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Dear Brian, please focus on the task at hand…

Look, I know that as soon as I write something perceived as not supportive of Brian Burke, some Leaf faithful will be upset because they love his “style”.  I get that and that’s fine.  I’m not a big "hubris" guy myself, yet I know that many like his public “take-no-prisoners, let’s have a barn fight” macho style.  But recognizing he has unwavering support in many quarters doesn't dissuade me from mentioning his public comments (he can’t seem to help himself) when I see them as, well, ill-timed, counter-productive or senseless.

Monday night, the Toronto Star penned a short piece outlining Burke’s apparent displeasure at a CBC/Hockey Night in Canada post from Elliotte Friedman.  As we all know, Friedman has worked “in the business” for many years and has earned a well-deserved reputation as a fair-thinking and respected guy in the sports media field.

In any event, Friedman evidently ventured into the world of speculation by suggesting that, while he didn’t think it would actually happen, there would likely be an effort by the Leafs to move Luke Schenn (and I think their first pick in the draft this month as well, if I have the story right) to the Oilers for the first overall selection. This drew a predictable reaction from Burke, saying, as he usually does, that the story had no merit, yada, yada, yada….

The part of the Star report that struck me as peculiar, however, was not the denial (what GM says, “yeah, we’re shopping so and so…”) but Burke’s apparent comment that “some editorial control at Hockey Night would be nice for a change…”.

Is Burke suggesting that reporters not have freedom of speech?  What does “editorial control” mean?  That sports writers should only report things that are in his team's interest and with the “spin” that he wants them to put on stories?

Hey, we all get the Burke-Cherry thing that kept people tuned into to “Coach’s Corner” at various points this past season.  Cherry made a comment about Wilson not clapping during the in-game armed forces night tribute "pause" at the ACC. Burke took umbrage with that, and various other things about HNIC’s supposedly unfair “coverage” of the Leafs (Kadri being stuck in the minors, Toronto not having enough Ontario players, etc.).  Ho hum.

C’mon, many GM’s (Burke at the top of the list) play the media all the time and for everything its worth.  GM's and other team management types provide, privately, little nuggets and tidbits of information that they want to get “out there”, knowing that if it sounds anything like a “scoop” (and it's always hidden beneath the standard un-named “source” protection agreement) the media—local or national—will publish it within seconds. 

It has always been thus.  It’s a game, it’s the way the media and hockey executives tolerate one another.

So here’s my point.  Media folks use hockey executives.  Those hockey execs use media folks.  Rumors actually put money in the pockets of GM’s, players, media—and each sports franchise, too.  Why?  Because rumors sell. They pique fan interest, sell hope, drive newspaper sales, enhance overall "media" circulation and viewership numbers and therefore, create big-time ad revenue.  Fans love it and thus, when a GM harps on or castigates the media for simply doing their job—i.e. creating natural speculation about what a sports team like the Leafs might or might not do in the off-season—it makes zero sense to me.  They are killing the golden goose.  There’s nothing tawdry, personal or unfair in what the columnist is doing.  There is no “wrong-doing” of any kind.  Sometimes writers/columnists provide opinions.  Sometimes they present “facts”.  Sometimes they create speculation.  But we’re talking about the world of fun and games- not life and death issues like freedom, justice and poverty.  At worst, it’s idle speculation.  Who is harmed?

If you say, well it’s not fair to the player mentioned in that kind of report, well, again, c’mon.  These are grown men, multi-millionaires virtually all.  You don’t think Luke Schenn knows he was almost traded to the Flyers late last summer?  That Nazem Kadri doesn’t know the Leafs have tried to move him in the “right” deal?  That Mike Komisarek wouldn't know he has struggled in Toronto—if he hadn't seen that opinion put forward in the newspaper or online somewhere?

Reporters have—and should have—pretty broad latitude in their subject matter when it comes to discussing professional sports teams.  Ideally they should be respectful, thoughtful, objective and fair but beyond that, they should not be censured, shut-down in any way, manipulated or threatened.

