Saturday, January 22, 2011

Whose News Is It, Anyway?

Maybe I'm way off base here. But I always thought a lot of the point of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was to provide a Canadian perspective on world events to Canadians and a distinctly Canadian face to the world.

Since both of those characteristics long ago became rare on CTV and Global, isn't that the main reason so many of us feel the Federal government needs to keep providing a Billion dollars a year to keep the CBC's doors open and the lights on?

But if all that is true -- how come the CBC seems to be populated by so many Americans lately?

Is it true that there's a belief within the news department that Canadians won't watch the news unless its contextualized by Americans?


A couple of weeks ago, Mother Jones magazine published a cover story about the ongoing post-earthquake chaos in Haiti, focusing in part on the prevalence of rape in the refugee camps.

The Mother Jones piece is a horrific read, claiming Haitian women by the thousands have been raped or gang raped in the tent cities. It describes brutal sex attacks on children and claims that there are simply no police or security to stop the attacks.

I couldn't believe this had been happening with chilling regularity and yet this was the first news of it to reach the outside world.

It was doubly troubling because we'd just had weeks of "in-depth" coverage on CBC on the recent Haitian elections, a Cholera epidemic and correspondents filing special reports to mark the one year anniversary of the disaster.

CBC journalists had clearly been in the camps, talked to the inhabitants about election corruption, the slowness of aid, the lack of progress. Had none of them heard the screams? How had they missed so pervasive a story?

Well -- they didn't miss it for long. Because within 24 hours of the Mother Jones story appearing online it was leading CBC Newscasts -- even using the magazine's illustrations as the background art for the reports.

But even when the coverage began coming from CBC's eyes and ears on the ground in Haiti it never expanded beyond what had been in the Mother Jones report -- which had to have been researched and written weeks earlier.

Had nothing changed? And if not -- why not?

And then the story was gone. Replaced by something else in the relentless need to find something new that is the 24 hour news cycle.

But I couldn't help wondering if the story had been one CBC journalists and editors had in fact missed (which said something about their journalistic skills) or if it had been deemed not newsworthy until it had been certified as important by an American publication (which suggested something else).

Anyone who watches CBC news regularly has noticed that reporters from NBC or CNN regularly file reports from foreign locales that once had been covered by a Canadian.

That might be somebody's idea of a cost saving strategy, but it seems to completely undermine the concept that the news from CBC have a Canadian perspective, delivered by someone with an understanding of why a story has resonance to Canadians.

It also doesn't explain why CBC news coverage is now wall-to-wall with interviews with American "experts".

US Cop

On consecutive nights this week we were treated to the following -- the only neurosurgeon and guy who'd been shot in the head they could find to interview about Congresswoman Giffords recovery were American. The only avalanche survivor they could find to talk about people killed by avalanches in BC was an American. The only expert they could find to talk about the Toronto police funeral was from the LAPD.

Friday night, as Congresswoman Giffords was moved from an Arizona hospital to one in Texas, CBC didn't interview a brain injury expert from either the facility that had or would treat her, but one from Boston.

Odd when one of the foremost brain research centers in the world is at McMaster University in Hamilton and the network regularly plugs in a "Canadian Historica Minute" touting McGill University's medical icon Dr. Wilder Penfield who "drew the roadmap of the human brain".

Since Penfield was actually an American, maybe the message the CBC is trying to hammer home is that there aren't really any camera worthy brain surgeons in Canada.

And "camera worthy" is the operative phrase here.

When I was writing and producing "Top Cops" one of the elements that went into our story selection was the presence projected by the real life police officers narrating the stories we were telling. One of our first episodes included a cop who broke down in tears as he described almost dying from a gunshot wound.

It was compelling television. The president of CBS called after seeing dailies and said, "Wow. I've never seen a cop cry before! We need more of that!" And from then on we made a point of searching not only for cops with great stories, but those who could also tell them with an emotional impact.

In the process, I discovered there was an entire industry out there of former cops on a kind of motivational speakers tour, telling their real life story over and over. I also found footage of our crying cop, crying at exactly the same point in his narration on morning news shows, police graduation ceremonies and little league sports dinners.

It didn't take long for our crack team of researchers to regularly kick aside a great story because they realized they were also dealing with "a guy with an act".

That's an industry that has only grown with growing number of competitors in the 24 Hour News cycle. And there are victims of plane crashes and mine cave-ins who immediately begin making the rounds when a new tragedy occurs.

