Category Archives: Media

The CBC’s slow-motion death from a thousand cuts

 

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Given the tongue-lashing my esteemed colleague, Norbert Cunningham, issued to the CBC in his regular space this Tuesday, I hesitate, for a moment, to crack my own bull whip. Then again, whaddya know? The moment’s gone.

The sorry truth is that the public broadcaster’s English television network hasn’t been much good since I was glued to Mr. Dressup in the mid-1960s. The other sorry truth is that the public broadcaster’s English radio network, once fantastically varied, has become a mere echo of its former self (though, miraculously, the quality of its on-air journalism and talent hasn’t slipped).

In fact, through most of my life, my relationship with the CBC has been littered with routine, tedious disappointments with its upper management. And so, when the corporation’s honchos announced last week that it was slashing 657 jobs and cutting $130 million from this year’s budget, I quietly mumbled, “What took you so long?”

That’s the one question CBC President Hubert Lacroix did not address in his statement to employees, which began on an appropriately humiliated note:

“Well, here we are again. This is the third time I have to stand up before you in these circumstances, and, I have to tell you, I hate doing this. I imagine you feel the same way. So how did we get here?”

Yes, Mr. Lacroix – you of the inadvertently claimed (and repaid) $30,000 expense claim – do tell.

Well, first, of course, there was that whole hockey disaster. Losing the NHL broadcasts to Rogers was, let’s just say, disappointing. But that wasn’t the only thing that went sideways over the past 12 months.

“There’s an industry-wide softening of the television advertising market – down approximately 5 per cent overall in the last year,” Mr. Lacroix said. “This is common to all conventional broadcasters, and neither CBC nor Radio-Canada was spared. 

“In addition, on the CBC side, since last summer, our prime time TV schedule performed poorly in attracting 25-54 year-old viewers, the most important demographic for advertisers.”

Combine this with the loss of professional hockey broadcasts, and the revenue hit came to about $47 million. And that’s still not all.

“As you know, advertising sales on CBC Radio 2 and Espace musique are much weaker than expected,” Mr. Lacroix continued. “This is a major disappointment. We’re trying to fix this, but the initial projections won’t be met. We are not close. This represents a $13 million shortfall, nearly all of it impacting English Services.”

Throw in the federal government’s “two-year salary inflation funding freeze” of $72 million, and, hey presto, we arrive at our present dismal circumstances.

Of course, if all this feels somehow familiar, it should. None of Mr. Lacroix’s explanations/excuses seem particularly novel. To one degree or another, they are variations on a theme that has been playing and replaying since I was a kid: a business that – if left to stitching together its own safety net – should have been out of business  along time ago. 

Currently, 64 per cent of Mother Corp.’s $1.8 billion in annual revenue come from taxpayers. Another $330 million derive from advertising. The balance is from specialty services (subscription revenue and advertising from CBC News Network, bold, documentary, Explora, ARTV and the Réseau de l’information de Radio-Canada) and financing.

It’s that billion bucks from citizens that gets right-wingers and purse-string-pullers riled up. They don’t like anything that smacks of welfare (corporate or otherwise). And they don’t watch or listen to the CBC, which, in their heart of hearts, they believe is a nest of socially progressive vipers. 

Of course, they’re right, which is why I continue to be an avid consumer of CBC radio. I grew up with it. I fell asleep to Max Ferguson and Allan McFee. I woke up to Peter Gzowski. And despite the cutbacks, it still produces damn fine programming – just not enough of it.

I don’t give a fig about the public money. Make it $2 billion a year. But, for God’s sake, let us finally acknowledge what the CBC (radio, at any rate) does peerlessly well: public affairs journalism and documentary reporting that reflects the moral compass of the Canadian majority.

Forget the rest; just do more of that. Okay, mother?

 

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Choosing our words carefully

Just go with the flow

Just go with the flow

On the theory that words actually do have power, each year various armchair lexicographers issue lists of those they fear have the power to corrupt tender, young minds. Naturally, each year, the rest of the phrase-coining world happily ignores the peeve merchants in their midst.

Still, the good folks at Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, fights on bravely to banish trite, nonsensical and overused terminology from the English language. Its 2014 Banished Word List includes: selfie, twerk, hashtag, twittersphere, mister mom, t-bone, and the suffixes “-ageddon” and “-pocalypse”.