Burke may not like that Schenn’s name was put out there by Friedman.  Who cares?  It wasn’t the first time Schenn’s name has been (and correctly so) and won’t be the last.  Reporters and columnists, even the ones some people may not like or respect, help sell and promote the game.  If people are talking about the Leafs and Luke Schenn when it’s 90 degrees Farenheit in June in a town (or across the country for that matter) that hasn’t seen this Leaf franchise win anything of consequence in 45 years, then Burke and his handsomely-compensated assistants (and there are many of them) should be jumping for joy.  Our never-ending and passionate interest in a seemingly perpetually (let’s be honest) mediocre product creates the wealth that allows Burke to pull down more than, what is it, three million dollars a year—and his coach (current coach and the still being paid off former coach) more than a million.

That’s why, in part, it used to drive me crazy to see a guy with personality (we rarely got to see it), like Ron Wilson, look so sour 95% of the time in his interaction with the press during his four-year tenure behind the Leaf bench.  Individuals like Wilson and Burke face "pressure" of a sort, sure, but they also have the best jobs in the sports world—maybe some of the best jobs in the world, for crying out loud—yet they look and sound hard-done by and miserable almost constantly.

The media is too hard on them?  Please.

How often have we heard Burke say, basically, "I don't care what the media says...".  Yet he constantly makes a fuss whenever a a media person says something he doesn't like.  More and more, I get the feeling the media will stop caring what he says.

I say:  Brian, please just focus on  what you are good at:  building this team so we look remotely like the Kings, Wings, Predators, Rangers, whoever—just something a lot better than we are right now.  Soon you’ll have been on the job for four years.  Others have done much more in much less time.  So maybe, spend less energy on things you can’t control, and focus on what you can:  your job.


41 comments:

  1. I've said it before and I'll say it again, Brian Burke acts more like a politician than a hockey executive. He can't really run on his record, four years of no results so he looks for meaningless distractions to focus attention away from his record. I don't care what people say about re building the farm team or yada, yada, until I see signifigant improvement at the NHL level the Leafs haven't got any better in four years.

    He is like Don Quixote tilting at windmills.

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  2. I sense we are a minority voice on the subject of Burke and how he handles these situations. Thanks Willbur.

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  3. The one thing that really gets me is why pick meaningless fights with people? The sad fact is the Leafs haven't made the playoffs in 4 years under Burke, in fact they haven't even improved in the standings. Why not just hunker down and work on getting the Leafs back to respectability? Why waste the energy and time on useless fights and whingning? Who cares if Schenn is mentioned in a rumor report, like you said he is a big boy. It just irritates me.

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  4. Hockey fans love to play imaginary General Manager of their favorite team. Most of us here play that mind game with the Leafs on a regular basis.

    “some editorial control at Hockey Night would be nice for a change…”.

    The exact opposite...some rumors and timely, well-reasoned speculation is what the fans want and that sells newspapers. To expect reporters not to give the paying audience what it wants is unreasonable.

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  5. As with Willbur's posts, well said, DP. I realize it can be annoying for athletes and sports executives to have to deal with the media, but it's an important part of their job. There's no need to pick fights, which Burke has done far too often in his time with the Canucks and the Leafs...

    And I don't buy the theory that he's trying to "protect" his players, or is simply deflecting the pressure they face. If this was a once a year outburst, maybe. But this happens all too frequently.

    Bravado can attract "believers", but it can also backfire...

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  6. The problem with your post, Mike, is that your preaching to the choir. Liberal minded people like Burke only wants you to see their side and if you disagree, well, you're other an idoit or need to be censor!

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  7. The media has had it in for Burke and Wilson for four years. You can hardly blame them for defending themselves. Media are like vermin.

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  8. i think burke is in wayyyy over his head... plain and simple. he can't physically control the play on the ice. he can't control the media off the ice. he needs to take a step back and reflect on himself... regain focus/composure... and then go help the leafs productively!

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  9. Thanks The Voice. He's a smart hockey guy. I just wish he would focus far less on these things....

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  10. Alex C....we all know he's a sharp hockey guy...I don't know why he picks these unnecessary battles.

