Monday, January 31, 2005

The 14th Edition of the Red Ensign Standard ...

... can be found here.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Bloggers In the Mist (Or At Least At the Royal Oak)

Last night I had the opportunity to attend the Elite Blog Mafia AGM (though I think it should be more than annual--quarterly perhaps?) in Ottawa.

The Royal Oak II pub, where the meeting took place, is a small cozy establishment just outside the main campus of the University of Ottawa. I got there late (had a little trouble with parking), and it wasn't until a pint of Boddington's later that I realized that the table in the window had a little Red Ensign as a decoration--a sure sign of Bloggers in these parts. (I think a bigger banner would be a good idea.) Ah, well; better late than never. I went over and introduced myself to the following fellow bloggers:

This is Shannon Davis, who organized our little get-together. She's toasting Warren Kinsella in this pose. I'm still not quite clear on why.

Seated beside Shannon here is the Red Ensign Brigadier known as The Canadian Slacker, he of the occasional posting in The Red Ensign Standard.

And the thoughtful man beside the Slacker is fellow Brigadier Keith, the Minority of One.

Two other Ottawa bloggers were at the meeting. The one on the left is Blair Hansen, who operates the blog Italics Mine. And the amused fella on the right is Bruce Gottfried of Autonomous Source.

I had a great time, myself. I'd like to thank the attendees for letting me photograph them (since it's my 40th birthday today, I'd indulged myself by purchasing a new digital camera), and I hope we can get together again soon.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Yes, Virginia, It's Still Legal to Make a Fool of Yourself in Canada

The Supreme Court of Canada has overturned an indecency conviction against a guy from B.C. who, er, diddled with himself, in his own living room, in full view of his neighbors.

The Court explains that just because people from outside could see into the living room, it doesn't make it a public place and therefore subject to indecency laws.

I suppose architects, readers of porn and "cocky" (sorry) exhibitionists are sighing in relief. No word yet on how the neighbors feel.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

How Do Young Canadians Think of Canada? Not Much, At the Moment

A few caveats about Canada25, the think tank that produced this report:

The people who created this are university graduates involved in media, academic studies and activism. They would have been known as "the best and the brightest" in another era; in this one, we'd call them blue-staters. Take that into account when reading the report.

So how do these young Canadian blue-staters see our place in the world?

Well, a great deal of it is "wish-list" thinking, as in "this is how things should be" as opposed to "here's how we get there." But the ideas are enough "outside-the-box" that they're worthy of consideration.

Well, for starters they want to reform the Dept. of Foreign Affairs. This report wants to shrink DFAIT down to a coordination/consultation/education role within the federal government structure--more a "here are your options" mode than a "thou shalt do this" one.

They also have some interesting ideas for the Canadian Forces and the RCMP. The idea of developing niche capability (such a post-conflict reconstruction) is based on Canada's current activities in Afghanistan. I find it interesting that "don't neglect combat capacity" (i.e. GET MORE EQUIPMENT AND TRAINING) comes after the ideas for what the Forces can do, since it's lack of combat capacity that normally generates the headlines. More troublesome is the idea of creating an "international police force." That will require a lot more resources than the Martin government is currently prepared to pay for.

The existence of this report is pretty much an implicit criticism of the Chrétien era of government management. It's idealistic, and a lot of it may be impossible to put into practice. But it's still worth reading and discussing--especially if Canada wants to be a player on the world stage again.

Monday, January 24, 2005

The Last -- And The Best (Or Close to It) -- of William Safire

Today is the last day of William Safire's tenure as the "right-wing" voice of The New York Times. (Not that he's gone completely; he'll still be using his Sunday Magazine column to explain the English language.)

To commemorate this, the Times isn't just publishing his farewell column. It's publishing three more pieces. Two of them are reminiscences of his punditing career: one sums up the journalistic crusades he's taken on over the years, such as Baltic freedom (victory!) and state-sponsored gambling (dang!), while the other talks about his relationships with the various First Ladies from Pat Nixon to Hillary Clinton (and the idea that Bill Clinton wanted to punch Safire's nose out, after the pundit called her a congenital liar, raised my respect for Slick Willie a small notch).

