Journalists and activism: Desmond Cole and the Star

The old rules were a product of the old business model — and they’re breaking down. By Paul Adams for iPolitics One of the proudest moments in the history of journalism came in 1898 when the French writer Émile Zola wrote his famous letter to the president of France, headlined ‘J’Accuse’. The letter, which consumed…

The old rules were a product of the old business model — and they’re breaking down.

By Paul Adams for iPolitics

One of the proudest moments in the history of journalism came in 1898 when the French writer Émile Zola wrote his famous letter to the president of France, headlined ‘J’Accuse’.

The letter, which consumed the entire front page of the liberal newspaper L’Aurore, accused the French government of anti-Semitism and of railroading Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer of the army general staff who had been convicted of espionage and dispatched to Devil’s Island to languish for the rest of his life.

Zola’s idea was to force his political opponents to sue him for libel so that he could air his accusations in court. Indeed, he was not only sued but eventually convicted; he subsequently fled to England. However, Zola’s accusations began the unwinding of the case against Dreyfus. By 1906, Dreyfus had been freed, exonerated and reinstated as an officer in the French army.

Was Zola an activist? Damn straight he was.

The sharp line we draw nowadays between journalism and activism is mainly a development of the 20th century. And that line is now starting to break down in important ways in the 21st. It’s worthwhile looking at the reasons — because they tell us a lot about journalism at a time when technology is changing, generations are grinding against one another and longstanding business models are cracking up.

I am thinking (as you may have guessed) of Desmond Cole, who resigned as a columnist at the Toronto Star last week over the question of whether such a line exists — and whether he could cross it if it did.

As is probably true of a lot of people living outside Toronto, Cole first came to my attention with a startling and compelling article in Toronto Life headlined: ‘The Skin I’m In: I’ve been interrogated by police more than 50 times — all because I’m black.’

The article helped force a reassessment of how police approach people of colour in Toronto and led to the end of ‘carding’, a practice which saw police stop people without cause and ask for ID and other personal details.

Cole, who had become a twice-monthly Star columnist in the meantime, pursued his campaign at a meeting of the Toronto police board in late April by refusing to leave the speaker’s podium. He was protesting against the police service’s refusal to destroy information they had gathered through the now-abandoned ‘carding’ policy. The meeting was cancelled as a result.

It is important to say here that most mainstream news organizations would consider what Cole did at that meeting to be a problem, leading to a reprimand, suspension or even firing. The argument usually made is that activism undermines the ability of reporters to cover a story fairly. This argument is a little odd, given that columnists and editorial writers take stands on issues covered in the news all the time. And reporters still keep reporting on them.

The deeper reasons have to do with the evolution of the media industry in the last century — a process that gradually defanged the social and political activism of news organizations. Think of George Brown’s Globe advocating for rep-by-pop and against French and Catholic influence while supporting his political career — and compare that with today’s Globe and Mail, where the editors aim for balance on the news pages and opinion is mostly relegated to columns and editorials.

As the political and business elites of a hundred years ago began demanding information they could rely on — creating one sort of pressure — a process of “industrialization” of the news was underway. Economies of scale meant that daily newspapers in smaller markets could not afford to put off potential readers just because they supported different political parties or took different views of, say, free trade.

Meanwhile, news services were growing up, producing copy for many newspapers with different orientations. Public broadcasting began, with its own legal mandate and an institutional interest in weathering changes in government.

The style of journalism produced by these changes doesn’t have an agreed-upon name, but is often called “objective”, “balanced” or “neutral”. And it has accomplished great things — documenting wars and famines, bringing governments to their knees. In the Age of Trump — when some of the pretentions of this form of journalism are under attack — it has still been mostly reporters from ‘traditional’ media (the New York Times, the Washington Post and, yes, the Toronto Star through the work of Daniel Dale) who have been doing most of the high-impact reporting.

From the perspective of this kind of journalism — which sits side-by-side with opinion on the page and the screen every day — the most serious objection to activist-journalists might be that, however noble Cole’s action might have been (or Zola’s, for that matter), there will be a temptation for newspapers to start creating news just to cover it. How far is that from the stunt journalism Ezra Levant has pioneered in this country — and do we really all want to go in that direction?

The wrinkle here with Cole’s case is that the Star hasn’t exactly been a citadel of principle on all this. One former columnist, Catherine Porter, was explicitly allowed to pursue her social activism, and pulled a kind of reverse stunt on none other than Levant, putting her own daughter up to a confrontation with him at one of his rallies and then mischaracterizing it in the Star. She was subsequently admonished by the paper’s public editor and apologized.

Porter, who has had an otherwise admirable journalistic career, has now joined the New York Times — where, trust me, she will not be allowed to pull that stuff.

In Cole’s case, an editor advised him after the police board meeting of the Star’s rules prohibiting editorial staff from participating in public causes, but said the paper wanted him to continue his column. It was a blowback pitch — and Cole soon announced in a blog post that he wouldn’t stand for it.

“If I must choose between a newspaper column and the actions I must take to liberate myself and my community, I choose activism in the service of Black liberation,” Cole wrote.

What we’re seeing here is an established media institution caught at the intersection of technological, economic and generational change.

There was a time when having a column in a major newspaper brought significant benefits to a writer. A staff columnist got a good middle class income; even freelancers like Cole were well paid. Alongside that, there were the intangible benefits: influential access to a large public audience that was difficult to obtain in any other way.

News organizations had the muscle to enforce the standards that worked for them commercially because they could offer their writers so much in return.

But Desmond Cole is very much part of the so-called “gig economy” familiar to millennials and he is a denizen of the web. He writes for a variety of media organizations, including Vice and The Walrus, and hosts a radio show. In other words, he has many ways of reaching audiences, and no single employer with the financial leverage to tell him what to do.

As a matter of fact, Cole directly addresses his financial bargain with the Star in his resignation blog post. He claims to have generated more interest and revenue for the paper than any other freelancer.

“My contributions to the Star are in sharp contrast with the lack of tenure, exposure, support and compensation I have received in return,” he wrote, echoing the grievances of many a writer. “I believe I have been good for business during a time when our industry is desperate for new voices and new readers.”

Cole’s editors, as iPolitics’ Stephen Maher shrewdly pointed out, come from the baby boom generation and represent a different perspective.

Kathy English, the Star’s public editor (whom I enormously respect), wrote a column defending the paper’s decision to read Cole the riot act, albeit in the gentlest possible way.

But it displayed the lack of intellectual self-confidence now plaguing traditional media. On the one hand, she said that by disrupting an official government meeting Cole’s activism had gone further over the line than Catherine Porter ever had. And even Porter’s activism had made her queasy, she said.

On the other hand, she expressed regret that Cole’s voice would be lost to the Star — and hinted that maybe the rules on activism should be changed in the future.

It is a far cry from the lightning bolts that were once flung from the corner offices of newspapers without much explanation.

We are in an era when not only readers, but some writers too, are slipping from the grip of great media institutions. And it is not at all clear that the writers are the losers when that happens.

This story was first published on iPolitics, and is republished here with permission of the editor.