CBC News website lost in translation

 I check the CBC News website every day. I can usually depend on it to tell me if something big is happening in Canada.

But, for a national news organization, presumably writing for people across the country, too many of its stories read like neighbourhood news composed by a teenage journalism student.

This summer, I made note of a headline on a lead item: Benoit Cote and Marie-Josee Sills, Terrebonne shooting victims, die in hospital.

Who are these people? Where is Terrebonne? Why should I read on?

Last week, I was drawn to the headline on this lead story: Suspect in custody after 1 person shot dead near Wilno, Ont., OPP say.

The subhead: Fatal shooting occurred just before 9 a.m. ET on Szczipior Road, OPP report.

I was interested in the story because I traveled to Wilno – following up on tales of vampires – for Maclean’s magazine 35 years ago.

I couldn’t stop reading the CBC report because – from first line to last – it was a journalistic train derailment.

Start with this in the subhead: Szczipior Road.

Sorry, I don’t read Polish.

Here is the rest of the mess:

A 57-year-old suspect has been arrested after a person was shot dead near the community of Wilno, Ont., between Barry’s Bay and Killaloe, about 180 kilometres west of Ottawa, provincial police say.

At least the geography zooms out from Szczipior Road. But few Canadians are familiar with Wilno, Barry’s Bay or Killaloe. Ottawa helps.

The fatal shooting occurred just before 9 a.m. ET on Szczipior Road, OPP said.

There’s that unpronounceable road again.

Ottawa police said early Tuesday afternoon that the gunman, a male whose age and description were not provided, may have been heading to the Ottawa area.

Was he walking or driving in that direction?

Police sources told CBC News the suspect was recently released from prison.

Pretty serious stuff to be hanging on unidentified sources.

Officers had been actively monitoring the situation and deployed officers to the west end, Ottawa police said.

West end of where? What does “actively monitoring” mean?

Police on Tuesday morning were also searching in addition to monitoring? – an area about a half-hour drive southeast of Wilno, between the communities of Cormac and Lake Clear, closer to Pembroke.

Three more places few Canadians can point to on a map. Too bad you didn’t provide one. Also note: This story is on the WORLDwide web.

OPP said a “major investigation” was underway on Foymount Road, which is Highway 512, near Dunnigan Road.

Two more roads somewhere and a highway with a number. Was this written by a gas station attendant you asked for directions?

Residents in the affected areas were being asked to stay inside and immediately call 911 to report any suspicious activity, said Sgt. Kristine Rae.

Affected areas? You mean Szczipior Road, or those other two roads? Or all those towns?

Schools, courthouses and other sites in the affected communities were locked down as a precaution.

What’s another site? A homesite? Gravesite? Campsite? Website? Parasite?

All lockdowns have now been lifted, OPP said.

What a relief – that there are no more avenues to navigate in this pile of dung.


Time now to recall my hunt for vampires in Wilno.

When I visited in the late winter of 1980, I learned that little had changed since the village was established by a few hundred Polish immigrants more than a century earlier.

Most of the residents still spoke with each other in Polish, the Kashubian dialect of their homeland.

And, as the first Polish settlement in Canada, Wilno had attracted scholars and journalists over the years.

“Some of them have smeared us,” the parish priest at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church told me. “Articles with crazy things, that we were vampires and such.”

In 1968, the Canadian Centre for Folk Culture Studies examined the linguistic and folkloric characteristics of the Poles in Wilno.

Four years later, the National Museum of Man – its name has since been emasculated – published the results of the study, titled: Vampires, Dwarfs and Witches Among the Ontario Kashubs.

In 1973, The Canadian magazine, quoting extensively from the study, ran a story headlined: Count Dracula in Canada? They Worry About Vampires in Wilno, Ont.

Not long after that the National Enquirer and other tabloid scavengers arrived.

I didn’t find any vampires, just a bunch of wizened old Polish-Canadians who feared their village, language and traditions would die with them.

“There’s nothing to do in Wilno,” I was told by one man in his 60s, a second-generation Canadian who spoke English with a Polish accent. “We’ll survive. But the young won’t stay.”

I wrote a sad and sympathetic story for a March 1980 issue of Maclean’s.

The first half-page of text was under the headline: A village dying for faith and pride.

Filling the rest of the page was a photo of smiling, suntanned, bare-chested young men and bikini-topped young women on a beach, beneath palm trees, puffy white clouds and blue sky.

The Club Med logo is barely visible on the ad.

But the locale was clearly not Szczipior Road.

Frankly, Trevor, I don’t give a damn

Trevor Noah, who takes over The Daily Show on Monday, describes himself as a 31-year-old half-black, half-white South African.

He describes his predecessor, Jon Stewart, as a 52-year-old Jewish man who grew up in New Jersey.

“The way we look at the same story will be completely different,” Noah said recently. “The most important thing is the place that you come from.”

Well said. I too like to know where people are coming from.

I loved The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I doubt I will ever feel the same about The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.

I like John Oliver’s HBO show, but never forget where he’s coming from – the accent is a giveaway – an Englishman taking a weekly bite out of Americans.

My jaundiced journalist’s eye on North American media is also trained on the Brits in top management at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Toronto Star, NBC News and ABC Entertainment, plus the Australian roots of Rupert Murdoch.

And there’s no relief from where I’m coming from in the make-believe world of movies and television – where you can’t tell the Brits from the Americans without an IMDB search.

I blame it on David O. Selznick.

The young Hollywood kingpin spent more than two years looking for the actress to play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind.

He wanted someone unfamiliar to American audiences and eventually selected Vivian Leigh.

