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Megyn Kelly’s Master Class In Bad Journalism

May 17th, 2016
  One question in a Republican debate last fall about Donald Trump’s attitudes towards women – and his angry misogynistic tweet soon afterwards – instantly transformed Megyn Kelly into … a tough journalist.
 Now she is being sold as the new face of rigourous journalism on Fox and perhaps for American journalism as a whole. See the New York Times piece in last week’s business section.
  15 minutes tonight in a much-heralded one-on-one with Trump  and Kelly reveals herself as little more than an enthusiastic enabler of, and collaborator in, Trump’s (ever closer, sadly) ascent to the most powerful job in the world.
  Hard to watch. But you should give it a try.
  And this interview should be required viewing in every journalism school.
  Not one question about how Trump might actually use the immense power of the Presidency to deal with the US’s – and the world’s – many challenges.
  Just softballs questions about campaign silliness with no structure or followup, cute one liners, innuendo and smiles.
  What an awful squandered opportunity.
  But for Megyn Kelly   …… a master class on how to make a new friend. 

Mike Duffy Was Not Exonerated!

April 23rd, 2016

Am I the only one reading the Globe and Mail on a Saturday morning and feeling very very queasy about the almost overnight near re-hagiografication of Mike Duffy in the media and the punditocracy?

Unless I am missing something, Duffy was only “exonerated” regarding a series of legal charges in a court of law. And yes, that exoneration should/may result in a rethink of a whole bunch of issues regarding … gosh, it is a very long list …. the Senate, its structure, its rules, the role of appointments, the PMO, its ability (under direction of a PM)  to skew/shape/distort governing processes, the rabidity of the press when it finds a juicy story,  and on and on and on and on  ….

But good heavens,  let’s not all of a sudden turn our backs on something fundamental here.

Duffy’s behaviour was personally reprehensible .. and that in no way is now exonerated by a court decision.

It is not something that deserves to be simply forgotten or downplayed because …. first, a court of law has “exonerated” Duffy of formal legal charges ……second, because he clearly operated (as do other Senators)  well within an opaque, imprecise, purposely-designed and politically-self serving set of Senate appointing and  operating rules …..  and third, and please! spare me the damn crocodile tears seen in article after article over the past few days, because Duffy’s health is in a bad state.

Would any of us suggest that the pattern of practice that Duffy  happily engaged in is something that offers a positive example to anyone in Canada of how to behave in public life? And particularly in a role when you are being paid by the public?

Do we actually think that “an evil PM and his PMO thugs made me do it!” plea has ethical merit to be accepted, let alone embraced or excused or even now deserving of some weird kind of sympathy?

We discourage children from using that excuse in the playground, don’t we?

When you eagerly belly up to a trough as a sentient being, well-versed in who filled it and for what purposes, and then you energetically partake of its contents …  you take your chances.

I am glad that the trough may be being rethought.

But let’s not exonerate from personal, ethical and “passing-a-public-smell-test” responsibility someone like now-poor Duffy who happily stood around that trough.

“The Danger and Sham of Journalistic Neutrality” – Really?

March 14th, 2016

 There was a mini-firestorm in the US media world this morning when National Public Radio (more or less, akin to the CBC in Canada) found itself explaining the important difference between reporting the news and offering opinions about the news on its flagship national morning radio program.

Cokie Roberts, one of NPR’s most revered voices for 40 years, found herself explaining – awkwardly and under orders from senior management – that while she started as a staff journalist at NPR, she became a commentator in the early 1990s.

And as a commentator, her job is to offer her opinions on what goes on in the US, as distinct from her former role of just reporting the facts.

The problem for NPR is …. who knew? I’ve listened to NPR for decades and till today, I would have bet good money she was a journalist.

In recent weeks, Roberts has published critical opinion pieces about the dangers posed by Donald Trump to the Republican Party, politics and democracy in the US.

NPR apparently felt it was necessary to make her role crystal clear to its millions of listeners. Hence her appearance on Morning Edition (listen here) akin to The Current on CBC Radio.

Then, this afternoon, Glenn Greenwald – he of the Pulitzer Prize for publishing Edward Snowden’s leaked emails on our collective governments’ massive secret surveillance of citizens – stepped up to offer a stinging criticism of the iconic importance of journalistic neutrality, or impartiality.

