Category: Media

Vague words that are synonyms for progress, paired with footage of a high-speed train

Kendra Eash published a funny poem in McSweeney’s about how big companies use stock video and portentous but vague voice-overs to create feel-good ads about their corporate brands. Then a stock footage company with a sense of humour set the poem to, well, stock footage.

Explained the company, “The minute we saw Kendra Eash’s brilliant ‘This Is a Generic Brand Video’ on McSweeney’s, we knew it was our moral imperative to make that generic brand video so. No surprise, we had all the footage.”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this is a case of commerce imitating art imitating commerce imitating emotion.

H/T: Jane Kansas. Accept no substitutes.

How fake temperatures came to dominate weather forecasts

Scientific American calls bullshit on wind chill:

[I]f the air temperature is, say, 15 degrees F, and a 20–mile per hour wind makes the wind chill –2 degrees F, would the temperature of your exposed skin drop to that temperature?

No. Your skin temperature cannot drop below the actual air temperature. The coldest your uncovered face could get would be 15 degrees F whether the wind is calm or howling at 40 mph….

Try an experiment: Put two thermometers outside, one in the wind and one shielded from it. When you return they will read the same. Or just ask yourself a simple question: If you are driving your car at 20 mph and you read the dashboard thermometer, then speed up to 60 mph, does the temperature drop? No. Because the air temperature has not changed. There is no wind chill for your car—even if you have given your vehicle a human name.

Wind chill is an artificial construct that makes temperatures sound worse than they are. A parallel set of fake numbers makes summer temperatures sound worse than they are. Both serve the interests of broadcasters who seek to exploit public fears about their personal safety by fanning them with constant hype and faked data like “wind chill.”

AllNovaScotia now a ‘case study’ at America’s most prestigious J-school

Two years ago, I pointed to an admiring account of Nova Scotia’s unorthodox online business and politics journal,, on the website of Harvard’s prestigious Nieman Foundation for Journalism. Halifax freelancer Tim Currie described how a “tightly paywalled, social-media-ignoring, anti-copy-paste, gossipy news site became a dominant force in Nova Scotia.”

Kelly-ToughillLast month, Kelly Toughill, director of the King’s Journalism School in Halifax, fleshed out the story in an 18-page “case study” submitted to the equally prestigious Columbia University School of Journalism. From the abstract:

This case tells the story of a small, online publication in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which has confounded the punditry of the digital era. (ANS) sits firmly behind a paywall, does not allow its stories to be shared online, and even refuses subscriptions to employees of rival publications. Nonetheless, it has been financially successful. But in 2013, founder David Bentley faced a crossroads. At 69, he was ready to step back. But what should the next step be: sell out? Duplicate the ANS model elsewhere? Go more digital?

Although she canvasses various options for Bentley’s next step, Toughill ends her study as a cliff-hanger, without any prediction as to which course, if any, he might pursue.

She does, however, capture what I believe is the key to AllNS’s competitive journalistic edge:

The traditional organizational structure of a newsroom had been compared to a military organization, with power flowing through well-­defined channels from the editor-in-chief or executive producer through sun-editors to reporters. AllNovaScotia was different. All reporters worked in the same room. Even Bentley didn’t have an office. There were no assignment editors telling reporters what to do; each reporter was responsible for finding and covering the news on his or her own beat. Most news organizations relied on a series of daily news meetings to make editorial decisions and to plan future coverage. Bentley did not believe in meetings. In 2010, eight years after founding the site, he proudly boasted that there had never been an official meeting within the organization.

Bentley worked closely with new reporters to help them adopt the sparse hard-­??news style of AllNovaScotia stories. As the organization grew, new reporters also worked with a managing editor and several part-­??time copy editors. Bentley’s standards were high, and those who couldn’t adjust quickly were let go. Those who stayed were expected to be ahead of the competition on their beat. Journalists who moved from local broadcast outlets or the local broadsheet reported that the AllNovaScotia newsroom had a more positive and dynamic ambiance than the organizations they had left.

“Reporters at AllNovaScotia had total independence,” says Kevin Cox, whom Bentley hired as an editor after Cox left the well-regarded national newspaper, the Globe and Mail.