Before making the official announcement, Selznick made his case for an Englishwoman to play Scarlett – in a letter to one of the most powerful show biz columnists in the United States:

January 7, 1939

Mr. Ed Sullivan
621 North Alta Drive
Beverly Hills, California

Dear Ed:

Vivian Leigh is by no means cast as Scarlett. There are three other possibilities. But should we decide on Miss Leigh for the role, I think the following answers your question:

  1. Scarlett O’Hara’s parents were French and Irish. Identically, Miss Leigh’s parents are French and Irish.
  2. A large part of the South prides itself on its English ancestry, and an English girl might presumably, therefore, be as acceptable in the role as a northern girl.
  3. Experts insist that the real southern accent, as opposed to the Hollywood conception of a southern accent, is basically English. There is a much closer relationship between the English accent and the southern accent than there is between the southern accent and the northern accent, as students will tell you, and as we have found through experience.
  4. I think it would be ungrateful on the part of Americans, particularly Americans in the film and theatrical worlds, to feel bad about such a selection in view of the English public’s warm reception of American actors’ portrayals of the most important and best-loved characters in English history and fiction, ranging all the way from Wallace Beery in Treasure Island, to Fredric March as Browning in The Barretts, to Gary Cooper in Bengal Lancer.
  5. And, finally, let me call your attention to the most successful performances in the American theatre in many, many years – those, respectively, of the American Helen Hayes as Queen Victoria and the British (Canadian, actually) Raymond Massey as Abraham Lincoln.

I feel that these are the days when we should all do everything within our power to help cement British-American relationships and mutual sympathies, rather than to indulge in thoughtless, half-baked and silly criticisms.

Miss Leigh seems to us to be the best qualified from the standpoints of physical resemblance to Miss Mitchell’s Scarlett, and – more importantly – ability to give the right performance in one of the most trying roles ever written. And this is after a two-year search.

And if she gets the role, I like to think that you’ll be in there rooting for her.

Cordially and sincerely yours,


P.S. Incidentally, just where do the carpers think the name “Georgia” came from, but from England? I suppose they’d also object to George Washington being played by an Englishman!

Sorry, Mr. Selznick, but I do not forgive you for Brits playing:

  • McNulty on The Wire
  • Stringer Bell on The Wire
  • Brody on Homeland
  • Quinn on Homeland
  • Estes on Homeland
  • Philip on The Americans
  • Irving Rosenfeld in American Hustle
  • Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King and LBJ in Selma
  • Nixon in Nixon

But, then, of course, Meryl Streep did portray Margaret Thatcher.

And British accents echo endlessly through the North American airwaves – on newscasts, sporting events, talk shows, reality shows and ads for everything from luxury cars to boner pills.

“Someone has to tell me why Americans won’t take anything seriously unless it’s delivered with a British accent?” Bill Maher asked on his HBO show earlier this year.

“Our reliance on the British accent to convey gravitas is kind of admitting we know we’re not really a serious people.”

Jon Stewart is a serious American who conveys gravitas.

Trevor Noah is a 31-year-old half-black, half-white South African comedian with a show on American TV.

Anything else?

We’ll see.


Here is the entire Bill Maher bit.

And here is a link to the handwritten Selznick letter.

Streaking Yogi, jostling Johnson

When my pal Alison Gordon died earlier this year, she was acclaimed as the first woman beat writer in the major leagues.

I laughed when I saw a photo that circulated with the obit – of her interviewing a mostly naked Rick Bosetti in the Jays’ locker room.

He was the last person I expected to see representing enlightened ballplayers, politely covering his crotch in front of a woman.

During my time, Bosetti was the self-proclaimed champion weenie wagger in baseball.

Alison took over the beat for the Toronto Star in 1979, the season after I quit the same gig with the Toronto Sun.

A lot of abuse was chucked at her by the adolescents of summer. The players on one team, the Texas Rangers, tried to bar her from their locker room.

They failed. Because even in Texas, the law was on the side of Alison and any other woman with press credentials.

I was there — 37 years ago Saturday — when the courts threw open the clubhouse doors to women.

It was all thanks to Melissa Ludtke, of Sports Illustrated, who had filed suit against Major League Baseball, the Yankees and the City of New York.

Ludtke’s claim was they discriminated against her by excluding women from the locker rooms at Yankee Stadium during the 1977 World Series.

Federal judge Constance Baker Motley ruled in Ludtke’s favor on September 26, 1978.

That night, the Yankees’ clubhouse turned coed after the game against the Blue Jays.

Ludtke was not there. But six women were: five reporters from local TV stations and one writer.

I stood back from the tumult to take in the scene, which was more interesting than the Jays 4-1 loss, their 97th of the year.

I watched a couple of giggling naked men – Yogi Berra, then a 53-year-old coach, his dick somewhere beneath his pale gut, and Cliff Johnson, a 6-4, 220-pound backup catcher – streak from the shower and jostle their way around the room.

The rest of the Yankees found this hysterical.

I watched one TV reporter, from some tiny station upstate, interviewing a naked Willie Randolph, trying to make eye contact but constantly stealing downward glances.

She wasn’t even a sports reporter, only there for the tabloid value of the moment.

I talked to another TV reporter, Linda Sutter, who said she loved the game and desperately wanted to cover baseball.

But she was hardly welcome, and easily conned by the idiot players she encountered that night.

Here’s what she told me after her work was done:

“I’m delighted to be here. Unfortunately, I got off to a bit of a bad start. I was standing outside the door and this guy came up behind me, grabbed me, and dragged me in here.