As for “selfie”, Lawrence of Coventry, Connecticut, writes on the Banished Word List’s Facebook page, “People have taken pictures of themselves for almost as long as George Eastman’s company made film and cameras. Suddenly, with the advent of smartphones, snapping a ‘pic’ of one’s own image has acquired a vastly overused term that seems to pop up on almost every form of social media available to us. . .A self-snapped picture need not have a name all its own beyond ‘photograph’. It may only be a matter of time before photos of one’s self and a friend will become ‘dualies.’”

Please, Lawrence, don’t give the culture more ideas than it can handle.

Meanwhile, Lisa from New York quips, “Myselfie disparages the word because it’s too selfie-serving. But enough about me, how about yourselfie?”

Lisa also has a problem with “twerk”, that hip-thrust made famous by certain B-list celebrities with defiantly adolescent proclivities. She writes: “I twitch when I hear twerk, for to twerk proves one is a jerk – or is at least twitching like a jerk. Twerking has brought us to a new low in our lexicon.”

Perhaps not as low as has the incessant appending of end-of-the-world parts of speech to commonplace items and events.

“Come on down, we’re havin’ car-ageddon, wine-ageddon, budget-ageddon, a sale-ageddon, flower-ageddon, and so-on-and-so-forth-ageddon,” complains Michael of Haslett, Michigan. “None of these appear in the Book of Revelations.”

Indeed, adds Rob of Sellersville, Pennsylvania, “Every passing storm or event is tagged as ice-ageddon or snow-pocalypse. There’s a limited supply of. . .ageddons and. . .pocalypses; I believe it’s one, each. When running out of cashews becomes nut-ageddon, it’s time to re-evaluate your metaphors.”

It’s all well and it’s all good. Still, allow me to offer my own pet peeves which have not, to my knowledge, appeared on anyone else’s list thus far.

Is it my imagination, or is it getting a little crowded in here? According to a Wikipedia entry, “Crowdsourcing is the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, and especially from an online community, rather than from traditional employees or suppliers.”

This “process”, we are reliably informed, is deployed to render boring tasks more tolerable (a “many-hands-make-light-work” type of thing) and to raise money for business start-ups, charities, arts initiatives and just about anything else the human mind can conjure on any given day.

Fair enough. But isn’t this what people do, and have done for thousands of years, anyway? What was building ancient Egypt’s pyramids, or the cathedral at Rouen, but prime examples of “crowdsourcing”? Were those projects’ workforces so collegial, so “traditional”, that they did not qualify as “crowds” to be “sourced”?

Do we really need a new word for what is essentially that most ancient of humanity’s unique tricks: creating culture?

Or is it all about the way we feel and talk about the culture we create? In other words, do we get that the “meta-joke” really is on us?

Again, according to the experts (this time the online urban dictionary), “meta” is a prefix, “a term, especially in art, used to characterize something that is characteristically self-referential.”

These days, you can’t walk out the door without encountering some form of  meta-monster, but humour is especially vulnerable to attack: Knock knock. Who’s there? Really. Really who? Really can’t stand knock knock jokes.

If words do have power, let us hope, in this instance, it is not absolute.

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No room for pleasantries in real politics

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Despite his occasional partisan bluster – a necessity of elective office, regardless of one’s political flavour – the premier of New Brunswick is a genuinely nice guy who actually cares about other people’s feelings.

In fact, until recently, about the only way to get an authentic rise out of David Alward was to suggest the he and his government ministers were aloof to the concerns of their fellow citizens, content to play king and courtiers in their castle made of sand above the high water mark on Freddy Beach.

“It bugs me,” the pastor’s son (who is a certified psychological counsellor, a former community developer and an active rural hobby farmer) once interrupted himself in mid-interview with yours truly. “I don’t know how anyone could describe us as closed or uncommunicative or not inclusive.”

The truth, of course, is that openness has all but typified the premier’s political oeuvre since he came to govern one of Canada’s defiantly ungovernable provinces in 2010. Where his predecessor, Liberal Premier Shawn Graham, protected his counsel like a NSA agent under house arrest, Mr. Alward has done a contortionist’s job at public events, and in private meetings, explaining, in often exquisite detail, his plans and priorities; in effect, his thinking.

And that may be his biggest problem.

On Friday, the premier was in a rare uncompromising, even antagonistic, mood. Lashing out at anti-shale gas activists in the province, he declared that they represented the point of the spear aimed directly at the heart of natural resources industries here.

