Sunday, August 12, 2012

Scientists grant woman immortality (but the ethics are muddy)

I have to thank a woman called Rebecca Skloot for giving me an education I won't soon forget.
I've never met Skloot, and I couldn't pick her out of a photo. But I have read her wonderful book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and consider it one of the most fascinating books I have stumbled across in years.
In fact, it fractured my mind, sending it along paths and donkey trails I never knew existed.
I started listening to the book cold. I had no idea what I was getting into. It was just sitting in my Audible folder and I needed something to listen to. I loaded it on my phone and hit play.
I don't expect you to do the same. Here is a little teaser.
Lacks was a black woman who was diagnosed with cervical cancer on January 29, 1951.
She was subjected to crude cancer treatment (barbaric to my eyes, though it was cutting edge at the time) in a black-only wing of Johns Hopkins Hospital.
She died horribly nine months later.
And yet she lives on today. Literally.
A doctor took two samples of her cervix without permission, a healthy bit of flesh and a cancerous one. The cells went into a Petri dish and found their way to scientist George Gey.
And in Gey's care something remarkable happened. They survived.
This had never happened before.
Until Lacks' cells were taken, human cells died after a few days outside the body. Lacks' cells did not. Gey could grow them in a lab. He called them HeLa (a nod to Henrietta Lacks) and started shipping them to colleagues around the world - granting this woman a form of immortality.
Since then, Lacks' cells have been used to cure polio, to develop AIDS drugs, used for gene mapping, to test glues and cosmetics and ... well, a mind-numbing variety of other things.
HeLa is really the foundation of much of the medical science of the modern world. There are about 11,000 patents stemming from HeLa cells.
And many members of Lacks' family in Maryland can't afford Medicare.
And so Skloot's amazing story goes, weaving the story of Lacks and her family into medical research and ethics and pure science.
A journalist, Skloot has achieved remarkable balance in the telling. As outrageous as some of the ethical snarls are, they are never clear cut. This is grey matter, baby - history, society, technology, politics and simple ignorance all contribute to the problems that bedevil the HeLa cells and the Lacks family.
Skloot ferreted out the details over nine years, and she was tenacious in the chase. She handles this complex story of the human consequences of scientific discovery with compassion and considerable tact.
At the end, you will probably have shed a tear, unless you are an unnaturally heartless soul.
And, if you are like me, you will marvel at Skloot's accomplishment.
The book lays bare how unbelievably clueless brilliant scientists can be.
It shows how seemingly random events combined with a little luck can alter history for the better.
And, perhaps most important, it demonstrates how even the most overlooked people in society, like a relatively poor black mother in Baltimore, can be extraordinary in ways nobody could imagine.
In this case, a woman on her deathbed provided the means to alter the future of the entire human race, saving untold thousands of lives and helping to build the modern medical economy in the process.
And, until Skloot's book, only a handful of people knew her name.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot, Crown, published February 2010.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Happy Anniversary, adversary

Stephen Joseph Harper, photo courtesy
The typical Canadian newspaper is honest. The typical politician is not.


C'mon, listen to your gut. Most of you feel this is generally accurate, right?

It comes down to having skin in the game. The politician has his self interest at heart. The newspaper's thrives on its reputation for courage and honesty. Oh sure, some haters fall back on the old chestnut, "It's just trying to sell papers," but, these days, such blather seems more than a little trite.

Nope, the better newspapers generally want to get to the bottom of things. And to back up arguments with facts. And the best of 'em challenge authority.

They leave the empty rhetoric and falsehoods to politicians.

Except when they don't.

And when a newspaper knowingly dabbles in falsehoods, it is a terrible breach of public trust - an awful thing to behold.

Which brings us to Conservatives, the Globe and Mail and the anniversary of doom.

I wanted to talk about Stephen Joseph Harper's first year of unfettered power, but it's already more than a week past it's best before date.

So, instead, I will talk about newspaper editorials. Specifically, a recent Globe joint about Harper's first year (link below).

But first a little background, something to set the scene.

Harper hasn't had a good year. And you would know that, unless you have spent it spectacularly drunk. Or on a far-flung Pacific atoll without electricity. In fact, I believe it has delivered a trainwreck that, my fellow citizens, we'll be cleaning up for decades.


Well, for starters there is the muzzling of our world-class scientists and the dismantling of Statistics Canada, an institution that has a global reputation for excellence and one that has allowed our leaders to make well-informed policy decisions.

This is supposed to be the information age. Instead, Canada is being kicked back to the Dark Ages by a bunch of ideologues. I think this is a very big deal.

And, call me crazy, but the Harper government's conscious decision to mislead the public about the cost of its new F-35 jet fighter squadron is ... well, it's also big deal.

We are talking about Harper and his cronies delivering a pre-election whopper. A book-cooking scam worth more than $10 billion. And the lowball cost delivered the public was a calculated decision made by the federal cabinet, according to the minister at the centre of this scandal, Peter MacKay.

This makes the former Liberal Sponsorship imbroglio look like a childhood prank.

Who has resigned? Who has taken responsibility?


In fact, just last week National Defence, which is hopelessly besotted with its new jets, tried to maintain the farce by insisting the federal auditor general and parliamentary budget officer don't know how to cost stuff like, say, high-tech weapons.

'Scuse me if I tilt towards skepticism bordering on the hostile.

I may be a nutter, but deceptions on this scale - historic - matter to me.

So does the theft of elections.

