When columnist Michael Den Tandt announced this week that he was joining the PMO, just a a few weeks after he resigned as a political columnist for Postmedia, there was a fair amount of chatter in the usual places about the bad optics of the move, what we could conclude about his work and about the profession as a whole, and whether, in this economy, this is the sort of thing we should have any scruples about.
Some throat clearing:
a) I worked at Postmedia with Den Tandt, and though I never met him we did have a few exchanges. I thought he was a very strong columnist, and think his departure from Postmedia is a loss for the company and the profession.
b) This is a bigger issue than Den Tandt regardless. Lots of journalists have jumped to the Liberals, just as a lot jumped to the Tories when they were in power.
c) Yes, the economy and the general state of journalism right now might change the relevant calculations and shift the balance between buyer and seller, but this is not a new market. Journalists have been making the leap since the dawn of time. So again, this is not about Michael Den Tandt.
So that that out of the way, these are the relevant questions:
Is it wrong? Why is it wrong? What, if anything, should we do about it?
Yes it is wrong. Not everyone agrees. A lot of people I respect, who are probably wiser and more knowledgeable about these things than I, don’t think it is that big of a deal. I’ve seen two arguments. One is, basically, “a man’s gotta eat”. This line of argument concedes that while jumping ship might be wrong, the extent of the wrong is mitigated by the general need for most people to work, and more specifically, by the increasing precariousness of media employment.
The second argument says that a back and forth between journalism and politics can be healthy, in the same way that the long-standing tradition of people moving back and forth between academia and the public service is a healthy mixing of cultures and experiences.
I’m actually pretty sympathetic to the first argument. Similar considerations partly motivated my own departure from journalism. But while it makes the floor-crossing more understandable, I don’t think it makes it any less wrong, as I’ll discuss below. YMMV.
The second argument is just a bad analogy. The relationship between a member of the press gallery and the government of the day is, simply, nothing like that between professors and public servants. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t overlapping skills sets and a commonality of interests and expertise, and it is certainly true that a journalist with experience in politics might bring insight to the job that a lifelong journalist might not. In fact, that is precisely why I hired both Scott Reid and Andrew MacDougall as columnists at the Ottawa Citizen. Their marching orders (which they usually ignored) were to try to help the public understand why the government often behaves the way it does. That is, to show that there are often good reasons underlying actions that seem, to the jaded columnist and the general public, to be insane.
But there’s a difference between hiring someone who was once in politics to now work in journalism (or hiring someone who was once in journalism to now try out politics) on the one hand, and hiring a working journalist to cross the floor and work on the other side, on the other. Timing matters in these things.
So, yes, a floor crossing where one goes from working one side of the fence to the other in a matter of weeks, is wrong.
And it’s pretty wrong.
At the personal level, it calls into question the journalist’s work, in particular his work in the relatively recent past, going back, say, at least 6 months. It should make one suspicious, retroactively, of everything he wrote in that period.
At the institutional level, it damages the basic credibility his colleagues and of the organisation he works for.
At the global level, it undermines journalism as an independent profession, puts the lie to its self-image (“speaking truth to power” and all that), and diminishes what remaining trust there is in the media. Most pressingly: It reinforces the notion of the “media” party — the group of journalists, political staffers, politicians, senior mandarins, and friendly lobbyists and paid spinners that form a collective “elite” or “party” that is the object of so much populist ire.
But here’s the key point: the “media party” isn’t partisan. This isn’t about liberal journalists and the Liberal party. In fact, that’s what is so despicable about it — they’re all in on it. Conservative journalists jump to conservative parties or think tanks, NDP journalists do the same for their respective parties or shops; but collectively they all constitute a single elite class of log-rollers and bellyscratchers.
And it is precisely the perception of what this class is, how it behaves, and that it infuriatingly refuses to acknowledge that it behaves as a class, that is driving a) the populist revolt against political elites and b) the alt-right/fake-news revolt against mainstream media. To believe otherwise is delusional. (NB: I say all of this as a fully paid-up member of that class.)
There’s not a lot we can do about it, but there are a few options.
First, I don’t think any of the suggestions for a mandatory cooling off period for journalists, as there are for other jobs within this sphere (e.g. lobbying) will work, simply because “journalist” as a profession is not well-defined; neither is “media outlet”. And the various solutions that are out there to define these — such as Neil Macdonald’s call for a professional body setting standards and accreditation for journalists — will only make the problem far worse.
But here are two things that could be done. (And I concede that I made no effort to implement either of these while I was Editor of the Ottawa Citizen. I wish I had.)
First, news organisations could post a public code of conduct that includes a commitment to doing a full independent audit of the work of any journalist who crosses the floor to the political realm. So, you would hire an outside public editor to go back over, say, the last six months of the floor-crossers work and look for patterns or suspicious gaps that would suggest the journalist had stopped working as a purely independent guardian of the public interest. Any suspicious stories or columns could then be flagged with an editor’s note.
Second, journalists could adopt, as part of their personal code of conduct, a commitment to informing their manager as soon as they are approached about a job possibility working for the government or another political position, assuming their immediate gut reaction is not “no thanks”. If they have any hesitation, or sense that they might take the offer, the journalist should discuss the situation with their manager and decide on appropriate steps.
Neither of this are perfect solutions — and they certainly won’t prevent journalists from making the leap. But they would help reassure the public that, at the very least, the profession acknowledges that it is a problem and is willing to try to mitigate the fallout from these sorts of things.
Others probably have better suggestions. But the general point is that journalism has enough problems, it can’t afford too many own-goals.