November 28, 2022

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Lisa LaFlamme, CTV News, and Bad Executive Decisions

Former CTV national anchor
Lisa LaFlamme

There will be no bittersweet on-air goodbye for (now former) CTV national news anchor Lisa LaFlamme, no ceremonial passing of the baton to the next generation, no broadcast retrospectives lionizing a journalist with a storied and award-winning career. As LaFlamme announced yesterday, CTV’s parent company, Bell Media, has decided to unilaterally end her contract. (See also the CBC’s reporting of the story here.)

While LaFlamme herself doesn’t make this claim, there was of course immediate speculation that the network’s decision has something to do with the fact that LaFlamme is a woman of a certain age. LaFlamme is 58, which by TV standards is not exactly young — except when you compare it to the age at which popular men who proceeded her have left their respective anchor’s chairs: consider Peter Mansbridge (who was 69), and Lloyd Robertson (who was 77).

But an even more sinister theory is now afoot: rather than mere, shallow misogyny, evidence has arisen of not just sexism, but sexism conjoined with corporate interference in newscasting. Two evils for the price of one! LaFlamme was fired, says journalist Jesse Brown, “because she pushed back against one Bell Media executive.” Brown reports insiders as claiming that Michael Melling, vice president of news at Bell Media, has bumped heads with LaFlamme a number of times, and has a history of interfering with news coverage. Brown further reports that “Melling has consistently demonstrated a lack of respect for women in senior roles in the newsroom.”

Needless to say, even if a personal grudge plus sexism explain what’s going on, here, it still will seem to most as a “foolish decision,” one sure to cause the company headaches. Now, I make it a policy not to question the business savvy of experienced executives in industries I don’t know well. And I advise my students not to leap to the conclusion that “that was a dumb decision” just because it’s one they don’t understand. But still, in 2022, it’s hard to imagine that the company (or Melling more specifically) didn’t see that there would be blowback in this case. It’s one thing to have disagreements, but it’s another to unceremoniously dump a beloved and award-winning woman anchor. And it’s bizarre that a senior executive at a news organization would think that the truth would not come out, given that, after all, he’s surrounded by people whose job, and personal commitment, is to report the news.

And it’s hard not to suspect that this a less than happy transition for LaFlamme’s replacement, Omar Sachedina. Of course, I’m sure he’s happy to get the job. But while Bell Media’s press release quotes Sachedina saying graceful things about LaFlamme, surely he didn’t want to assume the anchor chair amidst widespread criticism of the transition. He’s taking on the role under a shadow. Perhaps the prize is worth the price, but it’s also hard not to imagine that Sachedina had (or now has) some pull, some ability to influence that manner of the transition. I’m not saying (as some surely will) that — as an insider who knows the real story — he should have declined the job as ill-gotten gains. But at the very least, it seems fair to argue that he should have used his influence to shape the transition. And if the now-senior anchor doesn’t have that kind of influence, we should be worried indeed about the independence of that role, and of that newsroom.

A final, related note about authority and governance in complex organizations. In any reasonably well-governed organization, the decision to axe a major, public-facing talent like LaFlamme would require sign-off — or at least tacit approval — from more than one senior executive. This suggests that one of two things is true. Either Bell Media isn’t that kind of well-governed organization, or a large number of people were involved in, and culpable of, unceremoniously dumping an award-winning journalist. Which is worse?