Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Unravelling

It’s not often you get the chance to tie Tiger Woods, Global Warming, Canadian journalism and the current CRTC Hearings into Canadian Television together. So, of course, I can’t let the opportunity go to waste.

Those of you with access to tinfoil may wish to begin fashioning hats.


Let me say at the beginning, that I’ve always considered myself to be environmentally friendly. Anything we can do to make the planet cleaner and more sustainable for all life forms, the better. I’m also a staunch trade unionist, having been a member of four of them and a founding member of two. I wouldn’t be alive without socialized medicine. I support Public broadcasting and have had a relatively lucrative career thanks to some of the protections offered those of us who work in Canadian TV.

I also used to like to play Golf and retain an admiration of those who are good at it.

There’s honor in Golf, requiring you to be honest with yourself and fair with those you’re playing. It’s a concept not far removed from being responsible to the planet and those with whom we share it.

It’s also similar to the honor that exists among union members, wanting not only a decent life for their fellow workers, but a system that allows their employers to prosper as well. And it’s not too great a leap from all of that to wanting television audiences to have access to programming that’s important to them and supplies news, information and entertainment they might not be able to get anywhere else --- and supplies it in a truly “fair and balanced” way.

All of these things appeal to what most of us feel is our “better nature”. The way we’d all like to be if we had the time.

Over the last couple of weeks, however, as we’ve been bombarded by the Tiger Woods scandal, the increasingly acrimonious debate over climate change and the full on war between Canadian broadcasters and cable companies, one thing has become clear to me…

Hardly anybody appealing to my better nature actually embodies that better nature themselves.

Let me start with Climate change.

As I’m certain many of you were, I was incredibly moved by Al Gore’s documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth” and it’s clarion call to save the planet from man made Global warming. His wasn’t some theory. It came with graphs and charts and credible scientists explaining their research.

It seemed we needed to make significant changes to the way we lived in order to prevent an environmental catastrophe.

Chicken Little was everywhere. The sky was literally falling.

And then --- the debate began to shift to not just capping carbon but trading it.


Suddenly we didn’t need to change our ways. We just needed to “offset” the bad things we’d been doing with some good things, like planting trees and helping under-developed nations into the 21st century.

“Cap and Trade” was a concept originally conceived by Ken Lay, the guy who’d also invented the incredible energy scam that was Enron.

It didn’t make a lot of sense in terms of turning around the environment, but it was such an obvious wealth creation tool for some that financiers like Goldman-Sachs, the same guys some suspect were behind last year’s spike in oil prices as well as playing a significant roll in the sub-prime mortgage scandal that almost tanked the world economy, got behind it. And so did a lot of politicians adept at wrapping money grabs in “It’s Good For You” sentiments.

Like many, I began to suspect something else was really going on with Climate change.

Then a couple of weeks ago a hacker or an inside whistleblower released a massive number of files from East Anglia University’s Climate Research Unit that suggested climate change research was either cooked or didn’t actually exist and that a campaign to undermine scientists with an opposing view and make sure they didn’t get their hands on the raw data being used by the UN based Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

One of my favorite revelations was the discovery that weather data attributed to an Australian monitoring station since 1962 had a problem because the station wasn’t even established until 1993. Where did that 30 years of data really come from? Nobody knows. All records of the original reports have “disappeared”.

Chicken Little had been lying. And his stock began to plummet faster than the sky he’d been screaming about. As of last weekend, polls showed that less than 25% of Americans continued to believe that we were the main culprit in climate change.

grizzly chicken

Within days of the revelation, the head of East Anglia’s Climate Research unit had been forced to resign and the Australian Government had voted down Cap and Trade legislation, while Denmark (about to host an important climate conference) got caught claiming 8 Billion Kroner in fraudulent carbon credits. As of today, there are probably more police officers investigating various climate scams than there used to be scientists studying the environment.

Coincidentally, Al Gore realized he’d double-booked himself and had to cancel his appearance in Copenhagen.

