Thursday, August 10, 2017

Personalities Versus The News

The era of the personality cult finally appears to be ended at CBC’s The National.

The daily 10 p.m. news program will replace, as expected, the saintly but boring Peter Mansbridge with four anchors. The hope is that the change brings a much overdue freshness to the failing newscast.

The Mansbridge personality cult ended earlier this summer with the man’s retirement as chief news anchor after 29 years. During those three decades The National’s credibility, and its audience, sank steadily.

The National viewership over the last year averaged 866,000 compared with 1.3 million for the CTV National News.

Alternating four anchors carries risks, but risks are needed for The National to have any hope of regaining its former stature. The National has been with us in one form or another since the early 1950s.

The chosen four all carry journalistic credentials, which in recent years CBC has considered less important than high profile personalities. Mansbridge had no serious journalistic qualifications while other stars such as Amanda Lang, Rex Murphy, Jian Ghomeshi and Evan Solomon, got themselves into pickles by forgetting that straight, unbiased reporting takes precedence over being seen as a star.

Both Adrienne Arsenault, the CBC’s senior correspondent, and Rosemary Barton, host of Power and Politics, have excellent journalistic credentials. Ian Hanomansing, often seen anchoring on CBC, and Andrew Chang, a CBC Vancouver local news anchor, have journalistic experience but are viewed more as presenters.

Chang will anchor from Vancouver, Barton from Ottawa and Arsenault and Hanomansing from Toronto. The CBC brass says the anchors will take turns reporting from the field.

CBC news chief Jennifer McGuire says The National will have more digital focus, whatever that means, plus more original journalism, insight and analysis. The
Toronto journalistic literati chimes in with other thoughts on what is needed: background, context, investigative reporting.

Those are all clichés and weary buzzwords that the journalism elite have been using for years.

The National, and most other news outfits, need a new journalism that tells people more besides something has happened. People know something happened immediately after it happens. They get it from hundreds of news sources: Twitter, Facebook, other Internet sources, radio, television, newspapers, word of mouth.

They need to know how what happened connects with their lives and what it says about the society in which they are living.

An important need for The National, and much of Canadian journalism in general, is diversity. Not diversity in such things as colour, nationality and sex. We are a reasonably advanced and tolerant society moving forward in understanding diversity in race and sexual orientation. What we are lacking is knowledge and understanding related to our geographic diversity.

Our national news media is not reporting enough on how people in the regions are living their lives. What are their successes, aspirations, troubles and fears? What are their stories and how do they relate to our overall society?

News media spending cutbacks have created huge black news holes across Canada. Knowledge and understanding of other regions are sinking like houses consumed by a Florida sinkhole.

Local news operations, notably the weekly newspapers, are covering their communities but national outfits such as news services, TV and radio networks and the larger dailies have cut back cross-country coverage. Too much news focus today is on the urban areas, particularly Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal. We need to know more about the lives of people in less urban areas such as Nelson, B.C., Biggar, Saskatchewan and Oromocto, New Brunswick.

Diversifying its anchor team is a good first step toward The National returning to prominence. Hopefully the anchors and their news teams will follow the simple rules for news gathering excellence: Be curious and ask simple questions without being obnoxious or putting yourself into the spotlight. Observe and report clearly without bias.

Those are the traits of the best journalists I have encountered. Interestingly, many of those have come from the Atlantic provinces where personality cults appear to be less important. Maritimers and Newfoundlanders have a “down home” way of recognizing a good story and knowing how to tell it.

The National could use a bit of that.


Thursday, August 3, 2017

Is Innovation Overrated?

This was to be the summer of innovation at the lake.

Long desired transformations would bring the place into the modern age. Wi-Fi cameras to monitor security and to keep an eye tuned for any damage from the latest storm. Electronic peeks from afar to see the depth of snow gathered on the roof.

Wi-Fi thermostats to turn up the heat so the place is cozy on arrival. And Wi-Fi controls to unlock doors for children et al who forget their cottage keys.

None of that innovation took place. Other things got in the way, like fixing a broken septic pipe, and keeping roof gutters clear and water courses flowing freely in the record rains. And, of course, dealing with downed trees and wave-battered docks.

Instead of a summer of innovating, it was a summer of patching up.

As summer now shifts into autumn, a realization dawns. It is a light-bulb moment being experienced by more and more of North American society: Is modern day innovation overrated? Does it deserve the veneration we pile upon it?

Our society worships innovation and abhors maintenance. We treat innovation as an unquestionably important value like goodness and love.