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  11. No one wants to hear complaints. Especially from an organization that preaches no complaints, no excuses. I had this same feeling about Sam Mitchell in his time with the Raptors. Suck it up and do your job.

    -cartsy

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  12. Yes Cartsy, that's the mantra we kept hearing..."no complaints, no excuses". Unfortunately we have heard far too many. Thanks.

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  13. "Burke may not like that Schenn’s name was put out there by Friedman. Who cares?" My *guess* is that Friedman is close to the mark and it's not so much Schenn's name, but rather Edmonton's price tag being put out there that has ticked Burkie off.

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  14. Burke's schtick with the media is getting old. For a guy that seems to pass himself off as "old-school" and not worried about what the media says, he acts just the opposite. Burke needs to concentrate on building the team the way he has been the past couple of years, through the draft and shrewd trades. I would like to see him stay out of the derby on July 1st, because his track record of signing FA's while with the Blue & White has been poor to say the least. I was fortunate enough to get tickets to the 2nd day of the draft, and I am very interested to see what happens during those 2 days..

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  15. Agreed, Robert.

    The draft is always a fun experience is you get to attend, but this year in particular I can see a lot of action on the draft/trading floor both days. You make a good point about the July 1 UFA period- that has not been Burke's best work to this point. We'll see what happens in terms of the draft itself and various trade possibilities...

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  16. Taking umbrage at what HNIC says when it may be speculation, may have a grain of truth, is stupid. Is Burkie mad because Friedman is accurate and Burkie likes to be sneaky? Is it his idea of 'protecting his players' (as if)? Or is simply Burkie getting tired of no ne paying attention to him. I'd say a little of column A, a bit more of column C.

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  17. I think there should be a clear distinction here about 'worrying about what the media says' and 'not having an opinion on what the media says'.

    BB, in my opinion, doesn't worry about what the media will say about what he does, the moves he makes or how he builds this team. However, if you expect a very opinionated person and somebody who, I admit, likes to hear his own voice to simply brush things off with a 'no comment', that's crazy.

    It's not accurate to say that just because he gets riled up by what people say that he's not 100% focused on the task at hand. He's a passionate person - doesn't mean he can't do his job.

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  18. If Elliotte Friedman doesn't have any basis in fact to make that statement, he should refrain from making it. I think of Elliotte as a reporter with more opportunity to access NHL personalities than most and I believe he should stop crossing over into the area of columnist presenting his own opinion. That's what this seems to be, nothing more than his opinion. Elliotte should decide what he wants to be known as, credible reporter or opinion writer.

    This article seems to be self serving of columnists and I suspect you would have a much different opinion if you were a GM or even attempted to think like a GM somewhere in this exercise.

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  19. Smart hockey guy??? That is debatable. More like a crafty lawyer who knows how to twist half truth in convincing the judge, jury, and media into thinking it was the other guy's fault. If you need to walk away from a murder rap, by all means, yes, call Burke. Just don't call him to build you a contender! And, before anybody jumps on the bandwagon about the Ducks championship season, I believe there is guy in Ottawa who had more to do with that. Big deal, Burke made a trade and the right free agent signing; something he's unable to do here in Leafland. Luck had just as much do with it then anything. Edmonton mistake was that they didn't ask for the right return when Pronger gave them the shaft. And as for signing Scott Niedermayer. Funny that nobody gives credit to Murray for trading for his little brother Robbie in the first place. If Robbie wasn't on the Duck's roaster, there wouldn't be no big signing for Burke!

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  20. Well said, Anon. He seems to have a need to be in the spotlight for some reason.

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  21. Fair point, Adrian. But I'm not sure wasting (any) energy chasing down faux enemies is helpful to the organization. Sports is filled with passionate, capable executives- they don't all need to hear themselves talk while getting their job done well.

    Until Burke proves he can do the job well here, he will be- and rightly so- subject to the same critiques he throws at the media people he so dislikes...

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  22. Anon (commenting on Friedman).

    I could not disagree more. Columnists give opinions and speculate all the time. If all they did was provide "facts", no one would read their stuff.