“This is not just about SWN (Resources Inc.) being able to develop,” the Telegraph-Journal quoted him. “This not just about Rexton or Kent County and SWN. Mark my words that the same groups that are against seeing SWN move forward with exploration are against projects like Sisson Brook or other potential mining projects we have in New Brunswick. They are against seeing pipelines come across our country to Saint John and creating the prosperity (they) can.”

The denouement of his point was simply this: “The question the New Brunswickers should be asking is ‘what is our vision for our province’? . . .Do we want to have our young people living here in our province building their lives here or are we condemning them to having no choice of where they are going to live in the future?”

These are, indeed, the questions. They have always been the questions. It’s just too bad that Premier Alward has waited until now – less than a year before the provincial election – to pose them with such cogency and force.

In fact, had he spent more time over the past 18 months unapologetically supporting industry’s efforts to ascertain the economic potential of shale gas (indeed, of all promising avenues of natural resources) – and commensurately less time defending his government’s decisions and convening public panels in vain attempts to win friends and influence people – the conversation in this province might now be profoundly different, and radically more productive.

The bottom line is that Mr. Alward’s generally laudable instinct to consult ‘the people’ has also been a lamentable liability of his leadership, and on more files than natural resources.

The awful state of the province’s books – its rolling $500-million deficit on a long-term debt of $11 billion – is not, strictly speaking, the premier’s fault.

Still, in a way, it is.

By refusing to consider raising the provincial portion of the Harmonized Sales Tax, because he promised ‘the people’ he would consult them first, in the form of a referendum, he effectively tied the hands of his Finance Minister and severely compromised New Brunswick’s fiscal recovery from the Great Recession.

Had he forced the province to swallow this bitter, but necessary, pill early in his mandate, the public accounts would have been far healthier than they are today, providing the governing Tories with more and better options for health, education and social policies.

It might even have influenced the debate about shale gas by having eliminated much of the monetary hysteria that now underpins it.

Make no mistake: The consultative, empathetic premier of New Brunswick is a genuinely nice guy.

But, oftentimes, as the saying goes, nice guys finish. . .well, not first.

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One man’s survey is another’s rubbish

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“Census changes produced costly, unreliable ‘garbage,’ researchers say” – The Globe and Mail, October 5, 2013

Greetings, and welcome to Canada’s National Household Survey.

This is  your government’s $650-million way of reaching out and saying, “howdy.”

We’ve moved to this strictly voluntary exercise because we believe that the citizens of this great country are already too busy, too hassled, in their everyday lives to want to provide the “nanny state” with information that might actually prove useful to economic and social planners, who are just a bunch of nosey parkers anyway.

But if you can afford a few minutes (and don’t feel any compunction if you can’t) why not fill out the questionnaire in our new section on post-consumption uses for common items of refuse? We call it “Garbage in, garbage out.”

Enjoy!

Question 1: When faced with an empty milk carton, do you: a) throw it in the trash; b) add it to your collection, which you keep next to your growing ball of used string; or c) turn it into a candelabra for the dinner table?

Question 2: When your child outgrows his sneakers, do you: a) give them to charity; b) craft them into hand puppets to amuse trick or treaters; or c) tie them together and hang them from a power line?

Question 3: Circle the statement that most accurately reflects how you feel about spent coffee grinds: a) they’re utterly useless; b) for reading the future, they can’t be beat; c) they’re a great addition to any household potpourri; or d) I don’t drink coffee.

Question 4: Indicate your opinion of plastic grocery bags from one of the following options: a) I have no opinion of plastic grocery bags; b) plastic grocery bags are the weapons of choice within the petrochemical-industrial complex; or c) when tied to your feet with rubber bands, plastic grocery bags make wonderful house slippers.

Question 5: Which of the following common items of refuse do you consider provides most post-consumption use: a) a dry-cleaning tag; b) a restaurant receipt; or c) a wadded-up ball of toilet paper?

Question 6: Which of the following common items of refuse to your consider provides least post-consumption use: a) a cigarette butt; b) a cocktail stir stick; or c) a wadded up ball of toilet paper.

Question 7: On a scale of one to ten – where one signifies “strong disagreement” and ten signifies “strong agreement” – rank your reaction to the following three statements displayed on the website of Big Spring Environmental, based in Huntsville, Alabama:

First: “Isn’t it amazing what you can do with paper towel or toilet paper tubes? Simply cut some spent paper towel tubes into one-inch pieces, flatten them and glue them together for a masterpiece your kids will love! Some additional suggestions for you to consider are pasting a picture in the center, hanging several of them as snowflakes or using it as a countdown for special holidays (kids would love tearing it apart piece by piece). After it’s all put together, paint them up!”

