Should you run for municipal council?

ContenderThere’s a poll online asking if a resident should run for council next election. I believe I understand the intent, but decision-making by poll is not effective leadership. Internet polls, in particular, are weak, inaccurate, easily manipulated, and ignore necessary demographic constraints – they are unacceptable as the foundation for any serious decision.

Sure, you want public input for major issues, and you are legislated to get it on some planning matters. Council tries very hard to be as open and transparent as possible. But in the end, you get elected to make decisions. You can’t keep deferring while you ask for polls, surveys, reports and hold public meetings. You have to make the decision. The buck, as they say, stops with you.

Council, working with staff, is privy to a different, often deeper and broader, picture that includes information about all departments, projects, staffing matters, costs, demographics, service delivery, facility use and most important of all: budget and taxes. We learn quickly what every decision will cost taxpayers, and how expensive some dreams really are when you need to borrow the money to achieve them (a $35 million loan, for example, translates to more than $49 million over a 20 year debenture and means a 10.12% increase on the average tax bill).

From the outside, it’s easy to second-guess council’s decision because most people only weigh their own interests in the matter, not all of the other things and all the different user groups and residents council has to consider.

I’ve been there: I was in the media covering local politics for a dozen years here. Before I ran for office, I thought I knew just about everything I needed to know about how the town ran. I knew the procedures, I knew the staff, I knew the politicians. I sat through hundreds of meetings, I conducted hundreds of interviews. I pontificated weekly on council’s decisions in the media because I thought I knew at least as much as they did, and often knew better.

I was deeply humbled in my first term to realize that I had not fully understood or appreciated how complicated, how demanding, how stressful and how difficult the role often is. I didn’t appreciate how much council has to consider when making a decision, how the interplay between staff and council affects decisions, how information and data can be interpreted or mis-interpreted. I didn’t realize that some decisions were often tough compromises. Later, I apologized to several former politicians for some comments I made in the media during their term.

Anyone who is a resident and meets the requirements of the provincial election act can run for municipal office. Usually about 20 people run for council here. Seven get elected, plus mayor and deputy mayor. These are nine local people – business owners, employees, teachers, retired people, real estate agents, parents, grandparents – they are your neighbours, your relatives, your family; people you will see in the grocery stores, in the bowling alleys, on the golf courses, walking their dogs on local sidewalks, people who went to local schools, or go local churches, have families, shop at the mall, exercise at the Y, donate to local charities. Sometimes people get angry at council and forget that councillors are ordinary, local people, just like they are.

Democracy is best served by a wide range of ideas, experiences, skills, opinions and attitudes. Debate is crucial, so is dissent. That can be emotional and trying. Few people are raised in a work or home environment where debate, argument and intellectual challenge are common. We tend to avoid confrontation. But council is often embroiled in it and it can be acrimonious. For many people, caustic debate is a stressful and anxiety-laden time. That’s why people often choose committee and board work where cooperation is more common than controversy. That’s also why an angry or loud voice can dominate the council table, even bully other council members, because most people don’t want to fight.

Every person on council, even those I disagreed with, or whom I personally disliked, I respect for running for office and accepting the burden that places on us. Every one of them cared passionately and deeply for the community and their causes. I didn’t have to like or agree with them to respect the challenges and stresses we shared. We all ran for office because we cared enough to accept the responsibilities that go with it.

If you want to run for council, as long as you meet the requirements, do so. Here are my caveats and considerations:

Penguin confrontationBe prepared to have your integrity questioned, your honesty assaulted, your best efforts at being fair and open ridiculed, your wisdom and experience deprecated, your credibility and reputation eroded.

Be prepared for you and your decisions to be publicly insulted, ridiculed, dismissed and your sanity questioned. Be prepared to be misunderstood, to have simple mistakes or innocent comments turned into public humiliations, to have off-the-cuff remarks hung around you like an albatross. Be prepared for misinformation and disinformation to be used against you, sometimes deliberately, sometimes maliciously.

And you will make mistakes, trust me. Humans naturally do, but when you are in politics, those mistakes will stay with you. Unlike in your personal life, you won’t be able to take your mistakes back or beg forgiveness. If you wake up the next day and realize you cast the wrong vote, too bad. Live with it. Few people will accept your apologies. The media will dredge out old comments, old quotes, old votes and remind people of your foolishness long after you had forgotten it.

Be prepared to be frustrated by process and procedural rules, to be disappointed that everyone else doesn’t share your enthusiasm for your ideas or initiatives, to be slowed by budgetary realities, and see even simple goals take years to achieve.

Be prepared to trim some of your election promises and your fondest, most fervently-held dreams in order to achieve more modest and more realistic compromises.

Be prepared to have your preconceptions publicly  refuted, your ideas and beliefs overturned, and your core values challenged – and then reported in the media for everyone to see or hear.

