Today is sting day. The place: a restaurant parking lot on the outskirts of Vancouver. The target: a confidence man named Reverend Narvin Wray Clarence Edwardson. The reason: some of his victims want retribution, so they called the CTV national news show Goldhawk Fights Back and hooked up with Dale Goldhawk—consumer advocate attack dog.
The Goldhawk Fights Back team is waiting patiently in the parking lot for Edwardson. The film is dark but the audio is clear when Edwardson comes out of the restaurant and Goldhawk introduces himself: “I need to talk to you about some money,” Goldhawk says. “Don’t you understand? I need to talk to you about some money, Reverend. Light him up.” Now the broad back of Edwardson is illuminated as he shuttles away at a fast trot.
“Reverend, you can’t just run down the road,” barks an exasperated and puffing Goldhawk. Edwardson attempts to hide, crawling up into the bushes beside the road. Then Goldhawk catches up and points the camera in the hole. Before you can say olly-olly oxen free, Edwardson crawls out ass-first and pauses to look balefully at the camera before running off again. The chase down the hill takes three minutes and ends abruptly when Edwardson hops into a red car that pulls at the bottom of the hill before racing off. The sting airs on May 28, 200. Although no money is returned, Edwardson is exposed as a con man on national television, and two weeks later, during the June 11 broadcast, Goldhawk reports that he fled the country almost immediately after the confrontation on the hill. As a parting shot, Edwardson faxed this message: “The difference is I am truly a Christian, and under God’s promise no weapon forged against me can prosper. I put my full trust in Him.”
God’s promise notwithstanding, Edwardson’s faith wasn’t strong enough to protect him from Goldhawk. Hot much can protect someone Goldhawk is after. If you cheat, ignore or bully someone in Canada and Dale Goldhawk hears about it, chances are you’re going to become a target, just like Edwardson. Goldhawk Fights Back is action-line journalism, a form of the craft named after one of Canada’s first columns, the long-departed Toronto Telegram’s “Action Line.” In Canada, men and women practise this brand of journalism at many newspapers and television stations, telling stories that contain a mix of information, entertainment and advocacy. Eschewing the alleged objectivity of most jourmlists, ation lines use the weight of a news outlet’s reputation and investigative acumen plus the threat of publicity to fix the problems of everyday Canadians.
The Telegram launched “Action Line” May 16, 1966, billing it as a service that would publish solutions Monday to Friday—on the front page—to readers’ problems. A staff of 10 manned the phones and read the mail, picking out the problems a newspaper could fix. In the early days the column was all over the map, dealing with questions like “Is Batman dead?” and “Does a horse have to be destroyed when it breaks its legs?” It also provided useful information on more serious questions. In the first column, for example, a man form Pickering with a beef about a noxious septic tank next door was told that “Action Line” couldn’t do anything except wait for the town to complete its sewer system. In 1970, veteran reporter Frank Drea began heading up the column; Dale Goldhawk had joined the “Action Line” staff two years earlier after spending two years on the Tely police beat following graduation from Ryerson’s School of Journalism. The Tely closed down in 1971—but The Toronto Sun, born from its ashes, continued publishing “Action Line,” albeit with just one reporter answering only on question a day, down from three or four. The popular column continued until June 21, 200, written since 1989 by Maryanna Lewyckyj, who was there longer than anyone else since its creation.
After the Tely shut down, Goldhawk took a news job at CHIC radio in 1974, then joined the upstart Global Television News as an international correspondent, later becoming an anchor. But fixing gripes was in his blood; in 1981 he accepted a job as the ombudsman of CBC’s Toronto news operation, where he also hosted his own action-line show, Goldhawk Fights Back. In 1984, CBC Radio lured him over, and there he variously hosted Sunday Morning, As It Happens and Cross Country Checkup. Then , in 1992, John Cassidy, who was president of CTV, asked him to produce Goldhawk Fights Back on a national level. He’s been there ever since.
Goldhawk Fights Back gets 500 to 600 phone calls and 400 e-mails a week from people looking for help. Only a handful make it to the show, which airs every week. Goldhawk has two staff members to help him select and produce stories. Marlene McAdle is usually the first to cull the herd of problems, discarding those issues they won’t touch; Goldhawk’s team doesn’t like custody or divorce issues (too messy), they usually stay out of criminal appeals, and they try not to repeat themselves. That still leaves quite a pile of woe—consumers suckered by bad deals, unclear policies, dangerous products and inhumane corporate decisions. The stories that make the second cut are ones such as Edwardson’s: a swindler who bilked many people into investing in bogus corporations, including Scope International, Success Development, Southern Management, Turning Point and N.E. Constructions. Tom Johnson, a 64-year-old retired business executive from Kelowna, B.C., lost $300,000 to Edwardson and contacted Goldhawk looking for help. In their first attempts to find the reverend in early May 2000, the crew flew to Kelowna and searched for three days for him before leaving, having only managed to get tape of his wife exiting a local gym.
