Commenting on the dead: all in the timing?

When Christie Blatchford came under fire for critiquing Jack Layton’s letter to Canadians on the day of his death, the question became: how much should taste, and sensitivities of timing, encumber opinion journalism? J-Source's Ivor Shapiro thinks there’s another question: what exactly is “journalistic” about the expression of opinions?

When Christie Blatchford came under fire for critiquing Jack Layton’s letter to Canadians on the day of his death, the question became: how much should taste, and sensitivities of timing, encumber opinion journalism? J-Source's Ivor Shapiro thinks there’s another question: what exactly is “journalistic” about the expression of opinions?

Late in the day of Opposition Leader Jack Layton’s death, a debate flared on Twitter about one of the more obscure factors in journalism's ethics: taste.  And about one of the least obscure — timeliness — but with a counterintuitive twist.

Accused of violating both values was the National Post’s Christie Blatchford. Her accusers were many, but among the most thoughtful (by far) was Andrew Coyne of Maclean’s. Both are national columnists with a conservative bent; both are among the best-known and widely followed purveyors of opinion in journalism. Whatever one thinks of Jack Layton's letter and of his political legacy, some of the discussion shed, I think, some light on the freedoms and constraints of journalistic commentary.

What she wrote

Blatchford’s column was (big surprise!) assuredly provocative. Posted at 18:53 on Monday, August 22 (just 14 hours after the Layton-Chow family’s shocking announcement, the column moved swiftly from a recognition of Layton-the-man’s appeal to an appraisal of Layton-the-partisan’s choices–and a critique of the one-sidedness of the day’s journalism:

“Yes, his death at 61 was sad and too soon; yes, he made an enormous contribution to his party and a significant one to Canada,” Blatchford allowed early in the column,  “…yes, he fought a brave battle against cancer, as, mind you, does just about anyone who has it; and yes, he was a likeable, agreeable, smiley man.” Then, the inevitable “Blatch” war drums: “Yet what was truly singular about him was how consumed by politics he was and how publicly, yet comfortably, he lived.”

It was fitting, she wrote, that his death had been turned into “such a thoroughly public spectacle,” complete with solemn-voiced TV anchors and organ music, “and even serious journalists like Evan Solomon of the CBC repeatedly spoke of the difficulty ‘as we all try to cope’ with the news of Mr. Layton’s death….

“And what to make of that astonishing letter, widely hailed as Mr. Layton’s magnificent from-the-grave cri de coeur?…

“The letter is full of such sophistry as ‘We can restore our good name in the world,’ as though it is a given Canada has somehow lost that, bumper-sticker slogans of the ‘love is better than anger’ ilk and ruthlessly partisan politicking (‘You decided that the way to replace Canada’s Conservative federal government with something better was by working together with progressive-minded Canadians across the country,’ he said in the section meant for Quebecers).”

The letter was also “vainglorious,” she wrote,  “released by his family and the party mid-day, happily just as Mr. Solomon and his fellows were in danger of running out of pap? Who seriously writes of himself, ‘All my life I have worked to make things better’?”

Blatchford also pointed out early allusions to the letter having been written by Mr Layton on his deathbed and only later described as having been a joint effort involving party officials and Layton’s wife and fellow MP Olivia Chow.

“Certainly, Canadians liked Mr. Layton,” Blatchford wrote, “but the public over-the-top nature of such events … make it …  difficult to separate the mourning wheat from the mourning chaff. His loss — his specific loss and his specific accomplishments — are thus diminished.” Layton’s “bravest and most admirable” moments had come during his recent medical battles.  “He must have been in pain; he may have been afraid. Yet again and again, waving the cane that became in his clever hands an asset, he campaigned tirelessly….”

What they tweeted

Christie Blatchford has never been thought a gentle soul, and the column’s portrayal of Layton, while unvarnished, was not one-sided. But the through-line of political criticism, the cynical tone, and the speed of publication during the most acutely painful phase of loved ones’ immediate bereavement, seemed to leave some fellow-journalists, as well as others in the tweetosphere, genuinely shocked. Technology watcher Mathew Ingram (@mathewi), a colleague of Blatchford’s when they were both at The Globe and Mail, wrote: “Blatch's column seemed mean-spirited — I'm all for that, but it should be done for a good reason, and I didn't see one.”  Freelancer Denise Balkissoon (@balkissoon) offered: “Being a contrarian for the sake of it is one of worst flaws a columnist can have. It makes all your ‘opinions’ suspect.”