In effect, a rebuke to NPR and the rest of the mainstream US media.

“The Rise of Trump Shows the Danger and Sham of Compelled Journalistic Neutrality”  appears on his blog, The Intercept.

According to Greenwald, it is a complete delusion to think that mainstream media (both commercial outlets and public broadcasters such as NPR / PBS; I am quite sure he’d include CBC as well) can be impartial.

Greenwald terms the reverence for impartiality as “the embodiment of the ethos of corporate journalism …. and a potent illustration of why its fetishized reverence for “objectivity” is so rotted and even dangerous.“​

In other words, argues Greenwald, it is perfectly okay (even necessary!) for journalists to be harshly critical of the clear danger to public democracy posed by the obviously fascist dreams and maniacal political strategies of Donald Trump – at the very same time as they report the hard facts of what Trump actually said at this campaign rally or on that TV talk show, because ….   well …. because Trump is clearly  a threat to democracy.

​ ​This is a very dangerous circular argument.

It completely blurs fact and opinion, which is also a real danger to a democracy.

i.e. Did Donald Trump / Hillary Clinton /Bernie Sanders / Justin Trudeau say “X” at a campaign rally?

Or did he actually say “Y” (something quite different) at that rally, but in the journalist’s opinion, he really meant to say “X”

There is a huge difference. Don’t you need to know what it is?

And sorry, comforting oneself with the nostrum that Trump is, of course, irrefutably awful doesn’t cut it.

(Journalism in Canada has been discussing the rise in the blurring of fact and opinion in recent months. See my HuffPost blog)

I’ll stand by the view that as best as humanly possible, journalists should stick to reporting the facts.

Then, the commentators can “let slip the dogs of … opinion.

 

CBC Officially Responds To My Blog on Mixing Journalism and Personal Opinion

December 15th, 2015

This afternoon, I received the following letter from Jack Nagler, CBC’s Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, replying to my blog on what I see as a worrisome trend at CBC of mixing journalism and personal opinion. As you will see, Jack’s letter is written on behalf of both Heather Conway, Executive Vice-President of CBC’s English Services and Jennifer McGuire, General Manager and Editor in Chief of CBC News.  (This is the full unedited text of Jack’s letter.)

********************************

Dear Frank:

I read with interest, as always, your thoughts on the current state of journalism here at CBC News. I am replying on behalf of both Heather and Jennifer.

With your experience and commitment to the quality of our craft, you’re well placed to offer feedback. You worked at CBC as a journalist for over 25 years and know the overarching importance of CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices in every facet of our work. It guided your work at CBC and it continues to guide the work of every single journalist working for us now. That policy stands on integrity, fairness and accuracy. Yes, facts: the cornerstone of every story we produce. And context, too – it is always an expectation on us, and on you as well.

The policy acknowledges that making sense of stories takes more than just listing facts. We expect our journalists to add context, to add information about why stories happened, what they mean and how those events fit in a larger picture. Without that, stories can be meaningless, even misleading.

In practice, that means senior journalists – you referred to Keith Boag and Terry Milewski – who have been reporting political stories for decades can bring insight, judgment and experience to inform a story and convey significance not otherwise available. We call it analysis and we clearly identify it for readers in our online stories.

Terry’s recent piece on Mike Duffy is not a report of what happened in court that day. You will find other places on our web pages that cover that. Terry’s piece, “Forget Mike Duffy – the scandal is in the Senate”, is posted under the heading “Analysis”. It is a commonly seen heading on our pages and signals to readers that what follows is not a news story, but an experienced journalist who brings his grasp of the facts, his understanding of the context to add his perspective to the story.

The challenge for all of us at CBC News is doing that effectively without going so far as to express personal opinions on matters of public controversy, which would be a violation of our JSP.

Two years ago, CBC News General Manager and Editor in Chief Jennifer McGuire wrote an excellent blog post on this very subject, entitled, not surprisingly: Opinion vs. Analysis. Jennifer wrote the following:

Our hosts and reporters don’t have free rein to say what they want about the issues of the day. Our (JSP) makes it clear that we’re guided by the principle of impartiality, and that CBC journalists don’t express their own personal opinion because it affects the perception of impartiality and could affect an open and honest exploration of an issue.

