Friday, December 13, 2013

The most disabling thought

Powerful writing about the horror of Amanda Lindhout’s repeated rape and torture during her 460 days as a hostage in Somalia in 2008 and 2009:

It didn’t matter whether it was the tenth time or the thousandth; enduring their cruelties never became any easier. It always had the same effect, consuming me, putting me in a knotted and unhopeful rage. I’d spent my life believing that people were, at heart, kind and good. This was what the world had shown me, But I couldn’t find anything good about these boys, about any of my captors. If humans could be this monstrous, maybe I’d had everything wrong. If this was the world, I didn’t want to live in it. That was the scariest and most disabling thought of all. (293)

Tortured almost to death, Lindhout feels herself become a disembodied observer.

From above, I could see two men and a woman on the ground. The woman was tied up like an animal, and the men were hurting her, landing blows on her body. I knew all of them, but I also didn’t. I recognized myself down there, but I felt no more connected to the woman than to the men in the room. I’d slipped across some threshold I would never understand. The feeling was both deeply peaceful and deeply sad.
What I saw was three people suffering, the tortured and the torturers alike. (337)

From A House in the Sky by Lindhout and Sara Corbett (Scribner, 2013).

Also see Sara Shyiak's blog about the book.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Waiting for Joe

This week we heard that Joe Clark, Canada’s prime minister in 1979 and 1980 and author of How We Lead: Canada In A Century of Change, was coming to speak to Creative Communications students.

We waited.

But he didn’t come.

As Samuel Beckett almost wrote in Waiting for  Godot (tragicomedy in 2 acts):

(peremptory). Who is Joe?
You took me for Joe.
Oh no, Sir, not for an instant, Sir.
Who is he?
Oh he's a . . . he's a kind of acquaintance.
Nothing of the kind, we hardly know him.
True . . . we don't know him very well . . . but all the same . . .
Personally, I wouldn't even know him if I saw him.
You took me for him.
(recoiling before Pozzo). That's to say . . . you understand . . . the dusk . . . the strain . . . waiting . . . I confess . . . I imagined . . . for a second . . .
Waiting? So you were waiting for him?
Well you see—
Here? On my land?
We didn't intend any harm.
We meant well.
The road is free to all.
That's how we looked at it.
It's a disgrace. But there you are.
Nothing we can do about it.
(with magnanimous gesture). Let's say no more about it.

But at least Joe showed up on Strombo’s show.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The best writing about Rob Ford

My nominations for the Top 3 pieces of writing about the crack-smoking, drunken liar who masquerades as the legitimate mayor of Toronto:

No. 3: John Doyle in The Globe and Mail Nov. 6.

Ford represents a triumph of hoser culture over liberal Canadian values, Doyle writes.

A total hoser, Ford talks hoser and acts the hoser lifestyle. He even leads a hoser community, one that’s hardcore suburban, scorns urban sophistication and is well-pleased when Rob Ford and his brother Doug do an achingly close simulation of Bob and Doug McKenzie, on their weekly radio show. “I shouldn’t have got hammered,” as Ford said, is hoserdom defined.

No. 2: John Cruickshank’s elegant, angry and sorrowful column Nov. 1 in the Toronto Star, of which he is publisher.

Cruickshank concludes, “We feel tremendously proud today of our unwavering pursuit of a shocking story about a popular mayor.”

No. 1: Rob Ford on his radio show Nov. 3, jumbling a minimum of insight with a maximum of ignorance about the real problem:

“I shouldn’t have got hammered.”

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Thank you, Sam Katz

Say what you want about Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz.

You could say, for example, he is tainted by the scandal of the fire hall contracts that went to local developer Shindico Realty.

You could say he looks foolish – at best – for waffling on what he knew, and when, about the recent resignation of his close friend Phil Sheegl as the city’s chief administrative officer.

But you can’t say he runs and hides.

Katz routinely responds to questions from the professional news media, which is part of his job.

But he does more.

Yesterday, as he has done annually for nearly a decade, Katz stood outside his office and took questions from more than 70 first-year Creative Communications students after a city council meeting.

