Dispatch from the Front Line: Lisa, Lisa, Lisa
CTV's LaFlameout! Ukraine! Alberta! The RCMP!
Happy Saturday, readers. It was a quietish week in the news, except for news about news. So pull up a chair, freshen your drink and prepare yourselves. We’re going full insider here.
But first! Enjoy this week’s dispatch video!
In case we hadn't already discovered this truth (we totally had), we were reminded this week that the media industry is a brutal place to try to make a long-term career. Broadcast media has particularly ugly components; it's a place where on-air talent is uniquely vulnerable to being sidelined or shitcanned because it no longer fits a desired demographic profile, proves too expensive, clashes with new bosses, and, yeah, sometimes simply ages out. All of these factors, including a soupçon of ageism and sexism, may very well have been at play in the now infamous ousting of CTV anchor Lisa LaFlamme.
No one who works in the media can claim to be totally naive to this. Your female co-editor went to journalism school, which required her to choose one of three streams entering her third year: print, broadcast, or radio. She consciously opted against broadcasting because, according to her reasoning at the time, she would lose her brains (and, thus, her ability to write) far after she lost her looks. Sure, being pretty might have afforded her a temporary early advantage at the beginning of her career, but she understood that this would come at the expense of later opportunities. If you live by your looks, you die by them.
That doesn't justify the sexism and inequality inherent in these decisions, or make any of it okay. That was just her making decisions based on the facts of life as they appeared to her in her early 20s. (And, we will note, in hindsight, her youthful judgement doesn't appear to have been totally off, for once.)
In recent months, various broadcast personalities have come forward to note the same phenomenon, both publicly and privately, and to note abusive behaviour they’ve been forced to endure in the workplace, while their companies, for all their public protestations of aggressive progressivism, studiously look the other way to ignore the bad behaviour of powerful male personalities. While their male contemporaries have been allowed to age in place while growing orange, bald, and even a little dotty, women in broadcast seem to get shown the door at the first sight of smile lines, or when they complain of harassment and abuse. The stories are as appalling as they are widespread. Your Line editors expect that a recent volley of these stories, particularly in Toronto’s media community, provided a lot of the background context for the LaFlamme outrage that may not be obvious to those outside the 6ix, or who are not as plugged into the gossip as we are.
So yes: much of the rage and fixation on the LaFamme firing is rooted in the entirely legitimate and relatable fury of women in media who feel as if they have been hobbled at the peak of their careers, and forced to endure a lot of bullshit along the way. Now we're talking about that and, hopefully, that will lead to changes in what had been taken for granted as unsavoury but tolerated industry norms.
We wanted to put that near the top because we think it’s important to acknowledge at the outset that sexism and ageism are real things that women in broadcasting have to deal with, and we don’t want to be accused of minimizing or denying that. Still, as we have beheld the fallout of CTV’s decision, your Line editors have had the nagging feeling that the instantaneously formed groupthink on this topic is wrong, or at least badly incomplete. Blaming this sad affair on sexism and ageism misses what we think might be the far more important factor here.
TV news is dying.
A full analysis of this would take many thousands of words. The Line has already discussed, at some length, the challenges facing the media industry. Here’s the TV Guide version: Once upon a glorious time, anyone looking to market their goods or services to the broader public had only a few places to park their advertising dollars. Newspapers and magazines, along with television and radio and the odd billboard, were basically the entire ballgame. Where else could you find mass audiences? For the entire 20th century, advertising dollars sustained journalism in North America. Hell, it did more than sustain it: a generation or two ago, media companies were genuine corporate titans, where fortunes were made, and huge staffs of well-paid professionals cranked out the news, which in turn drew the eyeballs that the advertisers paid handsomely to reach. Classified ads as well kept newspapers flush with cash, cash, cash.
You know the rest. When the Internet arrived, thousands of new, and better, ways to reach potential customers were born immediately. Digital advertising allows for much more specific demographic targeting of advertising campaigns, and is much cheaper for the advertiser. They truly do get more for less. It was a no-brainer. The ad money rushed to digital media, and the revenue base of traditional media collapsed.
Print media was hit hardest and fastest because classified ads were instantly obsolete in the digital age, as anyone who has ever browsed Kijiji, Craigslist or a Facebook community group — all free — could tell you. Television and radio were a bit more robust than print, and have avoided the worst of the economic catastrophes that have already destroyed most legacy print titles on this continent, leaving them desiccated husks of their former selves, if they remain open at all. Broadcast, though, has not been immune to this advertising armageddon, and indeed, seems to be catching up. The business model is collapsing there, too.
