The Making of Modern Journalism – When a Friendly Stranger Comes To Call

April 25, 2023
Fair Press by Mark Bourrie logo

This is a case study of a media hatchet job. It’s from England’s conservative Spectator, and that bias is apparent. Still, it’s a warning of what can happen when you let a journalist into your home and decide to have a friendly chat. A phrase gets picked up here, another there, and very soon the journalist is able to craft the story they planned in the first place.

In Roger Scruton’s case, he thought it was a good idea to have a long, rambling conversation with a journalist about a wide range of domestic and foreign issues. Big mistake. Scruton thought the reporter had come to interview him about his books, which were being re-issued. In fact, the journalist was there to ruin Scruton.

It’s not an unusual case, and it should be a warning for anyone interacting with the media.

I have a new book out. It’s a biography of Pierre Radisson called Bush Runner. I’m contractually obliged to do what I can to promote the book. That meant going back on social media after a too-brief hiatus and making time for any media interviews that might come along.

So people who write books must make time for journalists. And they must be very careful.

Canadian writer David Gilmour, who was recovering from serious emotional issues, had just spent time in a psychiatric ward and was in the middle of moving, let a friendly young Hazlitt reporter, Emily Keeler, into his home for a few minutes and she almost destroyed his career. Gilmour made the mistake of saying:

“I teach modern short fiction to third and first-year students. So I teach mostly Russian and American authors. Not much on the Canadian front. But I can only teach stuff I love. I can’t teach stuff that I don’t, and I haven’t encountered any Canadian writers yet that I love enough to teach.

“I’m not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women.”

Yes, it was odd. I look over my own shelves — which have very little fiction — and see books by men and women. I’ve never included a gender analysis in a decision on whether I would buy a book.

I often wondered what Gilmour was thinking. It’s probably a bad idea to ask. I have never met him, but we have mutual friends, and his publisher, Patrick Crean of Harper Collins, published my books Kill the Messenger in 2015 and The Killing Game in 2016. His friends say he was at a terrible place in life and shouldn’t have done the interview at all. But he had a book out that was in contention for the prestigious Giller Prize.

Still, did he mean what he said? What was he trying to say? There aren’t many good women Russian novelists? Or Americans? (Or Canadians for that matter).  Or that, by dumb luck, he just happened to prefer the work of men? The whole statement was a pretension, probably made to impress. And it made an impression. Yet the journalist never asked Gilmour to explain why he preferred a certain suite of (male) writers? Was it coincidence? Was it sexism? It was a better story if people could automatically assume the latter.

By the time it was done, Gilmour had to struggle to find teaching work and a new publisher. Nothing in his life, except those two paragraphs, seemed to matter anymore. Not his own novels, the years as managing editor of the Toronto International Film Festival, his CBC work, his awards.

This is a new kind of “Gotcha!” journalism where careers are built by collecting scalps. We see it in politics, but it really started in entertainment magazines and investigative TV shows. Look carefully at the genre. Celebs rarely fight back. They don’t want to draw more attention. And the targets of investigative TV shows are invariably people with very little real power. Once in a while, targets of investigative TV shows fight back and win but it’s rare.

It’s usually patently unfair, and it relies on a certain gullibility of the target. To work, it requires the development of a fairly high level of comfort between the target and the journalist, and the hiding of the journalist’s real motivation.

It’s a kind of journalism that skates along the edge of dishonesty.

As for Scruton and Gilmour, their mistake was simple: they allowed an agenda-driven journalist into their personal space, and they allowed the journalist to steer the conversation. Neither were suspicious enough to make their own recording of the interview. Both sessions with the journalists were supposed to be about their books. Both authors let the journalists probe them. And that might be fine if the journalist is really interested in knowing them. But when, as in Scruton’s case, the interviewer is so pleased with the take-down that he posts a shot on Instagram celebrating with champagne, something’s gone terribly wrong.

So a simple rule that applies both to the subject the story and to the journalist: never let the story be about you.