He doesn’t have to do that.

Students and instructors appreciate the mayor’s willingness to talk to us and thus to help teach good journalistic practices.

Thank you, Mayor Katz.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

A fight to the death

The Trib, a recent documentary by Winnipeg filmmaker Paula Kelly, recounts the energetic life and brutal death of a Canadian newspaper.

By 1980, after 90 years of battling, the Winnipeg Tribune was drawing even in circulation with the market-leading Winnipeg Free Press.

That’s when Southam, the Trib's corporate owner, killed the paper.


In a way, Kelly said in a conversation after an Oct. 3 screening at Cinematheque, the paper was a victim of its success.

Southam claimed it couldn’t afford new presses to print more copies.

Of course, it was coincidence that Thomson killed the Ottawa Journal the same day, coincidence that these corporate killings gave each newspaper chain a monopoly in a major city.

The details of this protracted battle between two major news media fascinated my second-year Red River College Journalism students.

Danielle Da Silva blogged:

Even the daily news world of Winnipeg was an esteemed, although cut throat, business. Forever the underdog, the Winnipeg Tribune battled inch over inch against the Winnipeg Free Press for hundreds of thousands of readers.

Coincidentally (really!), I have just read a story in which newspaper competition in early 20th century Toronto probably determined the outcome of a sensational murder trial.

The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master, and the Trial That Shocked a Country by Charlotte Gray bursts with details of racism and class divisions in Toronto the Good – and the desperate competition among six daily newspapers.

The Evening Telegram, popularly known as the Tely, took the side of Carrie Davies, the maid who admitted killing Bert Massey because she feared he would sexually assault her again.

The Daily Star favoured the master and his plutocratic family.

This advocacy was not confined to sober editorials. On the news pages, editors refused to allow facts to get in the way of good stories that supported the correct analysis.

Gray writes:

In this fevered battle to entertain, the Carrie Davies case was irresistible to penny-press editors looking for sensational headlines. Stories of assaults on young women always increased circulation, and how many Toronto citizens could walk past a newsboy who yelled, “Massey Murder”?

Well, I can’t walk past, either.

Journalism majors, prepare to study a real newspaper war.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Why should I care?

The new crop of blogs by Red River College Creative Communications students is random and rich.

The students employ words, photos, videos and sometimes audio to bare their thoughts and feelings.

Especially words.

Each week during the semester I suggest two blog posts to Winnipeg Metro for publication as Red River Rants.

Good on Elisha Dacey, the newspaper’s managing editor, for giving the students’ work wider exposure.

To give Dacey the variety of compelling and energetic blog posts that she has requested, I look over the 75 first-year students’ posts each week.

I look for writing that makes me care.

Among the wide range of topics about which students have made me care are self-hairstyling, poutine, waking up happy and Disney.

Among the topics about which these bloggers have not made me care are their opinions about music or the Winnipeg Jets.

Now, I too hold deeply felt opinions about music and the Jets. I just don’t think a lot of other people care about my views on these subjects.

There’s the challenge: Why should I care about your opinions?

And by “I” I mean anyone other than the writer.

Make other people care and you are a good writer. Don’t, and you aren’t.

One more thing: Spellcheck and proofreading.

Every week several blog posts grab me, and I would love to see them in Red River Rants.

But I can’t select work that contains mistakes. They make the writer, and by extension the Creative Communications program and the college, look dumb.

A couple of the mistakes that made me reject interesting posts this week are misuse of its and it’s, and improper use of your and you’re.

Now that I care about.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Important if true

Some large U.S. news media appear to have learned nothing from the lies spread by professional journalists after the Boston Marathon bombing.

Five months ago, several allegedly reputable news media reported the name of a person police were seeking.

They got the name wrong, though.

This morning, several large broadcast news organizations reported the name of someone who shot several people at the Navy Yard in Washington.

Then they withdrew the report. The name, apparently, was wrong.

Online, though, is forever. Both names are still widely available, and likely will be indefinitely.

Carpenters have a saying: Measure twice, cut once.

