Aug. 10, 2006
Re: Barry Hertz’s “Being John Ibbitson,” Summer 2006
Barry Hertz’s “Being John Ibbitson” is one of the more execrable lumps of prose I’ve read in the past decade. After leaving journalism in 1996 I forgot how easy it is to stitch a series of half-truths, unsubstantiated claims and trivial factoids into a deceptively believable “profile.” If, like me, Ibbitson can recall our first semester at the University of Western Ontario’s j-school then this article would make him wince too. Prof. Andrew MacFarlane (or it may have been Mack Laing) taught us that, “Show me, don’t tell me,” is a fundamental rule in convincing readers of the veracity of one’s journalism. Unfortunately, Hertz’s gushing hagiography approaches the trade the other way round.
For starters, Hertz must be all of five feet tall if he finds Ibbitson’s five-foot-ten-inch height “imposing.” Such adjectives used to be reserved for football players and army drill sergeants, but perhaps in today’s media everything is relative to the author and need not be qualified.
Hertz’s claim that Ibbitson was “a decade older than most of his classmates” sent me running to my files to check the Class of 1998 student directory, which although it does not list ages does give a rundown of when Ibber’s 42 classmates earned their undergraduate degrees. Unless there was an unusually high number of child geniuses he does not appear to be more than about eight years older than any of them, and was younger than at least three or four. But maybe we ought not to quibble over facts. In a year when the most memorable activity was playing card games Ibbitson and fellow alumnus Steve Northfield can be forgiven for not remembering much else.
Where were the Review‘s copy-editors (not to mention the senior staff) when this ridiculous statement got passed on to the printer: “But while it’s true [Ibbitson] trumpets fiscally conservative causes such as smaller government, lower taxes and increased military spending?”? Please explain how a fiscal conservative advocates spending more money on anything. Perhaps prominent columnists are able to do what economists and other mere mortals cannot.
Then, with barely a pause to breathe, Hertz leaps into a realm that might well be labeled Tantric Journalism. Ibbitson prefers “critical, reportage-heavy analysis.” Hertz reiterates this argument again and again: “Be it stories on the softwood lumber disputes, reports on aboriginal policies or Canadian waffling over missile defence, Ibbitson reports the news instead of merely analyzing it?.” Other than citing the opinions of fellow Globe and Mail hacks Margaret Wente and Anthony Westell, where is the evidence that Ibbitson ever broke one news story that couldn’t have been gleaned from contemporaneous published sources? Please may we have just one verifiable citation? Three thousand words later the hapless reader remains prisoner to a mystical faith in Ibbitson’s reportorial prowess. Not having the patience myself to regularly read Ibbitson’s boilerplate neocon pontificating I confess I can’t help Hertz on that score.
And could Hertz not have found someone other than a Globe reviewer to discuss the merits of Ibbitson’s books? The choice reeks of asking one member of a dysfunctional family for an unbiased comment about a sibling.
More contradictions follow. Apparently Ibbitson is in favour of same-sex marriage but says he does not understand “state interference at all”? As if same-sex marriage would thrive all by itself in the bosom of a compassionate free-market economy. Where will all those redneck homophobes and religious zealots disappear to in the absence of a civilizing state?
Hertz struggles to argue that Ibbitson exists beyond the traditional ideological distinctions of left and right, but is himself imprisoned by those worn-out labels. He describes Globe columnist Rick Salutin as an “ultra-left voice.” Really? When was the last time you saw him advocate the replacement of Parliament by communes or march in favour of nationalizing the banks? Hertz then regurgitates the popular misconception that readers actually have a “choice between the Star on the left, the Post on the right, and the Globe waffling in between.” Don’t all three titles thrive on articles extolling the virtues of consumption, which just happen to be the same virtues extolled by their advertisers: more and bigger vehicles, foreign holidays, properties. If one isn’t a reader who craves owning more “stuff” then one isn’t a reader the Star, the Globe or the Post wants. The occasional hiring of a columnist such as a Salutin, a Linda McQuaig or a Haroon Siddiqui is a sop to diversity of opinion that doesn’t measure up when compared to entire 24-page sections on new cars and condos.
What does Hertz have to say about Ibbitson’s volunteer work, his religious convictions, his commitment to teaching or the speaking fees he donates to charity? Does Hertz say anything at all about the life that makes the man? By the time the reader labours to the end of “Being John Ibbitson” s/he has learned that the subject is a middle-class, white, gay guy with an MA who moved from small-town Ontario to the city where he drives an expensive Japanese car and has a penchant for modern furniture. Now there’s a personality who stands out in a crowd! In 1966 that may have been worth a story; in 2006 it is a celebration of the mundane. Regrettably, in an age when the endless tide of hyperbole trivializes so much of political life there is no counterbalance to the law of libel. If it is an offence to damage a person’s reputation by spreading falsehoods it should be no less an offence to inflate another’s reputation at the expense of an informed electorate. Perhaps then writers would reflect more soberly before they committed words to print.
Lest you think I have a grudge against my former classmate let me affirm that I do not. What I protest is the elevation of someone who commands little more than the wisdom of the day to the status of journalist-sage. As Samuel Johnson once wrote in similar circumstances: “He was dull in a new way and that made many people think him great.”
