When Christie Blatchford Came Calling

Christie Blatchford

She was interested in law and order, and only in law and order. That was both her strength and her limitation.

✎  WAYNE K. SPEAR ○ FEBRUARY 15, 2020 ○ Personal Essay

ON THE MORNING OF Monday February 4, 2008 I got a phone call from Christie Blatchford. I was the Director of Communications at the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and Blatchford was working on a series of articles for the National Post concerning the Yellow Quill First Nation, where the AHF had funded a project.

In a few years I’d be writing for the National Post myself, but I never got to know Christie Blatchford well. I’d long known of her work, and we’d had a few conversations. Even before I’d ever spoken to her I had inferred from her writing that she was tough and to-the-point. And she was. Her vocabulary was peppered with shits and fucks, which was fine by me. I knew why she was calling: she had a hunch that with a bit of digging she’d unearth nastiness. The Executive Director, Mike DeGagne, was lining his pockets, or perhaps we were funnelling dollars to the well-connected. Something had to be rotten in the state of Denmark, and Blatchford was calling me to work out exactly what it was.

After the call I wrote a briefing note and took it to Mike. He knew Blatchford’s writing, and so he knew as I did that she wasn’t exactly a champion of Indigenous perspectives. I had a standing policy with journalists, which was to educate them as best I could about the nature and importance of our work, and to win them over to the cause. If it took days or months or even years, so be it. My door was always open to them, and so was my phone line. I’d give them as much time as they wanted. Sometimes I found myself pushing on an open door, as was the case with media folks like Marie Wadden and Shelagh Rogers, but I knew that wasn’t going to be the case with Blatchford. She was a court reporter who’d seen the worst of humanity. For years my father was an OPP court officer, so I was well acquainted with the skeptical mindset that this work engendered. In fact I welcomed the skeptics because I understood them. So winning over Blatchford became something of an obsession.

I said to Mike, listen, I think I know what makes Christie Blatchford tick. She’s drawn to the courts because it throws the drama of human morality into sharp relief. The injustice she confronts there makes her churn wth indignation, and if we can make her see that we’re in the business of addressing historic injustices, maybe she’ll become as fierce an advocate as she is a critic. Imagine that! After all, I said, inside every skeptic is a disappointed idealist. Let’s invite her to the office and put every goddamn file in front of her, nothing hidden, and let her see with her own eyes that we are not the villains she imagines—and that to the contrary we are trying to do something of positive value.

It was an easy pitch, not that Mike ever resisted my counsel. He ran a transparent operation and in sixteen years no one ever caught us with our knickers round the ankles, although many of the best put their shoulder into it. I remember sitting at the AHF boardroom table with Curt Petrovich, an investigative reporter who cast a cold eye on our organization. He went away disappointed, as they all did. I’ll be candid and admit that I enjoyed the game. I had journalism in my background and respected people who were hard headed and tenacious and challenging. Suppose there was in fact corruption. Well, then we would have deserved to be brought down, and the fact is I admire the people who commit themselves to doing it.

When I was young and contemplating a career in journalism, Blatchford was living the life that I fantasized for myself. The by-line at a major outlet, fame, house parties where the booze flowed and the elbows of colleagues rubbed. Back then journalists could still believe they were doing something nobIe, even if it was bullshit, and there was no shortage of money to help them do it. That’s all gone. I was just old enough for the dying years of the old school of journalism, where newsrooms were loud and smoked-filled and a lunch would stretch well into the afternoon. Now the business of journalism goes about in eerie silence, and the changes are so remarkable and happened so fast (at least it seems that way now) that Kelly McParland and I got talking about it one day at the National Post’s headquarters. Some of the changes reflect the decline of the occupation, but most of the change is good. The alcoholism is no longer glamourized, and while journalism remains dominated by men, chauvinism is regarded more as a bug than a feature. Editors tell me they want a more diverse workforce and admit they have a ways to go. So there’s that.

Why this digression into the world of journalism? In my ideal world I would have won Blatchford over and, who knows, we might have become colleagues and even friends. But I was operating in the real world, where neither of these happened. Christie Blatchford made it very clear to me that she was interested in law and order, and only in law and order. That was both her strength and her limitation. When she realized there was nothing lurid to write about the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, nothing to get people outraged over, no human malfeasance to press into the ready forms of her worldview, she lost all interest. One day the calls just stopped, and she moved on.

