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Blatchford’s Timing

So there I was, it was supposed to be a nice lunch with two friends, both nationally known working journalists, and wouldn’t you know it, an argument breaks out. It was just 36 hours after the death of Jack Layton and I found myself in the middle of a heated discussion about Christie Blatchford’s article, you all know the article I’m talking about, the one that questioned Jack, especially his letter. Blatchford created a storm of controversy because she did not fall into line with the adoration that Layton was receiving by friend and foe alike.

On one side of this noon hour confrontation was one of the best news and documentary television producers in Canada. He felt that Blatchford went far overboard in her criticism and further, maybe most important, her timing was terrible. Writing that kind of stuff while the body was still warm was beyond acceptable.

On the other side a thoughtful newspaper columnist who insisted that not only was Blatchford correct in almost everything she said, but more important, what better time to write this column than when it was most newsworthy and therefore most relevant?

Reading the reaction to the Blatchford column since that lunch, it appears that most journalists, even those on the right, seem to agree that the timing was poor. Certainly the public reaction was almost completely against Blatchford, at least the published reaction I have read in dozens of newspapers, blogs, commentaries and the like.

At first I was onside with the generally accepted opinion. Now I’m not so sure.

First let me make it clear that I am no fan of Christie Blatchford and her writing. I find her to be knee jerk and predictable. No cop or right wing politician can ever be wrong and no left leaning person can ever have a valid point of view. Hers is a black and white world that can only exist in her fantasy world of courts and controversy.

That being said, I have come to appreciate what Blatchford did and to accept the principle that as a columnist it is not only her prerogative, but her duty too, to write what she thinks. It is not her job to self-censor so that the public will feel less queasy. In many ways she was the only national newspaper writer with the guts to tell us exactly how she felt about Jack Layton, the letter he wrote to Canadians from his deathbed (along with the help of his wife and at least two NDP functionaries), and her honest reaction to the media love-in that followed the announcement of Jack’s death.

While I don’t totally agree with the Blatchford column, I have to admit it was an important statement that was written and published at an important time.

What made me change my mind was thinking back to the death of Richard Nixon. I was working at TVO at the time and was disgusted by the media whitewashing the life and times of Tricky Dick. I was nauseated by the columns and commentaries that talked about what a great president he was. How he opened relations with Communist China (Canada had had relations with China for over a decade when Nixon traveled to Beijing.), his mastery of foreign affairs, and his success in passing dozens of bills through Congress.

In fact Richard Nixon was a crook and a racist. Nixon not only aided in the Watergate break-in, he lied about it and covered it up for years, in fact never truly admitting his part in the affair. This was a man who harassed his opponents using the power of his office illegally to go after those he disagreed with. Richard Nixon was a thoroughly unpleasant character who should never have been rehabilitated by the press, even in the days after his death.

I railed about the positive stories about Nixon at that time.

So now, these many years later, how can I object to Christie Blatchford’s column?

Just because I may like Jack Layton more than I liked Richard Nixon doesn’t give me the right to be upset when someone does exactly what I did. I guess, having given it some thought, I realized my initial reaction to Blatchford had more to do with my heart than my head. I was wrong and I believe so are the majority of people who are responding to Blatchford. Not the ones who are arguing about the nuances of Jack’s personality or policies, but the ones who believe it was crass and unacceptable to write so negatively about the man on the day of his death.

Look, I think Jack Layton’s death was a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. A leader on the cusp. A man who may have changed the country in ways that we can only imagine at this time. But that doesn’t mean his ideas and his life are beyond question. Surely we are free and open enough as a country to accept those who ask the tough questions and have a different point of view.

If your only objection is the timing, then I have to ask you when is the right time? One day later? After the funeral? Let’s be honest here, there is no way of picking a time that would be acceptable to everyone. We would each and every one of us choose a different time.

*I just want to add a short note about the death of Ron Haggart. Ron’s loss is a great one for Canadian journalism. He was a shining star in the world of television journalism. A man who never lost sight of the importance of his profession and held us all up to his high standards. He will be greatly missed.

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Filed under: Media Commentary, , , ,

9 Responses

  1. Chris Nelson says:

    I have to confess, I hadn’t bothered to read either Blatchford’s column or Layton’s letter until I read your post this morning. The newsworthy parts of the letter seemed to be covered pretty well, and I rarely read the Post or Blatchford’s columns for aesthetic reasons – they’re both just poorly written. I suppose I might disagree with her if I could get past the terrible prose.

    Having read both, however, the phrase “calculated for effect” comes to mind. Whether Layton wrote the letter by himself or not (and it’s cynical of Blatchford to take issue with the number of authors crafting a letter from a political leader), of course the leader of a political party would take time to write something that would motivate his caucus, inspire his supporters, advance his party’s agenda, and generally remind Canadians to follow Bill and Ted’s advice and be excellent to one other – there’s a legacy to leave behind, folks.

    Blatchford, by contrast, wrote a column that I believe she knew would attract new readers and get volumes of hate mail. She wasn’t knee-jerk as you suggest, she didn’t write because her words were ill-considered, or she has a terrible sense of timing – precisely the opposite. I can think of no better way for her to attract attention to her column, validate her dim view of people who don’t agree with her, and cast herself as a victim at the hands of people afflicted with loopy lefty views, the kind that she no doubt feels makes Canada a mildly weaker place. Read her follow-up to the Layton column, and I think you might agree.

    As I said, I don’t get very deep in her columns, but I think casting herself as the lone voice of dissent last week was a very savvy move, even if you find the way she did it to be crass. I might suffer through the bad writing a little more just because of it, so I suppose it worked (on me, at least).

  2. Merrill Smith says:

    Regarding Nixon and China, while it’s true to say that Canada had opened diplomatic relations several years earlier, I get tired of the constant boosting that we led the way. The fact is that France and Great Britain never broke off relations with China. As for Blatchford, I agree with Chris that she was exploiting his death as much as any of his supporters and while she has a democratic right to do so, we also have a right to think he beneath contempt for her timing.

    • hlbtoo says:

      I agree Merrill…we have the right to think she is beneath contempt.
      I wasn’t boasting about Canadian relations with China, I was pointing out that what Nixon did was nothing special yet the pundits praised him to the rafters for this.

  3. Merrill Smith says:

    Sorry, that should be boasting, not boosting.

  4. Leftie Pinko Bicyclist says:

    I agree with you that Blatchford’s column was intended to incite negative reaction, and it was a form of journalist ‘trolling’ to enrage Layton’s supporters, but I also think that it was verging on contempt, and for that, it was inexcusable.

    The right has no positive vision for Canada’s future, and no interest in the common good, and that was evident in her point of view.

    I think the majority of people reacted most strongly to that, ultimately, destructive perspective.

    See this for another pov: http://rabble.ca/news/2011/08/dozen-oranges-jack-layton-remembered-toronto-city-hall

    • Max says:

      LPB – your comment baffled me. It’s inexcusable to show contempt for something one finds contemptible?

      One conservative-minded columnist’s perspective somehow validates your assertion that the right has “no positive vision for Canada’s future, and no interest in the common good,”?

      Whatever one thinks of Mr. Layton’s final letter, you certainly have to admit that it was blatantly partisan – is that what you define as an “interest in the common good”?

  5. Jack says:

    So the bottom line is, Nixon was an unlikeable character who accomplished much, while Layton was a likable sort who accomplished nothing.

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