“I didn’t know who the hell it was – it was Jay Johnstone – I didn’t know him and I feel that if I’m going to be in here, working, I should know who I’m dealing with.

“That’s what Reggie (Jackson) told me: ‘If you’re going to be working in here, you’ll have to gain the respect of the players. And you’ll get that by knowing them and asking intelligent questions.’

“Right now, my biggest fear is asking a dumb question.”

I wised up Linda Sutter, telling her Reggie Jackson didn’t know an intelligent question from a fungo, that all he did was suck up to the network TV types and treated anyone who couldn’t advance his career like shit.

I’d witnessed his act with a young radio reporter in Toronto, deliberately saying “fuck” every third word so the kid’s tape was useless.

I asked Sutter why she would want to cover sometimes hostile, usually naked, and always foul-mouthed ballplayers.

“I’m over 30, and there’s nothing I haven’t seen or heard. Look, this is my game. When I was 10 years old, I wanted to be a shortstop when I grew up.

“I stopped playing baseball only because they wouldn’t let me play Little League. I grew up in New England and I’ve always been a Red Sox fan.

“Last week, when the Red Sox were here, I read a piece about how they reacted to their losses. It described how Yastrzemski sat at his locker and sobbed into a towel, how Remy sat with his head hung low.

“I thought to myself, damnit, I’d like to do that story. I’d like to be here to see it and describe it.”

I’m not sure what became of Linda Sutter. I found a 1995 obituary for a 54-year-old former New York journalist of the same name. The details fit. But I can’t confirm it.

I do know what happened to Rick Bosetti.

His undistinguished baseball career ended in 1982. His claim to fame was that he periodically unzipped during a game and pissed in every outfield in the American League.

He said he hid his dick behind his glove.

After being released by his last major league club, the Oakland A’s, Bosetti returned to his hometown of Redding, in northern California.

A Republican, he was elected mayor – twice.


A longer more detailed account of this and many more stories are told in my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.

TV news airs another Vatican infomercial

Brian Williams was back on TV on Tuesday, just in time for the U.S. networks to begin six days of religious programming masquerading as news.

His Lowliness, demoted to MSNBC, was welcoming His Holiness, Pope Francis, to the United States.

Having been nauseated by the view from inside a Canadian TV newsroom for previous popeathons, I was hardly surprised to see MSNBC – and others – turn hefty chunks of airtime over to Catholic cheerleaders.

A priest, Timothy Kesicki, joined the coverage to pitch young Catholics who have left the flock.

“There’s a fear we have in the United States that we’re losing the younger generation,” he said. “And, so, the image of Pope Francis, the witness of Pope Francis, is a real symbol of hope.”

Williams, still handsome and glib in his first day of rehab on NBC, was an enthusiastic convert, constantly referring to the pope as “the holy father.”

Early on, he threw to Maria Shriver, wearing a large cross and identifying herself “as a Catholic, as someone who was educated by the nuns and the Jesuits.”

The network identified her as an NBC News correspondent.

The pope’s visit is “exciting to me on a personal level,” gushed the ex-wife of Arnold Schwarzenegger and a glamor girl of the old Kennedy clan.

On the studio panel with Williams were a Notre Dame professor who doubles as the director of a center for the study of American Catholicism, and NBC’s Chuck Todd, moderator of Meet the Press.

Todd provided the Jewish perspective when he reminded viewers that this week is “also the high holidays for people of my faith.”

This hit the weird button for me, since earlier in the day I had read a piece in The Atlantic by the guy who was fired and replaced by Todd on Meet the Press.

It was headlined David Gregory’s Public Discussion of His Private Faith and promoted his book: How’s Your Faith? An Unlikely Spiritual Journey.

I always feel unsettled when news folks start talking about faith and declaring their religious affiliations. But it is routine on Fox, and not uncommon elsewhere these days.

I gag every time Wolf Blitzer tells some tortured soul: “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”

The most piercing injection of journalism Tuesday afternoon on MSNBC came when Williams was wrapping up a hit with  correspondent Anne Thompson, who was traveling with the press corps in the coach section of the pope’s plane.

“If our travel services people are listening,” said the millionaire anchorman, “can we please upgrade Anne for the next leg of the flight so she’s no longer in Row 44.”

“I think the only way that’s going to happen,” countered Thompson, “is if I get a Roman collar – and they say that issue is closed.”

That provoked a chorus of oohs from the panel back at Pope Central.

On CNN, Jake Tapper threw to a Vatican flack at the military airfield outside Washington to trumpet the pope’s arrival.

“I want to bring in Father Thomas Rosica. He’s the English-language media attaché for the Vatican. Father, thank you so much for joining me. You know this pope very, very well. As he steps foot on American soil for the first time … what do you think is going through his mind?”

“I think there’s great excitement,” Rosica replied, “What you see here is reflective of what’s going on across the country, across the world, because a man of peace is in our midst today. A man of hope. Somebody who is loved not only by the Catholic Church, but by people of goodwill around the world.”

Similar priestly commentary accompanied CBC’s wall-to-wall coverage when Pope John Paul II visited Canada in 2002 – and again from the moment of his death through his funeral in 2005.

I was a producer at CBC Newsworld during those years and, from where I was sitting in the newsroom, it looked like the network had surrendered its studios to the Roman Catholic Church.

I didn’t get it then. I don’t get it now.

Who else gets so much free publicity or so quickly attains star status?

The media may have boosted Trump’s poll numbers, but it’s not as if CNN recruited his family and campaign organizers as political commentators.

