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:

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

What a long, strange trip it's been ( apologies to the Grateful Dead)

If you blinked you missed it.

Starring Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett and screen veteran Robert Redford, the movie titled "Truth" came and went and nobody noticed. Despite opening in more than 1100 theatres, this certified stinkeroo, which cost $9.6 million to make, has grossed barely $2.5 million.

So why mention it? Because its the celluloid apologia for Rathergate, the infamous scandal where CBS tried to influence the 2004 American presidential election by smearing George Bush with a phony story on 60 Minutes (Wednesday edition) hosted by Dan Rather.  

When the documents used by Rather to attack George Bush proved to be fraudulent, show producer Mary Mapes was fired and Dan Rather's career was over.  

The only thing left behind was the mantra adopted by bad reporters everywhere: the evidence is false, but the story is true.

The real heroes of Rathergate were the bloggers and internet commenters who rose up together to take the false story apart, line by line, day by day, until CBS had to admit it's entire story was a fraud.  

They, too, created an aphorism, used by real reporters: everybody knows something.

For us, there's a special significance of Rathergate. 

The serendipitous birth of citizen journalists to expose the false reporting of the "professionals" resulted in the birth of The Black Rod. 

Yes, we've been around for 10 years.
2015 was our anniversary.

If you're surprised, imagine us.  When we banded together to shine a light on bad, often deliberately biased, reporting and to publish stories that needed to be brought to the attention of the public, we had no other plan. 

The idea that we would still be around a decade later, with over 1.8 Million visitors to our stories, was unimaginable.  

Yet here we are.

Looking back, we're proud of our record.
*  We cut our teeth on the Crocus Scandal.  

It's hard to remember how pompous, arrogant, vindictive, and bullying the Crocus Investment Fund was in its day.  Confident they had the full backing of the NDP government, Crocus aggressively worked to silence anyone who challenged their sunny story of success.  

They threatened to bury whistleblower Bernie Bellan under their army of lawyers if he kept asking questions about the fund. But their apogee was forcing Tory Finance Critic John Loewen to his knees when he picked up Bellan's questions---their legal threats squeezed a humbling apology from Loewen and even a grovelling promise to buy Crocus shares to rub his nose into it.

But in the end they couldn't silence two honest men
. In 2005, Laurie Goldberg and John Pelton, hired as the new Chief Operating Officer and new senior vice-president respectively, took one look at the Crocus books and raced each other to the Securities Commission.  

Crocus, as eventually determined by the Auditor General, had morphed from a labour-sponsored venture fund into a ponzi scheme--- with the full knowledge and participation of the NDP government, specifically then-Finance minister Greg Selinger.

The newspapers covered the day to day ins and outs of the Crocus affair, but it wasn't until The Black Rod drew a timeline and with it the obvious conclusions that the whole story came into perspective.  

Most obviously was our conclusion that a $10 million "investment" from a Quebec labour-sponsored fund was actually a disguised loan to prop up Crocus because the Manitoba fund was rapidly unravelling. The Auditor agreed with that observation. 

Eventually the Securities Commission reached a settlement with Crocus in which, to quote the story in the Free Press:

"The eight directors admit to the allegations including the fact that even though they knew a significant devaluation of shares was imminent the board permitted sales and redemption of shares at prices vastly higher than the price that was being contemplated."

In other words, the directors intended to trick people into buying into Crocus by claiming that  shares which were overvalued demonstrated what a good investment it was, but actually so that the fund would have the money to pay off those people who wanted to cash out. 

*  We learned two lessons from the Crocus debacle. 

-  First, the mainstream press will not report obvious facts unless they can quote somebody saying the obvious.  

The Winnipeg Free Press carried a story raising suspicions about the Quebec "investment", but they couldn't pull the trigger and call the illegal loan a loan, thereby allowing Crocus to perpetuate the fiction that it was an "investment". 

-  The other lesson was more astonishing. 
No sooner had Crocus been pilloried by the Auditor General, than the Free Press was out rehabilitating the disgraced operation. 

The Auditor was wrong, blared the paper's chief apologist, Dan  Lett. Crocus was a wonderfully well run fund. Its problems were minor. The NDP panicked and shut it down unnecessarily. The Winnipeg newspaper of record had done a 180-degree flip flop and was now shamelessly rewriting history.  We were stunned to see truth treated so cavalierly by "professional journalists".  (Apparently we were not alone, as the plummeting readership of the FP demonstrates.) 

But it wouldn't be the first time.

