Turkeys and journalists

Bob Wakeham
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So let's talk turkey, as in that public relations exercise by the CBC to collect gobblers and curry favour with its viewers and listeners in the weeks leading up to Christmas Day.

(In case, by the way, you're a heathen unaware of the significance of Dec. 25, there was always the increasingly wacky Don Cherry to remind all of us in cringe-inducing fashion during "Coach's Corner" to "never forget that it's the day the Baby Jesus was born." The hockey analyst is an apparent fan of the youngster wrapped in swaddling clothes, just as long as the little guy doesn't wear a protective visor like those wimpy Swedes and is willing to ignore concussions when accidentally dropped in the manger).

But getting back to that accumulation of birds given the kind of coverage that would cause most non-profitable organizations to drool with envy (after all, those deciding on the airtime were the turkey collectors themselves).

There seemed to exist a belief at the CBC that television and radio audiences were waiting breathlessly for a daily tally, that anticipation was at a feverish pitch as the most potent reportorial engine in the province began firing on all cylinders, exploiting its resources, prostituting its journalism, in order to block its deep freeze with what turned out to be a record number of the Cratchit family's favourite meals.

A regular on the CBC "Morning Show" in St. John's unabashedly exclaimed on air when the record-breaking count was announced: "Yippee!"

Yippee, indeed.

I realize I'm in a decided minority, perhaps even a minority of one, but I have always had problems with journalists turning themselves into celebrities, period, but, even worse, using that celebrity status to engage in charity efforts to ingratiate themselves with news consumers.

Again, pardon my old-fashioned ways, but I always believed those making a living in the profession of journalism should have society singing their praises because of good journalism that, as the saying goes, "comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable," not because of a PR charity movement and not by squeezing turkeys into a fridge.

And it's just not the fact that there's a foot-shuffling discomfort that takes place when journalists start to cover themselves doing "good works." (You know there's something wrong with the picture, so to speak, that priorities are out of whack, when the "Morning Show" host is seen in a promotional video chasing a guy dressed as a turkey down the sidewalk outside the CBC studios, or when an awkward news piece is aired, involving just about the entire newsroom, centring around which CBC journalist would be dressed in a turkey outfit to welcome donors to the station. Americana personified.)

More importantly, though, allowing journalists to involve themselves in turkey drives of the kind we just witnessed, or any other charitable effort, for that matter, raises all kinds of ethical questions, and, as I recall from my years at the CBC, was, at the very least, frowned upon in policy book guidelines.

For instance, in this particular case, the case of the gobblers, is the CBC going to feel comfortable pursuing any legitimate journalistic issues surrounding the turkey drive?

Not likely.

There's a story there about the fact that over 7,000 families were in need of a turkey to feed themselves on Christmas Day while most of the Avalon Peninsula basks in affluence. Perhaps that's the kind of story the CBC should have been producing, instead of making itself feel good by playing Scrooge in his redemptive glory or Mr. and Mrs. Claus from up north.

Perhaps the CBC should have used its resources to profile, every night if need be, a family in desperate need, to exploit its influence to tell us about the homeless, the underprivileged, the neglected, the disenfranchised living among the maggoty rich, to show the government - this oil-soaked, money-bags government - that everything is not rosy in the garden. It seems to me that that's the CBC mandate, not counting turkeys. But it's difficult, of course, to demand government accountability when you're smack dab in the middle of the story.

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. But they certainly can't accuse me of being inconsistent on this point; they know I always argued vehemently that when journalists become participants - rather than observers - in even the most laudable of causes, conflict of interest is sure to follow.

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.

The CBC still does good work in this province, but it does its credibility no favours with the gathering of gobblers. Credibility is gained through tough journalism, analytical and contextual journalism, edgy and iconoclastic journalism, not turkey drives and telethons.

I'm convinced - in fact, I know - there were CBC journalists absolutely mortified by the turkey drive, but kept their mouths shut. After all, criticizing the effort to help the food banks would have been akin to pushing Tiny Tim down the stairs in the CBC lobby and flipping him over the turkey freezer. The Kool-Aid was being swallowed, and no one was eager to jump forward and play the anti-Christ.

And I know the gobbler supporters will be back at it again next Christmas.

After all, good PR awaits, and it's as easy as turkey pie.

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 30 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com.

Organizations: CBC, Kool-Aid

Geographic location: St. John's, Marystown, Newfoundland and Labrador

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Recent comments

  • mary
    January 24, 2012 - 12:39

    I agree with most of the article, this turkey drive thing is out of control. I also turned off the radio for the month of December. There is a bigger issue here and it is not going to be solved by giving out turkeys once a year. Who decided that Turkeys make christmas anyway? Turkeys are a responsibility, you need a big oven, a big pan, and the skills and hours to cook it. The idea that giving all those turkeys once a year is enough, makes me crazy. Who gets all those turkeys and do they really want them or would they rather a loaf of bread and can of coke or a bag of lentils and rice? I am glad you wrote this letter to just get people talking about the issue and raise awareness to the bigger issue of poverty in this province.

