Carol Off is a journalist and former co-host of CBC’s As It Happens. Mellissa Fung is a Canadian journalist based in London. Her husband is CTV’s chief international correspondent.
Executives at CTV and Bell Media might be scratching their heads right now, trying to understand the backlash to their “business decision” to oust one of Canada’s most trusted and accomplished television journalists. They perhaps had no idea how much viewers value a reliable source of news in this country and that Lisa LaFlamme was an indispensable part of that.
But for those who work in the profession, it was even more disturbing. That’s because it posed the obvious question: If a woman of her stature can be axed, absent of any plausible cause, where does that leave the legions of women who struggle daily in the trenches to produce the news? Sexism and chauvinism are alive and well.
Take it from two women who have spent years in those trenches. We know that Ms. LaFlamme’s dismissal has sent a chill through the spines of skilled and dedicated female journalists who must constantly fight age-old biases that are baked into our profession, especially in television news.
Consider first the message it sends to younger women starting their journalism careers. They already ask themselves whether it is prudent to challenge the decisions of a boss, or whether they should speak up in editorial meetings. Will they be called “difficult” when their male colleagues might be considered “forceful” for asking the same questions? To see a woman at the top of her field cut down might make them more reluctant, and that in turn affects the quality of the news that they’re producing. We all lose out, news producer and consumer alike.
It’s most worrisome for female journalists who are non-white. Many of them have already been subjected to increased harassment recently, including death threats against them and their families over their reporting. They’ve asked that these attacks be taken seriously because just doing their job now means taking on a real risk to their physical safety. No matter what reassurances they receive, actions speak louder than words. They may now feel that it’s a career-limiting move to speak out.
We need more young women to join our profession, confident that they will be respected. What happened to Ms. LaFlamme might further discourage BIPOC women from entering a business they already fear won’t take them seriously.
And what message does it send to older women, matured by years of experience in conflict zones at home and abroad, hoping their best work still lies ahead? The answer to that is clear: “You are expendable.” No matter how hard you work and how much you give up to do this work, ageism and sexism will find you one day. Male colleagues who are going grey have much less to fear. Will older women now bite their tongues and check their opinions lest they also be dispatched similarly? In our industry, there is no court of appeal.
There are five women on the board of BCE, Bell Media’s parent company. All of them reached the pinnacle of their careers in the corporate world, in what was no doubt a testosterone-fuelled environment, just as Ms. LaFlamme did in journalism. It would be nice to hear their voices right now, to help us make some sense of this.
The ramifications of ousting Ms. LaFlamme go beyond our profession and affect the public interest in important ways. In this precarious era of fake news and phony facts, people need our profession to show courage. Journalism is at its best when it challenges authority, asks hard questions and speaks truth to power. Ms. LaFlamme is a journalist’s journalist who did all of that for 35 years. But how much harder is that to do if you’re a woman on a short-term contract that might disappear with one stroke of an accountant’s pen or on the whim of a new boss?
Ms. LaFlamme’s ousting opens the door for a Muslim man to make history by taking the helm of the most-watched TV news program in Canada. We have nothing but good wishes for Omar Sachedina, who is a strong journalist in his own right. Ms. LaFlamme’s many years in the field informed her role as a leader in the newsroom; she reportedly fought for the resources required to keep her show at the top of the ratings. That is a battle in every newsroom and it will continue.
This whole unhappy fiasco has upended how we think of the profession we chose. We thought we were making progress and paving the way for generations of young women coming after us, just as we followed in others’ footsteps. But now, we fear for the young journalists Ms. LaFlamme inspired to enter the business. The challenges they faced in this business were already considerable. Will they wonder if there’s a future for them in journalism? And what will be lost if they leave?
Ms. LaFlamme has long been a trusted voice, an admired mentor and a great journalist. Her dismissal was a blow to all of us, to our profession, and is a harsh reality check that the issues women have long faced in our industry have yet to be resolved.
We deserve much better.
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