Dildos, terrorism, and the revisiting of a mysterious tunnel

We were somewhere on Route 202 outside of Dunham when I started cackling in the backseat. “Oh my god, they really did it this time.” I could barely contain myself. “Look at this!” I said, shoving my phone in front of my soon-to-be-wife, sitting in front of me. “LOOOOOK.”

CNN had just run a segment where they grimly noted the presence of an ISIS flag held aloft in London’s Pride parade, called in a national security expert, and pondered for ages on what the appearance of such an “unnerving sight” all might mean. The homophobic death cult had finally come to the West, and was openly declaring it’s presence—and would you believe that CNN were the only ones there?

“If it was a political statement, it was very subtle,” the reporter says at one point.

Well, not so much. The flag, described by the on-scene reporter as having writing that looked more “gobbledygook” than Arabic was actually just a flag covered in dildos and butt-plugs.

Dildos and butt-plugs.

Anyhow, this absurd pearl clutching by the Most Trusted Name in Whatever the Fuck They Do Now sent a flood of chemically stuff right to my glee-centre. Nothing quite delights me as much as Serious People mistaking something vulgar and obviously not real as a sign of doom in our time. Especially when the self-serious dimwits are caught in the act. 

But it reminded me of something a little closer to home.

This winter, CBC Toronto’s intrepid investigative reporter John Lancaster got a hot tip from some police sources that the Toronto cops had stumbled on something he should know about. Something mysteriously terrifying. Mere (hundreds of) metres from the tennis centre for this summer’s Pan Am games they found a mysteriously sophisticated tunnel. The tunnel was so sophisticated, and mysterious, it had a separate, soundproof chamber for a gas generator.

Time to call in an expert. A national security expert. In this case, Ray Bosivert a former deputy so-and-so from CSIS is brought on to pontificate on the meaning of things. (This is all starting to seem familiar, yeah?) What could a tunnel, long enough for, say, a whole sleeper cell to stand upright in, be there for?

“They would want some assurance this is not targeting the games, or not targeting any other facility around there,” including critical infrastructure, Bosivert says, by way of aimless pontification.

It’s at this point that Lancaster tries to take a step back and get some perspective on this whole thing. I’ll quote him here at length:

“I think we have to clarify this, though, at this point no one is suggesting this is some sort of national security exercise. But they have, in fact, notified various agencies regarding this. Because they’re not taking any chances given what happened yesterday with al-Shabaab claiming to target malls and given the climate we’ve seen in Ottawa the past several months as well.”

Translation ‘No one is at all suggesting this is terrorism. Any of those things I just clearly laid out in a context that would make you think we are most-fucking-definitely suggesting this is terrorism, are not that at all.’

It’s always terrorism, isn’t it?

Except, once again, it wasn’t. It was just some guy building a grown-up fort with a friend. (A fort that was sadly filled in by the state, because it might be terrorism. Maclean’s has the actual, and really wonderful, story here.)

Things spread from there. A sensational news report, from Toronto, based on anonymous sources is perfect fodder for the “matching”—or “scalping”—culture of the modern newsroom. Just tack a “: report” on to the end of your headline and sprinkle a few “according to a CBC report”s through your copy, and presto! News!

(Side note: I’ve written dozens and dozens of these things when I worked for the now-defunct Postmedia wire service. I’m as guilty of this shit as anyone else.)

What never happened in any of the initial news reports was someone asking whether this was something less nefarious. Those matching the story couldn’t, remember, they didn’t have any of the sources, they just had Lancaster’s work.

Unfortunately, because the story wasn’t nearly as hilarious and off-base as a bunch of mocking dildos on a terroristic flag, CBC never really had to back away from their report. Their reporter heard what he heard from his sources and that was that. There wasn’t anything false about it—the police really were mystified and the thing really was near a tennis stadium—so there was no correction to be made.

Their error wasn’t in fact, but in woeful and incurious presentation; not incorrect, but still wrong.

Next time, before we break out the national security ding-dongs, let’s break out a bit of common sense.

Don't worry journalists, the ad men are here to save us

There's an old saw in journalism that to write a good story you should show, not tell.

Essentially, if a story you're telling is particularly sad or funny that will come through if you just let your subjects talk. When someone says something amusing, that will come through. On the other side of that coin, when you try too hard to spell out what emotions the reader should be feeling, you're going to fail.

(An easy example of the latter is to write, after a quote, “he said with a laugh.” You make your subject sounds like some kind of weirdo forcing laughter after every sentence, rather than a real person chuckling in a conversation.)