    As for my article and your comment, in fact, I have, professionally, advised many athletes, professional coaches and sports executives over the past 20 years. I do quite often place myself in their shoes, to try and understand the situations and pressures they face. My comments with regard to Burke stand. Full stop.

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  23. The Voice- I won't argue with anything you wrote.

    I have often, in this space, commented that Burke is a good hockey guy. I stand by that. But I have also said he is one of many good ones in (and not currently in) the league- and not as good as some.

    Holland, Poile, Tallon, Lombardi, Chiarelli are just a few of the solid GM's in my estimation. Burke, for me, falls in the next category (maybe).

    He has had two "re-build" projects (Vancouver and Toronto) and what has he won- 1 playoff series in a decade in those two markets, is it?

    I'm with you on the Anaheim success. Yes, he helped with the final pieces, but Murray had clearly done the heavy lifting.

    Thanks.

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  24. Sorry, I guess I just don't feel like joining in the Burke bashing today. Didn't mean to spoil the party.

    Of course columnists give opinions and speculate all the time. I thought I made the point clear enough that as a REPORTER (which Elliotte made his name as), as opposed to a columnist/opinion writer, he should not be mixing in opinion or his own whims in his reports. His ventures into the realm of columnist detract from his very real credibility as a reporter. If he had no indication that Burke was even considering this, there was no good reason to publish his statement. I realize that these days talk is currency, but that doesn't negate the fact that many times talk is just cheap. Again Friedman's comment on Schenn has no basis in reality unless it was sourced somewhere credible.

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  25. Hey Mike,

    I COMPLETLEY AGREE WITH YOU. I respect Burke as a hockey guy. He knows the game, he was dealt rough cards coming into this job and is just starting to round this organization into shape (at least I hope so).

    But I wished sometimes that he would just shut his mouth. From his overt stance on long term declining contracts and offer sheets to his not interested in 5 year rebuilds, the constant argument with the media (even though some of Cherry's antics and comments have just been wrong). His recent comment regarding not wanting to finish 8th to have our a$$es kicked was also an ill advised comment.

    Some of these comments and behaviours don't harm the hockey team as much as his reputation, but some of them really hold Brian back from being as effective as he could be.

    I believe Brian would of had 8 years or more to turn the team around, but in no small part due to his comments, he probably only has this season to will the Leafs into the playoffs, or next offseason we'll be talking about what moves Nonis has to make to improve the team.

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  26. We have seen Brian Burke’s latent desire to control mass media information over many years. This attribute has been consistent, and is usually manifest in lashing out at a reporter who publishes information he does not want published. In the world of trade speculation, where sources wish to remain anonymous, the information context becomes murky and the reporter sometimes goes out on a limb. As we have seen, Burke is apt to become angered by trade speculation reporting if it does not suit his needs.

    With the advent of blogging, trade speculation rumours without credible sources sometimes spread. I have noticed however, that these rumours do not have much in the way of legs, because fans, bloggers and intelligent reporters have finely tuned BS meters, and simply ignore rumours that make little sense. I have heard some doozies from professional media reporters, including one howler from some radio personalities that had the Leafs sending something like Schenn, Kadri, Colborne and an annual subscription of first round draft choices to Vancouver for Luongo and that albatross Gillis calls a contract. While clowns are amusing and an integral part of the NHL spectacle, I do not know anyone that would put Friedman outside of the intelligent reporter category.

    My understanding of the current crop of first round picks is that there is only a fine line between Yakupov and the next four or five prospects, who are roughly equal in potential. The next few years of development could see those distinctions erased or reversed, or possibly, see a dark horse emerge as the golden nugget further down in the draft. In a nutshell, there is no slam dunk Stamko or Doughty in this group. It would surprise me then, that the Leafs would offer Schenn for an advance in the draft order that could easily backfire and become an inferior player to the one selected at the number five position.

    If you look at Friedman’s article, the trade speculation point was a minor one (of thirty I think) and he calls his information source “rumblings”. Rumblings are quite different from unnamed sources, and just a step up from “chatter”. In other words, he thinks that there might be something to it, but he is probably not sure what, or is not at liberty to say because he has to protect his sources. At the end of the day, Friedman’s point more of an opinion piece and does not present itself as hard news. In this context, Burke’s decrying of “editorial control” makes little sense. At the point when you control media opinion you might well cede to a police state.