Second: “This igloo is made entirely of empty milk jugs! It would obviously take a while to collect this many, but asking friends and neighbors to save their cartons would help speed up the process. Moreover, when the time comes to tear it down, look at all of the recyclable goodness you will have accumulated! Start saving them today!”

Third: “There are many good uses for old newspapers around the house, but this one takes the cake. With the help of some balloons, paste, newspapers and lighting, you can build these light-up globes. They’re awesome. The next time you’re about to throw away tissue paper or newspaper, give this activity a try!”

Thank you for completing the “Garbage in, garbage out” section of Canada’s National Household Survey. Rest assured, none of the information you have provided in this questionnaire will be used in any way. Period.

In fact, it’s quite probable we won’t even read it, which, come to think of it, leaves you with an alternative to mailing it back to us.

Toss in the garbage where it belongs.

The tragicomedy stylings of the expert elites

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Every so often, when a major newspaper musters a considerable pool of expertise to explain what it regards, with solemn conviction, as an enormously complex tale of hubris and woe, I am struck not by how difficult but by how strangely easy it is to follow the human saga.

This, despite the fact that the customary, editorial waiver clearly alerts me, like a warning label on a pill bottle, that what I am about to consume may cause drowsiness, confusion or even nausea.

So it was a few days ago when, on the fifth anniversary of the global liquidity  meltdown, I had occasion to delve into the Report on Business’s (ROB) cover story, “The financial crisis: Through their eyes,” in which no fewer than nine senior reporters presented the results of their interviews with 18 “key players” in Canada’s capital markets, including Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, former Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney and three private bank CEOs.

Part testimony, part confession, the piece reads a bit like a transcript of a group therapy session for capitalists still suffering from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder even as, the ROB notes, “the visible scars of the financial crisis are fading.”

But if I had expected, while reading the piece, to fight a battle for illumination with only dim certainty of winning – if I had assumed that I would necessarily marshall every weapon in my intellectual arsenal to fully understand what really happened to the global economy in 2008 and 2009 – it became quickly apparent that no such effort would be required of me.

These experts, these “key players”, are no more lucid on the subject today than they were a half-decade ago. Their most revealing observations are entirely familiar, thoroughly explicable, and could apply to any catastrophe the fates and furies periodically visit on hapless souls.

“In July of ’08, I attended what’s called the international pensions conference, [attended by] CEOs of the 40 largest pension plans, corporate and public,” Jim Leech, who was a senior vice-president of Teachers’ Private Capital in 2008, tells the ROB. “They were pretty oblivious to what was going on.”

Mark Carney: “The summer of 2008 was awful because the system was coming apart and people didn’t appreciate what was happening.”

Louis Vachon, CEO of the National Bank of Canada: “It’s definitely not the end of financial crises. I think there will be more. Will we see something as bad, and as socially impacting as we saw in ’08? I think the odds of that occurring again are very, very low in the next few decades. From my lips to God’s ears on that one.”

That all of us – common investors and financial adepts, alike – were “oblivious to what was going on” and that “people didn’t appreciate what was happening” and that avoiding a repeat performance at some point down the road may hinge on some sort of supernatural intervention confirm what we already suspect, and have suspected all along: None of us really know much about anything, especially the big things in life.

Still, David H. Freedman, a regular contributor to The Atlantic, thinks he knows just enough about the blind spots in human comprehension to write a whole book on the subject. In his 2010 effort, Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us – And How to Know When Not to Trust Them, he observes, “Economists weren’t exactly lining up in late 2007 and early 2008 to warn us all that national economies, global financial institutions, and real estate markets were rapidly spiraling toward a black hole of potential collapse.”

That’s because they didn’t know. At least, they didn’t know the larger story as it grew unwieldy, elaborate and, ultimately, out of control.

In fact, I like to express the limits of expertise almost algorithmically: Specialized knowledge grows increasingly superficial and unreliable in direct proportion to the degree of complexity built into any system of human endeavor. This goes for financial markets, political regimes, Greek tragedies, Norse sagas, and the comedy routines of the late, great George Carlin.

Of course, I could be wrong about this. I’m no expert.