The journalistic equivalent is: Get it first, but first get it right.

In the immediate aftermath of a bombing or a mass shooting, nobody knows what is happening.

Journalists need to gather as much information as they can safely, and report damning information such as names with great care and only after confirmation.

Over time, the organizations that demonstrate responsible reporting should benefit from the resulting public trust.

That probably means being able to charge a premium for their information.

The sloppy ones should ‘fess up and take as their mission statement a traditional newspaper headline for unconfirmed reports, demonstrated a century and a half ago in the New York Times:

“Important if true.”

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Optimistic Journalism students

The second-year students in the Red River College Creative Communications Journalism major are a bunch of optimists.

For their first blog posts of this semester I assigned them to write about the business of journalism, specifically the jobs available.

Their responses, which are linked on the right side of this page, are almost unanimously upbeat.

They do not subscribe to the journalism-is-dead school of thought that is so difficult to avoid, especially online.

They clearly see themselves finding paid employment in the field.  

Their writing can be testy, as is Meg Crane’s blog:

"But isn't that a dying profession?" is the response I most hate to hear (and most often get) from people I tell I'm majoring in journalism.

First of all, journalism isn't really a profession...

Second, this isn't the case at all and I'm getting a little tired of defending my career choice.

Crane is not just talking. She is editor-in-chief of The Projector, the college’s student newspaper. This year The Projector plans to publish more material than ever online.

Nearly all of last year’s Journalism majors are already working in the business – from Toronto to northern British Columbia.

Some even got jobs in Winnipeg!

Just as important, most of the young people laid off in 2012 by the Winnipeg Free Press are back working in the field, some of them right back at the paper.

So this year’s CreComm J majors have cause for optimism.

Monday, August 26, 2013

‘My assignment has a sunburn’

Last week I participated in a panel discussion aimed at introducing new instructors to Red River College.

These instructors are experts in their fields, from engineering to a variety of social services. But they are new to teaching.

As panelists shared some of our experiences, I mentioned a couple of the stupid things I did as a rookie instructor.

Thrust into teaching, fresh from a rather cutthroat corner of the corporate world, I did not understand that students are not employees.

I provided harsh feedback on assignments, judging them by unfairly high standards unfamiliar to the students.

One of my favourite written comments was “HUH?”

One day, as I handed back marked work in a class, a student jumped up and lamented, “My assignment has a sunburn!” When she waved her paper, all I could see was my comments in red ink.

Talk about “the awkward moment when.”

I realized how intimidating my comments were, and how unfair.

So I changed my evil ways. Well, some of them.

These days I mark in pencil, and I save “HUH?” for the play of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Toronto Blue Jays.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Ezra Levant is right for once

A Sun Media columnist has finally written a piece I agree with.

The headline “Hey hey, ho! ho! They don’t know” on Ezra Levant’s recent column may not scan, but as an attack on journalists it makes some sense.

Levant, who makes his living excoriating those who do not agree with his far-right point of view, here criticizes journalists for simplistic coverage of protest rallies.

He writes that he attended a recent rally of about 50 people in Hamilton protesting against the proposed reversal of the direction in which a Canadian pipeline carries crude oil.

His analysis of the usual news coverage of such events is, unfortunately, accurate:

The quick and easy formula for reporters is to make a rough estimate of how many protesters attend, take some pictures of the most colourful signs and costumes, get a bumper-sticker-deep slogan quote from a spokesman, and you’re done.

Levant says he could have accomplished that in five minutes, but he stayed for two hours, interviewing the participants and learning that their knowledge of the proposal was indeed sketchy.

Then he Googled the names of half a dozen protesters and learned that – shock! horror! three of them were from London (Ontario, presumably) and another “was from out of town too.”

So far, this is solid reporting. Levant, though, can’t leave it there.

But it got darker. Because the more I looked, the more I realized these protesters were not just idealistic young people trying to heal the world. They were dominated by an inner circle of hard-core anarchists.

He does not report that these anarchists attended the protest, so readers cannot assess how they exercised this dominance.