No doubt many of them are on the Rolodex of Frank Magid, the American consultant responsible for the changing face of CBC News. Apparently, Magid has already convinced CBC Canadians need their news verified by an American source before they'll accept it as fact.

That might be just his way of moving CBC closer to the style of American broadcasting he's more familiar with despite that fact that it has caused a mass exodus of Canadian viewers from the "New" News at CBC.

On the other hand, that exodus might be because CBC often covers stories as if the audience were actually American to begin with.

In the wake of the Tucson shooting, despite accurately reporting that there was no evidence linking the shooter's motives to American political rhetoric, CBC News still made that same rhetoric debate a recurring topic on many of their discussion panels.

And, despite all the austerity measures that may have led CBC to rely on American news services and reporters, and despite stories which had much more direct impact on many Canadians (like Haiti) the network felt the need to dispatch a special correspondent to the scene in the person of Keith Boag.

keith boag

Boag is recognized as an extremely capable journalist. Yet what he sent back from Tucson amounted to little more than a smear story on the entire state of Arizona, calling it "the meanest place in America" and regurgitating all the "blame the hate-filled rhetoric of the Right" that pretty much everybody else had either moved past or forensically discounted by the time his story ran.

While I can't embed the video. You can see it for yourself here.

Among the items covered in Boag's report were "The only female chain gang on the planet" seen burying bodies in a pauper's field Boag uses as proof that "Arizona extracts a particularly high price from those who fall out of line".

I'm not sure if he was describing the deceased homeless or the inmates burying them. But you wonder if Boag has ever seen the "high-price" extracted from the homeless freezing on sidewalk vents outside CBC headquarters or what Canadian prisoners endure not far across town in Toronto's Don Jail.

Our intrepid reporter goes on to describe Arizona as responding to the current economic crisis and immigration issues with an "enthusiastic meanness" -- perhaps news to the tens of thousands of Canadians who happily retire or escape our Winter there -- or the many thousands who are regularly treated at the Phoenix branch of the Mayo Clinic rather than endure the multiple levels of economic or humanitarian "meanness" within Canada's health care system.

His report goes on to rerun Pima County Sherriff Clarence Dupnik's departure from the standard police practice of not pointing fingers until evidence has been gathered to pin the blame for the shooting on hate filled rhetoric.

Boag then contrasts this position with that of Sherriff Joe Arpaio of nearby Maricopa County.  We're taken on a tour of the Spartan living conditions of the Maricopa County jail where prisoners are required to wear pink underwear and socks that embarrass or annoy them.

The fact that Arpaio's tough jails and pink underwear have been around for 20 years is ignored as Boag spins it as further proof of Arizona's recent descent into racism and hatred.

Missing from his thesis are FBI crime statistics comparing the two counties. They reveal that Arpaio might be onto something since Sherriff Dupnik's enlightened approach has resulted in a per capita rate of violent crime 152% higher, including 648% more rapes and 788% more incidences of theft.

Boag never bothers to ask the inmate embarrassed by his pink socks why he's locked up in the first place.

2009 arizona crime

And in a particularly odd journalistic twist, he has a Hispanic activist posit that it was some vast Arizona sea of racial hatred against Mexicans that caused a white man to dispatch several white victims and completely ignores how many times over how many months the Pima County Sherriff's office was made aware that the Safeway shooter had been threatening the lives of others.

In the end, all we got was a rehash of everything that had been on American networks a week earlier with the added input of several new American experts.

And what makes all of this even more disheartening is the nearby example of CBC News at its best.

There was a time when long form news reporting and current affairs documentaries were a nightly staple of the CBC. They've now been relegated to the single weekly hour of "The Fifth Estate". Last week that was a report entitled "Justice For Nadia" unlocking the truth behind the mysterious suicide of Carlton University student Nadia Kajouji.

You can watch it online here.

It is one of the most powerful hours of television you have ever seen, the kind of TV that CBC News could be giving us more often -- instead of American guys with an act or an axe to grind.

1 comment:

Howard said...

The Legion strikes again. Congratulations on a great piece. CBC News has gone for the easy guests and easy stories for years now. Why look for a talking head when you can just watch U.S. TV or read a U.S. magazine and poach.
When I was at CBC we used to joke that if you want to see what is going to be on The National tonight you have to read The Globe and Mail this morning.
An even bigger problem is the fact that many CBC item are being produced by reporters who don't come within a thousand miles of the story. They tape BBC, or NBC reports, cut them down and add a stand-up at the end. Thus we are not getting real reporting, just editing of another network's work. What makes it Canadian? The stand-up!
Keep up the good work.