I kept her phone number and her email and I suppose I also held to a remnant of my idealism, because I sent her an email later on, when she was writing articles about Caledonia. Once again, I tried to win her over. Christie, I wrote, there’s a long history leading up to the Haldimand Tract dispute, and if you really want to understand what’s happening today, and if you want your readers to truly understand, and to be informed, you need to look at that context. Nothing is going to change in this country until we come to terms with the past, I told her. And after all, isn’t it the job of a journalist to dig, and to present all the perspectives, and to make people understand?

Christie was a lot of things, but one thing she wasn’t was subtle. She had told me in no uncertain terms that she was only interested in punishing people who had broken the law, and I guess I should have left it at that. In any case, she never wrote back. ⌾

The columnist versus the commons

In my experience it is not the editors of papers but rather the readers who are intolerant of unorthodoxy

Editorials

✎  WAYNE K. SPEAR | MARCH 13, 2017 • Personal Essays

ALL WHO HAVE WRITTEN for the newspaper editorial section know what readers know, that theirs is a strange and, in some respects, ridiculous task. We understand how tedious it can be to discover us, once again, with our opinions of the moment. In the defence of editorialists, however, I’ll note it’s simply the case that someone must fill the area between the ads, and a fellow with something to say about the President’s latest tweet (or whatever) is a cost-effective proposition. Not only this, comment sections are as a rule popular features of a paper. As a result you are probably stuck with us, as we with you. This being so, isn’t it time we confessed to some unspoken truths of editorial, opinion, or political writing?

I have already alluded to the self-awareness of an op-ed writer, whose job subsists on the improbable and therefore embarrassing conceit that she has something useful, intelligent, and worthwhile to say on any and every topic. A columnist is someone forever sticking out his neck, a broadsheet whack-a-mole impelled by some impenetrable force that no normal person experiences. This raises the unavoidable question, What compels an opinion writer to do it? There are as many possible answers as there are people to give them, but the more credible explanations begin with the observation that newspaper columnists are human beings driven by ordinary human impulses, such as ego, need for acceptance, a desire to do something useful with one’s time in this world, and so on. Once a writer has clothing and shelter (not easily obtained by the labor of writing, alone) she moves up the hierarchy of need, where objects like belonging and love and meaning obtain. A news writer is likely to offer you all kinds of high-minded and self-congratulatory nonsense—he is defending democracy, fighting for truth, standing up for the little guy—but none of these speak to the base and universal human motivations. Taking my own case, I knew I was going to be a writer by age eight, long before I knew there was something called “politics.” From this it follows that my ultimate motivations as a writer, whatever they may be, must involve things that would be available to a typical eight-year-old. And sure enough, I recall from my earliest days a fascination with the sound of words and the shape of printed letters, the feel of paper and the smell of books, the click of typewriter keys. First came the inner compulsion to write, and only years later the ennobling propaganda.

Notice that, for the purposes of this essay, I am focused on writers of opinion pieces. Much of what I have to say will apply to novelists and journalists and poets, but these are not my concern. The relationship of a professional editorialist to the novelist is that writers start out imagining themselves the next Faulkner or what-have-you, and when this turns out not to be the case, they go in search of other pastures, arriving eventually at the opinion pages. There is a definite hierarchy of writerly ambition, with literary fiction at the top and mere utilitarian prose—things like tampon instructions or VCR manuals—at the bottom. The editorialist is somewhere in-between. It is a broad category of persons, comprising well-paid media celebrities as well as obscure bloggers. Most opinion writers work for no money and less fame, a sure indication that something beyond material gain is their motivation. I mention this because I have encountered the charge that my opinions are purchased, which is not the case. Everything I have written at the National Post, for example, is untainted by the moral filth of pecuniary recompense. Once in about 2012 Kelly McParland took me out for lunch, on Postmedia’s dime, and although the leasing of my opinions could have been put into play, no one present (McParland, Matt Gurney, and Christopher Nardi) undertook the gambit.