All stories were self-­generated. There wasn’t that top-­down direction. At the Globe, you came in each morning and someone told you what to do. At the Globe, you were always double-­checking with people up the line about what you were doing. There was no hierarchy at AllNovaScotia and that made for a completely different mood.

The generally meaty quality of its reporting is AllNovaScotia’s great strength (although its journalism sometimes suffers from a habit of nursing hobby horses and unreasonable pet peeves). Its continued success while so many other models are failing is a marvel to behold.

It may be that Toughill knows more about Bentley’s plans than she’s letting on. A note on Columbia’s website says the case has “an Epilogue” and a” Teaching Note,” visible only faculty members.

H/T: SP.

Fear-mongering as news: turning sad stories into bogus trends


See if this sounds familiar:

(1)  A teenage girl becomes involved in sexual activity that most grownups, regardless of their own sexual behaviour as teens, find shocking and horrific.

(2)  The girl’s parent or parents learn of the activity and are utterly devastated.

(3)  A family crisis ensues, with outcomes that can range from good to horrendous.

(4)  In their struggle to process shocking new information about the child they love, the distraught parent or parents construct a frame to explain and cope with this cognitive dissonance.

Huge problem(5)  The frame invariably posits the existence of a large but hitherto unacknowledged social problem that explains how a good child falls into bad situations.

(6)  The parent seeks a journalist’s help in exposing this putative social problem.

(7)  To justify publicizing salacious details of a private family tragedy, the journalist adopts the frame. The girl’s story is not simply her story, but an exemplar of an unrecognized social problem of broad and increasing scope—a sinister trend, usually one in which digital media are implicated.

(8)  The reporter conducts an “investigation,” that consists of sympathetic and deeply restrained interviews with the parents—and with the girl, if she has survived and is cooperating.

(9A)  If the parental frame, now adopted by the reporter, includes warnings about the rising prevalence of criminal or socially destructive behaviour, police are interviewed, and their comments, while non-specific, support the parental call for greater resources (police resources) and legislation (police powers) to deal with the putative trend.

(9B)  If the parental frame adopted by the reporter includes criticism of alleged inaction by police or prosecutors, then police decline to be interviewed, because they cannot defend their position without revealing confidential information and appearing to attack the victim.

Iceberg-tip(10)  The journalistic “investigation” posits an upward trend in the socially destructive behaviour it highlights, but presents no objective, quantifiable information or data to support this assumption.

(11) The reporting omits certain basic information about the girl and her family, elisions justified as necessary to “protect” the girl against unspecified dangers. Interviews conducted in shadow-view, with deliberate voice distortion, reinforce the apprehension of danger.

Portent(12)  The story script employs portentous language that stresses the putative dangers to other children, and the shocking (but unverified) frequency of similar stories.

(13)  If the story is perfectly positioned, it will appeal to right-wingers, eager to implement greater authoritarian controls against social behaviour they find offensive, and left-wingers, distraught over victimization of girls and women in a patriarchal society.

(14)  In extreme cases, this unholy coalition will propel politicians to pass hastily contrived, ill-thought-out legislation giving authorities over-broad powers to address problems that may or may not exist.

“Al Goldstein Dies at 77; Made Pornography Dirtier”

That’s not my headline. It’s the hed on the New York Times’ hilarious obituary of the founder of Screw magazine.

Long before the internet brought newspapers to their knees, the industry suffered plenty of self-inflicted damage. Among the unnecessary wounds I would place the decision by big newspaper chains to turn obituaries into paid advertisements. The result has been a stream of unctuous prose authored by funeral directors and family members rendered inarticulate by grief.

One of the glories of the New York Times is the standard it continues to uphold in this magnificent genre. Witness today’s delicious piece on Goldstein:

Mr. Goldstein did not invent the dirty magazine, but he was the first to present it to a wide audience without the slightest pretense of classiness or subtlety… The manifesto in Screw’s debut issue in 1968 was succinct. “We promise never to ink out a pubic hair or chalk out an organ,” it read. “We will apologize for nothing. We will uncover the entire world of sex. We will be the Consumer Reports of sex.”