*  One of our greatest scoops also came during our inaugural year. It involved eighteen-year-old Matthew Dumas who was shot and killed by a police officer

The usual race-baiters came out in force, attacking the police, trying to turn the shooting into another J.J. Harper dog-and-pony show. But times had changed, and the mainstream media didn't control the news the way they did in 1988. 

Acting on a tip we interviewed witnesses to the events that preceded the fatal confrontation between Dumas and the police.  

It turned out that a police officer caught up to Dumas at the front door to a home in the North End and was leading him to the police cruiser to check his identity, when the teen sucker punched the policeman. They scuffled and Dumas got away. The police were in hot pursuit of Dumas for the assault when he pulled out a screwdriver and advanced on an officer, refusing all demands to drop the weapon, and getting himself shot. 

We shared the scoop with every newsroom in the city. Not one followed it up.

-  Even worse, we discovered that CBC taped interviews regarding the fight with police, but spiked the story.  

The CBC was pushing the narrative that police were at fault for not handcuffing Dumas and letting him get away.  They refused to report any facts that contradicted their biased view of events.

A year later, Winnipeg Sun reporter Paul Turenne piously wrote that the public still didn't know what happened in the Dumas shooting. When we informed him that many of the relevant details were in The Black Rod, Turenne responded sarcastically "I guess we'll be seeing you on the witness stand come inquest time."   

In 2008, THREE YEARS after The Black Rod scooped every reporter in the city, an inquest heard the facts of the fight in the lane between Dumas and the police. Paul Turenne's latest ground-breaking story was about, er, um, uh,---will be here any day now, we're sure.

*  Winnipeg is full of reporters with fancy journalism degrees and zero news sense or street sources

That's why The Black Rod was the first to report the presence of the Bandidos motorcycle club in Winnipeg, the appearance of their puppet club Los Montaneros, and the first to make a connection between the murder of 8 Bandidos gang members in Ontario and Winnipeg. 

We published a major investigative piece on how Winnipeg street gangs had adopted the thug-life ethos of the Bloods and Crips which was fuelling the spurt of tit-for-tat shootings around town.  

And we constantly scooped the MSM by revealing the gang connections of shooting victims, information that was easily available on the late lamented social networking site Bebo, where gang members bragged of their associations and criminal activities. The city's "professional" reporters just kept waiting for news conferences to tell them what we could discover in minutes.

*  We could never get over how lazy these professional reporters are. Over the years we confronted head-on a series of Stalinesque show trials conducted by the NDP under the guise of inquiries into alleged wrongful convictions for murder.  

-  We reported how these show trials were fixed from the start, rigged to keep out the evidence used by juries to find the men guilty, and designed to blame unfairly the police who collected that evidence and the prosecutors who put the men behind bars. The MSM reporters who regurgitated the falsehoods presented at the inquiries wouldn't do their homework and read the complete evidence against the innocent lambs who stood to collect millions from the NDP. So we did their job for them.

* The Black Rod reported how evidence at the inquiry into the conviction of Thomas Sophonow actually made a stronger case of his guilt than that presented at his trial.  

-  We demonstrated that there was no perjury at the trial of James Driskell, which was the very heart and soul of his wrongful conviction appeal, and which RCMP could not later authenticate despite a renewed investigation.  The Winnipeg Free Press went so far as to invent a quote to slander the Crown attorney at Driskell's trial, and we exposed them for it. They never apologized.

-  Frank Ostrowski was expecting an inquiry to exonerate him and make him as rich as the other two, but when he got bail after 23 years in prison, we laid out chapter and verse of the evidence at this trial and, lo and behold, the inquiry train failed to arrive. Instead, after 5 years on bail, the Manitoba Court of Appeal said they would hear his arguments, a hearing thats still pending.

*  Sometimes it wasn't laziness that prevented the local press from reporting a big story---it was their involvement.  Yes, we're talking about Porkgate. 

It's treated like a joke by local reporters but it's the story of the theft from Winnipeg Harvest of half a ton of pork, packaged and labelled specifically for delivery to Winnipeg's poor and hungry. That meat was instead suspiciously delivered to union HQ for striking Winnipeg Free Press employees, who bragged on-line about the support they were getting from members of the public.

When The Black Rod reported on the union's joy at taking food out of the mouths of the poor, union reps spit out a couple of different stories about how the government subsidized meat got to the tables of highly paid Free Press employees (it was surplus -- or else there was no room in Harvest freezers). 

David Northcott, executive co-ordinator of Winnipeg Harvest, said he was happy the strikers got the meat.  

Or he did until CJOB picked up the story.

Then he said he had no idea where the meat might be missing from, that Harvest didn't keep track of how it distributed donations, and he couldn't say any more. And he didn't. 