You’ve probably heard this week that CTV National News is Canada’s top-rated evening newscast, with as many as a million people tuning in on a typical weeknight. Those are good numbers. But if you look back a couple of years, you can see something instantly: these numbers are, at best, stable. Ratings are always a hard thing to precisely evaluate, but it’s probably fair to say that the show’s numbers are in a slow, gradual decline. More broadly, the price of a 30-second TV ad can command is also in gradual decline. (We can’t speak to CTV’s specific sales, so rely here on general industry trends.) The television audience in North America is already older than the baseline population; U.S. stats are easier to find, and we’ll use them here for simplicity: though the different U.S. networks all have a different “average” viewer, the average ages are all well into their 50s. The average American is just now approaching 40 — that’s a 10-20 year spread between the average American and the average TV-viewing American. TV viewers are old, and getting older.
Indeed, in an interesting coincidence, just days after CTV’s nightmare burst out in full public view, it was reported that last month, streaming overtook traditional cable television in terms of hours viewed. Setting aside some monthly variation in a frothy industry, we don’t expect that trend to reverse itself … ever. TV, as we know it, is in decline — probably terminally so.
Put all the above together, and what do you see? Canada’s top-rated newscast has an audience that is, at best, stable, and can probably be more fairly described as slowly declining. It is old and getting older, and it’s probably already well outside of the prime demographic window sought by advertisers. Young people aren’t picking up TV-watching habits; they have other options and are choosing them. A business with a shrinking customer base, where the customers are gradually becoming less valuable, is a business with a big, big problem. Revenues will be down, and they’ll keep dropping.
So yeah. Like we said, TV news is dying. It’s not dead yet. We expect it has many years left ahead of it. But the future of TV news probably looks like the present reality of most print-media outlets: they continue to exist to service debt payments, but they are shrivelled remnants of their once-proud selves, where miserable skeleton staffs toil in jobs with low pay and virtually no security to churn out mediocre content that just barely satisfies the shrinking, aging audience.
Aren’t we rays of sunshine, eh?
The above isn’t theoretical. You can see the real-world impact of this on TV (and radio, where the industry fundamentals are similar) already. In just the last few years, Bell has repeatedly reduced headcount in both major and local markets. It has chopped support staff. It has nuked two entire newsrooms at once-large radio stations in Toronto and Montreal, leaving them reliant on local TV reporters, who now must file to radio, too. (Radio stations now sometimes simulcast the audiofeed of local TV broadcasts, which works, sort of, but makes a piss-poor substitute for proper radio content.) Global News, CTV’s private-sector competitor, has similarly swung the axe — a few years ago, it controversially rolled out “multi-market” newscasts, where TV news shows for many cities would be produced by a central staff in Toronto.
All of the above has the same explanation. What do you do when an industry goes into a sustained revenue decline? You either get out entirely, or you start ruthlessly cutting costs. This is what ruthless cost-cutting looks like.
And we don’t rule out that we may one day see full exits from TV news by companies uninterested in losing money. Bell and Corus, Global’s parent company, see what’s coming. They’re acting accordingly. We take no pleasure from any of this, but both your Line editors have done their time in the trenches during the death throes of print media, and we recognize what’s happening in television news. We’ve seen it before. Our TV colleagues are behind our friends in print by five or 10 years, but all these trend lines end in the same place. A bad place. Any analysis of CTV taking out a long-serving, and no doubt expensive, anchor that doesn’t factor in the economics will miss the mark.
Which means that many marks have been missed. It only took a few hours after LaFlamme's firing for a general consensus to emerge that this was the latest crime of ageism and sexism in the media. After all, it certainly fits a pattern. Further, Michael Melling, the CTV news head, is being portrayed (fairly or otherwise) in the reporting as a typical corporate villain, especially after a CTV News townhall meeting with employees in which management showed up with a laughable absence of straightforward answers to very obvious and inevitable questions. Add this to an earlier Globe and Mail report in which Melling is alleged to have asked who allowed LaFlamme's hair to go grey and, well, the narrative seems pretty well set, doesn't it?
We don’t know if the narrative is true. We can’t independently confirm what’s being reported, about Melling or anyone else. But we are struck by the pattern of all these reports, and the narrative that is clearly being very carefully built here. Seriously, all LaFlamme needs at this point is a plucky talking animal sidekick and the modern Disney drama almost writes itself.
You, Dear Reader, know very well that we at The Line hate to stand in the way of a good narrative. But everyone involved in this tale is an operator of some sort or another. Media executives generally don't make it to the top by being nice. And LaFlamme is married to Michael Cooke, former editor in chief of the Toronto Star. She's been at CTV for 35 years and she sat in the top seat for as long as she did because she is good. She's damn good. She knows very well how to craft a good narrative and deliver a compelling hit. And that's exactly what she did.