“When I first started, I thought we’re just going to get hundreds of lunatics calling us,” says Laurie Few, who doubles as a producer on Fights Back and a reporter on CTV’s more general consumer stories. Experience has shown her that most complaints are real, but in practice only a handful make it on air. “Our number-one concern is, is this good TV?” says Few.
At a staff meeting, McArdle pitches most of the new stories because she does almost 80 percent of the initial research. As McArdle talks, Goldhawk tosses out odd phrases like: “It matters not to me”; “Twas ever thus: every few years someone does a story on visa schools.” He opines, describing a former “flack” of Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley as too smart and conscientious to work for the federal government. He interrupts to tell the story of an eccentric inventor he met. Many of the stories McArdle mentions are already being followed up; Goldhawk says he has thousands of others to go through, and progress reports degenerate into bewildering shorthand. “I’d really like to do Madagascar,” Few says in a reference to some kind of Internet scheme.
The phone rings. Goldhawk puts the meeting on hold to bark at a network functionary about his time slot. Watching him gives you an idea of how formidable he must look when he shows up at your door. Big hands, a tall, thick body, a wide, bullish face with a mane of curly white hair—he cuts an imposing figure. On television he looks shorter and chubbier than he really is, which is unfortunate because for most people that’s where he exists.
He hangs up. McArdle is not sure how to convince an elderly couple to appear on camera for an interview. Everyone about to get their complaint aired on Fights Back signs a release form that says he or she will be interviewed on camera, but it sometimes hard to convince them to go through with it. Goldhawk’s motto is to leave no one worse off than he found them. It’s a rosy phrase that doesn’t always ring true—Tom Johnson looked like a sucker on television and he still didn’t get any money back. Goldhawk sarcastically jokes to McArdle to warn to couple they will be beaten severely about the head and shoulders if they do the interview.
There is no question that action lines breed good stories—as Few says, she has the luxury of having too many good ones to choose from. In television, the dramatic pictures created by confrontation and resolution make action lines fun to watch. “It can degenerate into entertainment if you’re not careful,” says Peter Walsh, former CBC action-liner and now a correspondent on CBC’s Marketplace. “If you just pick individuals who brought something that was broke and embarrass the company into giving them their money back, then you’re the hero, end of story. There’s no journalism and there’s very little value in it.”
Peter Silverman—who has been working on Citytv’s weekly action line, Silverman Helps, since 1989— doesn’t see himself as a journalist. He thinks that what he does for his audience is different from what most journalists do. At 69, he is the grand old man of action lines. He’s not content with journalistic conventions that simply report facts and let readers make up their mind. He takes a side and makes a crusade out of a story. “There’s nothing wrong with crusading journalists,” says Silverman. “I think you need people who are committed. Whether or not it’s Greenpeace or consumer advocacy, you need them, otherwise nothing gets moved, nothing happens. I lived in [apartheid-era] South Africa, and I can tell you where the journalists were. They weren’t crusading too bloody much.”
Silverman says he often gets fraud referrals from the police, who can only afford to investigate if it’s a $1-million case. Besides, proving fraud in the already overloaded courts is extremely difficult. Silverman and Goldhawk both say they can help man y people solve their own problems, often getting a solution without taking the case to air. “But the people who come to us don’t come to us first, they come to us last,” Goldhawk says. “In almost every case they say, ’You’re our last hope, nothing else has worked.’”
Laurie Few was a lawyer before returning to school in 1989 to study journalism. Much of her working language bears a solicitor’s imprint: sources are clients, stories are cases. Few wears many hats at Fights Back, field producing, reporting, editing, managing the tape library and more. She takes a story away from a meeting and builds the file on it. With a lawyer’s diligence she digs until she has enough proof of wrongdoing to essentially take it to court and win. She paves the way for the closer, Goldhawk, to get the victims and targets on camera to tell the story.
According to Few, the simplest action-line story involves only two parties, a victim and a company/agency as the target. If the victim has been ignored, Few’s job is to make the target listen. “No one else has clear jurisdiction to intervene,” she says. “We just phone up. Obviously, our big weapon is the television screen, the pressure of the media.” So she pesters the target, calling every few days to see if any decision has been made yet. That worked for Maureen Sklapsky, a teacher in Castlegar, B.C., when Few convinced the Workers’ Compensation Board to reverse an earlier ruling denying her months of benefits. Sklapsky suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after she was called to the gym to attempt CPR on her own son but was unable to save his life. The WCB ruled she was acting as a mother, not a teacher, and was therefore ineligible, but Fights Back got her $4,500 in lost wages and someone from the WCB appeared on camera to apologize.
Getting a spokesman from the WCB to appear on camera was a coup. Few says most large companies or government agencies will quietly admit error, but they don’t like to broadcast it. Getting them requires more robust pestering. As Few explains, “I say things like, “If you’re not going to go on camera this will be a “no comment,”’ or ’You realize we’ll say you refused an interview,’ and they’ll say, ’Oh no, we’re not refusing an interview, we’re talking to you right now.’ This is television—an interview means appearing on camera.”
