Friday, December 26, 2008

Journalism in Mexico

Squatters live beside luxury resorts

(Photo of armed military police checking the main highway for drugs and illegal immigrants)

Just got back from a week at one of those all inclusive holiday resorts in Mexico, near Akumal, south of Cancun. You know the drill -- all you can eat, all you can drink, nightly shows, and the
myriads of Canadians and European tourists --strangely, we encountered very few Americans.

Whenever I travel, I love to get the local newspapers and try to learn all I can about local news.

So when I picked up the Novedades daily, which covers Cancun and the State of Quintana Roo, here's what I learned from reading about life in Mexico and also about that specific part of Mexico (I also learned it from observation.) 

1.  Extortionists operate in Playa del Carmen and the local authorities have called in extra help from the army to try to deal with it; 

2. Seven police officers were decapitated/executed in Guererro State (where Acapulco is and Ixtapa) by narco-traffickers--their bodies were found in a place called Chilpancingo.

3. A beautiful woman who won the country's popular Miss Sinaloa competition 2008 was arrested the other day with her boyfriend and their gang of narco-traffickers and paraded for the media with the haul of weapons, cellphones and money; 

4. Amongst the illegally dumped construction rubble from the holiday apartments and luxury resorts going up along the main highway from Cancun south to Akumal you can see incredibly poor squatters living behind wooden fences on the roads and side streets outside the heavily guarded and gated resorts--they live in huts with blue plastic roofs; 

5. Gun carrying uniformed soldiers from the Mexican federal army, as well as the local police and the navy have set up checkpoints along the main highway to stop cars as part of their much publicized holiday security operation (Dec 16 to Jan 6) to prevent accidents  by tourists as well as drugs or illegal immigration.  

6. Mexican newspapers publish much more lurid and sensational photos of dead and injured people then Canadian newspapers would -- we saw photos of victims of an assassination in Afghanistan printed in full colour in the taxi driver's newspaper, and we saw photos of traffic accident victims' bodies lying where they fell -- although one person's face had been pixelated out.

I realize what I saw was not the whole country of Mexico, nor was it representative of all of Mexico. But as my former managing editor at CTV News, Dennis McIntosh used to say, anecdotes turn into the best stories, oftentimes.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Plagiarism at Centennial College and Politicians

An article I wrote that's just been published on, the authoritative website for Canadian journalists and journalism educators. Can we win the fight to eliminate it in j-schools? We'll keep trying, although the latest U.S. and Canadian election campaigns make it a tough sell.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Obama and me

Being a journalist can help you in other parts of your life.
That's what I always tell my students at Centennial College Journalism.
Especially because we get very good at finding people and we know how to research, and how never to give up, and how to make cold calls, and how to talk to strangers about anything.
Which is what I did last weekend with Obama.
Now you might wonder, did I interview Obama? No, not exactly.
Here's the two stories.

We were visiting family in Longmeadow, Massachusetts for a celebration. I wanted an Obama lawn sign, and bumper sticker to take home with me to Canada. Now apparently, stealing one off the lawn of someone is a felony in the U.S. Or so they told me.
Someone at my table suggested contacting the Democratic party organization in Longmeadow, and asking for a sign.
So how does a visitor (me) staying in a hotel in a community I didn't know, find the DNP head honcho?

There was a free Internet point in the hotel lobby. So I Googled Longmeadow, Democrat and the search engine spit out a website belonging to the local Democrats. It had event announcements, photo galleries and the names and emails of two party big wigs.

Since I had just 5 hours on a Saturday afternoon to get this done, as we were leaving Sunday for Toronto, I jotted down the names, and plugged them into an American White Pages search engine. Lo and behold, the woman's name was listed, and a phone number. She has her own listing, as does her husband.

I called her, explained that I was a Canadian dying for an Obama lawn sign and bumper sticker, and although she must have thought I was crazy, she agreed to let me come over later that evening and pick a sticker up from her home. She also gave me the home telephone number of another man in the party who had lawn signs.

I called him too, and used her name (always name drop with cold calls if possible, I tell my interviewing classes). He agreed to let me come over later that evening, a pluck one of the two Obama lawn signs from his own lawn. He gave me driving directions, which i scribbled on a cocktail napkin in the hotel bar (no I wasn't drinking, honest).

On our way to the dinner and dance that night, we drove through the dark, rainy, leaf-strewn streets of Longmeadow, Massachusetts, to find John Fitzgerald's lawn sign. I rang the bell, and he came to the door, looking like a typical American with Land's End sweater, chino pants and an old car parked in his garage. But what a treasure the garage was! Old campaign signs from Mondale and Ferraro from the 1980s and 90s. Cool. And today, the bumper stickers, button, and plastic Obama lawn sign are prominent souvenirs in my office at Centennial College's Journalism school in Toronto, beside the photos of me interviewing refugees in Mozambique, veterans in Anzio, Italy, at the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and my press passes from the Nato summit, World Cup of Soccer, and Royal Tours.

Story #2:

How talking to strangers gets you great leads on stories/anecdotes:

At that family function in Massachusetts, we sat beside a real estate agent, L.C., and her partner, K. S., a doctor, both living in Chicago. I had read an article in the Toronto papers recently about the security surrounding the Obama mansion in Chicago since the Senator began his run for the U.S. presidency. So I asked them about the story.

L. C. told me she drives by the security cordon to visit her partner at his U of Chicago area offices, and how you can't get near the Obama home now.

K. S. then revealed that his nurse lives across the street from the Obamas, and how she has since made friends with all the Secret Service guys who camp out in this van with heavy artillery in the back, and even set some of them up with her girlfriends, and how her little boy is now friends with those Men in Black. And he says Louis Farrakhan was seen entering the Obama home a long time ago. (He also told me that famous people go to his gym, including Oprah, who he says lets her flab hang out and doesn't talk to anyone!)

You never know what you will learn, unless you ask!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

CTV's Controversial Interview with Stephane Dion

Journalism schools across Canada must be thanking CTV News and Stephane Dion this Thanksgiving.

We at the University of Toronto/Centennial College joint journalism program
have spent the first month and a half of this school semester immersing ourselves in techniques of interviewing: we've discussed research, how to make the telephone call to request an interview, what to do when you get there, and how to frame question and direct the flow of the interview. We've also discussed some tips and tricks to try to get a politician "off message", and reviewed some of the ways politicians are trained to handle media interviews. As an example, we watched Nardwuar do the hip-flip with then Prime Minister Paul Martin

So it was a bonus when we were able to watch this campaign moment that Prime Minister Stephen Harper deftly handled, after several moments when he was at a complete loss.

I'm talking about how a journalist nearly flummoxed Prime Minister Stephen Harper when he was asked a question no one had ever put in the PM's briefing book: what kind of vegetable he would be? Journalism student Lauren Hummel helped us out by providing that link to the Harper Vegetable moment.

Here's the story on

But Harper did what seasoned politicians are trained to do: he laughed. He bought himself time. And he answered a loaded/leading question with a cute quip that turned a sticky moment into a benign, positive spin for his campaign.

So when Liberal leader Stephane Dion had his moment in the same awkward position -- this time, during that now infamous interview with ATV News' Steve Murphy Thursday October 9, 2008, our class Intro to News Reporting spent a good hour in discussion the next morning, Friday, dissecting the interview, and its ramifications.

Out of 13 students, 8 thought the wording of the question was confusing. Five didn't. One student who's French is excellent, agreed it was very convoluted in how the first attempt was worded. Many thought the question was confusion, a combination of past and present tenses and awkwardly juxtaposed.