Anyhow, this brings us to a new initiative promoting the importance of journalism to the public, sponsored by a group that includes the Globe and Mail, Postmedia, the Toronto Star, Ryerson University and Unifor.

To really sell the “important role journalism plays in democratic societies,” according to the Globe and Mail, they’re going to run a bunch of ads in print and on television. The campaign is called JournalismIS, and as a really awful mess mess of letters, I guess this is our way of bringing our industry into the present.

Having evidently decided doing good, interesting journalism just isn’t going to sell the public on why we should be kept around; it’s time we hand that over to the advertisers. According to the National Post, the ads will feature ten different buzzwords and buzzphrases, in the hopes the public is as stoked about gibberish as they are current events. These buzztrocities include, “relentless,” “telling the whole story”, and—this is the word salad that really lights my fire—“watchdog over the powerful.”

Sweet Jimminy Christmas, did it not occur to anyone at these news organizations that maybe instead of paying a bunch of money for some weenies to sit around shouting at a whiteboard maybe they should just stop being so fucking dull?

Here’s the first offering:

I’m curious what kind of person they expect to watch an ad like that, and then say to themselves, “You know, they’re right! I’ve been spending all this time reading interesting and accessible things in a way I want, but instead, I should pick up a newspaper. Mabel, get circulation on the line!”

I get that we have to counter the assertion, often from politicians (even oftener from conservative politicians), that the media is constantly looking to subvert the will of the people all the while saying we’re doing it in the public interest.

Maybe this is me being old fashioned, but I don’t know advertising is really the best way to convince people we’re important. It seems like if we did our jobs without an unbearable air of self-importance, people might be more inclined to read it.

It’s easy to tell when a journalist is convinced of the unimpeachable importance of what they’re writing about. You can tell because it’s boring. It’s too long. And built into every sentence is the assumption that you must give a shit, so it doesn’t bother to try and convince you.

You can see this in the comments by Mary Agnes Welch, who was as the launch of JournalismIS. “News is the lifeblood of our democracy,” she said. “As the volume of information and the range of opinion available to media consumers increase, the contribution of professional journalism has become more important than ever.”

The lifeblood of democracy. Never mind that we have a constitution and a Parliament and a whole democratic process, the news is the lifeblood of our democracy. You have to be pretty far up your own keester to say that out loud and really mean it.

Look, I don’t mean to say that journalism isn’t important. Politicians would get away with all sorts of horrible garbage, if it wasn’t for journalists poking around and bringing to light their various misdeeds. Without journalists everything we’d know about the world would just be spin.

But journalism doesn’t need to be so awful and boring. It can also be entertaining, and funny, and pointless, and, god forbid, enjoyable.

Beating our audience over the head with how important we all are really isn’t the way to get people to read the news.

Evan Solomon is paying for the sins of some of his colleagues, and that’s just fine

So long then, Evan Solomon.

The host of Power and Politics the country's most-watched political program—a horrible genre—seems to have been getting a cut of private art sales. The sales were to billionaire Jim Balsillie and Bank of England governor Mark Carney, men he had a journalistic relationship with, according to a Toronto Star report. The CBC swiftly tossed him out on his ear.

The entire Star report is worth your time, but to get at the nut of the thing, Solomon had an arrangement with an art dealer to get a cut of sales made to people Solomon sent his way. The buyers were apparently unaware Solomon was getting a piece.

According to the Star, Solomon got 10 per cent of each sale, totalling, as far as they can figure, at least $300,000. 

Solomon was by all accounts a decent gent, but that’s too damned bad. It's hard to shed a tear for someone who would do something so obviously stupid and unethical.

He must have known he was up to no good, because he kept this to himself. I don’t just mean kept from the viewer, but kept from the people he was setting up with the art dealer. According to the Star, Solomon went so far as to use code names for the prospective buyers in emails to the art dealer.

And so, he was doomed from the beginning. The host stood little chance of keeping his job, once the Star’s story went live. Bad as it is, the degree of his offence didn’t make much difference. With the CBC so mired in the ethical garbage of other high-profile “personalities” like Amanda Lang and Rex Murphy, the broadcaster had little choice but to cut ties with the Power and Politics host.

It could be easily argued that what Lang did was worse. As a business reporter and host of the CBC’s flagship business program, she was the embodiment of the broadcaster’s credibility on Bay Street reporting.

She blew that all to hell by accepting speaking fees from events sponsored by major banks, including RBC. Lang followed up critical coverage of the bank by her network with a cottony-soft interview with the bank’s CEO, lopping the shins out of her credibility. You can draw a direct line from where she was getting money on the side to who she was reporting on. (It doesn’t even require a line. It’s more of a dot, labeled Royal Bank of Canada.)