    When you add it all up, it looks to me like Stuart Bramley may have sniffed this one out. The leak probably came out of Edmonton, and Schenn is the asking price in return for flipping draft positions. Were Yakupov a Stamkos or Doughty I would say, yeah do it! However, from all reports he is not and the number five pick could well become the better pick in the fullness of time.

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  27. I don't see it as "Burke-bashing" anon, though I do understand that those who like Burke's public personna may well see it as such. Burke has received credit here often for what I see as the good things he has done as Leaf GM. Similarly, when his public bombast is ill-conceived, I comment. That's fair game.

    The reporter/columnist debate has always been around, and you raise a fair point. Ostensibly, reporters are paid to dig up the details and facts; columnists venture into the world of opinion. I assume Friedman is both given his various responsibilities at the CBC.

    As for the sourcing of the Schenn "rumour", again, you raise a valid point, but reporters have long relied on "un-named" or anonymous sources to get a story out. (In that same breath, I see nothing wrong with a writer, columnist or blogger suggesting what a GM may be thinking or considering. As I said in my post, that's part of what makes people interested in a team or a sport.)

    I remember that one of the most respected writers of his generation (Scott Young, who I have written about here before) resigned from the Globe & Mail over this very issue during the 1979-'80 season, after a colleague at his paper wrote a story about Punch Imlach based on un-named "sources".

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  28. You raise a very good thought, Alex. Without Burke's over-the-top public comments since he took over the Leaf post, fans would likely be even more patient than they have already been during his tenure with the Leafs.

    Yes, as I've said here many times, he has done some good things in Toronto. He has also made huge mistakes in some of his signings. Most hockey people in his position do good things and not-so-good things. Fair enough.

    No one is asking him to change his personality. But I think a number of fans would prefer a little more team success, and a little less bombast.

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  29. I like the distinction you draw, Bobby C., between fact, rumour, rumblings and chatter.

    Reporters talk to GM and assistant GM's all the time. But the "information" they get, as we all know, is what the team wants "out there". What Edmonton wants out there is different from what the Leafs want out there. The Oilers are trying to drive up the price for the first overall pick; that is not in the Leafs' best interest. (This is different from a few years ago when Burke was very happy to talk about wanting to move up to get Tavares in the draft...)

    As for the possibility that the Leafs would actually make a deal on draft day, I think we all agree that it is certainly possible. Burke (and all GM's) are all constantly looking for trades that (to borrow the cliches) "make sense" for the team or will "make us better".

    I think Schenn, as I've said here before (like with Kadri) is a player the Leafs would move in a trade that "makes sense" for the team going forward. Whether the Leafs stay where they are, move up or move down, it will likely be a year or two before the player they select has an impact in the NHL.

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  30. Sports broadcasting is entertainment. It only pretends--thinly--to be journalism. It is a business relationship between the team, the league and the broadcaster.

    So Burke is not the equivalent of a politician complaining about media bias. He is a manufacturer complaining about a distributor of his product.

    But even if that wasn't the case, the right to criticize cuts both ways. Journalists make their living by criticizing people. It is the height of hypocrisy for them to complain when they are the targets.

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  31. Thanks for the comment, David.

    I don't think, in this instance, that any journalists were complaining. I was simply offering, as I do here, my own views- in this case, on Burke's quoted comments on the Friedman piece.

    I think a lot of us would agree that legitimate criticism directed at "media" is fair game and part of the two-way relationship. That said, I just don't believe that a lot of Burke's negative comments about media coverage through the years have been merited, but we can agree to disagree.

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  32. I think David's point is a great one and would expand on it if I may. Perhaps BB's concern is one for a distributor not performing to expectations and if that person was to suddenly claim that their role was not one of a cog in a wheel that includes MLSE and the orbiting sports media, then they must provide facts to support their commentary, hence the comment about editorial control. In other words, if one denies the manufacturer:distributor model, then a burden of proof lies with the publisher.

