Yellow Journalism


Yellow journalismHere’s an interesting approach to developing good relations with your print media advertisers: take their money, publish their full-colour advertisement, then challenge their content, their integrity and their claims in a story that doesn’t present all the facts.

Then wonder why your other advertisers may be nervous about this tactic… and wonder why print media is in trouble.

That’s just what the Collingwood Connection did recently. They accepted and ran an ad last week from Collus/Powerstream – an innocuous, non-political, full-colour ad that modestly promoted the utility and its partnership with the town – then challenged it in an piece this week (the original, online piece was later updated, as I understand it, after complaints were made to the writer).

Not surprising if the folks at the utility are seriously pissed off at the Connection and feel betrayed, either. (update: I’ve been informed that the ad ran twice and wasn’t cancelled and ran twice… but I didn’t see it in the paper where the story ran…)

As Wikipedia tells us, yellow journalism is…

…a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers. Techniques may include exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering, or sensationalism. By extension, the term yellow journalism is used today as a pejorative to decry any journalism that treats news in an unprofessional or unethical fashion.

Is it ethical or professional not to ask the basic questions reporters are taught to ask: who, what, where, when and why? Or to rely on unnamed sources? Those practices certainly look like yellow journalism to me.

Now, anyone who has followed local politics is aware of this council’s unrelenting attacks on our utility services and their staff. And you’re probably aware that the utility’s side of the story has never been covered in any local media, even though pretty much everyone in town is talking about it.

Local media seem content to look the other way and pretend it’s not happening. Investigative journalism? Not welcome here…

You also know how council broke the water service away from the electrical, and what a miserable dog’s breakfast that situation is now. The 150-year old mutual service relationship was torn asunder, and in almost two years the town has failed to craft a new one, although it should have taken an hour at most… but this council never intended to renew the agreement.

The experienced, respected professionals on the water utility commission were tossed overboard and replaced by a group of ideologically-motivated, inexperienced and inept councillors and pet staff. After, of course, deciding to so so without public input at a meeting behind closed doors.

And yes, they refer to themselves as “Our Group.” I, personally, prefer the term “Politburo” since it better captures that Stalinesque odour about them, but let’s use their own appellation for this post.

Since then, staff morale in water has plummeted. I’m told the utility is in chaos, the unions are squabbling, everyone is complaining, resumes have been sent out by the dozen, and no one is happy. Except for “Our Group,” of course. Another story whitewashed in the media.

Having basically destroyed one utility, “Our Group” has actively and aggressively pursued doing similar destruction to our electrical utility.

Apparently when “Our Group” saw this happy-happy ad in the paper, some of them went ballistic, frothing about how the utility should have begged permission from “Our Group” to run it. I’ve heard stories of apoplectic, splenetic accusations and angry words spat out by “Our Group” who feel they must control everything.

No matter that the utility is actually a separate corporation under Ontario law, overseen by a legally constituted board, and neither needs council’s permission nor is obligated to inform council of its marketing programs. Or that the mayor – who sits on the board – mentioned it in passing at council previously. “Our Group” wasn’t happy.

Local media never bothers to mention the legal separation and the laws that govern corporations. That would tarnish “Our Group’s” image and make light of their ideology.

And “Our Group” certainly does not want anything positive coming out of Collus/Powerstream. Not after the administration has spent hundreds of thousands of your tax dollars getting buddy consultants and expensive out-of-town lawyers to write damning reports on the utility. Reports that, as the former COO of the water utility said before he left town, “border on the fraudulent.”

In the original piece posted online, the author never even bothered to interview anyone at Collus/Powerstream. Since then, this has been only partially corrected after, I’m told, being shamed into doing so. Even with the extra material added after the fact, it still reads to me like yellow journalism to me, but please make up your own mind.

The article does reference mysterious, unnamed “town officials.” I imagine them as shadowy figures skulking in the dim recesses of town hall, whose names, it would seem, are cunningly sheltered from public scrutiny by the obliging media. Might some unnamed members of council be in that anonymous “officials” group? Members of “Our Group”? Who knows? That’s the power of anonymity. Anyone can hide in it.

