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Journalists: The Good, The Bad, The Very Very Bad and The Wretched

Attention Winnipeg Free Press. You have been warned.

If you keep publishing stories as good as your series on Winnipeg's downtown you may win some journalism awards, and that will make you insufferable.

Sunday's story "What Have We Tried" by Bartley Kives and Mary Agnes Welch deserves special mention for being an excellent overview of the many well-intentioned, but ultimately disastrous, attempts to revitalize Downtown.

Monday's story on Des Moines was a cute idea which, sadly, didn't quite live up to its premise. For those of you who started but didn't finish the two-pager, it turns out Des Moines isn't exactly a mirror of Winnipeg.

It is a much smaller city (population about 199,000 according to the 2000 census) with no disgusting beggars or their enabling city councillors, and with much richer corporations that spend their own money on city projects. And its still got the same problems of slow growth, a boring image, and the flight of the young, with no idea how to reverse them.

It was gratifying to see the newspaper completely reverse itself from the Pollyanna knee-jerk barrage of stories they printed in answer to a Globe and Mail reporter's observations of Winnipeg's decrepit downtown.

But by publishing this series, the Free Press has created a big problem for itself. It's now shown what a newspaper can really do when it's not busy making up stories and carrying a vendetta against the Mayor. Raising the bar can be a drawback to the lazy.

Still, there's some comfort knowing that some things at the paper haven't changed.Take, for example, Monday's story by Paul Samyn, the paper's Ottawa reporter. It's a story that deserves to be studied in Journalism schools -- on how mainstream reporters package stories to fit their political biases.

We've always promoted the lost art of taking a local angle on a national story. At first glance, Samyn does just that in this case in a preview of the federal budget.

Conservatives silent on lab expansion
Ottawa--A proposed $100-million expansion of the federal disease lab in Winnipeg deemed critical to the country's health security is facing an uncertain future under the new Tory government.

Whew. That sounds like an important story, doesn't it? A hundred million dollars. That's a lot. And it would be coming to Winnipeg. That's good. The federal disease lab. Who's against that? It's critical to the country's health security. Wow, that's heavy. And the Tory government is somehow against it? That's bad.

What's worse is the rest of the story and how it quickly unravels.

It turns out, according to Samyn, that Health Canada wanted a "quick decision" on expanding the lab and the government has given "no signs" it will fast-track the project under the new Health Agency of Canada.

That's it? The story is all about "signs" as to how soon the government will approve an expansion of the Winnipeg lab? That's significantly less than promised in the lead. And it only gets worse.

It turns out that the Public Health Agency of Canada isn't even a legal entity.

The Liberals made a big noise and promised all kinds of funding for it, but never got around to actually passing any legislation to create it. The Conservatives first have to do that.

So why the big play on a nothing story? Well, it turns out the Liberal who made the funding promises was Reg Alcock. And he was also the Liberal who was Samyn's "source" for all those planted "scoops" that would run in the Saturday papers on the front page (when the Free Press still had a front page instead of a cover.)

Alcock would leak some funding announcement to the Free Press on Friday, so the newspaper could give it the best play in the biggest selling paper of the week. It was win-win for the Liberals and the Free Press.

And now, sadly, Paul gets no scoops, no leaks, no big Page One stories and he's got to make up stories just to get his name in the paper.

That's a lesson in Journalism they don't teach in J-school.

The Paliamentary Press Gallery, including Paul Samyn, has been getting its own lesson in journalism lately, and they don't like it.

The Press Gallery launched its own War on Harper, as in Prime Minister Stephen Harper, six weeks ago. But they're finding it a lonely war as the public shows no interest in supporting their cause.

"When did the media become the enemy?" lamented radio talkshow John Moore in a column for Saturday's National Post? Media complaints about the Harper government's "Kremlin-like secrecy" have been "greeted with indifference from the public".

Don't people know that Harper is the enemy? Moore, who hosts the John Moore Show on CFRB radio in Toronto, was beside himself. The media are representatives of the people, he thundered. They go where the public doesn't---city council meetings, Parliament, police press conferences. Reporters don't do it for themselves. It's for the people.

They have to ferrret out things the government is trying to hide. That's why they insisted on being there when the bodies of four soldiers killed in Afghanistan arrived back in Canada, said Moore. Because the government is trying to hide the dead bodies so people don't get angry about Canada's involvement in Afghanistan.