The second one listed is one worth paying attention to. "How to Read A Column" talks about the various rhetorical tricks that commentators use to get their points across, as well as appropriate responses from the reader. Besides being a lot of fun (as Safire shows how to violate his own rules), the advice can apply not just to our usual gang of idiots in the mainstream media, but also to the modern gang of idiots in the blogosphere.

I'm not sure who they'll get to succeed Safire as the token right-winger at the Times, but one thing's for sure: nobody can replace him.

Friday, January 21, 2005

The One Rule that Conservatives Never Learn

Like any other interest group, social conservatives like publicity. More often than not, they'll try to generate that publicity by making some unusual statement on the social issues of the day.

However, there is one rule that, if not heeded, guarantees that your public issue campaign will backfire on you, resulting in people dismissing you as a quack:


Look at what happened with Vice-President Dan Quayle. In 1992 he picked a fight with "Murphy Brown" by holding her up as a negative image of the single mother. Didn't exactly help his image now, did it?

Or Jerry Falwell suggesting that a purple Teletubby was gay. A baby-talking fake costume has a sexual orientation? I don't think Falwell's been taken seriously ever since.

So, you'd think that by now Christian conservatives like Dr. James Dobson would know better, but noooooo ...

Now, a few days later, it seems that Dr. Dobson is doing a little backtracking here, trying to point to the organization rather than the character, but still, the damage has been done.

2004 put the cultural liberals of Hollywood on the run, shocking them into realizing how out-of-touch their values were with the rest of North America. Does the Christian Right really want to demonstrate that they can be as silly as the Secular Left?

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Give Me Liberty, Or Give Me Death -- But You Can Keep Halifax

We Canadians do have this unfortunate habit: we take a perverse sort of pride in occasions when the immortals of history notice us, in either a positive or negative light.

So even though George Washington delivered a "thumbs-down" review of Halifax in his 1776 letter to Charles Lee, Haligonians are still going to point to it with some pride.

The complaints about Halifax aren't exactly Washington's; he's just reporting what he heard from the Loyalists who'd fled Boston and then decided to come back after spending some time in Nova Scotia.

They complained about a) bad weather, b) overpriced lodging, and c) overcrowding. If it weren't for a), I would've thought they'd landed in Toronto by mistake. (I was in Halifax last year for an exercise in the fall. Ever try sleeping through a hurricane?)

But you gotta love this quote:

Washington said in the four-page letter that some of the Loyalists returned to Boston, and thought facing death there was preferable to being in Halifax.

He said some of the revolutionaries "were for sending them immediately back as the properest, & severest punishment they could Inflict, but death being preferred to this, they now wait, in confinement, any other that may be thought due to such parricides."

Of course, there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for the Loyalists' complaints: when they arrived, Halifax was just a small colonial port settlement, ill-prepared for crowds and ill-equipped to show people a good time.

You see, the Loyalists showed up in Halifax about 50 years before Alexander Keith.

Monday, January 17, 2005

On The Decline of An Anachronism

Okay, everyone out there raise your hands: how many of you use snail-mail anymore?

I ask this because today Canada Post raised its domestic first-class mail rate to 50 cents. Yep -- for four bits (plus GST) you can mail a personal letter in about double the time it takes to fire off an e-mail and expect it to be read.

Of course you can't really blame Canada Post; since the advent of the Internet, not to mention the courier companies, mail volume's gone down quite a bit, apart from the junk mailings, the magazines and the packages that sail in now that people are using the Net to order stuff. They have to make money somewhere, right?

And there's also the fact that, as far as I can tell, mail service has actually improved. I sent Christmas cards to my family in Coquitlam, B.C., on Dec. 15th; they tell me the cards arrived three days later. Ten years ago that wouldn't have been possible.

All the same, those of us who remember when a first-class stamp was only 5 cents have to shake our heads in wonder at how inflation has struck us. Even as we click on the "Send" button.

But that's pretty much all we're going to do.

In the 1980's, there would have been a great hue and cry among the public. Not anymore. There are better alternatives. Paying bills? Either ATMs or through secure websites. Private correspondence? E-mail. Packages? UPS or Purolator or FedEx.