Here's a transcript courtesy of the Toronto Star:

CTV: Mr. Dion, the economy is now the issue on the campaign, and on that issue you've said that today that Harper has done nothing to put Canadians' mind at ease and offers no vision for the country. You have to act now, you say; doing nothing is not an option. If you were prime minister now, what would you have done about the economy and this crisis that Mr. Harper has not done.

SD: If I had been prime minister two-and-a-half years ago?

CTV: If you were the prime minister right now and not for the past two-and-a-half years.

SD: If I am elected next Tuesday, this Tuesday, it's what you are suggesting?

CTV: No, I am saying if you were hypothetically prime minister today ...

SD: Today.

CTV: ... What would you have done that Mr. Harper has not done?

SD: I would start the 30-50 plan that we want to start the moment we have a Liberal government. And the 30-50 plan, in fact the plan for the first 80 days, I should say, the plan for the first 80 days once you have a Liberal government. Can we start again?

CTV: Do you want to?

SD: Sure.

Most of the class agreed that after the question was asked a second time, the error was Dion's. Why? Because as a politician, he has been trained to be able to handle any question, no matter how confusing. If it had the words "economy" and "Prime Minister" he should have been able to spin it to his own message.

As in, "I'm glad you asked what I would do" and then go from there to his prepared message.

The class said it was a huge sign of weakness as a public figure, although one student said she felt sympathy and empathy towards Dion, because it showed he is human, and bumbles just like most people.

Eleven students out of 14 (one more had come in to class by then) agreed it was a bad redirect. We have watched David Letterman with Paris Hilton, and Larry King with Celine Dion and with Paris Hilton. Both did masterful redirects, which is when you ask the same question in a different way, in order to try to communicate better with the guest, and to get an answer to a question the guest either didn't or couldn't answer. One student said there was no reason to redirect, since the question was clear.

Are there different rules for interviewing politicians vs. ordinary people? Yes, we agreed, because public figures put themselves out in the public and invite scrutiny, and are trained with p.r. professionals how to handle any kind of interview situation: they know how to buy time, make a joke, to welcome dead air as the interviewer might jump in to save you, etc. Dion messed up.

As for the ethics of airing the uncut interview...

We read the CTV News Policy Guide. It says clearly that interviews are to be unrehearsed and spontaneous.

That all interviews can be edited. That no questions are to be given in advance, in detail, except in rare cases -- if it's a technical nature, or if the guest is so newsworthy (eg. Osama Bin Laden) that you won't get the interview unless they are not asked certain questions.

All the students agreed that if the Liberals, as rumour has it, threatened CTV if they showed the uncut version, they would have put the story on air as is, two seconds later.

Also, the students discussed the ethics of saying you would not air the fumbles, but then going back on your word.

So on this Thanksgiving weekend, thank you to Stephane Dion and CTV for giving us a great topic for discussion of real world interviewing techniques live from the campaign trail!

Thanks to Anthony Geremia for the notes about the class discussions.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Plagiarism and the Prime Minister

    The revelations about the Prime Minister's speechwriter and plagiarism this week come at a time of the academic year when I have been teaching and discussing this very issue with my students in the journalism programs at Centennial College and the University of Toronto.
    Every fall, for the past few years, I have been delivering a seminar/workshop on this: sort of like a "How Not to Dress" show, except instead of fashion tips and faux pas, I try to show students what plagiarism looks like, and how to avoid it, even accidentally.
  Why did this seminar get started? 
  Because several years ago, while correcting student stories, I came across too many quotes or paragraphs that had been "borrowed" or "lifted" from the Internet, from pamphlets handed out at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto, or even taken verbatim from other students' without their knowledge. 
  So now I teach tips and suggestions on how to make sure all their stories are written properly, by themselves, and that any research or background materiel which they didn't get by their own devices, is properly attributed according to the rules acceptable in the news industry. 
  At the same time, my colleagues and I helped revamp Centennial College's Academic Honesty and Plagiarism policy for the Journalism Program, which is now in effect in January 2008. Click here to see them.
  We also drew up a pledge sheet, based on an idea submitted to the Ontario Journalism Educators group, which we ask our students who take the workshop to sign, committing them to truth telling and honesty in their journalism both at school, and out in the real world when they graduate.
  The idea also came from something similar being done at Columbia Journalism School. 
  The bottom line in my seminars is this: journalists have to work hard to maintain the public trust that has been developed with readers/ viewers over the years, and the only way I know to do this is to be truthful and transparent in their storytelling and reporting. And besides, I say, plagiarizing -- can get you fired. Either directly -- if you are caught, or indirectly, because you didn't learn the skills in journalism school to help you be a truthful journalist.
  Then Obama did it. 
  He was accused of plagiarizing part of a campaign speech
  Then his vice presidential candidate, Joe Biden, did it.
  His own troubles with plagiarism were resurrected including a 1988 presidential bid which was scuttled because of it, and there are allegations of plagiarism while at Law School.
  And now the Liberals are accusing Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper of cribbing parts of a speech five years ago from Australian Prime Minister Howard's address. 
  His speechwriter's been fired.
  But checking the comments and blogs so far on my colleague Susan Ormiston's story on and elsewhere, I see there doesn't seem to be much outrage about any of the three cases: most folks say "No big deal." 
  So what message does this send to my journalism students? That it's OK to cheat because if Obama and Biden and Madonna, and Harper can do it, and there are no consequences, why can't we?
  Tough question.
  Here's my take. 
  It reminds me of what I said to my mother when I was in Grade 9 and someone in my school recopied and submitted her friend's older sister's essay (done three years earlier) and got an A-, while I slaved for three weeks in the school library pouring through encyclopedias (No we didn't have Internet in the 70s) and my essay got a B-. 
 At the time, I thought "Cheaters always win". 
 My mom said "She won't learn anything."
 I thought "This is not helpful." 
 Especially because all the cool boys liked her!
 Now I know Mom was partially right. 
 And it applies to Obama, and Biden, and Harper, too.
 While I acknowledge that no one is actually hurt in the physical sense when someone like Obama or Harper's speechwriters steal words without proper attribution, what does get hurt is the trust. That girl in Grade 9 became a lawyer. Would I hire her? Probably not.
 Why? Because I could never trust her again.
 What else are they stealing? What else are they not thinking up themselves?
 It's the same for politicians.
 While I accept that they are all too busy to write all their speeches themselves, plagiarism does erode trust. Even if it is accidental. 
 So if they are going to borrow something they admire for a speech, or adopt someone else's policy, coming clean and attributing it, is the best way. It won't cost them votes. Politicians can't be experts on everything. 
  Same with journalists. We aren't experts on everything. We can't be. The public knows that. But we know where to look and who to ask, and we let readers/viewers hear directly from the experts, without passing the cure for cancer or the latest discovery about Mars off as something we ourselves dreamed up on their own. Trust is everything.


Friday, August 29, 2008

A Mighty Heart

It's probably just a coincidence, but then, some people say there ARE no coincidences in life.

A week ago, at a faculty retreat in Toronto, some long time journalists and I (Ted Barris, Ted Fairhurst, and other colleagues) were sitting at a picnic table discussing a famous book about war correspondents called The First Casualty, by Phillip Knightley. And we recalled several journalists we had known who had been killed covering wars or conflicts, including a CTV TV reporter and others. At the time, I couldn't remember his name. More about this later.

Earlier this week, I read an article in the Canadian Jewish News that it was coming up to the anniversary of the Daniel Pearl Music Day in October, which his family had created after his murder, to work towards understanding and peace around the world, through music.

