The Black Rod

The origin of the Usher of the Black Rod goes back to early fourteenth century England . Today, with no royal duties to perform, the Usher knocks on the doors of the House of Commons with the Black Rod at the start of Parliament to summon the members. The rod is a symbol for the authority of debate in the upper house. We of The Black Rod have adopted the symbol to knock some sense and the right questions into the heads of Legislators, pundits, and other opinion makers.

Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

We are citizen journalists in Winnipeg. When not breaking exclusive stories, we analyze news coverage by the mainstream media and highlight bias, ignorance, incompetence, flawed logic, missed angles and, where warranted, good work. We serve as the only overall news monitors in the province of Manitoba. We do the same with politicians (who require even more monitoring.) EMAIL:

Friday, December 02, 2005

Exhibit C - a story about voters with no real voters

We were going to pass on The Peter Kent Challenge today.

The Winnipeg Sun managed to squeeze in a tiny story about the RCMP review of suspicions that someone in government circles leaked the finance minister's plans for income trusts to the benefit of Liberal-friendly investors. Although the newspaper apparently couldn't find the Manitoba MP who took a complaint to the RCMP, NDP finance critic Judy Wasylycia-Leis, and settled for a wire copy story that barely mentions her, instead of an old-fashioned interview with the local angle.

Still, it ran under the Canada Votes banner and was an attempt at balanced coverage, the first hint in the nascent campaign, dominated so-far by attacks on Stephen Harper, that the Liberals have their own scandals to answer.

And the paper did move the latest anti-Harper column by Greg Weston to the editorial pages instead of pretending, as they did Tuesday, that it was "news". So, overall, we were going to give them a bye.

The Free Press main election story, about a poll predicting Liberal gains in Quebec, was a hodge-podge and nothing significant. But, just as we were about to go and start working on our weekend stories, we came across Exhibit C: Leah Janzen.
Janzen was assigned to do another story about Stephen Harper's radical plan to allow democracy in Parliament, also known as holding a free vote on whether Canada's elected lawmakers want to adopt the traditional definition of marriage in law.

Was her story about how the proponents of same-sex marriage welcomed the idea because they are confident they will win and that will put the matter to rest once and for all?

Uh, no. Ostensibly it was about the impact on Manitoba voters of Stephen Harper's decision to reopen the same-sex marriage debate. Given the unexpected role that the "values" vote played in last November's presidential election in the United States, this might have been a good story.

Instead, it read like Janzen wrote it while sleepwalking. And just as dreams reflect a person's subconscious, so Leah Janzen's story reflects her opinion of Stephen Harper.

No "real" voters appear in the story. Instead there's
- a university professor,
- a spokesman for a gay lobby group, and
- a spokesman for the NDP.

University of Manitoba political studies professor Paul Thomas brought no special skills in assessing values on voters, no studies in the works, no published papers to refer to.

Instead, he's a well-known media whore who appears in everybody's stories because he's always available to talk to anyone about anything at a moments notice. He brought no expertise, only opinion.

And his opinion? "My first thought when I heard that was, that was a stupid thing to do...It's not helpful for a party to be seen as intolerant..." The Conservatives are taking a risk, he said, a risk of appearing "close-minded and resistant to change." He did bring his expertise in buzz-words.

The gay lobbyist, predictably, was against the Conservatives and the NDP spokesman, predictably, was against anything the gay lobby was against. Their joint opinion was that the values of Conservative Party supporters "are not in line with the majority of Canadians."

Janzen searched far and wide for the other side of the debate. She found a Conservative Party organizer in Manitoba and someone from something called the Institute of Canadian Values. (She got the name wrong. It's actually called the Institute for Canadian Values.)

The party organizer said that he's not unhappy Stephen Harper raised the issue at the start of the campaign. And Joseph Ben-Ami of the Institute for Canadian Values said: "It will become a hot-button issue in those areas where it was (in 2004)."

That was it for balance.
One side said Harper is stupid and has un-Canadian values.
And the other said something so bland you can't remember what they said.
At least that was it in Leah Janzen's mind.

There appears to be quite a different story that didn't make it into the newspaper.

To begin with, she never said what the Institute for Canadian Values was. A Google search shows this from their website (

The Institute for Canadian Values is a national think-tank dedicated to advancing knowledge of public policy issues from Judeo-Christian intellectual and moral perspectives as well as awareness of how such perspectives contribute to a modern, free, and democratic society.

And Joseph Ben-Ami is the former director of communications for B'nai Brith Canada who's not exactly a shrinking violet.

So, do you think that a strong spokesman for a think tank dedicated to studying the impact of Judeo-Christian values on public policy would have a strong opinion? Something beyond restating the obvious? The Black Rod thinks he would. But where is it? Why did Leah Janzen bowdlerize that opinion?

Because she could.

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