Friday, August 11, 2017

DUMP TRUMP AND REVIVE REAL NEWS


ALL TRUMP NEWS ALL THE TIME IS BORING

We will all remember these last months because of the media preoccupation with a liar who has always been a liar since he was in kindergarten.
I want Trump gone because then the newspapers and TV shows may talk about something else than the latest bald-faced lie from Donald Trump who has never told the truth about anything or passed up an opportunity to cheat, whether it was in a charity or a casino.
An astute columnist the other day lamented that the New York Times was writing so much about the U.S. president. The Times is prospering, despite Trump calling it the "failing" Times, but I do wish it could return to broad coverage instead of just shooting down the latest bloated utterings of a man who        has never had an honest thought.
I also blame the media for cheating on its incessant coverage because it's an easy and cheap way to fill pages or consume hours.
The decline in the public view of politics in general, which was never high, can be traced directly to newspapers and TV and radio stations going to 24-7 coverage. The easiest way to provide such coverage is with sports, politics and old movies.
Once upon a time, my duty as a young reporter was to do follows on all the political stories that appeared in the final edition so the first edition the next day would appear to have fresh updates on all the important political stories of the day.
So I do know all the tricks. And I do know, as any experienced journalist does, that most "new-s" stories are 95% old. So you try for a variety of stories instead of just one oldie that is often not a goodie.
We know that all-news radio and TV stations repeat their coverage several times an hour, so after a few hours any listener can practically repeat all the stories verbatim.
It makes me cringe when CNN, still far better than that awful Fox operation, keeps giving as breaking news something that was boring me the previous evening.
The future for real news is bleak because right now newspapers are cutting their staffs, and all the media that steal their stories, ideas and their talking heads from the newspapers become starved for real different news too.
This decline will continue until the newspapers, which are the foundation of all real news reporting, figure out a way to get more money for their content so they can afford to hire more real reporters to give more coverage.
There is this myth that bloggers and the various innovations in social movement actually give us the news. Horseshit! Most bloggers just sift the lint in their belly buttons or their ravings or they just make it up. As for the pretend reporters who are really disguised activists,  send Joe and Jane Canuck off the street to monitor a session of city council or the Legislature and you will watch baffled amateurs drown in confusion.
All you have to do is watch those inane TV interviews where bystanders are quizzed about a fire or an accident or a shooting and it is obvious that it takes experience to figure out what really happened at anything more complex than a parking ticket.
There never was more of a need for journalism schools. There never was more need for the public to realize that most of the stuff on the Internet is garbage - contrived mischievous malicious crap.
Because too many people accept what they read there, it  was possible for Donald Trump to get elected by dumb souls and those who know that sure he lies but maybe he may actually cut their taxes.
Facts no longer matter because Trump and much of the Internet just make up their own versions and try to shout down the legitimate critics who actually know what they are talking about.
But there, I have just fallen into the media trap by taking easy shots at a flatulent target. There are more important issues in Toronto and Ontario and Canada than Trump's latest fake promise.
When I wrote a daily column, it would have been so easy to stretch out the same topic over a few days.  I was ashamed whenever I did it because I was failing my readers. After all, they are quickly bored by politics. When you keep returning to the same topic, it's an easy excuse for them not to pay attention to what are often important and costly issues.
That's what has been happening for months now in the U.S. where the media are preoccupied with the latest nonsense in the White House while important issues are not given the in-depth background examinations that they need and deserve.
Even humour has been affected. The trouble with political jokes, they say, is that they kept getting elected. The trouble with jokes about Trump is that his failings have so infected late-night TV that you switch from Colbert to Fallon to Kimmel and you hear them reciting ad nauseam the latest gaffe to set up their punch line.
The American political system is broken. Trump is just another boil on its skin. Let's lance it and let the poison drain! I want to laugh at someone who can't blunder us into nuclear war!


Thursday, August 10, 2017

GASSING TORONTONIANS


BIG SMOKE SUCKERS

There is a routine media announcement every night about the price of gasoline in Toronto. There should be an ad that runs with it that says "hello there suckers, gassing up your car in T.O is stupid."
On my weekly jaunt to the Kawarthas, to sit on my point on the Trent River and rejuvenate, I routinely pay a nickel or a dime per litre less than the standard price in the Big Smoke. A few days ago I paid .15 cents a litre less than was being charged at the Esso stations closest to my home in Etobicoke.
I mention Esso because I recall many complaints from Imperial Oil fatcat PR chiefs over the years as they explained to the "stupid" newspaper editor that just because the world price of oil had plummeted, our pump prices would stay high because that was the gas that they had bought months before.
I would point out that it was truly miraculous that the price at the pump would never fall months later because then the world price was back up and they could use that as their excuse.
Torontonians like to think that our retail prices are generally lower than out in cottage country because of all the competition and all the stores. Chain operations have kicked that smug argument in the slats but prices are higher in independent shops. But it certainly isn't true when it comes to gasoline.
So my question, dear reader, is why do our the big oil companies continue to steal from the residents of the biggest city in the country when routinely their identical product is sold from their identical gas stations for less whenever you drive outside our fair city?
The answer, of course, is because they can get away with it.
 So much for pretending to be good corporate citizens when they join the national jealousy that loves to screw Hawgtown.