Like many other tweeters that day, the pseudonymous @SusanFelicity focused on the column’s timing rather than its content; she issued a call to “respect the dead,” and respectfully pointed out that, “as the saying goes, ‘he’s not even cold yet.’” Likewise @WinnipegFatArse: “‘Taste’ aside, she has every right to say what she wants… but did she need to say it now?” Added Jen Herr Stone (@Momifer): “No way to write that today without being crass. Its major probs are timing & language.”

This being Twitter, many other, much harsher, words, both adjectival and nominal, got spat in Blatch’s direction, words that don’t need to be retyped here and likely won’t bother her much (assuming she even reads Twitter; she hasn’t tweeted since February, 2010). And, yes, she struck a chord with some left equally rankled by the news media’s reverential tone of the day. Here’s @TrilliumFlowersL: “Grief is a reality. Over-indulgence of overt sentimentality is not grief.” And Thomas Gilks, @tomgilks: “After today, Christie's article was kind of a breath of fresh air. I'm more heartbroken about the toddler killed by dogs in Sask.”

But nestled among the strident voices, Coyne’s (@acoyne) was strikingly nuanced. Having earlier paid tribute to the “gallantry” of Layton’s last campaign and his “courage, grace & charm,” he wrote, in a linked series of tweets a little after 22:00:

“I don't disagree with a lot of what Christie Blatchford wrote. I'm just not inclined to judge things quite so harshly. To put it bluntly, you're allowed to exploit your own death. You get a free, one-time-only pass. Altho I draw the line at Diefenbaker's detailed instructions for a cross-country funeral train. PS: To say I don't disagree with a lot of it doesn't necessarily mean it needed to be said, or in precisely the same words, or at this time.”

Then, as his comments were retweeted and applauded by many who rose to attack Blatchford, Coyne clarified his views on his peer’s work generally (“I'll take Christie's instincts, with occasional misfires, over most journos'. Damn sure I'd want her on my trial”) and on Layton’s letter: “One can, however, be aware of its political content and purpose; avoid treating it as Torah. Balance needed.”

It was around midnight that Coyne, near to signing off from the conversation, asked: “Is it a journalist’s job to be tasteful?” And answered his own question thus: “A writer should jettison concern for taste where it is both necessary and effective to do so. If not, not."

Which leaves the central question exquisitely put, but in need of just a touch more specificity. We speak here not of journalism in general but of what has come to be called “opinion journalism.” This is the work of columnists, not reporters; it’s the stuff of op-ed pages and magazine segments. How might constraints of taste and timing factor into that stuff?

The “journalism” in “opinion journalism”

To seek an answer, one butts heads with a prior question: what is "opinion journalism" anyway, and how should it be evaluated?

In a journal article last year, I offered a definition of journalism that might help provide a framework for evaluating journalists’ work. The idea was to find an easier way to discuss whether a particular work is "good" journalism or, well, not so much. I suggested that a work of journalism on any platform may be recognized, and then judged, by the presence of five factors:
•    independence from outside influence,
•    examination of the accuracy of information,
•    the interpretation of information as a cohesive “story,”
•    a concern for clarity of style that (along with other aspects of the work) normally requires more than one set of eyes; and
•    the uncensored presentation of the resulting work.

I suggested that work involving all five of these factors might be recognizable as “quality” journalism and easily distinguished from other types of rhetoric, such as advertising, advice, or academic studies. (These five attributes were minimum standards for journalism, I suggested–they did not, by any means, guarantee excellence, a concept for which I suggested five different criteria but which is off-topic right now since no one is debating the excellence or otherwise of anything.)

My pentagonal proposal is more obviously suitable for thinking about reporting than about commentary, and, as far as I know, its relevance remains untested beyond a few j-school reporting classes. But, as I followed the Blatch-bash threads, I found myself wondering if the five factors might indeed help to assess a work of journalistic commentary.

Even though columnists do not often seek to discover new information, independence does seem a useful ethical lens to distinguish the work of a columnist working, say, for a reputable news organization, from that of someone tied, say, to political or other group interests. And it seems reasonable to expect a columnist to be more concerned than some other opiners about the accuracy of reported facts before taking a position on them. Certainly, all successful columnists seek to tell a story (to take their readers on a journey that starts with an appealing hook and leads to an enlightening end), and both editors and readers appreciate it when this done in a provocative and accessible style. As for the uncensored bit, it would be tough to defend the idea of restraining a columnist’s freedom of expression.