Rex didn’t do himself much better, taking cash for speaking to the oil crowd. (Oil exploitation being one of those, ahem, settled issues in this country.)

Faced with evidence two of its higher-profile talent were CBC decided to close ranks around these folks, and it hurt the broadcaster. There wasn’t much in the way of contrition on the part of Lang or Murphy, and that hurt the broadcaster further.

This time, it looks like they didn’t have enough good will left over to slough off another one of these ethical scandals. So Solomon was shown the door, in many ways to pay for the sins of his colleagues.

It used to seem like a stretch to say CBC had a rotten star culture that let its top-billed talent get away with whatever they felt like, because they were personalities, damn it. That seemed like the usual bullshit from the typical blowhards.

It’s hard to deny that there’s a problem now.

Never mind that these people are journalists for the public broadcaster—an institution of enormous importance, they’ll have you know—these are journalists in an environment where the media world is falling apart all around them. We could really use the public to see us as a trustworthy and, frankly, useful profession. Instead, they’re out there trying to make some extra cash on the side.

The public already thinks we’re political shills on the take, we don’t need some areshole with their face on a banner making it seem true.

I’m sick of these dickweasels dragging the rest of us into their sordid shit-mess. It was about time one of them was shown the door.

Tim Hortons has taken on the oil industry and now we're all doomed

The world’s foremost Canadiana dispensary is in some deep shit after it decided to pull some in-store advertising for an oil company.

Tim Hortons was under online pressure to pull ads by Enbridge from their locations. Afraid of offending hip and awesome teens, the physical manifestation of our ephemeral national identity decided to cave and pulled the ads.

It promptly blew up in their face.

Enbridge, you see, is a Calgary-based oil company that employs thousands of folks in Alberta and by pulling their ads, Tim Hortons as slapped the face of every blue collar worker in this country.

A backlash quickly sprung up around #BoycottTims. People are so mad they’re burning Tim Hortons gift certificates. 

Why does Tim Hortons hate hard-working Canadians so much?

Members of the federal cabinet would sure like to know. Defence Minister Jason Kenny and minister of state for Western diversification Michelle Rempel took it to twitter, showing their support for the oil industry.

Our old friend Pierre Poilievre is in on the action too, retweeting all sorts of anti-Tims agitprop and news stories. It’s fair to say this is now a national issue.

Jesus Christ, we’re really going to do this aren’t we? 

It’s one of the strange features of this provincial backwater that so much of our national self-image is caught up in shitty bagels and unremarkable coffee. So much so that Serious People with Serious Jobs felt the need to weigh in on whether a foreign-owned corporation should accept money from an energy company to display advertising in its stores.

Conservative voters are causally referred to as the type of folks who get their coffee at Tim Hortons. And while the image is often a dim and often sneering one, it did hold a certain cache in news reports. Speaking to the Tims crowd was akin to speaking to the everyman.

Alas, that’s all over. A thousand news metaphors, swept away like so much boring dust.

While it’s good riddance to bad writing, we’re still left in the hilarious situation of this being an actual political issue.

With so many Tories throwing their weight behind the boycott Tims movement, it’s only a matter of time before some enterprising reporter asks a federal leader to weigh in on the whole thing.

One of those poor bastards is going to have to say where they stand on whether that coffee place is a national disgrace or not. God help them if they try and laugh it off.

So we’re all fucked.

The news media is fucked, Tim Hortons is fucked, our politicians are fucked, the oil industry is fucked, and our collective self-image is fucked. We’re all fucked and it’s thanks to a stupid donut shop.

It’s hard to believe Canada is even a real country.

The victims of communism probably deserve better

After all they’ve been through, what’s one more indignity to the victims of communism?

Seems the federal government has decided the best way to honour those crushed under brutal regimes is to turn their cause into a political football with a robust and bafflingly reasonable opposition.

It’s too bad, really. Things didn’t really need to be this way. It should be hard as hell to argue against a monument honouring an estimated 100-million dead. But, this isn’t really a government known for having a deft hand for neutralizing criticism and bringing opposition onside. 

Monstrous as the design may be—you can judge for yourself here—there are plenty of folks who would otherwise be supportive of such a thing, or at least have no real reason to disapprove of it, that aren’t all that hot on its proposed location. The enormous waves of concrete are set to be built by the Supreme Court.