  • s parsons
    January 08, 2012 - 21:33

    I agree with mr. wakeham's comments. The daily hype over the turkeys was so bloody annoying. Who at cbc is in charge of the news? First, the big 'to do' over John Crosbie's joke was their 'top news story' and then the endless 'turkey talk'. Who at cbc is responsible for deciding that such drivel is 'news'?

  • mary
    January 08, 2012 - 21:01

    No mention of the "Warm Heart" project which the Telegram is supporting. May be more low key, however, it is in support of a charity. So, please, take a look at yourself before you judge another! Or, at least, acknowledge that you do the same!

  • Maggy Carter
    January 07, 2012 - 15:52

    Wakeham is absolutely right on this one. Bereft of funds and talent, the CBC outpost in Newfoundland has increasingly resorted to cheap carnival stunts to keep their numbers from falling even further behind the competition. Almost a third of the evening newscast is now taken over with viewer comments in response to the pleadings of the host after the first story. Rather than lead with hard news, which often they don't have or which other media have already reported, CBC is given to stories that appeal to the most base instincts of viewers. One such example was a report of a fatal accident that same day involving a visitor from Ontario followed by the question to viewers "Do you think driving habits in this city have gotten worse in recent years?". This without any police report on the cause of the accident. Why not ask them if they're against death and taxes while you're at it? This is not so much a reflection on individual reporters. They no longer have the mandate, the resources or the encouragement to seek out real news on issues of vital importance to the province.

  • CBC and other News Agencies need to air the truth
    January 07, 2012 - 15:11

    I am not against the collection of turkeys for those who need them and I know there will always be a need with some people who truly cannot fend for themselves for one reason or another, and I don't mind who collects them for the needy. I do agree with what Mr. Wakeham alluded to in a general sense, that the CBC would come across as a more credible news broadcaster if it practiced tough and investigative journalism. And if through that type of journalism it pointed out to its adherents that the province of Newfoundland and Labrador should never have been on the receiving end of government handouts. If the CBC decides to point out that the province of Newfoundland and Labrador was endowed by Nature with one of the best stores of Natural Resources and Great Geographical Locations in the World, but the problem withe the lack of economy here for the best part of 62 years was created when our' overseers' politicians saw to it that some other place in Canada or the World became the Primary Beneficiary of those wonderful Natural Resources in the Raw State and thus they were the ones who built the vibrant economies. I think with that type of journalism Mr. Wakeham would like to see instituted, matters would work themselves out very quickly for the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Canadians, in general, need to be told what happened to their sister province, Newfoundland and Labrador, and that they falsely accused it of begging when instead the other provinces were shafting ours. As long as the News Agencies of the World refuse to air the truth, the one per cent of the World's population will continue to hold 95 per cent of the Wealth that is generated.

  • Anna
    January 07, 2012 - 14:48

    Bob, I called CBC four times to complain about the turkey marathon and finally I had to stop listening and switch to another radio station. I couldn't believe Anthony Germain woud lower himself to this drivel as it seemed to take over the morning show. I wondered where the over 7000 familes were that couldn't afford $20 for a turkey, I know there is a need for food banks but seriously 7000 turkeys for the Avalon! I can only hope this will be the last year but unfortuntely we have the pancake breakfast to live through. 97.5 is starting to sound better all the time.

    • mary
      January 08, 2012 - 20:46

      Anna, there are many who cannot afford the $20. for a turkey and I wouldn't be surprised if 7000 of them are on "the Avalon." It was my understanding that the collected turkeys were being distributed through the Food Sharing Assoc., and, thus, some of those 7000 were probably eaten by low income people in other parts of the province.

  • David
    January 07, 2012 - 14:39

    Journalism in Newfoundland doesn't exist. Anyone or oganization that wants air time simply calls up either CBC or NTV and a sympathetic, softball interview is scheduled to cover their plight. No questions asked at all, let alone hard or probing questions. The closest one could hope to get to a more 'even' airing of most issues is if some other person or group then calls up the same organization and arranges for a 'rebuttal' in the next few days. But heaven forbid the involved journalist play devil's advocate, or act like some sort of, oh I don't know....objective, inquisitive third party. So...why in the world do we keep pursuing Lower Churchill power when we clearly prefer to be left in the dark!?

  • DCA
    January 07, 2012 - 14:11

    Totally agree.

  • I Loves Nfld
    January 07, 2012 - 08:52

    Couldn't agree more, Robert my son. And the fact that there was no mention of your alcoholic past was a refreshing bonus.

  • MBC
    January 07, 2012 - 08:17

    Excellent article. I agree 100 % ! The news media should not be involved in fund raising they should be reporting on it.