Today, the name of the reporter killed in Lebanon in the 80s, came to me: Clark Todd. I remember hearing about him when I was in Journalism school at Carleton University, and the class discussing the concept of "bang bang" i.e. how it was a no no for foreign correspondents to fake or re-enact scenes where crowds would riot on cue, or shoot weapons into the air, in order to make their Tv story more action packed. Bang bang was what the visuals were called, for obvious reasons.

Tonight, without any planning, at home, we watched the movie A Mighty Heart, starring Angelina Jolie, about the murder of Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl. I hadn't actually picked that movie to watch tonight: months ago, someone in my family had checked off the box on ZIP's order forms, included in a bunch of other films we hoped they would send us over time. When it arrived in the mail last week, I was too busy getting my courses ready for journalism school next week, to spend the time watching it.

The movie was as powerful and depressing and shocking as the critics had said it was, at the time it came out. And although we all knew the ending before the movie even started playing, seeing the whole cruel end to an idealistic young western journalist has really made an impact on me tonight.

First of all, I have been a foreign correspondent too: I covered several wars in Africa in the 1990s -- Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mozambique. While I was stationed overseas, I learned that a courageous British U.N. worker who I knew at the time, had been shot to death, for discussing with Reuters, the looting and corruption he had seen involving food distribution to the refugees and displaced persons. It's been too long, so I don't remember his name, but I do remember being horrified and shocked that someone who had dared to tell what he saw as the truth, was murdered for this by people who found his comments inconvenient, or possibly, threatening.

I walked through minefields in Mozambique, I met with rebel leaders, I saw starving children and displaced women, and amputees. Luckily, we were not attacked in the danger zone. After we had wrapped up our work, and were on the way back to Europe, I was mugged in Johannesburg after we left Mozambique for the flight out of Africa. The muggers grabbed by bag with notebooks, a week of photos, and precious tape recordings of my interviews, none of which I had had time to transcribe yet for the CBC. Needless to say, I was thinking at the time more about my work then about personal safety, but to make a long story short, the shopkeepers who pulled out their own guns and chased the muggers to a garage down the street where they held them until the police came, did manage to retrieve my journalist bag intact. I had cuts and bruises, and a swollen neck and tongue where they had choked me when they jumped on me and threw me to the street.

I called a colleague who had just moved to live and work in Johannesburg at the time, Joan Leishman of CBC, and she picked me up, cleaned my wounds, made me drink some strong red wine, and got me onto a plane to Italy. I remember her compound where she was living at the time, in 1992. It had a series of rape gates installed over most of the doors, and these were so that robbers could break in, but not attack her. The place had lots of German Shepherd dogs, and I thought at the time, how courageous she was to live and work under such dangerous conditions in such a dangerous place.

Then I flew home to Rome, where I was living, and the next day, Giovanni Falcone, a famous anti-Mafia magistrate was murdered by a car bomb, and so I went from one horror story in Africa, to cover another one in Italy. He had been getting too close to the powerful clans, arresting leaders and trying to break the Sicilian Mafia. The truth was threatening to the powerful, so it had to be attacked.

Tonight, as the Daniel Pearl story played on the screen, I remember all of this, and think about the coincidence of the timing: on Tuesday, I begin a new year of teaching students Journalism at Centennial College and the University of Toronto's joint program with Centennial. How many of these students will be courageous, and seek the truth, and try to find out what powerful forces wish to keep hidden? How many will toss out the safety and comfort of life in Toronto, and head to a foreign country as a freelancer, perhaps in harm's way, to report on things and places where no mainstream news media outlet can afford to post a full time correspondent?

How many will be still as full of idealism, and yes, naivete, and hope, as Daniel Pearl was in 2002, and in my own way, that I still am today, after 27 years as a journalist? Let's see what the new semester brings.

Something else that's a coincidence? Daniel Pearl's birthday is October 10, 1963, one day before mine, although he was just two years younger then me.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Schwarma leads to scoop for a multi platform journalist

Picking up dinner at Joe's Restaurant in Richmond Hill has always been a success: the falafel, lentil soup and chicken brochettes in pita are family favourites, and they save me from cooking once a month! Plus the owners, Joe and his wife, are so friendly, and they are always in the know about what's going on in the news. But last week, I got something extra with my order of three schwarmas and a falafel.

Another customer was paying for her meal at the cash and I was waiting to order, and, as usual, evesdropping on other people's conversations. That's just a professional deformation, I guess. She was telling Joe's wife (Sorry, I never did know your name!) about the fact she was back to school already (Aug.5) when most schools don't open until after Labour Day. She started telling the owner's wife (let's call her O.W.) about Bill Crothers Secondary School, a new high school that's opened in Markham that she is administrator at, where it's for athletes only, it's public, so it's open to any students who are either elite athletes, or just like house league and healthy living, and that they are opening a new facility with 3 double gyms, weight rooms, and amazing facilities.

Sounded like a great story. Plus, she said it was the only one of its kind in Canada. My nose started twitching, O.W. lent me some scraps of order paper to write on, and I dug a pen out of my purse to take down her name, and some notes.

The next day, when I went in to work, we had a story meeting at CBC Radio News, as usual, and it was all "PROPANE" "PROPANE", referring to how the newsroom was continuing to dig up stuff on the Aug 10th propane explosion. But folks were getting sick of this story, and the editor agreed to let me cover the sports school story.

I called the principal, researched the story on the 'Net, to see if indeed it WAS the only public all sports high school in Canada, and then we agreed I could come out to Markham and do some interviewing and see it for myself. Trouble was, we had only one CBC Van, and Markham is some 40 k away from the CBC offices on Front Street across from the Rogers Centre.
With the propane story requiring a van, we were stuck!

Then the assignment editor decided to reveal details of my "scoop" to the CBC TV news crew at the CBC News at 6, in exchange for them lending me a camera and driver to take me to do the radio story. The deal was: I do stories for radio and for tv, and it would be shared between the news services. I think:"Cripes, I'm not wearing any makeup today!" and "Thank God I wore a nice suit to work!" and we proceeded to get on the road.

Now I have worked for TV for many years as a reporter and anchor, so I wasn't worried about doing TV. I prepared my radio recorder and mics and earphones to be all set for my radio stories which I had to file. As we got into the van, I chit chatted with Neith MacDonald, the veteran cameraman, as we drove out to Markham on a beautiful sunny Friday.

Once we arrived, it was like riding a bicycle. You never forget how to work with a cameraman, and how to carry gear, how to ask where to stand during interviews for TV, and how to suggest shots (gently), how to make sure the sound check was done before asking important questions for TV, and also how to introduce the cameraman as an integral part of the story. And to let your camera operator get the shots he or she needs, once you've discussed the all important "Focus" of the story.

Remarkable how much longer it takes for a TV story to be gathered, then a story for radio. I did my radio interviews quietly, unobtrusively, and quickly, and folks didn't clown around, or jump up and down behind the interviewee screaming "Hi Mom!. And with radio, the students weren't mugging for the camera which required Neith to make folks re-do the shot, to make sure it looked natural. We got there about 11 30 a.m. I was done by 1 :15, for radio.

it took us until 2:30 to finish working for TV. Neith shot the hallways, the cafeteria, the lunchroom, the classes, teachers, playing field, gym, basketball games, and about 10 interviews with kids, faculty and school board staff. And my bridge. And it only took me 4 takes to get the on-camera bridge down right, which isn't bad, considering I hadn't done one since 2007, when I went back to work in radio. And he carried gear from downstairs to upstairs. And changed tapes once. And didn't take a break for bathroom, or food, or anything.

