media

Jonah Lehrer’s “Mystery”

An unexpected benefit of mask-wearing is being able to say things without being heard. That came in handy a few weeks ago at my local public library, when I uttered “what in the actual f***?” at the completely unexpected sight of a new Jonah Lehrer book.

As you might remember, Lehrer’s writing career derailed nearly 10 years ago when numerous instances of plagiarism and inaccuracy were uncovered in his books and magazine articles. Two of his books were withdrawn from sale by their publishers, and most of the publications he wrote for dropped him as a contributor and removed his discredited articles from their websites. Lehrer gave a controversial speech of apology and co-operated with author Jon Ronson for a chapter in Ronson’s book on public shaming, but since then his writing has mostly been seen on his own blog and in two books that slipped by without much notice.

Mystery, the new book, is indeed mysterious in that it seems to have sprung out of nowhere. I couldn’t find any online news about a new Lehrer book on the way, and there doesn’t seem to have been much advance promotion for the book. So, being intrigued by that additional layer of mystery, of course I read it.

I posted about Lehrer’s previous problems several times on this blog, including an analysis of his now-withdrawn book Imagine which became a featured post on WordPress and attracted thousands of readers. I don’t say this to be boastful, but to be forthright about the reality that I’m familiar with the controversial history of Lehrer’s writing – and that inevitably colours how I look at his current work. I didn’t deliberately go through Mystery looking for things to pick on, but I have to be truthful and say that there were several places where information in the book just didn’t read or feel right. When I encountered those places, I did additional research on the information that Lehrer presented.

The book (more…)

Blowing the Whistle on the CBC

One of the principles that managers are taught is the importance of listening to employees. Listening to employees makes them feel valued and included. But the other side of that principle, which regularly gets overlooked, is that the listening should result in action. If employees express concerns about the organization to managers, and nothing happens, that can lead to a distrust that potentially undermines the employee-manager relationship in the long run.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) is Canada’s publicly funded national English-language broadcaster; its French-language counterpart is Radio-Canada. In the last couple of years, CBC has had several internal management-employee disputes that have spilled into public view. After radio host Jian Ghomeshi was fired in 2014, it emerged that several employees had filed formal and informal complaints with CBC management about his harassment and abuse, but no meaningful action was ever taken. Last year, there was criticism of the CBC’s coverage of anti-racism protests in the US, reports that journalist/host Wendy Mesley had twice used the N-word in workplace meetings, and an arbitration decision that found CBC had wrongly dismissed a reporter who criticized comments by (former) hockey commentator Don Cherry. Not surprisingly, CBC employees then publicly expressed concerns about the lack of diversity within CBC’s own workforce, as well as bias in the choices of what was considered “news” and how some issues were presented.

In response to those complaints, CBC editor-in-chief Brodie Fenlon publicly committed to a number of workplace initiatives, including (more…)

Into the Gap

Happy 2021!

The Globe and Mail newspaper is currently running a series of articles titled Power Gap: a data-based investigation into gender inequality in Canadian workplaces. I’m really pleased to see attention and resources being directed towards understanding this issue. To date, the articles are doing a very good job of unpicking why there are more men than women in positions of power in Canadian workplaces, and why men are generally better-paid. But the series also shows how difficult it is to address these imbalances in a substantive way, because of data limitations. It’s hard to solve a problem without fully understanding what’s causing the problem.

The complete explanation of the Power Gap project methodology is paywalled, but to summarize it, the analysis relies on data from “sunshine lists” – lists of public sector employees with an annual salary above a certain level, which most Canadian provincial governments release every year. Because these lists are not consistently formatted across provinces – for example, not all provinces release employees’ full names – the data on the lists had to be combined and then adjusted so the data were comparable.

Also, since the purpose of the Power Gap project was to investigate gender inequality, the employees’ gender had to be added to the data set. Gender data were collected through several different methods, including (more…)

What Does “Systemic Racism” Mean?

“Systemic racism” is a term that’s been heard a lot in recent weeks, as communities, regions, and societies confront long-standing ugly realities around race and inequality. But what’s lacking in many of the reports about these upheavals is an explanation of what “systemic racism” means.

My expertise on this issue is primarily around how systemic racism functions in the workplace, not how it operaties in policing or in other contexts. However, since the commissioner of Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) has finally admitted that there is systemic racism within the RCMP itself, it’s worth remembering that what happens inside an organization or workplace can affect how the organization’s members interact with others. So understanding systemic racism within workplaces can also help to understand systemic racism elsewhere.

It’s also important to remember that organizations don’t make decisions or choices; people do. An organization doesn’t decide by itself to be racist or sexist or ableist. It’s decisions by people within the organization that cause those situations.

So when we talk about changing organizations to become less discriminatory and more inclusive – yes, we have to look at the policies and rules that guide how the organization operates, but we also have to look at the people within the organization, and the patterns of their decisions, and their attitudes. If people don’t change the way they act or think, then the organization won’t change.

To understand what “systemic racism” means, let’s start (more…)

(Not) Helping Canadian Journalism

The Local Journalism Initiative (LJI) is a fund set up by the Canadian government in 2019 to “support the creation of original civic journalism that covers the diverse needs of underserved communities across Canada”.  News organizations can apply for funds to cover the salaries of newly hired reporters, if those reporters are assigned to specific beats that address “news deserts”.   To maintain editorial independence, the fund is administered by a group of news industry associations that oversee the application and adjudication process.

