Grow up, Globe

Today’s edition of the Globe and Mail has a feature story called “Grow up, cyclists”. It’s a story about bicycle advocacy in Toronto, the city’s Bike Plan and the Toronto Cyclists Union. The Cyclists Union is a project in development, set to launch in June. I’m the project coordinator.

As a community organiser and municipal advocate, I rely heavily on mainstream media to spread ideas across this large city. Sometimes the message gets distorted by the media, and that’s often just part of the game of activism. But today’s article, and specifically the headline, went a little too far and I’d like to respond to that. (And it won’t fit in a ‘letter to the editor’, so thank you Spacing). I feel the article is unnecessarily divisive and also contains a few factual errors.

The headline is “Grow up, cyclists” followed by “It’s time for bikers to drop the gimmicks, says Spacing’s Dave Meslin. Out of a chorus of fractured voices, he’s forming a union that will present one strong message at City Hall”.

1) I never said that cyclists have to ‘grow up’. I aspire to be a Peter Pan myself and would love to see a little more youthful optimism in our political culture. I did say to the writer that we need to come up with messages that are less ‘activisty’ and develop a more ‘mature aesthetic’, but that was purely in the context of how we need to reach suburban motorists, not just the converted. My point was that we need drivers to get out of their cars and try riding their bikes more often. To reach those drivers, we need a different style of message than we would use to talk to the Critical Mass scene. But we also need a Critical Mass scene.

2) As for gimmicks, again I think my lines were taken out of context. What I said to the writer was that because the environment is such a hot issue and the call for sustainable transportation is louder than ever and accepted by all political stripes, and the number of cyclists is growing, we don’t need to rely on gimmicks anymore to be heard. My point was that I’m confident the time has come for cyclists to be taken seriously as an organised community, rather than ignored as a marginalised voice. But that doesn’t mean we should drop the gimmicks! And it doesn’t mean that I’m judging other organisers or offering them advice. Any strong movement has a diversity of approaches and tactics. Anyone who knows me, knows that I use and love gimmicks in all my work. (I learned the value of politically relevant gimmicks from my late dear friend, Tooker Gomberg.) The Bike Union will be full of gimmicks, and it would be a shame for the bike movement to lose any of its tricks, from street parties, to guaranteed bikelanes, critical mass, world naked bike ride, cute bumper stickers, guerilla bike lanes, etc.

In short, I respect and support all the cycling organizing that is happening in Toronto.

3) The article states that I am “the man behind spacing magazine”. While I played a significant role in founding the magazine four years ago, I have not been involved at all since then and can take no credit for their incredible success. I’m proud to be identified as part of their team, but it is inaccurate.

4) The article states that the City was aiming to install 30km of bikelanes this year but so far they are only at 18. Those numbers are from the City and are pure spin. The City has only installed about 6.5 km of bike lanes this year, not 18. And in order to meet their own commitments to the bike plan they need to be installing over 100km per year, not 30.

But the real issue I have with this article, is there headline choice. The writer, Tenille Bonoguore, made a few smalls errors and worded things a little differently than I would have liked, but that’s life. What the Globe did was pull the two most divisive phrases out of the entire article and use them in their headline. The phrases are “drop the gimmicks” and “grow up, cyclists”. The implication is that there is some level of conflict, fueled by opposing and competing views as how to organise within the bicycle movement. But if you read the article you’ll see that neither of those quotes are attributed to me. They are the writer’s own words.

The Cyclists Union project aims to unify the cycling community, not divide. While there are voids to fill, and new approaches to be tried, that should not reflect negatively on the amazing work being done.

When asked to participate in this story, I was hesitant to agree because I had an instinctual feeling that they were looking for conflict. Groups working together isn’t as sexy as groups fighting for turf or criticising each other. In the end, the writer produced a decent article, but the way it was framed changes the context and makes the entire piece read in a different manner. The focus is unnecessarily negative, rather than positive, as I had feared.

In the end, organisers put a lot of trust in the media and sometimes you get burned. I just wanted to clarify these points on behalf of everyone who is working on the bike union. Toronto’s bike activists deserve a medal, not a patronising suggestion like ‘grow up’.

Dave Meslin, project coordinator
Toronto Cyclists Union


  1. When I first saw the article I thought it was going to be against cyclists based on the huge headline then as I read I realized the headline had noting to do with the story ..which I thought was odd..

    All these stats really mean nothing to the average person 6km, 18km, bottom line is not enough action.. and if you travel around the world and witness cycling in many cities it is clear Toronto is being left behind by cities that seriously address traffic issues not just pouring money into car related infrastructure.

  2. You make a fine point – one that impacts all sides of the political/activist spectrum.

    Divisive viewpoints sell papers, even if the reality is far less exciting.