Luckily I didn't have to file on air for radio that afternoon, as the stories were for Monday or Tuesday. And the TV story would be rolled out that next week too, once I cut it. So I sat in the passenger seat of the CBC TV Van, apologized in advance for ignoring him on the ride back to the station, and shotlisted my interviews and sound for my radio stories. We returned to the station at 3:30 and I was finished writing, editing, and recording the 2 radio stories by 8 p.m. Here is one of those stories which aired on CBC on Wednesday Morning August 20, 2008.

That Friday night, I wrote my rough TV story script as well, while I was on the GO bus from Union Station to Richmond Hill. I wrote it out longhand, in my notebook.

On the Wednesday, I rewrote the TV script at home, sent it to the editor by e-mail, and then went in at 12:45 to screen the tapes (which I hadn't seen yet.) It would have been great to learn the CBC TV digital editing software DTV, which is an AVID application, I think. But the material had been erased from the system, so it was back to old fashioned time coding of the Beta SX tapes on their viewing station in the TV newsroom.

It took me about 40 minutes to shotlist the 2 tapes (we shot about 25 minutes of stuff I think) and then I was ready to go to the editor at 3 p.m. We did tape to tape editing, which is old school. Tony Martino and I had worked together when i was a reporter for CBLT's supper hour news show in the late 1990s ( I went to CTV after my first child was born in 1997).

We were organized, and we cut the piece in just over 1 hour, for a minute 39. It was actually going to be 1:45 but the lineup editor had stipulated 1:30 and so we cut out one final interview with the school board official, to get it as close to 1:30 as we could.

I am waiting to see the piece air sometime soon, but even if not, it was great to be a multiplatform journalist.

It's so important to be "talking the talk" as well as "walking the walk" when you are teaching journalism to students.

I think it's vital that teachers keep current, not only so they can have fresh current experiences to share with their classes, but also because they see what the industry is requiring journalists to do.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Visit to Nazi death camp in Italy, in Trieste

On the left: 17 prison cells for detainees. On the right: a German document showing calculation of Revenues and Expenses of a prisoner (Photos by John Friedlan) 

The Risiera di San Saba death camp in Italy.

The Italian city of Trieste is known for its important coffee importing port, its Austrian style palaces and piazzas, and the beautiful Adriatic Sea beaches. It is also known in Italian history as the site of the only Second World War Nazi extermination camp in that country, where an estimated 20, 000 people passed through, and 5,000 people were murdered, including Italian Jews.

I had planned to take the family to see the camp, called the Risiera di San Saba, because I had heard about it from an American Jewish journalist friend Ruth Ellen Gruber who lives in Italy. Today, is it a national monument set up by the Italian government in 1965. 

Here’s how we prepared for the trip: the Friday before, we spent Shabbat in Venice. We toured the synagogues, ate Kosher food at the local bakery, attended Friday night services at the Sephardic synagogue, and later, ate dinner along the canal together with some new friends from Australia, including a Rabbi and his wife, and sang with the Chabadniks who put on the spread.

On the Monday, we visited Trieste, just an hour’s drive away.

In all my years of learning about the Holocaust, I had visited Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek and Dachau, and I have seen plenty of documentaries, and I even worked as a video assistant on the Stephen Spielberg Shoah Foundation interviews in Toronto in the late 1990s. But the Risiera di San Saba was the most shocking place connected with the Holocaust that I have ever seen. Perhaps it was because of how my children reacted to it. But mainly, it was because of one haunting document. But first, some background.

The Risiera was actually built in 1898 as a rice-husking factory (riso means rice in Italian) and it’s located just east of the city centre, across the street from the soccer stadium. It began its life as a temporary prison camp for Italian captured soldiers in September 1943, called Stalag 339. But one month after it opened, in October 1943, it was converted to a combination transit camp, prison camp and death camp.

The Nazis picked highly experienced officers to run the place, including soldiers who had previously cut their teeth working in camps with Himmler to murder 2 million Jews in Poland. One man was especially well known for using large trucks to poison Jews.

You enter the Risiera from the street through a long stark cement tunnel. On the left is the main office (visits are free). Next door down is the “death cell”, which according to the brochure, was where prisoners who were going to be executed within a few hours were held, and also bodies to be cremated were stored there.

The next stop takes you out into the courtyard of the factory where you see on your left, a large three storey building. It housed dressmaking and shoemaking shops where prisoners worked for the SS, and also the quarters for the soldiers. These floors are not open to the public today. The main floor, however, has 17 tiny prison cells, with wooden doors, and two bunks each. According to the tour book, the Nazis forced up to 6 prisoners to be held in each one. The prisoners included Italian anti-Fascist partisans, political prisoners, and Jews who were set to be executed.

A survivor of these cells was interviewed for a film that is shown later in the Risiera’s museum theatre. He was Italian. He recalls being locked in the cell for 5 months, with no daylight, no change of clothes, and having so many lice he felt as though he was wearing a coat.

Two of the cells were used for prisoners who were being tortured for information. The museum guide details how the torture was carried out. It was usually at night, to hide the crimes from the surrounding neighbourhood buildings. Loud music was played to drown out the screams, and dogs were made to bark in order to cover up the cries.

Witnesses recount how the guards did the executions: some victims were placed in special vehicles that had gas exhausts connected to the inside, others were hit with a club at the base of their skulls, and there were also shootings.

Today, relatives and other organizations have placed flowers and memorial candles at each cell door and in the room.

Leaving the cell room, you walk back into the courtyard into the next building, this one four storeys high. It was where Jews, and other prisoners were kept until they were deported to Germany. Trieste during the Second World War has 5,000 Jewish residents. About 700 were rounded up and died either at San Saba or deported to other death camps. Only 8 returned after the war.

Outside, back in the courtyard, if you face west, you see a metal floor, and the markings on the complex’s outer back wall that are shaped like a small building. This is where the underground crematorium was located. The architects who designed the museum in the late 60s recreated the shape of the building’s floor only, using metal plates, to trace the outline, as well as the line where the smokestack shadow would have been. The rest of the courtyard is now an open-air non-denominational place for prayer, except for the metal plaques showing where the crematorium was.

Originally, there was no crematorium at the Risiera, but in March 1944, the Germans had one ordered from a local supplier in Italy (under false pretenses, according to later testimony from the builder) and had it installed. It operated for a year until April 29, 1945, when the Germans dynamited it to hide evidence before fleeing the Yugoslav troops who were the first to enter the site. The explosion damaged half the Risiera complex, but human ashes and bones were found and so was the infamous “club” used to kill prisoners.

Moving to the west, past memorial plaques placed by relatives and Jewish and other Italian official organizations, you enter the Risiera’s historic archive collection and museum. It has about 50 panels under glass, with photos of wartime news items, letters from prisoners, identity cards, and the usual examples of uniforms and even ashes of Jews murdered in Auschwitz. Most is in Italian, Slovenian, and English so it was easy to understand and learn about the importance the Nazis gave to the Trieste area as a strategic place between Europe and the Balkans.

But one panel was so chilling, so perverse, so mind boggling, that even today, it is hard to comprehend. 

My husband is an accountant and professor of accounting. So on this trip to Italy, we had earlier made a “pilgrimage” to see the hometown of Luca Pacioli, who is considered the founder of modern accounting. We saw Pacioli’s marble life sized statue, his street, and the palazzo where he lived. 