Media organizations everywhere are having financial problems, largely because of competition from free online content and because of advertising buys going to websites and social media. So the intent of the LJI is commendable, especially if it can help support local reporting – which, as we’ve recently seen in the US, is critical in keeping governments accountable, and in building democracy by keeping citizens informed.

But LJI funds should not be going to media organizations that have largely been the architects of their own financial misfortune – and which could also be blamed for creating the “news deserts” that the LJI is trying to fix. Two obvious examples of such organizations that LJI has funded are the newspaper chains Postmedia and Saltwire.

Jeremy Klaszus, publisher of the award-winning online publication Sprawl Calgary, posted a thread on Twitter this week, after Sprawl’s application for LJI funding was rejected for a second straight year. (more…)

Invisible Systems, Invisible Women

Reading one book right after another book can make you think differently about both books.

Caroline Criado Perez’ Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men and Chris Clearfield and András Tilcsik’s Meltdown: Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do about It are both very insightful. Invisible Women describes, through numerous and very depressing examples, how a world that pretends to be “gender neutral” is still a male world, because gender does matter.

When gender isn’t considered in system development or product design, or isn’t separated out in data collection, outputs that are supposed to serve everyone often don’t work for women. For example, first-responder safety gear designed for “average” (read=male) bodies can actually be dangerous for women to wear, because the components don’t fit correctly and thus aren’t as protective as they need to be.

Another of Criado Perez’ examples (more…)

Diversity, Bias, and Workflow

Last Friday, the website of the Vancouver Sun newspaper posted an op-ed article titled Can Social Trust and Diversity Co-Exist? The opinion piece, submitted by Mount Royal University instructor Mark Hecht, argued that “a not insignificant proportion of Muslim immigrants have no intention of assimilating into any western society” and concluded that “the minimum requirement is that we say goodbye to diversity, tolerance and inclusion if we wish to be a society that can rebuild the trust we used to have in one another, and start accepting a new norm for immigration policy”.

As you might imagine, the article caused a firestorm of criticism, and it was pulled from the newspaper’s website – although it still appeared in the Sun’s Saturday print edition, which had already gone to press. Many commentators were asking why anyone at the Sun would have approved this article for publication, with its shoddy argumentation, lack of solid evidence, and anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim bias. (The article is still available on several other Internet sites; I don’t want to give it any more attention by linking to it, but you can find those sites by Googling the article title.)

The Sun’s editor, Harold Munro, posted an apology to readers that included a commitment to a “[review of] our local workflow and editorial processes to ensure greater oversight and accountability”. Since then, he met with Sun staff in person and promised further changes, although it appears there’s still a great deal of internal dissent and dissatisfaction around the matter.

As a former Sun employee, I was deeply upset that this article made it into print and online. I was also very impressed that many current Sun staff members publicly expressed their opposition to the article. But when I read Munro’s apology, I suspected that the “workflow” issue relates to the ongoing extensive staff cutbacks throughout Postmedia, the company that owns the Sun. It may be difficult for Sun editors to identify potentially problematic content if they’re overworked and on deadline, and have a space on a page that needs to be filled right away.

But then I wondered: how difficult is it to tell that Hecht’s article is problematic? So I sat down with (more…)

Fifteen Paths

When I saw the description of David Weitzner’s book Fifteen Paths – “the work of a disillusioned business professor who gave up on old arguments and set out to learn about the power of imagination” – I knew this was a book I wanted to read. As the readers of this blog know, I am a business professor, and while I don’t think I would call myself “disillusioned”, I definitely have a lot of problems with the standard curriculum in business degree programs and with the negative effects of traditional business structures. ECW Press was kind enough to provide me with a review copy of the book, and I also had the opportunity to speak with David about how Fifteen Paths happened.

Fifteen Paths is an unusual business book. Unlike most business books, it doesn’t have (more…)

Unionizing Comics

I probably stopped reading comic books in the middle of my teens (although I love comic strips in newspapers), so my knowledge of the comics industry is pretty outdated. However, I’m always interested in unionizing campaigns for any type of worker, so I was intrigued when I came across the Twitter account Let’s Unionize Comics. Sasha Bassett runs that account; she is a Ph.D student at Portland State University and a self-declared “all-around pop culture junkie”. She has also conducted a survey of workers in the comics industry about their working conditions and their workplace concerns. Sasha graciously agreed to be interviewed via email about the comics industry and her vision of how it could become unionized.

Fiona: For readers who may not be familiar with how the comics industry works, can you describe its structure? For example, is it dominated by major companies, or is there a significant number of independent firms? Do comics artists work on their own and then try to sell their work, or are they usually commissioned to do specific projects?

Sasha: The structure of the comics industry is complex and fairly non-standardized. The market is absolutely dominated by (more…)

Al Snow’s “Self Help”

Professional wrestling is a fascinating industry. From my perspective as someone who does research on organizations, professional wrestling doesn’t work the way a successful industry is supposed to work, but it somehow manages to survive. There’s practices within the industry that are questionable – such as World Wrestling Entertainment’s classifying its “Superstars” as independent contractors rather than employees – and there’s things that happen in wrestling that shouldn’t happen in any kind of organization. And even though there’s a fair amount of regular turnover, as some wrestling companies close and others start up, and as wrestlers move from company to company, there always seems to be enough devoted fans for professional wrestling to keep on going.

As a kid, Al Snow was one of those devoted fans – and he went on to spend more than 35 years in the wrestling industry. I’m really happy that he’s written an autobiography, because I loved his work as a performer. However, Snow’s story is particularly intriguing, because (more…)