Enough already with the cocktail party columnists

March 14, 2009

Reading Margaret Wente in the Globe is often unsettling. You recognize the events she’s talking about, you know she’s making observations about the country you live in. But strangely, none of the people know know seem to be living in Wente’s Canada.

I usually don’t mind that Wente’s universe seems to be entirely contained within a few of the nicer Toronto neighbourhoods. It’s even good for a few laughs at times. But today’s column from Wente about how nouveau chic frugality suddenly is, caught in my throat for some reason.

Maybe it’s her admission that the two-person $235 sushi dinner she had the other day looks a little obscene now, even though it used to be a normal treat of their hard-working family before the recession. Maybe it’s the faux-zen reasoning that makes her think people who lost their job get healthier because they have more time to exercise (with a quote from an economist, no less). Maybe it’s residual anger from Jon Stewart’s clobbering of Jim Cramer on the Daily Show.

Or, maybe the column reminds me how frustrating it is to talk with those high-flying columnists with an worldview so limited that you just can’t find anything that will resonate with them. They know the world through the friends they meet for brunch on Sunday, the New Yorker writers they admire and quaint family stories about how their grandparents worked hard to get their kids in college, without taking a handout from the government.

Times are hard for the media. Revenues are declining and the future looks bleak. If daily newspapers are still unwilling to cut on the money it spends on columnists, could they at least replace the cocktail party columnists with people whose writings are relevant to the current situation?

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Poll: National Geographic vs. Alberta oil sands

March 8, 2009

This post below received quite a few visits since it got posted a few hours ago. This looks like a good opportunity for a little poll. So read the post and vote if you are so inclined.



National Geographic and the oilsands: what the heck are they complaining about in Calgary?

March 8, 2009

I’ve been scratching my head for a few days now, trying to make sense of the uproar out West about the latest issue of National Geographic Magazine. The venerable yellow-framed publication, famous for the quality of its pictures and focus on conservation, ran a 20-page section on Alberta’s ‘oilsands’. It illustrates the dark side of the sand operations – you know, the scoured landscape, the sick people, the dead birds, the complete lack of restraint from the industry.

The Oil Patch loves playing the victim

The Oil Patch loves playing the victim

Gary Lamphier in the Edmonton Journal denounces it as eco-propaganda. Predictably, the National Post is outraged. Biased, soft-handed tree-huggers from New York, don’t they know they need Canadian oil to drive from their country home to their Manhattan office?

But reading the magazine made me wonder why the heck they are complaining about.

Sure, a text in National Geographic about the oilsands would be cause to send Cheryl Rubb at Syncrude’s media relations service into a panic. But as it turns out, the oil patch, as well as the Alberta government, have plenty of reasons to rejoice: even a cursory reading of the magazine’s text shows that it contains all the messages they’ve been trying to get through to Americans for years:

  • Canada is America’s no. 1 oil supplier and has reserves greater than Saudi Arabia’s.
  • Canadian oil is the best way to reduce America’s dependency on oil from the Middle-East.
  • Alberta’s oilsands are open for business: it’s full steam ahead and development will not slow down.
  • Extraction even of the deeper oil is plenty profitable.
  • In the grand scheme of things, the oilsands’ carbon footprint is negligible and First Nations are seeing this as an opportunity.

As for the environmental aspect of the oilsands, the text makes it clear that it’s a Canadian problem that has no impact on the U.S. Canada wants to turn part of their own countryside into a hellish hellhole to pump oil south of the border. It’s their business.

I’m sure the oil patch’s PR wizards see it that way, if they have any wits. Curiously, it’s the newsroom hacks who get blinded by rage. Lamphier can’t even get past the pictures:

“No one reads National Geographic. Like Playboy, it’s all about the pictures. And you can bet that everyone from Al Gore to David Suzuki to the righteous folks at Greenpeace will be using the magazine’s grim photos to convince the pliable masses, and U.S. politicians, that the oilsands are indeed the world’s greatest eco-disaster.”

Right. Apparently publishers have a responsibility not only to be balanced, but also not to publish pictures that could be used to support a public relations campaign. Interesting how the ethics of journalism shift with who is doing the spinning.

If Lamphier and the National Post editorial board like to pretend American public opinion is ripe for an eco-crusade involving oil production right now, it’s fine. After all, we’re used to frequent high-pitched whining from either of those sources. But nobody should think their outrage has anything to do with reality.

POLL UPDATE: What do you think? Take the poll!


Here’s a great stolen podcast

February 27, 2009

I have no particular comments on the content of this podcast, which is a slightly more entertaining version of the standard discussion one can find all over the Internet in these difficult times for the media. I just wanted to see if the inter-Wordpress ’embed’ function worked well.

Okay, it works – copy, paste. Nice.

The podcast’s real home is here on Inkless Wells and here on Coyne’s blog, of course.


NYT columnist gets Nobel Prize

October 14, 2008

I’ve liked Paul Krugman for much longer as I care to remember. I was only vaguely aware that writing a column in the New York Times was only a sideline to his academic career, so I was somewhat surprised when I read he won the Nobel Prize for Economics.

Good for him. And good for the New York Times for having a top-notch economist as a columnist.

There’s no Canadian equivalent. The Report on Business gangare more like your financial adviser, useful but too busy checking on the latest hot stocks to see the big picture. Claude Picher is content with being the mouthpiece of nicely-conservative Quebec Inc and teaching Economics 101 courses. Diane Francis is faking it and trying hard to sound edgy by making up words (“disintermediate the frozen financial system“). Others are nice, but you don’t find yourself thinking “jeez, I hope the Ministry of Finance is consulting that guy”. With Krugman, you wish he was running the show.


Gaffes don’t matter. No, really.

September 20, 2008

This comment in the Citizen about the Conservatives’ polling numbers from Ipsos-Reid CEO Darrell Bricker, confirmed what I suspected:

“The gaffes don’t matter. The only people they matter to are the people on the planes following the campaign. The public is not focused on them at all.”

Yet the news are full of stories about foul-mouthed politicians and staffers and mechanical mishaps. So why do reporters write gaffe stories and why do their editors keep putting them on the front page?

  • The gaffe introduces a nice little narrative into the larger tale of the election campaign. A gaffe is fun to write about: first phase is the gaffe itself; second phase is the outrage it generated; third phase is the consequence (apology, resignation, suspension or lack thereof). With the current 24/7 news universe, you can wrap the entire storyline within 36 hours easy.
  • But also because an election campaign is really the only time when political reporters get to report on those little demeaning stories they normally share only between themselves in the Press Gallery. The Hot Room in the Center Block, its equivalent across the street and in the provincial legislatures are great places to exchange stories about who this politico is sleeping with or how that flack fell on her face. Come election time, those stories magically become newsworthy.
  • And of course, once one reporter has the little story, it has to get out as fast as possible. Because with current War Room operational standards, it’s certain that all reporters will have the same story on their Blackberries within minutes.

Bad PR. Bad, bad journalism.

Further reading: Journalists and “off-colour” jokes, Paul Adams.


Media frames election agenda: “May the best PR win”

September 10, 2008

This  morning, a Toronto Star editorial is lamenting that “The early days of the federal election campaign have been dominated by images – mostly negative ones of Liberal leader Stéphane Dion – rather than substance.” The Globe’s headline is about process stories overshadowing policy announcements. The Ottawa Citizen’s sole front-page election text complains that there’s too much talk of gaffes and strategy in the campaign so far. Read the rest of this entry »