Here in the Risiera di San Saba, we encountered another kind of accounting: a document in German showed the expenses and revenue entries of a German official calculating how much money (in Reich marks) it cost the regime to house a prisoner in a concentration camp for nine months, including cost for the uniform, food etc. A lower entry showed it cost the camp 2 Reich marks for the gas to kill the prisoner. And underneath, it showed the calculation of revenues from the victim’s gold teeth, personal property etc. 

My children joined us after words in the small theatre to watch the half hour documentary about the Risiera. It showed the survivors, the guards, the officers, and old wartime footage. Both kids were very quiet absorbing their first experience up close and personal with the Holocaust (aside from meeting survivors in Toronto including their long standing babysitter). 

On the walk back to the car, my youngest said to me “Mummy, if I was alive then, I would try to kill Hitler.” They were full of questions such as why none of the Allies tried to bomb the tracks to the death camps, or why none of the Trieste citizens tried to help. We did explain how some of the Catholics in Italy did hide Jews and Italian partisans, but it was a bitter lesson for them in long ago racism and hatred.

By the way, the Nazis who ran this camp were eventually caught, tried, and punished by the Allied War Crimes courts. Most were sentenced to death. The senior commander committed suicide before his trial. 

Thursday, June 12, 2008

CBC Radio News Reporter for a week

This week, I have been thrilled to work as a reporter at CBC Radio News in Toronto's newsroom, on the afternoon shift, covering stories out and about in the city. 

On Monday June 9, I covered a controversy about the city of Toronto's latest efforts to clean up illegal garbage dumping in Toronto's Rouge Park. The story itself appears on the website so you can read it on /Toronto's homepage, as well as listen to what aired Tuesday morning June 10 on CBC  99.1 fm.

Here's how I did it. 

When Doug Earl, the CBC news director, gave me the address and telephone number of the first person I was supposed to interview, I was in a store buying a new cellphone. I asked the clerk to look up the directions to it on his computer -- on Google maps --as well as check the website of the company I was going to be talking about, Standard Auto Wreckers, in Toronto. I don't own a Blackberry and CBC wasn't supplying me with one of theirs.

It turns out, I knew where the place was, as for several years now, I have been driving in the area several times a week to teach journalism at Centennial College's HP Campus at Morningside and Ellesmere. Lately, the area of Rouge Park has become so developed and built up with new home construction and gas stations and Tim Hortons outlets, it has spoiled the greenspace that used to be the reserve of golf driving ranges, farms, and outdoor walkers and cyclists I saw on my commute.

My first interview was at Standard Auto Wreckers, at the corner of Steeles Avenue East and Sewells Road. The owners, Ken and David Gold, are upset about a plan by Toronto to put up "No Stopping Anytime" signs outside their sprawling auto wrecking and parts yard.  

I met with Ken Gold, the founder, and his son David in their back office inside the plant.  I did a little "ice-breaking" with them, discussed the steamy hot weather we were having, they offered me a nice cold bottle of water, and we chatted about people we knew in common, since Ken lives near me in Richmond Hill, and his son David, lives near a popular restaurant we both went to in Thornhill, called Yitz's, at Bathurst and Highway 7. It went out of business despite high hopes by the neighbourhood it would be as busy as its original site at Avenue Road and Eglinton.

Then I tested my equipment, making sure the room had proper sound quality, no humming computers or noisy lights to ruin the interview. I also did a quick mic check with Ken, and played it back to make sure everything was recording. When I was a student at Carleton University, I once interviewed the foreign minister, Flora MacDonald, and didn't check my batteries. Needless to say, the tape sounded WAW WAH WAH because the battery level was low.  I did ask her, in desperation, --fearing I'd fail the assignment  -- if she would re-do the 2 hour interview. I won't bother to tell you her answer. So I always always check my equipment. 

Then I plugged my earphones back in, put them on again, and sat close to Ken's chair so I'd have the mic close enough to his mouth. And we were off.

Ken pulled out a copy of his speech he was preparing for Scarborough Community Council the next day, and the official documents from the Toronto traffic department, suggesting his company was mostly to blame for a lot of the garbage being dumped in and around the plant inside Rouge Park.

Ken is an energetic businessman who preferred to stand near an easel containing photographs he had taken in recent weeks showing the garbage in the park -- roofing tiles, sod,  you name it -- on Sewells Road and the neighbouring Littles Road. Then he showed me photos of their company's  home made "No dumping" signs he himself had erected around his property. One said "Pigs Litter People Don't". There are also signs up from the City and Environment ministry warning violators will be fined $10,000 or $50,000.

Next, he gestured to the parking area on the shoulders of the road outside his yard entrance: spotless.  Standard Auto Wreckers clean it up every day, he insists. Gold felt the city was trying to pull a backdoor move on his company, trying to force them to get out of the Rouge Park, by killing his business with street signs. I suggested it was like getting mobster Al Capone through his income tax evasion.

What bothered son David Gold about this whole thing, is, they pride themselves on being environmentalists. The company was operating in Rouge Park since 1979, before the Park was created (1995). They've won awards for being environmentally friendly in the way the business recycles automobiles. They drain all the fluids from the wrecks before they are crushed. They've been collecting and recycling mercury switches, even though it's not mandatory. They won recycler of the year from a U.S. recycling organization for their "green" habits. And now they find themselves in the ironic spot of opposing an effort to protect Toronto's largest urban park.

After our interview, I asked permission to record some sound of the wrecking yard for my story. Radio needs sound, I always teach my own students at Centennial College. So I got a treat. Ken and David popped me into their special golf cart, and whizzed us around the dusty noisy compound for a tour. 

First stop, the fluid recycling shop -- with my earphones still in, and long skirt pinned down with my other hand so my skirt wouldn't pull a Marilyn Monroe!

But I needed better sound. So we careened through the rows and rows of hulks and wrecks until we arrived at the crushing machine.

I'd only seen one of these in the movies -- when bad Superman tries to kill the good Superman in a wrecking yard! This real one makes a lot of noise, and splinters the glass!

After I'd collected about 2 minutes of pure sound, I was done.
Next stop, a drive down Sewells Road to see for myself if there was any garbage on the side of the road. Sure enough, 30 seconds later, piles of trash: broken toilet, purple shag bathroom rug, and 2 benches from a mini van. There were more piles as I went along: cans of paint, a Toronto telephone directory from 2008-2010 still encased in plastic. Sod.

I took some photos for the website and recorded some outdoor sound --again about two minutes worth. Then I thought, I need other opinions of neighbours. So I searched for a farm entrance, found the driveway and pulled up to the parking area.

The place looked a little dodgy I have to admit. I also was worried about guard dogs. I am afraid of big scary dogs. So I got out gingerly, yelled "Anyone home?" and as soon as the barking started and the hound came over, I jumped back in my car and rolled up the windows, hoping the owner might come out and settle the german shepherd down.

He did come out, a big man in a white undershirt and beard. With a second big dog. 

I stayed in my car, rolled down the window, identified myself and what I was doing a story on, and he agreed to talk to me, albeit he told me to stay inside the van. It's the first time I have ever done an interview with me sitting in the driver's seat and the source outside the car.
But those dogs made me nervous!

Next stop, an interview with Councillor Raymond Cho, who represents the area. Now I know of Councillor Cho from my other job teaching journalism at Centennial College. My students have had their share of run ins with him, reporting for the Toronto Observer newspaper. I didn't tell him any of this when we met in the Scarborough Community Council office. 

I taped our whole interview, but I didn't need to. I needed only one clip. Still better safe then sorry.  His English is heavily accented, and I was thinking "I hope it's clear enough to use on air."