Todd, on MSNBC, explained Francis’s star power this way: “John Paul II was considered the first media savvy pope. This guy has taken it to the 21st century.”

That may be true – for some guy named Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

After all, how many other media-savvy Argentines wearing a skirt, with no fluency in the language, show up for a six-day speaking tour of the United States.

Still, the Vatican and Francis are hardly the second coming of J. Walter Thompson and Swifty Lazar.

NBC White House correspondent Chris Jansing offered a pop-culture take on the pope: “Arguably the most famous person in the world.”

Next thing you know the Vatican will be hawking Air Francis shoes and pitching a reality show called Keeping Up With the Curia.

On writing obituaries: A death in the family

Hold That Ghost, a 1941 movie starring Abbott and Costello, was on TCM the other night.

I watched because my Uncle Ted is in it, singing and dancing, playing himself.

He and my Aunt Adah were very nice to me when I was a kid. They also taught me an important lesson in journalism.

I’ll get to that. But first, some background.

Ted Lewis was a famous jazzman during the Jazz Age. A clarinet player and bandleader, he gave breaks to such youngsters as Benny Goodman and Jimmy Dorsey.

But Uncle Ted was most of all a showman, crooning and hoofing to his signature numbers: “When My Baby Smiles at Me” and “Me and My Shadow.”

I remember seeing him on The Ed Sullivan Show, always wearing his battered top hat, always selling his trademark line: “Is everybody happy.”

He showed me his hat and clarinet during one of many family visits to his home in The Majestic, on Central Park West at 72nd Street.

(I wasn’t there when his neighbor, the gangster Frank Costello, was shot in the lobby.)

Although my aunt and uncle never had children, their vast apartment was a fun place to explore.

There were paintings of clowns – Uncle Ted’s most cherished art works – dishes of candy, and a real Vegas slot machine that spit out silver dollars, which we kids were welcome to take home.

Occasionally, Aunt Adah – she was the Becker, my grandfather’s sister – would invite relatives to parties.

I recall sitting on Uncle Ted’s knee while he entertained his show biz cronies: always Sophie Tucker; sometimes George Burns, Jack Benny, or Eddie Cantor.

My pals back in Queens were not impressed. It wasn’t as if I was hanging out with Duke Snider or Mickey Mantle.

When I was grown, I’d write Aunt Adah and Uncle Ted of my travels and nascent career as a newsman.

Which brings me to my misstep as a reporter.

I was working for United Press International in New York in 1970, when Uncle Ted celebrated his 80th birthday.

I arranged to interview him, thinking I’d do one of those where-are-they-now features.

It was odd to sit at his desk, in the same room with the slot machine, now in charge with my tape recorder and notepad.

The interview went well, I thought. He seemed old, and tired, and very bitter. He talked about how show business no longer had a place for him.

I wrote the story as he told it.

NEW YORK (UPI) – Ted Lewis, who made “everybody happy” with his top hat and shadow during a career spanning six decades, spends much of his time reminiscing now that he’s turned 80. But he’d much rather be out there on stage.

Interviewed in his memorabilia-filled New York apartment, Lewis said that he would like to perform but the offers have stopped coming.

“They think Ted Lewis is too corny. They probably think the parade has passed me by,” he added. “If they threw me a couple of bones I’d grab them in a minute.”

It went on to explain how he had tried a comeback in 1966, producing and starring in a revue with his old friend, Sophie Tucker. But the dream died with Miss Tucker before the show opened in New York.

It was a sad story about a sad man, and got a lot of play in papers across the U.S. Unfortunately, my Uncle Ted read it.

“He’s very mad at you,” Aunt Adah called to say.


“Because it makes him sound pathetic.”

“I thought it might get him a job,” I said.

“Well, it didn’t,” she said. “You should know better.”

The lesson: Never write about a close friend, a relative, or anyone who has your home number and might include you in his will.

It was not long after the story appeared that I got a call from the UPI desk early one morning.

“Did you hear about your Uncle Ted?” a colleague asked.


“Well, I’m sorry to have to tell you, but he died this morning.”

I didn’t say anything.

“I’ve been asked to ask you if you want to come in and write the obit,” she said.

I reprised some of the quotes from the feature. At least Uncle Ted didn’t get to read it. Few people did.

UPI logged all the wire service stories published in major U.S. newspapers.

Special attention was paid to how UPI fared against the Associated Press.

The logs would be posted. Winners would be praised. Losers would feel like losers.

AP kicked my ass on my Uncle Ted’s obit.

When Aunt Adah died about a decade later, the family divvied up some of the contents of the apartment.

My wife Linda and I wound up with a set of Rosenthal crystal wine glasses, two antique dressers and a box of old photos.

The glasses all broke, the dressers are in our bedroom, and the pictures are stored away, including one of Uncle Ted made up as a clown.

I didn’t snap the photo. But I did write the story that made him feel that way.


Longer, more detailed accounts of this and many more stories are told in my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.

The Can-Am debating societies

I watched the U.S. and Canadian political debates on consecutive nights this week.

One was like dining on boiled kale, the other akin to pigging out on corndogs at a carnival.

Both left me queasy.

The Americans gathered Wednesday in Simi Valley, California, best known as the place where a mostly white jury acquitted the cops who pounded on Rodney King.

The CNN set at the Reagan Library was bright and sparkly. The backdrop was the Gipper’s gleaming Air Force One.

The cameras focused on the 11 Republicans, as well as the audience, which applauded and laughed a lot. (More than 25 times, by CNN’s count.)

A creepy highlight of the three hours was Trump and Bush slapping a low-five.