In 2006, the federal Conservative Party was caught exceeding spending limits - that is, they broke the law. And that illegal spending may have earned them a few seats in tight ridings.

In 2008, Harper broke the law again, tossing aside his fixed election date and calling a snap election.

Now, in 2011, we have a new election theft through robocalls that systematically misled and discouraged voting in tight races across the country.

This isn't some tin-hatter conspiracy. There's very good evidence that it happened, documented by election officials and journalists across the country.

I'm irked by the spending on jails and the ramming through Parliament of tough-on-crime omnibus bills that will needlessly cost us billions in a time of falling crime. I am similarly irked by ill considered tax cuts and runaway spending that have, combined, created a structural deficit after years of surplus.

Parks Canada, gutted. Environmental oversight, abandoned. Charities threatened unless they work "in the interests of the nation." These things are similarly troubling.

Is this good government? The markers of a jolly good year?

Call me mad as a hatter, but I don't think it is. I think it is vindictive, small minded, and petty. And reckless.

Which brings me to the recent editorial in the Globe and Mail.

It has been "a year in which there have been plenty of ups and downs," the fawning piece begins. "The latter including the robo-calls controversy and the Auditor-General’s scathing report of mismanagement and a lack of accountability on the F-35 purchase."

Those, in case you were wondering, are the downs.

And then it continues, "But on most of the issues that matter ..."

Really? The issues that matter?

As if these other issues - electoral fraud, conscious deception of the electorate and financial fraud to the tune of billions - are mere trivialities. Things to dismiss.

Of course, they are not. These things matter. They certainly are important to me, and, I suspect, they are considered outrageous acts to many, many thousands of my fellow citizens.

In fact, you have to wonder what sort of person would pooh-pooh these things, would dismissively call them "downs," as if they are merely forgettable low points in a long, long game.

Does the writer have any moral fortitude? Does the publication?

The Conservative Party of Canada wants you to think all this "small stuff" doesn't matter. They want people hoodwinked because they want to be elected again. They are motivated by self preservation.

But what's the Globe and Mail's excuse?

In slapping a wafer-thin vaneer of credibility on the Harper government's obvious failures, to the point of ignoring the accepted facts - There's no evidence it was required to change Old Age Security (see links) , it created a structural deficit through its dogmatic insistance on low taxes and irresponsible spending habits and, through that recklessness, forced massive layoffs in the civil service - the Globe actually damages its own credibility.

The reader begins to wonder why the paper is zooming them. And how is it doing so? If it got this so wrong, what else is it distorting? And why?

This is not an insignificant problem because once a paper gets a reputation for writing for someone other than its readers ... well, in the words of Lou Reed, stick a fork in its ass and turn it over. It's done.

Of course sometimes when a writer sits down and drafts an editorial, the whole beautiful dream goes off the rails. That marvellous hypothesis doesn't prove out. Sometimes, as the words hit the page - thwack, thwack, thwack - you hit a soft spot, or an enormous sink hole. You can't miss it because the words immediately start ringing hollow - Thunk! Thunk! Thunk!

That's the editorial writer's "uh oh!" moment.

Cold, light of day, baby! There is no avoiding it.

Now you've got a decision to make. Do you ignore it and keep on rollin' along, falling deeper into the hole in the vain hope the reader doesn't notice the obvious flaw or gross negligence.

Or do you rethink, regroup and rewrite to fit your troubling epiphany?

Or do you spike the whole project? Screw the anniversary, scrap the effort and find a decent letter, a generic column or a big mother photo to fill the hole?

What you do often depends on time, the resources at your disposal and what sort of publisher you are working for - what their agenda is. Because sometimes you are ordered to do proceed with the crap, the lie, which presents the writer with a much deeper crisis and some personal decisions.

But, if you have a choice, papering over the obvious flaws and hoping the reader doesn't notice is never the right answer. Because if the dumbass editor hit upon the problem, the reader certainly isn't going to miss it. No way, Jose.

If, as a writer, you are dishonest with your readers, you are finished.

Bottom line, the guy shilling' out a loonie for a bundle of newsprint still expects honesty from the thing. Crazy eh? But that's the way it should be.

The paper messes with this sacred trust at its peril.

Which is why it was so surprising to see the Harper tripe on the editorial pages of the Globe.

Because, it renders the paper indistinguishable from a lying politician.

And that's a heavy fall, indeed.