Measured by these minimum standards, can Blatchford’s column be evaluated as journalism? It certainly reflects an independent standpoint (in contrast not only to outpourings of spontaneous grief but to the analysis offered by both partisan and reportorial sources) and a concern to examine the accuracy of some quickly mythologized facts (the short-lived “deathbed-letter” assumptions). Clearly, the column told a story and did so in Blatchford’s inimitable (love it or hate it) style.

And, man, was it ever uncensored. The question is, should it have been?

Taste, timing and the public interest

OK, it’s a stretch to place a concern for taste and timing under the same rhetorical heading as bureaucrat-blackened news columns and dictator-deadened radio air. But in a free society, censorship by publishers and peer pressure is not unknown, and self-censorship comes in many forms, not all of them malign but all of them at odds, in principle, with the ideals of a vigorously free press. And self-censorship is what even Coyne, however graciously, was, I think, suggesting Blatchford do–at least temporarily–with her opinions. (“…It didn’t need to be said.”)

I don’t mean to suggest that “taste” should be a cuss-word for journalists, or that self-censorship on the grounds of taste is necessarily the wrong thing to do. There are compelling news pictures that don’t belong on the front page; there are riveting stories that are no one’s business. I’ve heard of one U.S. journalist who said, when disgraced former president Richard Nixon died: "When the good Lord lays his hands on someone, I let go" Others might well disagree with that line of thinking. Editors and news directors make taste decisions frequently, and so they should: journalists are not exempt from the expectations of humanity that apply to any citizen.

But the city of “taste” is a grey and shady place, and the ethical flashlight that journalists often use in such places is “the public interest.” A photograph, a piece of footage, a specific truth may offend people or may shake the individual journalist’s sensibilities, but if it seeks to reveal or explain a matter of public interest, well, that’s where the “damned” in “publish and be damned” comes in.

I think the same might go for commentary. Where, after all, is the line between “tasteless” and “objectionable”? We surely expect columnists to write objectionably, because unobjectionality is, well, uninteresting. A columnist who has a “distasteful” opinion on a matter of public interest should be at least as afraid of the social instinct to repress that opinion than of the professional instinct to express it. And on a matter of public interest, the rest of us do well to err on the side of encouraging columnists to draw the line according to their own judgments, not ours.

So the “taste” question comes down to, not the substance of what Blatchford wrote, but its timing. “Let the man’s family, friends and admirers grieve for a day or two,” this argument runs, “before you fill out the initially one-sided portrait of his character, his contribution, and his utterances. Contrarianism can wait.”

This argument for compassion is attractive because of its evident decency, though it’s a bit unusual among journos to use “timeliness” as a reason to delay publication rather than the reverse. Try that argument out on a news story and it gets messier: “The family is hurting; let’s delay the story” would likely get a response of “If we don’t run it, someone else will.”

Invocations of timeliness to rebut compassion can be ethically dubious, since competitive edge is less a moral pull than a pragmatic need. But it’s true that the journalist’s character—her or his professional nature—is almost genetically drawn to sooner-than-later publication, and that aggression to seek and publish is usually good medicine for a free society. There are important limits, of which the need to check a fact may be paramount, but, here again, the flashlight of public interest should be able to help us find a line between too soon and too late.

Jack Layton’s letter to Canadians was many things, and people may differ on the ideas it expressed, but the letter was indisputably a public document on matters of public policy and politics, and the timing of its release was calculated for maximum publicity. There may be many good reasons to avoid commenting on it (such as, having nothing fresh to say), but for a columnist to refrain from expressing herself on so public and political an event on the grounds of nothing but timing and taste would seem a very, very odd choice. Perhaps, even, an unprofessional one.

Do you agree with what Christie Blatchford wrote? Do you disagree? A bit of each? Never mind. Either way, let’s respect her moral right to decide, freely, whether to write and publish it, whether sooner or later. Taste has some place in the newsrooms of the nation, but let’s keep its elbow room down, and let columnists be columnists.

Ivor Shapiro, the ethics editor of J-Source, is Chair of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University and chairs the Canadian Association of Journalists’ ethics advisory committee.