The Canadian designers’ original idea was to have an image of a mass grave from the Katyn Massacre of 1940 carved into the waves and visible when you stand atop a raised platform. But ABSTRAKT Studio, the monument’s designers, say they have decided not to show the exhumed rows of the summarily executed. The images on their website are just a mockup. Whatever they do eventually decide on, the designers say it will be “a positive image based on the idea of Canada being a land of refuge,” according to an Ottawa Citizen report.

The way the government has tried to sell it hasn’t helped either. Sending Pierre Poilievre out as one of your lead proponents is not a signal that you’re looking to be constructive.

The esteemed minister says that he hasn’t heard from anybody who wants what was originally planned for the spot, a Federal Court building, to be built. It’s shameful, he says, “to oppose the site of the Victims of Communism Monument, in favour of a Government building for lawyers.” Can you imagine building another government building for lawyers? In front of a government building for lawyers, next to a government building for political staffers, kitty-corner to a government building for central bankers?

The mind reels.

Poliviere’s cries the Canadian common man was onside with the project seem to have gone unheeded by the city the monument is to be built in. (Perhaps, because he has a habit of being flippant when he makes such pronouncements.) Ottawa city council passed a motion this week requesting the government build the thing elsewhere. 

So there it stands. Now the government is in a pissing match with another level of government and is dealing with oodles of bad press. They’ve dug in and won’t budge from the design or the location. Should the monument be built as it is, it’ll become known, at least partly, as the monument a bunch of people didn’t want.

By not allowing for the possibility of a reasoned opposition, the government is left with the unreasonable prospect of having no support.

And maybe that’s how they want it. By successfully championing the victims of communism and standing up against those who wouldn’t build the monument, they get to claim political victory.

This should have been more about courting the votes of an oppressed diaspora. Communist regimes all over the world did horrible, horrendous things to the people they ground into submission. That’s all been lost in the petty way the government has tried to push this monument through.

The victims of communism deserve to be commemorated, it shouldn’t be this hard.

Sound the alarm! Scandal in the Office of the Auditor General!

Fire up the old outrage machine, because CTV has one hell of a scoop on the misspending ways of the Auditor General.

It seems that the country’s most esteemed accountant has been throwing team-building exercises and buying his staff pizza. Thankfully, super reporter and taxpayer defender Bob Fife is on the case.

Fife and his merry band found in a very thorough investigation—more on that in a moment—Auditor General Michael Feguson’s office had spent tens of thousands of dollars on various out-of-office activities for staff.

The office spent $23,048 over four years to send employees to places with names like “Funhaven,” “Saunders Farm,” and “The Britannia Yacht Club.” Now, $20,000 sounds like a lot of money to be spending to send employees all around the city to yacht clubs for practicing trust falls and singing songs about each other’s names, but it’s not when you bother to put those numbers in any sort of context.

That spending breaks down to an average $5,762 per year. Former colleague Paul Vieira figures that's about $38 for each of the office's 600 employees—$10 per year. Compared to the AG's annual budget of more than $80 million, that’s about one metric mouse fart. Or, if you prefer your comparisons in actual things, it’s less than 0.0069 per cent of the yearly budget.

It gets worse, though. In the past four years, the office has spent more than $100,000 on lunches for staff. Ferguson told CTV the lunches provided staff pizza lunches. A pizza lunch, for adults! My god, this Ferguson is just running wild with the public purse.

Again, that’s not a meaningfully large number when put next to $80 million.

The grave intonations of Fife’s report really sell how important this whole thing is. CTV’s Ottawa Bureau Chief™ makes clear that this “investigation” was a hard won battle with anonymous sources and through deep digging into leaked documents.

Just kidding! They added up a bunch of numbers publicly available on the AG’s website. But, as the web file and TV clip notes the figures were “not tallied up for easy reference.”

This is garbage journalism. Not because it asks questions of an office that in the eyes of the public is above reproach, but because the tone and delivery of the whole thing implies that some grave injustice has taken place.

To sell that this is a gross misuse of public funds, Fife says “On Parliament Hill where the Auditor General’s report is always feared, this questionable spending raised a few eyebrows.”

The few eyebrows were those of Conservative MP David Tilson and Liberal MP Mark Eyking. Two shining stars of Parliament who will probably never be heard from again, but happened to be near a camera when somebody—anybody—would do for a scolding quote.

There’s no scandal here. There’s barely even a story. These figures when they stand alone do give the appearance of some scandalously high spending. But when you put them in proper context, they're nothing at all. Seven-thousandths of a per cent of an office’s budget is not reckless spending. But pointing that out would kill the sizzle of throwing around words like “investigation”, as though this were some ground-breaking bit of reporting that will bring down Ferguson and his bean counters.

