Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Who Watches the Watchers (Part Three)

Journalism today stands at the proverbial fork in the road. No one can deny that the public has been losing interest in mainstream media, which has had advertisers look to other sources to invest their dollars. So that has put the societal watchers at this fork agonising and self-diagnosing their potential future. Three of the roads of the fork are paved with yellow bricks of illusion and denial. The fourth is the dirt track of reality; it's rough and hard to travel down there but at least it can lead to a substantial solution.

Democracy needs journalists, after all it is the watcher's job to keep democracy on track, at least that had been the concept journalists had tried to maintain. This ideal is not simply a punchy line for an ad campaign, and many brave journalists had laid down their lives to bring to light events and stories that the powerful would have preferred to keep in the dark. Censorship of these courageous individuals was simply unacceptable. In fact censorship must be unacceptable to all, denying its existence simply aides its ability to slowly erode the foundation of true democracy.

The St. Catharines Standard is the largest newspaper in the Niagara area, now owned by Postmedia. Its journalists lay claim to national newspaper awards and presumably followers of the ten commandments of journalism. In fact one of The Standard's journalists, Karena Walter, appears in an ad for JournalismIs. Over her face are these words: “Essential to Democracy. With a few keystrokes you can sample thousands of opinions, afloat in a sea of information. But as the volume increases, the accuracy and reliability of professional journalism is essential. Gathering and sorting the facts, weighing and interpreting events, and following the story from beginning to end is more important than ever.”

On the front doors of their office at One St. Paul Street are the words “Where the Community Lives.” The Standard over the last six years has breached and mangled the most basic component of democracy, and it has imposed self-censorship by its publisher, editors and journalists. Karena Walter herself sat in the City's Council Chambers on April 29th 2016 and listened to a presentation requesting changes to local by-laws. Residents had spoken out regarding the City's inaction for years over serious issues that had affected their quality of life. An email was read out publicly which had been sent by the Mayor of St. Catharines Walter Sendzik to the publisher of this site. Mayor Sendzik admitted to the City's knowledge that the business owner had broken the law for years and that the City had done nothing about it. Prior to the meeting documents had been sent to Karena Walter, including a copy of this email which proved City's full knowledge and cover-up of the breaches of law. As the City Hall reporter for The Standard newspaper, Karena Walter selectively censored the information publicly presented at Council from the community.

Karena Walter is not the only journalist at The Standard with such credentials. Longtime reporter Marlene Bergsma openly lied in an article on the front page in 2010 to protect the former mayor. It was election time and evidence had been brought forward of fine fixing supported by the voice of a ward councillor. Marlene Bergsma, who is no longer with the newspaper, chose to lie about the facts to protect the mayor at the time, Brian McMullan.

Still the luminaries at the St. Catharines Standard continue to impress. In a recorded interview on January 9th 2016 with the former mayor's ex-wife, the ex-Mrs. McMullan revealed another shocker. The ex-Mrs. McMullan said that she had contacted Doug Herod, another longtime reporter at The Standard, and gave him documents relating to her seeking a divorce. Those documents revealed details which included an affair between her then husband, Brian McMullan, and a fellow sitting regional councillor. According to the former wife of Brian McMullan, Doug Herod kept all the documents for several days, then said that his hands were tied and did nothing. Who tied Doug Herod's hands as a journalist? Who decided that the news should be censored from the community?

Today The Standard has a new star, Grant LaFleche, a journalist who extols the great value of his 'craft' and the importance of community newspapers. Out of the ten commandments of JournalismIs, number nine is, “telling the whole story,” LaFleche somehow missed that one. In mid-2015 a situation exploded on the news scene in the Niagara Region when a Regional Councillor had made some less than professional public statements relating to same-sex marriage. Regional Councillor Andy Petrowski had made comments on Twitter likening gay marriage to murder, he had ridiculed President Obama over it, and more. At the very least Councillor Petrowski showed a lack of professionalism and a serious lack of judgment in his online comments, after all as an elected member of government everything he says publicly is in the end accountable, or should be.

On July 8th 2015, Grant LaFleche wrote an article 'Obama, gay marriage, God and Petrowski', beginning his journalistic jihad regarding the Petrowski anti-gay marriage comments. In 'A council without courage', July 10th 2015, LaFleche mentions that Petrowski closed his Twitter account, then on July 13th 2015 recorded a podcast interview with Andy Petrowski on gay marriage, then on July 17th 2015 another article 'Apologies, Politics and Petrowski' mentions the gay marriage issue. In 2016, on January 21 LaFleche goes in detail again in his article 'Petrowski quits police board', finally ending on March 8th with his article 'Demand better from Petrowski'.

Throughout this storm Councillor Andy Petrowski claimed that his comments online were completely personal based on his fervent Christian beliefs. He said that he did not make those comments as a public servant and that he had no other motivation behind them. On July 10th 2015, Councillor Andy Petrowski tweeted a photo of Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. This photo has Premier Kathleen Wynne and her partner standing with a number of people who had been part of a Gay Pride Parade. With this photo Petrowski tweets, “Ontario's First Family – how nice pic.” Andy Petrowski is a staunch Conservative supporter, Kathleen Wynne heads a Liberal government in Ontario. Was it God who made him do it, or was it something else?

Although Councillor Petrowski closed his Twitter account temporarily, former City Councillor Andrew Gill screen captured all of this and tagged Premier Wynne. To her credit and dignity Premier Wynne ignored such a petty and cowardly attack. LaFleche wrote in 'A tale of two tweets' July 13th 2015, “At the very least, the argument that online comments like this are purely personal and do not relate to his job at council don't entirely fly. Regional Council has to regularly work with Queen's Park on issues from GO Transit to funding for social programs. The current premier is Kathleen Wynne – a married, gay Christian woman. Petrowski's statements could prejudice the premier against him or the council and its chairman who refused to say anything about it.”