We're at the point now where a national postal service like Canada Post is no longer the necessity of life that it used to be. New technological networks have made the old one a backup system at best, a redundant anachronism at worst. (At least in the urban centres; in rural communities and the North, Canada Post is still a vital network, which is why I'm not calling for anything drastic to happen to it.)

We're not ready to write an epitaph for the first-class postage stamp. But it is time for an obituary to be planned.

The 13th Edition of the Red Ensign Standard ...

... can be found here.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

You Want Anchovies With that Crow, Ms. Sgro?

Well, we've got the 2005 Canadian Political Casualty List started. Judy Sgro is the first to go down in flames -- in this case, the fires of a pizza oven.

"She decided to step down a day after an affidavit from Harjit Singh, who owns a pizza shop in Brampton, Ont., was filed in Federal Court in Toronto.

"In the sworn affidavit, Singh says Sgro pressed him for free pizza and garlic bread and asked him to supply '15 or 16' volunteers for her campaign office.

"'I told her my whole situation and she assured me that if I helped out in her election campaign she would get me immigration in Canada,' Singh alleges in the affidavit.

"He says Sgro broke their deal and ordered his arrest and deportation to his native India when she began to come under fire last fall for helping an exotic dancer from Romania who also worked on her re-election campaign."

As Jason Hayes points out, this does seem pretty silly for a scandal worth a resignation. Of course, this isn't quite as silly as the Robert Coates resignation of 1984. Coates, the Conservative defence minister, resigned because (wait for it) he attended a strip club in Germany. (He didn't even proposition the dancer.)

In today's political climate, of course, what a cabinet minister should and should not do is very much on the fuzzy side. It's not as complicated in the States because Cabinet officials aren't elected; John Ashcroft doesn't have to help his Congressional district get funding for a new police station because he doesn't represent a district.

In Canada, as in Britain, Cabinet members also have responsibilities as MPs for their ridings. In the case of Ms. Sgro, the line blurred because the dancer in question did help her win and lived in her riding. As an MP, she would have been derelict if she had refused the dancer her help. But as a Cabinet Minister, she blew it because she essentially helped the dancer "jump the queue" ahead of other people in the same situation. (The ruling of "exotic dancers" as an industry in need of help was, of course, extremely stupid, but that's a different matter.)

It's not quite a conflict of interest situation because Ms. Sgro didn't benefit personally, but it could more appropriately labeled cronyism, which used to be acceptable behavior in the early days of Canadian politics (and was a prominent feature in Atlantic provincial politics) but no longer.

In Mr. Singh's case, the accusation suggests that the line dissolved completely: he's accusing Ms. Sgro of using her powers of a Minister over an issue that should have been handled at the MP level.

Ms. Sgro's Cabinet career is pretty much a clear demonstration of the Peter Principle at work: a capable MP who had no trouble as parliamentary secretary, but more power and responsiblity went to her head and dropped her in way over it.

Assuming Ms. Sgro settles the Singh matter quickly, she might want to think twice before offering to take a Cabinet post again. Good judgement is one of those things that can only be taught by Life, and not on a Cabinet job.

What Would You Rather Do Now, Dan?

Well, Mr. R., I guess it must really suck to be you, huh?

That bloggess called your response to the Boccardi-Thornburgh report "lame," and you know she's right. I suppose it can't be helped, though. Reading between the lines, your response has the tone of a middle manager who's been kicked in the stomach but hasn't figured out yet what he's going to do next.

Not that there's a lot of argument about what should happen next. Lots of people around here, and quite a few among your paper media comrades, want your head on a sacrificial platter. Hugh, of course, wants to go further: if there's one thing that could make him happier than seeing your tarred and feathered carcass bounce down the steps of Black Rock, it's seeing your tarred and feathered carcass bounce down the steps of Capitol Hill. Thrown by a bipartisan committee of all the politicians you've covered in the past decade.

There's no reasoning with Hugh when he gets in that kind of mood, you know?

And interestingly enough, Dan, no one has taken your side. Les Moonves may have decided that leaving the anchor spot was enough for now, but yesterday, you found out from The New York Times that he's already thinking about pulling the rug out from under you.

