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Media Report

Where the media was when the lights went out

by Arthur Weinreb

August 25, 2003

The media was front and center when "Blackout 2003" occurred on August 14, throwing 50 million people in eight states and Ontario into darkness. Time will tell whether the blackout, and subsequent fears of rolling blackouts, were as serious as we are constantly being told they are.

The anti-Conservative media was quick off the mark to blame Ontario Premier Ernie Eves for the blackout, even though it appeared that a problem in northern Ohio triggered the cascading effect that plunged millions into darkness. On Global TV’s Focus Ontario, which aired two days after the blackout, host Graham Richardson tore into Eves for not having advised Ontarians on how to survive without electricity. Acting like a shill for Ontario Leader Howard Hampton, Richardson appeared agitated when the Premier wouldn’t admit that Ontario, let alone any of his policies, were responsible for what had happened on August 14. Much like the blackout in 1965, the failure of the North American grid at this particular time was not predicable; yet the host couldn’t get over the fact that the Eves’ government had not warned the population that it was going to happen.

Richardson was implying that the blackout was the fault of the Ontario government, even though the evidence at that time suggested otherwise. If Richardson had the facts to back up his implication of blame, that would have been one thing; but the implications in his questions were such that he could not have shown more bias had he been wearing a "Re-elect Howard Hampton" button.

There is no law that says that only governments can provide information, such as what to do when the lights go out, to the population. There are rumours that the media sometimes provides information. If Graham Richardson was genuinely concerned about Ontarians not having enough information to be able to function in a blackout, he could have provided it. But, much like the Province of Ontario on the evening of August 14, he didn’t have the energy.

Many media outlets were quick to blame the leaders for reacting slowly. Ontario Premier Ernie Eves and Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman were chastised for waiting about 3 hours to speak to the public. Are we that weak and helpless that we are lost in the dark, so to speak, if not addressed immediately by the Premier and the Mayor? The left wing, anti-American, Canadian media hailed New York Mayor Michael "no smoking" Bloomberg for addressing New Yorkers immediately. It didn’t seem to matter that, at the time Bloomberg spoke, it was too early to know what had caused the blackout. That didn’t stop the New York mayor from blaming Canada for the power outage. For the media that criticized Eves and Lastman, misinformation was better than no information at all.

There was some, but not much, in the media about Jean Chrétien’s staying in air-conditioned Shawinigan, and refraining from making public statements. The media knows, as does the Canadian public, that after 9/11, SARS, and Mad Cow Disease, our boy Jean doesn’t do crises. At least not if they happen outside of Quebec. The press even played down Chrétien’s comments that the blackout was caused by a lightning strike in the Niagara region, and his self-serving bravado about how he finally managed to talk to President Bush on the phone. Prime Minister Chrétien is irrelevant, and the media seems consigned to that fact.

Toronto Star publisher, John Honderich, wrote an interesting column entitled: "Newspapers are a vital service." Honderich said, in part: "Unlike our competitors, we did not have quick access to Quebec printing plants to roll off even an abbreviated paper [on Friday]." It is somewhat ironic that the anti-Conservative Toronto Star that has been preaching doom and gloom scenarios of blackouts and brownouts the most over the Ontario government’s energy policies, was the least prepared for the blackout than all of its competitors. Honderich justifies why the media has to continue while other businesses are expected to cut back, even though no one was calling for the media to scale back. His column boils down to liberal guilt--Honderich feels guilty about the fact that the paper continues to prosper while small grocery store owners are tossing out food. No one was suggesting that the media should scale back its activities of providing its readers and viewers with news. Even Mayor Mel, while ranting and raving and telling citizens to boycott businesses that don’t reduce their power usage, didn’t criticize the media for continuing to report the news. John Honderich justified something that no one was demanding justification for. It was a strange column, but that’s nothing new for the publisher who ran a series of anti-police columns because of the Toronto Star’s commitment to social justice, but then turned around and asked his critics not to shoot the messenger.