Is Margaret Wente a racist? Should she apologize to Native Canadians? To all Canadians? Should she be fired from her high profile job as a Globe and Mail columnist? Should she be silenced for good?
These are only a few of the questions that bubbled up from the cauldron of controversy created by Wente’s Oct. 24 column, “What Dick Pound said was really dumb – and also true.”
In the column, Wente defended Pound who had told a La Presse reporter, “We must not forget that 400 years ago, Canada was a land of savages, with scarcely 10,000 inhabitants of European descent, while in China, we’re talking about a 5,000-year-old civilization.”
A mitigating factor might have been that Pound was speaking in French and actually said “un pays du sauvage,” which has a slightly different connotation in French. In French “sauvage” has more of a “natural” or “wild” connotation as in “les bluets sauvage” (wild blueberries).
Nevertheless, and not surprisingly, Pound’s comment generated huge blowback from the Aboriginal community and many others across Canada. Wente, rather than heaping scorn upon the often loose-lipped Pound, (she did say making the comment was “stupid”) came to his defense, not only insisting that Pound has a right to his views, but that what he said was, actually, well, correct!
Her column explored the views of scholars Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard who are the authors of a new book on aboriginal policy and culture, Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry. In it, they suggest that Aboriginal culture was less evolved than either Chinese or European culture at the time of first contact.
The arguments for and against these ideas are many and the debate about what constitutes progress or even civilization is endless, but what emerged from the Wente controversy was not an anthropological debate, but a journalistic one. In many cases, rather than attack her ideas, her critics shifted the argument by doing two simple things: calling her names and calling for her to be silenced.
Both of these have profound implications for journalists and journalism. At its best, journalism is provocative. It should question authority and all manner of received wisdom, commonly-held ideas and sacred truths. It should, as the saying goes, “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” But who will decide on the targets? Can writers afflict government? Aboriginals? Vice presidential candidates? Pro Lifers? Home schoolers? Muslims? Catholics? Cross-dressers? Who will decide? To understand the issues and the implications of this most-recent controversy, let’s recount the events as they unfolded.
Here’s how it went. Wente published the column on October 24. Two days later, the Canadian website, rabble.ca published a column by Ben Powless, a 22-year-old Mohawk from Six Nations. Powless calls Wente’s column “racist,” mentions a Facebook group dedicated to getting her fired (called, not suprisingly, Fire Margaret Wente (and Dick Pound)) and then calls for her dismissal. He wrote: “Ms. Wente should not be allowed to keep her position at the Globe and Mail after publishing such virulent lies…”
The article lit up rabble’s always busy message board where the “babblers,” as they are known, heartily agreed with Powless and then went a step further. The message board posters began calling Wente’s writing, among other things, “racist,” and called for her to be fired.
Even rabble.ca editor Derrick O’Keefe joined the Facebook group, adding his name to the list of people who demanded that Wente lose her job.
Wayne MacPhail, a rabble columnist and a member of the rabble board of directors, entered the fray, warning rabble editors that labeling someone a racist could be seen as libelous and could be actionable. He also objected to the call to have Wente fired.
“It’s one thing to disagree with a someone’s views, but it’s wholly another to demand that she be silenced and that she lose her job,” he wrote. More than the fear of a lawsuit, what troubled MacPhail was the notion that people who say things you don’t like, don’t agree with, or find offensive or inappropriate, should be muzzled. “I would hate to think that if the Left were in power, columnists like Margaret Wente would be silenced for openly discussing an issue of public interest. But, that seems to be the behaviour that is being modeled. That is deeply unfortunate and saddening,” he wrote in a posting to the message boards. “Freedom of speech doesn’t stop where your sensibilities begin. If we want to provide a true alternative to mainstream power and mainstream media we might want to begin by not aping them.”
In the next few days, O’Keefe quit the Facebook group calling for Wente’s firing, but senior editorial staff at rabble did not back down. For their part, the editors and board moderators at rabble said the accusations that Wente’s writing was racist were within the realm of fair comment.
In protest, MacPhail pulled his own rabble.ca column for a month.
Wente’s ideas may be deemed fatuous by some and her style my be infuriating to others, but the material in her column is not outside the realm of fair comment by any journalistic standards. In fact, she was quoting from books written by credible scholars employed at mainstream universities in Canada, not espousing the self-published ravings of cranks and fringe dwellers.
Most of the arguments in the column, while certainly contentious, are all covered in slightly different forms in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. To argue that raising these ideas, (no matter in what style) should result in being fired, is, frankly, ridiculous and dangerous.
Wente, a long-time, full-time employee of the Globe and a National Newspaper Award winner, may not be vulnerable to online complaining and overt public pressure that it brings, but others certainly are.
