CBC Radio News in Decline

Let me begin this small rant by stating that I’ve been a hardcore fan of CBC Radio since before most of you were born. It’s not just the lack of advertising (which can make listening to commercial radio — especially in the morning — downright torturous) that makes me a fan. It’s the high standard of journalistic integrity that I’ve come to know and respect over the years.

Some of that has been in decline recently. Specifically, I’m talking about the quality of news reporting from the local (Montreal) station. Most of it remains quite good, but on a pretty regular basis I find myself shaking the radio and yelling “stop saying that!”

I should have taken notes, because there’s nothing worse than a rant lacking in specifics. I do, however, have one example; something I’ve been hearing on the local CBC Radio news all day today.

As you may know, the price of gas is going up tomorrow due to the imposition of a new tax. The revenue from the new tax will be directed toward public transit costs. That sounds like a great idea to me. The amount of the new tax is 1.5 cents per litre of gas.

It drives me crazy that the CBC Radio reports I’ve been hearing all day start thusly:

Drivers in the Montreal area will want to fill up their tanks before tomorrow…

Grrr! There are two reasons why this news story should not begin like that:

Editorializing. News reports should not tell people what they should do or should want to do. They can say that so-and-s0 says you should do something, but the news reader (and by extension, the writers, editors, and the entire corporation) should not be telling people what to do. That’s basic journalism 101. You could argue that they’re just trying to be “light” and “accessible” or whatever, but that’s what the crappy news departments of commercial radio stations do. It’s not what CBC Radio, with it’s high standards, is supposed to do.

It’s stupid! Do the math; the average small- to mid-size car has a 40 litre gas tank. The price of gas is going up by one-and-a-half cents per litre. Thus, your exercise in racing off to the pumps to beat the increase will save you about sixty cents. Sixty cents! And that’s only if your tank is empty. Even if you have a huge car with a big tank, you’re still only going to save a dollar or two.

Rushing to fill your tank before a 1.5 cent price increase is a dumb idea, and an even dumber way to lead a news story. Any decent news editor would snip that opening line right off the bat, for both of those reasons.

So that’s today’s rant. I wish this was an isolated event, but as I said, I’m hearing this kind of bad news reporting fairly often these days.

Where is the editor? This is the kind of thing that is supposed to separate “real” journalism from Joe Blogger and Jane Podcaster. Professionalism! How about we add another half-cent to the price of gas and funnel it into improving the news department at CBC Radio Montreal!

Martin Amis and the Decline of Print Media

Forgive me while I carve a rather meandering path to my point, but it begins last spring when I received in the mail a flyer from the Humber School for Writers. It indicated that Martin Amis would be the headliner, the star instructor, at Humber’s summer workshops for 2009. Martine and I both wondered what exactly that would entail; after all, the Humber School has an impressive curriculum and engages writers of very high calibre as instructors, but the instructors are drawn almost entirely from the pools of Canadian literature. Martin Amis is a big, big gun, but he’s from across the pond. We were both of the opinion that he’d probably fly in for one 90 minute lecture and be done with it.

But no! Mark Medley, a writer for The National Post, was hot on the Martin Amis trail, and he reported in a National Post article dated July 17, 2009 [Update: see Mark’s correction in the comments.] that Amis was there all week, conducting classes like any other instructor. Medley also reported that Amis was quite approachable (when you could find him) and was rather nice.

Now hang a left as we begin to meander. (Or perhaps we’re now coming back to the main trail — I was always bad at orienteering.) Loyal readers of this blog know that I’ve been messing with the blogging media for almost a decade. This blog alone (one of several I have on the go at the moment) has almost 600,000 words scribed into more than 1600 posts. With a blog resumé like that, I could be categorized as very much a fan of all things blog.

So you might think, and if so you wouldn’t be far off the mark. I like blogs for many reasons, including all the standard stuff about democratization of the public blah blah blah, plus it’s nice to see what my blogging friends are up to without having to lift the dreaded telephone, etc. But one thing that has sorely disappointed me when it comes to the blogging form is that most blogs provide only a mediocre reading experience.

There are indeed a few sterling blogs that can be read for the sheer pleasure of the prose, but they are rare. Most blogs are about (a) laffs, (b) straight-up information, or (c) personal gushing and whinging. As a result, most people read blogs to “get a fix” of info or gossip and not for the pleasure of reading.

Print media, on the other hand, can be wonderful. There are, of course, entire forests’ worth of printed tripe and trollop, but the respectable editors and publishers of the world go to great lengths to shape and sculpt their writers’ work into text that doesn’t just inform and entertain, but enthralls with its own beauty.