But what was decidedly odd about this story was how under-reported it initially was in the main stream media. While it spread like wildfire on the Internet, it took more than 2 weeks to appear on American networks like NBC (owned by GE, another potential Cap ‘n Trade beneficiary) and our own CBC had to be practically embarrassed into reporting it.


Tuesday night, CBC Radio’s evening news series “As It Happens”, however, was still interviewing a climatologist on Al Gore’s infamous “Hockey Stick” Graph as part of its coverage of the Copenhagen Summit, helping listeners to understand the concept.

They not only failed to mention the Climategate scandal in their report, but they didn’t tell their audience that two Canadian scientists, Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick had proven the graph was the result not of Global warming but a computer error. Something the pair had revealed over a year ago and, as a result of their thorough research, the United Nations had dropped the “hockey stick” from the climate report that is the basis for Copenhagen.

Gee, did CBC have some other agenda here?

It was a premise given further credibility by its morning radio series “The Current” where Physicist Spencer Worth (Author of “The Discovery of Global Warming”) suggested listeners ignore the entire Climategate affair as well as any peer review studies. Rather than pointing to other scientific proof of climate change, Dr. Worth said simply, “We don’t even need weather records to know the Earth is warming up”.

And nobody at CBC questioned that assessment.

Can you imagine a doctor being interviewed on CBC saying “I don’t need any tests to know if somebody’s got Cancer”? Or the network silently taking Stephen Harper’s word that no Canadian prisoners were tortured in Afghanistan?

But somehow, a scientist with a climate change book to sell got to dismiss a story being taken seriously elsewhere in the world on a network insisting it is the most reliable source for news in the country.

Put a pin in that thought for later.

Am I suggesting there’s a bias at CBC? Mmmmm --- one could assume that since “The Current” keeps a weekly tally of how many times they’ve had interviews turned down by Harper Cabinet Ministers, while “As It Happens” on the same Tuesday reported that the representative of another party had “a busy schedule which did not allow him time to respond” that somebody has an axe to grind.

But what I’m getting at is that somehow the journalists at “As It Happens” and “The Current” still don’t understand that their audience has access to all sorts of other news and opinion these days and that they need to at least acknowledge and maybe address that stuff in their own reporting.

It isn’t all about one network’s news anymore. It’s about telling the whole story. Even the parts that you may not like.

Which brings us to Tiger Woods.

tiger woods

Most of me doesn’t care about Tiger’s personal life. What’s most interesting again is the different way it’s been handled by the Mainstream media. It was a story that had gone viral on the Internet days before it found traction in the “real” media.

Now, legit journalists claim that’s because they need to fact check and have multiple sources.


Like the incredibly responsible manner in which they covered “The Balloon Boy” and Michael Jackson’s death…

No, what’s intrigued me is that following the initial delay in reporting the story, most of the spin has been “What will this do to his endorsements?” and “What will this do to his image?” Which makes you wonder if some of that press silence might be attributed to somebody trying to figure out how many of Tiger’s sponsors had bought time or space on the outlet concerned.

Then the prevailing sentiment immediately became that Tiger’s “people” weren’t handling this “crisis” very well. In other words, doing all they could to minimize the damage. And everybody kept hoping he’d “get out in front of it” or turn up on Larry King or Oprah for a teary Mea Culpa, so things could get back to normal.

Get back to normal, how? As in – getting back to being the respectable face of all those ads for Nike, Tag Heuer, Gatorade, Buick and many, many, many more?

Tiger’s personal “transgressions” were somehow less important than keeping the ad gravy train rolling.

Was the focus on reporting the news or on protecting those who paid the freight?

And once again, the media giants seemed unaware that their flagship lifestyle and pop culture shows weren’t the only guys on the block anymore.

Tiger can’t just turn up on one of their money spinning interview shows like “Oprah” or “Larry King” and say all the right things and all will soon be forgotten. Because the same people watching their big name interviewer might also have seen this…

And that clip is six months old. You gotta wonder how everybody in the mainstream media missed it. It’s a clue to just how much nobody wanted to dig underneath the Tiger Goldmine.