The key word here is “personal”. An observation based on the facts of the issue, and years of experience covering a beat, which I would describe as analysis, isn’t the same as a view that comes out of left field without supporting arguments, or in other words, opinion.

Terry’s analysis was largely just that – his perspective and his interpretation of events, but based on the facts.  He definitely uses colorful and deliberately provocative language. And it is possible that the wording used in the section you quoted went too far. Of course, it was not the only paragraph in the story, nor was it the main thesis. But we’ll take a thoughtful look at the whole piece. At CBC News, we argue and debate all the time about where the line is on what reporters are and aren’t allowed to say – just as we did a decade ago when you were reporting from Washington and I was producing The World at Six.

You’ve offered views on Terry’s piece, as well as Keith’s. I am happy to share those thoughts with my colleagues, because this is an issue we will be wrestling with for a long time in a business that is always subjective. The CBC Ombudsman has looked at what she calls “the grey zone” between analysis and opinion on several occasions. Sometimes she has sided with our writers, and sometimes she has ruled that a certain story went too far.

But these are isolated stories. Your blog pretends that this is rampant, and as a result you paint a highly distorted picture of what CBC News is all about.

Instead, you could focus on the literally thousands of stories we produce each week from every corner of the country. The devotion to investigative journalism. The award-winning coverage of important issues from Ebola to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Or the groundbreaking work done every single day on our digital platforms, as we seek the best ways to serve Canadians with the latest news, and the most important public service journalism.

I should note that other public broadcasters grapple with the same dilemma. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, for instance, allows some of its staff to contribute analyses and opinions, and showcases them in a special section of its website known as “The Drum”. You can check it out at http://www.abc.net.au/news/thedrum/about/. I think it’s a fairly innovative approach. And maybe it’s an option we should look at down the road.

But to get back to the very core question: is CBC journalism now mixing fact and opinion, as you suggest? No, it’s not. We are not, as you fear, ignoring our own policy or forgetting what it says. CBC’s journalistic policy remains as strong as it always was and remains the touchstone of our journalism.

I will add a reminder that one of the ways we demonstrate our values is by being accountable through a very public and very effective Ombdusman complaint process. It’s probably the best way to ensure that your concerns get full consideration.

Thanks again for sharing your take, and allow me to wish you a very early happy 2016.

Jack

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CBC Threatens Its Own Future …. The Danger of Mixing Journalism and Opinion

December 14th, 2015

After my post last week complaining – and yes, worrying – about  CBC journalist Keith Boag’s personal opinions  about Donald Trump, I told myself to lie low. It’s the holiday season.

That turns out to be very hard to do, because once one realizes the extent to which personal opinion has become the day-to-day fodder of an ever widening circle of CBC journalists, you see it, hear it and click on it everywhere.

Let me be crystal clear: this threatens the future of the CBC.

I personally agree with Terry Milewski’s “analysis” of the Senate, posted this morning on CBC.ca.

But with a straight face, tell me this is impartial journalism.

For a vast, modern democracy to be saddled with an unelected upper house is an embarrassment ………..  the Senate’s ludicrously lop-sided makeup makes it doubly farcical ….. It’s as though we dug up a relic of an ancient civilization …..  could the rites of the pharaohs be any more bizarre? …..  these absurd imbalances, fossilized by history …. 

Can I say what Terry said? Sure I can, because it’s my personal opinion And I don’t work for CBC. (Anymore.)

Should Terry be saying it on CBC? No, absolutely not.

These comments, these opinions, unequivocally violate – spoiler alert: here’s the broken record again –– CBC’s long-standing and incredibly clearly-written policy statement that its journalists and the organization itself must not take ANY positions on issues in the public life of the country. They must be …. impartial.

CBC’s senior news managers need to get serious about this. It’s their job.

What’s more, Canadian citizens and taxpayers expect CBC to live up to this policy because democratic discussion demands it, in an increasingly partisan media environment and in public life more generally?

This flouting of the Corporation’s own rules is really a serious problem for journalism at the CBC but, clearly, it now is journalism at the CBC.

And that is very dangerous for the organization’s future, especially with many people hoping that a new government in Ottawa may rethink the role of the CBC in Canada’s public life.