…Apart from Screw, Mr. Goldstein’s most notorious creation was Al Goldstein himself, a cartoonishly vituperative amalgam of borscht belt comic, free-range social critic, and sex-obsessed loser who seemed to embody a moment in New York City’s cultural history: the sleaze and decay of Times Square in the 1960s and ‘70s.

…With renown came obscenity arrests and lawsuits, which Mr. Goldstein in turn milked for maximum publicity. (He also wrote numerous scathing editorials accusing his accusers of hypocrisy, often accompanied by crude photo collages showing them engaged in humiliating sex acts.) Mr. Goldstein, claiming First Amendment protection, beat most of the charges, occasionally paying nominal fines.

…His lawyers argued that the anticensorship diatribes in Screw made the magazine sufficiently political, though Mr. Goldstein himself ridiculed this defense, insisting that a reader’s erection “is its own redeeming value.”

As a reward for reading to the end of the Goldstein obit, the on-line version features one of the all-time great corrections.


The press, the emus, and the killer wind turbines

Reporter and Emu

I see by the CBC that Nova Scotia Power wind turbines have laid waste to a Digby Neck emu farm, decimating a family’s livelihood in the process.

Twenty of Debi and Davey VanTassel’s 27 emus succumbed to the lethal noise produced by NS Power’s murderous machines in the three years since they began slicing the salt air over Digby.

Or maybe it was 30 of their 38 birds—the CBC story gives both sets of figures. In any case, the emus were as hapless as they were flightless, no match for the death-dealing, green-power monsters.

How do we know this?

Because Debi Van Tassel, voice choked with emotion, told the CBC so.

Why, when the birds that provided their livelihood began dropping like cluster flies on a warm window sill, the Van Tassels didn’t even call a veterinarian to examine the corpses. Why bother? They already knew the cause of death.

So certain were Debi and Davey of the emu-killing power of renewable energy, they had protested construction of the wind farm before it even started up.

A vet might not have been much help anyway, given the inconvenient lack of a single peer-reviewed study showing turbine-induced health effects on animals.

Public health researchers in Australia tabulated every known public complaint of human health problems related to wind farms, and found no correlation with the size of a wind farm or complainants’ proximity to them. Well over half of the country’s 41 wind farms generated no complaints; those that did were mostly in areas where protesters promoted health fears before construction began.

The Van Tassel’s putative plight reads like a classic fable. On the one hand, a grieving farm couple, raising charismatic birds from a distant hemisphere, seeking only to wrest a humble livelihood from the windswept Fundy shore. On the other, a corporation so reviled the press exempts it from ordinary standards of fairness and balance, replacing conventional news coverage with one-sided, crowd-pleasing screeds.

“With a vital portion of their income gone,” came the CBC’s maudlin conclusion, “the Van Tassels said they don’t know what’s next for them.”

Absence of evidence and rampant implausibility could not be allowed to interfere with such a stirring yarn. Score one for bunkum over news.

[Disclosure: I count many good friends among NS Power management and staff, and from time to time, I have done work for the company, mainly writing and editing.]

Why John Henry bought the Boston Globe

As recounted here last August, John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox, bought another great Boston institution, the Boston Globe, for just $70 million. That’s $1.13 billion less than the New York Times paid for it 20 years ago. The Times retained the paper’s $110 million in pension liabilities, so you could say the price was negative $40 million.

So grim are the economics of newspapering in the 21st Century, lots of industry watchers thought Henry was nuts. Late last month, he took to the paper’s editorial page to explain what motivated him.

I have been asked repeatedly in recent weeks why I chose to buy the Globe. A few have posed the question in a tone of incredulity, as in, “Why would anyone purchase a newspaper these days?” But for the most part, people have offered their thanks and best wishes with a great deal of warmth. A number of civic and business leaders have also offered their help. I didn’t expect any of these reactions, but I should have.

Over the past two months I have learned just how deeply New Englanders value the Globe. It is the eyes and ears of the region in some ways, the heartbeat in many others. It is the gathering point not just for news and information, but for opinion, discussion, and ideas.

John HenryTruth is, I prefer to think that I have joined the Globe, not purchased it, because great institutions, public and private, have stewards, not owners. Stewardship carries obligations and responsibilities to citizens first and foremost — not to shareholders. This is especially true for news organizations. As the respected Supreme Court reporter Lyle Denniston once said, “Only one industry throughout America carries on its day-to-day business with the specific blessing of the Constitution.”