Be prepared to swallow your pride and vote for something you don’t like, something you don’t want or agree with, because it’s simply the only viable choice. You will be vilified if you change your stance, and vilified if you don’t.

Be prepared to be lobbied by both individual residents and groups, sometimes relentlessly. People will call you at home, at work, in the middle of the night to talk about issues, argue, denounce and confront you. And a few will also congratulate you.

Sometimes you get so many emails or calls on an issue that just can’t respond to all of them.

You will have to work at the job – reading, learning, asking questions, digging through books, files, records, agendas and minutes. You will have to learn the byzantine rules of procedure, codes of conduct, and read dense laws and bylaws governing your every action.

You will have to learn to be cool, calm and restrain your anger, even when you feel yourself under attack. And you have to learn to let your failures go.

Everything you say or do will become public. Casual jokes, off-hand remarks, personal habits, your dress and appearance, even simply not hearing a comment properly or losing your place in the agenda will be repeated in the media and the coffee shops.

No matter what decision you make, someone will disagree. Someone will be angry at you for it. Someone will think you a fool. Or worse. You will be accused of being underhanded, dishonest, disingenuous, secretive and manipulative. Even if you made the best decision you could, in the most open and transparent manner, even if you believed that your decision was the absolute best for the community and its residents, it will be questioned and attacked by those you failed to please.

Even more frustrating, things you ran on, things you were elected for, things you believed in when you made your decisions, will be challenged, discredited and ridiculed by both the public who elected you and the media when that decision does not meet their post-election expectations.

It will affect your work, your family, your friendships, your recreation time. You will lose friends and customers. You may gain others, but that won’t make the loss hurt any less.

If you have a thick enough skin for that, if you think you can still rise above the tribulations and give it your best effort every meeting, then by all means, run for office. If you win, and it doesn’t grind you down first, you may learn to become patiently philosophical about politics.

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The Decline of Information Quality

Huff Post 01I’ve been troubled the last year or so by the increasing amount of trivial crap that is being presented on media sites as news, rather than what it really is: shallow gossip, pseudoscience, trivia, anecdote, voyeurism and personal experience.

As titillating as some glitterati’s wardrobe malfunction might be, it is not front page news. In fact, it isn’t worthy of the description news even when relegated to a more appropriate location, buried deep inside the site. Gossip belongs with the horoscope, cartoons and word-search puzzles.

Nor is a cute animal in some anthropomorphic posture news. Kitten and bunny wrestling? Why is there a front page link to such inane pap? But there is was on the HuffPost.

Who a “reality” TV star marries, what she ate, the condition of her dress or how much cleavage she shows is not only not news, it is not important in any sense of the word. It is an insult to the readers’ intelligence to put it on the front page.

Huff Post 02It is, in the dietary sense, empty intellectual calories. It seems to fill a space, but it is empty, void of content, just wasting bandwidth. Like doughnuts, soda pop and candy bars, it fills without fulfilling. It provides no cerebral nutrition. In short, it is material for the hard of thinking.

I never thought I’d say this, but there are actually TV shows with more intelligence than this crap. Not, of course, many; some BBC, TVO, PBS and CBC shows – not the American Picker, Swamp People or Jersey Shores nonsense, mind you. Both History and Discovery channels have become broadcasters of excremental trivia, dropping documentary for mediocrity.

There is, of course, a place for gossip about the haberdashery and sex lives of the glitterati. Supermarkets have racks of such irrelevant tabloids for those who thrive in the shallows of the intellectual pond. But it does not belong on the front page of an allegedly national or international media publication (like the Huffington Post).

National PostNot that the HuffPost is alone in dumbing down its content for a less discriminatory, less intellectual audience, although it is arguably the worst, with more pure crap on its front page than any other news site I visited.

The National Post has a section called “arts” in which it places front page trivial pap about Lindsay Lohan in a car accident, a legal dispute between two actors and an “open letter from Elvis Presley.” Gossip and minor events in the lives of actors is not news and it isn’t anything to do with the arts. Car accidents may be entertainment for some twisted souls, but the majority does not see them as having any cultural or artistic merit.

Canoe 02Canoe, the Quebecor home site, opens with some minor news pieces, but uses a media player to move you quickly to trivia categories like showbiz, movies (why this is not in showbiz is a mystery), swimsuits (an entire category of stories!) and “tearjerkers” where dumbing down is elevated to a new standard. The front page has stories about garage sales and movie trivia. The main news story today is “Man killed in B.C. goft cart crash.” Yes, it says “goft” cart, not golf cart. You have to actually hunt for real news like the latest massacre in Syria.

None of this reduces my impression of Quebecor as the bottom of the intellectual barrel in the Canadian media industry, of course. Just reinforces it. My overall attitude is that QMI is the only news agency that makes the trashy Fox network look moderate, and the old News of The World look relevant.