  3. Well Dave welcome to the world of Toronto media.Misquotes,total lack of coverage and disregard of the issues that affect us all is the norm.I back Dave Meslin 100%,he is a devoted person who tries to make a difference.And I might add his many commitments are barely noticed by the media.It’s time that we realize that the bicycle is a means of transportation for many citizens in this city, and they deserve respect and notice by the city at large.

    Keep up the good work Dave, I say thank you for all your efforts to help in bringing forth environmental issues.Don’t give up!

  4. Never forget that a few ignorant editors working together can frame a story to please a raft of car advertisers. Indeed, they’re the main ones who ever have.

  5. The writer “made a few smalls errors and worded things a little differently than I would have liked”.

    Let us be candid: The writer handed in a sloppy piece of text, and the Globe and Mail is rapidly turning into a rather poorly edited newspaper.

  6. Mez.  When I see what is happening down here in New York, it makes me so frustrated to see the potential that lies in front of us in Toronto  and yet is merely discarded as so much ‘left wing’ hyperbole.  It’s a shame that such a ‘reputable’ paper has chosen a headline that completely and intentionally misrepresents the individual and the actual issue at hand.  

    Keep up the good work, it’s needed and so greatly appreciated.


  7. I saw that article yesterday, and I though, geez, that doesn’t sound like Dave Meslin at all. Good to know you hadn’t turned into some weird, cantankerous, self-hating bike activist!

  8. Well said, David! I read the Globe article yesterday and found a big disconnect between the inflamatory headline teasers and the substance of the article.

    To expect that the popular media would put fair & factual reporting (a.k.a. journalistic integrity) above sales (a.k.a. profit) is a stretch.

    Those of us concerned with cycling issues can spot the disconnect; however, we’re “the converted”. What’s most unfortunate is that among thet unconverted, the article may serve to perpetuate old stereotypes about cycling and cyclists.

    I’d suggest you submit your comments to the Globe as an opinion piece (running on the page facing the letters to the editor).

    Keep up the good work.

  9. I’m an editor at the Globe. Not senior or deputy but have moved around various sections. This issue gets at the heart of what I think is wrong with the Globe, and why I’m, on a few too many occasions, unsatisfied with my career and what I do.

    We have many good writers, in house and freelance, but time and time again I’ve seen their stories get twisted during editorial into pieces that no longer resemble the event or thing the writer wrote about. From the top down there is this idea of what a “Globe article” is — it has a particular world view and the story must conform to it. So we produce stories where there is more conflict than there really is, or there is more excitement, or other times things are light and fun or dark and forbidding other times. There is a need for good writing, of course, and good writers and editors and can make even a routine story interesting and colourful, but so many timesit’s at the cost of an article that can’t be trusted to report on reality as it is.

    I think this is for a couple of reasons. One is many of the editors here are detached from reality — Front Street is a long way from where most things happen, and the culture of this place is such that it, over time, tends to make people think the world is a certain way the Globe way (or the highway).

    Many people here don’t seem passionate about what they do — that is, reporting, writing, communicating is not the passion — the career is. So the content is interchangable, and a committement to the acuracy (perhaps not facts, but tone) is not as important as it should be. This article here is just sloppy editing — and resposibility for this irresponsible headline and error-filled deck rest with the section editor.

    When I read an article like this one, I feel like we’re doing our readers a great disservice and worse, we’re patonizing, assuming they won’t want to read an article unless we Globe-it-up. It isn’t what you expect at a place that claims to be the Candian standard-bearer.

    Will it change? I don’t know — maybe not if people keep buying it. But perhaps the passion (and accuracy of tone) that blogs have will influence. The greatest kicker is that Blatchford wrote a column a few weeks ago about why she doesn’t read blogs, something about lack of editing and how it can’t be trusted (ahem). The Globe is a good paper, and there are good people here, but the culture that produces this disconnect is strong and is hard to work in, if you feel a committment to presenting reality as reality.

  10. I don’t think you have to worry about cyclists thinking you’re telling them to grow up, Mez. It was pretty evident that the writer was spinning your words.

    Having said that, I don’t think you should be defensive about advocating a more mature approach to cycling activism in this city. Gimmicks are fun and crazy and make for media attention, but they usually don’t result in any meaningful change at a system-wide level – that requires hard work and dedication and a willingness to work with politicians and other user groups (ie. drivers and pedestrians).

    Congrats on the exposure.

  11. These days, when talking to journalists for local media in particular, you can count on them being bottom-feeding, headline-chasing morons, and you have to treat them as such. Add to this you have to have in the back of your mind that their editors won’t be much better. So, when being interviewed, assume the worst and govern yourself accordingly. Keep your answers brief, think about what you say and mumble a lot – add in a few uuuhhhhs and ahhhhs… and rrrr… watch any good politician or career interview subject and you will see they all do this – it gives them time to think and avoids dead air on mic.

    The Globe may indeed suck. But look at the competition.