According to reports, CTV told her that she was getting the hook on June 29. They offered her a chance to say goodbye on air (as long as it did not stray from company lines.) She declined that offer and instead did her own — a masterfully crafted sendoff that appears to have been filmed at the cottage … and delivered at nearly precisely the same moment that the network announced her departure, and her replacement, Omar Sachedina.
There is no way LaFlamme's timing was coincidental. This was a precision-guided missile aimed directly at her former employer which had the unfortunate side-effect of poisoning the well for her successor. Omar’s big moment was instantly turned into a tone-deaf insult to the martyred LaFlamme. We thought about calling him collateral damage. Honestly, he looked more like roadkill after LaFlamme’s video roared past.
Shortly thereafter, a story appeared on Canadaland that heavily implied that the decision to terminate LaFlamme was rooted in sexism. Again, we give LaFlamme too much professional credit to play dumb and pretend that this was accidental.
The Canadaland story picked examples that demonstrated LaFlamme was in an admirable and noble fight with management. She fought for resources to cover the war in Ukraine! She objected to shuffling her executive producer to another newscast! To which we note … okay, but fighting for resources for a story is mundane work at a newsroom. And shuffling employees to other sections is usually within the prerogative in management.
All of this sounds like the typical petty fights that happen in every day ending in Y in a typical newsroom. This is not the stuff over which one fires a senior news anchor.
Then came the Toronto Sun story by Brian Lilley, who noted that LaFlamme had been embroiled in the story that led to the Patrick Brown defamation case. Although that was settled without any costs being awarded, no doubt the situation led to some hefty legal fees for the company.
Now, many in our circles have been particularly puzzled on the money front because, as reported in the Star, LaFlamme had two more years on her contract. CTV would have had to pay her a healthy sum to make her go away early, so firing her couldn't be a cost savings. Sure, but we find it plausible — though this is speculation, we grant — that Melling has a mandate to continue the work we noted above and downsize, perhaps dramatically, CTV’s traditional TV news operations. In which case, putting his highest-profile, highest-paid star — someone who had accrued significant political capital within his newsroom — against the wall two years early makes all kinds of sense. If for no other reason than to encourager les autres. LaFlamme could have been an obstacle. She won’t be now!
There are two other quick observations we will make, here. Much Twitter spittle has been flecked about Melling's aforementioned alleged comments about LaFlamme's grey hair. Again, we can’t confirm whether he said it, but if true, it seems to confirm the ageism narrative, particularly among those who are naive about broadcasting. Here's the thing: being an anchor or an on-air TV personality isn't a normal job. For someone who appears in front of a camera, appearance is part of the role. This is why it is common for many even low-ranking on-air employees at private outlets to receive a clothing or styling allowance to supplement their incomes. These allowances usually range into a few thousand dollars annually, and is often consumed by dry-cleaning, decent professional attire, good haircuts, etc.
Such employees suffer under many informal rules about their appearance, rules that may shift with a new boss. Whether or not a beard is acceptable, for example. Are ties necessary? Given that context, if the reports are true, Melling may not have been totally out of line to ask who had approved LaFlamme's grey hair or, more specifically, whether it polled well with her target audience. (We expect it would, by the way, not just because her audience is also greying, but because, on LaFlamme, the grey looks fantastic.)
Sure, it's totally possible that Melling brought this point up in a way that was ageist and inappropriate. We weren't there. But, like, that's also the biz, guys. You’ve all noticed that on-air TV talent tends to be younger, thinner, better dressed and groomed and all-around prettier than the general population, right? There is a reason we don't see 800-lbs. anchors sporting rotting rock T-shirts and face tats on the nightly news. There's no delicate way to put this: Andrea Horwath's son does not have a future in conventional TV broadcasting. Hear what we're saying, here? Chief news anchor is not an equal-opportunity gig, and it never was. Looking a certain way is literally part of the job.
Lastly, many have made note that Lloyd Robertson, LaFlamme's predecessor, got to stay in that gig until his late 70s. Born in 1934, man. What a time to be alive. And, hands up here, who, exactly, is expecting to hold onto a six-figure newsreading gig into their 70s in this godforsaken media environment? Who is labouring under the illusion that we are going to see another round of generational anchor men and women a la Mansbridge or Robertson? Do you expect Sachedina will be riding that seat in 2032? Or that such a seat will still exist by then?