Toronto Sun 02The Sun newspaper is, well, just what I expected from a newspaper that has more about sports, gossip and sex than it has news or anything important. I’ve never had a high opinion of the Sun ever since it started, mostly because of its uber-right editorial stand. But unlike most traditional media, it hasn’t gone downhill in its content. Of course, it hasn’t improved, either. The Toronto Sun’s website features several irrelevant front page “celebrity gossip” pieces, and more sports than news. Sports may be important to some, but it isn’t news and should not push out real stories.

Huffpost is, unlike the NatPost or the Sun, mainly a news aggregator, so it pulls stories from other sources, and doesn’t create much of its own (blogs are opinions, not news). In that, it can’t be blamed for the quality of the items, but simply for the choice. Similar aggregator sites like National Newswatch and Bourque exist, with varying amounts of crap pretending to be news. Midway down the National Newswatch page is a story in the “E-zone” (for e-diot?) is a fluff piece with the headline, “Stop everything: Selena Gomez is talking about Justin Bieber while wearing a bra,” followed by links to other, similar pap. To be fair, though, the site has a greater news-to-crap ratio than the HuffPost. Bourque sticks to the headlines and pushes the fluff way down to the bottom.

I’ve heard the argument that the media only provides what people want. That’s nonsense and one of the bulwarks the increasingly right wing, ideologically-fixed media depends on to continue its war on intellectuals and non-right thinkers. Media provides either what it THINKs the public wants, or what it thinks the public SHOULD want.

No one wakes up in the morning thinking they want to get more stupid. Media corporations provide this trivia not to meet demand, but to create it. Ideologues don’t want informed, intelligent consumers. Informed people make better choices than uninformed ones and are not as likely to follow the script. The right’s entire argument about Medicare in the US has been phrased in terms that make it a hate crime to reason, to think critically and to question the “authority” of the right’s pundits who decry providing public medical services instead of holding people hostage for basic medical care.

Information diabetes. That’s what the right-leaning media has, and wants us all to contract through an obesity of irrelevancy. To be fair, there are well-informed people on the right, but not as many as there are on the left. That’s because of the basic difference in how each political stripe sees information. The left sees it as something to share and exchange. The right sees it as proprietary, private and secret.

A recent Gallup poll highlighted the effect of dumbing down media with tripe: only 15% of Americans believe in the evolution, but 46% believe in some form of creationism. That would not happen with a better-informed public. People are not usually intentionally so stupid, but there are those in power who intentionally try to make people stupid. Rather pointedly, the vast majority of creationists also side with the right, while those on the side of science and fact are mostly on the left.

Dumbing down is done through the media by replacing content with fluff, by pushing pseudoscience and superstition, gossip and salaciousness to the front page instead of science and research, or instead of hard news and empirical data.

Who will pay attention to climate change, the oil sands, or the civil war in Syria when the front page has voyeuristic shots of some almost-dressed starlet showing cleavage, or something salacious about a TV wannabe with a childish name like Snookie? Who will turn to images of civilians being shot or streams awash in toxic oil spills, when you can look at a star in a bathing suit? Thinking people, of course will, but the point of this dumbing down is to hide the real content under a torrent of irrelevant pap, deep enough that the average person – with an attention span conditioned by TV watching to be shorter than a gnat’s – won’t bother looking that deep.

As Johnson writes in The Information Diet, there’s no such thing as information overload; it’s more like an imbalance of information quality. The good data is in shorter supply than the dreck. In the same manner, obese people get that way not necessarily because of the quantity of food they consume; rather it’s the result of the quality of the food-like substances they eat.

Newspapers aren’t alone, of course; it started with TV. Channels like Discover and History promised content only to quickly become broadcasters of unbelievably stupid and anti-intellectual content. Just a look at the crap that TV dishes out daily can give anyone with an IQ over 80 a headache: Natural Born Dealers, Canada’s Worst Driver, Cash Cab, Believe It or Not, Storage Wars, Cake Boss, What Not to Wear, Pawn Stars, Canadian Pickers, Jersey Shore… just a few of literally hundreds of TV shows meant to dumb down the audience and keep people in an uninformed stupor. There are so many truly inexorably bad TV shows like these that I can’t even begin to list them all, let alone comment on how bad TV has become. I’ll have to leave that for another post.

But is there a cure for information obesity? Yes: focus, stop wasting time on crap, turn off the TV, exercise your mind and go back to reading books.

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Please preserve the CBC: no more cuts!

Huffington PostCanadians who care about media content, journalistic integrity and fair reporting are anxiously watching for tomorrow’s federal budget announcements. Big cuts to the CBC are expected, according to this Huffington Post story:

Cuts to CBC funding expected in the upcoming federal budget could have dramatic implications, touching everything from popular television programming to foreign news bureaus and eliminating hundreds of jobs, observers predict.