No question, Dan. This is a pretty deep hole for you to get out of.

Now Hugh and his posse think that you should stay in that hole, live forever in the shameful purgatory reserved for partisan hacks, to be kicked in the face by the New Wave of enterprising bloggers passing you by. Me, on the other hand, I'm a sucker for redemption stories. I won't defend the indefensible, but I think there's a way to end your career on, if not exactly a high note, at least a tune everyone can whistle.

What worries me is that you think you already know what'll get you out of there: something along the lines of go to Washington and break a story that'll topple the Big One from the moment of triumph.

Sorry, Dan-Boy, but that's not going to work for you. Even if it's Governor Gregoire.

You see, what Boccardi-Thornburgh did was expose the dark side of advocacy journalism, the kind that made your reputation and got you into the anchor seat to begin with. So what if they didn't find partisan bias? They didn't have to; they found so many flaws in your post-story strategy that it stunned you into incoherence (viz. your lame response). Which means that if you do a story based on the advocacy-journalism model, everyone will be fact-checking you so much that the effort to defend your story will be far more than the effort to air it in the first place.

No, Dan. If you're going to work, you'll have to do a different kind of story. And do it in a different way.

So, with the caveat that free advice is worth what you pay for, here are three suggestions for what you can do, as a CBS News correspondent in his final years:

1. Join the embeds. That's right, go to Iraq and get embedded with a company. It puts you in a news-rich zone, it'll make for good headlines, and the soldiers there aren't quite as ready with the tar and feathers as Hugh is.

The thing is, you don't just report the people getting killed. You report on life in Iraq itself; what soldiers do when there's no shooting, the life of an Iraqi family, how soldiers feel about time away, that sort of thing.

What's that, you say? The reporters already embedded are already doing that, you'd just be following in their footsteps? Okay, try suggestion no. 2:

2. Do a Red States/Blue States tour. No, Dan, your home in Texas doesn't count; too much of a temptation to cocoon. What you do is, get CBS to rent you an RV so you can do a road trip of America, go talk with the people who voted Bush (or better yet, voted Kerry in a red state). Look at how they view things like God, politicians, life in America, the hot-rod rallies, the Home Depot project builders, the fun things they like to do.

Yes, it's been done before; your late colleague Charles Kuralt did it with his "On the Road" series. But you have to admit, there's a need for such a series again. Election 2004 proved that the Red and Blue State populations need to understand each other, to break out of the stereotypes imposed by a confused media and punditocracy. You can help with that.

Also, you enjoy an advantage that Charles Kuralt didn't: the unobtrusiveness of modern technology. Broadcast-quality camcorders are now of a size that even someone like you can handle them, and laptops with Adobe Premiere mean you can edit your footage from the comfort of your RV. What that means, Dan, is that you'd be more approachable to people because you don't have a big honking camera in their periphery. It would also add a "homemade" edge to your footage that's in vogue these days.

That's right, Dan. Shoot and edit your own footage. True, it won't be as nice as a professional camcorder and editor working for you, but it is a way of unofficially acknowledging your current position in the doghouse without keeping you from covering the story.

Now, if you really want to be the edge:

3. Do a blog. Jay Rosen's suggested that you hire a blogger to help you in your work by maintaining a blog in your name. But I think you have to go farther. I think you need to get CBS News to let you do a blog on their website--one that you have to do yourself.

"To understand your enemy, you must become your enemy." Despite Hugh's rhetoric, the blogosphere is not your enemy. But it is a community that you need to understand and reach out to, and you won't be able to do that if someone does it for you.

If you do decide to write a blog, don't talk about the stories of the day. That's what people would expect, but you want to surprise them. Talk about the CBS newsgathering process itself. That's a unique thing you can contribute: show the blogosphere how CBS News arrives at decisions for stories to air. Why this story? Why not that one? What do other reporters say? That sort of thing. You can defang a lot of your critics by educating them about the process.