Fife says as he's wrapping up his report, “I got the sense that [Ferguson] was embarrassed by some of the spending.”

I don’t think that’s what the AG was embarrassed about, Bob. I think he was embarrassed for you.

(Editor’s note: It’s been quite a while since I’ve bothered to write something in this space. That’s not because of you dear reader—hi Mom!—but because of me. At some point I may put up a searching, reflective essay on why I’ve had so much trouble putting finger to key, but probably not. I'm not really into self-searching. Mostly, I’ve just been happy to hang out with my dog and sit in the sunshine. Anyhow, I figured I might channel some of my Twitter outrage into something marginally productive. So, I expect I'll do more of this. If I don’t, well, assume that I’m on the balcony patting the head of a big black pooch.)

*Thanks to astute reader and long-lost friend James Culic for pointing out my rounding error. It is indeed seven thousandths of a per cent, not six. And thanks to reader Naams who points out the proper spelling of thorough, which includes two 'O's. I thoroughly regret the errors.

A brief interlude

What follows is a note to myself, written on the first page of a notebook I often carry around. It's a reminder that nothing comes out of thin air. Anyhow, this is all to say there is writing going on somewhere, it's just not here. 

The purpose of this book is not to be anything but ruminations. It’s a first draft. A chance to think out loud, at least on paper. Nothing here is meant to be taken seriously, no more than a conversation at a pub is meant to be taken seriously.

It is a place to stretch out and try things. Ideas, phrases, ways of looking at the world.

In doing all this it is not unlikely that some of this will seem rather embarrassing. Some of it will no doubt be down right stupid.

That’s the point. Push through the embarrassment, and the doubt, and keep going.

The only failure in these pages is to stop short.

The Mystery Tunnel of Bel-Air

Now that the mysterious mystery of the Toronto Mystery Tunnel has been more-or-less solved, it's time to look back at how we got here. How an underground hang out for a couple of working-class dudes, turned into an ominous tunnel of terror.

It's time, I'm saying, for a song.

(To the tune of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme, with my deepest apologies.)

Now, this is a story all about how
A hole in the ground made us cower in fear
And I’d like to take a minute
Just sit right there
I’ll tell you how a stupid tunnel brought us to here

In a town call Toronto, near in a patch of woods
Digging holes was how they spent most of their days
Chillin’ out maxing with some rosary beads
Making a cave for ‘nefarious’ deeds
A couple of guys, up to no good, started digging tunnels in the neighbourhood.
They dug one little hole, and we all got scared.
Screaming ‘They could launch a terror attack from there!’

We whistled for the cops and they called us all near
Said there ain’t no crime in what’s goin’ on here
If anything, they could say that this hole was rare.
But we thought, ‘Nah forget it, yo homes it’s terror!’

The press release dropped about seven or eight
It said to us all, ‘Yo dudes, you’re all crazy.’
We looked at their man cave, it was finally clear
For ‘personal reasons’ is why it was there.

Engaged to be married

A funny thing happened last Friday.

I’m on a train heading for Toronto, when my phone rings. It’s Ingrid, calling to say hello. She’s on lunch break, ambling about The Bay in Montreal to kill some time.

Then, she gets to the jewelry counter. 

I’ll stop at this point and fill in a few of the gaps. We’ve been together for three years and a bit now, a good chunk of which we’ve lived together with our large dog. We’ve talked about getting engaged and finally getting all that paperwork sorted out. We’ve also gone looking for rings. And we’ve—well, she, but you knew that—even settled on one, a white gold ring with an emerald-cut sapphire surrounded by diamonds.

We are, in short, madly in love.

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#AdviceForYoungJournalists

Because no one asked, here's some pretentious, high-on-my-horse advice. 

Look, I’m going to skip over the part where I warn you away from this business because things are dire. Really dire. Pants-shittingly dire. But, you’ve come far enough to know that already. So, let’s assume you’ve internalized it, crushed it into a little ball and buried it at the bottom of your gut, never to be spoken of again.

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Starting something new

At the end of February, I'm leaving the only company I've ever really known as home. I started at Postmedia News green as hell and had enough good people around me to keep me from drowning in my own garbage.

There's too many to thank for helping me along, with kindnesses big and small, so I'd like to issue a blanket thank you: Thank you for kicking my ass when it needed it, and thank you for putting up with my oddball meanderings. Most of all, thank you for making me not terrible. I can't quite fathom the effort and skill that took, so thank you.

What this will become isn't exactly clear. With time, I'm sure this blog will gain some shape. But until then, stay tuned. This is a work in progress.

New adventures await.