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Regretting the errors of the summer sillies

So many retractions, so little time

So many retractions, so little time

It is a mystery that only the Gods who lord over the ink-stained wretches of the Fourth Estate may explain: Why is it that during the year’s slowest, silliest news season, editorial corrections seem to bloom like algae on a summer pond?

The Globe and Mail printed six of them in one day this week. Some were funny. All were the necessary.

“A July 27 news feature on Georgian Bay water levels incorrectly quoted Diane Ross-Langley saying it would cost $20,000 to fix the docking area,” one declared. “In fact, it will cost $200,000. In addition her husband’s name is Philip Langley, not Larry Langley as incorrectly published.”

Another reported that “A Saturday theatre review incorrectly said that in 1985-86, greenhouse gases ‘ripped a hole in the ozone layer.’ In fact, the cause of the breakdown in the ozone layer was CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) which were eventually banned.”

Then there was one correcting an assertion that “Ray Donovan” appears on HBO (it’s actually a Showtime product); one that retracted a statement that Canada is home to 14 million pets (the number is closer to 26 million); one that set the record straight on the headquarters of Berkshire Investments (Netherlands, not Boston); and even one that redfacedly admitted the paper got the name of one its writers wrong in the byline (sorry Christie, not Christine, Day).

I shouldn’t crow. Once, when I was barely a month past my probationary term at the Globe, I wrote a stock market item for the Report on Business section. The correction that followed was one column inch longer than the original piece.

Still, when the news is either non-existent or horrible (a kid-killing snake in Campbellton, N.B., has lead the front pages from Halifax to Vancouver all week), reading the squibs editors craft for damage control can be an oddly pleasurable way to pass the time.

The Huffington Post’s “Comedy” section makes an ardent study of them as they appear in newspapers across North America. Here, in no particular order, is a sampling from its archives:

“The Earth orbits the Sun, not the moon. Incorrect information appeared in a story on Page A1 in Wednesday’s Citizen.”

“Due to a typing error, Saturday’s story on local artist Jon Henninger mistakenly reported that Henninger’s bandmate Eric Lyday was on drugs. The story should have read that Lyday was on drums.”

“In the September profile of Chelsea Clinton. . .Dan Baer was mistakenly identified as an interior designer. He is a deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour at the U.S. Department of State.”

“On page 27 of Express’ May 6 issue, we conflated the superheroes The Atom and Ant-Man. The Atom’s alter ego is Dr. Ray Palmer, not Dr. Hank Pym. Ant-Man, whose alter ego IS Dr. Hank Pym, can talk to ants; The Atom cannot.”

“Readers many have noticed that the Valley News misspelled its own name on yesterday’s front page. Given that we routinely call on other institutions to hold themselves accountable for their mistakes, let us say for the record: We sure feel silly.”

Absolutely, and so you should. Still, you can take solace in the fact that you are not, and never will be, alone.

Consider the correction that followed a piece on The New York Times website last year: “An earlier version of this article misidentified the number of years E.B. White wrote for The New Yorker. It was five decades, not centuries.”

Consider, further, the hay Vanity Fair laughingly made with the blooper:

“An earlier version of this article misidentified the number of books Joyce Carol Oates has published. It is more than 40, not more than 40 million.”

“An earlier version of this article misidentified the number of good books written by Jack Kerouac. It is zero.”

“An earlier version of this article misidentified the number of Newt Gingrich’s marriages. It is three, not infinity.”

All of which may only prove the truth in the adage, “To err is human; to forgive is bovine.” Or, something like that.

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The rebirth of a nation?

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In deference to his media-wary family, the Prince of Cambridge might have known better not to make his arrival in that silliest of all seasons for the northern hemisphere’s major media – when the summer heat bleaches all discernment from the calendars of world’s assignment desks.

For days, scores of reporters from top newspapers, magazines and broadcasting outlets have braved near scorching temperatures (the highest since 1766, by some accounts) to wait outside St. James and Kensington Palaces in London for news – any news – of a royal birth. It finally came in the waning hours of July 22: William and Kate’s healthy son weighed in at eight pounds, six ounces. And right on cue, in unison, the talking heads of the Fourth Estate lost their tiny, little minds.