Thursday, April 12, 2012

Drifting into oncoming authoritarianism

It gets a little tiring being the voice of doom. Put simply, I want to write fluffy, fun light-of-spirit stuff, like the story of that nutty mechanic I interviewed a two decades ago who fell through "the hole in the universe."
Or dog stories. Jon Katz writes dog stories, and I like them. And I respect Katz as a writer. The guy is brilliant.
And so, occassionally, I like to write dog stories (see below) and other whimsical stuff.
But it is hard ... no, damn near impossible to write happy go lucky stories when my government has stupidly blown billions on fighter jets, unnecessary jails, lavish G8 conferences and who knows what the hell else and then cut funding to food safety, NGOs, the CBC, science and social programs to fight the deficit it created.
It is impossible to sit idly by and watch as my wonderful, inclusive, generous country begins to drift into authoritarianism, much like a sleepy driver crosses the centerline into oncoming traffic.
Take the environmental movement, which is now in the government crosshairs.
The government is threatening reprisals unless certain charities, specifically environmental charities and others that challenge the government's right-wingnut agenda, can prove they are working in the national interest.
The national interest? Who's national interest? The oil lobby's national interest?
Who defines this "interest?" What is it? These questions, and many others are, at the moment, curiously ambiguous.
And that's intentional. That's what makes it all so sinister.
Challenge the current Government of Canada in any way, and it will destroy you.
Early in this government's mandate, we saw literacy and women's group funding curtailed, especially if they were deemed to run counter to the new government's direction (see ).
Scientists have been muzzled, as has the bureaucracy.
The census was hamstrung, robbing Canadian business and institutions of solid data.
The CBC was targeted, and is now seeing its funding chopped to ribbons.
And currently it is conservation groups (so-called American-funded radicals, according to the government line) who are acting against the "national interest" by challenging fast-tracked pipeline development.
This is not happenstance. It is part of a calculated effort on behalf of the bullyboy Harper Conservatives to kneecap dissent in this country. You are either for us, or agin' us.
So, who's next?
The aforementioned, and many other examples, are the societal equivalent of the rumble lines along our highways.
We ignore the growing roar at our peril.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Who is smarter, the dog or the master?

My Nemesis.
The shrieking was disturbing.
It was definitely Winston. He had raced into the woods after something or other, and now he was carrying on as if it was the end.
And I was worried.
This never happens. My two springers are many things, but wanderers they are not. They usually hang just six metres from me, at most. Dexter was sitting at my feet gnawing snow from his paws at that very moment.
But with Winston crying as if he was being gutted, he was now on full red alert and charging down the steep ravine to see what was up.
Foxes, I thought. That damn beautiful red fox has gotten Winston alone, and being a hard-muscled wild animal, is now feasting on my soft-bellied dog's entrails.
So off I ran to the ridgeline to see what I could see.
Dexter had found Winston. He was licking his brother's  face as he screeched 15 metres down the steep slope.
The pudgy spaniel's ass had broken through the crust of the snow and he couldn't pull his bulk back up onto the surface.
"Are you kidding me, Winston?" I said.
I was angry. I had been scared, worried he was getting mauled by a fox.
Instead, he was simply stuck.
"C'mon," I said. "Come boy. Let's go home. C'mon."
More wimpering and screeching.
Dexter raced up the hill, looked at me imploringly and then raced back down across the crust to his brother, as if to say, "This is serious."
"C'mon you fat bastard. Get up the hill."
He just looked at me with his big brown eyes and screeched some more.
"Are you kidding me? You are truly an idiot."
So I began the slog down to rescue him. Every step I broke through up to my upper thigh. It was slow going. And all the while, the little dog was emitting ear-piercing shrieks.
"Shut up, I'm coming."
Eventually, I was within a couple of metres of him.
"OK, Winnie, let's get you out."
At which point, he leapt out of the hole and ran up the hill to Dexter. Took him all of four seconds.
I was at the bottom of a steep ridge in snow up to my waist.
Looking up, Winston was at the ridgeline, his tongue lolling out waiting for me.
He seemed to be saying, "Hurry up."
"I'm going to kill you," I muttered, before beginning the slow, sweaty hike up the hill to trail and, eventually, home.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Woman Rescued In Main Street Crash

A woman was pulled from the right rear seat of this car by Whitehorse EMS staff Sunday evening around 7 p.m.
The driver of the other vehicle, a jacked up black pick-up truck, staggered through the intersection on the arm of a cop. He appeared drunk.
Bystanders were incensed.
"These guys never learn," said one.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Smile for the webcam ...

If you're Canadian, that Facebook pic could land you in the slammer for three years

Non-Violence by Hakan Dahlstrom. 

Across Canada, most lawyers and judges oppose Bill C-10.

Because it is a nutty law passed by a cynical government (my words, not theirs.)

There has been much written about this ridiculous tough-on-crime stuff, most recently an excellent piece in the Globe and Mail by Robert Everett-Green (you can read it here: )

Among the ridiculous provisions of C-10 is the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences, a punitive, thoughtless and expensive approach that hasn't been effective in reducing crime in any jurisdiction that has used it.

It often results in years-long jail terms for impulsive, but otherwise decent young people who did something stupid. If the facts of the case were considered, society would often determine jail wasn't the place for these people.

But the new law takes away a judge's discretion or consideration of the facts. It just fires the convicted off to a cage, where they often become worse criminals at a cost to the taxpayer of about $110,000 a year.

And that unlucky youngster might be your son. Or daughter.

Take the recent case of Leroy Smickle.

On March 9, 2009, the 27-year-old Smickle did something really dumb.

For some reason, he decided to take a new profile picture for his Facebook page. So he reclined on the couch before his computer clad in his boxers, a white tank top, sunglasses and a loaded firearm.

Smickle had been staying with his cousin Rojohn Brown.

Brown was at a nightclub partying. Smickle didn't go clubbing because he had to work the next morning.

Which is why he was sitting in Brown's living room taking his ridiculous new profile picture when the cops busted in.

They were looking for Brown, and had a search warrant to look for suspected illegal firearms in the guy's apartment.

When they broke down the door, instead of the partying Brown they found Smickle in his undies holding the laptop in his right hand while posing with the pistol in his left. When the door smashed open and the cop's flashbang went off, Smickle dropped the laptop and the pistol.

He was arrested and charged with various gun-possession offences.

The Crown argued the gun was Smickle's. But there is no evidence to substantiate that claim, according to Judge J. Molloy.

