Thursday, October 20, 2016

Blowin' in the Wind

It was a week of good news and bad news.

First came the good, and surprising, news that singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel prize for literature. Dylan’s songs changed popular culture. His lyrics became hymns for the civil rights and anti-war movements.

The bad, and also surprising, news was that yet another fine journalist is out of a job. Lee-Anne Goodman, a reporter who epitomizes bartender Dooley’s famous quote -  “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” -       is out at The Canadian Press, the country’s venerable news service.

Thousands of journalists have lost their jobs in recent years. The reason I mention Ms. Goodman is that I worked with her for a number of years and respect her work. She reports stories that we all need to know in these complicated times, eschewing the easy bubbles and fluff crap that we see too much of these days.

When excellent journalists are pushed aside, society as a whole suffers. Excellent journalism truly is a pillar of democracy and when journalism  is eroded, so is democracy.

What’s happening in journalism is more than erosion. It is disintegration.

In the United States 25,000 journalists have been laid off since 2005 while digital publishers have created only 7,000 jobs. Those figures come from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Canadian Media Guild reports 10,000 jobs cut from the print and broadcast industries between 2008 and 2013. The Guelph Mercury and Nanaimo Free Press dailies were shuttered earlier this year.

Postmedia, which owns two daily newspapers in several cities has combined staffs in Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver for a loss of 90 jobs.

The Toronto Star cut 52 journalism positions in August. Rogers Media has said it will print Maclean’s magazine only once a month, and an online version once a week. It is closing some other titles.

Fewer journalists means less poking and probing, uncovering and reporting information that citizens need to know. Like when Chad Ingram of this newspaper fought for and won access to the multi-million dollar contract between the province and Carillion Canada Inc., which county residents believe has provided  sub-standard winter highway maintenance.

As news outlets and journalists disappear, journalism retracts into the tight, homogenous thinking of big cities, like Toronto, Canada’s centre of journalism elitism. Toronto journalism knows little and cares little about anything beyond the metro area borders.

People in Guelph and Nanaimo and many other places like them are being deprived of information and viewpoints they must have to tell them what is happening and to form ideas on how to fix problems.

News media black holes are widening across the country. We hear and read less from other parts of our country and what problems they face, what successes they enjoy.

News executives, panicked by the ascent of digital news and the advertising it is drawing away from them, are dumping journalists to save money. The more they cut, the further the dumbing down of their news reports.  

They are focused on ways to regain lost revenues. What they need to focus on is providing stories so important, so compelling, so well reported and written that people are willing to pay for them. That type of thinking is beginning in other parts of the world, but regrettably not in Canada.

The collapse of journalism and its weakening of democracy has caught the attention of government. The House of Commons heritage committee is studying the news media crisis and is expected to make some recommendations this fall. Other government studies – the Kent Royal Commission on Newspapers and the Davey Special Committee on Mass Media – have done nothing but collect dust.

Meanwhile, astute observers of the news industry expect that most printed daily newspapers will be gone within the next 10 years.

While politicians ponder their belly buttons and news executives panic, questions go unanswered.

Like, how many injustices exist out there with too few journalists to see? The answer is same one Bob Dylan wrote four decades ago.

“The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind.
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”


Thursday, October 13, 2016

Taking A Break from Government

Finally there is an escape route from the nightmare in the United States. How did we not think of it before? It has been in front of us for 10 months.

The nightmare, of course, is that country’s presidential election. It features a 70-year-old tantrumic child and a 68-year-old robotic opportunist who he accuses of being unfaithful to her husband, who has been unfaithful to her.

So Americans have a choice between a vulgarian with the attention span of a grasshopper and an automaton devoid of emotion and human touch.

Voters don’t want either as president (can you blame them?), but they don’t have any other choice. At least, they thought they didn’t.

All they have to do is look to Spain. It has been without a functional national government for almost a year now, and is getting along quite nicely.

A few days before Christmas last year Spaniards voted, but failed to give any party a majority. Negotiations to form a coalition government failed. Another election was held in June but no party won a majority, and more negotiations for a coalition also failed.

So Spain’s 47 million citizens were left without a working national government. There is a “caretaker” government, but it has little power to do anything. It can’t fill diplomatic posts. It can’t appoint cabinet ministers, nor can it approve next year’s budget, which is supposed to be in place by now.

No laws have been passed by the Spanish Parliament since late last year. Critical decisions are left unmade. Most parliamentarians are out trawling for votes for the next election, or involved in continuing negotiations to create a coalition government.

Local governments are still at work. Public transportation is running, garbage is being picked up and those on welfare are receiving their cheques.

Few Spaniards appear to be upset by not having a functioning federal government. One poll showed that only 2.3 per cent of the population considered this a serious problem.

