Dispatch from the Front Lines: It's the end of the world as we know it
Remember Stein's Law: If it can't go on forever, it'll stop.
Hey guys, lots of good stuff below, including an unapologetic ask from us. But first, just one note of housekeeping: Substack has recently change how embedded links work, and that may mean, for some of you, these dispatches are longer than your email can display. If the dispatch suddenly stops mid-sentence, that’s probably why, and if so, just click through to our website, where the entire article is available. Thanks!
Also, hey, the video is back! Sorry it was missing last week. Matt’s computer crashed and he had to restore a backup — and thus was the video lost.
Podcast here, if you prefer.
The lead item in our dispatch this week is about the media. The Line does cover, with motivated self-interest, the general state of the media in Canada, but we don't usually lead our dispatches with it. You know why? Because we don't assume the rest of you are as fascinated with ourselves as we are. We try to stick to the news itself, not news about the news.
But this week, for terrible reasons, we really do think that the news itself is the news. Because the news is dying. Quickly.
We won't recap at length today the details of what has killed media across the Western world. We covered that at length years ago. We wrote that piece knowing full well that we would refer back to it as a useful primer in the years to come. If you need to understand why this is happening, click on the link above. Suffice it to say, what you need to know now is that the bottom is finally falling out, and fast.
Bell Media announced major layoffs this week, including high-profile CTV personalities. It has also shuttered a half-dozen radio stations. Corus Entertainment, parent company of Global News, is not in better shape. The axe will fall there soon enough, we're sure. The Athletic, which covers sports, announced more layoffs this week. Quebecor or Postmedia cut big earlier in the year. And so on and so on.
The news is bad. The trendlines are worse. But what really drove this home for us this week was news that two colleges in Ontario ending their journalism programs. Mohawk College has announced it will no longer bring in new students to their three-year journalism program. Loyalist College is ending its radio broadcasting program. These are the right decisions: admitting more students is essentially robbing the young and naïve at this point. But wow, did that ever punch us in the gut. We've all known this day would come, but it really does seem to be here.
You're all probably familiar with Stein's Law: "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop." Many Canadian journalists working today have spent much of their careers knowing they were operating in a declining industry. Your Line editors themselves have spent their adult lives in doing a job that was already in terminal decline; Line editor Gurney remembers joining the National Post about 15 years ago and being cheerfully told: "Good for you, kid, you'll get a fantastic line on your resume before this all goes bust in a year or two." But somehow it just kept going. And this has led many of us, we think, to believe somehow that Stein's Law didn't apply to them.
But it does. If it can't go on forever, it'll stop.
It's stopping. It probably won't go all the way to zero, but it'll be effectively zero. In many parts of the country, it's there already. No local TV news. No local radio news. No local paper. The nearest source of news might be hundreds of kilometres away.
We could tell you all the usual things about how this is terrible for democracy, but we suspect that if you're here, you know that already. So here's the hard pitch: we need your help. There's just no way around it.
The Line isn't quite three years old. We've always had a three-step plan. Step one? Enough revenue to be viable, which for us, meant that The Line could pay its own bills and also provide Gurney and Gerson with a modest part-time income. We have accomplished that. Step two? More of the above, enough so that the two full-time Line editors can make a full-time income, and thus focus more and more attention on The Line. (Right now, both make ends meet by doing other jobs alongside The Line.) Today, we're about halfway between steps one and two. We're at Step 1.6 or so.
So that's what we need your help doing. Getting to Step Two: The Line would be big enough to remain in business indefinitely, and your editors could focus their time and energy on building it. Because after that, there's Step Three: expansion. Grow The Line beyond just the two of us, and beyond the mostly commentary oriented content we produce. We want to hire people. We want to break news. We want to, in our own small way, reverse the decline of the industry.
To our existing subscribers: if you all bought someone a gift subscription today, we'd be beyond Step 2 by Monday. Just like that. Please consider doing so. It's a lot to ask. But we are counting on you.
