More than a week after the news broke that CTV had fired Lisa LaFlamme, the controversy is still raging. Social media, naturally, is ablaze, but so are the op-ed pages, the talk radio shows and the dining tables of the nation. A petition to have her reinstated as anchor of the CTV National News has passed the 150,000-signature mark, while her farewell video is now up to 4.5 million views.
It is, in short, a disaster. Others have written feelingly of the apparent sexism and ageism at work in the decision to remove a 58-year-old woman at the top of her game, especially after her predecessor, Lloyd Robertson, was allowed to stay until he was 77. Me, I’m more struck by how cosmically dumb it was. Cockups on this scale only come along once a generation, so it is appropriate that we all take a moment out of our busy days to contemplate its majesty.
How, after all, was this supposed to end well for the network? Perhaps, if it had offered some sort of coherent or at least intelligible rationale for the decision, it might have survived the inevitable blowback. If, say, the show was trailing in the ratings, it might have been possible to file the story under “television is a cruel game” and move on. If, likewise, Ms. LaFlamme had begun to lose a step – slurred her consonants, mispronounced the capital of Bosnia, that sort of thing – it might have had a certain Darwinian logic, at least to those of us in the hard-hearted community.
But neither of those actually apply. The CTV nightly news is among the most watched news shows in the country. Ms. LaFlamme is a five-time winner for best news anchor at the Canadian Screen Awards, including the last two years running. So what was it?
Perhaps the network has some idea itself, but if so it has proved singularly unable to explain it: Not in the Pravda-like account that appeared in its own newscasts (“Lisa LaFlamme is leaving CTV News,” as if she had simply retired); not in its initial press release (”changing viewer habits … business decision etc”); not in subsequent self-pitying public statements (“we’ve been dealing with a difficult and high profile change in recent days”); not in a town hall with its own staff (“sometimes you look at it holistically.”)
The network has compounded this bureaucratic opacity by attempts to smear Ms. LaFlamme’s character (reporters have been buttonholed with off-the-record accounts of her alleged imperiousness with staff), when not seeking to blame her for the suddenness of her whacking (“She opted to not say goodbye to the public during a CTV National newscast,” a CTV exec sniffed in that internal memo, neglecting to mention that the “goodbye” was conditional on her colluding in the pretense that she had retired).
Needless to say none of this has worked out as intended. The suits evidently thought this would be a two-day story. Yet here we are, in week two, and the damage continues to mount. Among the casualties: Ms. LaFlamme’s replacement, Omar Sachedina, who has faced his own torrent of online criticism. (I’d have more sympathy for him, had he not posted his own monumentally tone-deaf tweet on the matter, in what is evidently the house style: “So excited to be working with our incredibly talented team in this new role!”)
Add it up – the original decision to fire a popular female anchor, the ham-handed way it was done, the obtuse efforts to explain it, and the even more obtuse attempts to make their inability to explain themselves into the story (“CTV regrets that the way in which the news of her departure has been communicated may have left viewers with the wrong impression”) – and the program may never recover. To the inevitable loss of viewers that follows any changes in format or personnel (TV viewers are nothing if not creatures of habit) there is likely to be a significant additional erosion due to the public backlash.
And yet the network is stuck, unable either to advance or retreat, knowing it is headed for disaster but wholly incapable of admitting it. A decision like this, after all, would not have been made only on the whim of a lowly VP of news, as early reports had it. It was reportedly signed off on, not only by the president of Bell Media, Wade Oosterman, but by Mirko Bibic, president and CEO of Bell Canada.
Reversing the decision, then, would implicate not only the person who made the initial decision, but the whole executive food chain. And so it must be maintained, whatever the cost – to the program, the news division, or the company. What’s that line of Barbara Tuchman’s? “Awful momentum makes carrying through easier than calling off folly.”
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