But Levant is right on his main point: Lazy journalism, driven by unforgiving deadlines, presents incomplete and misleading versions of even simple events such as a protest rally.

The more a viewer or reader knows about an issue, the less satisfactory he or she finds this sort of coverage.

The solution? Journalists should stop covering protests unless they can explain the issues involved in a bit of detail.

Yes, stop covering most protests. After a few outraged phone calls to assignment editors, the protesters may just wither away.

Not so, of course, Ezra Levant.

Monday, April 29, 2013

He stopped loving us today

This headline mawkish enough for you?

Hope so; we’re talkin’ country music.

Specifically, George Jones, who has died at 81, posthumously pissing off people who died of cirrhosis at 41, 51, 61 or 71.

Many obituaries have cited He Stopped Loving Her Today as Possum’s greatest hit, and no doubt that song has propelled many a tear into many a beer.

But it lacks an essential element of the Great Country Song: Self-pity.

Check out George pitying himself half a century ago in She Thinks I Still Care.

In Friday’s Winnipeg concert, Leonard Cohen called George one of the greatest country singers.

Then he sang Choices, one of George’s many apologies for himself.

You remember Choices? That’s the ditty where George rhymes “born” and “wrong.”

Now that’s country.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Common sense breaks out in newspaper business!

Common sense has broken out at the Winnipeg Free Press, and that’s news.

The largest news medium in our part of Canada is about to sign a five-year collective agreement with the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada.

The paper’s employees, about 450 “inside workers” including journalists and about the same number of part-time carriers, ratified the agreement on the weekend.

This is the first time the two sides have agreed on a new contact before the current one expires.

Gone are the traditional short-sightedness and pig-headedness exhibited by both sides.

Replacing them are more realistic views of the challenges facing mainstream news media as they strive to survive and even succeed in the Wild West of online information.

Disclosure: I negotiated for the Free Press as a minion of the extremely short-sighted and pig-headed Thomson Newspapers of late memory, against this same union in its own more short-sighted and pig-headed days.

This new agreement should lift the doom-and-gloom atmosphere on Mountain Avenue – and on McDermot Avenue at the News CafĂ©.

Journalists in particular, relatively well paid as they are, dreaded a repetition of the 16-day picket line in 2008.

Strikes and lockouts at newspapers these days always end badly: fewer jobs, often less pay, and lower sales and profits for the companies.

At the Free Press there will be no immediate pay raise for current employees, and only a three per cent increase over the contract.

But I think some of the biggest news is that the union has backed down on one of its traditional principles and accepted a two-tier pay system.

Staff hired after July 1 will receive 19 per cent less in salaries, CEP says.

Not great news, but not that bad, either.

As an instructor who helps turn out new journalists each year in Winnipeg, I expect the Free Press now will be able to hire more of them.

Now that this deal is done, here’s a debating point: Which is in more trouble, the maligned newspaper business or the unions that have traditionally represented its employees?

You might not have heard much about it but the CEP, losing members across the country, is merging with the once-mighty Canadian Auto Workers, mired in the same involuntary downsizing.

What kind of union will be around in five years to negotiate the next contract at the Free Press?

Friday, February 22, 2013

Canada should learn from South Africa

South Africa’s legal system is doing an admirable job of demonstrating how it does justice.

Magistrate Desmond Nair’s decision today granting bail to Oscar Pistorius on a charge of murdering his girlfriend was broadcast live on audio around the world.

Even better, cameras in the courtroom showed video and still pictures of the accused and the spectators.

Canada, unfortunately, still forbids such openness.

Not only are journalists here banned from reporting the prosecution and defence arguments in most bail proceedings, but cameras are verboten in courtrooms.

The South African experience refutes several arguments against cameras in the courts.

First, even in this sensational, emotional case that fascinated people around the world, broadcasting and recording the proceedings did not pervert the course of justice.

So forget the O.J. Simpson trial, where American lawyers who fancied themselves entertainers played to the cameras.

Second, broadcasting did not mean that sensational segments pushed out reasoned argument. In fact, the live broadcast forced us to listen to the magistrate’s entire two-hour reasoning process.