Friday, May 5, 2017

ARCHAIC TORONTO BOOK AWARDS IGNORES PROGRESS


SUCKING UP TO  CANADIAN PUBLISHERS

I have been around so long in journalism that I was called a dinosaur by Peterborough Examiner editors who had asked a visiting British editor who he had been talking to here about newspapers.
He reported the snide comment apologetically. I just laughed, saying hatred of Torontonians is one of Canada's unifying forces.
The comment suggested I didn't know what was going on after five decades of working in every facet of the trade. Of course, if they had been literate, like the Examiner in the days of its editorship by the noted author Robertson Davies, they would have used the word troglodyte.
Please, a caveman, not a beast!
Fortunately for them, Paul Godfrey and the Post didn't get their mitts on the Examiner until after I left as Sun Editor because I had told him I wanted to run the Kawarthas newspapers because then I could live at the cottage instead of in the city being hampered by its council.
I confess that I did start only a few centuries after they suggested, but I did learn to set type and run a press and write a lede in the hot metal days when it was so much more difficult to put print on paper.
I did an ink-stained apprenticeship on a Yukon weekly and in the ancient rooms of the grand old lady of Melinda. I did everything from writing obits to proofreading wedding invitations.
Now the wondrous computer days have transformed printing even as bricks-and-mortar bookstores are disappearing. Amazon stepped out of a comic book and became the most potent marketer ever.
Not that everyone has noticed the self-publishing revolution where even your kid can produce a reasonable comic book as a Grade 5 project.
For example, the Toronto Book Awards is stuck in the past. It began in 1974 just as the innovations in printing and everything else allowed the Toronto Sun to flourish only three years after the death of its goliath godfather, the Telegram, poisoned by its hot metal roots.
The competition for the $17,500 in prizes has just closed for publishers and authors who do things the  old way which unfortunately often needs our taxes in order to subsist.
The new way of self-publishing, which exploded around 2010, is ignored by Toronto council even though books and their technical twins are pouring out from citizen author/publishers.
It is rare for a book not to have an ebook version. More importantly, there have never been more self-published books, and I'm talking about real books, not the vanity press where printers overcharge ego-drunk writers and also insist they buy mounds of their own product.
To add a bit to the Bard's wonderful lines. "All the world's a stage. And all the men and women merely players. They have their exits"...and many of them have stories they would like to tell you first without running a marathon of hurdles from publishers who crave only bestsellers from people who know the game of promotion.
The publishers are fighting the DIYers in cunning fashion, using every trick in their hard-cover book to cripple the self-publishing upstarts.
Their wet dream, I suppose, is of all the iPads and Kindles etc. going up in flames like a certain smart phone so they can go back to making more than the author on a book.
I admit that I have a conflict of interest because I just published a soft-cover book and ebook version. Even though it is filled with anecdotes, facts and observations about downtown Toronto for a century, I couldn't submit it to these awards even though it matches the criteria, that it be "evocative of Toronto."
Even though I have written  books and  countless columns, blogs, features and editorials, even though I have performed in every form of communication, I can't enter these old-fashioned awards because I am guilty of my latest effort being too modern in production and not sanctioned by a publisher.
Other book awards, all the way up to those given in the name of the Governor General, have contrived restrictions on behalf of publishers against self publishing. Why in the case of the G-G awards, only a publisher can enter.
There are other rules too. There's one blocking any ghost-written book . Oh really? Are we pretending all those famous Canadians dash off books in their spare time from trying to dazzle us.
Straight from the Heart was a bestseller for Jean Chretien before he became PM and he's listed as the author but his ghost writer was not a ghost for thousands.
Jack McClelland, the justifiably famous boss of McClelland and Stewart, hired me to ghost write two books. The one supposedly by Nathan Phillips - only Art Eggleton served longer as Toronto mayor -  was called Mayor Of All The People. It was published before the awards existed but would not have been eligible even though it was "evocative of Toronto."
McClelland had me and six others audition to write the memoirs of Kelso Roberts, who was almost premier three times. The others were famous names. I won, I suspect, because I charged less.
June Callwood, an icon in this country, made a healthy living as a ghost writer, as do many friends who are not famous.
My book has interesting details about how the Ryerson square was the incubator and nursery for much of the old city's culture as well as being the capital for education which spun off the university and the colleges - the CAATs as we used to call them.
Yet because I didn't persist in the tedious search for a publisher, because I just said to hell with it and brought out a book like hundreds of others are doing, I'm not eligible for book awards run as if computers never happened and we are still printing newspapers and books like we were decades ago.
I hired a book designer, David Moratto, to turn my revived manuscript into a form that could be  printed and distributed by an American company. I hired another specialist from Toronto, Peter L'Abbe, to produce the ebook. All of this through computers. I have never spoken to anyone at the printer/distributor but just filled out forms. Same with the nitty-gritty like copyright.
I had an old friend, Robert MacBain, as a great guide since he had used Moratto and L'Abbe for the latest of his two books, one of them the fascinating Their Home And Native Land. (It's about Ojibways and Mohawks and other natives who are great successes. We used to call them natives before indigenous became the in term. In our early days as troglodytes, the natives called themselves Indians when MacBain and I interviewed them.)
MacBain and I and the designers, all of us living in Toronto, are not just a tiny cottage industry because self-publishing has become city-sized in culture. The output of the collaborations of the authors, book designers and printers/distributor may be scorned by award bureaucrats but it has become "ubiquitous" in the words of a busy expert, L'Abbe.
The prize in the brawling is the printed book. It's never been easier and cheaper to produce them (and the ebook twins are a breeze to produce and distribute) so the panicked publishers goad the book judges into banning them even as they demand at least six copies of "real" book entries. (Every little bit helps the bottom line.)
It's symbolic of how unhelpful and hostile publishers can be when media veterans with myriad connections like MacBain and me - he has had national posts and his wife Maria Minna was a veteran Liberal MP and cabinet minister - feel we have to go the self publishing route.
The recent million-dollar donation of thousands of old books to Ryerson University is the latest vivid reminder of the fragility of publishers which don't move with the technological times.
The books were printed by Ryerson Press, named after its first editor in 1829, Egerton Ryerson, the founder of the Ontario system of education after whom the university, and my book, are also named.
There was controversy and consternation in 1970 when the United Church sold Ryerson Press to the damn Yankees. For once this social-movement church made the right move because in just a few years the dawn of the computer age started turning the conventional publishing houses into, well, dinosaurs.
Since it's so easy for everyone to produce books these days, stick-in-the-mud publishers never miss a chance to knee-cap the DIY collaborations.
If your industry can be transformed by technology, it will be, as executives of network TV and AM radio could tell  them. At least we will have self-publishers to produce the books about their deaths if publishers persist in the old ways.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