As more and more of CBC’s journalism is directly allowed to be – let alone just perceived to be – personal opinion, it nurtures a growing public perception that “the CBC is just another media platform like the other private media platforms in the marketplace, so why exactly, should the public pay taxes to fund it in the future?”

I don’t think the answer should be:

Oh well, get a grip Frank! ….. it’s 2015!

 

Lincoln Electric, 67 straight years without layoffs, 82 straight years of profit-sharing bonuses ….

December 11th, 2015

Lincoln Electric, which I profiled in my book SPARK, just announced its 2015 employee profit-sharing results, backed by the firm’s now 67 years-long unbroken no-layoff promise.

2015 details (2014 in italics) with my comments further below.

 82     =  uninterrupted years paying an employee profit-sharing bonus (Lincoln has been profitable every year since 1934.)

$ 26,291   =  average 2015 bonus / permanent U.S. employee (apprx. 3,000)       (2014 $33,984 )

$ 73,543    =  average 2015 total earnings per employee  (wages/salary + bonus)    (2014  $82,903 )

$ 80 million  (apprx.)   =  pre-tax profits shared among employees (32% of pretax corporate profit)   (2014  $101 million (approx.) )

 0  =  number of layoffs in 2015    (67 years layoff free)

Lincoln (Nasdaq: LECO) remains #1 in the global marketplace for welding technology and materials.

The Guaranteed Continuous Employment Policy remains unbroken since at least 1948.  (The no-layoff track record may in fact go as far back as 1925.)  No one has been laid off at Lincoln Electric in the US for lack of work through the Great Depression, wars and the Great Recession.

My 2015 comments:

These are tough times for manufacturing globally and that includes Lincoln. The collapse in the price of oil, austerity measures in many countries, etc. have reduced spending on infrastructure and construction (for energy projects and general purposes) almost everywhere. These are Lincoln’s prime markets. The rise in the US $ has also lowered sales and hence profits.

As a result, the average bonus is smaller this year. BUT …  no one was laid off.

For a number of months, Lincoln’s US production workers have been on reduced hours: many regularly work only 32 hours per week, the minimum guaranteed under the terms of the no-layoff promise. (Slowdowns in place in other production countries too.) This is a significant and painful sacrifice for employees and their families.

BUT … it still means steady work, no small thing compared with the unemployment office.  (Lincoln employees are covered by the no-layoff policy after 3 years with the firm.)

In 2009/10, as the Great Recession dragged on and on, non-production workers (from the President to floor sweepers) saw their salaries reduced and their workloads were often increased. (This may happen again now.) BUT ….  there were no layoffs.

​ ​ A voluntary separation program is also now being offered, as it was during 2009/10.

Lincoln Electric is an American-based Fortune 1000 multinational. In other countries where it has production facilities, it tries – under often very different legislative, labor and regulatory regimes – to treat its workers with the same respect and employment structure that US employees earn. In Canada, Australia and Mexico, profit-sharing and steady work has remained as close as possible to that in the US itself; further afield, local factors have forced many accommodations.

In the past couple of years, Lincoln has purchased some smaller welding tech companies in the US. In several cases, when offered employment under the Lincoln incentive system – with its appealing upsides of large profit-sharing bonuses and an unbroken no-layoff promise – employees in these new acquisitions have rejected the offer – because the new employment structure also requires them to embrace reduced hours in tough times and compulsory overtime when demand picks up.

Their concerns and fears seem to arise from a deep and profound lack of trust (sadly, all-too-understandable!) in modern corporate leaders that shared sacrifices by everyone in a firm in the tough times will be repaid fairly through significant profit-sharing and guaranteed steady work over the long term

Lincoln Electric has done its best to earn the trust of its workforce by keeping its people on the job through thick and thin – while remaining technologically innovative and thus highly profitable for more than a century.

This goal should be embraced by many more private sector firms and by policy makers in the public sector at all levels.

Opinion vs. Reporting: There Is Still An Important Difference, CBC News!

December 9th, 2015

Just asking …..

Should Keith Boag, CBC’s senior journalist in Washington, cover the ongoing sad state of politics in the US by offering strategic political campaign advice to the US Republican Party?

