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Who – and what – is a journalist?

May 8, 2017

Desmond Cole’s indignation about a Toronto Star editor quietly outlining to him the newspaper’s policy on activism and journalism is quite breathtaking.

He was given the talking-to by Star editorial page editor Andrew Phillips after Cole disrupted a Toronto Police Services Board meeting that was discussing destroying information collected through the controversial police policy of carding.

Cole, who was making a deputation to the board, took over the podium and halted the meeting. The Star’s Public Editor Kathy English wrote a thoughtful and well-argued column in that paper recently explaining the difference between activism and journalism..

Cole has since quit his Star column. Oh my. If I’d quit the first time an editor had hauled me in for a “chat” (i.e. “don’t do that again”) I wouldn’t have lasted 50 years in journalism.

As a longtime former journalist, and as a former press gallery president at Queen’s Park, where such issues frequently come up, I believe the Star actually behaved in a restrained manner.

First, was Cole attending the meeting as an activist or a journalist? If he was making a deputation, then he was there as an individual. Had he used Star credentials to gain admittance, then the newspaper has an issue. The mere fact that he had a high-profile platform via the Star meant the TPSB was obliged to treat him as a journalist. There’s a strong likelihood he would write about it.

To its credit, the Star reported the incident in a fair and even-handed fashion. But you could also argue he put the Star reporter in a very awkward situation.

And in this city, this province, journalists have very good access to politicians. And real journalists fight hard to maintain that access – because it is so vital to a free press.

Cole is young and, like many millennials, has a problem with authority. When they encounter rules they don’t agree with, they change the rules.

The fact is though that the rules about activism and journalism are there for a good reason. If activist/journalists continue to shut down legislatures/council/police board meetings legitimate journalists who are just trying to do their jobs will lose the access they have now. That’s why the press gallery polices itself so rigorously to ensure that only journalists with no axes to grind are in scrums.

I remember a couple of situations where journalists asked questions in scrums and news conferences that were clearly personal in nature. In one case, when market value assessment was being debated, one journalist, whose home would have been massively re-assessed, kept asking loaded questions about the issue.

In another case, during the Ombudsman’s probe of the lottery ticket fiasco, a freelance journalist came to a news conference and started to ask a question in which he clearly had a personal interest about a lottery ticket he believed he’d been swindled on. He was shut down by other reporters. As president of the gallery, as I recall, it fell to me to call him later and explain the rules.

In fairness, I should say that the only time Cole came to Queen’s Park that I’m aware of, he sat in the side gallery reserved for observers and those with a stake in the topic and not in the seats reserved for journalists.

There are those who will point out that as a columnist, I wrote nothing but opinion. That is true. But I have never been a member of a political party. And while I was generally a small-c conservative columnist, when circumstances called for it, at times I would criticize large-C Conservative politicians.

When Desmond Cole criticizes Black Lives Matter, then he can consider himself a journalist. To my recollection, covering city council, the school board, the Legislature and countless committee and board meetings, while I heard a great deal of nonsense and points of view I strongly disagreed with,I never leaped to the podium to take it over.

It’s true that of late with bloggers and online websites, the lines between journalism and non-journalism have blurred and it is increasingly difficult to tell who is and who isn’t a journalist and what the agendas of some reporters are. That doesn’t mean we should just throw up our hands and not try.

People with one special interest or lobbyists working to promote a particular point of view are not journalists. Politicians don’t need much by way of an excuse to limit access of journalists to them. Once you cross the blurred line, you are inviting a whole heap of trouble. And it won’t be good for journalism.

Usually when a columnist with a special interest writes in a paper, there’s a note at the bottom explaining who that writer is and what organization they belong to. That disclaimer allows the reader to assess the column taking into consideration the writer’s special interest. Cole always insists  he’s not a member of BLM, so you can’t note that at the end of his column.

Cole complained recently on Newstalk 1010 that Star honcho John Honderich had asked him to lunch and then suggested he diversify his column. Cole took offence. Are you kidding me? First, when a senior executive of the newspaper invites you to lunch, you should listen carefully. You don’t own the paper. He does – or at least he has the confidence of those who do. His advice is probably going to be wise and you should listen. The fact such a senior person took the time to have lunch to offer advice clearly demonstrates that the Star was falling over itself to help Cole stay. You can’t write the same column over and over. You have to diversify.

And Cole is convinced he’s vital to the growth of the paper – attracting clicks and eyeballs and readers. I don’t know about that. He could also be turning off readers in droves.

If you’re so thin-skinned that you can dish out nasty opinions but you’re not prepared to take gentle criticism from the people who hired you – and are therefore most likely to be on your side – then you’re probably in the wrong business.

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