This piece was, to me, so overtly political in nature that I was surprised it didn’t have a byline from the deputy mayor on it. But clearly that isn’t necessary with a fawning media.

The article notes:

The town is looking for a list of all employees, salaries and bonuses paid to employees over the last 10 years; an organizational chart; any bonuses paid to officers; employment reviews; all other compensation; and policies and procedures relating to compensation.

Who is this mysterious “town” who is obsessive about this information? It’s not the ratepayers, the vast majority of which don’t give a damn about it.

The story never explains why this information is wanted. It’s certainly not needed for anything. After all, it is absolutely unnecessary in the creation of any shared service agreement. And some of that information would violate the privacy of many individuals on staff. Nor does the article mention the simple fact that such information is protected by Ontario corporate and privacy laws. And that the utility has had a legal opinion about sharing it.

Trivial details? Or more yellow journalism?

But I suspect most residents know the information is wanted solely to satisfy “Our Group’s” obsessive hunt for any sort of leverage against the utility, to hurt and embarrass the staff and hasten its dismantling.

Yet the media turns a blind eye to the motive. The article also notes:

According to the municipality the town didn’t receive a dividend in 2013, but in 2014 received $183,000 and $204,000 in 2015. However, town officials weren’t able to comment as to whether the dividends were as a result of the partnership.

Come on… who is speaking here? Who speaks for the “municipality?” It’s not the mayor speaking. Why isn’t the source named?

Is it ethical or professional to simply print what “Our Group” or some unnamed “town officials” tell you to print? That’s more like propaganda than news. And a lot more like yellow journalism.

The story failed to note that the municipality didn’t receive ANY dividend prior to 2014. Any surplus money in the utility was always put back into the corporation for maintenance and upgrades. That was their business model pre-2012. Yet the reporter can’t add two and two and come up with the realization that the town only got dividends after the partnership deal because of that partnership? And you still think this isn’t yellow journalism?

And by the way, you can forget about dividends in future. The town broke the shared services agreement, which severely reduced the utility’s income. And its continued assault has forced the utility to spend thousands of dollars on legal fees trying to defend against the town’s attacks (futilely since the administration has refused to allow council to hear any counterpoint or correction). So any excess money has been used up. But you won’t read that in the local media, either, because it doesn’t shine a positive light on “Our Group.”

The municipality has been attempting to obtain information as part of the shareholders (sic) directive.

Aw, what codswallop. The town is only a 50% shareholder. The demand was made by six of the nine council, not not all of council, not by the utility board, not by anyone in the other 50%. Tell it like it is: it was a directive from “Our Group” in its ongoing witch hunt against the utility and its staff. Done, of course, in secret; behind closed doors where they conduct most of the town’s essential business.

Who in the municipality has been looking for this information? Certainly not the mayor, who sits on the hydro board. And why doesn’t the author mention that Collus/Powerstream has already provided mountains of paper in response to town requests, reams of the stuff, sometimes several times over because “town officials” keep asking for the same material, over and over, then complaining they don’t have it.

The whole thing stinks. “Our Group’s” complete lack of ethics and their promotion of personal agendas over the public interest stinks. It stinks that they are conniving to clear-cut their way through this town’s services, facilities and institutions, and reduce them to nothing but rubble. It stinks that they have damaged our reputation, our relationships and our staff.  And it stinks that we are paying dearly for their private vendettas through our taxes.

But you won’t read any of that in the local media.

Collingwood deserves better, both from its media and its council.

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One comment


    Not entirely related tot his post, but soon I’ll write about the plight of the Canadian media and why it is failing… but I found this part interesting”

    “…But the current crop of owners, as publicly traded corporations, are legally bound to place shareholder equity above all other considerations in running these media businesses. In a nutshell, they have no interest in the public interest. ”

    No interest in the public interest… that could refer to a lot of media these days, local and otherwise.

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