P.S. Do you really “welcome input” into the Review? Is that why your invitation to write letters to the editor appears in small print at the bottom of a very long Web page and not at all in the printed version of your magazine? When you choose a name and a format similar to titles such as the Columbia Journalism Review you not only end up on the same newsstand shelf you create an expectation that you aspire to the same standards. Shame on you!
June 6, 2006
Re: Aaron Leaf’s “Mission Possible: The Globe and Mail takes on B.C.” (Spring 2006)
It is sad to observe that the editors of the Review have entered the journalistic-standards-free-zone that routinely accompanies CanWest bashing.
In his article associate editor Leaf examines the Globe‘s B.C. campaign while neglecting to include comment from the target of that campaign. Worse, he permits all of his sources — as well as himself personally — to criticize and attack The Vancouver Sun and CanWest, again without comment from either. Presumably Leaf, as a student, still has much to learn — apparently even about basic journalism — but surely someone more experienced than he is overseeing these articles.
Leaf suggests that the Toronto Globe and Mail is doing original B.C. reporting while the Sun “utilizes CanWest’s corporate infrastructure to shoehorn in stories on the cheap.”
The CanWest news service — by no means an “on-the-cheap” operation — permits the Sun to publish a unique array of Canadian stories; without it we would have to rely only on Canadian Press, content which all other papers, including the Globe, avail themselves of.
Leaf posits two stories and one section of one day’s paper as some sort of putative evidence of his false claim. Oddly, he criticizes us for publishing a Regina story written in Regina and augmented by our own staff, while praising the Globe for publishing a Regina story written from here. And he simply ignores the fact that six days a week this newspaper produces original B.C. content in every section of the paper compared to the Globe‘s few pages. He also overlooks the fact that the Globe‘s “original” content — or “coverage with a local-mouth feel” as the paper’s Colin MacKenzie characterizes it — sometimes consists of Sun stories, photos and quotes mined by the Toronto Globe from Canadian Press. Even without that leg up from CP, as even Leaf was forced to acknowledge, the evidence shows that theGlobe is routinely chasing the Sun‘s news.
Leaf parrots The Tyee‘s David Beers’s characterization of “ideologically driven, unapologetically pro-business CanWest newspapers.” No mention of the ideology of the Tyee or its financial backers. No mention of the fact that Mr. Beers, a former employee of the Sun, may have an axe to grind.
Leaf uses circulation figures, presumably provided by the Globe, to suggest their B.C. initiative is paying off. No mention of industry trends favouring national over regional newspapers in circulation. No mention of paid versus program circulation. No mention of how many new subscribers the Globegained as a result of its costly marketing campaign. No mention of how the Globe is faring against the local free papers.
The Sun is Canada’s fifth largest English language daily newspaper and its third largest English language metro. It routinely, year after year after year, wins national and provincial awards for its investigative, innovative and breaking news content. We have our share of challenges — changing lifestyles, the digital revolution and free papers to name a few — but we’re prepared to take them on. Attention to journalistic standards is an important element in our approach. I trust in future it will be yours as well.
The Vancouver Sun
May 17, 2006
Re: Carley Fortune’s “The Great Newspaper War of Barry’s Bay” (Summer 2006)
I was looking forward to my annual spring tradition of sitting down with your magazine, especially after I heard that one of the students would be profiling Barry’s Bay This Week. I was the managing editor of the newspaper from March 2002 to June 2003, when it was sold to Osprey Media. I recognize all the names and faces in the stories, since I worked in that office regularly over the fifteen months — a fact which is not reflected in the story.
According to Fortune’s research, Barry’s Bay This Week was a “dumping ground for cheaply generated copy” and often more Peterborough news ran in the place of local copy. These statements are completely untrue. During the fifteen months that I was managing editor, the reporters and I knocked ourselves out working days, nights and weekends to fill the newspaper exclusively with stories from Barry’s Bay, Wilno, Combermere, Whitney and beyond. Yes, I worked in the Peterborough office when I edited the stories early in the week, but I personally covered the winter carnival, the Bay Day party on the May long weekend and dozens of other events and stories as well.
During the previous editor’s tenure, there was a short period during which she printed a few Peterborough-area stories. That only happened since one reporter had left and the new one had not started yet. There was such a backlash that it never happened again.
My biggest disappointment is the fact that no one from Metroland had a chance to defend our organization in this story. A woman did phone our Peterborough office to ask some questions for the story, but she talked to our advertising director about line rates and circulation numbers. That employee never worked in the Barry’s Bay office. Given the statements made by receptionist Debbie Robbins (a bitter, former Metroland employee, by the way), we at least deserved a chance to explain our side.
I do give credit to the Tracey brothers for running a very competitive newspaper. They gave us a great run and I have a world of respect for them. I’m also thrilled to see Doug Gloin in the editor’s chair and expect that he will serve the readers well.
However, if Carley Fortune comes knocking at my door looking for a job, I would not be as impressed.
