Media

Credit Where It's Due

By Ryan McGreal
Published November 20, 2006

From time to time, Raise the Hammer is accused of Spec-bashing. Well, in over 800 articles and blog entries, we've written maybe ten pieces that criticize the Hamilton Spectator, and many more that credit the paper for its often excellent reporting.

Still, there's no question we sometimes feel frustrated with the editorial policy at our town's one daily newspaper. That doesn't mean we hate the Spec or want to see it fail. To the contrary: as citizens, we need news sources like the Spec so we can better understand what's going on and how best to respond.

The newspaper is a vital part of Hamilton's media landscape, and if we sometimes criticize choices the editors make, it's because we want them to do a better job. Call it 'tough love'.

In any case, I'm pleased to write that I was delighted with Saturday's editorial by Dana Robbins, the paper's editor-in-chief. Responding to the hate mail the paper received over its endorsement of Larry Di Ianni for mayor, Robbins answered each charge in a Q&A format, laying the paper's editorial policy on the table. (Trevor Shaw will be writing more about the "power of the press" in our upcoming issue.)

Robbins began by quoting a letter that challenged Di Ianni's record, writing, "The most common complaint I received this week was not that The Spectator had endorsed a candidate, but rather that we had endorsed the 'wrong' candidate."

This is a fair point. Raise the Hammer has long been concerned with the Spec's policy of endorsing candidates. To avoid hypocrisy we decided not to endorse candidates in this election, but instead to endorse policies that we advocate.

Robbins went on to explain who develops the paper's editorial positions (the publisher, editor-in-chief, opinions editor, editorial page staff, cartoonist, and political and city columnists). This is important for readers to understand, not only because it humanizes the corporation, but also because it lets readers attempt to engage those humans in dialogue.

The next quoted reader complained that the endorsement is not "a fair, objective and non-partisan perspective on current events." This is the part that made me happy. Robbins replied:

Fair enough, but integrity-based reporting and pointed commentary are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I'd argue the former is the logical foundation for the latter. Our news reporting should always meet the test set by this reader, but there must be a different bar for opinion and commentary, which is inherently "biased." That is, after all, why it's called opinion.

I've written before that every news entity has a bias and an agenda, but the newspaper seems to pretend it does not. Here, Robbins explicitly acknowledged that the editorial policy is most certainly an opinion, and that the journalistic rules of objectivity and non-partisanship do not apply.

(Those who complain that RTH sometimes criticizes the Spec may note that we usually criticize the Spec's editorial stances, not its straight reporting.)

Robbins extended his candour to the next question, which asked whether it was "The Spectator's intention to sway public opinion by endorsing Larry Di Ianni."

His response: "Yes."

Hats off to Robbins for taking responsibility for the Spec's endorsement, explaining and defending their decision, and confronting the criticisms of angry readers. We don't expect them to stop having an opinion - we just expect them to be honest and upfront about it.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By more too it (anonymous) | Posted November 20, 2006 at 13:22:13

Unfortunately, by admitting to some there is mroe left unsaid. For example, editorial policy definitely affects what letters and opinions are allowed in the paper as well as what slant many major stories are covered or even if they are covered at all. No, I believe Mr. Robbins was only being partially candid either because he did not want to reveal the truth or maybe does not even realise it!

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 20, 2006 at 13:42:22

not to mention, none of us really know why they endorsed Larry. They came up with some lame thing about 'team-building'. in other words, there are real reasons behind the scenes why they endorsed him. Which means they aren't endorsing a candidate based on the election issues, track record or platform, but on some other 'criteria'. I'd like to know what it is.

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted November 20, 2006 at 14:08:19

Hey Ryan,

I share some of the same misgivings as the previous 2 commentators. The fact that Dana Robbins has tackled the questions head on is all well and good - but what have we really learned? What explanation does the Spec have for taking such a blinkered view of key issues? And why should their sister paper - The Star - be so dilligent in their reporting and analysis of critical issues such as sprawl, citizen engagement, the environment and energy conservation and yet The Spec's stance seems to be simply, 'if it bleeds it leads, and screw everything else...?

It's very curious.

I haven't read Robbin's column - just what is written here - but it would be hard for me not to be skeptical of anyone attempting to justify what is essentially biased reporting and blinkered editiorialising. If, as Robbins says, the Specs Editoiral stance is based on a collective mindset then I would suggest that that mindset needs to smarten up a little and see the world around them for what it is.

Anyone who thinks that Mr Robbins and his buddy Mr Drescel do not exert their considerable influence to create the kind of tone and reporting they feel is required to appease the advertisers - is seriously misguided.

And for anyone that thinks I am just 'Spec bashing', I invite you try out The Star or any of the other Canada Daily's (well, perhaps not the Sun...:) ) and see what a difference enlightened and unfettered reporting makes.

Cheers

Ben

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted November 20, 2006 at 14:08:38

Jason wrote: "I'd like to know what it is."

The cynic in me says, look no further than the Spec's source of revenue: advertisements from the home building and associated industries.

Ben wrote, "Anyone who thinks that Mr Robbins and his buddy Mr Drescel do not exert their considerable influence to create the kind of tone and reporting they feel is required to appease the advertisers - is seriously misguided."

The influence of advertisers is complex. For one thing, advertisers want access to eyeballs, which means the paper has an incentive to provide the kind of coverage readers (er, make that affluent readers) want to see.

