I’ve been taken aback by the healthcare news coming out of Canada. Hospitals across the country have been forced to close because of a nationwide nursing shortage, and conditions at emergency centers are dire. One Toronto ER doc captured the horror in this commentary published by Maclean’s. Conditions are what I’d expect in a third-world country.
But Canada’s declining healthcare wasn’t the hot topic these past few weeks. Instead, Canadians were in a tizzy about the dumping of a television anchor person named Lisa LaFlamme (pronounced LaFlum) who’s been widely portrayed as a victim of sexism and ageism because of an unproven allegation that she was fired for allowing her hair to go gray. The furor reached such a crescendo that Wendy’s Canadian subsidiary and other companies took a stand on the matter.
LaFlamme’s sacking has garnered critical U.S. media attention, with the New York Times weighing in, as has the Washington Post. Even the local El Segundo publication in Southern California published a critical opinion on the supposed reasons for LaFlamme’s firing.
I’m very sympathetic to workplace ageism, which is indeed pervasive in U.S. media. Journalism has never been a business where one could age gracefully, and that’s especially true in television news, where good looks are a job requirement. One could fire a cannon in most U.S. newsrooms and be assured of hitting few, if any, persons over 55. It was true of Toronto’s and Montreal’s newsrooms when I worked in those cities, but perhaps things have changed in the intervening decades. I doubt it.
The media narrative about LaFlamme, an anchor on Canada’s commercial CTV television network, is that she was fired because she allowed to her hair to go gray. The allegation is rooted in this Globe and Mail story quoting an anonymous CTV employee who claimed that Michael Melling, vice president of news, had questioned the decision to “let Lisa’s hair go grey” in a meeting. The story said that on another occasion, Melling expressed concern that LaFlamme’s hair color was taking on a purple hue in the studio lighting.
The Globe story also disclosed that there were tensions between Melling and LaFlamme, particularly over budget issues. Although Melling previously worked as a journalist, he holds an MBA from Wilfrid Laurier University and is portrayed in the Globe article as a corporate suit focused more on containing CTV’s expenses.
Reporters covering LaFlamme’s dismissal omitted, possibly deliberately, some critical details. According to the New York Times, LaFlamme garnered the best national news anchor award the past two years, which isn’t as impressive as it sounds because Canada only has three national news networks. The Times also said LaFlamme was Canada’s most watched national news show.
That stat on its own is meaningless without knowing whether the size of LaFlamme’s audience was growing or shrinking. More importantly, no reporter thought to mention whether LaFlamme was attracting the 25-55-year-old demographic that advertisers covet.
The Times and other publications also noted that two well-known Canadian male anchors were allowed to continue working until 69 and 77 and bid farewell to viewers on air but neglected to mention that the departures occurred in 2017 and 2011, when network newscasts attracted bigger and loyal audiences.
Regardless, Canada’s government funded CBC television network obtained an internal CTV memo that said the network wanted to give LaFlamme an opportunity to give an on-air farewell, but she declined the offer.
LaFlamme, reportedly one of CTV’s highest paid employees, achieved martyrdom status by announcing her departure after she left the network with a grainy video she recorded at her cottage and posted on Twitter. She acknowledged CTV made “a business decision” not to extend her contract and that she was “blindsided” by the call.
Bell Media, which owns CTV, is a subsidiary of BCE Inc., a publicly traded company that also owns Bell Canada, a telecommunications company providing mobile phone and high-speed internet among other services. Television news is a dollar and cents business, under pressure to cut costs because consumers, particularly millennials, prefer to get their information from other sources.
In March, Bell Media fired more than 200 journalists and shut down three radio stations without giving their employees notice. Among the carnage was Scott Roberts, an award-winning journalist and co-anchor of CTV’s flagship Vancouver newscast. Roberts doesn’t strike me as that old, so ageism wasn’t a factor in his dismissal.
As noted in a National Post op-ed by Jesse Kline, nearly 14,000 Canadian media employees lost their jobs between 2010 and 2021, and no communal tears were shed for any of them.
The network budget cuts in Canada are similar to what’s happening in the U.S. It’s been reported that Norah O’Donnell, the anchor for the “CBS Evening News,” had her pay package slashed by more than 50 percent amid a brutal round of cost cuts.
Bell can’t mount any public defense of its decision to let LaFlamme go because company president Mirko Bibic said the company is “bound by a mutual separation agreement negotiated with Lisa.”
LaFlamme has refused to publicly discuss her termination. I’d wager a bet that she’s remained silent because she doesn’t want to jeopardize what I expect was a very lucrative severance package, one that could support the funding of quite a few journalists who do considerably more than just read aloud the content posted on a teleprompter.
LaFlamme is a sharp contrast to Wendy Mesley, an award-winning and trailblazing broadcaster at the government funded CBC network who was forced out after using the N-word in a meeting. Mesley, who worked at the CBC for nearly 40 years, admitted in an op-ed she made some mistakes, but refused a settlement offer that would have required her to remain silent about telling her side of the story.
“As a journalist who put a lot of people on the spot, and who hated being told ‘no comment,’ that was never gonna happen,” Mesley wrote.
Silence appears to suit LaFlamme just fine. As for Bell Media, it strikes me as being considerably more progressive than any U.S. network. LaFlamme’s replacement is Omar Sachedena, who is a person of color and a Muslim. Sachedina was born in Vancouver to parents of Indian descent from Uganda and grew up in an Ismaili-Muslim household. He speaks French, Gujarati, and Kutchi.