This leads me to a second common misconception, that opinion writers are under the control of media owners and/or editors. The problem with this notion is that it posits a totalitarian world of invigilating Big Brothers and thoroughgoing thought control, a proposition which requires efficiencies well beyond contemporary newsrooms, including Postmedia. I know as fact that editorial staff have been cut to the point at which articles now get published with only the most cursory review. My opinions have never once been censored or silenced by an editor, but then again I have yet to call for Marxist-Leninist revolution or Juche in the classroom or other beyond-the-limit measures. For reasons I’ve never understood I got a few letters over the years accusing me of subservience to Jonathan Kay (the former National Post editor), but we spoke only twice in the years he was there, and as I recall them our conversations went something like the following:

– How are you?
– I’m doing well. Some weather we’ve been having.
– Yeah, some weather.
– Etc.

This is as good a place as any to note in passing that the “provocateur” type of columnist, Ezra Levant for instance, often turns out to be mild and unobjectionable when you meet him. (People you have only known from television also tend to be smaller than you imagined.) Opinionists are no more anti-social jerks than any other segment of the population, and it is revealing when we suppose people with whom we disagree to be bad people. Nor are comment pages run as a matter of course by zealots. In reality, editorialists intuitively sense where the boundaries of respectability are and go about their business accordingly. The term for this is self-censorship, which is nothing to be proud of but neither is it necessarily an evil. The person who decides not to tell her grandmother about the great sex she had last weekend is self-censoring, and good on it. I can remember the times when I decided not to write something that I wanted to, and invariably those decisions had to do with considerations such as decorum or libel—for example wanting to call such-and-such politician a “lying piece of fucking shit” but deciding against it. Jon Kay and I had, and have, real disagreements, especially as concerns Indigenous people, and it happened that we took them to the pages of the National Post.

In my experience it is not the editors of papers but rather the readers who are intolerant of unorthodoxy. To write opinion pieces is to be denounced as a Bolshevik and a mouthpiece of the dividend-drawing classes, in equal measure. No matter what you do half of your readers will decide that you are a dangerous left-wing radical and the other half that you are a reactionary war-monger and capitalist-apologist. My friend at Macleans, the columnist Terry Glavin, collects insults the way our parents’ generation collected the porcelain Wade figurines that came with their tea. Most of the email an editorialist receives is incoherent if not deranged, so much so that a writer for the newspapers soon enough comes to regard his mail-bag as a kind of freak show offered up by Providence for his amusement. Along the way, many editorialists and would-be influencers confront the unpleasant fact that they have gone into the business under the false expectation of serious and important conversation. At 25 years of age the budding columnist envisions a milieu of movers and shakers, but by 35 hers is a world of Internet trolls and inboxes stuffed with cut-and-paste invective. Whatever one says to the contrary, the first time you are attacked it is arresting. Until you have been denounced by a stranger in a public manner, you have no idea how it will feel. Some of your detractors will go to great lengths, probing into your history and your finances and your family for something to hurl against you. But the other surprise is how quickly the attacks become routine and tiresome, even absurd. To read a newspaper comment section thread is to witness a form of human entropy, and since one grasps the point the very first time, I saw no use in reading the comments ever again.

On the subject of comments, a number of truisms occurred to me quickly. The first is that many judgements about a columnist’s work are based on the headline alone, which is supplied by the newspaper’s headline editor and not by the author of the article. But even in those rare cases when a reader has attended to your words, his judgement of your writing will almost always come down to the question of whether or not he agrees with what he takes to be your politics. If he disagrees, then you will be dismissed as a stupid and incompetent hack, a lousy writer, a fool, a fascist, etc. If she agrees, you will be praised, but either way the thing is meaningless. What you will likely never encounter is actual criticism, which is to say discernment of the strengths and weaknesses of your position, as well as of the mechanics by which it is articulated. For years I waited in vain for the person who would say: “I disagree with your politics, but I think you’re a good writer, and here’s why…” (or the inverse: you’re absolutely right, but a shame about the writing). Everyone is sorting out whether or not you are on their team, so that they might stuff you into the appropriate conceptual drawer. After this there is nothing to do but string together the appropriate adjectives and press send.

