Observations on turkeys, telethons and pancakes
It was another successful Pancake Breakfast for CBC NL, who sponsored 17 different pancake events across the province, in which diners pay $5 for a morning scoff with all monies raised going to help the homeless.
This appears to be a record year, with $25,000 raised by 9 am, and several events still not tallied.
Which is all pretty wonderful, I know, if you’re one of the people helped by the Housing and Homeless Network in this province.
But I’m something of a curmudgeon on this. In a nutshell, I think CBC NL should be focused on the collection of news, and, in particular, investigative journalism. We need more of that, in a province where “open and accountable” means the polar opposite, and Freedom of Information isn’t that at all.
I don’t need to go into detail on this. Bob Wakeham already said it best, writing about the CBC’s biggest charity event – the turkey drive – in his Telegram column of January 7, 2012.
“I'm sure I'll get flak from friends at the CBC who'll accuse me of being an old stick-in-the-mud, a killjoy, of stabbing them in the back when all they're trying to do is help the needy…” Wakeham wrote.
“And I haven't changed since the days when I prevented journalists from fronting public events like the Janeway Telethon. It was a difficult stance to take and was greeted by howls of protest from the community. But I felt back then, and still feel now, that journalism is compromised when a news-gathering organization is involved in the collecting of money. How do you ask questions about how that money is being used, whether it's being spent properly, when your journalists are front and centre in the raising of funds in the first place? It's not the job of journalists to raise money and collect turkeys; it's their job to keep an eye on those who raise money and collect turkeys.
“And shouldn't other charitable organizations and causes expect the same sort of access to the CBC resources as the Janeway and the food banks have had? How about a telethon to raise money to fight cancer? How about hosting a show in Marystown to help laid-off fish plant workers? Government could use more help in education, so how about the CBC involving itself there? I'm obviously being facetious, but it's a slippery slope.”
You can read Wakeham’s full column here:
But what Wakeham had to say was mild, compared to the views expressed by John Fisher, a marketing guru and owner of the Fishers’ Loft in Port Rexton. Fisher called CBC’s Talkback line on November 29, soon after the launch of last year’s turkey drive. He said, in effect, that CBC was about to indulge in another “orgy of self-promotion.” Quickly, I pressed the record button on my digital recorder.
“That’s the problem, isn’t it?” Fisher said. “It’s about us – the do-gooders, the charity mongers. So here’s the question; why does our public broadcaster perpetuate this out of date, sentimental, Dickensian giving ritual, without equal emphasis on a series of reasoned discussion and debates identifying why, in a place awash in prosperity, we have families without the means to buy food? I mean, for goodness sakes, CBC, get with the 21st century. I mean, isn’t anyone asking the question, what happens to the recipients of those turkeys, a week following Christmas? Give a turkey, but also give a damn, and let’s see if we can’t in some way get a better understanding of the long term issues facing these families and start to do something about it.”
Immediately after that call, Morning Show host Anthony Germain interviewed Eg Walters, of the Community Food Sharing Association, to get his reaction to Fisher’s comments.
“Well, I think if John Fisher hadn’t have called in, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to come here this morning and talk about the turkey drive, and all the great work that your viewers and listeners do,” Walters said. “Just look at a place like Mile One Stadium… 6300 people at a sold out event in the stadium. Can you imagine a turkey in every seat, and about 400 turkeys left over? That’s what the CBC turkey drive did last year, for people who need support during Christmas time. So it’s a wonderful event.”
Germain then asked Walters for his opinion on Fisher’s “deeper critique,” that at Christmas time “we do these kinds of things, and then we feel good, and we don’t really talk about how we can really help people by examining the underlying causes of poverty. Does he have a point?”
The question might have been better put to a journalism prof, a retired news editor, or perhaps even the managing editor for CBC News in this province. Either way, Walters quickly redirected the question back to the good work done by his organization, and that was that.
And I need to emphasize that this is in no way a criticism of Eg Walters. I have met him, interviewed him, have long admired his work and love the guy to pieces. But was he really the right person to defend against Fisher’s accusations?
I understand that most readers will not agree with me on this. “CBC is doing great stuff,” you may say, “so lighten up. Cut them some slack.”
I can see how people would feel that way. Collecting 7,000 turkeys is quite an achievement (though I always wondered what people did in bed-setting rooms, with only a hot plate to make supper. How did they cook a turkey?). But is it the job of our public broadcaster?
Call me “old school” if you like, but I think CBC should stick to reporting news, and leave the charity to organizations with that specific mandate. I don’t mind if they publicize events – that makes total sense – but if they want to champion the hungry and the homeless, they should shine a journalistic light on the extent and causes of these problems, and bring pressure to bear on those responsible and accountable for these societal ills.
They should not be flogging turkeys and flipping flapjacks. That’s just letting someone else off the hook.