Monday, June 20, 2011

(No.157) Inferior news & canned travel advice

The recently launched Canadian cable news entrant Sun News Network is based on the premise that Canadians need and want a right wing cable news alternative to the existing 'left-liberal' alternatives, especially the CBC and its News Network. Indeed in the months leading up to its launch the Sun project was dubbed by various media observers as "Fox News North", a reference to the American Fox News cable service that has for some years been the leading voice of and propagandist for the political right in the U.S.

After a few months in existence Sun News Network, trying to live up to the Fox News approach, attracts an average 7,000 viewers in a prime time hour; that's right 7,000, compared to more that 10 times that number on the CBC cable news network. It appears that the supposed well-spring of interest among Canadians for a Fox News style slant on Canadian affairs is rather smaller than the bosses at Quebecor's Sun media thought.

Not that Sun News Network hasn't tried to ape the Fox news model to the south including its looney right wing tone. Believe me -- I have tried to watch Sun news but Sun's Ezra Levant is no substitute as a featured performer for Fox's Bill O'Reilly nor is Krista Erickson who came over to Sun from a reporter's role at the CBC.

One of the most toughest critiques I have read in some time was a column (June 9,2011) by the Globe and Mail's John Doyle, its television critic. He likened Sun News to a new Comedy channel and used a Krista Erickson interview as an illustration. Erickson had conducted a hostile interview about government funding of the arts with dancer Margie Gillis, an interview in which Erickson, according to Doyle, "tried to beat her up, verbally."

After comparing Erickson's interviewing style to a "full-bore Monty Python" sketch Doyle demolished Erickson with comments she will not soon forget. A sample:

"Memo to Sun News: Margie Gillis is a somebody. Krista Erickson is a nobody. Gillis's art has for decades moved and awed vast numbers of people in halls around the world. Her work speaks for itself. Erickson is a perma-tanned poseur on TV, squawking away in an ill-fitting dress about subjects she seems to know nothing about. Standing up for taxpayers is a comical contrivance of feigned hysteria."

Having watched a bit of the Sun news programming my view is that it is indeed occasionally comic (unintentionally) but mostly it is merely boring, uninformative and rather awful.

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Since starting www.RickardsRead.com 156 columns ago I have had some favourable responses from readers about those occasional columns which relate to and are informed by the experiences Pat and I have had when travelling.

I think many people value, as we do, informed and critical comment about pleasure travel destinations and experiences. Like us many read the weekly travel sections of their weekend newspapers (for us, this means particularly the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail). The reality is that the value to be discovered by a reader lies mainly in that week's advertised rates for this resort or that flight or package.

The accompanying articles about travel destinations tend to be promotional in nature and uncritical in content but nevertheless presented as bylined articles, "specials" to the paper by writers whose travel to the subject destination has been 'subsidized' by a tourist board or hotel -- although this fact is acknowledged only occasionally.

Nor is the uncritical, promotional approach necessarily all that practically useful whether the article is by a newspaper staffer/editor or a 'freelancer'. An example: a fairly recent long article in a weekend travel section had the section's editor relating what he had learned from his first visit to Las Vegas. As one who has visited that city several times the advice and information provided to readers seemed to me to be jejune and rather wide-eyed. [By comparison, see the three part series "Las Vegas travel trips" on www.RickardsRead.com, column Nos. 144,145 & 146 posted on April 9,13 & 16, 2011]

Travel 'verdicts' by the writer about the subject destination are almost invariably positive. And why would they not be? Travel magazines and newspaper travel sections are all about attracting advertisers. Hence you will tend not to see articles pointing out that a particular hotel chain is grossly over-priced, or that a particular resort or area may be dangerous or that various 'fly and stay' packages are inflated or that a particular city or area should be avoided (and why).

Of course there are exceptions. The travel content in the New York Times is a fine example. The New York Times articles on both business travel (including fine columns by Joe Sharkey) and pleasure travel of all kinds stand head and shoulders above most of their peers in their usefulness, candour and information. I signed up long since for the NYT weekly Travel Dispatch, a compilation of the paper's various travel articles and features [www.NYTimes.com]. It is not, however, a substitute for the price and detail in the advertisements by airlines, hotels, packagers and other travel interests which appear in Canadian newspaper travel sections.

Another useful tool for travellers are the reviews posted on Trip Advisor by thousands of other travellers about the hotels, resorts, et al in which they have stayed/visited. However one must use them with care since the reviews of any hotel or resort can be 'salted' with negative and/or positive reviews posted by people who have an interest in depicting the subject one way or the other.

The key to effective use of traveller reviews as a trip planning resource is to pay attention to the preponderant view pro or con and weigh carefully what reviewers liked or disliked about the subject property or place. There will always be people who dislike what you regard as admirable and enjoy what is (by your standards) unacceptable or even awful. However if, say, 80% of reviewers like a place and only 20% dislike it, it is a rather reliable guide.

In terms of published travel guides too many tend to lack really frank comments about the subject of the guides, whether city or country or region, especially what is truly worthwhile and what should be avoided. Pat and I have found particularly helpful and reliable published guides in two series: "The Unofficial Guide to ..." and the "Time Out" series. They are both worth the investment.

I wonder about people who will spend hundreds, indeed thousands of dollars on a trip with little or no serious research into the destination(s), possible facilities, etc. Investing $100 in up-to-date, relevant travel reference works is a minor expense and should be viewed merely as a very small part of the cost of a successful trip.

What you learn before a trip not only can save money but make the trip a success.

by Alastair Rickard

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email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

(No.156) The tyranny of the minority: another media miss

Mandate is a word much used and abused in Canada since the May 2 federal election, a misuse that the media have done little to offset.