My object in the preceding is not to elicit sympathy for the editorialist. No one who insists upon broadcasting his unsolicited opinions to the world deserves coddling. Criticism, abuse, insult—we ask for and therefore deserve all of it. Of course there are, or ought to be, limits to this arrangement, such as injunctions against violent physical attacks. An editorialist should not be subject to credible threats of harm, whether in the real or virtual world. When you write for a newspaper, especially a national one, you have something that is denied to the great mass of people, a voice which is carried over the air. Perhaps no one will pay any heed to you, but you nonetheless will be perceived to have a measure of power and privilege, a perception which can be invidious. I have always felt a keen awareness of this, and it has made me sympathetic to the critics, up to a point. Many times I have been the fellow yelling at the television, to no use, and I know how it feels. One of the terrible shortcomings of our age is that we have made it possible for corporations, media conglomerates, politicians, and celebrities to pound their nonsense into our ears no matter where we are, but we have not made it possible for the common citizen to be heard even on matters that effect her deeply. If the revolution ever arrives, it is probable that the talking heads and the spokespersons and the pundits will be rounded up and shot, which is after all an unanswerable retort. ⌾

More Thoughts on Unpaid Internships and Writing for Exposure

zero-dollar-bill

THE ONTARIO MINISTRY of Labour recently announced an enforcement “blitz” of provincial regulations governing unpaid internships, an action which led to the termination of internship programs at Toronto Life, Canadian Geographic, Rogers Publishing and The Walrus.

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Another Way of Looking at Minister Flaherty

flahertyharris

THE CURRENCY of the word outpouring was notable this week: over at the National Post, Michael Den Tandt has not only described the phenomenon, but indulged it himself. His essay “Former finance minister Jim Flaherty’s death leaves a void in the Conservative party” issues high praise, pressing Kipling and Aristotle into the service of a lush panegyric. Again, nothing unusual here – it’s what everyone is doing these days, not only at the National Post, but elsewhere.

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Face It: Indian Residential Schools Were Bad

Indian Residential Schools
LAST WEEK, Paul Russell (the letters editor at the National Post) ran a piece entitled Could it be that residential schools weren’t so bad?:

The National Post has carried many stories about [Indian residential schools] before and since that apology. And every time we do, it is interesting to see that most of the letters we receive argue that the schools have been unfairly portrayed in the media. That phenomenon was on display again this week, following the publication of last Saturday’s story, “4,000 Children died in residential schools; Truth commission.”

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Canadians Need to Understand Before It’s too Late

Idle No More

IT’S BEEN ONE YEAR since the Attawapiskat First Nation housing crisis became a widely deliberated point, and perhaps that Attawapiskat itself became a known point on the map of Canada. It thus happens that the current hunger strike of Chief Theresa Spence is among other things an anniversary marker of a sort.

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The Richard Smoke Trial

ON DECEMBER 23, 2011, Ontario Superior Court Justice the Honourable Alan C. R. Whitten rendered his verdict in the case of a vicious beating in Caledonia of builder Sam Gualtieri, by defendant and Six Nations resident Richard Smoke. The judgement has received only a smattering of press attention, most of it issuing from the National Post. My feeling is that there ought to be more attention paid, but of a sort which begins by acknowledging universal failure and the urgent need to do something constructive before southern Ontario becomes a Gaza strip of AK-47-wielding Warriors, rock throwing children, and the Canadian army. If you think this is a dramatic and paranoid fantasy, then you are simply one of the many sleep-walking Canadians who has forgotten (or never bothered to notice) that such a thing has already happened. There is no reason at present to conclude it can’t happen again.

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News of the World and the Ethics of Journalism

The demise of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World, though sensational, is of little significance either economically or journalistically. Now and again a journalist is found to be in breach of her profession’s code of ethics, or in more scandalous instances of common decency, and the requisite heads come off. The ordinary business of journalism — which ought itself to be the scandal, but isn’t — goes unremarked.

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C.D. Howe And The Three-Point Tempest

This week the election campaign delivered another manufactured controversy in which Canadians will take no interest: should the level of corporate taxes be 15%, or 18%?

Continue reading “C.D. Howe And The Three-Point Tempest”