That despite the fact that a far bigger chunk of our time is spent maintaining and fixing existing things than designing new things. There are studies that show 70 per cent of engineers work on overseeing and maintaining things and not inventing them.

Yet our society honours the inventor-innovators far more than fixer-maintainers. We celebrate Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Michael Dell and other white-collar wizards as heroes. We pay them the really big bucks, dress them in suits and ties and assign them higher social status. We see them as  artists who make our lives more efficient.

Meanwhile, the maintainers – the plumbers, electricians, mechanics and janitors – wear workaday clothes, earn less and generally have less social status. They keep our world humming but we consider their efforts run-of-the-mill work.

We have given innovation a venerable place on the altar of change. Seldom do we question hard an innovation’s real value - who it benefits, exactly how and at what cost?

For instance, studies have shown that the medical community often overestimates the benefits of disease-screening tests while underestimating their potential harm. It is an example of our tendency to put much hope and faith in innovations while not asking enough tough questions.

The world arms race is another example. Innovations in technology have made possible targeted kills instead of massive invasion or widespread bombing. Thousands of lives are saved through pinpoint strikes. Another result, however, is an ever-increasing arms race in which more countries try to develop or obtain more innovative weapons.

A more down home example comes from the American historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan. She has written that in the past couple hundred years technological change has shifted the burden of domestic labour from adult men and children to mothers and wives.

Washing machines and vacuum cleaners, she writes, “which promised to save labour, literally created more work for mother as cleanliness standards rose, leaving women perpetually unable to keep up.”

Politicians contribute much to sustaining the reverence for innovation. It is much easier to lure voters with the shiny and the new rather than the dull and practical. Announcement of a new bridge sells much better than repairing of an old, rusty one.

Also, one way to hold government budgets in check is to follow the ancient saying:  “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Much of North America’s infrastructure – roads, dams, bridges – is suffering from lack of preventive maintenance. Too much of the maintenance we see now is simply reactive – fixing something already broken.

There is a growing movement saying that society can be much better served by putting more emphasis on preventive maintenance and giving less  adulation to innovation.

Innovations at the lake, meanwhile, remain on hold. Maybe it’s better that way. We’ve gone years without the electronic wizardry and perhaps we are better off without it. Besides do we really need something else that needs to be maintained?


Thursday, July 20, 2017

Mother Nature Fights Back

‘Don’t mess with Mother Nature’ used to be a cute and humorous expression. Not these says. Too often now we witness how an angry Mother Nature fights back.

Here in Haliburton County extreme rainfalls and damaging winds are becoming more frequent. In the past month a small tornado flattened dozens of trees on my bush lot on Highway 35. Days later another violent storm closed Highway 117 and damaged properties between Baysville and Dorset.

Haliburton rainfall from April 1 to mid-July totalled more than 550 millimetres, just shy of two feet. That is more than double the average for the same period.

Across North America record high temperature days are increasing while the frost-free season is 10 days shorter than it was 100 years ago.

A recent article in New York magazine says there has been a 50-fold increase since 1980 of the number of locations suffering extreme or dangerous heat. The historically warmest summers in Europe have been in the last 15 years.

Daily headlines report environmental disasters created by weather extremes. A piece of Antarctica ice the size of Prince Edward Island breaks away. Wildfires threaten huge parts of the U.S. West. Williams Lake, B.C. is being evacuated because of fires. Last summer it was Fort McMurray, Alberta.

More fires, floods, droughts and tornados prove without question that we have a major climate change problem. Crazy Donnie, the U.S. president, says it’s all a hoax - fake news - but most people just ignore him now.

"We’ve got to move past getting a consensus that the world is warming,” Professor Adam Switzer of the Asian School of the Environment noted recently. “That consensus is done."

Scientists report that between 1880 and 2017 the earth has warmed two degrees Fahrenheit. More warming, many warn, will weaken the world’s ability to support life. Some believe that a mass extinction already has begun.

Earth has had five major mass extinctions in which 50 to 90 per cent of all species were killed off. A review of data from 14 biodiversity research centres predicts that 15 to 37 per cent of all land species could be on their way to extinction by 2050.

Drought, which brings severe food shortages, which in turn bring violent conflicts, now affects 70 million people in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, says The Famine Early Warning Systems Network.

Ironically, while millions suffer from drought, a major concern is rising water levels. Sea levels have been rising 3.4 millimeters a year since 1993, according to some studies, making for a total rise over 20 years of six to eight centimetres.

The rise is complicating, and might threaten, the lives of millions of people living in low-lying coastal cities. One-third of world major cities are on the coast and an estimated 600 million people live within 10 meters of sea level today.