"the average journalist considers it his vocation to question all power and authority regardless of who wields it."

Well, John, we have news for you.

The public has never elected the news media to be the Official Opposition to any government.

Your job is to give us information.

And you're not fooling anyone.

The only reason the televison stations wanted to be at the tarmac when the bodies were unloaded from the airplanes was to capture the anguish of the families.

Call it Grief Porn. With tears as the money shot.

It's not news. If the coffins of dead soldiers were news, then why did the newspapers and TV stations ignore the opportunity to get photos of the coffins being loaded onto the planes in Afghanistan. The government didn't prevent it.

In Canada, they wanted to spare the families from the intrusion of television cameras and, of course, the news media would not allow that. They insist on the right to intrude. It's for the people.

"No journalist would reject the pleas of any family that asked from privacy," wrote Moore.

On what planet, John? In North America reporters as a matter of course force themselves on grieving families every day.

Who hasn't seen pictures of distraught mourners throwing punches or kicking at cameramen? Did those "journalists' miss the signals that they weren't wanted?

Tears are the currency of television. The standing joke about interviewer Barbara Walters is whether she can make her interview subject cry. But people should know, it's not a joke.

Few people have stood in a newsroom and watched the joy when a cameraman announces he caught someone crying. Everyone knows that shot will lead the show, will make the headline, will be what everyone talks about. It's the dirty little secret all journalists know and never talk about.

The news media wants pictures of crying mothers and crying children. Crying fathers are a distant second.

And the Harper government wouldn't give it to them, so they're in a snit.

"Somewhere in the last 15 years, we lost our grasp on the notion that media are agents of the people," sniffed John Moore.

But it's no mystery. About 15 years ago, Talk Radio demolished the monopoly that the mainstream media had on "news". Millions of people suddenly realized they were not alone, that there were millions of other people who agreed with them that the MSM was distorting truth.

All we've seen since then is the proof that those millions of people were right, from the reporters who made up sources and stories at the New York Times, to the forged documents used by Dan Rather and CBS to try and influence an election, to the MSM's refusal to report on the income trust scandal during the Canadian election.

With the rise of new media, such as blogs, podcasts and camera phones, citizen journalists are beginning to do it for themselves, to collect news and disseminate it, to provide the facts and the context, and all without agents who can't resist injecting their own opinion into the "news."

It's no longer "for the people'; now it's "by the people."

Still, if anyone adheres to the credo of "for the people" it's Free Press columnist Colleen Simard.

Simard writes a weekly column for the newspaper. She purports to be a journalist. Well, actually she admits she's an "aboriginal journalist" which, apparently, is not the same thing.

In a column headlined "That's right; I'm an aboriginal journalist" she wrote:

I'll keep calling myself an aboriginal journalist until I'm not an anomaly anymore, but have become part of a larger crowd of mainstream journalists who just happen to be aboriginal. So there.

Simard saw a story brewing and hopped over to the native blockade at Caledonia. A journalist would realize she had a rare opportunity. She could use her native status to get to where there were no reporters, to tell the story from inside.

Well, that's what a journalist would do. Not Simard. No sirree Bob. Her report was clear about that:

I'm facing this angry crowd because I came to support my people. I'm here as an Indian, not a journalist. The lines are drawn, but sometimes anger blinds you so much you don't see who the real enemy is. Are we really on opposite ends here?

We are if you're talking journalism.

Simard's immediate reaction to take sides shows she has no idea what journalism is. She tarnishes the landscape for all other 'aboriginal journalists' because by her words she shows that the term really means aboriginal propagandist -- hired under an affirmative action program.

If she had simply pretended to be a columnist she would have no problem. The Winnipeg Free Press has repeatedly shown that it doesn't hold its columnists to the slightest standards of reporting. They are free to make up facts, to distort truth, to reprint large portions of others work under their byline. Whatever.

But by calling herself a journalist, albeit an "aboriginal journalist", then abandoning every standard of objectivity and fairness at her first trial by fire, she's proved it will be a long, long, long, long time before she joins the "larger crowd of mainstream journalists" -- unless the crowd is forced to have an affirmative action inclusion policy that accepts the journalistically challenged.

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