Sins of Omission
In the protective coverage of its own lockout, CFTO crossed the line of credibility
World Beat News, Tuesday, June 14, 1988: At the anchor desk, Gail Smith is reading a copy story. It’s about eight people, seven of whom, until a week ago, worked with Smith in the CFTO newsroom. “Metro Police today issued arrest warrants for eight people wanted for unlawful acts arising out of the labor dispute between CFTO-TV and the NABET union,” Smith says. “Charges include intimidation and mischief. The accused are” She reads the names of the seven locked-out CFTO employees. The eighth is that of a sympathizer from The Toronto Star who is linked later in the story with a separate incident.
Curled up on a couch in her den, Donna Tranquada, a Toronto radio reporter, watched the item with mounting distaste. What she saw-or more accurately, what she heard-left her disgusted and angry. It wasn’t just the reading of the names, one of which she recognized, that got to her but the manner in which they were read. “It was done deliberately,” she would say later, “and, it seemed to me, with great vim and vigor.”
Like many journalists in Toronto, Tranquada was alarmed at the way CFTO, the largest private television station in the country, was covering its own labor strife. CFTO appeared to be using highly selective reporting to sway its viewers’ sympathies and urge its dis-affected workers to cross the picket line. “They were basically using the air-waves as a weapon in their dispute with ~ their employees,” says Tranquada. “It was most unfair.”
If Tranquada was upset with CFTO’s name-reading, she was livid a few days later when she read in the Star that Metro police had not initiated those charges; in fact, they had been issued by a justice of the peace as a result of complaints laid by three working CFTO employees. In its report, CFTO had neglected to tell its viewers that these were its own private citizen charges. Tranquada spent a month struggling with her conscience over whether to become involved. Finally, her ethical concerns won out and on July 13 she wrote to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. “I am appalled that this type of biased and inaccurate reporting can get on the air,” her letter said. “Are there no ethical or professional guidelines for broadcasters when their stations are in strike or lockout positions?”
It was a bitter lockout that lasted all summer. In the excruciating heat, tempers on both sides of the picket line came close to combustion. And when the battle was over, CFTO had clearly won-partly, many believed, because it had as ammunition control over Ontario’s top-rated news show.
The major issue was not wages but jurisdiction over CFTO’s nonunion production arm, Glen-Warren Productions Ltd. Local 79 of the National Association of Broadcast Employees & Technicians (NABET) wanted to expand its jurisdiction so that CFTO could no longer use nonunion employees at Glen-Warren. CFTO’s negotiators would have none of that and, after talks broke down, the union membership voted 81 percent last May 11 in favor of a strike.
On June 6, CFTO put forward a final offer-only, say NABET officials, so that management could add an ultimatum: unless a deal was reached by midnight the union would be locked out. With that deadline just six hours away, NABET’s negotiators balked.
The station locked out 296 employees and went off the air at midnight. Local 79-whose bargaining unit consisted of technical, production, office and news staff, including anchors immediately threw up a picket line. But when programming resumed the next day, the familiar anchors were in place; they had stayed on the job, asserting that NABET had never really represented them.
They were not alone. Other union members broke ranks to help management keep the station on the air. They were ferried across the picket line at CFTO’s suburban Toronto facility in dark blue buses with reinforced tinted windows. To further hide the identity of the passengers, black felt curtains were tacked up inside the buses-just one indication of CFTO’s well-laid preparations. Mobile homes appeared in the parking lot under the glow of added lighting, and extra security watched over a management team freshly trained on the station’s equipment.
All this had been masterminded by a management group reporting to Douglas Bassett, president and CEO of CFTO-TV Ltd., a licencee owned by Baton Broadcasting Incorporated. Bassett and his father John, CFTO’s founder, are involved in Baton, which is majority-owned by the department store Eaton family. The Bassetts and the Eatons are socially as well as financially close-knit, and both have successfully fought unions in the past. Thus Baton was ready for the lockout, and CFTO’s newscasts continued without interruption.