Put another way, blogs are like street food. Salty, greasy, of questionable hygiene, often overcooked, but cheap and plentiful and in their own way very tasty. But the printed word from a respectable publisher is like the fare from a high end restaurant.

Unless, that is, you live in the 21st century, where even respectable publishers have been slimming their budgets by cleaving off the fluffy unnecessaries such as proofreaders and copy editors. After all, we’ve become so used to reading sloppy web-based text that it seems entirely reasonable to assume no one actually values the good stuff. It’s salt and grease we want, not painstakingly executed sauces and finely crafted plats.

In this I pity Martin Amis, as he’s still alive and has to put up with this decline in the respectable press. I doubt he ran squealing to his local news agent in London when word of Mark Medley’s National Post article came out, but if he did he was probably reduced to tears.

That’s because Mark Medley’s article suffered from a distinct lack of editorial oversight. To wit:

Yo, that long, repetitive sentence (highlighted in yellow) never would have passed Go on my editorial board. And hey, nice typo!

Then there’s this:

Missing sarcastic editor’s note: “as articulate as this?” That long sentence needs to be trimmed, or broken up into two or more sentences in order to be articulate.

It goes on:

Hello, online newspaper! Nice sentence to nowhere!

To be clear, none of this is Mark Medley’s fault. Writing is hard, and very few writers went so unedited in the antediluvian world before blogs. If I had see those errors in a blog post I wouldn’t even have blinked. But this is The National Post!

In a professional context we used to rely on editors and proofreaders to find and correct these problems. But what happens when we start treating newspaper content the same as blog content? (As in, raw, unedited, unpolished.) We get stuff that lacks clarity and focus, carries little authority, and fails to inspire.

Blogs and other forms of so-called “citizen journalism” have an important role to play in our information culture, but it’s a role both in opposition to, and complementary with, the establish mainstream press. But we need both for that dynamic to mean anything.


Quick quiz: what is a “Samaritan?”

If you answered “a person who selflessly does a good deed,” you are wrong. A Samaritan is simply a person from Samaria, a mountainous region of the Holy Land between Judea and Galilee — more or less what we now call the West Bank of Israel. The ancient Samaritans had a lot in common with the ancient Jews, but they weren’t on the same team, so to speak. Or perhaps it’s better to say they were on the same team (the Abrahams) but were on different shifts.

Put it this way; when the Parable of the Good Samaritan was written in the first century A.D. the idea of a Samaritan doing a good deed for a non-Samaritan (in this case a Jew) was a bit unusual. Those were very politically, culturally, and religiously loaded days in the Holy Land (not unlike today), so there was not a lot of trust between people of different tribes. So one of the key points of the parable is that one should do good deeds for everyone, even those who are “others.”

In that case, the Samaritan was an “other,” and he did a good deed for a Jew. Jesus, himself a Jew, told this parable as a way of illustrating that even those questionable “others” can do good deeds. But the Samaritan was not a “Samaritan” because he was good. It was because he was from Samaria. The fact that he was good made him a good Samaritan, which does not exclude the possibility of there being loads of bad Samaritans.

It’s as if I wrote a parable about a New Yorker doing a good deed for a Quebecer. It would be the Parable of the Good New Yorker. Naturally, that parable would not imply that every New Yorker is good. More importantly, it would not imply that any good person should be referred to as a “New Yorker!”

And yet I see and hear, on a regular basis, people referring to someone who does a good deed as a “Samaritan.” I hear things like “I had a flat tire and a Samaritan came along and helped me fix it,” or “If it wasn’t for that Samaritan I’d still be down that well!” Really? A Samaritan — a person from the Levant, a old biblical guy in a robe and sandals — came along and fixed your tire?

I think not. However, if you said “I had a flat tire and a Good Samaritan came along and helped me fix it,” or “If it wasn’t for that Good Samaritan I’d still be down that well!” then you would not be making an error. People would understand that by “Good Samaritan” you mean someone like the man in the parable of the Good Samaritan. But when you just say “Samaritan,” all you mean is some dude from Samaria!

Parable of the Good New Yorker


A few days ago I was in a St. Hubert chicken rotisserie restaurant (don’t ask). I spotted this highly ambiguous pictogram on the wall:


Here’s my explication:


Or, if you prefer, how about this dramatic interpretation:

FEMALE: “It’s over! I’m leaving you for the guy in the wheelchair.”

MALE: “No! I’m leaving you for the guy in the wheelchair!

Got a better idea? Leave it in the comments!