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We aren't martyrs at The Line. We have families and bills to pay and futures to prepare for. But we believe that what we're doing can work: that we can do this work and put food on the table for our families. We can get to our goals in five years, or we can get to them now, and the sooner we do, the faster we can begin trying to save something of the collapsing media.
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Back to the news of the news: the financial situation at the BCE Inc. behemoth is distinct from other journalism outlets in at least one key way. This company ain't exclusively a journalism outlet, and as a result, it sure as hell ain't broke.
This is a massive corporation that encompasses a wide variety of activities, its journalism division being among the least lucrative among them. It also owns television stations and, of course, offers telecommunications services, including Internet access and mobile phone plans. While its media isn't making anybody rich, these other aspects of its corporate profile sure is hell is.
In 2022, Bell posted $3 billion in net earnings. And while we'll take it at face value that the company is just grandly managed and led by individuals chalk full of capitalist talent and all of that, let's also not be naïve. Part of the reason why BCE Inc. is able to record those profits has a lot to do with the regulatory environment which it operates. Canada's telecommunications oligopoly benefits from government policies that restrict external competition — which is why Canadians have some of the most expensive phone and Internet bills in the entire world.
We mostly permit this because there is an unstated premise that underpins this special treatment — that is, the company is required to divert some of its considerable profits to the public good.
In fact, this expectation is made explicit through the CRTC, the regulatory body that grants Bell's broadcast license. Bell, like the rest of the oligopoly, is subject to rather onerous expectations and restrictions on what it airs, and how much money it directs to Canadian content. Specifically, it must spend a certain percentage of revenues on Programs of National Interest as a condition of the license it obtains to use the country's public broadcast airwaves. Now, the definition of a Program of National Interest — or PNI — is broad and generally covers everything from news and educational content, to drama and awards shows. The concept of "national interest" being a subjective notion, indeed. (And, yes, what is considered an PNI, and the amount of revenue that must be directed toward it every time a company’s license is renewed is an unnecessarily onerous and opaque process that includes the usual host of self interested parties. Hey, ACTRA! Well, that’s Canada, baby!)
We only bring this all up because we would note that a highly profitable company that is zeroing out its journalism division is, perhaps, violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the very social contract that allow it to collect these exorbitant profits in the first place. If BCE Inc. is refusing to pour some of its cash back into the public good, then perhaps we, Canadians, are within our rights to ask whether it deserves the very special treatment it has received through our collective regulatory complacency.
We mean, if they're not going to keep journalism in this country afloat, then why can't us lowly consumers opt for cheaper wireless plans from T. Mobile, or Verizon? Who is benefitting by this arrangement, exactly?
We would also further note that a federal government suddenly alert to the perils of journalism sure missed an opportunity here, didn't they? Not only did they only recently renew BCE Inc.'s license, but they also just substantively amended the Broadcasting Act for the first time in a generation. In the eagerness to bring the streaming platforms to heel with C-11, it's too bad none of them thought to, say, amend that act in such a way to require companies like Bell to devote a certain percentage of their revenue not just to PNIs broadly, but rather to journalism, explicitly. That strikes us as a far more appropriate, and straightforward, approach to saving journalism in this country than creating a byzantine forced-negotiation structure that makes Big Tech pay for newspaper links.
Though you may find this hard to believe, based on what's above, we were paying attention to some other things this week. The Ottawa vortex of ridiculousness continued at its usual clip. The government continues to try and find a defensible position on Paul Bernardo's prison transfer to a medium-security prison. Alas for Mr. Trudeau, he's been hit by a double-whammy of bad luck. Bernardo is an emotional trigger point with probably no rival across Canada. And the PM's point man on this file is the hapless (!) Marco Mendicino, minister of Public Safety.