Neither did the Winnipeg Free Press report on the theft of half a ton of pork from Winnipeg Harvest or the fact that Winnipeg Harvest takes donations but can't account for where they go. 

It seemed to us that both were big stories, but you know "professional" reporters have a different idea of what is news, especially when they're involved in the cover-up.

*  For a small blog, The Black Rod had a big impact on federal politics. Take Lesley Hughes, please.

Hughes, a well-known former CBC radio host, was running for election to Parliament under the Liberal Party banner in 2009. We thought voters should know Hughes was a 911 Truther. What's a Truther?

Whip up your own definition from this segment of a column she wrote for a community newspaper:

"While major media busy themselves waving flags, a global network of independent journalists, who have no interests to protect, no secrets to hide, are tracking and documenting its development on a daily basis..."

"Using and sharing only published and sourced news stories from world media, and official documents of various governments either leaked or available under freedom of information acts, these journalists have assembled a disturbing picture, which suggests CIA foreknowledge and complicity of highly placed officials in the U.S. government around the attacks on the World Trade Center Sept. 11.
See, those awful Americans knew there was an attack coming on New York but let it happen to give them an excuse to invade Afghanistan and steal its oil.

Hughes also wrote that the Americans had been warned by the Germans, the Israelis and the Russians. Oh, and somehow "Israeli businesses which had offices in the (Twin) Towers" got wind of the warnings and moved just in time, even "breaking their lease to do it."

Gee, what's anti-semitic about saying Jewish businessmen knew of a terrorist attack but kept the information in-house, letting fellow Jews save themselves without warning non-Jews?

-  Apparently, not everybody shared her viewpoint. Within only hours of the posting of The Black Rod, Hughes was swept up in a firestorm of controversy and dumped as a Liberal candidate. 

It got so pundits were weighing Stephane Dion's suitability as leader against his response to Lesley Hughes. And we got a nice review in a column in the National Post:

A very good week for the Canadian blogosphere
The blog with the inside track on the MVP award is The Black Rod, based out of Winnipeg, which last week broke the story that Liberal candidate Lesley Hughes ...

-  Fast forward three years to the next federal election and there we were again making waves on the blogosphere. 

When a Green Party supporter was excluded from a Stephen Harper election rally, he went crying to the national press.  CBC's anti-Harper attack dog Terry Milewski and his parliamentary press gallery colleagues seized the exclusion of Izzy Hirji as a 'controversy' they could use to undermine Harper.

We did what 21st Century journalists do. We ran Izzy's name on Google. Bingo.

We turned up a Facebook post from 2006 where Izzy ranted about Harper, concluding: "OMGWTF im ready to like go to Ottawa myself an take him down, lol"

We wrote: "Maybe 3 months ago, before Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head at a political rally by a schizophrenic gunman, you would see the "lol" at the end of the comment and the date (2006) and put it in the crank file.  That was then."

Suddenly Izzy's grandstanding took on a different hue. Was he a threat? Was he a perceived threat? He sure took down his Facebook post in a hurry. 
But The Black Rod had a national presence for the second year in a row, leaving the local political reporters in our dust.

*  It wasn't all heavy lifting.  We did one story about CBC television news host Krista Erickson being Johnny-on-the-spot during a hurricane in Mexico and Whammo! the Krista beat became one of the most popular spots on the blog.  

We followed Krista up the ladder at CBC Winnipeg, over to Ottawa, through some controversy over colluding with the Liberals to embarass Brian Mulroney, over to Sun News where she became a legend with her interview of dancer Margie Gillis of "flapping-hands" infamy, and eventually across the pond to England and something about being a foreign correspondent. Last we heard, Krista is studying to be a lawyer.

-  We got national reporters stirred with our story about Winnipeg lawyer Bruce MacFarlane and his adventures at The Hague. 

As a special prosecutor in the trial of a journalist who published a book containing diplomatic documents that were supposed to be kept secret, MacFarlane had the tables turned on him by the defence. They accused him of irregularities and abuses in his investigation of the journalist and wanted him put in the dock at The Hague where normally tyrants and war criminals sit. (He beat the rap.)

*  When Canada joined NATO's campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan, we were appalled at how the national press undermined Canada's efforts with near-constant negative stories designed to leave the impression the Taliban was beating us at every turn. We couldn't understand how local news media didn't recognize the news value of covering Canada's biggest military engagement since the Korean War and devote regular segments to the action overseas, especially since so many fighting units had a Manitoba connection.  

