A case of loose cannon remorse

by Yule Heibel on March 5, 2008

Well, that’s it: I will in future refrain from using a feature called “sound off,” which is appended to some online articles in our local paper (The Times-Colonist, part of the Asper media conglomerate). The “sound off” acts as a kind of comments board, but it doesn’t seem to allow for any sort of formatting, previewing, or immediacy. Unlike Crosscut, which allows readers to comment instantly, a submitted “sound off” is held for hours — sometimes days, it seems — before an editor approves it. This means that you can’t really follow a conversation, because everything is so slowed down and filtered.

The other issue is that, should you criticize (in however a politic — or in my case: impolitic) fashion some flaw in the article, the article might be edited to fix that flaw, but your comment stays — which might magnify an apparent irrationality on the part of the commenter.

I submitted a most impolitic sound off last Saturday evening. It was already fairly late in the day when I read the article, Giant canoe will hang over Bastion Square, by Carolyn Heiman (a very good reporter), about a public art piece that apparently was just approved by …”the city,” although it beats me what the process was by which (and by whom) the decision was made.

Aside from that, Heiman’s article mentioned a well-known city councilor, yet didn’t introduce her as such, and simply quoted her (…’We just announce the winner in consideration of the privacy of the other artists, [sic] said XYZ.), seemingly out of the blue.

I bet the New York Times, when quoting a well-known city politician (let’s say the mayor?), would do it like this: “Blah, blah blah,” said Mayor Bloomberg. At least then you know, ah, he’s the mayor: you’re informed as to who (or what) he is. If only his last name is mentioned, and the reader doesn’t have the entire council and mayor roster of names at his or her mental fingertips, the reader might be left in the dark. But if the reader is literate enough to read the paper, he or she will know what a mayor or a councilor is. The rest is deduction, of a relatively easy sort.

I’m no Lynn Truss, but I have certain issues that really push my buttons, and one of them is clarity in newspaper articles. I know Heiman is a good reporter, but I also suspect that there are many sloppy editors who get careless when they cut the reporters’ submitted texts to fit the column space available. I’d bet that the article originally did identify the speaker as a city councilor, but that this was edited out (for space reasons?). So I first commented on that, impolitically because I charged the editors with not doing their job.

(As an aside: nothing drives me up the wall faster than the colloquial use of the “is” contraction to replace “has,” as in “It’s been a while since he attended.” It is been a while…? What does that mean? It seems that newspapers are constantly bleating about the evil bloggers diluting standards, yet they’re in the front ranks of offenders themselves. When a blogger blogs colloquially, it’s one thing — but when the “official” and usually printed media get all sloppy like that, it’s not ok. And still it happens all over every newspaper, and all the time. “She’s got the experience to make it work.” She is got the experience…? That might work in conversation, but can we keep it off the written page, please? Where are the editors? I think the reporters/writers are doing it to cut their word count. “It has” is two words, “It’s” is just one. Use contractions of all sorts often enough and you can really shave the word count, which I suppose might be important when you know editors are going to whack your pieces to fit the space.)

But, to return to Carolyn Heiman’s otherwise excellent report, what has also really infuriated me for well over a year is this: it is impossible to find out anything online about some of the city’s boards or committees. There’s an Advisory Design Panel — who is on it?, when does it meet?, why are its minutes and agendas so out of date? There’s an Advisory Planning Council — again, same questions. There is also a Public Art Project Advisory Committee, which seems to be dormant and whose domain (according to the city website) “is currently under review.” So who made decisions regarding the winning public art proposal which has been chosen for installation in Victoria’s Bastion Square?

Well, that was the other button. The night before, I managed to catch a short video clip posted to the same newspaper’s website, from CHEK-TV, which showed an interview with a local artist who appears to be part of some committee — one that has done the jurying. He just talked about the winning artist, but said nothing about the committee or the process.

Furthermore, Heiman reports that the two runner-up candidates will remain anonymous:

A seven-member jury trimmed the 21 submissions to three finalists who where given $1,000 to create maquettes to show in more detail how their art would look. Gallant’s maquette is now on display at the B.C. Maritime Museum in Bastion Square.

The city will not disclose who the other two finalists were or describe what their work was like. [emphasis added]

But if these two runner-ups were also each paid $1000 of taxpayer monies to produce maquettes — which the public won’t see — shouldn’t the public have a right to know who they were? (* See “Edit” addendum, below.*)

Why the shroud of secrecy? Why does the city create this fundamentally undemocratic, secretive climate?

And so, while I regret my tone — holy cow, I was incensed when I wrote the “sound off” — I stand by my basic questions.

Yesterday I submitted a second comment to the same “sound off” board — but the editors don’t seem to want to publish this one — at least it’s not up yet, well over 18 hours after I submitted it. It read:

At the risk of digging myself a deeper hole here after my somewhat vehement comment above: I know that in the first version I read, Mrs. Madoff was NOT introduced as a Victoria councilor (otherwise my quoted text, in my first comment above, would have shown this). That suggests that the article was edited *after* I commented. I still maintain that bringing someone into an article without a proper introduction is a breach of standards, even as I’m appreciative of the fact that the TC must have fixed this initial error. Also to clarify: my criticism was directed at the TC editors, not at Carolyn Heiman, who I think is a very good reporter. Finally, I’m still totally in the dark however as to what or who this “city of Victoria selection committee” is (which clearly involves Mr. Porteous, as per the CHEK-TV video clip — see above — but which isn’t in any other way identified). That’s not the reporter’s fault, if it’s a case of the city making the information nearly impossible to track down. I’m still annoyed that the City of Victoria’s website doesn’t have up-to-date information on many of its committees, including the ADP (Advisory Design Panel), APC (Advisory Planning Committee), or the apparently dormant (or not?) Public Art Project Advisory Committee. I don’t think that transparency should be so difficult to achieve in our digital age. Put the information online and put it out in *real time*, not with a delay of months. Many City of Victoria committee websites are inexcusably out of date.

Perhaps they’re not comfortable letting this one through because I claim that they can edit articles after the fact. Or perhaps it’ll magically appear later?

Whatever, but I’m done with this silly method of “reader interaction.” The invitation to “sound off” isn’t an invitation to conversation. It’s really just noise, in my case of cannons going off. And while I hate being a loose cannon, being a cannon shaped to the restrictions of a media conglomerate’s “sound off” is even worse.

**Update** Sometime between my blog post from late this afternoon and now (it’s 10pm), that second “sound off” comment of mine made it through the filters and is up on the website.

Now, let’s see… How else can I tick the city off? Hmm, how about by asking why people who live in the municipalities of Oak Bay, Saanich, Esquimalt, or elsewhere in the CRD, who can’t vote in City of Victoria elections, can nonetheless run for and be elected either to council or even as mayor of the City of Victoria? Does this mean that someone from Langford could become mayor of Victoria, …and vice versa? If that’s the case, why not let those folks vote in City of Victoria elections?

If memory serves, in Boston you can’t even work for the city as staff — never mind be a city councilor or mayor — if you don’t live in Boston.

Why does the City of Victoria staff its city hall with staff bureaucrats and elect politicians and officials who don’t actually live in the city, yet simultaneously have political elections that exclude those folks?

(Edit, March 6: the chosen art work itself will be paid for by funds raised by the Bastion Square Revitalization Association, which means taxpayers aren’t paying for this. Presumably the $1000 paid to each of the 3 finalists was also provided by the BSRA fund. However, my point that public — and publicly appointed — committees should be transparent, their roster readily available, their meetings posted and open: that still stands.  Furthermore, the sculpture will occupy public space, and therefore it’s the public’s business.)

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