I didn’t get involved out of impulse. I began analyzing the plight of major American newspapers back in 2009, during the throes of the recession, when the Globe’s parent company, the New York Times Company, considered shutting down the paper. As I studied the problems that beset the newspaper industry, I discovered a maddening irony: The Boston Globe, through the paper and its website, had more readers than at any time in its history. But journalism’s business model had become fundamentally flawed. Readers were flocking from the papers to the Internet, consuming expensive journalism for free. On the advertising front, print dollars were giving way to digital dimes. I decided that the challenges were too difficult, so I moved on.

Or, I should say, I tried to move on. I couldn’t shake off what I had come to admire about the Globe. I grew to believe that New England is a better place with a healthy, vibrant Globe. When the Times put the Globe up for sale this winter, I resumed my studies. I soon realized that one of the key things the paper needed in order to prosper was private, local ownership, passionate about its mission. And so decisions about The Boston Globe are now being made here in Boston. The obligation is now to readers and local residents, not to distant shareholders. This, ideally, will foster even bolder and more creative thinking throughout the organization, which is critical in an industry under so much stress.

May his words offer inspiration to those struggling to maintain smaller papers like the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, enterprises equally important to their communities.

The whole piece is worth a read. Thanks to Doug MacKay, who edited the late, lamented Halifax Daily News at the peak of its glory, for pointing it out.



Getting publicly fired — Jordi Morgan edition

“Life is like a public performance on the violin, in which you must learn the instrument as you go along,” wrote E.M. Forster, in Room With A View. I don’t know much about life, but getting fired, unexpectedly, publicly, certainly feels like that. Having gone through it, I’m always interested to see how others handle the experience.

Morgan copyHours after Rogers Media sacked him and 10 other News Radio 95.7 staffers, right-wing talk radio host Jordi Morgan posted “A note to Maritime Morning listeners” on his Facebook Page.

As you may have heard I will no longer be hosting Maritime Morning on News 95.7. Rogers has retooled to meet some very challenging market conditions and part of this process included the layoff of several personnel in Halifax.

I just wanted to take a moment to thank all of the people who have contributed to the program over the past three years. Academics, politicians, experts and engaged citizens volunteered their time and ideas to help create a program our team was proud to be part of. I believe our program with the input of so many, has contributed value to the discussion around municipal, provincial and national issues and topics of general interest.

He went on to briefly catalog the issues his show dealt with—cyber-bullying, discrimination against people with disabilities, mental illness, education, healthcare, and treatment of veterans—and to thank listeners, guests, regular callers, producers, and surviving hosts, before adding this:

While some may question the corporate decision makers, I want to take a moment to praise the efforts of Rogers media who have invested literally millions of dollars into our region by providing the content we have been able to provide.


I will miss being with you all… but hope that you continue to support the efforts of Rogers and News 95.7 to continue to provide such an important private sector news voice… a rarity in the Canadian broadcast spectrum. Without you… it’s a tree falling in the forest.

You might call this extreme grace and classiness—actually praising the people who showed you the door.

In the half day since Morgan’s post went up, 150 fans—including Bill Stephenson, Marc Patrone, Rob Smith, Waye Mason, Charles Cirtwell, Eva Hoare, Keith Bain, Kim West, Laura Peck, Fiona Kirkpatrick, Barry James McLaughlin, Mike Melski, Sam Moon, Peter Moirera, John Campbelljohn, and Laura Smith—have showered him with words of regret, encouragement, gratitude, kindness, and praise.

That such a diverse group of Maritimers could unite behind a right-wing host who once ran for the Alliance Party attests to Morgan’s deftness in dodging the pitfalls that give that breed a bad name. Mainly, he eschewed sophomoric rants, and treated contrary-minded guests with respect that felt genuine, not faked. Can anyone doubt he will land on his feet?

An opinion poll with an invisible thumb on the scale

A trio of Nova Scotia environmental organizations — the Nova Scotia Fracking Resource and Action Coalition, the Council of Canadians, and Sierra Club Atlantic — scored a public relations coup yesterday when local news organizations reported that “Nova Scotians overwhelmingly support a continued ban on fracking” in a poll commissioned by the group.