Finally, instead of griping, we decided to do something and so started our weekly War in Afghanistan series. We would compile weekly accounts of the fighting in Afghanistan, concentrating on Khandahar province where Canadian troops were stationed. Many of the segments were too detailed for the casual reader, but we were doing it as much or more for ourselves than for our readers. Secretly we were hoping that somebody would steal the idea and bring it to a wider audience.

-  The War in Afghanistan resulted in two of our proudest moments in journalism. 

One day while scanning the week's war news we stumbled across a tiny mention in a story that the Taliban had conceded defeat in Khandahar and had announced a strategic retreat.  What?!!

When NATO moved into Afghanistan, the Taliban announced boldly that they would humble the mighty armies of the west, starting with Khandahar province where the Taliban was born. They set their sights on the Canadians, an untested army from a wimpy country unsupported by the country's press and opinion makers. The plan was to whip the Canadians first, destroy the morale of our NATO allies, and send the western troops packing.

But here was a story declaring a great Canadian victory! We beat them! They said so themselves! In our first trial by fire, the Battle of Panjwai, we kicked their asses, exactly the opposite of what the national press was telling Canadians. 

And there had been no news coverage by that national press. Dead silence.  

Was it true? We dug deeper and discovered that, lo, it was true. The Taliban had retreated. We couldn't publish the news fast enough.  Somebody, even if it was little old us, had to recognize the amazing success of the Canadian Armed Forces.

*  But the next story made us even prouder
. Again, while sifting through a week's worth of Afghanistan stories we stumbled across a mention of an Afghan interpreter who had been grievously wounded while assisting Canadian troops.  He had lost both legs in a battle, and after receiving medical treatment had apparently been abandoned by Canadian military and diplomatic officials to fend for himself. 

We reported on the man, Niaz Mohammed Hussaini. But we wanted to do more. So we made sure his plight was known to Rosie DiManno, of the Toronto Star, and Christie Blatchford, of the Globe and Mail, both of whom had been embedded with Canadian troops in Afghanistan and who we thought might have known Niaz.

DiManno remembered him at once. And she leapt into action. She bombarded military officials in Ottawa with one question: what are you doing to help this man? She got no answer, so she took the fight to her own turf, her newspaper column.

And she continued to make calls, until she reached Lt.-Col. Ian Hope, commander of Task Force Orion, the battle group component of Task Force Afghanistan. Finally she was able to report:
"Thank God there are more sensible - and morally upright - can-do Canadian military commanders on the ground, who aren't twisted in a bumbledom pretzel over their obligations toward Afghans.

"We do have a responsibility and we will assist in whatever way we can,'' Lt.-Col. Ian Hope told the Star in an telephone interview from KAF the other night. "It's extremely unfortunate that a non-combatant was injured in such a way. But Niaz remains an employee of the PRT.''

Six years later, the Toronto Star reported that the Canadian government had finally taken the first baby steps in allowing Afghan citizens who risked their own lives to help Canadian troops to move to Canada. And illustrating the story was a photo of  Niaz Mohammed Hussaini.

 At last we got to see what he looked like.  Instead of a grizzled vet of the years of fighting in Afghanistan, we saw a boy. A brave boy crippled in battle and we've wondered ever since if he did manage to find a new life in Canada.  The tiny part we played in helping him makes us prouder than almost anything else we've done.

*  But a close second is the time we singlehandedly stood up to the media lynch mob that was howling for blood during another NDP show trial, this an alleged inquiry into how an off-duty police officer escaped jail for killing a woman, Crystal Taman, whose car he rear-ended at a stop light.

The Inquiry had one purpose---to show that a conspiracy of police from Winnipeg and East St. Paul thwarted justice by undermining the investigation of a drunk driver, their fellow police officer. He  pleaded guilty to dangerous driving causing death and was sentenced to two years house arrest. 

But the press turned into a salivating horde that openly attacked, mocked, denigrated, and insulted any witness or evidence that didn't fit their preconceived conclusion. 

The behaviour of reporters, columnists and radio talk show hosts who professed to be professional journalists was so reprehensible that we stood, alone, to call them on it. To shame them into looking into a mirror at what they had become. The Black Rod stood to be counted as citizen journalists who were repulsed by the unrestrained bias of the professionals. It still ranks as among our proudest acts.

*  Former MLA Bob Wilson has struggled for more than 30 years to clear his name of a conviction for being part of a marijuana smuggling ring. The Black Rod called his story the biggest unreported story in Manitoba, and it still is. An investigator assigned to hear his case and determine whether to recommend a new trial ruled against him in a travesty of a process. 