Editor in chief
Peterborough This Week
Kawartha Lakes This Week
(Carley Fortune replies:
At the Barry’s Bay library I went through back issues of This Week for the years that it was run by Metroland. It was not a good paper — a fact that was recognized by everyone in Barry’s Bay.
The period that Metroland ran the paper is a small part of my story, and Ms. Tuffin’s name did not surface during my research so I don’t know how I would have tracked her down. Even if I had, I doubt it would have been included in the story. A former managing editor would of course defend her paper, and it’s not really relevant to the story that the managing editor thinks she did a good job. The story was about This Week under Osprey ownership versus an independent paper.
I might add that Metroland was the hardest organization to crack in terms of getting information. Trying to find out circulation numbers was a nightmare.
Debbie Robbins is far from a bitter employee; in fact, she didn’t strike me as a bitter person at all. She just recognized that the paper under Metroland wasn’t any good. And she wasn’t the only person to criticize Metroland — several important sources for my story criticized the paper under Metroland’s rule.
I’m sorry Ms. Tuffin feels the way she does — but not that sorry. I did a lot of work on my story and I’m proud of it.)
May 17, 2006
Re: Photojournalist Roger Lemoyne’s guest column, “The Dispassionate Eye” (Summer 2006)
I would like you to pass on this email to whomever it was that took it upon themselves to crop the Kosovo photo in this clumsy and inconsiderate way. This is like inviting someone to speak and then cutting them off when you feel like it. Let me remind this person that the photograph won a World Press Photo in its original form, not as they saw fit to truncate it.
This is not commissioned photography that the magazine has paid for, so I find it doubly offensive to crop a picture in these circumstances. I hate to be ungracious, but someone has to instill respect for the photographer’s rights.
May 2, 2006
Re: Rudy Sabga’s “Cyber Siege” (Summer 2006)
I am quoted in Sabga’s article, and concerned by one of the references to me on page 39.
I told the writer that the Internet has been my No. 1 priority since arriving at the Free Press one year ago. I explained to the writer that I have pushed Internet development since the moment of my arrival. Yet the passage that leads into a quote from me reads: “For some, the Web is not a priority.”
The quote that follows is, again, not what I said. In this case, it seriously misrepresents what I said. The figures of 25 per cent for Ottawa and 10 per cent for Winnipeg refer to the percentages of people who say they regularly read news on Internet sites, not “regular Internet use.” I did indeed tell the writer that we have no separate Web department, but I also explained that is because we have a single news gathering team that services both the Web and the newspaper, filing live to the Web on breaking news when it occurs. We offer breaking news headlines free to anyone, and full versions of up-to-date stories to all subscribers.
The result of these errors on the part of your publication is to make me look like someone who simply does not understand the importance of the Internet to newspapers, which is absolutely false.
Winnipeg Free Press
April 27, 2006
Re: Emily Claire Afan’s “A Change in the Weather” (Spring 2006)
It’s very encouraging to see an excellently researched and written article that accurately documents what we do and where we came from as a weather broadcasting industry. The article underscored the important changes and what drove them in shaping the North American industry, in part by juxtaposing the U.S. and Canadian experiences as a useful counterpoint. I am sure the average reader came away enlightened by the article.
It was also nice to have it confirmed that good ol’ Percy [Saltzman] is still kickin’!
Hats off to Ms. Afan for a job well done. It’s little wonder that our best producers and writers tend to come out of Ryerson.
S. Bryn Jones
Business Development Meteorologist
Pelmorex – The Weather Network
April 18, 2006
Re: Marco Ursi’s “In Your Face” (Spring 2006)
The instant I stuck out my tongue at photographer Michelle Yee I thought, “Uh-oh. Bad move.” Today, in my mailbox, landed the Spring 2006 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism — and there I am on the cover, giving the world some tongue.
Inside, a six-page profile, including that photograph — up close and wrinkly — penned by the issue’s editor Marco Ursi. Titled “In Your Face,” it’s a solid non-puffy portrayal.
My only quibbles are:
(1) My lipstick looks smeary. My fault.
(2) Marco got a couple of dates wrong. His fault.
(3) I should never have said “f**k.” My fault. This is gonna make it tough for my Mom to show off the article at her seniors’ complex. (Yeah. As if anything would stop her. Those old broads are unfreakingbelievable competitive.)
Oh yeah, and Marco left Syd my doggette out. She is crushed.
The mag, which will eventually be on the newsstands and online here, is officially launching tomorrow, at a party at a club on Peter Street.
The cover design is actually quite clever, looking celebrity-tabloid-like, boasting a big photograph ofMaclean’s editor/publisher Ken Whyte posing with Sex and the City hottie Kim Cattrall at the magazine’s 100th anniversary bash last fall. Down the side are the Western Standard‘s Ezra Levant, journo-turned-pol Ben Chin and moi. Inside, pieces on all of us. The purpose is to illustrate how sensationalistic Maclean’s has become with Whyte at its helm.
Haven’t yet had a chance to read through the whole thing but I will say this: When Marco hung out with me, I was impressed by his intelligence, professionalism and thoughtfulness. (He chose me for a topic, didn’t he?) Now, when I see his handiwork, not just on my profile, but on the whole issue, I have to say, I hope to hell that somebody hires this guy!