The following day, the  Globe and Mail devoted most of its front page and four of its inside pages to the, as yet, unnamed successor to the throne. Writing from the Sceptered Isle, Paul Waldie framed the blessed event with language not seen since the palmy days of empire: “The newborn King of Britain, Canada and 14 other realms has already brought a renewed sense of confidence in the Royal Family and the United Kingdom. . .In a month that has already seen the economy show signs of life and British success in so many areas. . .the birth of a future monarch only adds to the country’s feeling of renewal. . .The mood all day was festive, almost carnival-like.”

That’s a helluva burden to lay on the shoulders of one so small. Still, it behooves us to know that His Royal Highness George, or James, or Beauregard, or whomever was welcomed with a 62-gun salute, that his “delivery was handled by two trusted physicians” and that “the new. . .boy. . .will be receiving a gift of Canadian-themed children’s books from Governor-General David Johnston and his wife.” (Apparently, the G-G’s spouse also lacks a first name).

Alternatively, it’s fair to note, not all were rendered delirious by the news. The Globe’s Michelle McQuigge quoted Tom Freda, director of Citizens for a Canadian Republic, before the birth, thusly: “There will be hundreds of Canadian future citizens born that same day as this royal baby, yet regardless of how smart, selfless, had-working and proudly Canadian (these children) may one day become, because they were not born in the right entitled family, (they are) constitutionally barred from ever becoming Canada’s head of state. In the 21st century, this is an outrage.”

His is, almost certainly, the minority opinion. The rest rejoice, certain about the symbolic majesty of the moment.

So sayest Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, in a prepared statement: “The arrival of the newest member of the Royal Family, a future Sovereign of Canada, is a highly anticipated moment for Canadians given the special and warm relationship that we share with our Royal Family. . .Laureen and I send our best wishes of health and happiness to the new parents as they embark on this exciting chapter in their lives.”

Adds U.S. President Barack Obama: “Michelle and I are so pleased to congratulate the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the joyous occasion of the birth of their first child. We wish them all the happiness and blessings parenthood brings. The child enters the world at a time of promise and opportunity for our two nations. Given the special relationship between us, the American people are pleased to join with the people of the United Kingdom as they celebrate the birth of the young prince.”

Ultimately, though, among all the luminous well-wishers of the high, mighty and privileged class, only British Prime Minister David Cameron seems able to articulate the true significance of the event: “It is an important moment in the life of our nation, and I suppose above all it is a wonderful moment for a warm and loving couple who have got a brand new baby boy.”

Exactly. This is not about a monarch, a head of state, a hope for the disgruntled masses. It’s about a boy, whom, it’s safe to say, was the only subject on Kate’s mind when she and her husband deftly ducked the media horde, in the wee hours of Monday morning, to shepherd him safely into a breathlessly waiting world.

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Rob Ford is ready for his close-up (again)

Trouble the water in Toronto

Trouble the water in Toronto

Now that Rob Ford is more popular than U.S. President Barack Obama and singing sensation Lady Gaga combined (at least according to Google searches), does Hollywood figure in the future of the world’s most famous mayor?

CTV reports, “In the wake of reported allegations he was seen on a drug video, Rob Ford searches on Google have surpassed some of the most popular figures in the world. In fact, on May 17, the day after Gawker and the Toronto Star reported on the alleged video featuring the mayor of Canada’s biggest city, Ford got more Google searches than (both Mr. Obama and Ms. Gaga) – that’s worldwide. Our Google Trends graph, which plots Google search terms based on search performance, shows the search term fluctuating in popularity from Jennifer Lawrence to Jay-Z levels ever since. Before the scandal, the mayor was about as popular on Google as Prime Minister Stephen Harper.”

And why not? The saga in Hog Town, where Mr. Ford reigns like King Lear – isolatedly and erratically – is made for the movies. Hell, this stuff even writes itself.

We may imagine the opening scene, in which the rotund, office-bound monarch ruminates on his life and the events that have brought him to this sorry state of affairs. He has just narrowly avoided a group of women who had arrived at City Hall with a birthday cake (he turned 44 on May 28), before entreating him to resign.

Then follows the flashbacks.

A happy and contented childhood attending Scarlett Heights Collegiate, playing football, horsing around with chums in the quasi-affluent Toronto borough of Etobicoke.

Vain attempts to keep up with his older brothers, Randy and Doug, whose extra-curricular activities may, or may not, have involved ritual dalliances with certain controlled substances late into the night and wee hours of the morning.