Anyway, the whole thing confirms for us, yet again, that media companies are uniquely awful at knowing how to respond when they are the ones subject to unpleasant scrutiny. We’ve seen it before, we’ll see it again. The moment a media company is at the centre of controversy, it forgets all it knows about media and reporting and tries all the usual corporate comms tactics that its own reporters would spot a mile away. Bell is already on the PR defensive. It’s possible, even likely, that public attention will wander. It’s late August, after all. A resumption of real life looms and attention spans are short. Bell is no doubt counting on that. If they were left to their own devices to escape this mess, they’d be doomed.
A few weeks ago, someone tweeted (we can’t track it down now) that when it comes to its aggressive international ambitions, Russia has three cards to play: natural gas, nuclear weapons and terrorism. With respect to his illegal and barbaric invasion of Ukraine and his efforts to sow discord amongst NATO and the EU, Russian president Vladimir Putin has played the gas card, and for the most part the allies haven’t blinked (yet). For all his transparent efforts at the madman strategy of convincing the world he’s insane and volatile, things would have to go very wildly wrong for Putin to use nukes in Ukraine. Which leaves terrorism, something Russians have proven to be both good at and eager to engage in.
Six months into the invasion (we concede that for Ukrainians, the war actually started eight years ago), things have settled into a somewhat static, if extraordinarily violent, state of affairs. Having given up on anything resembling the use of combined arms, and without the capacity to engage in aggressive maneuver warfare, the Russians have fallen back on the old Soviet doctrine of firing an enormous amount of artillery at a position and then, as Dom Nicholls of the Telegraph put it, rolling in to plant a flag on the rubble.
For their part, the Ukrainians have returned to their own strategy — which was hugely successful in saving Kyiv in the early weeks of the invasion — of striking at Russian logistics and lines of communication. Thanks to HIMARS rockets, smart artillery shells, drones, and other advanced weapons obtained from its allies, Ukraine is now hitting command centres, supply depots, and air bases hundreds of kilometres behind the Russian lines. But while this has kneecapped Russia’s ability to mount anything in the way of a large-scale offensive, Ukraine still lacks the mass of weapons, armour and men needed to push the Russians out.
The result is a bit of a strategic stalemate, albeit a highly asymmetrical one. Every time Ukraine sinks a Russian ship, blows up an arms depot or takes out an air base, Russia responds by shelling an apartment block or dropping missiles into a shopping mall. Destroying civil infrastructure and murdering civilians, along with committing countless other war crimes, has become Russia’s default approach in Ukraine.
It’s remarkable the extent to which the Europeans in particular, and the international community in general, have become inured to the atrocities being committed daily in Ukraine by Russians. To a large extent Putin is just taking advantage of Stalin’s old insight about tragedies versus statistics; he realizes that the trick to getting away with murder is not to deny it, but to do it openly in such large quantities that people stop paying attention. And so things like the castrating of Ukrainian soldiers by Russians, the mass kidnapping and deportation of Ukrainian children, the use of white phosphorus munitions over civilian areas, all happen so routinely, at such scale, that no one bothers even really condemning it any more. Indeed, more often than not, at least some of the blame is now being put on Ukraine for fighting back in the first place.
This is all part of a strategy that Putin has been implementing for decades now, which is to create a massive international crisis, use disinformation and propaganda to foster a “both sides are the problem” narrative, and wait for the West to come begging for a deal. Putin ends up getting (most) of what he wants, and gets to play the Great Power Statesman in the bargain. In this, he’s aided by the both-sidesism instincts of the news media as well as the international NGO community. To see this at work in Ukraine, look no further than the recent appalling Amnesty International report, which criticized the Ukrainian military for taking up defensive populations in populated areas (the Kremlin loved it, of course).
But more prosaically, much of the reporting on the Russian invasion continues to treat the whole thing as a border dispute, or even a civil war, in which both sides are behaving badly and need to just iron out their differences. The New York Times has been exceptionally weak on this, as in this piece from earlier this week whose lede noted that “tensions” have “escalated” around the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia. According to the Times, the “Russian and Ukrainian militaries traded charges that each was preparing to stage an attack on the plant in coming days.”
Yes, good point, NYT. Who to believe here? The country that was invaded for no reason and which has seen its cities destroyed, its populations massacred for the past six months? Or the invader who has occupied the Ukrainian power plant since the early days of the invasion, which has stationed forces there, has filled the plant’s turbine room with weapons, explosives, and military equipment, and from which it continues to shell Ukrainian forces? It’s a real conundrum, trying to figure out who might want to destroy the plant.