And explore the blogosphere: use engines like BlogExplosion to look at other blogs. And not just the news and punditry blogs (considering all they've said about you, you wouldn't want to look at them anyway); look at the knitting blogs, the mommy blogs, the school blogs, the urban single wanna-get-a-date blogs. They're the blogs that you can get story ideas from, the human interest stories that aren't the top of the hour, but have a compelling interest to viewers nonetheless. (One fact you have to face, Dan: the CBS News brass won't let you have a "top-of-the-hour" story. Not even if you're managing editor. Not for at least a year.)

By now, Dan, I'm sure you're bright enough to realize the common thread of all these ideas. The soldiers, the Red Staters, the bloggers -- they're all The People, Dan. For years now, you've been telling the stories of those At The Top. Now is your opportunity to tell the stories of those on the lower rungs. And their stories are compelling enough with having to resort to the advocacy model that landed you in trouble in the first place.

No, you may not be able to soar again, Dan. But do things right when you cover The People, and don't be surprised if they decided to let you fly.

Monday, January 10, 2005

A Couple of Notes on the End of RatherGate

Just got done reading the CBS News internal investigation report on Rathergate as well as the official reaction.

Observation No. 1: some conservatives like Jim Geraghty and Captain Ed are already complaining that the report refuses to acknowledge the role of "political bias" in the Rathergate scandal. Actually, this is a sound tactic. It's called "not buying trouble in the future."

One thing opinionists tend to forget: you're not supposed to fire people for "political bias."

We do not let someone go as a janitor because they campaign for Candidate X as school commissioner. And people do not fire political commentators because they say Candidate Z is an idiot--heck, that's what they're paid for.

If you fire someone from a job because they say "Candidate X is a turkey," that's in effect punishing someone for having a political bent. That's the slippery slope that leads to the Orwellian concept of the "thoughtcrime," and that's one you want to avoid.

In today's practice of journalism, "political bias" is recognized, but not officially. The establishment line is: it's OK for a reporter to have a political opinion, but you have to try (or at least give the appearance of trying) to be fair about an issue--interview all sides, and more than one source, if you can; get perspectives, etc.

If the report had officially found that CBS News personnel had displayed "political bias" in their story, it would have been very difficult for CBS president Les Moonves to take the necessary disciplinary action, because they would be accused of "conservative bias" or "cowardice in bowing to conservative whims" in taking said action. It is far better, from an objective standpoint, to document journalistic incompetence (and in Rathergate, there's a lot of that) than to say "X should be fired because he's biased in his coverage." Accusations of counter-bias are thus avoided.

In order to resolve Rathergate, it's important that you give the Top Brass the evidence to take action without the handcuffs to prevent it. And, like it or not, "political bias" is a handcuff.

Observation No. 2: Even without the "political bias" finding, there's enough information here to serve as a warning: not just to CBS News staff, but to journalists as a whole. Journalism students should take great care to read the whole report, not just to see the documenting of malpractice but to appreciate the importance of public perception.

Boccardi and Thornburgh are pretty thorough in documenting the aftermath of the Rathergate story. And no wonder: it's the aftermath that made the TANG document story big, not the story itself. They document thoroughly the actions that CBS News took to defend their story and outline the reasons why each action failed.

A major blessing is that the report is actually readable, not filled with jargon or legalistic babble. As such, it's a textbook example of clear communication.

Boccardi and Thornburgh's report does journalism education a great service, far more than Lord Hutton's report of last year.

Observation No. 3: A lot of bloggers may be wondering why CBS President Les Moonves hasn't terminated Dan Rather by now, settling for his retiring as CBS News anchor.

The answers are fairly obvious:

1. Dan Rather's "retirement" means he is no longer the public face of CBS News. The anchor position at the CBS Evening News is still considered the prestige position of the News division, the position of Cronkite. By staying on at 60 Minutes, Rather has in effect been given a demotion.

2. Rather won't be on the air as much as you'd think. Rathergate tainted his reputation, and everyone knows it--including the producers of 60 Minutes. Rather can no longer assume that anything he reports will make it to air--it has to go through other producers, editors, and be in competition with with stories from other correspondents. In short, his chances of being able to rehabilitate his reputation by reporting good stories aren't all that great.

But does he deserve a chance to fix his reputation?