The Canadians assembled Thursday in the Palomino Room of the BMO Centre at Stampede Park in Calgary.

Four dull men on a dusky set, the only color the giant, red logo of the debate’s sponsor, the Globe and Mail.

The audience sat in the dark, never seen, rarely heard.

Over 90 minutes, Harper, Mulcair and Trudeau sometimes sounded like actors in an Altman movie, talking at the same time.

The moderator, Globe editor-in-chief David Walmsley, began: “With the country struggling to find its economic mojo, we have some tough questions for the leaders this evening.”

Sorry, but mojo doesn’t scan with an old sod accent.

Trudeau opened with: “Are you better off now than you were 10 years ago when Stephen Harper became prime minister?”

A Trudeau stealing a line from Reagan. Papa is rolling over in St-Rémi-de-Napierville Cemetery.

Trudeau: “Mr. Harper may not see what’s going on from 24 Sussex Drive, but I do.”

No doubt. You grew up there.

Walmsley: “Mr. Mulcair, you’re hearing a good ding-dong between these two, where are you?”

Mulcair: “I’m going to try and ring their bell.”

Ding dong? Bell ringing? Is this The Wizard of Oz? The Hunchback of Notre Dame?

The only audible laughter from the unseen audience came when Harper responded to Mulcair’s accusation the PM held a “secret meeting” with the media.

Harper: “I’m not sure how you have a secret meeting with the media.”

Walmsley: “We wish.”

This debate may have fulfilled your wish since it was not aired on network TV.

The night before, the Capricious News Network solicited gag lines with a couple of questions.

CNN quizmaster Jake Tapper: “Earlier this year, the Treasury Department announced that a woman will appear on the $10 bill. What woman would you like to see on the $10 bill?”

Rand Paul: “I think Susan B. Anthony might be a good choice.”

So, you’d put your hero and namesake, Ayn Rand, on the $100 bill?

Mike Huckabee: “That’s an easy one. I’d put my wife on there.”

Nice to hear a holy-roller cracker doing Henny Youngman: Take my wife. Please.

Marco Rubio: “Rosa Parks, an everyday American that changed the course of history.”

What’s wrong with your wife?

Ted Cruz: “I very much agree with Marco that it should be Rosa Parks.”

Just what you’d expect from a Cuban boy from Calgary.

Ben Carson: “I’d put my mother on there.”

Is this to get back at Tapper for mistakenly offering condolences this summer on your mother’s death?

Donald Trump: “I think my daughter, Ivanka.”

Did she strike a blow for uncivil rights by refusing to move to the back of your pimped-out plane?

Jeb Bush: “Margaret Thatcher.”

You still mad at your mom for saying Americans are sick of Bushes in the White House?

Scott Walker: “I’d pick Clara Barton … she was a great founder of the Red Cross.”

Nurse Ratched is better suited for this crowd.

Carly Fiorina: “I wouldn’t change the $10 bill.”

Just burn them on the printer picked up at your HP fire sale.

John Kasich: “I would pick Mother Teresa.”

In God We Trust isn’t enough on the flip side?

Chris Christie: “I think the Adams family has been shorted in the currency business … So I would put Abigail Adams on the bill.”

Not Morticia?

“Some good entries, if anybody at the mint was listening,” Tapper said. “Here’s the next lighthearted question:

“You all know that the United States Secret Service uses codenames for the president …What would you want your Secret Service codename to be?”

Christie: “I would just say True Heart.”

Truly cardiac arresting.

Kasich: “Well, I have one now. My detail calls me Unit One.”

As a unit of measurement, your poll numbers are a mile behind the leader of the pack.

Fiorina: Secretariat.

The horse? Or are you a big fan of the Maharashtra Mumbai Secretariat?

Walker: “Harley. I love riding Harleys.”

And what would the Secret Service call Vice President Sonny Barger?

Bush: “Eveready – it’s very high energy.”

Would Cheney be working the controls for you too?

Trump: “Humble.”

Is dickhead already taken?

Carson: “One Nation.”

Not Sonya, your mother, since Tapper killed her?

Cruz: “As a Cuban, I might go with Cohiba.”

You do know where Clinton’s cigars ended up in the White House.

Rubio: “I want my codename to be Gator.”

Another reptilian Republican.

Huckabee: “I’d go with Duck Hunter.”

Sucking up to the Schmuck Dynasty.

Paul: “Justice Never Sleeps.”

Which justice? Clarence Thomas? Is he still up all night watching porn?

Sunday brunch for gambling junkies

ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown exemplifies everything insipid about sports talk shows.

This week, it was two hours of non-stop yakking about games that have yet to be played in a season that is just beginning.

The worldwide leader in hyping football had promoted a “new fast-paced” edition of the show now in its 30th year.

There were announcers sitting and standing — in fivesomes, foursomes and threesomes — a foul-mouthed blonde flashing skin and pearly whites, a man who fulfils fantasies, and a woman who gave face to Tom Brady.

I’d never before watched one of these pre-game drudgeries from start to finish. Here is what I saw and heard.

Chris “Boomer” Berman anchors the Snickers desk, flanked by ex-players Tom Jackson, Keyshawn Johnson, Cris Carter and Mike Ditka.

The shimmering set looks like CNN on election night. Wolf Berman and the best sports team on television.

Berman: “Keyshawn Johnson, good to be with you again, and I know you join me, with everyone else, for those celebrating tonight, happy new year – and happy new year to you.”

Johnson: “You too.”

Berman: “Didn’t get the chuckle I usually get out of that.”

Now Berman is playing Joey Bishop on stage with Sammy Davis on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.