That may not necessarily skew the way articles are written (although occasionally the paper's editorial stance makes it onto the front page - see, for example, the Maple Leaf fiasco), but it does influence what issues are reported.

Another influence, of course, is over the paper's editorial policy, which also carries significant weight with the average reader who may not be as obsessively informed of the ins and outs of a given issue than, say, a bunch of media activists.

It's all well and good for Robbins to say, 'Hey, we're entitled to an opinion' (they are, of course), but normally, they present their opinion as if it were the only logical conclusion possible from the evidence.

What I liked about this editorial is that Robbins cracked the lid on what we might call the Spec's "editorial infallibility" and admitted that it's just an opinion, and an opinion with which readers may disagree.

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By D. Shields (registered) | Posted November 21, 2006 at 03:53:03

Is there really a place for newspapers to endorse candidates anymore, esp. if they cannot give a good reason for the endorsment? I did write a letter to the editor, & that was all i was saying.

(I suspect that's what many people wrote, but perhaps that wasn't how the Editor chose to see it?) If the Spec is that tied to it's advertising revinue, why should we believe what it has to say about much of anything that goes on at City Hall? I'm probably not going to pick it up as frequently from now on -likely only the Saturday edition.

I'm liking my local weekly paper better for reporting of local news & events, even if it is somewhat later in reporting news. I see more objectivity & in some cases more editorial freedom in matters where it really counts.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted November 21, 2006 at 17:44:26

I also thought it was a good editorial. Too good, in fact. Such fine words and high-minded sentiments to defend what was really a very tepid endorsement. I agree with Jason that there may have been hidden reasons for the endorsement, either that or the timdity with which they endorsed Di Ianni was due to their being somewhat chastened by readers' reactions to their 2003 endorsement. Either way, Robbins' brave words ring somewhat hollow.

What bothered me about the endorsement was the fact that the deciding factor for them was some wishy washy BS about 'team-building'. If the candidates were so similar in other ways, as the Spec suggested, why wasn't it the integrity issue? It was clearly the most important issue to the voters. The Spec showed itself to be both out of touch with it's readers, and an apologist for unethical behaviour. The whole way they handled the Joanna Chapman affair destroyed my trust in them, and nothing I have seen since has changed my mind.

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By citizen (registered) | Posted November 22, 2006 at 01:02:39

First I should point out that I hardly read the Spec. I read the Globe every day, the Economist every week, Foreign Affairs fairly often and National Interest from time to time. Read into that what you will.

I did however read the Spec quite often 3-5 days a week for a few weeks prior to the election. Besides that it's utter tripe --and that's being polite--, it had, in my view, terrible coverage of the issues and candidates.

The Spec did run some "get to know your..." bits, but they might as well have asked candidates what their favourite colour was. To be fair, I'm not sure if that is because the calibre of the candidates is piss poor or the Spec is. However, given the quality of writing throughout it could easily have been the Spec's failure.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted November 22, 2006 at 14:51:18

Graeme MacKay, the editorial cartoonist for the Spec (and a member of the editorial board), updated his blog entry with the following response to this post:


      • UPDATE (November 20) * * *

Raise the Hammer raises it's [sic] hammer (& sickle [sic]) again, this time in a confusing attempt to deny that it bashes the Hamilton Spectator. (Reacting to my statement at the top of this blog entry). RTH "usually criticizes the Spec's editorial stances, not its straight reporting", writes mouthpiece Ryan McGreal. He embraced my boss Dana Robbins and his weekend column in defence of endorsement editorials like it was some sort confession that the Spectator does indeed hold some opinions. To the Raise the Hammer folks this admission of the Spec expressing opinion is really code word for possessing an evil big money pro developer corporate AGENDA. Which is crap. But the comments beneath McGreal's article only confirms what he tried to deny in the first place, that Raise the Hammer loves to bash the Spectator... but who really cares?

http://mackaycartoons.blogdrive.com/arch...

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By ooooooh (anonymous) | Posted November 22, 2006 at 15:22:14

Gee, sounds like someone's feeling a teeny bit defensive, eh Graeme? It's not really about whether the spectator ''holds some opinions'' but why they endorsed Larry over Fred. Their excuse for endorsing Larry--what, team building?--I just don't buy it, and neither do alot of other readers (and ex readers). I agree with more too it and highwater, Dana's telling the truth but not the whole truth.

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By rusty (registered) - website | Posted November 22, 2006 at 16:33:17

What a ridiculous comment (McKay's). One thing RTH tries very hard not to do (and it ain't always easy) is get testy and belittle people. We make an honest effort to tackle the arguments piece by piece, line by line. I have no time for people who start whining half way through a discussion or seek to insult you because they don't have the intellect to have a discussion.

McKay if you have a point to make then make it, but stop with the Commie insinuations and pathetic rhetoric (OK now I AM getting testy! See - told you it wasn't easy...)

OK, now I'm getting upset. Time for a cup of tea.

Ben

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 22, 2006 at 16:39:00

ha ha...that is hilarious. I hope he does a cartoon about RTH. That would be sweet. As to his final question - "...but who really cares?" Apparently he does. Enough to waste a blog entry complaining about it. Either that or it was a slow news day like it has been everyday at the Spec since they decided to only give us one decent story a day and call it 'behind todays news'. I'm still waiting for my monthly subscription rate to be cut in half - like their content. shhh, keep that quiet. I don't want Graeme knowing that I have a full-week subscription to a paper that I hate.....

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