Smickle was never on the police radar, she wrote. Brown was the tenant in the apartment and the person who was believed to own illegal firearms.

"The most likely explanation, given the information about Mr. Brown and the other guns found in the apartment, is that Mr. Smickle found the gun somewhere in the apartment and took that opportunity to 'show off' with it for the benefit of his friends on Facebook."

While the gun was loaded, he never threatened police with it. And it is unlikely he loaded the gun in the face of the police entry, as he was holding the laptop in his dominant right hand and the gun in his left.

Smickle had a job as a cleaner, was studying to get the remaining credits of his high school diploma. He had looked into becoming a correctional worker, but that was screwed up by these charges.

He was engaged to be married to a woman he'd been with for three years. He has two children from previous relationships and has a excellent relationship with his four-year-old daughter.

He had no criminal record, beyond a speeding conviction.

A pre-sentence report recommended Smickle for community supervision on the condition he continue his high school courses and employment.

But Molloy's hands were tied by Ontario's tough-on-crime laws.

If you possess a loaded prohibited firearm, a first offence will land you in jail for three years.

Smickle's stupid Facebook pic had landed him three years in jail.

Except Molloy decided such a decision would be cruel and unusual punishment in Smickle's case.

He did not possess the gun in the presence of anyone else and did not endanger the public.

He was guilty of adolescent preening, but the "circumstances of this case put it at the lowest end of the scale of conduct constituting the offence," she wrote.

And, luckily for Smickle, she's a clever judge.

She invoked the Canadian Charter, and, at the end of her 43-page well-considered decision, which cites much very heavy case law, sentenced the Facebook-preening felon to five months to be served conditionally in the community, after crediting him seven months for time served and spent on bail. (You can read it here:

To me, given the circumstances, it seems a good decision. I certainly don't want this dunderhead locked up for three years. And I certainly don't think spending $330,000 on the guy is a good use of public funds.

But not everyone will be as lucky in the future.

Sure, you think you're immune, that your children are better than guys like Smickle. And most are. But mistakes happen in a minute. And, in the face of mandatory minimum sentences, momentary stupidity could erase 20-odd years of good citizenry.

If it happened to my child, I'd want a judge like Molloy to consider all the relevant facts before rendering a fair judgement.

Bill C-10s mandatory minimum rules prevent that.

If it passes third reading in the House of Commons, we're going to see plenty of new cases like this.

And that's but one of many reasons why the Senate should suggest a major retooling of this expensive, regressive and, ultimately, unjust law.

(We'll outline others as we can.) R.M.

Monday, February 20, 2012

So you think lawyers are stupid ... think again

Photo courtesy James McCauley, Creative Commons
Until you read a legal decision, you really shouldn't comment on it.
This is a good rule if you don't want to look like a fool. Because legal decisions are, in my experience, often well considered and difficult to refute - once you have read them.

But, on the surface, without the facts, they can seem wonky. Which is why you should read them before shooting your mouth off.

I have often been in arguments with people about legal matters. And they often zone in on a ruling that, on the surface, seems insane.

"What are those idiots doing?" is the common refrain.

Which is a good question. How can highly trained individuals with years of experience, often people at the top of their field, impose a ruling that is so clearly stupid?

Except that these are, as noted, experienced people at the top of their field.  They are not stupid.

And, more often than not, neither are their decisions. When you consider all the facts.

Take, for example, hunting deer with flashlights in municipalities.

A couple of members of the Tsartlip First Nation on Vancouver Island did this in 1996, shooting five slugs into a decoy deer placed by BC conservation officers.

They were arrested under provincial game laws. The case went to the Supreme Court.

In 2007, the court ruled the provincial rules against hunting at night violated treaty rights laid down in 1852 (here is the ruling:

The Supreme Court overturned the convictions.

The Tsartlip people are allowed to hunt with traditional methods. Throughout history they have hunted at night. And they can still do so. Further, under the treaty, their equipment must be allowed to evolve to take in rifles and flashlights, ruled the court in a 4-3 decision.

People thought the decision was ludicrous. And shot their mouths off about it.

It is a hard decision to defend if you don't have the facts.  

But if you read it (which I have) and consider the details of the treaty signed by our forebears almost 200 years ago, the decision is not ridiculous. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

Provincial hunting laws cannot trump treaty rights established by the national government, the court decided. And, as for safety, aboriginal hunters have no right to hunt recklessly and without safety. But if the hunt does not endanger other citizens, it is permissible.

To date, I have not heard of many hunting accidents where First Nation hunters have recklessly shot Saanich joggers they mistook for deer. However, under the ruling, they would be charged and convicted if they were hunting without considering public safety, treaty or no.

Lawyers and judges are many things, but knee-jerk stupid is rarely one of them.

Politicians? That's another matter.

More on that later. (R.M.)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

First Draft of Yukon Government Principles

I came across this first draft of the government's new principles to guide development in the Peel Watershed.

Draft principles found!

I've come across an early draft of the government's new principles (I use the term loosely) to allow uranium and coal mining and coal-bed methane production in the Peel Watershed, one of the continent's last remaining great wilderness areas. It will be posted shortly.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Death certificates or permits?