THE FLIP SIDE OF DARWIN AWARD STUPIDITIES


THE ANECDOTES ARE GOOSED TRUTH

My cousin sends along the latest hilarious nominations for the Darwin Awards which are handed out in some mysterious way each year to celebrate the latest deaths by stupid people who cause their own destruction.
It supposedly all started around 1985. I am sure some rewrite man collected all the stupid death stories that trickle out like congealing blood during the year and then regurgitated them in some pretend contest where the winner gets nothing but a grave stone and the runner ups remain just an embarrassing story to be related in shocked whispers at family picnics.
There is now a web site, an annual book, and plenty of copycat versions where the truth is strained to the point of incredibility.
Some of the latest: the guy stealing a pop who pulled the machine over on top of him; the light plane that crashed into another because its occupants wanted to moon the  other plane; the chap who drank gasoline and milk in a weird attempt to get high cheaply, and then blew himself and his sister up when he vomited the concoction into a fireplace.
I love the stories in a cynical way because I know they generally have been embellished and one or two resemble vaguely some of the dumb things that I have done...fortunately with no witnesses.
What drains some of the humour out of the pretend awards is I know all about one of the famous winners from years ago. That victim was not only very nice and very smart but he was surrounded by very nice and very smart people.
He was the lawyer who used to run across the conference room and throw himself against the window 40 storeys or so above Bay St. to illustrate to the gawking articling students at his prestigious law firm that thanks to building codes and smart builders, this was not a dense thing to do.
Except one year during the annual stunt the window broke and he fell to his death.
Wow! Really stupid, right! And thanks to the Darwin Awards ritual, there isn't a nook in the Americas where they haven't heard the story.
Well, let me tell you the other side. The guy was so bright that he was a brilliant engineer as well as being a lawyer. He was so popular and clever that his law firm quickly put him in charge of all the kid lawyers that they hired, and his death occurred during a party that he held to welcome the newcomers.
Did you know his family sued the building and collected? So they had money to go with wonderful memories of a gentleman who stood out from the crowd.
Not that they were hurting for cash. His widow was one of the major municipal official in Canada and then chaired the faculty council of the largest university while presiding later over major municipal agencies.
Nope, not exactly the victim or the family you would associate with the weren't-they-stupid prize, are they?
In the ocean of deliberately false info and careless misinformation that floods the Internet, with the stupid elevating of a congenital liar to be U.S. president, with alternative facts being invented as a notorious expression and then actually invading our language where a fact should be a fact and not a political lie, the Darwin Awards have lost much of their chuckle because they can be as contrived as a standup comedian's monologue.
Next year one of the entries in this supposed competition should be a eulogy for truth, and fewer and fewer of us will laugh.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