Certainly. Dan Rather didn't get to the top of CBS News overnight. His style of aggressive reporting wasn't as sensational as, say, Geraldo Rivera's. He did great work during the early 70s and 80s (his "feud" with George Bush the Elder notwithstanding), at least in the eyes of the CBS brass. Based on that, Rather's bosses will cut him a little slack--but only a little.

UPDATE: Of the mainstream poli-bloggers, Hugh Hewitt is perhaps the most vitriolic in calling the Boccardi-Thornburgh report a "whitewash." Frankly I think he's being overly harsh; certainly Dan Rather and Andy Heyward don't come out smelling like roses, and a true "whitewash" would have enabled Mary Mapes to keep her job.

Even though the report doesn't officially find "political bias," it documents enough about the story and the aftermath to show plenty of "anti-Bush" bias, which is a different animal and one outside of the review panel's mandate.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Why Democrats Will Like Our Proposed New Ambassador

Note the term proposed. The Globe and Mail reports that Frank McKenna has accepted the position, but CBC News reports that he hasn't decided yet.

If he does accept, though, once the Democrats look at his résumé I suspect they'll be very interested in talking to him.

Why? Because Frank McKenna pulled off every Western politician's dream in 1987, when he first ran for Premier of New Brunswick. Not only did he defeat the incumbent government, but his party won every seat in the Legislature.

Every. Single. Damn. Seat.

Lord knows the Democrats need a break, and 2006 isn't really that far off ...

What's More Important in Quebec: Fluency or the Flu?

In a province with a shortage of trained medical people, do you tell such a trained person that he or she can't work because he or she can't write in the official language of the government?

In Quebec, apparently, the answer is "yes":

"MONTREAL (CP) - Two nurses at an English hospital have had their licences revoked after failing a written French test even though Quebec faces a nursing shortage.

"Elizabeth Davantes, 47, and Eulin Gumbs, 43, who both speak French, say they'll look for work outside Quebec after losing their jobs recently at the Jewish General Hospital.

"Quebec's language watchdog and the provincial nursing federation require that all nurses, even those in English hospitals, pass a written French test."

Note that the nurses failed a written grammar test, not a spoken one; the nurses had no problems speaking in French. Also they were working in an English hospital serving a primarily Anglophone population.

But because Quebec's bureaucracy (not just the Office de la langue française, but the Order of Nurses) has decided that nurses have to know French grammar, regardless of their mother tongue, professional qualification or population served, the Jewish General is losing two people they can ill afford to lose.

Is it fair? I don't think so, but then again I'm not a Quebecker. I do think, though, that if Quebec insists on upholding a language requirement for nurses, they'll be shooting themselves in the foot when it comes to recruitment. Can they really afford to disqualify nursing graduates from Canada and the States -- because they can't tell the difference between participe passé and pluparfait?

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The 12th Edition of the Red Ensign Standard ...

... can be found at this link.

The Standard is a bi-weekly summary of all the blog posts made during that period by members of the Red Ensign Brigade. It's a useful way to "sample" the member blogs and see which ones appeal to you.

Different members take turns hosting the Standard, so the most recent issue can be hard to track down if you're not really familiar with the Brigade or its member blogs. If you're a Brigade member, I'd say it's a very good idea to post a link to the latest edition on your blog; it makes it easier for everyone else to find it.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Donating for Tsunami Disaster Relief

I'm still feeling the effects of the cold I caught over New Year's, but I know there are people who are worse off than I am. In Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, and other places where last week's tsunami struck.

I've donated to the Red Cross. It's not much, but it's what I can afford to do about it, and the Red Cross is certainly a trustworthy charity for this situation. I urge everyone to do the same-- and if not the Red Cross, than any other charity you feel comfortable with. The people in Southeast Asia need all the help they can get.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Auspicious Beginnings

There are good ways and bad ways to begin a New Year.

Coming down with a cold is not a good way.

This morning I woke up with a cough and a feeling of stuffiness in my chest. Which pretty much killed my plans to get together with some friends of mine tonight. I've taken some medication to help alleviate the symptoms, but there's no denying: I have to stay home tonight. Dang it.

I'm kinda hoping the rest of 2004 will be better. A fool's hope, perhaps, but better than none at all.