Having been a columnist for more than two decades, I obviously understand this profession inside and out. Yet I’m still constantly amazed how little the average Canadian knows about column writing, even if he or she has been reading a publication’s opinion/comment section for the equivalent of a lifetime.
Here’s a recent example.
Sean Craig, who has worked at the National Post, Canadaland and Global News, sent out an eye-catching tweet on Aug. 2. It read, “I learned that Calgary Herald columnist Licia Corbella, who has written in favour of Jason Kenney and his United Conservative Party including during the 2019 Alberta election, was a member of the party and voted in its most recent leadership race.”
Craig also included the Herald’s response. The paper concurred with his findings, noting it “was not disclosed to her editors at the time.” While they pointed out Corbella’s “membership has lapsed, as of mid-2018,” they would still “be taking measures to address this situation with this individual, and those are governed by privacy concerns. The newsroom will be further informed of the importance of avoiding potential conflicts of interest, particularly those involving political party memberships.”
The issue was also mentioned in the print edition. In particular, the Postmedia Editorial Code of Conduct was highlighted as being “clear that journalists should not place themselves in a conflict of interest situation by writing about people or organizations with whom they are involved.”
The issue went viral in social media’s left-wing corner. One Twitter user, @ProgressAlberta, declared this revelation to be “stunning news,” and seemingly not in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way. Some were furious a journalist would consider becoming a political party member. Craig’s catch of Corbella’s Oct, 17 2017 tweet, “I’m a columnist. I’m not a partisan but I have an opinion I’m expected to express,” caused several to lose it. Others mocked the issue altogether.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t know why this issue has taken up so much oxygen.
Part of the confusion, I believe, is based on the fact some columnists, editorial writers, editors, reporters, book reviewers and others prefer to use the term “journalist.” This catch-all provides them with the cover of conveying news and opinion with objectivity and a lack of political bias.
This description is accurate in a few cases.
Most columnists aren’t objective and unbiased, however, and they’re not supposed to be. They’re paid to express their ideas, theories, analyses – and above all, opinions. While right-leaning columnists may infrequently express left-leaning points of view, and vice versa, it’s rare for them to take a neutral position on just about anything.
Neutrality used to be the domain of reporters, who were supposed to cover the news in a fair and even-handed manner. But even this isn’t the case any longer.
Columnists aren’t necessarily partisans, either. They can support the vast majority of a party or government’s policies without ever casting a vote or contributing a nickel to said entity. There are also instances of columnists, like me, who haven’t held a political party membership in years (not even when I was in the Prime Minister’s Office!) but are specifically aligned with a party and/or movement based on particular beliefs and values.
These dividing lines may seem strange, but they do exist.
I’ve known Corbella for years. She was my editor when I was a Herald columnist a decade ago. She’s an intelligent, talented writer and a good person.
Should she have acknowledged her UCP membership to her editors? Yes. It would have likely prevented her from writing about Kenney and the leadership race, but there were other UCP-related issues she could have tackled.
Is this misstep a fate worse than death? Based on what you now know about column writing, the answer should be a resounding “no.”
Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.