TRUMP BENEFITS 99% OF CANADIANS ON DAIRY


SUPPLY MANAGEMENT IS AN EVIL CON

Even a jackass can be right, as Donald Trump has just proved through his stupidity. When he goes after Canadian agricultural producers, showboating for dairy states, all Canadians who buy dairy products, eggs, chicken and other items protected by what the bureaucrats call supply management, which is just a fancy name for theft, should urge him on.
I have written about it for decades. So have many journalists not caught up by the careful reporting by the CBC on anything to do with the family farm and the callous disregard for the majority by Liberals and Conservatives.
I recall business writers like Mary Janigan winning major awards years ago when they detailed how much less the inhabitants of Buffalo had to pay for milk and eggs and chicken than we did on this side of the border.
Buffalo may be infamous as one of the major shrinking cities of the U.S. but one of the reasons their Anchor Bar chicken wings became so famous is not just because of the recipe but because they were so inexpensive.
I saw an estimate that supply management costs the typical Canadian around $275 annually because of the protection given our dairy farmers (significantly many of them in Quebec) forcing consumers like you and me to pay much more than if there was open price competition.
I think that guesstimate is far too low. As a family who loves cheese and buys several bags of milk and cartons of eggs on every grocery run, one who salivates at suggestion that milk would be halved in price if our gutless politicians finally kicked supply management in its diseased teeth, I am sure my savings would be several times that.
(And let's not even get into our bread and beer where the cost of ingredients is kept artificially high.)
The ironic crusher is that the whole foundation, the rationale for our politicians to side with farmers against consumers, is that it was said to benefit all the farmers.
Hardly!
Thanks to all the rules 'n' regs which force dairy farmers to pay more than $20,000 for the right to milk just one cow, the experts agree that maybe 10% at most of the dairy farmers benefit from supply management.
So these milk millionaires are happy as hell to lobby to keep their lucrative flow of dollars coming from the 35 million consumers and have conned so many politicians with their supposed voting power that only one major candidate in the current Tory leadership race, Maxime Bernier, is willing to say without qualification that supply management is political BS that was outdated decades ago....that is if it was ever in the consumer's interest.
I started school in Chesley, a furniture town in Bruce County so rooted in the farms around it that we took agriculture in high school and I knew how to do the Babcock test for butter fat in milk.
I have lived on a farm and had two brothers-in-law which were farmers. I have listened to my fellow directors from the farm lobbies at the Canadian National Exhibition. (The myth is that when the CNE started in 1879 that it was an agriculture fair. Nope, it was an industrial fair.)
So I have seen the inside of the propaganda from agriculture as the 100-acre mixed farm started to vanish and agribusiness took over. I have read the stories of all the expensive equipment that the  farmer needs and how they need to be protected and subsidized on their now giant operation.
No one ever did that for me.
Surely at some point most Canadians will rebel and insist that all this has to stop, this favouring of farmers so their votes are more important than urban voters because rural riding are always much smaller in population than city ridings.
Surely we should demand that agriculture not continue to get all these special government deals, whether in property and income tax or even the right to gamble.
The victory of Trump is seen as the revenge of blue-collar voters who felt ignored by fatcat establishments. They don't care that he's simplistic and out-of-his-depth and that he lies and blusters and doesn't understand that trade and tariffs are two-way streets where Canada has weapons too.
Yet wouldn't it be delicious if this inept boor blundered into a fight against Canadian supply management that if he won would reduce the price of every one of our meals.
After all, supply management has been supported for decades by both Grits and Tories pandering to the rural millionaires. Now it may be quashed by a developer who specialized in bankruptcies and reality TV and is looked down on by all the politicians for life.
At least now The Donald has trumped the Benjamin Disraeli quote that seemed to sum him up. "He was distinguished for his ignorance; for he had only one idea and that was wrong!"
For Canadians, this idea is right!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

