Christie and Jack
Don't blame Christie Blatchford. She just uses a different value system than Jack Layton. You know ... anger is better than love, fear is better than hope, despair is better than optimism.
The National Post columnist is under fire for this column she wrote just hours after news of the NDP leader's death flashed across the country, unleashing a wave of unprecedented public emotion. In it, Blatchford mocked the "fawning" reaction and ridiculed Layton's much-quoted letter to Canadians, saying it "shows what a canny, relentless, thoroughly ambitious fellow Mr. Layton was. Even on Saturday, two days before he died, he managed to keep a gimlet eye on all the campaigns to come."
Critics called it mean-spirited, insensitive, untimely and cruel. It was, but those are some of the qualities editors seem to look for in columnists these days. Others said it shouldn't have been published, but that is a short-sighted call for censorship. I'm for free expression. Shouldn't we expect a vigorous debate about a dead politician's political legacy? Blatchford is entitled to her point of view, and it was certainly legitimate to question the unique outpouring of grief and idealism that was touched off by Layton's untimely death.
I think Blatchford's critics miss the point. And my point is, Blatchford's column tells us very little about Jack Layton, but a whole lot about Christie Blatchford.
She is undoubtedly one of Canada's highest-profile newspaper commentators, a reputation she has regularly traded on to move herself from paper to paper at, presumably, higher and higher compensation. As a student of journalism, I greatly admired her pushing the boundaries of court reporting and, in effect, inventing a whole new form of contemporaneous journalism -- the critical day-by-day personal commentary on high courtroom drama. It gave readers a front-row seat on the workings of our justice system.
But she is not a political commentator. She clearly does not know very much about Jack Layton. To call him "vainglorious" is to miss the mark by a considerable degree in describing a politician who plainly, in his actions and deeds, was in it not for himself but for others. To view his letter to Canadians cynically, as "sophistry" and a product of his ego, misses the infectious optimism and faith that he tried to convey. To say the outpouring of grief over his death was not unusual is to miss the legions of young people who filled City Hall Square in Toronto and spread their grafitti of thanks for Layton across the pavement.
So the columnist missed the story: Layton's selfless deathbed challenge to a new generation to concern itself with the future of their country. If he succeeds, and young people actually get involved in the search for solutions, get involved in politics, get involved in advocating for optimistic change, he will pass into history as a seminal figure in Canadian public life, a man who opened the political arena to a generation that opted to vote with its feet in several elections, plunging political involvement to worrisome depths.
The National Post did not lure Christie Blatchford away from her sinecure at the Globe and Mail to miss the story, and so we must consider what her column says about what she and her journalism have become.
Once the hardest working reporter on the block, Blatchford has come to rely too much on lazy stereotypes and ideology. During the past 15 years, that impression has popped surprisingly out of my research. Her columns turned up some of the most blatantly Islamophobic writings during the so-called Toronto 18 arrests, the coverage of which I studied in detail in two published academic papers. I say Islamophobic advisedly, because her words were not only anti-Muslim, they were expressed with hatred. I found similar echoes of intolerance in some of her writings about First Nations issues, including the Ipperwash confrontation and the death of Dudley George, an innocent, unarmed man who was gunned down by police. On both those occasions, a sceptical and inquiring press might have protected society from political spin and lying. Blatchford, given her platform, could have led that charge if she'd directed her considerable journalistic skills toward digging out the truth, instead of taking the easier route of reinforcing prejudice and justifying authority. She chose not to do the hard job of journalism.
While it is easy to dismiss her as a journalistic carpetbagger, eager to sell her talents to the highest bidder, that is not the point, and probably does her a disservice. Rather, we must instead accuse her of something much worse -- abandoning the relentless search for truth that should propel the best who toil, as she does, in the public realm and at the public's pleasure. She abandoned the discipline of verification and opted for the easier surrender to ideology. Perhaps that is what we should read into her return to the National Post, the most intensely ideological newspaper around.
Her job as a prominent columnist was to help us understand the meaning of Layton's life, as well as his death and the enormous and unprecedented public impact it had and continues to have.
Something is happening that has never happened before. And Blatchford failed us when we needed her most.