In the political context a mandate involves political instructions based on the votes of the electorate. The media consensus since the election, reinforced almost daily by columnists and cable news 'talking heads', has been this: what will the Conservatives do with their mandate from Canadian voters? This rests on a strange and mistaken idea of what constitutes a mandate from the people.

As I was at some pains to underline in a recent column ("Canada's electoral failure", RickardsRead.com, column No.151, posted May 7, 2011) this country has long been in need of electoral reform so that governments have actually received the support of at least 50% of those who voted. The federal Tories (or indeed any political party) receiving 39.6% of votes does not legitimize any sensible use of the words "voter mandate" unless one is making the argument that 60%+ of voters choosing NOT to support a political party somehow endows that party with a mandate.

Since election night the mainstream media have managed to ignore the elephant in the room: the reality of the voting results being the consequence, not of a big upswing in popular affection for the Tories, but of an unreformed electoral system that saw the NDP draw off enough votes from the Liberals in enough constituencies to allow the Tories to gain sufficient additional seats for a majority.

What was and is the real story of the electoral results, the one largely ignored by the media?

It was articulated cogently by Rick Salutin in his weekly column (May 6) in the Toronto Star. "We now live," wrote Salutin, "in a permanent state you could call the tyranny of the minority. You could also call it the tragedy of the majority. We'll have had 10 years of government desired by 40% of the voters, while 60%, who largely agree on what they'd like,will get zero representation. Everyone played by the rules of the game, but it's a stretch to call that game democracy."

Indeed it is and the rules of the game badly need to be changed. A core issue arising, yet again, from a federal election is electoral reform that would bring Canadian government closer to real democracy.

In today's era of cable news and 'talking heads' and their cousins in the chattering classes, it's too easy to have a furrow of opinion ploughed and then tramped down by others. Thus, when a Globe and Mail front page story (June 2) refers to the federal Tories' "electoral reform package", it can repeat the Tory line on electoral 'reform' (seat redistribution, election of senators to fixed terms, abolition of public subsidies for political parties) without a passing reference to or even feigned surprise at the absence of any mention of real election reform involving proportional representation or even a preferential ballot or indeed any step toward meaningful electoral reform.

It is naive to expect media to step off well marked and predictable paths in their reporting and commentary. It might lead voters to wonder, for example, about how and why the major media almost as one can treat the recent Conservative majority in the House of Commons as if, as the Tory leadership themselves and their cheer leaders (like the National Citizens Coalition in their ads) pretend, the Tories achieved a genuine popular mandate based on the support of a majority of voters rather than a majority of Commons seats.

This sort of codswallop can be insidious, soon making its way into careless or receptive major media. An example from the Globe and Mail (June 6): a chart headed "Percentage of Canadians represented by each party in the House of Commons" indicates 56.1% of "All Canadians" represented by "Conservatives" [sic].

Is it any wonder that common usage soon comes to embrace a falsehood: i.e., a Conservative majority of seats becomes a government elected by a majority of Canadian voters?

Plato said that writing was forgetting, taking something out of your head and putting it on the page, leaving a gap behind. I suppose that's one explanation for media misses like these.


by Alastair Rickard

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email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

Thursday, June 9, 2011

(No.155) Media misses: Globe & Mail losing columnists

Across the top of the National Post's front page the other day was the announcement that Christie Blatchford was returning to the Post as a columnist. Blatchford, a longtime reporter and columnist for Toronto daily newspapers, has in recent years been a leading columnist/reporter for the Globe and Mail. Her first column for the Post will appear on Monday June 13.

She is a widely read columnist in part because she is the writer of the sort of opinions as well as a reporter of events (especially involving crimes and trials) that one often will not see anywhere else -- at least not expressed as frankly and straightforwardly. And she writes with real bite and without political correctness. The columnist of whom she most reminds me in her refreshing prose and style is Maureen Dowd of the New York Times.

Blatchford is the third longtime, popular columnist the Globe has either lost or let go recently. The other two wrote weekly columns: Rex Murphy now also at the National Post on Saturdays and Rick Salutin writing on Fridays for the Toronto Star.

Rick Salutin has been a favourite columnist of mine since Adam was a boy (see my comments about Salutin in "Graceless ingratitude & financial executives", RickardsRead.com column No.140, posted March 7, 2011). He was the only left of centre columnist at the Globe and often provided his readers with a different way of thinking about an issue. After its recent redesign, the one that made the Globe look more like USA Today, Salutin after many years writing his weekly column for the Globe apparently became a casualty of a new editorial 'vision'.

I remember as a child watching my parents read the Globe and Mail. They were lifelong subscribers. I have been a daily reader of the Globe since I began reading newspapers in my adolescence. For me the Globe is in its way like the CBC: while it makes my teeth ache on occasion with its pretensions to a culturally and politically superior correctness it is a habit I am unlikely to break. Nor do I wish to do so, all the more because its tones and hues can be balanced by reading other papers as well.

In recent years the Globe's greatest strength and appeal to thoughtful readers has been the quality and number of its regular columnists. The Globe is now minus three of the best.

Among those regulars who remain at the Globe are the insightful and/or entertaining Jeffrey Simpson, Eric Reguly, Margaret Wente and John Doyle. They are, like the three ex-Globe columnists who are now writing for other papers, writers whose work I invariably make a point of reading.

The Globe and Mail, even as Canada's self-styled national newspaper and one now finally and fully back in the affectionate ownership of the Thomson family, can ill afford to lose any more of its best columnists.

by Alastair Rickard

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email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: RickardsRead.com