MORE DELAYS IN TTC DECISIONS THAN SUBWAYS


THE SYTEM OVERFLOWS BUT STILL  LOSES MONEY

The university lecturer was explaining long ago that for centuries there had been a great argument about how many angels could dance on the head of the pin.
That actually woke me up for a few minutes.  I have never forgotten that metaphysical anecdote even if I never understood it. Yet I think of it regularly in terms of interminable baffling debate when the latest political fight is on an issue that I first covered 50 years ago.
I mainly think of it at City Hall when it comes to tolls, transit routes and parking. Gee, I actually recall when the elimination of tolls in Ontario was seen as a great accomplishment even though it deprived the party faithful of a lot of patronage jobs.
The other day, the stats prof asked me what I thought of the latest debate over a new subway line. Now I use him as a resource on the latest health theories, and he uses me as a seeing eye dog on politics so he doesn't overdose on his liberalism. But I told him that I didn't know what the latest arguments were and I really didn't care because these debates have been going on for so long there is a suspicion that Sir John A. may actually have talked about the best route to the Scarboro wilds at a Market rally.
Once upon a time, I was one of the experts of all things to do with the TTC.
It had started rather simply because my colleagues were lazy, and I was the rawest reporter in the Tely City Hall bureau, so naturally I was assigned to leave the comfortable surroundings there and trek to the TTC headquarters where a fresh deck of cigarettes always sat on the press table and the atmosphere was that of a club.
The gods smiled on me with that weekly assignment because it benefitted me on the great decision about where to buy a house. The decision about the western routing of a Bloor subway had not yet been made but it made sense to me - always a dangerous thing when it comes to transit - that the line would swing close to Royal York and Bloor.
That was already a prime hunting ground for me since three important Metro commissioners in works, planning and parks (Tommy Thompson was not yet just the name on a park) lived near the intersection. If the area was seen as the smart place to live by the top three municipal officials in  Ontario, who was I to argue.
So I bought there half a century ago and my wife and I, my three sons and now my grandsons, used the subway regularly for hospital, university and downtown appointments because parking has been so screwed up by a council that considers one cyclist more important than the five drivers of delivery vans and commuters who have to manoeuvre around each one.
Planning subway lines has always been a dog's breakfast even before Mel Lastman stuck us with that silly stub in North York. It got so bad that several young municipal reporters floated their own idea in two newspapers which had been suggested at breakfast by their landlady who couldn't understand the planners going on and on when the best idea would be to build a giant X.
Connect northern Etobicoke and the top of Scarboro with the bottom of the two suburbs with an X which would cross at Bloor and Yonge. It certainly would help all those riders in the corners with a difficult commute to the centre of the downtown.
For much of a year, the X extensions were high in the polls and the landlady served better breakfasts. Then it was only porridge.
I recall the verbal brawling over the routing of the Spadina subway because of the ravines north of St. Clair. The Metro transportation committee had so many alternatives that they were given numbers and letters.
After the triumphant meeting that was touted as making the final decision,  I wandered up to the clerk and the chairman, the weird Irv Paisley of North York, and said I was surprised at the winning choice because of some problems that I listed. Paisley objected, saying that wasn't what the committee approved. I showed him my notes, and then the clerk produced the official record which agreed with me. So Paisley cursed and muttered, the clerk ran around rounding up the committee members, and they passed a different route half an hour later.
I spent so much time writing about the TTC because the commissioners and councillors argued about everything. Killing streetcars became a big issue and I wrote about them so much that I am credited with popularizing their nickname of red rockets.
The TTC asked me to write its official history. Than it tried to hire me as the ad and PR boss. A lot more money, and the newspaper business was certainly crazy, but I figured not quite as strange as transit in T.O.
I suppose the high point was riding down Bay in the limousine assigned to the boss then, Mike Warren, when we were T-boned by a car. Warren never stopped talking. He opened the door, hopped out and hailed a cab without saying a word to his driver. When I questioned this, he said that if the staff didn't know how to handle a routine accident, there was nothing he could do about it.
And the low points have been all the times in recent years when I have limped on to a subway car at 10.30 p.m. after the symphony or the opera or the play and find not only all the seats taken with smug people even in the disabled seating, I had to compete for handholds.
And so I grumbled profanely to any poor sap stuck riding with me about how can the TTC lose money carrying more than half a billion people yearly when there are still crowds riding when many  are in bed.
Of course major problems are the union agreements which stick us with more staff than is needed in between the extended rush hours.
But let's not forget that at our political centres where they set taxes and routes and fares and impose awkward bylaws that too often our decision making is a mix of the principles of Peters and Parkinson. The theory that managers rise to their level of incompetence is combined with the rule that work expands to fill the available time. So does political debate!
The mayor and a gaggle of councillors, the premier and a giggle of ministers, and the transit CEO and a stall of managers, would rather talk grandly and commission reports and threaten tolls and demand more money from the government just above them - which means the taxpayer just pays out of another pocket  - than actually do something on time.
The Better Way would be if they talked less and did more, and stop stupid decisions like shutting down part of the system on important holidays like Labour Day when traditionally there was to be increased service because of the CNE.
The most dangerous word I hear about the TTC come from my friends and neighbours who have been riders their entire life. They talk about the "decline" of service. Unfortunately, they can't recall when the peak was. We all must have missed it in the fog of words.






Saturday, April 15, 2017

ALTERNATIVE FACTS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN FAKE


TRUMP IS JUST THE LATEST LIAR

Facebook is warning and instructing us about false news. (I prefer using fake to false because fake has a circus feel of clowns and charlatans and false is formal legal talk.) Yet no experienced journalist, or sensible adult for that matter, needs to be told about liars because they have been with us since cavemen exaggerated kills and conquests.
We all know at work or school or play who the Bullshitters are and who the people are that you can trust to give a reasonable view.
Whether you lie a lot, or just tell the occasional white lie so people aren't hurt, is determined early in life. It starts with fibs to the parents, gets rooted in kindergarten and blossoms when teenagers chase each other. By the time college or jobs arrive, the jerks who have skidded through early life by cheating whenever they discuss anything more serious than breakfast can't be trusted to be truthful about anything.
Then the stakes really grow on the card table of life, from CV entries and stats at the office for ordinary folks to political promises and records of accomplishments for those who con their way into being our stewards.
Donald Trump has been notorious for decades for lies and cheating. It's just a waste of space and time for the media to detail even a fraction of them. When a vacuous aide talked about his "alternative facts" on Meet The Press on Jan. 22, she was just trying to gold-plate the usual lies from a man infamous for not telling the truth.
For decades, when I heard of a scoop in a newspaper or the electronic media, the first things I wanted to know was who the reporter was and who was the source. All you have to do in Toronto, or for that matter in any settlement larger than a hamlet, is find out those facts and then you have a good idea of whether the story's true or possibly true or probably fake.
There are reporters who goose every story, just as there are politicians who exaggerate every minute. Any reporter, whether they're covering police or politicians or stock brokers, knows that it would be nice to have at least two sources for anything more important than a tiddlywinks championship. Politics is really slippery. But in most news stories, when reporters discard the onlookers who don't have a clue,  50% of the people won't talk to them and 49% lie.
Unfortunately, the size of the newspaper or the reach of the TV station isn't always a guarantee. Mistakes slip through, or become glaringly obvious, since newspapers publish in each edition the equivalent of a book.
 Even the big guys goof, but not most of the time, so that can't be used as an excuse in today's silly argument that the world really doesn't need healthy newspapers.
I recall a headline story in the Star saying the rail line cutting through the centre of the city was going to be removed. Great news for developers and the people who lived near the tracks. Except the story was as phoney as it had been years before when the same newspaper ran the same story by the same reporter and baffled rail executives again told the other media they didn't know anything about it.
 Oh yes, the tracks are still there but the reporter who didn't give a damn about the truth has been dead for years, which has reduced the number of his hoaxes.
I was successful as a City Hall reporter at the start of my career because aldermen and department heads would only talk to me. They wouldn't deal with other members of the Tely City Hall bureau because they occasionally wrote the opposite of what they were told. An example was the city treasurer telling them there was no plans to have an extra tax bill. Their headline story in the final edition that day warned that Bill Campbell (who incidentally was Rob Ford's grandfather) was contemplating a supplementary tax bill. Campbell didn't sue because he was busy threatening to kill.
Google has become a wonderful tool for journalists. But as I remember warning a journalism class, the Internet is a vast ocean of information into which the observer dips a tea spoon hoping to find a reasonable version of the truth and not be drowned by misinformation, or as Kellyanne Conway would say, alternative facts.
A fact is a fact is a fact. It's real, the truth about what happened, not a wish the fibber would like to be true. The Trumpites may want to challenge the size of crowds or jobless figures but when the photographic evidence is overwhelming or the agency charged with the estimation disagrees, then the alternative facts are really alternative fibs.
At least Google, Facebook and the other wondrous information sources on the Internet present the public with endless information. It is up to you and me and journalists and voters to sift and sort while checking the sources.
Too many bloggers and trolls like to pretend that they alone really know what's happening and that the media organizations are so bloated and beholden that they are not a reliable authority.
It's ludicrous for a blogger informed only by partisan conviction to pick the lint out of their belly button and weave a yarn of what really happened in an incident hundreds of kilometres away which was covered by trained reporters under the direction of experienced editors.
The harsh reality is that the professional liars like President Trump will never be unmasked by bloggers and that today's media with all its warts and failings are the only watchdogs that will bark and bite when the alternative facts become deadly to the public interest.