Yukoners hate legislation.
We're told this all the time ... Yukoners don't want helmet, ATV or oil-burning-stove laws.
Well, not to put too fine a point on it, I have to wonder if Valerie, Bradley, Gabriel or Rebekah Rusk or Donald McNamee hated legislation?
It is impossible to say, of course, because they are dead.
In a story that made the national news because it is so bizarre and horrible, they were killed by carbon monoxide poisoning in their home.
Such poisonings rarely happen in Canada. But you know, it has a far better chance of happening in the Yukon because this place has no minimum safety standards for oil-furnace installation.
So 99 per cent of the territory's oil-burning furnaces have been installed wrong. This according to Rod Corea, of NRG Resources, who has travelled the territory since 2007 examining the issue and warning the government there is a problem
Almost 10 per cent of the territory's oil-burning furnaces posed a hazard to people living those houses, he said. (See and this video link:
Contractors are not fixing problems, or are creating new ones. And new installations are as poor as, or worse than older installations, said Corea in his report.
And what has the government done about it? Almost nothing.
There has been no public education program warning of the dangers of improperly installed furnaces.
There has been no information to industry stakeholders.
The college launched an oil-burner technician course, but, after training six certified mechanics, the course was cancelled after federal funding dried up.
This is a problem because there's a clear shortage of qualified installers in the territory. As recently as 2008, there were only 14. As of this writing, the government didn't know how many there were -- it hadn't taken the time to figure out whether there were more than 14, or less.
But what's the impetus for home heating companies to hire properly trained employees? There isn't one.
Currently, anyone can be an oil-furnace installer.
The government allows the industry to regulate itself and has no penalties for improperly installed oil furnaces.
The industry would benefit from such legislation, which would level the playing field.
But, compared to gas and propane furnaces, there's a shocking lack of rules for the oil-burner industry, which make up 80 per cent of the market.
And inspections are voluntary. And, if you don't get one, there are no penalties.
The government decided, in 2009, that self regulation was still the way to go ­-- a common approach for this Wild West government.
Corea has recommended consistent rules and inspections.
And when he filed his latest report in 2010, which backed up the previous findings in 2008 and 2007, the government buried it.
After all, the report was disturbing.
It might have raised questions, forced government to regulate the industry and start to inspect homes more rigorously.
And everyone hates legislation, right?
It would be nice to ask the Rusk family about that.
But, of course, we can't.
The government recently offered its condolences to their surviving relatives.
From where I'm sitting, conducting an inspection and issuing a permit before their death would have been preferable. (RM)

Monday, February 13, 2012

To new beginnings ...


As many of you might have heard, I'm now a free agent and out of the newspaper biz.

I have no regrets. Zero. I'm exceedingly proud of what I accomplished at the Yukon News with my talented team. But, after 22 years, I find myself in a strange position -- out in the wilds eking out Act II.

The support I've received literally from around the world has been simply amazing, and I'm incredibly grateful.

To be frank, this whole affair has personally felt a lot like the breakup of the Beatles.

But you know, it's actually going alright.

I'm working for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society trying to preserve a decent chunk of the magnificent Peel Watershed for our kids and grandkids. And that's a pretty decent goal for someone to have.

I can live with that.

But I'm still very interested in this little community that I have grown to love. And, as good as it is, I want it to be better. There is plenty of room for improvement in education, in the environment, in business, in legislation, transportation, in energy ... this community can do better.

And you don't get there by standing still and accepting the status quo. Bettering yourself demands thorough examination, discussion and analysis.

And the occasional kick in the ass.

So here I am, with my boots on. What's it going to be?

Many of you have told me you missed my writing. And you know what, I've missed doing it.

So, gentle readers, I'm back.

Welcome to Yukon Dispatch, The Frontier Writ Large.

Here, as regularly as I can, I'm going to talk about the territory, politicians, technology, books, music, the UN, the odd raven, spaniels and journalists. (What the hell, turnabout is fair play, right?)

I'll even toss in some pics to make things pretty.

In short, I plan to present whatever the hell I feel like presenting ... because now I'm a blogger. It's a little different than my old role, but bigger and less constrained. And now my audience is global.

I figure we'll work out the details together. How about it?

Sometimes I'll be my prickly self. But I'm also going to tap my warm mushy side, which I've repressed for awhile.

So, crank up Radiohead, the Shins, Wyclef or whatever takes your fancy and let's renew old acquaintances.

We've got work to do ...

Richard Mostyn
Whitehorse, Yukon
February 2011

Saturday, February 11, 2012

It's time to kill investigative journalism

Here are the speaking notes for a talk I gave to students attending the Canadian University Press National Conference on January 14, 2012 in Victoria, BC, at the Harbour Tower and Suites. These notes convey the general thrust of the talk, but are essentially a studio cut of a live performance.

I present them to you, warts and all...

Good afternoon. My name is Richard Mostyn.

I am a newspaper man, a writer, a journalist. And, I'm encouraged to see so many enthusiastic journalists here.

I got into this biz because I wanted to change the world for the better.

So I have a question for you.

Do you want to fight tyranny? Or do you want to spend your career chronicling the dangers of dust mites.

It is an important question, because today our industry is in peril.

Look around.

I'm sick of headlines about Katy Perry and Russell Brand. The fact I even know the guy's name is disturbing.

I am sick of watching cows swept away in floods on the 11 o'clock news. And of inane TV news that is only relevant because somebody happened to shoot tape of the event.

I am a more than a little tired of watching reporters engaging in scrums with politicians, which are useless.

Frankly, I am disenchanted with what passes as journalism these days.

And investigative journalism must shoulder some of the blame.

Perhaps it's time we killed it off. Bang!