News reports from Spain show more satisfaction than concern.

We’ve done very well without a government . . . perhaps the best half year of Spanish politics in at least the last decade,Gabriel Calzada, an economist, wrote in a daily business publication.

No government, no thieves,” FĂ©lix Pastor, a language teacher, told the New York Times. Pastor said the people of Spain were better without a government because the politicians were unable to cause any more harm.

The Times also interviewed Rafael Navarro, a 71-year old pharmacy owner in Madrid, who said too little government is better than too much.

Spain would be just fine if we got rid of most of the politicians and three-fourths of government employees,” he said.

Polls show that a majority of Spaniards believe that most of their public services work only “a little” or “not at all.”

Polling data also shows they are fed up with fraud and corruption and with politics, politicians and political parties. A whopping 86.6% believe the tax system is unfair and 94.6% believe it is riddled with fraud.

That should sound familiar in America where potential president Trump has not paid federal income taxes for a couple of decades.

Americans should follow the Spanish lead. Don’t elect anyone. Better still just call off the election. Let the lame-duck Obama administration carry on for a bit longer while Trump, Clinton and the other politicians behind them get psychiatric help.

Being without a functioning government would not be a calamity for Americans.  Their Congress already is so divided that it can’t get anything done. It shut down government temporarily because of disagreement over health care law, and has argued and stalled anything that might improve the lives of Americans.

American politicians, and politicians in many other democracies, are divided and becoming more polarized every year. There is no compromise – or little effort to even discuss compromise – on the big issues such as economic policy, immigration, racism, security.

It’s time they all take a break and sit down to discuss how the system is broken, and what can be done to get it functioning properly.

It seems to be working for Spain.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

How to Treat A Night Visitor

(My Minden Times column Oct. 6)

I sit straight up in bed, wide awake even before my eyes open. They don’t need to be open because it is 6 a.m. and pitch black.

And, I don’t need vision or hearing to know that it is out there. I have a weird sixth sense that wakes me when it comes at night.

At the kitchen back door I search in the darkness for the bear banger I keep handy for such occasions. It’s not as handy as I thought. I can’t find it in the darkness.

I don’t want to turn on the kitchen light because it will see me through the windows and sneak off. I decide to turn on the outside light to at least get a better look at it before it bolts.

It’s there alright, not three feet from the kitchen door, head into the recycling bin. The light startles it. It swivels its head, looking about to see what has interrupted its search for tasty morsels.

He or she a bit too large for a this year’s bear, so I guess it is a one-year-old. Young bears are much like human teenagers, unfocussed and a bit goofy. It just sits there, looking around and sniffing the pre-dawn air.

The bear banger not findable, there is only one other way to give it a scare that it will never forget. I swing the kitchen door open, jump forward with my hands above my head and let loose my loudest banshee-like scream. It falls over itself streaking into the nearby bushes.

Hopefully the scare will teach it that this is not a place to stop by on nightly food-searching rounds. There’s nothing here for it anyhow. The recycling bin was washed and empty.

Black bears have excellent long-term memories. I’m betting that the image of a crazed human jumping it front of it and screaming like a demented thing will stay with it at least until the snow flies and sends it off on its winter sleep.  

This was our second bear visit this year following a year or two without any. Night visits and other sightings have increased this year, no doubt because wild berry crops have been devastated by dry weather.

There was a sighting this year on the island across from my place, proving again that black bears are good swimmers. They are believed to be able to swim a distance of three kilometers.

Bears even are showing up in the Big Smoke region with sightings in built up places like Aurora, Milton and Pickering.

One of the scariest sightings this year was in the Lake Superior town of Terrace Bay. A sow and her two cubs padded into the Station Two restaurant through an open back door and began ransacking for food while customers were eating lunch.

The restaurant was evacuated, police shot the mother and the cubs were captured and brought to an animal sanctuary.

In July, just up the highway in Schreiber, a man was walking his dog when he encountered a cub. A mother bear then appeared and attacked the man.

The two boxed each other a couple of times before the cub, who stood watching the fight, squealed and its mother ran off with it. The man suffered claw wounds to his face, shoulder and arm.

Most people survive violent encounters with black bears. reports that only seven people are known to have died from Ontario black bear attacks in the last 100 years. The province has a black bear population believed to be 75,000 to 100,000.

My most recent bear encounter confirmed just how fast bears move. They have been clocked at more than 45 kph, which is a lot faster than I can run.

They also are quick and agile tree climbers. So if you meet one, it is a bad idea to run, or to climb a tree. In a bear’s mind, anything running away is weak and likely an easy meal.

A good idea is to stand still and look big and aggressive. Or, if you have just been awakened from a pleasant sleep, you can try acting like a crazy person.