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:

Monday, March 26, 2007

Free Press Fairy Tales and Fish Stories

Reporter Geoff Kirbyson must be nicknamed Rumpelstilskin in the Winnipeg Free Press newsroom because he keeps getting assigned to turn straw into gold.

Kirbyson is the go-to guy when the FP gets bad-to-mediocre news and wants to spin it into something more positive.

Like when circulation shrank according to figures released last November and he had to write a story about how good the FP's circulation was.

On Friday he had to take the latest survey of newspaper readership and weave it into a story for advertisers about how the FP dominates the Winnipeg market. For the record, the 2006 Newspaper Audience Databank (NADbank) survey said 71 percent of adults in Winnipeg read something in the Winnipeg Free Press every week.

But his story was so full of weasel words (every sentence talked about percentage of this and percentage of that without ever giving a single number for reference) and spin from editor Bob Cox and Publisher Andy Ritchie that we had to wonder "What are they hiding?"

Part of the answer appeared in the Winnipeg Sun which, lo and behold, had numbers for comparison:

" In the 18-plus category, Sun weekday readership rose by 9,200 or 8.5% last year while Winnipeg Free Press readership declined by 3,300 or 1.4%. The Sun has also seen a significant jump in Saturday readership with an increase of 9,200 or 9.9% compared with 2005, while Free Press readership decreased by 2,400 or 0.8%. "

But even more intriguing was the story these numbers told.

If true, then its going to take every scintilla of Geoff Kirby'son's Rumpelstilskin powers to spin their way out of this one.

If the FP's weekday readership declined 1.4 percent (3,300 readers), then their weekday readership was 235,700. As we reported in The Black Rod, the industry rule of thumb is 2.1 readers per copy sold (or given away). The latest estimate from the Newspaper Association of America is 2.3 readers per copy distributed.

Taking the industry standard, the weekday circulation of the Winnipeg Free Press in 2006 was (235,700 divided by 2.1 = ) 112, 238.

Taking the NAA estimate, the weekday circulation of the Winnipeg Free Press in 2006 was (235,700 divided by 2.4) a feeble 98,208.

FP has been claiming a weekday circulation of 117,966.

That's 4.8 percent higher than the industry standard says it was.

But if the NAA estimate is accurate, the FP has been inflating its circulation figures by a jaw-dropping 16.7 percent.

If memory serves us well, and we admit it's been a few years, the fairy tale of Rumplestilskin ends very badly indeed. Free Press publisher Andy Ritchie proved himself to be an astute teller of tall tales himself in the Kirbyson story.

"Winnipeggers are interested in the news and in reading good quality journalism," he said. We presume he was talking about the Free Press, for he later bragged it was a newspaper 135 years old and "very well written."

The Black Rod read the FP very carefully for three days in a row, starting the day of the NADbank story and here's what we found:

Headline: Dad who drown saving son gets bravery award. (Mar.23. 2007)
What the hell does that mean?
Dad who drown?
What language is that?
Headline in the Globe and Mail on the same story: Bravery medal awarded to man who died trying to save his son

Headline: Whitening of North America (Mar. 24, 2007 P. A 17)
The story: People are eating more white bread, white sugar and white rice.
Paragraph 10: People around the world have traditionally known about the healing powers of several types of food, but now researchers casn back them up.
Again, what language is that?

Headline: Hudson is finally Peguis chief (Mar. 24, 2007)
The story: Hudson, an industrial engineer, beat Stevenson by 63 votes in Thursday's election.
Paragraph 14: An official vote count has yet to be released, but both camps said the tally stood at 1001 votes for Stevenson and 938 votes for Hudson.
Repeat: Hudson beat Stevenson by 63 votes.
" The tally stood at 1001 Stevenson, 938 Hudson."

The Winnipeg Free Press has editors. Their reporters don't write in their pyjamas. They are all professional journalists.

Headline: Van Wilder star heading into Heaven via Winnipeg shoot (Sat. Mar. 24, 2007)
The story: Ryan Reynolds, the Vancouver-born star of comedy (van Wilder) horror (Blade 3) and action movies (Smokin' Aces) is slated to star in the drama Heaven, which will should commence filming in Winnipeg in the next two weeks.
We're glad that the movie will should be filming so soon. Especially since:
Headline: Walker to star in film shot in city (Mar. 25, 2007)
The story: Actor Paul Walker, the star of the Fast and the Furious is cast in the film Heaven and contrary to a story in Friday's Free Press, Ryan Reynolds is not.