Ditka to Berman: “You’re sweating.”

Berman: “I sweat in an igloo.”

That initiates the chucklefest.

All these shows should be titled: Guys in Suits Laughing For No Apparent Reason.

Berman soon throws to ESPN’s Britt McHenry at the Seahawks-Rams game.

McHenry is best known for her performance opposite a towing company clerk, delivering such memorable lines as: “I’m on television and you’re in a fucking trailer, honey.”

On Sunday morning, McHenry, blonde hair cascading onto a purple dress, bare at the shoulders, on the sideline in St. Louis, reveals the latest from her Deep Throat with the Seahawks: “A team source just told me that Marshawn Lynch wearing Kam Chancellor’s number 31 jersey is no distraction to the team at all.”

She wraps her no-news-is-good-news spot with a starlet’s smile.

The ability to talk and smile at the same time is TV’s contribution to evolution.

Berman next turns to Matthew Berry, who will be “joining us quite a bit on our shows this year.”

“Thank you, Boom, let me say very quickly, an honor and a thrill to be joining you guys.”

Berry is described by ESPN as its “senior fantasy sports analyst.”

Bristol, Connecticut, boasts more analysts than Manhattan and Vienna combined.

Over to Wendi Nix, standing stage left: “I’ve got company today. Jane Rosenberg is with us.

“For those of you who think that name rings a bell – and I bet it does – she’s the courtroom artist who became quite famous after her initial sketch of Tom Brady in his hearing versus the league.”

Who could dispute the enduring fame of courtroom sketch artists.

The spectre of Brady also hovers over a report from Sal Paolantonio, outside a stadium locker room.

“For the first time in 96 years of NFL football, the league now has a strict protocol on the handling and the air pressure of the footballs.”

Roll tape of bulky gym bags being hauled into the zebras’ locker room.

“This is all the result of Deflategate.”

Paolantonio orates his lengthy hit with the solemnity of Judge Sirica ordering Nixon to turn over the Watergate tapes.

Since the entire show is an ad for the 13 games this day on other networks, Berman checks in with the announcers for ESPN’s Monday Night Football, Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden.

“Jon, let’s look around the Sunday landscape. What matchups are you excited about today?”

“I like Indianapolis at Buffalo.”

The Bills beat the Colts, demonstrating once again that sports prognosticators are less prescient than economists, meteorologists and 1-900-ASK-EDNA.

Next comes the segment the gambling junkies have been craving. It’s called “inactives,” with Nix, Berry, Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter running down the list of players too crippled to knock heads.

Nix reminds us twice that teams must declare their active roster 90 minutes before kickoff – plenty of time for bookies to adjust a point spread and gamblers to get a bet down.

Berry directs such info to “fantasy owners,” as if Dwayne in Duluth and Jerry Jones are in the same tax bracket.

We get the sad news that a Cleveland cornerback is inactivate after being “involved in a road rage incident.”

Aaron Hernandez won’t be playing today either.

Berry does a followup on players with the best value in cash games with a salary cap.

Whatever the hell this is, it sounds like a slave auction.

Who watches this show?

It’s the key question for advertisers. This Sunday, on TSN, ESPN’s Canadian cousin, there were:

  • Sixteen ads for cars, plus the same Napa oil spot six times
  • Eight for fast-foot outlets
  • Seven for men’s shoes and athletic gear
  • Three for smartphones
  • Two for eyeglasses
  • One for a travel website
  • TSN promos linked to a beer company

The Canadian NFL addict is a kid in a Mazda, having Pizza Hut and Coors Light for breakfast, peering through Crizal lenses at his Samsung and fantasizing about booking a flight to Vegas, while en route to get an oil change.

9/11: The day that changed the news

We journalists love anniversaries. The big ones are the best: D-Day, the JFK assassination, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Editors and producers especially love anniversaries – because they can package a bunch of stories in advance and pretend they’re news.

Katrina got the full treatment last month because it was 10 years since the storm.

That’s the other thing. The number is important. Ninth? No big deal. Tenth – stop the presses.

So why am I marking the 14th anniversary of 9/11?

Because I have a story to tell and no expectation I’ll be writing in this space when number 20 or 25 rolls around.

On September 11, 2001, alone in my house in suburban Toronto, my wife phoned to say a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I turned on the TV just before the second plane hit the South Tower.

The following days and weeks would see journalism at its best – and worst – and forever change the way news is presented. Not for the better.

I was a bit player at CBC Newsworld at the time, and that Tuesday was a day off. So I sat at home, switching from CNN to CBS to NBC to ABC to CBC.

There was little doubt two commercial airliners had deliberately been flown into the towers.

But the anchors – and the rest of us – had no idea what else was going that morning.

When the picture switched to Washington, the story became even more confusing. “The State Department seems to be on fire,” one U.S. anchor said.

The problem was his camera in Washington was pointed toward Virginia, at an angle that the smoke rising from the Pentagon looked like it was coming from the State Department.

“We have a report that another plane has crashed in Colorado,” another anchor said. ”The target may have been the North American Air Defense Command, known as NORAD.”

Then: “We are just getting word that a plane has crashed in western Pennsylvania.”

In early afternoon, I called the CBC and talked to a friend and colleague, anchor Ben Chin.

By this time, Peter Mansbridge had taken over the anchor desk – as had all the network big guns – but Ben was standing by and trying to help out.

“What are we missing?” he asked.

“Hard to tell,” I said. “Just make sure you keep counting the dead. You have to keep telling the viewer how many are confirmed dead. And remind us that 50,000 people work in those towers every day.”