  12. The Globe has better writing, though that too is slipping, but the Star actually does reporting. If you look at something that has blown-up in some demagogue’s face in Canada, it will be thanks to the Star or perhaps the CBC. When last the Globe? The purpose of any media is truly to turn a buck, but the Star realizes that there are ways to keep your readership that include… journalism!

    The Star has done far better on our shared cycling concerns. This makes sense given the more socially-progressive editorial stance of the Star, and the fact that they are centred on the GTA and do not attempt to be ‘national’. Funny thing is, no one outside of Toronto considers the Globe ‘national’. We shouldn’t be surprised that the Globe is poor on urban issues, since it presents to advertisers as an up-market newspaper, and we know how socially-empathetic people who own Mercedes and BMWs are (I await the tortured logic of the rebuttals).

    I do resent the excessive reporting on cars in the ‘Wheels’ section of the Star. I know they have to serve that market, but I would feel placated if they could throw us a bone of a ‘Chainrings’ section.

  13. I am a crusty old bicycle activist whose gimmicks are out of date and immature. So I should have been insulted by the article, but instead I thought the attention paid to cycling issues in November was fantastic. I think the overall message that is conveyed by the article is that there is excitement and possibility among cyclists and cycling-friendly politicians. That is a very good message.

    It is not that it doesn’t matter what is written about activist groups. It just doesn’t matter as much as moving forward on improving the situation for cyclists in Toronto.

    Well done on getting attention focused on bicycle issues.

  14. i love the phrase ‘globe-it-up’.

    the sad thing is that the journalism school i attended paid a lot of lipservice to the high principles of journalism and accurate story-telling, but when confronted with questions about how the real world does things, that is to say needlessly spins and distorts, the instructors sort of shrugged it off with the kind of rhetoric used by the out-of-touch — even if you see others doing something wrong, or not up to your standards, ignore that and do it right yourself.

    this message is nice but is nigh on impossible to follow if you’re just starting out in the game, virtually powerless, and need to interact with a behemoth like the globe on its own terms. thus the bad habits and practices become inculcated right away in the young journalist in order for them to survive. it sucks and bad editors who are dedicated to toeing the line only make it worse.

  15. ‘jschool dropout’, I honestly admire your integrity. You can also feel better about quitting because of two facts: you get hired into journalism in Canada because of who you are related to (Globe’s Leah McLaren, anyone?), and you can’t teach writing any more than you can teach teaching (my gig).

  16. Writers don’t always get to write the headlines for their articles. I emailed the Globe once about an article that contradicted its own headline and got an answer from the writer – she explained how she submits articles and has to rely on the paper to read it and come up with an appropriate headline.

    If the paper has to come up with a large number of headlines for each issue I can see how time constraints result in some of them ending up misleading if not entirely incorrect. It certainly isn’t an excuse, but in this case the blame may not lie with the article writer.

  17. Well done Dave, both the article, your warning to the community esp. the headline & your follow up. I’d be willing to lay money that +95% of cycling toronto is behind your efforts, no chance one article headline will change that even a little.

    Our group is behind you, of that I’m sure.
    Cyu tuesady.

  18. Go for the students, get to their reading material, go for their throats through their eyes. Each school has a bike group sponsored by their learning institution.

    Lots of student newspapers are looking for stories on bikes. Stick it to em, Mezz.

  19. Whether the Globe misinterpreted your comments or not, what has to be kept in mind is that if misinterpretation by the press is easily done (out of malice, poor journalistic practice, or otherwise) it’s likely that the public will also misinterpret the message. Make your rebuttal, fine, but don’t think you shouldn’t examine how you might better present the message to avoid future misinterpretation.

  20. Francois:> there is always room to make a message better, but as somebody who has also had experience with a simple message turning out differently in a Globe article, I think it smacks of unprofessionalism. Also you sound like you work at the Globe, Francoise.

    Chris:> That would be true, rapid headlines = occasional problems, but the Globe Toronto section where this happened is a weekly section with a dedicated staff. They have hte luxury of thinking about it for a while. It’s either intentional, or outragously sloppy.

  21. Wayne Johnston (author of “colony of Unrequited dreams” etc.) spoke last night at the Pape Library. He recounted his last days as a writer at the St. John’s Daily News, where he wrote a front page story on a notable local city councillor who had passed away. By coincidence, the death occured on the same day as the news hit of the rugby team crashed in the Andes that resorted to canibalism of their dead teammates to survive. As Johnston told it, he filed the story (back then it would have been a typed piece of paper placed in a basket) on the night editor’s desk, and went home. Next day the headline over the life story of the great city councillor read: “He Ate His Friends.” And Johnston had to call the apoplectic family and apologize for what was obviously the fault of the editor. According to the publisher, the public would never understand or believe that the writer does not write his/her own headlines.

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