It was the story about the death of Wiarton Willie, who for over 20 years, had made annual weather predictions and produced millions of dollars in tourism revenue for his town. However his death was just the start to this story.
Death of a Moneymaker
In case you missed the story from late last week, here’s the Reader’s Digest version.
It was revealed that Wiarton Willie, the albino weather-forecasting groundhog had actually died well before Groundhog Day this past February. Apparently, the little guy died in his sleep from an abscessed tooth (that must have hurt.)
Rather than making the announcement about Willie’s death, the Mayor of Wiarton, Ontario (population 1,989) threw a fur hat into the air in a video shot for the Groundhog Day ceremony last February, raising suspicions that Willie had died. Normally Willie is the star of the Groundhog Day festivities in Wiarton, a town in Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula.
The town quietly tried to find a new albino groundhog and then was either going to do a switcheroo, or announce Willie’s death at Groundhog Day 2022 and introduce the new one at that time. However, the town ran out of time because groundhogs hibernate, so getting a new one in time for next February wasn’t impossible.
I wondered why the town would do this, but then realized Groundhog Day brings a ton of tourists to the community and their dollars too. Not having an albino groundhog takes the lustre off Wiarton’s big event, so the town went to zoos and trappers trying to find a light coloured one to take Willie’s place with no luck.
The town’s identity is so closely connected to Willie that there’s a huge Wiarton Willie statue in the town and the main page of the town’s website has a picture of the statue with snow falling around it.
It's kind of creepy.
The Political Coverup
As somebody who was in the media for 15 years and have followed developments in the news on a daily basis since I left the media, I love this story. It was everything – tragedy, intrigue and a political coverup.
Wiarton Mayor Janice Jackson says the town wasn’t covering up Willie’s death. She says, “We were trying to protect the Wiarton Willie brand.”
That Madam Mayor is a coverup. Plain and simple. The biggest tourist attraction in the town died and they kept the death covered up until they realized their plan had backfired and had to come clean.
I don’t expect Mayor Jackson to resign over this, but maybe she should? Maybe others who helped in the coverup should lose their jobs?
I guess since we’re talking about something as silly as a groundhog that’s supposed to determine how long the winter is going to last by seeing its shadow, all bets are off when it comes to any sense of political fairness and reality.
Let’s imagine for a minute though that this was a place such as Sea World where people bought tickets to see a killer whale and it turned out that whale had been dead for months, I’m sure visitors would want their money back, or, since it’s in the US - launched lawsuits.
The Media in Hibernation
I’ve done a lot of work with municipalities across Alberta for the last decade. I did media training for one last week and have a couple more booked before mid-December. If Wiarton officials would have asked me for my advice, I would have told them to be honest, announce Willie’s death and move on with finding a replacement. The media will find out sooner or later.
That brings me to the media’s role in this story. It seems to me that reporters were asleep at the switch on this one.
Postmedia says it had contacted the town several times about the possibility of Willie not being alive anymore, but got no response.
That’s it? You ask the town if he’s still alive and you put your feet up on your desk and call it a day when you don’t hear back? What happened to good old-fashioned journalism? Check other sources, make phone calls, talk to people, do the legwork. Get to the bottom of the story.
Quite frankly, the media looks as silly as Wiarton’s Mayor in this. How could Willie have been dead for a year and we didn’t know about it? Isn’t it the media’s job to find out the truth?
Maybe it’s just another sign of what has happened to the news media in Canada? There are far fewer reporters than there were a generation ago and they don’t have time to chase a story about a dead groundhog, even if it is Canada’s most famous groundhog.
I don’t want to sound like an old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn, but if I was still running a newsroom in the area and saw the mayor throw a fur hat into the air instead of Willie, alarm bells would have gone off and we would have been all over that story.
Nobody looks good here – the town, the Mayor and the media. It could be turned into a movie.