Yeah, you heard that right - investigative journalism should be killed off in the post-newspaper age.

Its time has passed.

And now you're pulling out your programs, wondering if you walked into the wrong room.

You didn't.

I was going to talk to you about investigative journalism in the post-newsprint era.

Instead I decided to talk about ending investigative journalism in the post-newsprint era.

And so, here you all are, trapped listening to heresy.

Hear me out.

There's all sorts of mewling and hand wringing about the demise of newspapers. And I was going to engage in a little of it myself. But I changed my mind.

Who cares about the fall of newspapers? I've loved newspapers, and I don't care.

Today, it is a ridiculous business model. As dead as the trees they are printed on.

And we all know it.

I live in Whitehorse, a tiny city of 22,000 on the fringe of the known world. The guy who owned the paper I used to work at would have to truck huge cylinders of paper thousands of kilometres to the plant and store them. He had a press that cost a fortune. And four times a week we'd truck aluminum plates to the plant, stick them on the press and then fire off 8,500 copies of the paper. Then we'd have a bunch of paid staff bundle them into little piles, load them on another truck and drive them all over town. Then little children would bundle up and walk through snowdrifts sticking them in mailboxes throughout town and the reader would have to get out of their chair, walk to their mailbox to retrieve it. It is insane.

Especially today when all the information can be disseminated to everyone in town, immediately, at the push of a button.

And you don't get ink on your fingers.

So the newspaper is gonzo.

What I do worry about, however, is the end of newspaper-style reporting.

It represents the best and purest journalism. Now, broadcasters are going to harrumph. And all you young wanna-be camera and mike jockeys are going to roll your eyes. I don't care.

Fact is, your reliance on those devices screws up your reporting. You are beholden to the machine. You need tape.

I don't.

a good print journo doesn't need anything. Except perhaps eyes and ears. Whatever they see or hear, they can write. And, if done it right, they can make it compelling - even the dreariest number-heavy story. You radio and TV guys can't do that - and when you TV types encounter one of those data-rich stories you always get some accountant you have interviewed to walk down a sterile hallway with a folder in his hand, looking busy, to fake action.


Don't get me wrong, there is great audio and video stories. I'm a huge fan of This American Life and RadioLab and other amazing broadcasts. But, as a general rule, radio and TV are weaker mediums than the written word.

Writing, after all, lies at the heart of every great story across all mediums. Writers can make any story sing. But, these days, writing is being choked out by video and audio - often bad audio and video

It's easy to see why.

Radio and video is passive. It streams over you with no effort. Reading is tough - it takes work, and time, to pour through 1,000 words. Increasingly, we don't have it. Because we're distracted by TV and radio and Facebook and Twitter and hockey and work and ... and ... it's endless.

Sure, we have so many interesting things available to us that it's incredible. We live in a rich time. We have 500 channels, and podcasts and ubiquitous music and films and 10,000 magazines right down to Toy Poodle Groomer monthly.

But it is terribly easy to lose ourselves in our own little world, and become annexed from the bigger issues. 

All this stuff is like motes of dust in hurricane. There is nothing to tie it all together.

If we like poodle grooming we can live it all the time without bothering to learn anything about the latest physics breakthrough, the melting of the icecaps or the latest genocide in some far flung republic.

You would think that, with a 24-hour news cycle, such things might get more play.

In fact, the opposite is probably true.

It forces us journos to feed the goat at a breakneck pace. We cut corners on fact checking and take virtually every story we can find to fill the time and space. And the audience is swept along in the flood.

Suddenly, the fact Katy Perry is divorcing some guy is news. Or the marriage travails of Tiger Woods. Or the fact that failing to properly wash your sink with bleach can breed killer bacteria.

Sure, the public eats this stuff up. But does that make it news? Is that the litmus test?

It is the social equivalent to living off a diet of Twinkies.

Our society is literally drowning in information.

I think this is a problem.

Too much of a good thing can, sometimes, be a waste.

The News

Remember where I'm coming from - a twice-weekly newspaper in the boonies. As such, for most of the last two decades, we were competing against other media outlets with a daily feed. (Today, with Facebook and Twitter, the weekly isn't constrained like it once was, but that's probably another topic).

People used to ask me, "Don't you get frustrated getting beat by the CBC and Whitehorse Star every day."

And I laughed in their face.

I didn't give a damn what they did. I was more interested in what I thought my readers would want to know.

I made it a point to look to the future, not look in the rear-view mirror.

And, I don't believe I was ever beat. Certainly not very often. And I didn't care if I was, because I'd just do the story better. Deeper. Or I'd ignore the issue because it wasn't that significant and publish two stories that never even occurred to my supposed competition.

And the readers loved it.

We had more advertisers and more readers than any other publication in town.

And, at the end of the year, we'd have dozens of stories to choose from for potential awards. And we won plenty - so our peers were impressed too.

So, what's the trick?

Here's where we start carving into to the meat.

Don't rush the story. Especially if it is a good one. Take your time and get it right. Build a case over time, in little, easily digestible steps. The breakneck pace is a construct, an illusion brought on by ego - we're worried someone else is going to get the story. Better to worry less about the other guys and more about your readers.
Most important of all, be curious, skeptical, tenacious and patient.

That's how I busted the Yukon premier for heroin dealing.


It wasn't some big investigation. I was curious. We knew the Dennis Fentie had a criminal past. He once told me, "You can't do time in the house unless you've done time in the big house." And then he laughed. I laughed alongside him, wondering what he was talking about. Then I heard he'd done time a maximum security prison in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. And the offhand comment made sense.