The investigator ruled there was no new evidence despite the arrest after 30 years on the run of Whitey Macdonald, the kingpin of the drug ring for which Wilson was the alleged financier.  Whitey was arrested in Florida living with his wife under her maiden name, exactly where Wilson had been telling authorities for years they could find him. 

And his family admitted he had been an undercover agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency when he accepted a payment from one of his Manitoba dealers at Wilson's home, exactly as Wilson had been telling authorities for 30 years. 

And he said Wilson had nothing to do with the drug smuggling, just as Wilson has been telling authorities for 30 years

Add to that the involvement of a couple of former Premier Sterling Lyon's family in Macdonald's pot import circle, the possibility that drug money financed the Winnipeg Jets, and shining star Bruce MacFarlane's role (remember him) in a possible wrongful conviction and you have a very juicy news story, one that's being ignored by, ahem, the professional journalists. 
*  Our most satisfying scoop occurred in May, 2009. The topic: the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

While the rest of the Winnipeg news media was spewing fawning stories about the CMHR, we dug through the publicly available financial numbers and reached a startling conclusion: the CMHR was as much as $50 million in the hole!

We can only imagine the sheer panic our revelation caused within the CMHR and the Winnipeg Free Press, the propaganda arm of the museum, because until then there hadn't been a hint to suggest the museum was in financial difficulty, only breathless stories about all the donations they were getting.  

It took another five days but there it was, confirmation that we were right.  

The museum administrators confessed to to the Winnipeg Free Press in a meeting with the editorial board that the museum was drowning in red ink, just as we said. 

They claimed it was 'only' $45 million, but admitted they had beavered mightily to chop $10 million in costs off the bottom line.

-  We even topped ourselves two months later when we predicted that the CMHR would literally run out of money in the spring of 2011 and would go running to government to bail it out.  We pegged it, right down to the month when the museum revealed it was skint and needed tens of millions of government money to keep construction on track. 

* A fluke? In October 2010 we reported that the cost of the new football stadium currently under construction had geysered to $190 million, not the $115 million pricetag it carried on the day of the sod-turning at the University of Manitoba five months earlier.

Creswin President Dan Edwards issued a denial to the Free Press on Oct.19. "For 10 days now, we have been fighting untrue, inflammatory numbers on stadium costs that are clearly being floated to media outlets in order to make mischief on the project." He didn't deign to name us, even when he eventually conceded the final cost would be in the vicinity of $180 million.

Except that our sources said the stadium was facing even greater overruns and that the final cost would be as much as 20 percent higher, roughly 36 million.  We reported that figure. Balderdash, everyone said. As they jackhammer the concrete out of the stadium to replace it, the cost to date has jackrabbited around $40 million more than they announced on opening day. 

*  And still on the boondoggle beat, The Black Rod has proudly been the most tenacious watchdog of Manitoba Hydro. 

Our readers have been given the blow-by-blow details of how Hydro is spending tens of billions of dollars to build new power dams to fulfill contracts with American customers that sees us sell power at less than the cost to produce it. 

When asked about the risk of shale gas knocking the stuffing out of future prices for hydroelectric power, Manitoba Hydro officials scoffed and called it a fad. 

Now they concede that because of shale gas the prices they are getting and will get are peanuts compared to what they imagined they would get when they signed the contracts into which we're locked.

Whew.  Is it any wonder we've slackened off lately?
*  Have we had an impact?  The Black Rod is mentioned in two books that we're aware of---the textbook Mediating Canadian Politics by Sampert and Trimble (Chapter 10, White Noise: The Blogosphere and Canadian Politics by Curtis Brown) and  Politics in Manitoba: Parties, Leaders     and Voters by Chris Adams.

-  The Winnipeg Free Press has done everything possible to keep our name out of the newspaper, calling us "a local blogger" and "a Manitoba blog" when forced to write about us. We never made the newspaper's Blogs to Watch list. 

When his readers insisted we belonged, deputy Online Editor John White said "If the blog was consistently producing interesting, relevant and verified updates it would be on the list." 


We did manage to outlast John White who was booted from the Free Press in 2012 in the last layoffs at the paper.
But the best praise ever was the brief Rod Craze of 2011.

*  They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. We accidentally came across this post and smiled at our rainbow offspring:

Welcome to the Purple Rod!
I think it is about time that I created a blog. Considering naming a blog after a colour of a rod is the latest "craze" in Winnipeg, I am going to call my blog the Purple Rod! Special thanks to the Black, Orange, Blue, White, and Stiff Rods for inspiration!

To quote the Grateful Dead, "What a long strange trip it's been."

Happy New Year.  Welcome to The Black Rod's second decade.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home