He told me why he was trying to use parking signs to clean up the Park, but said he'd try to get the order delayed to give the city and the Golds time to work out a solution.

Driving back to CBC to file the stories, the heavens opened up, plus I had to pee so badly. Rush hour traffic from Scarborough to Front Street is never fun, but this Monday was particularly bad because there were fire trucks at the corner of Simcoe and Front and construction outside the East Side Mario's restaurant so it took me an hour to make it back to the parking lot.

The best part of the day was over -- after 27 years in the business, I admit I enjoy the field reporting best, meeting new people, getting in to see new things (like a junk yard) and being on my own with my tape recorder, my own ideas, and my long reporting experience to guide me.

But the only way anyone will hear my work is to put a story together. That's tougher. I had written the story in my head while driving back to the station..actually talking the lead out loud, and then "voicing" the story  out loud -- roughly, the way I would tell it to a friend.
That's what I teach my students to do and it works to focus your mind, and get rid of all the reams of interviews and material and research which you won't be able to use anyway in a story that runs 75 seconds!

As a reporter, I eagerly hoped there would be room for 2 voicers to run the next morning -- but it was a busy news week: the apology for native residential schools, a series was running on speed racing, and the desk just wouldn't be able to fit in two voicers of mine on a marginal story. Bummer! 

So I shotlisted the tape, pulling audio clips that I thought I could use, including the sounds of the crusher, the sound of the garbage strewn road, interviews with the farmer, the autowrecker and the politician. And put it together in what I felt was a really nice package that brought the listener to the scene. I also filed a long script and clip- alternate version and squeezed in two clips! I always feel badly that I interview people and they don't get on so I try to give the morning desk more then they can use, and then let them edit it down! 

The next morning, my husband and I turned on the radio at 7:30 and 8:30 to listen to the news, and when my stories ran, I did a mental "fist pump" in the air - YESSSSSS. My husband said I was a good storyteller, and that I like these kind of offbeat feature stories. That's what my boss said later Tuesday afternoon when I arrived for my shift. " It had your name written all over it," said Doug Earl, the news director.

All in all a good start to the first reporting week.

Tomorrow, a surreptitious visit to Woodbine Racetrack with a hidden microphone.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Chipmunks and Jewish Soul Food

For the last two years, my neighbours to the south and north of us have hosted some cute, but unwelcome stowaways under their garages: chipmunks. 

Every so often,  I would see one scurry out from under Deji's garage foundation, or the drainpipe from his roof, and across our driveway and disappear who knows where. Alternatively, the chipmunk would come from Joe's side, perhaps from under his living room window. 

Last summer, something started chewing tiny bites out of the black rubber sealing strip under OUR garage doors. Even when they'd torn a hole big enough, and left shredded rubber pellets on the ground outside the garage, I thought "How cute!" The chipmunks were just teething, I said. No harm done. Right? 

Well this summer, it's gone too far. All four corners of the garage door are bitten through, and so are the white rubber stripping pieces. Plus, they started to shred the drywall, they bit right through the insulation near the wiring to the driveway lights, and, to add insult to injury, they kept knocking over the frog lawn ornaments my cousin Judy gave me to put in our brand new landscaped garden. Now the poor ceramic frogs were missing legs and arms!

So I decided enough was enough. I called an exterminator GTA Wildlife Removal and Pest Control, and asked them to come get rid of the chipmunks. The man said they didn't handle chipmunks. Even though it's on their website. He suggested I go to Home Depot and get some traps, and handle it myself.

After extensive research on the 'Net, I discovered there are three kinds of people: those who think chipmunks are cute and should be left alone, those who drown them or shoot them with pellet guns, and those who trap them humanely and relocate them far, far away.

I decided to go for option number three. At Canadian Tire,  I found the Hav a Heart small animal trap, and bought it. There was a couple in the same isle who asked "You aren't going to kill chipmunks are you?"  I told them to mind their own business. 

The instructions were easy enough to follow. Open the trap, put it near where you think the chipmunks are burrowing in your garden or garage foundation, and wait a few days until the animals are used to the shiny metal box. Then, set the trap for real, with  some peanuts and wait for the chipmunk to be caught.  Well, I did everything the instructions said. After a few days, I put some peanuts inside. 

Nothing happened. I checked the garage every couple of hours. For two days. Nada. Niente. Zero. 

Then a friend Graham McWaters was over on a Wednesday afternoon, and suggested crackers and peanut butter might work better. Well, I was getting fed up, so I decided to try it. But I didn't have any crackers. 

I did have plenty of MATZA, the Jewish unleavened bread left over from the recent Passover holidays in late April. So I schmeared the peanut butter (Kosher, Organic Nuts Only) onto the Matza and placed it inside the trap. And went inside to make dinner.

Less then an hour later, BINGO! I trapped my first chipmunk.

Must've been the MATZA that did the trick. 

So I covered up the cage with a big beach towel, waited until it was dark, placed the cage in my van, and put on the heat so the chipmunk didn't get cold. Oh, and I had a bag of walnuts with me, too. 

At 10 p.m.,  I drove my chippie to the forested ravine area at Bathurst and Ilan Ramon Boulevard, in Vaughan. That's the site where the Toronto Jewish community is building a new series of schools, synagogues, supportive housing, theatres, banquet halls etc. I checked to make sure no one was there. I got out of my car, under the lights on the deserted strip of ravine, and waited until the woman walking her large black dog had passed by safely. Then I emptied the bag of walnuts into the grass, put on my gardening gloves, unwrapped the towel, and let the chipmunk free.

I think it's fitting that the MATZA loving chipmunk now lives on the Lebovic Campus land, far, far away from my garage.

The next morning, I refilled the trap, and waited. Two hours later, fresh MATZA and Kosher Peanut butter had a second chipmunk!

This time, we drove it to Twickenham Park, in Richmond Hill to let it free, with a bag of pine nuts to keep it alive out there. It's also a fitting spot: for as long as I have lived in the town, hundreds  of Jewish people walk through the park in the fall to attend High Holiday Services at the Elgin West Community Centre.  Oh, by the way, the park is also used by the St. Theresa Lisieux High School students, just in case the chipmunk was ecumenical.

It's been a week now, and my trap has been ready with TWO pieces of MATZA and Kosher Peanut Butter. But either the chipmunks are wising up to me, or, hope upon hope, I've got them all. The garage guy is coming Saturday to repair the damaged doors and rubber seals. I guess that's not cool to have him work on the Sabbath. I'll be in Beit Rayim Synagogue that morning. I think I'll leave the trap out anyway, just in case.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Using Video IPods in Radio reporting

This post is to accompany an article published recently on the Centennial College website by a current student of mine, Bre Walt, about how our journalism program is using Video Ipods and Belkin Talk Tunes microphones in the curriculum this year, for the first time.

The recordings made for their interviews, voicers, and podcasts are 44 hz which is the quality we broadcast over at Centennial College's Internet radio station, CCRN The main drawbacks are that you get the whirring noise of the IPod hard drive when you record sometimes, which can't be easily equalized away. But otherwise, they are pretty decent recording devices.

They are a lot cheaper then the $700 Marantzes which are in use across the city by professional radio news stations. And while professional radio station managers like David Downey at CBC in Toronto say they can't use video IPods on air because the transmitters make the sound thin on CBC national airwaves, he says, in a pinch, Video IPods would be find equipment for a reporter.