Let's be clear: your Line editors are far too Vulcan-like to possess strong feelings about the transfer of Bernardo. We are of the right age to have grown up during the era of the Bernardo rapes, murders and eventual trial. He was the boogeyman of our youth. That being said, the important thing is that he dies miserable and alone behind bars. We aren't particularly invested in which particular prison this happens. If there was a sensible reason for him to be moved to the Quebec facility, hey, whatever. He can rot in any suitable prison as far as we're concerned.
The issue here, and it's ridiculous that we have to spell this out, isn't the transfer itself. Nor are we calling upon Trudeau or the federal government to become intimately involved in decision-making for prisoners, even high-profile ones. The only thing that turned this into a huge story was the latest peek it gave us into the Trudeau government. We have been confronted with — surprise! — more incompetence and dysfunction.
Mendicino's staff had been repeatedly told about the pending transfer; no one told the boss. The PMO had been told, too. No one told that boss, either. Why tell the boss? So that they don't get caught flatfooted by a scandal. This is basic issues management and internal communications, and we're being shown, yet again, that the government is terrible at this. And, absurdly, Mendicino apparently has some of the best and brightest providing the adult supervision he so clearly needs: veteran political staffers were sent to his office after he beclowned himself during the gun-control fiasco a few months ago.
And this is the problem. We don’t care which cell holds Bernardo as he slides closer to hell. We do care about yet another data point in a pattern that has emerged with this government: they aren't on top of their files, their offices aren't well run, ministers aren't properly briefed, and there seems to be zero accountability anywhere in this process. It was left to the Ottawa Parliamentary Press Gallery to hunt down Mendicino like ravenous cheetahs on a wayward gazelle after Mendicino had promised to brief them, and then no-showed. He also promised to brief them again later on Thursday, and failed to show up that time, too.
We know, we know. It's hard to believe he'd lie. Marco Mendicino? An incompetent bullshitter? Say it ain't so.
Mendicino is a dead minister walking, and we suspect he knows it. The government is obviously hell bent on getting to the summer break without sacking the minister, because to sack him, despite his manifest and repeated failings, would be to admit said failings, and this government will never do that. If they can get to the break, they can shuffle him off to the sweet oblivion of an obscure ministry, or even the back benches later on this summer. This is just the latest example of what Line editor Gerson has observed about these guys: tactically smart, but strategically dumb.
And, ahem, call us hopelessly naïve, but maybe the politics isn't the point here? Canadians ought to have someone in the job of Public Safety minister — kind of an important role, you'll agree — who is competent and well-supported by excellent staff. Instead we get this shitshow and frantic politicking to avoid handing the opposition a one-day media-cycle victory. It's a bad look on the government. But it's nothing we didn't already know, we guess. They aren't here to serve Canadians. They're here to save themselves.
Speaking of a government that will never admit to a failing: Something that regularly amazes us here at The Line is the periodic reminder that, contrary to all evidence and common sense, the Liberals think they are doing a good job. Sure, there are files they have cocked up, they think, but, on the whole they believe they are running a reasonably effective government. Even on the files and issues where they are, by any objective measure, clearly shitting the bed, they imagine everything to be coming up roses in the manure.
Consider, yet again, the question of national defence and the funding and outfitting of the Canadian Armed Forces. It is widely accepted that the CAF is in bad shape. To run through some more or less random headlines of the last few months:
Canada is missing a vital NATO air exercise because our Air Force is on bricks
An 'embarrassing' gear shortage has Canadian troops in Latvia buying their own helmets
Canadian troops in Poland were not being reimbursed for meals
These are all typical of the genre. From the smallest level (helmets, food) to the most important kit (fighter jets, ships), Canada either can’t or won’t provide it to the armed forces. This is contributing to a major recruitment problem, which has given the CAF a shortfall of as many as 10,000 members.
Despite this, Justin Trudeau has been telling the alliance he has no intention of making any effort at meeting the NATO spending target of 2 per cent of GDP on defence.