Ambitious dreams of becoming a professional football player; sitting out a season of university play on the bench; leaving Carleton after his freshman year; returning home to Toronto to join his Dad’s label- and tag-making business; hating it.

Then, in classic cinematic fashion, comes local politics to his rescue.

Three terms as a city councillor, during which he distinguished himself as an outspoken, if not always sensitive or even astute, observer of social values. And the gaffes. . .oh, the famous gaffes.

“If we wiped out the perks for council members, we’d save $100 million easy. . .all this office budget stuff is self-promotion to benefit yourself. Why should the taxpayers have to pay for it? It boggles my mind?”

His constituents loved him, the way Louisianians loved their populist firebrand Huey Long early in the last century. Mr. Ford’s big mouth could do no wrong, even when it uttered nonsense.

“We just need to get rid of these life-long politicians that just give out money to special interest groups and don’t serve the community. I’m really teed off. We need to get a new council or this city is going to go down the drain.”

And this: “If you are not doing needles and you are not gay, you wouldn’t get AIDS probably, that’s bottom line. Those are the facts.”

And this: “What I compare bike lanes to is swimming with the sharks. Roads are built for buses, cars, and trucks, not for people on bikes. My heart bleeds for them when I hear someone gets killed, but it’s their own fault at the end of the day.”

And, of course, this: “Those Oriental people work like dogs. They work their hearts out. They are workers non-stop. They sleep beside their machines. That’s why they’re successful in life.”

Then, in one dreadful moment, comes the Toronto Star and its allegations of a video that shows the mayor smoking what appears to be a crack pipe. And the great unravelling begins.

The accusations. The recriminations. The firings. The quittings. A city in turmoil. Reputations in tatters.

Still, at the end, there is that quieting denouement of all great, filmic melodramas – the silver lining, if you will.

We see a smile develop on Mr. Ford’s face. There is that birthday cake in the downstairs lobby, after all. It would be a shame to let it go to waste.

Fin. Fade to black.

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Driven by their distractions

The political process as we know it in Canada

The political process as we know it in Canada

Political commentators are, as a rule, enormously fond of the sound of their own voices, especially when handed the opportunity to contextualize a galloping controversy. I should know. I can’t count the number of times I’ve used the word “distraction” to describe some office holder’s goof-up.

But, I’m beginning to think we who observe-cum-scribble for a living are coming perilously close to spraining our backs for all the bending over we do in our attempt to perceive the bigger pictures in public life.

Yesterday, my esteemed colleague Jeffrey Simpson, the Globe and Mail’s national affairs columnist, deployed the word, “distraction” twice in one paragraph. “For a government already adrift at midterm, the Nigel Wright-Mike Duffy affair, coupled with the resignation from caucus of another Conservative senator, Pamela Wallin, represents an unwelcome distraction,” he wrote. “It’s doubtful that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s speech to his caucus on Tuesday – in which he declared himself ‘very upset‘ – will quickly end the distraction.”

In this, he may only have parroted Mr. Duffy, himself, who had characterized his contretemps as a “significant distraction” to his Tory caucus colleagues, before resigning to sit as an Independent.

Still, I’m left wondering: From what, exactly, is all this stuff a distraction? A good government? A sound economy? A functioning Senate? A ribbon-cutting ceremony somewhere near Nowhereville, New Brunswick?

Why can’t we see Senategate for what it is? To wit: A damn good news story that cuts to the heart of democracy in Canada, demanding all the remorseless attention to detail for which the Cosa Nostra of our craft is famous.

I might pose the same question to members of Hog Town’s Ford Nation whenever they cluck disapprovingly at the Toronto Star’s coverage of their man, Mayor Rob, whose talent for landing himself in hot water is downright promethean.

How the burgermeister of Canada’s biggest city manages to survive his days and nights at the cutting edge of contention is one of the great mysteries of the modern age. But survive he does, despite headlines that would reduce most in his position to a quivering pool of gelatin.

“Five days after two media outlets published reports on a video that appears to show him smoking crack cocaine, Mayor Rob Ford again offered no explanation on Tuesday,” thestar.com reported this week. “He did not say whether he has smoked crack while in office. He did not say whether he used an anti-gay slur. Despite an expression of concern from the premier and renewed pleas from council allies, he did not say anything at all.”

Meanwhile, American late-night TV was having a ball at hizzoner’s expense. “Both Jimmy Kimmel and The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart discussed the controversy at the tops of their shows,” thestar.com observed. “Jay Leno also mentioned Ford on Monday’s Tonight Show, joking that if the allegations are true, he’d still be qualified to be the mayor of Washington, D.C.”