Editing is easy -- transferring the files to Sound forge or Garage band is easy, and the only thing that users need to be aware of is losing their sound files when they plug in to a Mac somewhere to listen to them. The next time they sit down at a different computer to edit, they can't locate the files. Know that the files are there: they just have to be transferred to a Mac using a min-to-mini cable, in real time. Which is a pain.

We used Video Ipods all semester for radio and it worked fine. Next big test? TV news classes in the fall of 08. Will they be big enough to store Video files ?

Here's the article:

CCC Embraces iPod Technology in Journalism

iPod technology applied in Journalism education

Centennial College's Centre for Creative Communications now has many students carrying around Apple iPods. Students are not just using the devices for music - they are using them as part of Toronto's first iPod-based curriculum.

First year fast-track journalism student Dave Bowden already owned an iPod but is thrilled to get more use out of it.

"I found out how to use my iPod to conduct interviews, store photos and save files," Bowden said. "So it has been great to get even more value out of the device."

While journalism has traditionally meant taking extensive notes while interviewing, to ensure accuracy and depth, this is no longer necessary. Students are excited to have their iPods and iTalk devices to make interviewing easier. Journalism student Drew
Berner is thrilled to have the assistance.

"It helps me get the quotes a lot more accurately without sort of ruining the pace of an interview," Berner said.

And while students find the iPod useful during interviews, they point out that its capabilities do not stop when the recorder stops.

"You can just plug it into your computer and arrange it on Garage Band," says journalism student Sara Koonar. "Then you have the choice of doing a podcast or a print story."

Students are able to upload audio from the device onto a computer and edit it using programs available in computer labs at The Centre for Creative Communications (CCC). This assists them in creating their own podcasts and radio segments.

Faculty at the CCC say it is helpful to have students with access to iPods. They help students with their schoolwork, and as a supplemental learning tool.

Imaging professor Jim Babbage says they have proved invaluable as storage devices. He tells his students about free podcasts available on iTunes, so they can download and listen to them. Radio professor Ellin Bessner is using iPods in her radio class for the first time, and is pleasantly surprised with the outcome.

"I think it's amazing quality. I'm used to professional broadcast quality machines at the CBC," Bessner said. "The quality we get is really good - we've been airing them on our CCRN (Centennial College Radio News) station and I'm really, really happy with how it sounds - clear as a bell."

- Bre Walt is a Centennial College Journalism student

Learn more about:

Journalism Program
Journalism (Fast Track)
Sports Journalism
For more information please contact:

Paul Koidis, Manager, Communications, Marketing and Development / 416.289.5000 ext. 8609

Monday, March 31, 2008

Celebrity Newsmakers at Centennial College Advanced Interviewing Class

Lieutenant Governor David C. Onley, Mrs. Onley, greet Ann Buller, president of Centennial College, with security officer Rose Arsenault in the background.

Photo by Matt Mitchell.

I am adding an article here by student journalism Annesha Hutchinson, from the joint Centennial College/ University of Toronto Scarborough Journalism program, on a visit to our class by Ontario's Lieutenant Governor  David Onley March 19, 2008. 

The article was published by The Vine, Centennial's employee newspaper

Kudos to Annesha and all the other students in the class who interviewed him, Sharmin Hassaniani, Karen Ho, and Muzna Siddiqui. It was nerve wracking enough for them to have to interview such a prominent person, in front of the whole class, not to mention to O.P.P. officers, protocol staff, and the president of Centennial College Ann Buller, who also attended. 

Lt.Gov. David Onley submits to students' questions

By Annesha Hutchinson

Thursday, March 27, 2008
Ontario Lieutenant-Governor David Onley took some time out of his busy schedule to visit a class of Centennial Journalism students on Mar. 19 and submit to their questions as part of their reporting assignment, a special visit arranged by faculty member Ellin Bessner. Here is student Annesha Hutchinson's account of His Honour's life story.

Ontario Lieutenant-Governor David Onley and his wife stop for a photo at the Centennial HP Science and Technology Centre on Mar. 19 2008

Almost 50 years ago, Lt.Gov. David Onley wrote a school assignment on what he wanted to be when he grew up.

“When I grow up, I would like to be a TV announcer. Not just any kind, but the kind that covers space shuttles. It would be fun to watch the rockets go up. Besides, the money's good.”

Onley, now 57, has accomplished his childhood dream, as well as many others. He admits his achievements weren't easy.

Onley wasn't like other kids: he hasn't been able to walk on his own or make full use of his arms since he had polio at the age of three. Having polio has fundamentally shaped who he is.

“We are all products of what we come from and that's what we are as individuals,” Onley said, sitting on his navy-coloured scooter, his hands rest in front of him. “I do believe that coping with adversity can and does bring out the best in individuals - if you choose to let it do so.”

As a youth, Onley felt he couldn't pursue many of his dreams because of his disability. He couldn't go into electoral politics because his disability required conserving his energy and maintaining a particular diet. A career in journalism also seemed bleak.

“With no role model as I went through my teens and into my twenties, I just thought, well, what's the point?” Onley said. “Why should I pursue television? There's nobody on television with a disability.”

Onley leaned towards other careers and did not pursue journalism until the 1980s. By this time, he had become an expert on the U.S. Space Shuttle program after writing his novel, Shuttle.

“If I made myself an expert in a new field . . . then I could be a person who was in demand and an expert,” Onley said. “I thought I could get myself into broadcast media that way.”

And that's exactly what happened.

Onley sat as the co-anchor of CTV news when the space shuttle rocketed into space for the first time in 1981. Later on, he would be the host of Breakfast Television on Citytv, as well as other hosting duties. A long-time resident of Scarborough, the popular broadcaster was inducted into the Scarborough Walk of Fame in 2006, becoming a role model for all disabled people.

He has been actively involved in the Government of Ontario's Accessibility Standards Advisory Council, the SkyDome Accessibility Council, and the Air Canada Centre Accessibility Committee. He has also received the Clancy Award for Disabled Persons.

Onley hopes to change the face of accessibility while serving as Ontario's Lieutenant Governor, an honour he was named to last July.

Onley admits that he was “blissfully unaware” of any discrimination towards his disability. His many achievements show that his disability hasn't held him back from achieving his goals.

“Sometimes the biggest setbacks that you can experience in life are the ones that really grab your attention,” Onley said. “They really force you to sit back and take notice and be honest with yourself.”