If this keeps up they're going to start losing readers. Hey, waitaminit...

Last week Winnipeg Free Press columnist Gordon Sinclair went to bat for people caught on video doing embarassing things in public. Things like defecating into a planter in broad daylight only to have the video posted on Youtube for everyone to see and laugh at, an actual posting which prompted the column.

It seems, according to Sinclair, that surveillance video is only one small step removed from an Orwellian fascist state.
Or something like that.

Sinclair's rant was so wildly out of left field we had to ask where's this coming from. Then we realized we knew.

He isn't losing sleep over some downtown derelict's alleged right to privacy.

His sleepless nights are caused by the fear that his own public temper tantrum is going to show up on Youtube for all to see.

Sinclair tries to get support for his cockeyed spin of the YouTubing of the video by enlisting the support of former Free Press editor Duncan McMonagle ( in accordance with Freep standards the name was misspelled 'McMonigal' but we digress...).

The journalism instructor is not quoted about the content of the actual video itself, but agrees with Sinclair that "as a notion for Canadians I believe (privacy) has ceased to exist". He refers to his use of Google Earth in the classroom, to back up Sinclair's paranoia that someone may be watching him -- even in his backyard.

Sinclair shouldn't be worried, since intimidating women and throwing objects at them is well within Bob Cox's standards for FP columnists -- unless they manage to offend big advertisers.

And we all know small gas stations don't advertise -- so their employees don't count.

But we received one email from a reader that expressed strong opinions about L'affair Sinclair we'd like to share, as well as an email from someone well-versed in Bob Cox's standards for columnists.

"F" said:

Why is that Gordon Sinclair, along with Wolf Blitzer wannabe Duncan McMonagle, are still revered by some as true patriots to journalism when it is blazingly clear that neither have any credibility or integrity.

Case in point. This past Thursday's Freep included another back-of-a-napkin piece by Sinclair in which he references Duncan, but amazingly this Duncan spells his name presumably based on some other dialect.

Similar to how Kelvin changed its name to the Elmwood Community Centre.

Today's Free Press offers the correction.

As those who have endured Blitzer's Journalism class at Red River would know, this is indeed a failing grade.

Dallas Hansen said:

... While I might've been a jackass in the Liquor Mart, it wasn't merely because I was personally inconvenienced. As a concerned civil libertarian, I find it reprehensible that obviously adult citizens should be obliged to produce identity documents to procure so common a consumer good as a bottle of wine.

A worse blow to freedom is how the sale of liquor by private merchants is outlawed. Department store clerks in the Soviet Union were notorious for their surly service and the state-monopoly MLCC's employees, backed by big labour and the provincial government, exemplify that phenomenon.

I wrote advocating the privatization of liquor weeks later not as a vindictive measure but because it's an idea that, if implemented, I do strongly believe would benefit Manitoba consumers and businessess and this is a notion shared by many, including Peter Holle and the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

During my two years as a regular on the op-ed page, I frequently found inspiration in things that annoyed me: bad transit, the Downtown BIZ, ADHD over-diagnosis, etc.

Indeed I lost my temper and shot my mouth off but I didn't throw anything and in fact the next time I went to the Liquor Mart (actually the night before the notorious column went to press) there was a lengthy queue at both open registers and one of the employees whom I had berated that fateful day espied me at the back of the line, pulled me aside, and opened a new register bringing me to the head of the queue. "I won't ask you for ID this time...." "Thanks, much appreciated," I said sheepishly.

Mr. Sinclair is also a man in what, his 60s? While I'm mellowing fast, I still have something of an angry young man to purge. He should've hit the mellow stage a long time ago.

Unlike my scenario, where my rage against the rapid erosion of civil liberties manifested as an epithet against government-monopoly liquor retailers who refused my money without my first showing identity documents, Mr. Sinclair's scenario was one in which he blundered by taking a consumer good (tank of gas) without having brought means of payment.

I've never been in such a situation but if I had I would be nothing less than profusely apologetic.

Dallas Hansen

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