In the runup to an election campaign we started poking around into Fentie's past.

In this case, a colleague of mine was on the story. She fought hard to get the court records, but they were locked up tight.

And, not surprisingly, Fentie wouldn't talk.

So, we cheated a little bit, writing an editorial alluding to Fentie's criminal past in general terms. Fentie stormed into the office, flashed his pardon and told us he'd been busted for a narcotics offence. He wouldn't elaborate.

And the issue died off. Fentie won a majority government. And my colleague, a talented reporter, moved on to a new gig in a bigger city.

The rest of us wondered what kind of narcotics offence would land a guy in a maximum security prison.

On election night, a woman told me it was marijuana. Fentie and his handlers had told the volunteers this. "My son is addicted to cocaine. You don't think I'd help out on this campaign if it was something stronger, do you?" She said, chiding the paper for making a big deal out of what she had been conviced was a minor matter.

Do people go to maximum security prisons for marijuana? I wondered.

It could have been a big marijuana possession, some of my colleagues suggested. I doubted it. We argued because we didn't know.

I thought similar discussions were probably happening throughout the territory. But it was difficult to get into the story - it was a dead issue.

But when you are being swept along the information stream, there are always other branches hanging out over the water.

Shortly into Fentie's term, there was a conference of all political leaders in Western North America. The premiers of BC and the NWT were going. Fentie wasn't.

Why? I thought. I was curious, and didn't believe the spin that it wasn't important to the Yukon.

I had an idea - it was his drug conviction. He couldn't enter the US because of his record. True, or not? I didn't know, but suddenly his old conviction was relevant again. The premier couldn't do his job because of his past.

I'd like to tell you it was some huge investigation that got to the bottom of this, but it wasn't. Not really. We'd already tried that, burrowing through the legal system to get the documents.

This time, I did something simpler. And I got lucky.

I asked one of his former New Democrat colleagues if he knew anything.  The guy said he didn't know much, but noted Fentie's cellmate was living in his riding. The guy had coffee every morning at the same restaurant. I phoned the next morning. The guy was reluctant to talk - he wanted to check with Fentie first - but he did say one thing that was useful. He told me Fentie had been a truck driver who had been busted in Edmonton.

That one fact changed everything. Until then, everyone assumed Fentie had been living in the Yukon.

I phoned the Edmonton Journal and asked for its morgue. The person on duty was fantastically helpful. They looked up the news story, which revealed Fentie had been part of the largest heroin trafficking ring in the city's history.

The resulting story, Fentie Dealt Heroin caused a stir.

People were outraged. At Fentie. And at me. Political supporters wanted to kill me.

And Fentie and I didn't talk much after that. Until he resigned.

What you should take from this is that it wasn't about a major investigation. It was just simple reporting. It's what we do. Or what we should do.

But too often we don't.


Who does journalism serve?

There are several reasons.

Some people just aren't up to it. They are not suited to the job.

They worry about themselves too much. They worry about the sources too much. And they don't worry about the reader enough.

A reporter must have courage - the ability to stand up and challenge powerful people who are uttering nonsense.

Because that's what separates the journos from the stenographers.

Seymour Hersh knew this when he wrote about My Lai in 1969.

It wasn't that he was the only journalist who knew there were atrocities being committed by American troops in Vietnam. Hersh was just the first guy with the guts to write about it.

Today, Rolling Stone Journalist Michael Hastings is doing the same type of thing. You might remember Hastings, He's the guy who got drunk with General Stanley McChrystal, and then had the guts to write about it. In doing so, he killed the guy's career. He also divided the journos. Plenty thought he had done something terrible.

They are wrong.

"The role of the journalist is to do journalism, not advertising," he said. "I'm just not a stenographer. That's what reporters are supposed to do, report the story."

"The unwritten rule I'd broken was a simple one. You really weren't supposed to write honesty about people in power. Especially those the media deemed untouchable."

Hastings put the reader ahead of himself, McChrystal and the rest of the news corps. He did his job.

The question you all must ask yourselves is whether you are there as an outsider, reporting on power, or an insider there to serve power?

Do you serve your subjects, or your readers?

Or the publisher and the owners of the business.

Don't underestimate this - the corporations you are likely to work for can make your life particularly difficult.

These massive entities have so many diverse interests you will no doubt run afoul of them sooner or later.

Heck, it can happen in a small shop.

But, as a reporter, you shouldn't worry about that. You can't worry about that.

Your role is simple: speak documented truth to lying power. You have to counter ideological bombast with undisclosed fact. And you should believe that your readers, if they have accurate information, can change the world. That's how journalist and author Bruce Shapiro puts it.

Killing investigative journalism

Which brings us back to the elephant in the room.

Shapiro calls this investigative journalism. I just call it simple journalism.

Call it what you will, The approach has been around, in some form or other, for 200 years.

Or perhaps longer. Pete Hamill considers the first journalist to be the caveman who wandered to the very darkest reaches of the first cave with a flaming twig, looking to see what's there.

Whether it was the caveman, or something a little more modern, I'm not calling for an end to journalism. Just to the moniker "investigative."

Let me expand on this a bit.

The modern era of such reporting happened in 1964, when the Philadelphia Bulletin won a Pulitzer for exposing a gambling scheme being run out of a police station house. It marked the first time the investigative journalism label had been slapped on the award.