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Dalai Lama and me

All the news this past few weeks about the recent uprising in Tibet and the Chinese handling of the protests has made me remember my own encounter as a reporter and foreign correspondent with his Holiness the Dalai Lama. But he wasn't in exile in India at the time- he was on an official visit to Rome, Italy, or to be specific, the the Vatican, to meet the late Pope John Paul II.
I was a foreign correspondent living and working in Italy for CBC, Canadian Press, Deutsche Welle and other radio stations..and I had a press pass as a member of the Vatican Foreign Press Association. It was called the Sala Stampa Vaticana.
In order to get accredited in the late 1980's and early '90s, you had to be approved by a very stern nun named Suora Giovanna, who worked for Joaquin Navarro Valls, the Spaniard in charge of the Pope's public affairs office. if they didn't like the news articles you had written, you wouldn't get approved, and access to any official Vatican events was difficult.
Luckily, I passed muster and was invited, along with the rest of the foreign press corps and the Italian domestic reporters, to a news conference by the Dalai Lama in a palazzo one Friday afternoon, after he had met with the Pope. It was August. It was hot. A friend of mine from CBC Radio, Peter Leo, was visiting Rome and we decided to go for a nice long Italian lunch in the Ghetto area, before heading over to cover the news conference at 4 p.m.. Needless to say, after a lunch of pasta and fish and wine, having to cram into a non-air conditioned room in the Renaissance era palazzo to wait for the spiritual leader of all the world's Tibetans was a daunting task.
The room was crowded with people: journalists, hangers-on, monks, followers, and me. And I had a deadline. The Dalai Lama arrived, and began a few remarks in his language that would preface the news conference. Well, the remarks stretched on for 30 minutes, and I was beginning to feel faint. It was stifling in that room, plus I had a deadline to file my story for CBC Radio and I thought "If he keeps on going, we'll never make a deadline". I thought it was supposed to be a news conference: that's what the press release said on it that invited us all.
So I started to get an idea.
It took me about 15 more minutes to get up enough courage to carry out my plan. I was going to interrupt him, and ask him if it would be alright to soon ask our questions, in English.
I think if it hadn't been so late on a Friday, and so hot, and the glass of wine I'd had several hours earlier at lunch was probably partly at work too....I probably would not have done this. But at 45 minutes into his remarks in Tibetan, I raised my hand, and said in a clear loud voice" Excuse me, Your Holiness. Would it be alright to ask you some questions? We thought this was a news conference and we have deadlines."
Well, from the shocked looks on his followers faces, to the hissing from the monks standing along the side and back walls, i thought the floor might need to open and swallow me up right then and there. In fact, I still recall to this day how hot my face felt, and how flushed my cheeks must have looked to everyone. I was embarrassed.
But what did the Dalai Lama do? He was as gracious and gentle as could be. He looked at me, and replied " Certainly", and finished his remarks within record time, and then opened the floor to questions all in a span of a minute or two later.
The other reporters standing with me had mixed reactions: those on deadline were relieved and whispered their thanks later, as we filed down the steps and out onto the street.
I got my clips and a story too, and the Dalai Lama's quotes on his morning meeting with the Pope. And I too, raced back to the Foreign Press building to file my stories.
Later, I would dub this day a life-changing experience: it would be remembered as The Day I Interrupted the Dalai Lama.
And to this day, in 2008, whenever I run into my old friend Peter Leo, that's what he remembers, too.

Monday, March 3, 2008

My students at Ontario Association Broadcasters Career Day

March 3, 2008 - Toronto - I feel like a proud parent today, although I know that my students all have their own parents to feel proud of them.
Nevertheless, today about two dozen Centennial College Journalism students (from the East York and the joint University of Toronto programs) attended the annual Career Day held at the Rogers Media building in Toronto. The event is put on by private broadcasters and journalism programs around Ontario, to bring together the top hiring managers, news directors, on air talent, and recent graduates who are now working in the field, with final year students in j-schools around the province.
It's set up like "speed dating". A dozen tables where the big-wigs sit, and the students get to meet them for a half hour "date" and learn how to get jobs, what's going on in the industry, and basically seek advice, and contacts. Then they rotate to the next table. And so on.Some of the "big" names that attracted a lot of student attention included Mark Dailey of CITYtv, Ron Waksman, head of Global News in Toronto, Scott Metcalfe, of 680 News, Christina Chernesky of CFRB and Glenn Williams of Corus in Kingston.
I know that my students were keen because it's reading week but nevertheless they donned business suits and skirts and came prepared with resumes and even business cards. That's the way to make a good impression, and important contacts for internships and possible careers after graduation.
I sat in at one table, with the radio news veterans from CFRB, the new All News Radio station in Vancouver, and a newcomer to 680 News who started doing traffic. The students were from Fanshawe, Ryerson, Humber and others. Some had amazing voices, one wanted to do sports play-by-play and was already calling games for his school varsity teams. One wants to intern at CBC and said she knew Carol Off, which was in my view, a good place to start, although i told her to go to Kate Pemberton, the woman at CBC Radio in charge of interns, to apply formally. Then I joked that I shouldn't help her, since she might be competition for my own Centennial students! Ha ha.
The news director from the All News Radio station in Vancouver, Jacquie Donaldson, gave some sage advice about resumes etc: she throws them in the garbage if there is even one spelling mistake on them. Students: there is a message here!
She also says don't stalk news directors, by calling them every day. Slejana Taminsic (?) of 680 News says contact once every few weeks is enough to be persistent without stalking. The highlight of the event was the award ceremony to Centennial Student Adam Bemma. He won the first ever Ontario Association of Broadcasters' Michael Monty Award, named after a former educator and broadcaster who died after a 3 decades long career. Adam is currently on placement at CBC in Toronto, and also very involved in Darfur, Journalists for Human Rights and other community social action groups. Not only is he a great student in radio and television at school, but an all around great fellow. Congratulations Adam. We are proud to have nominated you and you deserve it!
I'd love to hear feedback from my students who attended. Was it valuable? Make lots of 
 contacts? Was it useful?

Monday, February 25, 2008

CP Style Guide anxiety

This entry is for those of you who have ever used, or still use, the CP Stylebook, or what I like to refer to, with my students at Centennial College's School of Journalism, in Toronto, as "The Bible".
Last fall, during a mock court room trial that we put on in class to prepare students to cover a criminal court case in Superior Court, I had the "clerk" swear witnesses in using the CP Style Guide, and they swore to tell the truth the whole truth etc etc etc by placing their hands on the blue "Bible".
Why so much reverence for the Stylebook? In fact, come to think of it, I don't remember having to use one when I was in Journalism School at Carleton University all those years ago ( 1983 graduate!). And in my 27 year (so far) career at CBC, CTV, and as a foreign correspondent in Europe, and for Vatican Radio, I don't think I ever picked one up. But since I began teaching journalism at Centennial College (2005), I've had to adopt it as part of the required course texts and learn its contents in order to teach print and radio and television journalism.
I know my students fret about the proper way to spell Mafia-- is it with a capital M or a small m? How about Hells Angels? Does Hell's have an apostrophe? What about police chief? These and other questions have become extremely important because we have a policy of deducting 10% for misspelled proper names, and that includes places, names, or things in the CP Stylebook.
Last fall, lots of students lost marks for not writing Mafia with a capital M. This was a result of a guest lecture by Toronto Star crime reporter Peter Edwards, who spoke about various cases he has covered, including organized crime.
The 18th edition of the CP caps and spelling book, page 122, lists Mafia with a capital M. Mafia; Mafioso; Mafiosi, including members, singular and plural.
How interesting that in the last couple of weeks, the exact issue has made its way onto the pages of the Canadian Association of Journalists' list-serve, and a discussion has been going on about why Mafia should or should not be capitalized. One academic says it should not be, since there is no one single entity called the Mafia, especially not in Sicily. Rather, it is a phenomenon and part of a larger social reality. He argues that the media elevates the mafia to Mafia when it adds a capital letter.
The editor of the CP Stylebooks, Patti Tasko, got a lot of publicity a few years ago for putting the F word into the guide. page 82 18th edition Caps and Spelling, fuck. No capitals. Small f. Avoid, it says, with few exceptions.
When the word spread about the F-word being in the latest guide, Tasko told audiences that the word made it into the Stylebook because it's being used so much more routinely now, and that her Canadian Press Stylebooks evolve just as language usage does. Hyphens come and go.
While other news organizations in North American may use different style guides, and overseas newsrooms use still others, by sticking with CP we at least have a standard or a basis to learn from. Using the CP guide trains journalism students to work harder at their writing, to be accurate, and to be careful, and to understand rules of grammar and spelling.
Perhaps the discussion about Mafia or mafia will prompt changes in the 19th edition in the future. Until then, I am sticking with the 18th edition of the CP guide on this one.
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