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politics

Speaking Lies for Power

How Toronto's dailies are failing their readers, and failing to hold politicians to account.

It’s touching that people were so shocked about the latest journalistic crime committed by the increasingly tawdry Globe and Mail. Despite all the evidence of the newspaper industry’s massive collapse, concerned citizens remain earnestly naive about the principles it purports to uphold and the importance it once enjoyed.

That’s sweet, but it’s time to get real. Among the many groups discredited by the recent provincial election—including conservative ideologues and pollsters of every stripe—Toronto newspapers surely rank high.

Before the vote, the Ontario Progressive Conservatives had lost 91 of the 92 seats they contested in Toronto this century. During the vote, they lost that one seat due to a campaign even more inept and anti-urban than their usual efforts. And yet three of the four major Toronto dailies endorsed them.

How could they be so far out of touch with their own readers? How is it that our own newspapers no longer even try to represent us?

The best answer yet was provided by a Globe insider who leaked the ugly truth behind that paper’s notably tortured and ridiculous endorsement to Jesse Brown’s Canadaland podcast.

It’s actually funny when you consider the effort the Globe made to pump up its endorsement into some kind of momentous event, trying to create suspense with no fewer than three lead-up articles of bumbling and stumbling tergiversation. A portentous Facebook post promised the great ta-da! at noon on Friday, June 6. Except, as the insider pointed out (backed by helpfully cached internet evidence), no endorsement appeared for another two hours and forty minutes.

What did happen during that time, the insider told Canadaland, was an ignoble scurry in which Globe editor David Walmsley informed his editorialists that the paper’s ownership had demanded they rewrite their tepid endorsement of Kathleen Wynne in favour of Tim Hudak, the people’s choice.

The tortured, mealy-mouthed editorial that ultimately appeared, absurdly recommending that voters elect a minority Hudak government—as if that were a choice on the ballot—outraged readers sufficiently that editor Walmsley felt obliged to broadcast a defence. Slavishly doing last-minute political dirty work for billionaires, he would have us believe, is “a significant process that’s quite sophisticated.”

Say what you will about the Toronto Sun, at least it’s consistent. The Sun‘s post-election front-page splash—“Welcome to HELL”—was a direct copy of its 2011 post-election front-page splash. Such are the synergies that result when the sole purpose of your once-popular publication is the passing whim of a billionaire separatist politician from Quebec. There’s a political pretzel to stretch the imagination. The result is a newspaper from another planet, slowly dying.

As for that other reliable, voice-of-the-people organ, the National Post, it wouldn’t exist were it not for its usefulness as ideological armament for the ruling class. There was never a credible business case for it in the first place—it was conceived as Conrad Black’s political cudgel—and it has only ever lost money. Yet it mysteriously persists—for the sole purpose, it would seem, of hectoring progressive voters who represent the vast majority of potential newspaper readers in the city and the province. And who, not surprisingly, ignore the National Post.

But attracting readers is no longer the point with these publications. It’s all about thumping the tub for the Man.

The irony is that newspapers gained their greatest integrity and authority when they were most profitable. As long as a paper could return 20-per-cent profit margins on a routine basis, as most could throughout the late 20th century, few of their owners much cared what the editors and reporters got up to. Thus were born what we call “journalistic principles”—and as profits have disappeared, so have they. The more you hear about such things today—and you hear about them a lot, generally from the mouths of the biggest sellouts—the less they mean.

In this particular hypocrisy again the Globe excels, as made clear in a current management proposal to turn every one of its reporters into a “content creator” for hire to advertisers. The scheme is outlined in a bizarre memo, also leaked to Canadaland, that delineates three different classifications of journalistic whoring and outlines a complicated set of sanitary procedures “content creators” must undergo to prevent infection—all depending on how intimate the encounter is expected to be. And all in the name of “protecting the Globe’s brand—its integrity and the integrity of its employees.”

It’s hard to know which is worse—the abject surrender of editorial independence or the delusion that it can survive in such sorry circumstances. They’re inviting the Devil into the newsroom and expecting to keep him in line with chalk marks on the floor.

As someone who spent most of his career at the Globe, it pains me deeply now to say, “Thank God for the Toronto Star.” It is the only mainstream, progressive voice left in our progressive city. Not by mere coincidence, it is also the only newspaper still doing damn-the-consequences public-interest reporting, as opposed to the lame, fish-in-a-barrel “investigations” the Globe is proffering under Walmsley. The fact that the Star won this year’s prestigious Michener Award for its aggressive pursuit of Rob Ford assures us that all is not yet rotten in daily newspapers—that somebody, somewhere still knows the real thing when they see it.

Think where we’d be if the last of the four also took orders straight from the headquarters of Capital, Inc.: staring sullenly from the sidelines as a triumphant Ford offered a grinning Hudak the keys to our city.

John Barber is a former Globe and Mail employee and occasional contributor to the Toronto Star.

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