Investigative replaced another category.

You know what it was called? Anyone?

Local Reporting. So what happened to good, solid local reporting.

In 1972, in the wake of Watergate, The New York Times set up a team of investigative reporters to combat the Washington Post. Sixty Minutes hit the airwaves. Smaller outfits set up their own investigative teams.

It was all very exciting and important. And it made news organizations a lot of money. So they all hopped on board.

But it also established a tiered news environment. There was the important work done by the investigative teams, and there was the rest of the stuff done by the drones - school board and council meetings, court, chamber of commerce meetings and all the others.

And therein lies the problem - looked at another way, there shouldn't really be any such thing as investigative reporting.

But it gets worse. The investigations fragmented and grew less and less meaningful. This hurts us more than you might think.

The media must be a watchdog. And, to do so, it has to have credibility.

It should be covering Justice, government, telecommunications, energy, mining, social justice, banks and finance, housing ... the list is endless.

But it often doesn't.

It gets distracted by celebrities and online dating scams, food allergies, house fires, car wrecks and a host of other things that are trivial, salacious or just plain weird.

And while some of this stuff is compelling, we journos should be asking does it add to the conversation? Because that's what we're having, a conversation with the readers, adding to the public good.

And when we start to rely on simple rubbernecking nobody benefits.

Because it diminishes the media in the public's eye. They may read it, they may even gasp and wince, but they know it isn't all that important.

They know the difference between good reporting and bad reporting.

The good reporting adds to the discussion. The bad simply fills space.


Take the crash story, a perfect example of rubbernecking. "Two people injured in a crash on Main Street today, police investigating, charges pending ..." drone reporting.

Why? It doesn't have to be.

Recently, my colleague Genesee Keevil did a story about 18-year-old Cody Kelpin, who died on a dirt bike in a residential subdivision. He was popping wheelies and lost control, flying off his bike and crumpling his young body into concrete pillars surrounding a fire hydrant.

What distinguished the story was that Keevil didn't simply regurgitate the cop release. Instead, she interviewed the bystanders who treated the dying boy. They told how this type of recklessness was common on the stretch of road, noting car and truck traffic are also frequently breaking the law.

Before we go complaining about the kids, the adults have to set a better example, noted one.

Keevil also tied the story to the city's effort to better control dirt bikes on city trails. Several months earlier, a kid on a speeding motorbike had hit barriers installed to prevent bikes and snowmobiles from using the city trail.

The kid was Kelpin. He had emerged from that accident unscathed.

The detail and legwork resulted in one of the most talked about stories in the paper that year. It wasn't all pretty, but it did what it was supposed to do -- provoked a discussion about reckless drivers, speed, helmet use and how newspapers should cover the death of youth. I urge you  to read about it.

Brennan Richard McCarthy Paquet

I offer you another example. Done by our summer intern in 2010.

Again, it could have been a simple story.

Seventeen-month-old Brennan Richard McCarthy-Paquet  choked to death on a piece of macaroni. Terrible, right? It is something the paper could have simply reported. And people would have cried, and forgotten all about it.

In fact, most of our competitors ignored this awful death altogether.

We didn't. Instead, Larissa Robyn Johnson tied the death to a bigger issue. A month earlier, the subdivision where the child lived fought tooth and nail to prevent an ambulance station from being built in the community. They didn't want the sirens in the middle of the night.

Had a station been in the area, the child might still be alive - the response time would have been greatly reduced.. This according to the parents, whom Johnson had the guts to interview.

Even more poignant, the parents led the charge against the ambulance base.

"We were thinking about our little boy and the noise waking him up,” said the mother. “But I would have much sooner put up with that and I would much rather have him here with me today and put up with a little bit of noise.”

They mobilized the community to reconsider its decision. And today there is an ambulance base in the area.

That was simply good local journalism. And it earned Johnson a nomination for a national news writing award.

It wasn't particularly easy for Johnson. Nobody wants to cold call the parents of a dead child. But she had the guts to do it anyway, and it landed a phenomenal story.

If you're in this biz, that's what you want to do.

And I'm telling you right now, you don't want to do the bad.

It simply isn't all that fun. Or rewarding.

And if you aren't trying to change the established order for the better, you might as well sell shoes because, at the wages this industry pays, it just isn't worth the hassle.

And, if you are doing it right, there are significant hassles.

People want to sue you. And sometimes they will. They will say to your wife, "You are married to that asshole!" They will fire your wife. Or transfer her to the boonies, effectively firing her. They will charge up the stairs and threaten to punch your lights out. They will complain to your boss. They will cancel advertising.

Sometimes, especially in a small town, your job will affect your children. And your friends.

And, in some ways, that's the easy stuff.

I'm betting the internal angst will be worse.

You'll stay up nights wondering if you got it all right. Or if you want to call those parents. Or if it was right to write the story about the dead dirt biker at all.

Are you getting the picture?

This job isn't easy. It doesn't pay well. It can be a pain in the ass.

But, when you are riding the dragon, and that effort lands on the front page, and it is accurate and people are discussing it and the surrounding issues, there is nothing like it.

The trick is finding the dragon.

They are all around us. Potentially in every story. You just have to look at it the right way. You have to be curious, tenacious, bold, courageous, open minded, fair and accurate. You have to pick away at the loose threads. You have to challenge the BS.

Some people might call that an investigative reporter.

I just call it being a reporter.

I just call it journalism, local reporting.

And when done right, there is nothing like it.