To anyone not on the Kremlin’s payroll, blinkered by ideology, or tied to misguided professional standards, it’s pretty clear what is up here. Running out of options in a war he has already lost, Putin’s playing the only card he has — terrorism. The Ukrainians he can simply slaughter with bombs and missiles lobbed at civilian targets, but for the rest of us, he’s trying to engineer a nuclear crisis to give him leverage over the West, with the aim of convincing the frightened Europeans to drop sanctions against Russia and to stop the flow of arms and aid to Ukraine. And it is working: the IAEA has asked the UN Security Council to back a mission to Zaporizhzhia to “evaluate the safety” of the plant, something that would only play into the Putin/NYT/Amnesty narrative.
So yes, Putin is succeeding. Want proof? Deutsche Welle, Germany’s national broadcaster, published a piece on Friday in which it dug into the Geneva Accords and found that — well looky here — targeting nuclear power plants is not actually banned under international law.
Good to know, we guess. Carry on, then?
Finally, yes, yes, we know that Alberta is not the be-all-end-all, but God help us, the province is just so damn “nuts.”
Firstly, not-yet-former Alberta premier Jason Kenney takes flak for being the only conservative who has any ideological cred to say the obvious: that Danielle Smith’s proposed Sovereignty Act is “nuts” and will only lead to Alberta becoming a “laughingstock” in the country. This item has the benefit of being both a) undeniably true, and b) totally unlikely to stem Smith’s ascension to the premiership. And, c) who is Jason Kenney, again?
Anyway, not to be outdone: two leadership candidates — Travis Toews and Rebecca Schulz — pulled out of a debate and fundraising dinner held by Rebel News and something called the Alberta Prosperity Project when they discovered that, uh, the Alberta Prosperity Project is seeking an “independent” Alberta.
To wit: “Our vision is for Alberta to become a new Sovereign Constitutional Republic that recognizes the Supremacy of God as foundational to an ‘Alberta Constitution,’ civil society, the rule of law, and which absolutely protects Albertans’ individual freedoms and rights.”
Helpfully, its vision page also tells us that in this utopian republic there will be “no need for political left or right.” Sounds lovely.
The rest of the UCP leadership contenders, including its frontrunners, have yet to pull out of a fundraising event for literal secessionists as we hit send. We guess …the car is already booked?
In the immortal words of Han Solo: “Everything's under control. Situation normal … uh ... everything's perfectly all right now. We're fine. We're all fine here now, thank you. How are you?”
Alright, one more quickie here: your Line editors have an uneasy feeling that the summer has given the Trudeau government at least part of what it was hoping for: it has largely taken attention off the alarming allegations levelled against RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki. Line readers know that we have been following this closely, and we’ll avoid recapping them here, beyond this: senior Mounties and civilian staff in Nova Scotia claim that, after the horrible massacre in early 2020, Lucki pressured local officials to publicly release details about firearms used in the attack, so the Liberal government could use that info in a forthcoming political announcement of new gun-control measures (the announcement indeed followed only days after the teleconference in question).
Lucki testified before Parliament last month; as we noted two weeks ago, we were unimpressed. Lucki acknowledges that she behaved badly during the call, and has apologized, but denies that she had any desire to interfere in an investigation for political purposes, and further denied that she’d received any political pressure from above to those ends. To us, the most critical detail was Lucki revealing that there was going to be a gun-control announcement in the coming days — that information was not publicly known and there was no reason, at all, for her to have told her subordinates that unless she was doing exactly what they’re accusing her of. It’s not the sort of thing you just casually drop in the middle of a tense call as an icebreaker.
This week, two of Lucki’s accusers testified before Parliament, and repeated their allegations. We find them vastly more credible. We didn’t learn much that was new — with the interesting comment by Darren Campbell, the local RCMP commander, that the entire meeting was about the guns (though he concedes he left, in disgust, before it ended).
Lucki’s story and defence is extremely carefully worded, and doesn’t make any sense. She clearly has a motive to hide facts, as do the Liberal ministers, who are also carefully denying any interference. Lucki’s accusers have a simple, logical story that they have delivered consistently and clearly. We aren’t so naive as to pretend that they may not have an axe to grind with the boss. That doesn’t make their allegations false — many people find themselves blessed with the opportunity to roast their enemies and rivals using nothing but the truth.
We think that’s what this is. The story offered by Lucki makes no sense. The story offered by her accusers, alas, makes all kinds of sense. We implore Canadians to stay engaged with this. Politicians cannot direct, however gently, police investigations, torquing them to political ends. And police commissioners who don’t see that as a bright red line, and behave accordingly, should lose their jobs.
Okay! That’s it. Thanks, everyone! See you next week.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: firstname.lastname@example.org