Look, let’s be honest here. Tiger Woods or any other spokesman who is the face of a brand is very well known to the people who shepherd him from one sponsored event to another. Given the number of photos turning up on the net snapped at one brand or another’s party, tournament or corporate event in which Tiger can be seen hitting on one of his expanding bevy of paramours, it’s impossible that none of his handlers knew what kind of guy he really was.

But because the money he brought in was so massive, they, like those climate researchers, blithely lied to us.

Let me digress to make a small prediction.

Tiger Woods won’t be playing golf on TV anytime soon.

Can you imagine the circus that would follow him? Can you imagine what the other players on the tour will have to put up with? Can you imagine what landmines might be waiting for any potential sponsors around those impeccably manicured greens?

Which brings me to those endless meetings in Gatineau. This week, CTV, Global and CBC turned up on the same panel, appearing together to assure the CRTC that the public will be okay with paying them even more to do even less of what they’ve been doing.

And once again the sky would soon be falling if they didn’t get what they wanted.


Buried by a landslide of real consumers who have inundated the CRTC site with the clear opinion that they don’t want to be charged more on their cable bills, the Commission begged the broadcasters for some idea on how they could all keep their audience happy.

Could they maybe deliver more local news, more drama and comedy, maybe just a clear HD picture?

The answers were “No”, “No” and “No”. And then we watched the absurd spectacle of people who’ve cratered their own businesses offering economic models by which cash flush cable companies could fund them. At one point, I wondered if cablecos were not doing well, but maybe screenwriters were making out like bandits in the spec market, they’d have suggested we pay for everything.

Who covered their costs didn’t matter. All that mattered was that somehow the bubble they’ve lived in for decades had to continue. Their right to determine what was news, or where a celebrity could redeem his image or who watched what and when took precedence over everything else.

Even – as the above examples suggest – if they weren’t doing a good job of all that.

They appeared simply incapable of observing the world they really live in, a world where they are no longer the “Deciders” when it comes to arbitrating culture and information.

Does the CBC not understand that Canadians already pay for them once through taxes, pay a second time to have access to the cable service that delivers them to the majority of the country and are now being asked to pay a third time, through their proposed new fees?

Meanwhile, their counterparts at CTV and Global seem unaware that Canadians might be asking why they have to pay twice for access to fare they can already get just up the dial as well as online or on DVD --- and on top of that forego the income that could accrue to their government if the analog spectrum the Broadcasters were supposed to vacate in 2011 could be auctioned then instead of two years later.

Would it be fair to charge them for the continued use of broadcasting bands that could service other technologies or for how much some other industries may lose by delaying its availability ?

Why not? One could credibly argue that their spending sprees in Hollywood ensure continued American domination of our culture, prevent Canadian artists from fully realizing their talents and keep our country from presenting its true face to the world. How much more damage can they be allowed to do?

In the same way that nobody has a right to fly to Copenhagen on a private jet to curtail the rights of others to travel at will. In the same way that American Express doesn’t get to pretend Tiger Woods is a Goody-Two-Shoes while offering strip joints and escort services pseudonyms to hide the purchases of their clientele from their wives. In the same way that a national news service doesn’t get to ignore the full story in favor of the parts they sympathize with…

In all those ways, Canadian networks don’t get to protect their interests at the expense of all others anymore.

Somehow, the members of the Canadian broadcast system have grown to no longer see themselves (if they ever did) as servants of you and me and our audience. While they may accept that the system exists to entertain and inform the public, they are suspicious of input from artists or anyone else they don’t own or control or are able to manipulate for those who pay them.

They all may say that the system exists to dispense local news and entertainment. But to all intents and purposes, their system is only about self interest.

The rest of us just get in the way. 

It’s time to make it clear we’re tired of them being in ours.

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