“Yeah,” he said, “I’ll pass that on.”

“What about that plane in Colorado?”

“What plane in Colorado?”

“I think Peter said a couple of hours ago that a plane went down in Colorado. Might be a good idea for someone to keep track of any mistakes and get them fixed fast. There are going to be a lot of bogus stories that need checking before putting them on.”

“Yeah,” he said, “it’s pretty crazy.”

No network was eager to correct mistakes that day. Or any day since.

As a part-timer, I wasn’t called in to work until two days later, to take over the CBC Newsworld desk.

There was obviously still a lot to report on the all-news channel, but I wound up spending much of my time fighting to keep half-baked stories off the air.

“There were eight people arrested at LaGuardia,” the supervising producer for CBC-TV News that day told me. “Don’t you think we should get that on the air?”

“Not until we know what it’s about,” I said. “It could have nothing to do with the attacks (it didn’t), like what happened in Boston yesterday.”

All the networks had spent hours the previous day focused on a Westin hotel in Boston, speculating that accomplices of the hijackers were cornered. They weren’t.

Later in my shift, there was a report that five firefighters had been found alive in an SUV under the rubble of the towers.

“We’ve got to get this on,” the same supervisor told me.

“You’re kidding?” I said.

“It’s on the wire,” he said.

“Yeah, I saw it. It’s a local ABC report quoting unnamed sources. When the cops confirm it, or the fire department, or Giuliani, I’ll put it on.”

But he wasn’t giving up. “Attribute it to AP.”

“I can’t,” I said, “because they’re not reporting it, only saying that ABC is reporting it.”

“Then attribute it to ABC,” he said.

“I can’t,” I said, “without saying that they’re attributing it to unidentified sources. Do you really want to go on the air with a script that says:

The Associated Press is distributing a story, attributed to the local ABC News station in New York, which is quoting unidentified sources as saying five firefighters have been found alive in the rubble of the World Trade Center?”

“Can’t we just say ‘there is a report that five firefighters have been found alive in the rubble of the World Trade Center”?”

“No,” I said.

“Why not?” he said.

“Because we know it’s probably bullshit.”

The argument ended when the wires moved a bulletin saying the story was a hoax.

But, from then on, at the CBC and everywhere else, the common practice was: Throw any shit on the wall – on the air, on the web, in the paper – and hope it sticks.


A longer more detailed account of this and many more stories are told in my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.


Reporters adrift in a sea of people

The recent influx of uninvited visitors into Western Europe has created a language crisis in the journalism community.

The word nerds have been working overtime, contemplating what to call those arriving en masse by land and sea.

The choice has come down to: migrant or refugee.

Editorial directives have been issued. It should all be clear now. Or not.

The New York Times went so far as to give readers seven answers to seven questions, what it calls an “explainer story,” under the headline: Migrant or Refugee? There Is a Difference, With Legal Implications.

But questions about the questions and answers were sent to the paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, who passed the questions on to a Times editor.

Joseph Kahn answered Sullivan’s questions, based on readers’ questions, with an answer that included:

  • “We have used the term migrant rather than refugee when referring in a blanket sense to the full wave of people seeking entry into Europe.”
  • ”We have sought to use the term refugee when the bulk of people in a sub-group of migrants we are writing about are likely to qualify as refugees entitled to legal protection.”

Kahn concluded:

“While imperfect, it is accurate to refer to both migrants and refugees as ‘migrants,’ because they all belong to the class of people moving from one place to another. It is not accurate to refer to all migrants as refugees, however, as refugees have a special status under international law that does not apply to all migrants.”

Ms. Sullivan concluded: “This explanation makes sense to me.”

Great. Now that a couple of people in New York have sorted it out, reporters in Europe are left to determine who has refugee status under international law.

The woman in the black headscarf looks like a refugee to me.

They’re all wearing black headscarves.

What about that guy in the Polo hoodie?

Not buying it.

The guy in the Adidas tracksuit?

Definitely a migrant.

Here in Canada, the word came down from the CBC’s journalistic standards and practices director, David Studer:

“Unlike some other organizations, CBC News hasn’t issued a directive on language for stories about this cross-Mediterranean traffic, specifying the use of ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees.’

“It’s been left up to our journalists to choose the best noun for their story … Please bear this in mind. There is an option, but more often these days, the correct choice is refugees.”

So, it’s up to us, right?

Not really.

What do you mean?

He says refugees is more often correct.

So we go with refugees, right?

Right, it’s up to us and we choose refugees.

I worked at CBC for 10 years. I know an edict when I read one. And know good little soldiers take comfort in just following orders.

My two favorite CBC word games concerned a furry animal and al Qaeda.

The critter, a “fisher,” replaced fisherman for a couple of years – until the bigwig who issued the dimwitted decree moved on.

In 2002, chafed by post-9/11 American jingoism, the CBC brass decided to ban the words “terrorist” and “terrorism.”

How do we characterize Osama bin Laden?

Just call him that very tall Saudi gentleman.

Every newsroom has its strict constructionists.

When I was at Canadian Press, there was an editor who obsessed over every wrinkle in the news report.

When Paul Bernardo legally changed his last name to Teale, this self-appointed word doctor put out a memo that CP should follow suit.

Since the Ontario desk was handling the story, and I was Ontario news editor, I told my staffers to stick with Bernardo.

I don’t care if he changes his name to Mallard, or Goldeneye, or Bufflehead or any other duck, the reader isn’t going to know who the hell we’re talking about unless it’s Bernardo.

Nothing good can come from editorial overseers over-thinking their vocabulary (or anything else).