Republicans have mostly pussy-footed around Trump, taking only tentative little jabs, usually in self-defence,  ever wary of provoking his base.  Surely that can stop now. Trump is a stain on the Republican Party brand that will spread further if it’s not cleaned up fast. So the party needs to get busy. They can begin at next week’s candidates’ debate on CNN.   (emphasis added)

Boag’s call-to-action comes from an “analysis” piece on CBCNews.ca: Donald Trump Muslim ban: Fascist or not, it’s time Republicans face their Trump problem.

The title was probably writ by an online editor, but it accurately summarizes Boag’s opinion of the challenge for Republicans if they are to avoid an electoral disaster in the campaign to win back the White House in 2016.

What’s worrisome here is that more and more often, CBC journalists are being asked to offer their personal takes (called analysis pieces) on stories they regularly cover. And more and more often, these analysis pieces seem to be venturing into what can only be described as personal opinion.

That’s actually the job of editorial commentators, of which CBC would be wise to use more.

A quick read of the CBC’s Code of Journalistic Practice makes it clear, in simple language, what CBC’s journalists can and cannot do.

Impartiality:   We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise. We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.”   

That’s a long way from explicitly telling a political party what it needs to do to get back in power or stay in power.

Or even, yes, yes, hectoring someone about being a decent human being, which The Donald seems to be having trouble doing.

And it doesn’t matter that many others (including senior Republicans) are offering the same advice. Or that the story is unfolding outside Canada.

There is a tendency in this sad Trump tale to just dismiss the importance of separating what is opinion about a story from what is reporting on a story because tens of millions of Americans  – and I’m sure most Canadians – understandably and passionately think Trump is an appalling race-baiting bigot.

Boag is adamant:  “His (Trump’s) candidacy has become unsustainable.”

Really? For sure? How does Boag know?  What will he say if Trump wins some primary votes in the next few months? Or the nomination?

Lots of people in the US believe that is quite possible.

The job of CBC’s journalists is to describe with facts, as accurately as possible, what those involved in a story are actually doing, fearing and dreaming – using the documented words and actions of those individuals and groups.

It’s not for CBC’s journalists to offer their own opinions and verdicts about what some of those individuals should do. Even when it’s so tempting, as it is with Trump, to agree with that opinion.

The danger for good journalism here is that the next time around, you (CBC’s audience) may not agree with the “opinion.”

And then, what will you feel – what will you believe – about the “facts?”

CBC News Isn’t Playing Fair – revised

September 11th, 2015

NOTE SUNDAY EVENING SEPT 13TH: This post was originally put up on Friday night Sept. 11th, soon after Elizabeth May’s interview on The National. This Sunday evening, the 13th, I was made aware of an article posted on CBC.ca on Monday Sept 7th. Please read my original post (following here)  and then an additional note added this evening, Sunday 13th (below.)

ORGINAL posted Sept 11th:       CBC News … Play fair, for crying out loud!

The National just broke its own promise to viewers – and voters – about this week’s series of feature leaders’ interviews .. the one that promised that no party leader would/could see what the others had said before their interview was recorded.

Moments ago, (Friday night, 42:30 minutes into the on-air show (9:42 p.m. EDT on CBC News Network, checked again at 10:42 EDT on CBC main network, ) Peter Mansbridge directly asked Green Party leader Elizabeth May: “You watched the interviews with the other 3 leaders .. is there anything they said that …… etc., etc. …. ” (transcript, roughly 3/4s through)

Are folks in the National’s newsroom deliberately sitting around trying to find ways to undermine public confidence in the CBC’s news tradition of journalistic impartiality? Anytime, let alone in a national election?

Which option as an explanation works for the show?

1. Elizabeth May isn’t a serious player in the election and so wasn’t bound by the promise given to the other “major” party leaders? (Did I miss that exculpatory bit of introductory information? )

2 . Peter mispoke himself?

3. ___________ (fill in the blank)

Bad form ….. and barring an explanation that makes sense … bad journalism.

ADDITONAL COMMENTS ADDED SUNDAY SEPT 13TH: 

This evening I was made aware of an article about the “Leaders Interview Series” this past week which was posted on CBC.ca on Monday 7th, the day the series started.  In the article, you will see the following paragraph.