Friday, April 14, 2017

GIVE ME A BREAK FROM TRUMP


MY DIRTY SECRET - POLITICS IS OFTEN BORING

Once upon a time when a handful of people started the flagship of what became the Sun chain, I covered everything in Canadian politics 24/7.
 I spent more time with the mayor than my wife, and talked more to the premier than with my neighbours.
It wasn't that I was that brilliant an observer - although some days I was happy to pretend - but the baby Sun didn't have reporters at the City Halls of Toronto, or the Legislature, or the Commons. If  I didn't cover the budget or the fare increase or the Throne speech in my daily column on Page 4, the editors had to scramble to put together a news story.
Fortunately in those days in my mists, there was no television coverage of Question Period or the council meetings. So I could rush around grabbing the first draft of Hansard or glean some coverage of debates from the faulty and egotistical memories of the participants.
My accounts of a verbal duel was often the first time readers knew what happened. That was a break for me, but some coverage today is stuck in that past. Today it would be reported ad nauseam because of the frantic need of the electronic media to fill 24 hours with something, anything, besides old movies.
As I was saying to Steve Paikin the other day at, damn it, another retirement function for a Sun stalwart eased out the door, I really don't miss those frantic days when politics consumed every waking minute.
When the pressure eased and the Toronto Sun actually boasted an array of reporters and columnists, I rebelled a trifle and played hookey. I didn't always write about politics in the thousands of columns that I had to churn out.
I wrote about my family, the cottage, movies, anything rather than the same old debate in the Legislature that happened every spring. It was a welcome break.
The brass didn't like my departures from political coverage but I explained it helped me keep sane.  Yet one publisher finally got his grumpy revenge when I retired but agreed to continue to write a column for more than a decade. The letter of agreement stipulated, and he pretended it was a joke but it wasn't, that I could only write about the cottage occasionally.
So you may well ask, what the heck has this to do with that headline about wanting to dump Trump coverage and confessing that politics is often boring?
I  confessed this at a luncheon to a lawyer who said he had once dealt with me and other directors when our charity was planning to fight Betty Fox in court. (We decided that while the law was clearly on our side, the public would hate us for any legal action against the Terry Fox organization.)
He loved politics and couldn't understand that I would find the overdosing on political coverage today so boring because of my background.
I said that politics was relatively cheap to cover compared to investigative journalism and that thoughtful coverage of ALL the events of the day would require far more staff than newspapers and television now want to devote to real news and not just the latest bloody accident and what city council is going to discuss again for the tenth time this year.
I said that the previous night I had switched from the talking head panels of CNN discussing another Trump flipflop to the usual suspects on the CBC discussing federal politics in careful terms. I turned off the TV in disgust and picked up the latest Time magazine. I rather like Time (and have written for it) but it seemed every para was devoted to Trump.
 So I picked up the latest Maclean's, which I rather like because (I have written for it) and it has improved recently even though tragically it has been forced into those Internet editions. Canada's national magazine had nothing much beyond provincial and national politics and politically-correct coverage of Indigenous issues (what we used to call native issues even when most natives were still calling themselves Indians in interviews.)
The ironic tragedy is that at the very same time that the voters of Canada and the United States demonstrate an incredible stupidity in their political choices and their lack of knowledge of the issues, there has never been more political coverage for them
Perhaps the problem is that so much of it is just talking head stuff. Then there is this infestation, particularly on the CBC,  of what I have always called "equal time for Hitler." My argument is that if Hitler was running Germany today, there would be many authorities, especially CBC lawyers, who would order that his views be given equal time and space to the views of those great politicians opposing his evil.
There aren't just two sides to every issue. Generally there are many. There also can be confusing partisan smokescreens. But democracy is not served when gutless brass insist that their anchors and commentators refrain from telling us obvious majority views of the best proposal. It would be nice if there was some digging into the issue rather than just recording the flimflammery of politicians whose level of competence is often not getting elected.
Remember that environmental and humane activists may be on the side of the angels in what they are protecting but it would be nice not to exaggerate their clout and numbers and let their science go unchallenged. As for all the sacred cows, let them flee to the protection of India!
So my thesis is that there is too much political coverage these days. Democracy and stewardship of the public purse would get a great boost if there was less but better coverage.  Right now we are boring all those men and women who we really want to understand the facts, and to realize that there are no alternative facts in the real world.
The typical political session is boring repetition. We have to hire more observers who can dig the nuggets out of the BS and not just think a good day's work is repeating the usual arguments from the usual suspects.