This has generated a surprising amount of grumbling amongst our allies, given how circumspect everyone usually is about contribution levels. Allies such as Turkey and Germany have been quietly complaining for months about Canada not being reliable; and last Friday’s edition of Politico’s Ottawa Playbook newsletter reported that “frustration is bubbling within NATO” over our reluctance to increase our spending, ahead of an alliance meeting in Brussels.
Canada’s defence capabilities are in bad shape. No one seriously denies it. Lots of people are noticing it.
No one, that is, except apparently the Liberal MP for Davenport, Julie Dzerowicz. Despite being a member of parliament since 2015, Dzerowicz has yet to crack Justin Trudeau’s famously women-friendly cabinet. Instead, she has tried to make herself useful as the chair of the Canadian NATO Parliamentary Association, a sort of talking shop for alliance perma-backbenchers. And as she apparently told Politico, Canada is not only not a laggard, we’re actually a leader in NATO:
“Irrespective of what you’re hearing out there, we are more than holding our own,” Liberal MP JULIE DZEROWICZ, chair of the Canadian NATO Parliamentary Association, tells Ottawa Playbook. “We are playing an outsized role.”
An outsized role! It sounds delusional, we know. What underwrites this delusion, apparently, is that Ottawa has decided to reject the NATO 2 per cent of GDP target, and substitute its own measure of success, namely absolute levels of spending. And it's true, if you look at overall defence budgets, Canada’s $36 billion puts us sixth highest of the 31 member states.
There’s obviously something to this point; if you rank countries by defence spending as a proportion of GDP, the highest rated countries include Oman, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, Algeria and Iraq. Of the top 15, only Israel and the USA are what you would call democracies; only the USA is in NATO.
But you can only take this argument so far, and for Canada, it really doesn’t go far at all. First of all, the NATO target — which Canada has agreed to — is 2 per cent of GDP. It’s not absolute levels of spending, for obvious reasons that anyone familiar with the concept of “collective defence” should be able to grasp.
The second point is that the Liberals themselves have made it clear they like fraction-of-GDP measures as opposed to absolute levels when it comes to things like, say, the national debt that they have run up to record levels. So why is it an appropriate way to gauge debt but not defence spending?
But the last point is the most straightforward one: When everyone is complaining about your lack of contribution to collective defence, both privately and publicly, how unbelievably deluded do you have to be to claim that ‘no, ackshually it is the critics who are wrong! we’re not laggards we’re leaders’?
Canada is like if Walter Mitty was a country. No wonder our allies are irritated.
Because we, sadly, cannot help ourselves, we at The Line oft feel compelled to comment on the bizarre happenings coming out of Alberta, and unfortunately for any disinterested audience, these episodes seem to be occurring at near-weekly intervals.
This week brought us high drama — or comedy, depending on how you see these things — complete with allegations of censorship against big tech and conspiracies reaching into the deepest, darkest depths of the Canadian deep state.
It all began when premier Danielle Smith claimed that she had been locked out of her Facebook page and instantly fell into a state of high dudgeon, claiming censorship. To wit: "Big tech and government censorship is becoming a danger to free speech around the world.”
And as much of the conservative social sphere has been primed like Pavlovian canines to respond to any and all claims of evil-doing against conservatives by Big Tech, the lot fell into line pretty quickly.
You'll forgive us Line editors for taking a bit of a victory lap in hindsight; but we could tell that something about this story didn't quite pass the smell test even when it first came out. This started with the fact that the premier didn't post a screenshot from Facebook confirming her claims. When a page is shut down, or a post is deemed a community standard violation, there will almost always be some kind of automated message from Facebook explaining the problem.
Smith was claiming censorship because she had, apparently, been locked out of her page, but she didn't release any information about why Facebook booted her, nor what, specifically, had been censored. Was it a post? Did she share something crazy or conspiratorial? She never offered this information to the public.
Many of Smith’s defenders on social media immediately went to the most elaborate conspiracy possible, quite assured that Smith's banishment was the result of link sharing or Liberal meddling. None of that made much sense to us. Facebook hasn’t stopped sharing links, and the relationship between the corporation and the Liberals isn’t exactly tight, at the moment.