A news release said the poll, conducted by Abacus Data, a respected Ottawa-based polling firm:

…found strikingly solid support for a continued ban in all areas of the province –from a high of 72% in Cape Breton, to 70% in HRM and Annapolis Valley/South Shore, and 61% in the northern part of the province.

The overwhelming support crossed the political spectrum – 71% percent of those committed to vote Liberal, 72% NDP and PC and 82% Green either strongly supported or supported a continued halt to fracking. Support was equally strong among men and women, and held steady across all age groups.

There was only one problem. The single-question in the survey was asked in a manner so flagrantly biased as to render the results meaningless. Here’s how it read:

Fracturing or hydraulic fracturing, is a relatively new process for extracting shale gas. Concerns have been raised about water contamination, harm to human health, and negative effects on communities and the climate. The Nova Scotia government has a moratorium on fracking while an independent review is underway. Do you support keeping the ban on fracking in place, unless the independent review finds there is no risk to drinking water, human health, the climate or communities?

This is a classic “push poll,” a pseudo survey in which the tendentious questioner slips a thumb onto the scale so as to get the results she wants. In the guise of background, the question supplies respondents with arguments on one side of the issue, but not the other, and then seeks a response. In essence, this one warned that fracking contaminates water, harms human health, and hurts the environment and the climate, then added, it’s banned here now; should the government allow it?

None of the news stories I read quoted the question, or called foul on its blatantly contaminated methodology. They just regurgitated the fracking opponents’s analysis of the results, as if it were based on meaningful data. Shame on them, and shame on Abacus, whose website promises “objectivity” and cites “integrity” as a core value, for participating in this propaganda exercise. (I have asked the CEO of Abacus for a response.)

There are lots of reasons to be wary of fracking, and public opinion is one factor Cape Breton University President David Wheeler will have to weigh as he reviews the pros and cons of continuing the fracking moratorium. I can’t imagine Wheeler, a respected academic, giving this survey any credence.

I wonder if an honest poll wouldn’t have revealed lopsided opposition to fracking. We’ll never know, until someone conducts one.

Which obit makes the news?

From a September 9 Facebook post by David Rodenhiser, marquee columnist for the Halifax Daily News until its demise in 2008, now toiling for Nova Scotia Power’s communications group.

In the Obituaries section of the Chronicle-Herald there are notices for no fewer than six veterans of the Second World War:

  • Joseph “Bunny” McLaughlin, army, who brought home a war bride in 1946
  • Jaleel “John” Laba, army, who later owned and operated Laba’s Discount on Gottingen Street for many years
  • Stanley Cairns, merchant mariner
  • George Haliburton, army
  • Adele Healy, RCAF secretary
  • Walter Shaw, army, wounded in Germany in 1945

There’s also an obituary for Cecile d’Entremont, who passed away at the age of 100, survived by a host of descendants including a great-great-great grandchild.

Meanwhile, leading all newscasts: a Halifax house cat has died of cancer.

In retrospect, one of the first steps in the long downward trek of newspapering came when papers began charging for obituaries, which had until the 1980s, been regarded as news stories. This prefigured, and can’t be blamed on, disruptions caused by the internet. It reflected a voracious appetite for revenue by newspaper chain owners like Roy Thompson and Conrad Black, who held little regard for the medium’s traditional service role.

John "Jeleel" Laba 1924 - 2013

John “Jeleel” Laba
1924 – 2013

Monetizing obits had the side effect of eliminating news coverage of the deaths of community members who were less than famous — people who had been injured in long ago wars, or run long forgotten working class retail establishments, or found their brides in war-torn countries far away. It made newspapers less useful, and usefulness turned out to be a commodity newspapers would ignore at their peril.

The late Esther Dubinsky of Sydney, co-proprietor with husband Newman of Whitney Pier’s legendary Sydney Ship Supply, was outraged when the Thompson-owned Cape Breton Post began charging for obits. The independently owned Chronicle-Herald and Mail-Star held out for several years before falling in line with the industry trend.  Until it did, Esther instructed her children that her obit in the Post should read:

Esther Dubinsky died yesterday. For details, see the Chronicle-Herald.


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