“Logistically it took us across the country, three cities in four days — from a park in Gatineau, Que. across from Parliament Hill, to a quiet ranch house in Delta, B.C., to the Laurentians outside Montreal and the tiny town of Ste.-Anne-Des-Lacs. The Elizabeth May interview, because of Green Party scheduling issues, won’t be done until later this week and will air on Friday night.”

A few comments on this.

1. This is apparently CBC’s explanation as to why Elizabeth May was not held to/offered the same  conditions of exclusion that bound the other leaders. I don’t think it does that at all, starting with the fact that no where does it suggest that Ms. May will not be bound by the same rules as the others.  This web post does state very clearly that “All sessions would be completed before any was aired, ensuring that no leader would have the advantage of knowing the others’ answers.”

2. I rewatched the shows  available online on CBC.ca and, while it is possible that I may have missed where/when this information (exempting Ms/ May’s interview) was noted, the general tone of all the repeated interview promo spots and introductions was that NONE of  the individual 4 political party leaders saw the comments of any of the others before they were interviewed.

Note first, the wording of the web page title I was alerted to this evening, noted above:

“Behind CBC The National’s interview with Canada’s federal leaders: CBC News Chief Correspondent Peter Mansbridge sits down for 1-on-1 interviews with the 4 leaders.”   (emphasis added. i.e.  4, not 3 leaders and then another 1. )

Note as well the wording of the paragraph below the one cited  above: “Starting Monday, CBC’s The National is airing a series of exclusive interviews with the leaders of Canada’s major political parties: Conservative Party Leader Stephen Harper on Monday, Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau on Tuesday, NDP Party Leader Tom Mulcair on Wednesday and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May on Friday. The interviews will air on CBC’s The National at 9 p.m. ET on CBC News Network and at 10 p.m./10:30 NT on CBC-TV.

3. The above paragraph does not specifically say that due to the scheduling issues, Ms. May was NOT being held to the same conditions as the other. Nor does it cite any other reason why.

4. While Ms. May’s interview was on a Friday night – with a one day break after the first three (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday) – the overall impression given by the texture and tone of the interview introductions and the promo material during the week on CBC everywhere was that these were a unique group of interviews with Canada’s four political leaders battling for election. There was no sense that Ms. May’s interview was a different animal.

5. Many people commented to me – personally and in email – that their ears perked up when Peter Mansbridge said to Ms. May “You’ve seen the other leaders interviews …”

I will leave it there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Well, Look Peter, I’m Actually NOT An Economist” – What Stephen Harper Didn’t Say

September 8th, 2015

Monday night, the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge  made the mistake of referring to Prime Minister Stephen Harper as an economist: “Given your track record on analysis … and you’re not alone as an economist ….

The Prime Minister is many things, but one thing he certainly is not is “an economist.” And it is a serious mistake to grant Harper (or anyone in a position of such power and influence) the authority, gravitas and political advantage that this label can confer.

Credentials and labels are open to interpretation, of course.

But in the world of economics, there are three conditions commonly accepted as entry requirements before someone can wear the label.

These requirements are nowhere formally laid out as individual “absolute minimums.”

And there is, without question, some mutual interplay between them. You don’t need to get 10 out of 10 on all three tests: a high mark on one can cover for a low mark on another. (In economist-talk, this is called “complementarity.”)

But anyone who calls himself an economist needs to score high somewhere on this list of qualifications.

Harper fails completely.

Let’s have a closer look.

1. By far the most common litmus test is a PhD in economics. The P.M. does not have one. Harper has a master’s degree from the University of Calgary, a much more basic level of academic training and expertise.

2. The second is having, over a career, written and published economic work that has been accepted in peer-reviewed publications and conferences in the professional world of economics.

While it is true that economics has changed tremendously in recent years and now embraces a much broader understanding of how economies actually work – – consider, for example, the rise of behavioural economics which embraces fascinating research in human psychology – you need to have made an appearance somewhere in the big leagues of this profession, PhD or not.  Harper has never set foot in this world.

(Has Harper ever been invited to an academic conference to present a paper?)

3. Finally, you don’t get to call yourself an economist unless sometime during your working life, you have held down a job that by any reasonably accepted standards of that profession, clearly requires training in advanced economics as a precondition for doing the work in question.