Witness the fate of columnist Heather Mallick. After her less-than-complimentary views on Sarah Palin were published on the cbc.ca website where she was employed as a freelance columnist, the response both online and off was quick and brutal. National Post columnist Jonathan Kay called Mallick’s work “appalling” and called the CBC to task for publishing it. Fox News in the U.S. picked up on the column and Mallick was vilified on at least three programs on the network, with one commentator calling her a pig.
Over the same week, hundreds of complaints flowed into the CBC ombudsman’s office (300 in all) and on Sept. 25, Vince Carlin published a review of the complaints and the column. In it, he states that the CBC has a mandate to run opinion pieces, that the column fell under the “Point-of-View” standards, which covered “a work of clear opinion, advocacy or factually-based polemic,” and that Mallick is certainly entitled to her opinion.
Nonetheless, Carlin did an analysis of the column and found it wanting, though his review of the material seems oddly humourless. His suggestion that they place a sign above her column signaling readers that it may be satire is at best paternalistic.
Does anyone, other than Carlin, believe that Mallick actually thinks all Republican men are sexually inadequate? What about Arnold Schwarzenegger? (Writer’s note: This last interjection is meant to be satiric). Carlin goes on to call Mallick’s commentary “puerile” and her criticism of Palin’s kids’ clothing “in poor taste.”
Carlin says Mallick may hold whatever opinions she chooses, but that the CBC has the right and obligation to exercise appropriate editorial supervision and ensure that her work meets the Corp’s standards. “Liberty is not the same as license,” wrote Carlin.
In the wake of the criticism, the columns, letters and finally, Carlin’s review, Mallick’s column was pulled by the CBC brass. On September 29, CBC Publisher John Cruickshank wrote an open letter titled, “We erred in our judgment,” in which he distanced the CBC from Mallick saying:
“Mallick’s column is a classic piece of political invective. It is viciously personal, grossly hyperbolic and intensely partisan. And because it is all those things, this column should not have appeared on the CBCNews.ca site.”
Cruickshank also lamented the narrow range of opinions on the site and pledged to bring new voices into the site, repeating the “diversity” idea twice in one sentence in case anyone missed the point. He promised to “expand the diversity of voices and opinions and be home to a diverse group of writers with many perspectives. In this, we will better reflect the depth and texture of this country.”
Mallick still writes a column for the CBC.
These two incidents are troubling in many ways. Though the columns are distinct in their approach and tone, they are linked because of the specific reactions they engendered. It should be noted here that Wente and Mallick made strange bedfellows in this case, because Wente did not support Mallick’s column on Palin. Here is a taste of the disdain Wente has for her former fellow Globe columnist:
“It’s fun to bash Sarah Palin. I should know. I’ve been doing it for weeks. But nobody has bashed her quite as viciously as a semi-obscure columnist named Heather Mallick.”
It gets worse – or better depending on your point of view – from there.
This kind of free give-and-take may be edgy, but it’s good. Wente has been on the receiving end for her columns, which often irk many readers in this country, and she can give as good as she gets. So can Mallick.
The problem comes when the aggrieved parties (usually self-identified) campaign to silence columnists. Whether the columnists are labeled as too right, too left, too strident, too extreme, too inflammatory is beside the point. The demand for their muzzling, demotion, or firing, can, abetted by the power of the Internet and fueled by blogs, chat rooms, email campaigns, message boards and You Tube videos, be overwhelming for some organizations.
No one is in favor of giving journalists what ethics expert Stephen Ward calls a “get-out-of-jail-free card.” Reporters, editors and their bosses are governed by newsroom codes and finally by the libel and slander laws of Canada. In an article here on J-Source.ca, Ward makes it clear that journalists have a grave responsibility. He wrote:
“Journalists have ethical responsibilities because they can do both substantial public harm and substantial public good.
On the negative side, journalists can destroy reputations, deal in malicious rumours, demonize minorities, plagiarize and fabricate stories, doctor images, intrude on private lives and add to the trauma of vulnerable people. They can manipulate elections, spark racial tensions and accept kick-backs for doing (or not doing) stories. They can sensa-tionalize and misrepresent issues. In times of tension, they can support the removal of civil rights, support unjust wars and act as a megaphone for demagogues.”
Few people, perhaps no one, would argue in favor of doctoring images, plagiarism, invention, manipulation or fabrication. But all of these are well beyond the supposed “crimes” of Wente and Mallick. We should, within the industry and outside of it, hold journalists accountable and responsible, but let’s make sure they have their say.
Fired reporters don’t write stories, dismissed columnists don’t write columns and threatened or scared journalists don’t speak their minds. And that is everyone’s loss.
Paul Benedetti is a lecturer at the University of Western Ontario. He was a bureau reporter, general assignment reporter, music writer, arts writer, columnist, feature writer and investigative reporter at the Hamilton Spectator. He also has extensive experience in the online world, including a position as executive producer for C-Health and Canoe Travel at Canoe where he focused on developing original online news content.