NABET responded by charging Baton with union busting and slanting its news coverage. In the second week of the dispute, Local 79 filed a complaint with the CRTC outlining examples of “gross abuses” in CFTO’s coverage. NABET’s international representative, Allan Foster, says the union’s position was that CFTO was “propagandizing their own newscast, using the public airwaves to demoralize the locked-out employees.”
The dispute dragged on for twelve weeks, during which time about a third of Local 79’s members crossed the picket line. On August 31, NABET settled for the same wage package it had been offered in June and surrendered its push for jurisdiction over GlenWarren Productions. Only about 50 of the remaining pickets went back to work, while about 120 preferred to take severance pay. As part of the settlement, Local 79 agreed to withdraw its complaint to the CRTC.
Still, the question remained: did CFTO use its access to the public airwaves to promote its cause during the dispute? With that in mind, the Ryerson Review of Journalism asked two experienced broadcast journalists to review tapes of CFTO’s early coverage on which the complaints to the CRTC were based. Neither Robin Christmas, a field producer at The Journal, nor Gail Scott, former host of Canada AM and now a professor in the School of Journalism at Ryerson, has any direct connection with CFTO or NABET.
Christmas condemned the coverage outright. The stories, he said, “couldn’t have been more directly representing the management position and totally ignoring the union.” They were “embarrassing. ..a parody of a newscast.” Furthermore, he commented, “The news organization allowed itself to be used as part of management’s strategy to win the dispute.”
Scott is a part-time member of the CRTC but didn’t participate in its subsequent investigation of the complaints. She viewed the same tapes as Christmas but saw them differently. “Those sins are committed nightly on every newscast,” she said. “I don’t think you can make a case that it was unfair to [the union]. No newsgathering operation ever tells the whole story. They were telling selective truths.”
A sin of omission is equally as much a sin,” Christmas countered. “It is equally inaccurate to omit important information.”
Though hardly a disinterested observer, one correspondent who was with CFTO for a dozen years and never went back recalled: “I was 10 percent angry at the station for using its transmitter and its newscasts against me as a locked-out employee. Ninety percent of it was just sheer disgust as a reporter at what they were doing.”
World Beat News, Tuesday, June 7, 1988: For its first report on the lockout, CFTO has made up a graphic that sits next to Smith’s well-known coiffure. It’s a photograph showing one of the dark blue buses surrounded by picket signs, and the red caption below it reads “Strike,” not “Lockout.” In the photo, the picket signs appear to be hitting the windows of the bus. The graphic implies a highly-charged atmosphere, but the taped footage of the incident which appears later in CFTO’s report shows a tired crowd of about 30 pickets simply circling the bus. The graphic is used a number of times during the early coverage of the dispute.
Night Beat News, Thursday, June 9, 1988: Anchor Christine Bentley introduces the day’s report on the lockout by mentioning that “one out of five union members has crossed the NABET picket line to return to work.”
She hands over to Tom Gould, a CFTO executive producer at the time, who then lent his estimable name to CFTO’s coverage. Gould finds two more ways to drive the point home: “When the dispute began at 12:01 Tuesday morning, there were 296 members of the National Association of Broadcast Employees & Technicians on the company payroll. As of this afternoon, 60 union members, or 20 percent of the total, had defied their union and endured the catcalls of the picket line to return to work”
Next comes a clip of news anchor Ken Shaw accusing NABET leader Allan Foster of withholding information from its members and not allowing them to vote on the company’s offer. “That’s when,” Shaw says, “most of the newsroom decided that it would disassociate itself from this union and come in and do our job.”
Bassett is up next, standing in front of a large CFTO sign and speaking into a mike held off-camera. “The employees out there are in a legal lockout,” he says, “and they’re entitled to come back to work whenever they want. I’ve asked them to come back to work. Not one of them has been fired and I want to make that perfectly clear.” What he does not make clear is that to get back in they must first leave their union.