This means the work demands the skills of an economist, not necessarily the academic credentials. I have two degrees in engineering, for example, but never having worked as one, I would never call myself an engineer.

Harper has never remotely worked in such a position – either in his brief career in the oil industry (where, as best can be uncovered, he was a mail clerk and some sort of computer technician) or in his subsequent political career, which he began 30 years ago.

While it might be a good thing if Canadian Prime Ministers had to be economists, there has never been such a requirement and over the century and a half of Canada’s life as a functioning democracy, no one has ever suggested this as a necessary qualification for leading the country.

So somewhere on the above litmus tests, an economist needs to have scored a few points.

Harper scores zero.

This is not nit-picking.

Canada’s Prime Minister has the overarching power and leading role to shape the economic health and growth of this country. He or she earns that power by winning a national political contest through selling their expertise to voters.

Journalists – who consistently call Harper an economist, happily abetted by Harper himself and those around him in declining to offer corrections – need to be extraordinarily careful not to cloak him in a role which many voters understandably think gives him a clear advantage in governing the country.

Harper may be fascinated by economics. He may see his track record in guiding the Canadian economy as the defining measure of success of his political career.

But Stephen Harper is not an economist.

And it’s a mistake to grant him the credibility of being called one, especially during an election to determine the future of Canada.

Boss Life: Surviving Your Own Small Business – If You’re Lucky.

August 20th, 2015

I seldom review books here, but this one really deserves it.

I first stumbled onto Paul Downs when he was writing for the New York Times’s You’re The Boss blog, where he regularly chronicled the day-to-day challenges of running his small custom-design conference table company. (Look at his website to see the amazing pieces he and his team have created for the World Bank, the United Nations, the US Defense Department, Fortune 500 multinationals and on and on. Beautiful craftsmanship.)

I enjoyed his NYT posts immensely, for the clarity of his writing (you felt as if you were on the shop floor with him) but as well, for the honesty he demonstrated in describing how he faced – and sometimes failed to solve – the myriad of problems that cascade down on any small business owner. We have shared emails about profit-sharing and no layoff policies, which I wrote about in SPARK.

Downs has just published an excellent, highly-readable book, Boss Life: Surviving My Own Business, which explores how he and his firm made it through one calendar year, 2012. Not his worst year ever, not the best.

Just because your stunningly beautiful conference tables can sell for $50,000 and grace boardrooms of some of the world’s major institutions and private companies – it doesn’t mean there is always another sale just ahead.

In fact, the stories of how Downs and his sales team struggle to drum up contracts from opaque government departments, vague and weird foreign firms, semi-deceptive private companies and the odd dream client make for fascinating reading.

As reader, you hold your breath to see if he is going to make the next payroll – the relentless nightmare that appears every two weeks.

Meanwhile, he’s navigating the minefield of labor relations, pondering how to motivate both new workers and old-timers, be open about looming financial disaster, find time and money to train the sales staff, face the pain of firing someone who has cheated the company …

In other words, business as normal for any small company’s founder and now CEO.

Downs doesn’t shy away from also bringing his family into his work life – who can? One of his sons is navigating the highly precarious high-tech economy in Silicon Valley. Another son, now in his 20s, has autism, with all the attendant personal and financial challenges that places on a loving family.

This is a great story, with real characters, real suspense (would you want your firm’s future in the hands of a company across the world that never answers emails after promising you the moon?) and a demonstrable sense that this CEO really cares about his workers as people.

If you have ever run your own firm, perhaps worked in one or are harbouring dreams of starting one, you’ll love this. Especially the dreamers – because you have no idea what’s ahead of you!

All Paul Downs ever wanted to do when he graduated with an Ivy League education was to work with wood and make beautiful furniture.

29 years later, every once and awhile, he can take a few minutes to walk through his workshop in Philadelphia and chat with the craftsmen he employees about their latest projects – before racing back upstairs to his office to try to fix a website that has crashed, calm an irate customer 500 miles away when a delivery goes awry or worry about how to avoid a layoff.

Everyone in public life throws off the phrase about “small business being the foundation of our economy.”

Read this and you’ll find out what it means to actually run one.

Hats off to Paul Downs.  A survivor.