Monday, April 3, 2017

HYDRO REALLY D0ESN'T GIVE A DAM


FOR HYDRO,  LIVING BETTER ELECTRICALLY IS CHEATING

I told you so about Hydro so many years ago that glass fuses were more common than circuit breakers and the great salvation of power bars hadn't yet been invented.
I told you so before the last three provincial elections. These Liberals couldn't wire a doghouse if they had a million dollars to waste. And they certainly couldn't guarantee uninterrupted service.
I have listened to the tidal waves of indignation about meter gouging and fat salaries and incompetence and shouted out to anyone who pretended to listen that Ontario Hydro blew every fuse it had in common sense and proper business behaviour about three decades ago and there have been many commentators and columnists beside me who noticed.
Yet people tuned us out.
I let out a sick chuckle yesterday when I opened Hydro One's two bills for my cottage and the bunkie. The bunkie is used only several weekends a year. I use the cottage about a third of the time from May to October.
The bills were for the period from Dec. 23, 2016, to March 25, 2017. No electricity was used. Yet the delivery of electricity cost me $112.66  on each bill, the regulatory charge was .75 cents on each bill, the HST was $14.75 on each bill, and the grand provincial rebate on each bill was $8.26.
So in the dead of winter when my cottages and thousands like it were not used, I paid $239.84.
Ironically, I felt almost lucky. Six years ago, when starting on a cruel April Fool's Day I spent three months in four hospitals, the Hydro bills for the unused cottages were much higher.
Some city folk not used to the problems of cottage country may wonder why I just didn't put Hydro on a seasonal hold as you have been able to do for years with your phone and cable. Nope, Hydro won't allow what other "public" providers routinely permit.
Some might also wonder why I just didn't scrap the second meter and run all the power from the main cottage. A good idea except local contractors and the incestuous bureaucratese who support them make this an expensive tedious operation.
Once upon a time,  cottagers used to get a break on seasonal use but Hydro grabbed it away without explanation or even a lame excuse.
One problem is you never actually know how much power you are really using because you can never trust the readings from the so-called smart meters. Mine are so stupid that I have paid for the empty bunkie three times what I paid for the main cottage which was all we were using while I recovered from my hospital hell.
The Internet is filled with examples of cheating Hydro meters. There are also many suggestions that they are a health hazard. I have never believed that but I have a thick file filled with examples of exorbitant charges. The north and cottage country have more horror stories about Hydro than they have residents.
Last year I paid $1,237.62 for the power I used in Etobicoke. I paid $2,040.83 for the Hydro at the cottage. Something smells!
Fifty years ago when I entered Toronto journalism as a nervous cub reporter, the best Christmas party in town was thrown for the press by Ontario Hydro. We all got a gift, like warming plates or a big turkey. The booze flowed and the shrimps were like baby lobsters.
We were a rowdy lot, throwing buns at the Hydro chairman who officiated. So  next year there was only sliced bread.  So we sailed the slices at his head. He laughed, because he had to keep the three papers happy (TV and radio didn't matter yet).
Gradually the media stirred itself into throwing tough questions and not just buns and bread. The coverage grew ever more critical. It didn't help Hydro that former employees never managed to hide the fact that expenses there didn't matter a damn.
I had a secretary who wanted a new typewriter (yes this did happen back in the mists) and when I told her the typewriter she already had was the top of the line, she said that when she had worked for Hydro she got a new typewriter every few years without question.
I have never forgotten. When my stockbroker told me that Hydro One was selling some stock and it looked like a golden opportunity, I said I would never invest in a company that I considered to be sloppy in its spending, efficiency and corporate morality.
But as I began this column saying, I have said this all before. And so have others.
On April 7, 2016, my blog in johndowning.ca was headlined Hydro One Cheating. On April 25, 2015, my blog was Stupid Toronto Utility Billing. On April 14, 2014, the blog was headlined Let's Give Liberals The Electric Chair. On April 18, 18, 2014, it was Blowing Ontario's Fuses. On Feb. 24, 2014, my blog headline was Hydro's Cheating Meters.
And before that Hydro was a regular target in four decades of thousands of my columns and editorials in the Toronto Sun.
You can't say you weren't warned.