And that brought us to the question of why, exactly, Smith would be censored at all. It takes a degree of narcissism and grandiosity to imagine the fourth-most-important premier of Facebook's 15th most important media market was worthy of the corporation's particular displeasure and censure. So, why?
The people over at Facebook Canada are actually pretty conservative, for starters. Meanwhile, there's no love lost between Facebook and the current Liberal government; the two are directly and explicitly at odds with one another over the aforementioned C-18.
And if Smith's mere star of truth was burning so bright it must be dampened by The Man— whomever that is — then what would be the purpose of a "censorship" period lasting only a few days?
None of this added up. So, like several other reporters, The Line reached out to Facebook to figure out what the hell was going on.
The answer came quickly, but not quickly enough.
The claims of censorship didn't make sense because they were wrong. Smith's page wasn't restricted in any way.
What happened is this: One of the several administrators of her page was temporarily suspended, but any of the other admins could have posted at any time. At no point did Facebook place any restrictions on Danielle Smith's page as a whole.
That means that Smith et al. went on a holy rampage claiming Big Tech censorship because none of them could be bothered to check if one of their other admins could post to the page first. "Censorship of a Conservative by Woke Silicon Valley" fit so neatly into their paradigm that they ran directly to the big red button.
After a brouhaha, the restrictions on the admin were lifted on Thursday, and Smith World finally posted that screengrab… and it aligns entirely with Facebook's claims. It reads: "Sorry you [singular] can't post to Facebook from this account: For security reasons, your account has limited access to this site for a few days."
Nothing about this screams "censorship" to an ordinary person. Firstly, there is no mention of Smith's page: rather, the message is directed to a single account manager. No specific content had been flagged. Further, the reference to a "security concern" indicates that the admin was probably automatically restricted for some banal technical reason that tripped a security algorithm: a password problem, using too many computers, or perhaps posting too much content on too many pages across the platform. That kind of thing.
Anyway, to be fair to Smith, Facebook's own official response on this file has been inadequate, and we think it likely that the admin in question was suspended wrongly, albeit temporarily. There’s no indication that the admin did anything untoward. Meanwhile, allegations of censoring a premier are serious. The company should have reacted to the claims far more quickly, and they still ought to provide a more fulsome explanation of what happened. What was the specific "security concern" that got the admin restricted? Given the public nature of this little spat, we think it is within the public interest to know. What we're seeing here indicates that we cannot trust Facebook to be transparent about its own errors, even when those errors are benign.
That said, the episode is also indicative of the reactionary, paranoid, and conspiratorial nature of what's happening around Smith, and that's even more worthy of our concern. This is a group of people demonstrably willing to go into full attack mode based on limited evidence, even when a dispassionate analysis of the data at hand would lead a reasonable observer to come to the opposite conclusion. As long as the information available can be used to confirm a pre-existing narrative, or validate their own sense of victimhood, paranoia, and importance, it’s easy to make these guys believe just about anything. This incident may be petty, but we fear a similar mindset will be applied to more serious matters of politics and policy.
We really hoped that this example would prove instructive to Smith World; that they would be able to laugh at themselves a little bit, and learn from what happened.
We were, therefore, disheartened to note this post on her page in response to this incident. "Happy to report, my page is able to post on Facebook again." Again. As if her team's ability to post had actually been blocked for a period. Rather than admit the error, she saved face, with a post that generated thousands of likes and hundreds of shares, and lots of effusive comments praising the premier. Needless to say, this is not an incentive structure that rewards self-reflection, self-correction, and caution. But we guess that's on Facebook, as much as it is on Smith.
This post is too long to include a round up this week, but we will say thanks for reading, everyone. We know this was a grim one. But there is an existential fight going on out there — our industry, which is necessary for the country, is fighting for its life. We are committed to the fight, but we can’t win it without you. We just can’t. Time is running out. Please support us today.
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: email@example.com