Tuesday, October 16, 2007


Early in my professional life, I had the good fortune of working with a very socially conscious director. The project we were working on endured hideous opening reviews and was in danger of failing at the box office. So a strategy was developed to get around the critics and find an audience. The process was difficult and one night I asked him if it was worth it, I mean -- maybe the critics were right.

"I don't believe what's on the front page." he said, "Why would I buy what's in the entertainment section?"

We've just been through an election in Ontario. One that should have caught the attention of voters. But it didn't.

The current government has been up to its eyes in broken promises to the parents of autistic children, outright lies on taxation, failed strategies on aboriginal issues and corruption.

Less than a month before the campaign, it was learned $32 Million had been handed out to "minority" charities with political ties to the ruling party. In one case, a cricket club seeking $150,000 was awarded $1 million, no strings attached.

I found it odd that this didn't get a lot of press. Now, government corruption isn't exactly a unique story in Canada. In fact, it's almost a way of life here, with every one of our political parties mired in one or two super juicy scandals. But we just went through a fairly spectacular financial impropriety that brought down the Federal government, so you would have thought somebody would run with it.

But nobody did and the prevailing wisdom was that the various media didn't want to "offend" the ethnic minorities that made up the bulk of the cash recipients.

I'm not exactly sure how anyone can place any blame on a struggling cricket club for not passing on a windfall donation. In the immortal words of Marlon Brando, when offered $3 Million for 10 minutes work as Superman's dad, "If somebody's dumb enough to pay me that much, I'm not dumb enough to say no."

But it got me wondering when journalists became timid and concerned that their reporting might upset the readers. It made me realize that we're not getting the kind of journalism we deserve because newspapers, radio and television can no longer risk alienating any among their dwindling audience.

And maybe that's exactly why their audience is dwindling.

The crusading reporter used to be a mainstay of drama. From "Citizen Kane" and "The Harder They Fall" through a thousand film noirs to "All the President's Men", we were taught that the pen was mightier than the sword.

I'll never forget the look on CIA chief Cliff Robertson's face in "Three Days of the Condor" when Robert Redford told him he was taking his story to the New York Times, or that of any number of villians faced with the same prospect in "Serpico".

Nowadays, the Times is better known for firing reporters who've made stuff up than actually going for the social or political jugular. And worldwide, news media are being exposed as being either in bed or embedded with their subjects and less than accurate in their reporting.

Last summer, there was a political frisson as Russia laid claim to the North Pole with newspapers worldwide printing color photos of Russian subs encroaching under the polar ice cap. It took a 13 year old Finnish kid to point out the photos distributed by Reuters didn't come via military sources but were actually from a scene in "Titanic".

So were there actually Russian subs lurking under the Great White North or was everybody just taking Vladimir Putin's word for it because it sold newspapers?

A month later, Yahoo and others published the following photograph of an Iraqi woman bemoaning the "shoot first" tendencies of American soldiers in Iraq by holding up two bullets which had hit her house -- shells the photos clearly reveal, had never been fired.

Photos are now emerging that suggest this same woman has been the subject of AP photos of Palestinian suffering in the Gaza strip. I realize that in wars, truth is the first casualty. Now, it appears you can make a modeling career out of it.

Or you can pretend you're practicing hard-hitting Journalism, when you're not. Last Sunday, "60 Minutes", brought into life by the Watergate scandal and long the flagship of crusading journalists, advertised an in depth interview with Erik Prince, CEO of Blackwater, the ultra-right-wing Security Contractor suspected of causing untold misery in Iraq while simultaneously bilking American taxpayers for Billions.

I'd recently seen the magnificent Robert Greenwald documentary "Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers" a blistering expose of the truth behind Blackwater, Halliburton, Titan and CACI, the major private contractors involved in the Iraq war. And I'd been following the lawsuit filed by the families of deceased Blackwater employees.

With the Iraqi government both seeking compensation from Blackwater and trying to boot them from the country, it seemed CBS and "60 Minutes" had scored a journalistic coup in landing the Prince interview.

Instead, the story that aired barely touched the sensitive issues and consisted primarily of reporter Lara Logan stumbling over her words to ask such hardball questions as "You said the loss of innocent life is a tragedy. Do you regret it, do you wish it never happened?" and in reference to the American people "...they want to know from you, from Blackwater, that you wish innocent people didn’t have to die as a result of anything that you’re involved in."
Well, who's going to disagree with any of that?

Ed Bradley would not have been proud and it appears that even such staunch defenders of the responsibilities of the Fifth Estate as "60 Minutes" have realized they can't afford to speak truth to power if it alienates even one of their viewers.

A few years ago, I bought a story that had appeared on "60 Minutes" for an MOW. It was a tough piece that terrified the network lawyers. But because "60 Minutes" had the courage to run it, they acquiesced. In the process, I became friends with the reporter who had initially broken the story. At the time, he was researching a piece about multiple suicides which had allegedly occurred inside Ontario casinos.

He was having difficulty getting official substantiation or interviews. Having done a lot of police stuff, I knew that, in Ontario, Homicide detectives are required to attend at the scene of all suicides to determine if the death was indeed self-inflicted. I encouraged him to find a couple of nearby Homicide cops, buy them lunch and have a chat. He did and felt he'd firmly confirmed his facts.

But the story was spiked. Maybe it still had holes in it. Maybe it was determined to be not all that newsworthy. And maybe it was killed because it upset somebody important. I know the reporter believed his editor was influenced by the potential loss of ad dollars. He moved on to another newspaper.

It certainly isn't a revelation that all forms of traditional media go easy on those of their own particular political persuasions or their heavy advertisers. But as the internet grows and the availability of information expands, more people see through that kind of bias and begin to seek their information elsewhere.

Is it any wonder that millions more people have seen "Loose Change" or "Zeitgeist: The Movie" than read the official 9/11 report.

As newspaper readership declines, radio stagnates and television news plummets in the ratings, it would seem to be a time for real journalists to show courage, demand that their venues be scrupulous about delivering information, no matter who it offends or impacts; and deliver it in a manner that serves the needs of their overall audience rather than kowtowing to private corporate interests or special interest groups.

Maybe the internet and bloggers are less reliable than traditional media. But in the circle of blogs I regularly surf, I find a desire to tell the truth that I don't see much in traditional media anymore. There's also a passion among these people I don't sense in those actually earning a living from the same process.

That crusading spirit is out there. It just doesn't reside in journalists anymore.

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