A friend at the Toronto Star once told me it was verboten to write somebody was murdered until someone else was convicted of the act.

Why? Because murder is a legal term.

Something is lost in the language of journalism when communicating with the reader/viewer/listener isn’t the primary concern.

For much of my lifetime, migrant workers were Spanish-speaking folks who came north to pick fruit and vegetables. They migrated with the seasons, like birds.

Those who stayed without permission were “illegal aliens” in the United States, or “illegal immigrants” in Canada.

Sometime after the news media erased the judgmental “illegal” tag, migrants became a catch-all for all poor wretches fleeing their home countries.

My head hurts every time the media feel compelled to categorize people.

Is it African-Americans? Blacks? African-Canadians? Native-Americans? Indians? Natives? Aboriginals? First Nations Peoples?  

Refugee seems like a term from another time – for those running steps ahead of an invading army, or left in the ruins of a bombed-out city, or survivors of the Holocaust.

But Nazis hid among the refugees of the Second World War.

And it’s a good bet terrorists have infiltrated the casualties of the war in Syria who are now in Western Europe.

Good luck to the officials trying to sort it all out, much less the journalists.

Hello, sweetheart, get me rewrite

If news outlets want to spend their measly budgets wisely – and put out a better product – they should stop looking for gimmicks and return to the tried and true.

Imagine constructing an actual story from scratch as news happens, instead of reporters blogging or tweeting disconnected fragments for their online service.

Here’s how to start:

  1. Identify your best writers, most seasoned journalists, with sound news judgment.
  2. Park them at a desk.
  3. Pay them top dollar.
  4. Train a crew of young reporters you can trust to get the quotes right and the facts straight.
  5. Pay them rookie rates.
  6. Demand all leave their egos at the door.

How do I know this works?

I lived it.

I thought I could write a decent news story when I arrived at UPI headquarters in New York in 1970.

Then I watched Lucien Carr work.

Every day, in the slot at the main news desk, this skinny guy in his late 40s, in a white shirt, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, tie at half-staff, shit-eating grin under a scraggly mustache, calmly and quickly polished stories filed from bureaus around the world.

He rewrote cliché leads until they grabbed the reader by the throat – or tickled in just the right places – plugged every hole, trimmed all the fat, crafted every sentence to flow into the next.

Lucien was The Man – everyone, including the bosses, knew it – the best editor/rewriteman I’ve ever known.

(A mentor to generations of journalists, Lucien, who died in 2005, was also remembered as a muse to the Beat Generation of writers – and defamed in a recent movie called Kill Your Darlings.)

UPI, in my time, operated in the same tradition as daily newspapers where the swiftest and slickest writers banged out the best stories on deadline. Hello, sweetheart, get me rewrite.

But it would be several years, after I joined United Press Canada in 1983, before my inner-Lucien emerged.

At UPC’s national newsroom in Toronto, I soon commandeered the slot as bureau chief and found my mojo as a rewriteman.

A story arriving from a bureau reporter was a starting point, far from a finished product. We routinely turned chickenshit into chicken cordon bleu.

There was some bitching from the bureaus – mainly Ottawa – but they knew they were outclassed.

There was no bitching from the kid I hired out of J-school and sent on the road with John Turner in the 1984 election campaign – just phone in your notes and quotes and we’ll take it from there.

Or from the reporter who covered the Colin Thatcher murder trial and didn’t know he had the lead when the accused dished out the Hamburger Helper alibi.

When UPC was sold to Canadian Press, I eventually took up where I left off – directing coverage and rewriting copy.

When word came that Ben Johnson failed a drug test in Seoul, my best writer in Toronto and I pounded out lead after lead into the night, combining notes from CP’s reporters at the Olympics with everything coming in from allied wire services.

During the subsequent Dubin inquiry into Johnson and the rest of the track and field dopes, I told the reporter in the hearing room to concentrate on a wrapup story – while we wrote the breaking copy at the desk from the live feed on TV.

At UPC and CP, I wrote under dozens of bylines, including a couple of guys now running major media operations and few others who went on to win national newspaper awards.

That was the way it was supposed to be. The reporter earned the byline for reporting, not necessarily for writing.

And we would have bulldozed any story straying into today’s common practice of meandering for hundreds and hundreds of words before getting to the point.

Now, too many editors are mere proofreaders. And, considering all the bonehead errors I see online, not much good at that either.

I saw the diminished role of the editor when I spent a brief time in the wasteland of the Toronto Star copy desk in the late ’90s.

Some of the kids I’d coached at CP were then reporters and editors at the Star. I was on the night shift with a lunatic copy chief.

“You can’t be substantially changing a reporter’s copy without his or her permission,” she’d scold me every time I did the kind of rewrite that was the norm at the wire services.

“Why would I phone some kid who can’t write for shit to ask permission to make his copy better,” I’d counter.

“That’s not the point, that’s not the way we do things around here.”

The Star habitually allowed stories that rated 300 words to be published as 1,000-word monstrosities that nobody could – or would – read.

I kept trimming copy and the crazy lady kept dressing me down.

“You don’t understand,” she said in conclusion to our final dust-up, “we have a big paper to fill.”

I laughed, went for a smoke, walked out on a full-time job at the Star, and accepted a part-time gig at CBC Newsworld.

UPI used to say there was always a newspaper going to bed somewhere – a deadline every minute.

On an all-news TV channel, deadlines can be measured in seconds.

It didn’t take long to feel at home – taking command of a news desk, adrenaline gushing, rewriting, rewriting, rewriting.

Old dog. New medium. Old tricks.