A Tom Gould voiceover introduces Bassett’s next comment: “On Wednesday, Ontario premier David Peterson was quoted as saying government advertising on CFTO would be canceled. Today, Mr. Bassett said that is not true.” Bassett: “David Peterson reiterated to me this morning that the Government of Ontario will abide by all legal contracts which they [sic] have with our company.”
But that was not exactly the story. Peterson didn’t say that Queen’s Park would cancel its ads; he announced, in fact, that the government wouldn’t renew any contracts or place any new advertising until the dispute was settled. And he was as good as his word no new government commercials appeared on CFTO until November.
The entire lockout package runs two minutes and 41 seconds; the Peterson item, which other media found the most newsworthy, is relegated to a mere 18 seconds.
World Beat News, Monday, June 13,1988 – Gail Smith is reading the intro to an item on NDP leader Bob Rae’s visit to the picket line. In a softened paraphrase of Rae’s comments, the script has him saying that “the owners of the company just don’t like unions.” If Rae had anything to add, CFTO viewers never learn of it. They are not allowed to hear from Rae himself. What they see is a tape -picked up from another station which shows scenes of the picket and Rae talking to people on it. What they hear is not Rae’s voice, which I been wiped, but Smith’s. “The atmosphere on the picket line,” she rea “was more civil than usual as the NI leader made his call. Cries of “come out you miserable scum’ and other abuse directed at working NABET members were cleaned up for the opposition leader’s visit. No CFTO crew was sent the line. Mr. Rae has said that he w not be interviewed by CFTO.”
If the station’s viewers had switch! to Global News that evening, they would have heard and seen Rae sayinl “There’s no question this company an the Bassett family are anti-union. The don’t want to bargain. They don’t war to have a union. They don’t want t have anything to do with it. They don’ have a very twentieth-century attitude to the way the world works.”
NABET was never allowed to speak for itself on CFTO. The station made no attempt to interview any union spokesperson and no reports were made from the picket line. In the early going, most of the reporting-especially, it appeared, any aspect of it that involved Bassett-was handled by Gould. According to Gould, who had once been an outstanding correspondent for the CBC, it would have been feckless for any CFTO crew to approach NABET for comments. “What union representative,” he says, “would be willing to be interviewed by a scab reporter?”
Of the key players at CFTO, Gould was the only one who commented to the Ryerson Review, however briefly, on the coverage. Persistent attempts to interview Bassett and Ted Stuebing, vice-president of news and public affairs, eventually brought this response from Bassett: “I know you’ve been calling Tom Gould and Ted Stuebing. I’m calling to let you know that we don’t want to discuss anything with you. I know you want to see our tapes, but we won’t allow it… I will not discuss the merits of the coverage, ours or others, good coverage, bad coverage or biased coverage. I will not discuss it.”
The CRTC received three letters of complaint about CFTO’s coverage of the lockout. NABET and an individual member of Local 79 wrote to the commission in June, Tranquada in July. The CRTC contacted CFTO on June 21 requesting tapes of the newscasts and any comments the station wished to make. It gave CFTO 10 days to comply.. In his response on June 27, Keith Campbell, Baton’s vice-president of corporate affairs, said: “Let me assure you that the coverage over CFTO- TV is factual. The Commission should be aware that union spokespersons would not be interviewed by any CFTO-TV employee defying union directives.”
However, Gordon Hunter, NABET president, told the Ryerson Review that NABET did not issue anything to its union members telling them not to speak to CFTO crews.
On October 3, the CRTC wrote back to Campbell and reminded him that CFTO’s “privileged access to the public airwaves should not be used to promote its own economic interests under the guise of informing the public.” It also advised Baton that the complaints and correspondence would be put on CFTO’s public file and would be available for comment at the station’s licence renewal hearing. In fact, that hearing started on the same day the CRTC’s letter was dated but the complaints were not raised by the commission. Fernand Belisle, secretary-general of the CRTC, says that the complaints were not brought up because “they were in the process of being determined” by the commission. This process required another response from Baton, giving it a further chance to explain CFTO’s coverage.