As Canadian lawyer Bob Sokalski and other media-law practitioners argue in court and outside it, most citizens cannot attend legal proceedings. They rely on journalists to tell them what is going on. Video and audio recording and broadcasting are essential tools of journalists.

You may have already heard me make this argument.

Now South Africa has provided an example of not only how cameras in the courts could work, but how they actually do work.

Friday, January 25, 2013

That dead woman in Saskatoon

The slaying of a Saskatoon nurse 50 years ago haunts Sharon Butala.

The Saskatchewan writer, now living in Calgary, has published 16 books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as essays and articles, poetry and plays. A new special issue of Prairie Fire magazine focuses on all things Butala.

“I can die happy now,” she joked to Red River College Creative Communications students Thursday, though assuring them that, at 72, she is not planning to do so any time soon.

But she really wanted to talk about the 1962 death of Alexandra Wiwcharuk.

In 2009 Butala published a highly readable book, The Girl in Saskatoon, investigating the case and criticizing the persistent and inexplicable reluctance of justice authorities to reopen it.

Becoming an investigative reporter was terrifying, Butala said.

She was not prepared for the official hostility to her work, and she came to doubt whether the people to whom she sent her questions even received them.

“Pretty soon you start getting paranoid.”

Someone even tapped her home phone, she said.

When a student asked who killed Wiwcharuk, Butala responded, “I wouldn’t dare to say.”

But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a strong suspicion.

Butala’s frustration extends to the treatment of her book by HarperCollins, its Toronto publisher.

The company’s choice of title, based on a song Johnny Cash wrote for and sang to Wiwcharuk when she won a radio station contest, limited the book to regional sales, she believes.

Clearly, Wiwcharuk’s relatives and friends deserve answers to the questions Butala raises.

And perhaps the book deserves reissue under a title with wider appeal.

Butala’s original suggestion?

The Sweetest Face on Earth.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Hockey journalists should have been locked out, too

One elite group benefited greatly from the three-month National Hockey League lockout that ended yesterday.
Hockey journalists kept their jobs.Why?

There was no news for them to report.

Sure, there were rumour and speculation aplenty – retailed by those journalists.

This column by BryanCurtis captures the absurdity of trying to cover the lockout beat.

News media proprietors missed a money-saving bet by leaving these writers on the payroll.

OK, keep them working through the first weekend of the lockout and bring them back a week before games resume. That’s still big bucks in savings.

After I offered this modest proposal in class the other day, a student blogged about his horror at my cruelty.

Hey, it’s not personal.

Here, as in so many of life’s endeavours, we can learn from The Godfather.

Mobster Tessio, led away to be killed for trying to arrange a similar fate for Michael Corleone, pleads, “Tell Mike it was only business. I always liked ’im.”

Tom Hagen, the ultimate professional, responds, “He understands that.”

I hope that student understands.

My hockey-journalist friends, too.

Quotation from The Annotated Godfather: The Complete Screenplay With Commentary on Every Scene, Interviews, and Little-Known Facts by Jenny M. Jones ©2007 Paramount Pictures.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Don’t be that student

To mark the start of a new semester, here is a post-apocalyptic (Mayan and zombie) list of seven unsuccessful student strategies I have observed.

Owing to a hangover of peace and goodwill, I have changed the title of this post from my first draft, which was How to Piss Off Your Instructor.

1. Email your instructor saying you are sick and cannot attend class. When the instructor sees you on campus 45 minutes later, tell her you are “returning equipment.” Do not attend her classes that day.

2. Arrive late for class. When the instructor asks why, say you fell asleep.

3. Arrive late for class and talk to a classmate, disrupting all those who showed up on time.

4. Miss the first class of the semester. In the second class, tell the instructor, “I’m here now for good.” Then miss two more classes.

5. Write an article in the student newspaper complaining that the college is trying to destroy your family by requiring students to meet assigned deadlines and attend classes on time.

6. Tell your instructor you were late for class because your alarm clock didn’t work.

7. Tell your instructor you missed yesterday’s class because “I had to clean my aquarium.”