In her commentary, Star columnist Heather Mallick noted, “There have been 42 low points in Ford’s mayoralty. . .from sexist and racist slurs, to drunken arguments in public, to a chaotic home life, to repeated court hearings on alleged financial wrongdoing, to, oh dozens more, a relentless sordid drip. I’m worried that unless he resigns, he’s going to punch a baby in the face or run himself over. I’m waiting for spontaneous Ford combustion, right there on the sidewalk.”

None of this, it’s safe to say, is a “distraction” from the business of running a major metropolitan area. In fact, in a palpable sense, it is the business of running a major metropolitan area. At least, it is lately.

The comportment of one’s mayor – or Senator – speaks volumes about the condition of one’s public institutions. It also points a fat finger at the electorate who, either directly or indirectly, play a role in selecting those for high public office.

By suggesting otherwise, well. . .the only thing from which we distract ourselves is the truth of our frequently flawed systems of government.

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How B.C.’s pollsters got it right

Seeing the forest for the trees in public opinion research

Seeing the forest for the trees in public opinion research

Public opinion pollsters are, to many, nothing more than contemporary augerers, gauging the effects of political rhetoric to predict which way the wind will blow on election day – something akin to reading a dead muskrat’s guts to divine the moment of Julius Caesar’s murder on the steps of the Theatre of Pompey.

No segment of society, it is safe to say, maintains a more disingenuous relationship with survey masters than the Fourth Estate. Journalists would be lost without the Nik Nanoses, Angus Reids and George Gallups of the world. We hang on their every word, dutifully parrot their findings and usually concur with their conclusions.

Then, when they turn out to be wrong (as they often do), we abandon them faster than a tourist does a passenger cruise infected with stomach flu. “If the B.C. election induced even a smidgen of humility into practitioners of our craft,” wrote the Globe and Mail’s national affairs columnist Jeffrey Simpson last week, “and made them less reliant on suspect polls and got them to stop yammering about polls (which the general public doesn’t much care about anyway), it will have served a useful purpose.”

Perhaps, but the general public does, in fact, care about polls, because we make them care about polls, especially the “suspect” ones. And if the B.C. election does serve a useful purpose, it will be the degree to which it nurtures a finer appreciation of the role polls play in the peaceful transition of democratic power.

Or, at least that’s John Wright’s and Kyle Braid’s hope. They are, respectively, senior vice president and vice president of Ipsos Reid Public Affairs, which bills itself as “Canada’s market intelligence leader, the country’s leading provider of public opinion research.” In an unprecedented examination of “what happened and why” in British Columbia last week – when the provincial Liberals defied every prediction and marched to victory over the NDP – the pollsters declare:

“In Canada, polls cannot be released on Election Day so it often leaves people guessing at what happened and produces lots of finger pointing. In the United States and other jurisdictions, polls that interview voters are harbingers of the outcome but most importantly help explain why things have turned out the way they have.”

In fact, they say, they nailed the results at the last minute, but because they weren’t allowed to release their election day findings, no one, apart from themselves, was the wiser.

“In British Columbia, we interviewed 1,400 voters on Election Day and, as you’ll see, the numbers virtually matched the real outcome in terms of voter preference,” they write. “But it also tells a story as to why this happened right down to the last minute. The reality is that one in 10 (11%) BC voters decided in the voting booth on election day to mark their ballot for their candidate – and with one of the lowest turnouts in provincial voting ever (52%) it was motivated voters, Liberals, who bested the NDP in the voting booth. . .This was a hand-to-hand combat campaign and it deserved close scrutiny to the final ballot – and that’s why we did what we did by doing this special poll but because of the rules we couldn’t release it.”

The bottom line: “After an event like this – which in Canadian politics has been few and far between – there are lots of people who say that the ‘polls got it wrong’ when in fact it’s voters who upset their own applecart based on everything they’ve seen, read or heard.”

In other words, B.C.’s pollsters got it right to the final moments when the public revolted against what they read about their voting intentions in the media.

The question, of course, is: If Ipsos Reid had been permitted to publish the results of exit polls on voting day, would that have changed the outcome of the election? A better question, perhaps, is: Does it matter?

The final prerogative of citizenship in a democracy defies prediction. A voter, after all, is still permitted to change his mind.

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