that tell us that taxes are bad, so it’s not hard to imagine that a robocall from a pollster asking if you want to pay more taxes for transit generates an automatic negative response.

A poll can be a quick and easy story to do, with results that make for tasty headlines. Consumers of news media should be confident that they are getting fully transparent and objective coverage of opinion polls.

Radio Ford Nation (Image: National Post)

One of the first rules elected officials learn – if they don’t already know – is to not comment on any case before a court. But Rob Ford didn’t get that memo. Or he didn’t listen to the briefing. Or maybe he was driving and reading at the time. Because he called into a CFRB talk show yesterday and offered his unsolicited opinion on what should happen to Richard Kachkar, who is awaiting sentencing for killing a Toronto Police officer with a stolen snowplow. The jury is weighing whether Kachkar is criminally responsible for his actions.

Ford’s on-air comments – which are not worth repeating or even summarizing – were typical of his lack of understanding of complex issues. By the way, Ford was the only person sufficiently motivated to call in to the programme.

Is our mayor so clueless that he thinks it’s OK to make public comments on an ongoing criminal trial? Does he think that his connection with Toronto’s citizens is so strong and all-consuming that he can ignore one of the most fundamental rules of behaviour for public office-holders? Does he have any impulse control? Is there anyone who can control Ford’s outbursts?

These are questions shouted into wind. Clearly, there’s not much that can be done about our mayor. However, CFRB should think about what they can do to stop providing an open platform for Ford whenever he wants to open his mouth. I’m sure the station loves that it’s become the official voice of Ford Nation, but they should remind themselves that they have journalistic responsibilities.

If the journalists at CFRB want an example of a more robust interview with the mayor of a large city, then they should check this out.

Meanwhile – speaking of excellence in journalism – I’m going back to watching the continuing coverage of the Pandas.

Please stand by.

I’m a strong supporter of public broadcasting. If done right, and adequately funded, public broadcasting can inform, engage and reflect a country back to its citizens.

Without having to worry primarily about ratings – and therefore revenue – public broadcasters are focused on their mandate to offer programming in the public interest. The CBC’s mandate, for example, says that it should “provide radio and television services incorporating a wide range of programming that informs, enlightens and entertains.” Its programming should, among other things, “contribute to shared national consciousness and identity… be predominantly and distinctively Canadian, reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences, while serving the special needs of those regions… and, actively contribute to the flow and exchange of cultural expression.”

There is no doubt that better-informed citizens make better-informed decisions about everything from public policy and voting to financial and lifestyle choices. Good public broadcasting helps both citizens and the rest of the news media to hold governments to account. You only have to look south of border to see the impact a weak public broadcaster has on the quality of public knowledge and political debate.

So I was quite interested in a recent article in the Globe and Mail about a study done to measure citizens’ knowledge of current affairs in six countries with strong public broadcasters. Canada, despite what you may think about the CBC, is one of the six countries. The study’s general finding is that public broadcasters have a positive impact on public knowledge.

Here’s another finding from the study cited in the article: “Canada sits somewhere in the middle range. Citizens who rely on the CBC for news score only marginally better on current-affairs indicators. The bang for your (public broadcasting) buck is much better in the U.K., Japan, and Norway. Not coincidentally, in these countries the levels of funding and independence from government are much stronger.”

So we can expect the Harper government – which prefers Canadians fearful and ignorant – to continue to cut funding to the CBC. The result will likely be the continued erosion in quality journalism and programming (overdone news coverage of the new pope, the cringeworthy Jack Layton biopic and the continuing presence of Don Cherry and Kevin O’Leary being a few examples) at the public broadcaster, particularly for English TV. Well, at least we have CBC radio. I should also single out TVO for the quality of its current affairs programming.

The next post will further explore what happens when news consumers don’t like what’s on offer – from public or private broadcasters.