That tactic usually works, but when the target is a real bad guy, a con man implicated in some kind of criminal wrongdoing, the last resort is to plan a video ambush, what Goldhawk’s team calls “a jump.”
John Allemang, until last fall the television critic for The Globe and Mail, has a dim view of action lines as consumer protection. “It’s not really an effective form of consumer advocacy, in the sense that as a crusade it’s kind of a foolish way to change the world,” he says. “It’s penny-ante; you could do all of this politely if you wanted to. I don’t feel like a more informed consumer watching their bits. I think it’s a place to park an old journalist—they’re all pissed off.” It is possible to produce effective consumer journalism, he says. He agrees that sometimes Marketplace, CBC’s 25-year-old consumer information magazine show, is one example. Allemang says that even though it is pitched to an aging audience, the show is still better than action-line journalism at helping consumers.
Marketplace doesn’t fall victim to the main problem with action lines: they usually provide only individual solutions for those lucky enough to appear on TV. Instead, it is the kind of show that can actually change policy because the stories are larger in scope. Jim Nunn’s investigation into Santa Maria Foods, a massive distributor of Italian goods, exposed the tactics it used to change best-before dates on certain products. Nunn warned shoppers that while some best-before dates are mandated by law, others are unregulated—and those dates can be misleading. There is no human defendant in most Marketplace stories, unlike Goldhawk pieces. But the dramatic Goldhawk Fights Back ambush tactics can create news that effects positive change as well. For a story on faulty ignition switches, Goldhawk chased the president of Ford Canada into a closet during a shareholder’s meeting; that story resulted in one of Ford Canada’s largest recalls.
Still, using national news show to expose a few con men does seem like using a bazooka to kill a fly. Kenneth Bell, an action-liner for CBC Saskatoon, admits those who get called bad guys on television might feel picked on and bullied, but they are merely the victims of their own actions. “If somebody’s doing what they are not supposed to be doing, then of course they’re not going to like being exposed for it,” Bell says. As Silverman likes to say, he doesn’t look for vengeance, he looks for restitution, and isn’t afraid to scare people with a camera in their face to get it. Goldhawk only acts when he believes he has the truth, which he calls the most powerful weapon in the arsenal. His finely hones sense of outrage at the injustice he encounters enables him to act as judge to his audience’s jury, putting his targets on trial in the court of public opinion.
In setting up an ambush, the first step is conducting property searches, corporation searches and licence plate checks on suspected targets. Next, reporters must familiarize themselves with the ambush site. Few says the address given on documents is often meaningless—the bad guys might use a parking lot or a Mailboxes Etc. location as their office. Oftentimes a cameraman and soundman are a necessary but expensive addition to the scouting party, just in case they are able to catch the target unprepared.
Even when they are prepared, targets will go to extraordinary lengths to stay off camera when Goldhawk comes looking for them. In one case, Goldhawk followed a swindler into the men’s bathroom at a Tim Hortons. Goldhawk took the crew in and filmed the closed door of a stall as he tried to explain himself. In another case, the crew was on a stakeout and a crony of their target came outside and flashed a handgun at them as they sat in their cars. Another man refused to go on camera, but did agree to allow Goldhawk to come inside his house to talk with him. As the crew filmed outside the house, the man’s son rushed out the door and attacked the camera, causing $20,000 in damage.
One week after their first attempt to find Edwardson, Few and Goldhawk are coming out of a Toronto courtroom on an unrelated story when Goldhawk’s cell phone rings: Edwardson has been spotted in Vancouver. They grab tapes, files and toothbrushes from the office and catch a flight two hours later. Late on the second night in B.C., Edwardson’s car is spotted at a motel. Few calls the front desk pretending to be a misinformed person looking for Edwardson. This technique is quite successful; people dish up all sorts of information when trying to be helpful. Edwardson is definitely inside and they decide to return in the morning to nail him. But when they arrive around 7:45 a.m., he is already gone.
Things are desperate, but they know of a “shill,” their word for a civilian who has gotten mixed up with the target and might help with bringing him down. Inviting a civilian into a jump is a risky move, but when contacted, the man agrees to help. He’s meeting Edwardson that very night, but he doesn’t know where yet. The sound guy on the crew has radio equipment that he one used to track bikers for a story in Morocco. The shill is wired up and tracked across town to a fancy restaurant. Few and the sound guy go into the restaurant to monitor Edwardson. As luck would have it, they are seated next to him and the shill. They wait, communicating by two-way radio. Being able to hear what Edwardson says at the moment of the jump is critical, so as Edwardson prepares to leave, the sound guy leaves Few at the table and goes outside to set up his gear. Few sits alone, watching Edwardson leave, as she waits for the cheque. She knows very well what’s about to happen—she’s seen it dozens and dozens of times.
“Hello, Reverend, my name is Dale Goldhawk from CTV national news.”
“Hi,” Edwardson says.
“I need to talk to you about some money.”