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