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How the Free Press built a smear campaign

The Winnipeg Free Press disgraced itself Wednesday worse than we could imagine.

Winnipeg's main daily newspaper continued its smear campaign against Mayor Sam Katz, and deliberately timed its story so that he couldn't respond because of his religious duties on the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah.

Such a shameful use of a person's religion goes beyond any sense of decency and fairness.

It's not like the story contained anything time-sensitive. It's only purpose was to fake momentum for the faux scandal being peddled by the Press. (To understand how flimsy the scandal is, see http://blackrod.blogspot.com/2005/10/free-press-hatchet-job-on-sam-katz.html )

Once journalism students get through studying Free Press columnist Frances Russell and her liberal use of other people's quotes to pad a story she called her own, http://blackrod.blogspot.com/2005/09/happy-anniversary-buckhead-rathergate.html they can turn to this for a classic case study in political assassination.

The Free Press smear campaign is so transparent that we predicted the next story would be "Katz Under Investigation." Sure enough, right on schedule, their next story moved right into the "investigation" phase: "Probe Sals vote, auditor urged."

But there actually is a time factor. With the next mayoral election less than a year away, the Free Press has to hurry to undermine Sam Katz, even if that means rushing out a half-baked scanadal. So far, the smear has been by the book:

Step One: manufacture a scandal. Since nobody has accused Sam Katz of conflict of interest, publish a Page One story "asking the question": was he in a conflict of interest?

Step Two: use an "expert" to give your story credibility. The Free Press used political scientist Paul Thomas. Hope nobody notices that his direct quotes are general in nature, but the lead is specific to Sam Katz.

Step Three: spread the story to other news media to suggest that its growing. Only CJOB's Richard Cloutier fell for this.

Step Four: run an editorial calling for "an investigation" into your own paper's allegations.

Step Five: run a story about the "public outcry" for an investigation. Oops, there is no public outcry? Fake one.

Which brings us to Wednesday's story.

Coun. Mark Lubosch found the Free Press story "complex" and agreed with the reporter's leading question that a review by the auditor would be "the next logical step." The original story by Lett was, indeed, complex and nearly incomprehensible, but if Lubosch had read the deconstruction in The Black Rod (linked earlier in this post) ,
he would have no problem seeing how fragile the scandal is.

The Free Press said Coun. Harvey Smith told them he would be sending the city auditor a request that very day to "review" Katz's role in the Sals vote to "determine if there was a conflict of interest." Strange that the paper wouldn't wait for that request to be filed before running the story. That would give a stronger lead, but, then, you would pass up the chance to run an anti-Katz story when he couldn't respond, and who can pass up an opportunity.

Reporters Dan Lett and Mary Agnes Welch peppered their story with the appropriate buzz words intended to create a cloud of suspicion.
Concerns. Suspicious. Allegations. Revelations. Investigation.
Yup, all there.

And if some suspicion is good, more is better.

"Katz said the loan was paid out in August." The words are chosen carefully ("said") to create the impression the mayor is lying.

"Katz has said he obtained professional legal advice indicated he had no conflict of interest with the Salisbury Houses proposal." Again the use of the word "said" to suggest the mayor is not telling the truth.

Throw in the mention of a previous investigation (which cleared Katz of any wrongdoing) to imply that the mayor is surrounded beset by scandal. Hell, throw in two.

Coun. Donald Benham said Katz should "revisit his decision to remain as president of the Goldeyes."

"I think he will have to consider now how this is being seen by the public."

Well, Don, we guess that the Free Press poll showing that Sam Katz is more popular as mayor than ever is a hint of how the public sees that matter. Don't you? But, then, a good smear shouldn't depend on facts.

Oh, wait, Benham also would "prefer" if Katz himself asked for a review of the perceived conflict of interest. Will Benham, then, ask for a review of his own perceived conflict of interest.

How can he vote on any measures, like the closing of Spence Street, which benefit the University of Winnipeg when he gets paid by the university to teach a journalism course. That's a much more direct line between his vote and his wallet than anything Dan Lett could cook up involving Sam Katz.

In order to create a "link" between the mayor's vote and his personal interest, reporters Lett and Welch had to massage the facts to support their unspoken premise: that Katz broke the rules by voting for the Sals proposal because he indirectly made money on the deal.

"The Free Press reported that Katz, in his role as president of the Winnipeg Goldeyes, approved a loan to Maple Leaf Distrillers, a company linked to Salisbury House Restaurants." they wrote.

Only they deliberately failed to mention that the loan was in 2003, a year or more before Katz won election as Mayor of Winnipeg in June, 2004.

And almost two years before the vote by executive policy committee to accept the Sals proposal.

And that the Sals deal was the only one considered viable by EPC.

And that Salisbury House was putting up $240,000 of its own money to renovate the empty space on the bridge. And that Sals didn't owe Sam Katz a dime.

"Salisbury House and Maple Leaf Distillers are linked primarily through the involvement of businessmen David Wolinsky and Costas Ataliotis, who are officers of and have a significant interest in both companies, in part through their holding company, Protos International."

What's a scandal without a strong dose of cronyism? Of course, the story as related in Lett's Saturday story is more, uh, complex.

Back then the vital "link" was the fact that Salisbury House shares were used as collateral to back a line of credit for Maple Leaf. The credit line was held by the Crocus Fund. Maple Leaf had just bought its shares held by Crocus back.

Obviously that "link" is too tenuous to support a scandal, so out it went by Day Four to be replaced by a more digestable crony connection.

There was a day when character assassination was so easy for a newspaper. Print it and it must be so, was the mantra. But that was a day before the blogosphere. Now newspapers have lost their free hand to create scandals out of whole cloth, to promote their friends and undermine their enemies, personal as well as professional. Just as bloggers caught Dan Rather using forged documents supplied by a non-existent "Lucy Ramirez" to try and sway a presidential election, so the blogosphere will expose phony scandals like this one when a newspaper like the Free Press tries to sway a civic election.

So what's next?

Let's put on our swami turbans and gaze into the crystal.

With the scandal failing to find traction, expect columnist Gordon Sinclair to jump in as a surrogate vox populi. And, can University professor of ethics Arthur Schaefer be far behind with his patented spiel-even though nobody did anything illegal or broke any rules, ethics should cover a perception of bias blah blah blah.

And, of course, we're still waiting on Harvey Smith and his quest to get to the bottom of whether Sam Katz was in a conflict of interest. Unless, of course, that part of the Lett/Welch story, too, was a fabrication by the Free Press.

But, perhaps, when (or if) Coun. Smith goes to the the city auditor, he'll also ask her to look into the allegations against....oh...Harvey Smith.

Say that a publication (http://www.newwinnipeg.com/ Expenses of the Cheap and Famous) carries a quote characterizing the said Harvey Smith as "shady." It asks questions such as why he spent $500 for an immigration consultant exam fee. It links him to disgraced immigation consultant Ingrid Chan.

It raises questions about Smith's purchase of a computer, which, with the requisite taxes, cost EXACTLY $2000. Was it bought from Harvey Smith's assistant? "That is totally a pay off!" to a crony, says a commentator.

Oooh, payoff. Buzz word. And questions, links, shady, disgraced, crony. And what about all those "missing" receipts?

Go to the auditor and demand she investigate you, Mr. Smith. Donald Benham says that's the least you can do to clear up this "perceived conflict of interest" of yours.

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