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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.


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Recent comments

  • Wm. Murphy
    February 27, 2012 - 07:43

    This is wonderful stuff!!! The more people like Meeker and Wakeham write about this subject, the more people will rally in support of these events. their logic and perspective is out to lunch For the sake of these wonderful events...keep it up!

  • Suzanne Brown
    February 25, 2012 - 20:23

    Yikes, what is the big deal??? I recently heard a "thank you" on CBC, where they thanked ALL Canadians for their help and participation in all fund draisers they wer involved with over the Christmas Season; I think its wonderful they are involved in all these iniatives across Canada. Keep up the good work; so sad CBC wont be involved with the Janeway telethon; wiil miss seeing Ryan Snodden

  • canadafirstaid
    February 25, 2012 - 07:57

    Petty BS and a waste of everyone's time. Please stop the childish complaining and get back to doing your own work. Instead of tell others how to theirs'. cfa

  • Shannie Bluff
    February 22, 2012 - 22:53

    Paddy Daly with a great contribution as usual. Top shelf b'y!

  • Jonathan Richler
    February 22, 2012 - 14:22

    My goodness, a public institution drawing attention to a social deficit - through general coverage and an annual fund raiser - is what I would expect from them. I consider that an excellent source of my tax dollars and a fine spending of the hosts' volunteered hours. Wouldn't it be nice to live in a world where fund raising events for the poor among us are not necessary. Wouldn't it also be nice to squeeze through a day where one First World media source is not criticizing another? CBC is indeed focussed on – in your words - "the collection of news, and, in particular, investigative journalism." You can find a collection of their coverage on poverty with a simple web search in their archives or via a search engine. Moreover, if I find the coverage at any time banal, redundant, or annoying, I'll exercise my right to dial in another source of information using all sources available to me. None of us are restricted to the AM dial in 2012. And frankly, if Bob Wakeham cynically covered a similar gripe concerning free meals for the poor on January 7, 2012, why are you revisiting it less than 50 days later in the same paper?

  • Chris O'Neill-Yates
    February 22, 2012 - 12:23

    I've never publically offered my two cents worth on any criticism of CBC over the years, but I can't bite my tongue on this one any longer. The issues Geoff raises in his column are ones I've given a lot of thought to as a reporter. I've been associated with the reading of A Christmas Carol to help feed hungry families since it began over a decade ago. I've served my share of pancakes, and hosted other charity events. But there has ever been the slighest doubt in my mind what I would do if some malfeasance were to come to my attention anywhere in these organizations. I would do what I have done for almost 20 years as a reporter - pursue it with journalistic vigour and rigour in the interest of the public. And guess what? I'd get the full backing of people here at the CBC who value investigative journalism as much as I do. If as journalists we choose to do our bit to highlight a social problem, that does not preclude being critical of the underlying causes or from being dogged in exposing wrongdoing . To suggest so is too simplistic. In the environment I work in, the reporter's hat trumps the Santa hat at the turkey drive hands down.

  • Paddy Daly
    February 22, 2012 - 11:31

    oh my. Reading the post may be required before commenting?

  • Joe Moss
    February 22, 2012 - 11:12

    I am a volunteer who commits hundreds of hours per year, and my own money, to my charity of choice. The problem is not the charitable spirit of the CBC employees - god love 'em- it is converting that charitable spirit into "news" and absolutely clobbering people with self-promotion. It really is a fire hose. It becomes worse for the public broadcaster, in my view, when the promotion swallows up air time and the self-congratulation becomes a standing news item. Compound that with remote work like yesterday and now you've got charity on work time. Worlds are colliding Jerry! Report the news. If the newsroom wants to get behind something, pass the hat like every other workplace in the province. If you want to volunteer and lend your local celebrity to a cause, do it as a private citizen...and do it as often as you can. What of VOCM? Well, they're a private company that can do what they please with their airtime. All of this said I don't believe for a second that CBC would go soft on a story connected with these charities.

  • Darrell Smith
    February 22, 2012 - 11:05

    While I was listening to part of the show, I couldn't help but visualize someone leaving the Pancake Breakfast, heading downtown and scoffing at someone looking for a loonie. That's not a slight at CBC...that's more of a societal observation, and I'm not sure there's anything that can be done about it. That said, I believe the lesser of the two evils is to continue CBC's efforts with both Pancake Day and Turkey Drive. I disagree that it's letting someone off the hook...rightly or wrongly, we love our local celebs, and to take them away would take money off the table that would not be replaced. Thanks for making us think though Geoff!