Andrew Gill follows Grant LaFleche on Twitter, how is it that this investigative journalist missed this? This same journalist on February 17th 2016 said, “Bloggers aren't doing interviews or poring over government and scientific reports, they aren't doing the kind of investigative work journalists do every day.”

In August of 2013 another storm broke on the St. Catharines' political landscape. The front page of The Standard rang out with 'St. Catharines mayor calls police on councillor' as a headline. This would not be considered as a fluff piece and the details were spread over the local news for several weeks. Both the accuser, former Mayor Brian McMullan, and the accused Councillor Andy Petrowski were interviewed, each throwing out their side of the story. All the accusations and counter accusations took a turn towards the bizarre when former Mayor Brian McMullan had the court issue a peace bond against Councillor Petrowski and a Summons to appear in court on January 24th 2014.

On the 24th of January 2014, Councillor Petrowski made his appearance with a Mr. G. Radojcic as his counsel. Mr. M. DelGobbo was council for Brian McMullan, but he appeared on his own as the former mayor decided not to show up for court in a matter he had initiated. Journalist Grant LaFleche had spoken with Mr. DelGobbo outside the court house and decided not to write about the judge's dismissal of the action. Brian McMullan showed little respect for the judicial system and LaFleche proved once again that censorship at The St. Catharines Standard was and is its first commandment.

The three amigos: Mary Agnes Welch of JournalismIs, Journalist Madelaine Drohan and MP Hedy Fry made it sound like they did indeed pound the bricks to gather diverse comment on the issues facing traditional journalism. Yet had they really, or was all of this simply kept within the closed doors of industry insiders and those with a vested interest? JournalismIs claims to provide a “voice to the voiceless,” presumably referring to the public-at-large. An email was sent to Mary Agnes Welch on March 11th 2016. The email raised the issue of self-imposed censorship and the relationship of such a situation to journalism's ten commandments. Ms. Welch did not respond and kept the idea of public debate silent.

In an attempt to find comment or a discussion on such a serious issue an email was sent to Madelaine Drohan, author of the report 'Does serious journalism have a future in Canada?' Surprisingly Madelaine Drohan responded within some three hours, and in her response said; “I was surprised at your comment that the report did not deal with the issue of trust. I refer to it several times and there are two different charts showing how the traditional media ranks poorly on this issue. While I don't site the examples you have given, I don't think it's fair to say the issue was untouched.”

On July 8th 2016 another email was sent to Ms. Drohan, as a response to her communication with an offer to provide documentation as absolute proof of censorship, even an offer to meet face-to-face with her to discuss the issue. Madelaine Drohan did not respond to the second email.

So to be “fair” let's examine those two charts that Ms. Drohan refers to proudly. The first is on page 10 of the report titled, 'Who do you trust? Confidence in Canadian institutions – 2013', the source for this chart was from General Social Survey on Social Identity, Statistics Canada. This report was based on responses that had claimed to have a 'great deal of confidence' or 'some confidence'. Its categories were Police, School System, Banks, Justice System and Courts, then Media, Federal Parliament and finally Major Corporations. It would be difficult to have too many respondents who had more confidence in media over the police who protect them, a school system that educates their children, banks who hold their money or a justice system which is the foundation of society.

Chart number two is on page 24 of the report and is titled, 'Familiarity breeds content – percent who trust online information created by each author – 2015-2016', its source: 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer, Edleman. Here the categories begin with My friends and family, An academic expert, Companies that I use, Employees of a company, A company CEO then A journalist.

These two charts are supposed to have dealt with the issue of trust in Madelaine Drohan's report. One could mention another chart on page 9 titled 'In Google we trust', but perhaps that should be left alone.

Finally Hedy Fry who heads up the Commons Committee delving into the depths of what journalism is or should be had an email sent to her on July 7th 2016. Some eight days later a response came from MP Hedy Fry's office, it said “Dr. Fry does personally respond to all correspondence she receives.” Nothing has been heard from her office since.

Regardless of who it is, whether some self-proclaimed expert or industry insider, ignoring the most crucial aspect of this downfall of traditional journalism will not be beneficial. Trust is not some side issue that some childish chart will explain. Nor has the public's trust in journalists been so strongly shaken by legal threat of defamation suits. Legal suits are often weapons to silence public discussion.

  • Postmedia/National Post sued by journalist Arthur Kent
  • CBC sued by Liberal Senator Pana Merchant, Tony Merchant
    and the Merchant Law Group LLP
  • National Post; former publisher Gordon Fisher and columnists; Terence Concoran, Peter Foster and Kevin Libin sued by BC MLA Andrew Weaver
  • www.mayorgate.blogspot and publisher Alexander Davidoff sued by
    former Mayor Brian McMullan

The real issues of trust extend much further than these lawsuits. Journalists can become targets who need to be silenced yet when journalists become puppets of the powerful then democracy is bruised. It is when journalists decide to censor information from the community then democracy is challenged to its foundation.

Today Welch, Drohan and Fry play at a game of finding a solution to the sinking situation that traditional journalism faces. Much of the discussion surrounds the loss of advertising dollars and the fast encroaching modern world. Nothing will come from these three in the end, and nothing will change as to how traditional journalists go about their business.

Amongst all the empty and hot rhetoric, amongst the denial of the truth one fact emerges stronger than ever. The watchdogs of the past are being watched. Serious bloggers do exist and they are getting stronger. Unlike these traditional egos and their publishers, serious bloggers have no alliances, no political or big business interference.

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