The CBC’s own story about the predicted cuts doesn’t mention the CBC, but it does say, “…many public servants in Ottawa are bracing for staffing cuts, which may not arrive through relatively painless attrition or early retirement packages”

The CBC has been the target of numerous Conservative governments since Brian Mulroney, and suffered successive budget cuts under the Conservatives ever since. The once-vaunted Radio Canada International was reduced from an internationally acclaimed, award-winning short-wave service that was the voice of Canada for millions of listeners worldwide, to little more than a repeater service for the CBC, thanks to budget cuts.

Cuts have crippled the CBC for almost three decades, ever since Mulroney (a humourless, mean-spirited prime minister if ever there was one; he rapidly sank to being one of the most unpopular politicians in Canadian history, in part because of his attack on the CBC).

Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, a media watchdog organization, took up the fight to save the CBC last year. A Globe and Mail story from last fall begins,

The CBC is stuck in a “stranglehold” as Conservative MPs attack the broadcaster and threaten to end or decrease its funding, a broadcast watchdog says.

On the Friends website, the latest story says, “New opinion research shows that 6 in 10 Canadians want the Harper Conservatives to keep their election promise to increase or maintain funding to the CBC.”

Majority opinions have never caused Harper to change his mind or his direction. He’s from the west where the CBC has been demonized as the “Communist Broadcasting Corporation” by the uber-right. One can hardly expect him to have any more sympathy for non-sycophant journalists than Rick Santorum showed for the New York Times recently.

For the right, especially for the American right, media is a tool of the party, not for journalistic truth or objectivity. Worse is that the CBC in the guise of comedic shows like This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Royal Canadian Air Farce and Rick Mercer Report have actually dared to tease and make fun of Steven Harper. Well, they have a long history of poking fun at all parties and all politicians, but some – like Harper – seem to take it very personally.

Instead of growing a thicker skin, he cuts their budget. Harper and Mulroney share some unfortunate personality traits in that.

As the Friends website notes, Harper’s cuts are not just cost savings, but rather a strategy to cause the public support for the CBC to dissipate because it won’t be able to provide what Canadians expect from a national broadcaster:

Further cuts would be to the bone and make it impossible for the CBC to effectively fulfill its mandate, leaving our national broadcaster open to increased criticism that it’s wasting taxpayer money, unfairly competing with private broadcasters for advertising dollars and calls for dismantling. There is no more room for efficiency; every dollar has to come out of programming – off the air, off the screen.

Budget cuts have been stripping Canadian content from the CBC for the last 30 years. It’s become more and more American in almost everything it does, while Canadian content and culture suffers from a shrinking venue for exposure of our own material. Harper and his allies seem to prefer American programming – the slavishly sycophant Fox and its ilk – to Canadian programming, but then they also seem to prefer American-style attack politics, so that’s no surprise. No wonder Sun media has a place in their hearts.

CBC is ESSENTIAL to continue to connect Canadians from coast to coast. We need to continue to support and increase funding for the CBC to create more Canadian content.

The HuffPost noted,

In addition to prime-time programming, sources familiar with the file told HuffPost the upcoming cuts may lead to the closing of some foreign bureaus and will necessitate employee layoffs.
Barry Kiefl, head of the independent Ottawa-based firm Canadian Media Research Inc. (CMRI), cautions against “taking it for granted that there’s going to be a 10 per cent cut,” before details of the budget are revealed on Thursday. But he maintains a trim of that magnitude could result in the elimination of 1,000 jobs.

Jobs will not only be lost in the BCB itself, but in Canada’s cultural industry: independent filmmakers, producers, directors, script writers and others will have no place in Canada to work:

In addition to stoking concern among CBC employees, (Mary) Darling says the possibility of significant belt-tightening is contributing to widespread uncertainty among the legions of independent producers, such as herself, who create the network’s English language dramatic programming.
“People are beyond tense. This is our livelihood. This is how we make our living and send our kids to school,” said Darling, who alongside husband Clark Donnelly runs Toronto-based Westwind Pictures, the company behind Little Mosque.
Currently in its final season, the sitcom won’t be affected by looming cuts. But if the rumours are true, Donnelly predicts the network won’t pick up similar programs in the future, putting several programs Westwind is currently developing in peril.
(Mary Darling is executive producer of the network’s hit TV show, Little Mosque of the Prairie.)

The CBC provides us with a stronger national identity. Without it, we would be little more than the 51st state of the USA. Without it, we would have no bulwark against American culture.

It will be a tragic day for Canadian journalism, Canadian culture, Canadian media, Canadian unity and Canadian values if the Harper Conservatives do any more economic damage to the CBC than they have already done over the past three decades. But I suspect they won’t rest until the CBC is gutted and dead.

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