On November 4, Belisle received a three-page letter from Bassett defending his station’s actions. “Firstly,” Bassett wrote, “you will find in reviewing the tape that we did present the union’s position on the labor dispute-namely that it was an attempt by CFTO-TV to ‘bust the union.’ That allegation, unfounded though it was, was contained in a number of our newscasts.”
Regarding the CRTC’s citing of the Ontario government’s position on advertising as an example of CFTO’s incomplete reporting, Bassett replied: “CFTO- TV did, in fact, provide complete and balanced, full and factual coverage of this issue.” On the station’s overall performance, Bassett’s letter said: “All of the news we presented during the labor dispute, including our stories on the dispute itself, were fair, balanced and above reproach.”
The complaints were finally put to rest on December 23. The CRTC wrote Bassett and attempted a weak scolding. Over Belisle’s signature, the letter said: “The commission feels compelled to point out that the coverage given to the labor dispute was hardly a sterling example of what you have described as a ‘full, accurate, balanced, judicious, fair and unbiased account.’ ” And there the matter ended.
NABET’s Foster feels the CRTC intentionally dragged its feet until the dispute was over: “The only way the CRTC would have had any absolute effect was to call CFTO on the carpet immediately. There is no excuse for having a complaint filed on June 15, on something that serious, really only get to the forefront come October-once this thing is already over.”
One of the complaints the CRTC’s letter did not address was Tranquada’s concern about those names Smith had read on the air. Tranquada was particularly upset about the implication in Smith’s script that police had laid the charges. “Metro Police did not issue any such warrants or make those charges,” she had written.
In fact, on June 14, as the lockout was entering its second week, three working members of CFTO’ s news staff filed complaints with a Scarborough justice of the peace against seven locked-out workers. The seven had been trailing CFTO crews and making it difficult for them to shoot on location without picket signs waving in the background. On the basis of the complaints, the justice of the peace issued arrest warrants. But none of this was reported on the CFTO newscast.
Constable Hugh Blake, the warrant officer at Forty-second Division, which had to execute the warrants, says, “We arrested them, which we had to do because there were warrants outstanding. They were citizen complaints. We, the police, didn’t lay the charges. I don’t know why they went down and laid them.” No officers were sent out to arrest the flying pickets, according to Blake. Instead, the seven were allowed to turn themselves in a few days later. Most of them were not even aware of what was going on until friends and family heard about the warrants on CFTO and passed the word along. Responding to CFTO’s actions, Foster says, “These people are absolute bastards. They were out to discredit the people who worked the flying pickets.”
Ken Shaw, CFTO’s outspoken anchorman, again takes issue with Foster. He says that if the same situation had occurred during a CBC dispute, CFTO would have reported the charges-and he asks if the station should have acted any differently just because the dispute was in its own backyard. “The answer comes ringing back ‘no!'” he says. “It’s obviously not a pleasant thing to do. Difficult decisions have to be made and hopefully they were made without bias.”
But for Robin Christmas the situation was obvious: “The business of laying a charge and then using that as an excuse to name individuals on air is just totally an attempt at intimidation. In fact, they were doing what they were charging. “
Three months after the dispute ended, the charges were finally settled in court. Last December 12 at Old City Hall, the seven accused faced a judge for the fourth time. There had been three remands plus mug shots, fingerprints and the threat of a maximum six-months’ sentence or a $2,000 fine.
With the three ex-colleagues who had laid the complaints looking on uncomfortably, the seven lined up before the bench. There they heard the Crown prosecutor tell the court that the complainants were dropping the charges. There was no property damage or physical injury, the prosecutor noted-and the complaints had only arisen from a labor dispute.
The front doors of CFTO’s Agincourt building have been locked since midnight on June 6. Anyone wanting to enter must first go through security clearance at the side doors. Unexpected guests are not welcome at “the family station.” In the lobby behind those locked doors hangs an imposing portrait of John Bassett, the founder. Under it, sitting on a pedestal and encased in glass, is CFTO’s trophy to itself: a foot-long model of a dark blue bus, complete with miniature driver.