Monday, January 2, 2017

BILL MARSHALL'S WONDERFUL LEGEND


AN OUTRAGEOUS CHARMER AND FIBBER AND CULTURAL ENTREPRENEUR

A dishevelled Bill Marshall pushed through the crowd in the famous office, grabbed David Crombie, and promised to have welcoming remarks ready in minutes for the first visit by the Governor General to Crombie as Mayor of Toronto.
Crombie regarded his hung-over speech writer and aide with amused exasperation, turned, and said to the GG who had been there for some time, that he would like him to meet Marshall "who is said to work for me."
 Just a stumble in the warm relationship between a municipal song bird and the man who crafted an advertising campaign that made Crombie mayor after only one term of alderman.
Marshall has just died, and you're going to read a lot about his movie producer days, his feisty work with three mayors, and how he helped start the film festival with another wonderful character, Dusty Cohl.
 I was in on a lot of that stuff but I also remember strange anecdotes about a friend who you felt you could trust even when you doubted he would pay you back for that loan. A man filled with delightful gossip and stories and adventures and a brilliance with words and images that would awe conventional practitioners.
In my days of having to find a daily column, I often found it productive to loiter on two second floors - at City Hall outside Crombie's office, since Metro Chairman Paul Godfrey was right next door, and in the Legislature near Premier William Davis's corner suite.
Not only could you see who the leaders were dealing with, their aides tended to be floating around filled with criticism of what I had written and trying to lead me down the garden path to promote their guys. It was like being in the trenches with barrages of ideas showering down.
It was a cold January but I found Marshall wearing sandals, linen pants and a Hawaiian shirt leaning on the railing outside Crombie's office. Lunch, he suggested. Of course. A great dining companion. We went off to Hy's steak house. Nothing strange about that but Bill didn't wear a coat as he crossed the Square.
Finally he confessed that there had been "a bit of a problem" with his girl friend. When he returned to the apartment, he found she had taken scissors to all his expensive clothes, poured glue over his records and stereo, and hidden his Corvette (which he never found for two weeks.)
Just another stumble in the life of a man who seemed to audition daily for what the Reader's Digest called in its days of glory "the most unforgettable character I have ever met."
We were all part of the twinning ceremony with Amsterdam, an interesting time when Crombie discovered that he was riding the bus with the rest of us while the City Clerk had appropriated the limousine that the Dutch were providing for the mayor of the city that was now its official partner.
We had a great time. That happened generally when Marshall was involved. The final night he told us  that the Canadian VW organization had loaned him one of their nifty buses which he no longer needed and offered it to David and Heather Smith and the Downings if we wanted to drive around for a week.
We had no papers for the bus, which had a big dent, but unbelievably there was no problem crossing the borders of five or six different countries. We returned to find Marshall had told the VW company that he had no knowledge of the dent. The gall of that scalawag! Smith at the time was merely the president of council, second only to Crombie, and his wife was a federal Crown. So we indignantly howled him down. Yet then we decided to thank him with a dinner that Marshall for some scandalous reason never got to.
That was Bill!
As the film festival legend goes, and it resulted in an Order of Canada for him, Bill was great in waving a clever wand of fine words and finer imagery over any situation. He could make fish and chips seem like Dover Sole at the Tour d'Argent.
Crombie got city council to give the film festival its first grant in 1976, which I remember as only $500, which was a remarkable investment when you consider the tens of millions that later swirled around the festival no matter what it was called.
The first festival party was a humble affair in an ordinary suite at the Harbour Castle. I doubt if there were 200. I remember my heated discussion with Marshall in the kitchen of the suite about whether it was proper for taxpayers to have to pay for this festival scheme of his considering the conflict of him working for Crombie.
He was eloquent in his scorn of some tabloid columnist getting ethical on him. As many found to their horror, whether major actors or famous talking heads, Marshall gave a belligerent damn if he felt you had crossed him or hurt a major idea or cheated when you promised to show up in support.
But he liked a good argument, and he liked people, and if you hung in there his eyes would start twinkling and the party would begin again. Those TIFF affairs became famous even in Hollywood.
Thanks to those parties, and the flamboyance of Cohl and Marshall that impressed even in a make-believe world that thought it had invented the style, TIFF has been world famous for years, even if the founding stalwarts are dead or dying or like George Anthony retired except for Facebook.
The Toronto film mafia would descend on Cannes each spring. What a zoo! I discovered once that every nook was so crammed with famous names  and limousines that the only parking I could find was three illegal rows out from the sidewalk.
Marshall and Cohl had suites and famed lunches. The Torontonians dazzled with their entertainment and their encyclopedic knowledge of movie lore and stars. And of course Bill's stories about making movies. I remember watching some "rushes" with him about his movie shot in Alberta called Wild Horse Hank. The surprise turned out to be that not all horses are great swimmers, or for that matter, know how. So Bill's people drove some horses into this river and some had to be rescued, which is not a normal scene in a Western.
Bill had innovative ideas about everything. He had rented an old school house near Peterborough and decided to play farmer too. So he planted an expanse of vegetables and to keep the weeds down, because he was a clever fellow, carpeted the garden with newspapers.  Yeah, you guessed it. Two weeks later there were torn yellowing sheets of newspapers blowing in the wind as far as the eye could see.
I tried to kid Bill about it but embarrassment never scratched him. His attitude was today's failure was just a try-out for tomorrow's success. We all should learn from that, and not just because of the Toronto International Film Festival and those stark black signs that said MAYOR CROMBIE when the Tiny Perfect was still just a junior alderman who had started by teaching a course at Ryerson that he had never taken himself.