    This is not to say that I don't agree Burke has been acting like a bit of a wally, but David's point above very nicely explains why there is so much rumour published unchallenged and why a GM might - seemingly hypocritically - take exception to others.

    Nice work David.

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  33. I see the parallel David is raising, KiwiLeaf. I guess I just see it somewhat differently.

    Media and sports executives are inter-dependant, yes, when it comes to promoting the game and creating revenues. But they are not working in perfect harmony. Media people have the right, in my view, to provide opinion in addition to balanced, factual reporting.

    Whether Friedman or anyone else has actual legitimate sources, or just suggests in a column that it would make sense for the Leafs to consider offering Schenn if they want to obtain the first overall draft choice, well hopefully fans/hockey observers can see the difference between the two. But even if not, GM's have to expect that media people will banter ideas about, when it comes to how teams will look to improve their roster in the off-season. It has been this way forever- and again, I will argue that it helps to sell the game.

    From a Leaf perspective, I'm not sure Burke's bluster achieves the same result. For me, it just sounds over-the-top and, at times, a case of protesting too much.

    Thanks KiwiLeaf, good stuff as always.

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  34. Where I disagree with you Michael, is where you state "...hopefully fans/hockey observers see the differences between the two."

    I disagree because I think that it is the responsibility of the AUTHOR to ensure that there is no misunderstanding about whether s/he is writing about info from a source or opinion by always making it explicit.

    If there is any kind of acceptable blurring of the line, then it exists within David's paradigm: one where the relationship between the reporter and the reportee acknowledge that they aren't engaging in a media exercise - an exercise in the the truth being uncovered and presented to the public - but in an entertainment exercise - one of the manufacturer:distributor model.

    I may be splitting hairs, but, again, I like the way David's model explains what really seems to be going on.

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  35. Always happy to hear various perspectives, KiwiLeaf. Thanks.

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  36. Long suffering Leafs fanJune 14, 2012 at 9:48 AM

    No disrespect to the wonderful country singer Dolly Parton, but had to write Pal Burkie song to the media. Hope you enjoy!

    Here you I go again
    Just when I think that everything is quite
    You write or say something to get me upset
    Just like you done before
    and wrap my mouth around your fingers
    Here you go again
    Just when I about to work out some trade
    You say or write something
    And light the fury in me
    and pretty soon I'm screaming
    you're nothin' but a bunch inconsiderate fool's

    All you gotta do
    is write what I don't like
    and I get very defensive
    Just leave it up to you
    And in no time
    You've got me streamin'
    and sending me into a rage

    Here you go again
    writing and saying
    something that I believe
    is none of your business
    An shakin' me up so
    That all I really know
    Is to rant and rave
    over your mindless comments

    Here I go again
    soundin' off like a fog horn
    over what you had to say
    here I go again...

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  37. That's a great capper to this discussion, Long Suffering! (I well recall the Dolly song...) Well done.

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  38. I respect Elliotte Friedman's intelligence and integrity. As you say, he hasn't complained about return fire. Some of his CBC colleagues have, and my comment about hypocrisy was directed to them. And to the Star, though calling the Star hypocritical and sanctimonious is like calling the Sun a flaming ball in the sky.

    My question is not whether Friedman can separate the two roles. It's whether the business relationship between MLSE, the NHL and the CBC put Burke's complaints into a category other than complaints about journalism.

    But even journalism has rules. One is that you don't publish unsubstantiated rumours. Another is that if you try, your editor says "No." That's what I think Burke meant by "editorial control." (Burke seems to believe that the story has no source. To be fair, he may be wrong about that.)

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  39. All fair points again, David. Thank you.

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  40. It might help if the media especially CBC did their jobs and stuck to a more fact based style of reporting....now rumors will happen but when the media purposely goes about starting them that's a horse of a different color. I like Burke, I hate the CBC (and am Canadian)as a whole and I have a feeling Burke does to. This is not a rumor but fact, so if the media at least tried to do a little research before spouting it would go a long ways to maybe getting an "inside scoop" from a GM or two.

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