The Problem with Columnists

Literature
By
Mark Bourrie
August 3, 2019
Fair Press by Mark Bourrie logo

Newspaper publishers love opinion writers for the same reason TV news networks use so many journalist panels: they’re cheap. In fact, they cost much less, per word, than reporters. The copy flows in every day, for spots that are laid out long in advance. No risk, no surprises. Punch in at 9 a.m., leave at 4:30.

Real journalism is far more risky. News executives have no idea what, if anything, news reporters will find. Many times, I was sent out on assignments that turned out to be nothing, and I was paid for a wasted day. Often, editors wanted to know what my stories would say before I did my research. I’d tell them they’d know when I knew.

This doesn’t happen with columnists. They always deliver their 750 words, and you’ll know what they’ll say.

And, for the most part, they don’t cause any trouble. Reporters, when they do their job well, dig up storied that generate controversy and blow-back from the powerful. Columnists don’t. Even the most controversial columnist has a sort of firewall between the writer and the newspaper: executives can say the column is the writer’s opinion, and that the paper welcomes all points of view. The former may be true, but the latter is usually not.

A columnist for a major paper recently sent me a calculation he’d done that showed about 80% of Canadian daily newspaper and major web site columnists were conservatives. This included all of the regular opinion writers of the Sun and Postmedia chains (the largest in Canada) and almost all the Globe and Mail’s columnists.

Many of these columnists had been Conservative candidates (like Randall Denley of the Ottawa Citizen) or Tory strategists (the ubiquitous Andrew McDougall, who was Stephen Harper’s communication director).  Only the Toronto Star, which is still the best-selling newspaper in Canada, had a predominance  of centrist and left-of centre columnists.

Maclean’s, now a monthly magazine struggling to survive under new owners, has become columnist-heavy, with a mix that veers right. Most of the magazine’s senior writers and columnists are part of the clique assembled twenty years ago by Ken Whyte and Conrad Black when they started the National Post.

Allison Uncles, the editor-in-chief, was a protege of oddball libertarian editor Neil Reynolds, who yanked the Ottawa Citizen to the right, where it remains to this day. (The Citizen, hostile to anything to do with public service and government, is so out-of sync with its own city that it is now utterly irrelevant in Ottawa.)

A cluster of Albertans — centered around Colby Cosh, an alumnus of the far-right Byfield family publications, and including the rather bizarre Jen Gerson — gets ink in Alberta for spouting the oil patch’s slogans, and is hired by Uncles and by producers at the CBC to spout a very predictable line of conventional wisdom.

The CBC’s opinion pages are edited by Robyn Urback, ex-National Post columnists. Her pages have minimal readership and very little social media pickup (except for the work of Neil Macdonald). It will be interesting to see how long that experiment lasts.

In a sense, publishers and editors have taken much more political control over their own news pages. Journalists would, at least in theory, come back to the newsroom with stories that their own bosses would not like. This was especially true of reporters covering political beats. But take the reporter away, replace her with a columnist of known, trusted and unwavering views, and that’s not much of a problem anymore.

Nor do news executives have to worry about the toothless Canadian NewsMedia Council. It has show that a journalist literally has to make up stories about refugee claimants slaughtering goats in hotel bathrooms before the Council will criticize an “opinion” piece. The Council seems to have an idea of protected opinion that is quite different from the Common Law, but that’s a piece for another day.

Columnists need no special education or expertise. Most have a BA, usually in journalism. Very few have any graduate school training and only a handful, such as the Toronto Star’s Thomas Walkom (who has a PhD) and freelancer Dan Gardner (an LLB) have terminal or professional degrees.

Pedigree counts. So does membership in the upper middle class. News executives want columnists who look like them, think like them, and come from the same background, and there’s nothing more incestuous than the Canadian media, although politics is catching up fast. (Step forward, David and Linda Frum).

Authority and gravitas also count. That’s why someone like Jen Gerson can go on CBC’s Power and Politics, get the Ontario Court of Appeal’s decision in the carbon tax reference case utterly wrong, and be invited back to the same panel despite Gerson and the CBC being mocked on social media. And then spout absurdities like this.

Most of these columnists know each other, move in the same social circles, and are adept at playing the game. They are, with very few temporary exceptions, socially-skilled white men and women, between forty and sixty. An older cohort — people like Margaret Wente — are slowly letting go. But they’re not being replaced with young people, partly, I think, because an entire generation has missed out on the newsroom experience that’s usually needed before a column because an option.

But I’m open to arguments that something else is at play. I’ve taught in a journalism school and seen enough college media from places like Ryerson to know that journalism schools are turning out a lot of grads who don’t look, think or talk like typical newspaper columnists and CBC News panelists. They don’t fit my description of typical Canadian opinionists.

So we’re heading into an election with the same old gang of opinion leaders, in the same old newspapers and TV news shows, spouting the same old lines. What will we hear about? Senate reform? Regional alienation? Taxes on the middle class? Pipelines? Pull out a topic, and, if you keep up with Canadian columnists, you’ll know what Andrew Coyne, Rex Murphy, Paul Wells and Colby Cosh think about it.

You won’t see nearly as many reporters covering national and local races and asking tough questions to the candidates.

It’s pablum. It’s no-surprise content. And it’s killing journalism.