  • Mr. Juannabe
    February 22, 2012 - 10:25

    Geoff; I'm quite happy with my existing backbone, b'y! Thanks. You cite Bob Wakeham's column as saying it best: "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." Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but to me there is some implication in that statement. In any case, CBC radio and TV personalities have notoriety that comes along with their role. I think they are doing the right thing by occasionally using that publicly-bestowed notoriety to benefit a good cause. By virtue of the CBC's involvement in these events, you suggest that they are diverting resources from investigating or exposing the root causes of homelessness. Perhaps, but isn't awareness of a societal problem an important step in coming up with a solution?

  • Geoff Meeker
    February 22, 2012 - 10:16

    There's a lively discussion about this entry over at my Facebook profile, where I just made this comment: For the record, I don't want to single out for criticism the journalists who participate in these events. Their hearts are definitely in the right place. A bunch of journalists left yesterday's pancake breakfast and turned in a good day's work, reporting honestly and objectively. I don't think they were in any way tainted by it. This is a debate that has to take place at a policy level, with a decision that cascades down, across the ranks. I should have made this point in my blog entry.

  • Darrell Smith
    February 22, 2012 - 10:11

    Thought provoking for sure, which is always good. On one hand, how can raising money for a good cause ever be bad? On the other hand, I can see the potential for conflict. Hmmmmm...I'll have to give this more thought before I take a position.

  • David Cochrane
    February 22, 2012 - 10:03

    You guys act like we make a binary choice between pancakes and investigation, turkeys and enterprise. We do both. The people who organize the turkey drives and the pancake breakfast are not the news room staff. It's largely our communications division. People like me show up - on our own time - to help on the day of the event. But in between the TWO annual charity events we do, we are busy working on over 9 hours of daily television and radio news and current affairs programming. I would argue that CBC has done more enterprise, investigative and in-depth reporting than any other news organization in this province over the past year. Yes we do some marketing and community outreach. But we're helping to feed hungry people AND draw attention to issues facing the homeless and the working poor. I'm proud of that. And I know the people I work with in the newsroom are proud of it too. None of that charity work would get in the way of us doing a tough story. If you believe that to be the case, you're delusional. But each and every day we deal with tragedy, crime and scandal. Sometimes it feels pretty good to spend a couple of hours of free time helping people who are needy. And - -BTW -- in the 10 months between turkey and flapjacks we've also launched On Point and On Point Radio. Two brand new shows dedicated to in-depth discussion of politics, public policy and provincial affairs. That should underline our commitment to meaningful, in-depth journalism far more than a turkey drive and pancake breakfast could ever undermine it.

  • Geoff Meeker
    February 22, 2012 - 09:32

    Read it again, Mr. "Juannabe". Where did I suggest that CBC would turn a blind eye to a controversial story about anyone? I didn't. Read those last two paragraphs again, to see a summary of my key points. As an aside, I sent an email to CBC, asking for comment on this, and made a point of telling them that I am a big fan of the local CBC. That's exactly why I write commentaries like this - because I care. (And if CBC replies, I will offer their point of view in a follow-up item.) And, out of curiosity, why didn't you sign your name to a commentary as harmless as this? Are you afraid the thought police will come calling? Get a backbone, b'y.

  • Mr. Juannabe
    February 22, 2012 - 08:51

    I agree with Peter. If there was reason to believe the CBC would turn a blind eye to a story involving the Food Sharing Association or the Housing and Homeless Network, then maybe Geoff has a point. But that would require a serious lack of journalistic integrity on the part of a reporter or editor at the CBC. Geoff has vigorously (and, I believe, appropriately) defended the integrity of journalists in many of his columns, so his opinion in this case seems to be a bit of an 'about face'.

  • Peter Jackson
    February 22, 2012 - 08:02

    When I read Bob's column, the first thought I had was, "Well, geez, Bob. We can't all be Edward R. Murrow." I think it's fair to say that CBC goes overboard. That they drive everyone crazy with the non-stop promotion. But the fact that they actually DO something to help out those who can't afford all the accoutrements of Christmas is a worthwhile pursuit, in my mind. Why is it not possible to report on these problems in our society AND do something about it at the same time? The Telegram, incidentally, has its own charity projects, including the current Warm Hearts campaign for Iris Kirby House. But we have also done extensive features on domestic abuse. We're not ignoring the journalism side just to become involved. The only thing I will agree with is that direct involvement can potentially put you in a conflict. If your charity comes under the spotlight for irregular activity, you would end up with egg on your face. But I think any responsible media outlet would immediately switch gears and report on the issue fairly and honestly.