An immediate concern in all this is how increasingly hotter weather affects how humans treat each other.

Too much heat turns people ugly. Studies have shown there is more violent crime when temperatures reach 35 Celsius than when they are 23C. Posts on social media tend to get nastier as outside temperatures rise.

Canadians probably have more reason to worry about climate change than people in some other parts of the world. Canadian temperatures have been warming at roughly double  the global mean rate, according to Environment Canada.

“A two degrees Celsius increase globally means a three to four degrees Celsius increase for Canada,” says an EC website.

Unlike Crazy Donnie, the Canadian federal government is unequivocal about global warming, saying: “Warming over the 20th century is indisputable and largely due to human activities.”

Much of our Canadian concern is over the Arctic. Our Arctic ice has been diminishing over the past three decades, adding significantly to the rise in the world’s oceans.

Permafrost is melting across the Arctic, destabilizing buildings built on stilts sunk five or six metres. Construction crews now drill as deep as 20 metres to get a stable foundation.

There is concern that Arctic melting will accelerate, eliminating more permafrost and creating more serious problems.

Good news: awareness of weather problems is increasing and more people are working to find solutions.


Thursday, July 13, 2017

'It's Tom Thomson!'

One hundred years ago this week a vacationing Toronto doctor was relaxing at his rented cottage on Algonquin Park’s Canoe Lake . He looked out over the water and noticed an odd piece of flotsam.

The flotsam was hard to distinguish, but a canoe with two paddlers was passing by so he hollered for them to check it out. The paddlers were park guides George Rowe and Larry Dickson, and at first glance the flotsam appeared to be an animal carcass.

As they approached the object, the doctor, G. W. Howland, a neurologist at the University of Toronto, heard one of the guides shout: “It’s the body of a man.”

That was followed quickly by: “It’s Tom Thomson!”

It was July 16, 1917 and the discovery of the body was the beginning of The Great Canadian Mystery.

Tom Thomson was a commercial artist who fell in love with the Algonquin wilderness. He canoed it, fished it and painted it before dying just short of his 40th birthday. He is Canada’s most famous landscape artist and inspired the Group of Seven movement after his death.

Thomson had gone fishing alone the late morning or early afternoon of July 8. It was the day following a late night drinking party during which Thomson is said to have had a heated argument with Martin Bletcher Jr., a German-American summer resident at the lake. The argument apparently was about the war with Germany.

Thomson was not seen after he left for fishing and the next day his distinctive dove grey canoe was found floating empty in the lake. A land search was begun because Thomson was an expert canoeist and strong swimmer. The theory was the canoe had tipped and he swam to shore, or that he was on shore and the canoe had drifted away.

The guides Rowe and Dickson towed the body to Big Wapomeo Island, left it in the water but tied it to shore. This was a common practice to slow decomposition while a coroner travelled from outside the Park.

By the next day the coroner still had not arrived and the body was rotting in the July sun. It was decided that Dr. Howland would examine the body without waiting longer for the coroner, and write a report so Thomson could be buried.

There was a quickly-arranged funeral attended by Thomson’s friends, park staff, guides and staff and guests at Mowat Lodge, a summer vacation place on the lake. The body was buried in a small cemetery in the woods behind the lake.

The coroner arrived after the funeral, held an inquest and ruled the death an accidental drowning. It was noted that Thomson had a bruise on his left temple and blood in his right ear, indicating he had fallen or been struck before entering the water and drowning.

The Thomson family, when told of the burial, said Tom should be buried at home at Leith near Owen Sound and arranged for an undertaker to go to Canoe Lake, dig up the body and ship it home.

The undertaker arrived at night. There was speculation that he dug a little, tired, then quit and shipped an empty coffin.

In the 1950s some cottagers and their visitors went to the little cemetery and began digging for Thomson’s body to prove it was still there. They exhumed a skull and bones which forensic testing showed belonged to an indigenous man.

To this day arguments continue over how Thomson died and where he is buried. Books have been written, films have been made but all are based on speculation. No one really knows how Thomson died or where he is buried.

The Thomson family always said the coffin that arrived home contained the body of their son and brother. They always refused, and rightly so, to have it exhumed to settle the arguments once and for all.

Meanwhile, there also are theories that Thomson was murdered, perhaps the result of bad blood between he and Bletcher. Or by someone else for other reasons.

My view is in my 2003 book Tom Thomson: The Life and Mysterious Death of the Famous Canadian Painter. An updated version will be released by Formac Publishing this coming fall.