Former media executive Kirk LaPointe did more than launch a campaign to become mayor of Vancouver this week.
Mr. LaPointe, well known in the media fishbowls of both Toronto and Vancouver after 35 years in the business and a rapid-fire series of management jobs, also crossed the thin line that often separates journalists from politicians. He was a scrutinizer of government. Now he’ll be scrutinized by his one-time employees, colleagues and, in some cases, students.
The move to politics makes for a strange and bumpy ride for former journalists, say those who’ve done it and those who’ve watched it – but the two worlds are not so far apart.
“Journalists and politicians aren’t as different as they like to think they are. We all want to govern,” said Mel Rothenburger, the highly respected former editor of the recently deceased Kamloops Daily News for most of the past five decades – except for six years he spent as mayor of Kamloops.
“I think there’s a natural temptation. Journalists spend a lot of time reporting and writing about what politicians do. We begin to think we could do it better,” said Mr. Rothenburger, who retired last year but continues to maintain a news blog, armchairmayor.ca, on local issues.
Ivor Shapiro, chair of Toronto’s Ryerson School of Journalism and co-author of a set of ethics guidelines for journalists getting involved in politics, said it’s because the two groups have a similar sense of mission.
“Many journalists are attracted to the profession because they want in a positive way to influence the world,” he said. Politics is another form of that.
Certainly, the annals of Canadian history are rife with examples of journalists who have decided to put on the play themselves instead of just being theatre critics. Some of the notable successes: René Lévesque in Quebec, Ralph Klein in Calgary, Simma Holt in B.C.
There have also been some notable flops. The Vancouver Sun’s popular columnist, Nicole Parton, got a Social Credit nomination in 1990 but then, in a dust-up with the party, quit before the election. The Globe and Mail’s Michael Valpy made a foray as a federal candidate for the NDP in 2000 and lost.
More recently, Peter Kent, who worked at the CBC and then Global, ran for the Conservatives once in 2006 and lost, then ran again two years later and won. Former Thomson Reuters managing editor Chrystia Freeland, now a Liberal MP for Toronto, and author and columnist Linda McQuaig, the NDP candidate battled it out in a 2013 by-election. Former Toronto Star reporter Allan Thompson, now a professor at Carleton University, recently announced he is trying for a federal Liberal nomination.
Mr. Rothenburger said journalists have the advantage of being able to communicate with the public in direct, accessible language. And they like speaking. That was obvious on Mr. LaPointe’s first day, when he hovered around reporters waiting to answer more questions until his handlers removed him.
But journalists can misunderstand the public mood, just like anyone else, and their colleagues can be very hard on them. Mr. Rothenburger said he was pilloried when he endorsed the local NDP MLA in the run-up to a massive NDP defeat in 2001. “I didn’t think it was big news. What I neglected to understand was that, in this community at that time, people didn’t want their mayor involved in partisan politics.”
Mr. Shapiro noted that journalists “tend to quite quickly become hostile to one of their number running for office or taking sides.”
Mr. LaPointe's relationships with local journalists are a little more complicated than the norm, since he was an ombudsman and supervisor, not just a reporter. As CBC ombudsman, he wrote a decision in 2012 saying that CBC reporter Stephen Smart was in a conflict of interest because his wife was working in the premier’s office, a decision local CBC management disregarded. As a boss, he fired well-respected CTV reporter Jim Munson in 2001, which caused ripples in the Canadian journalism world.
He said he doesn’t expect kid-glove treatment. “I expect that they’re going to be pretty difficult on me at times,” he said. “And I think that’s fair. That’s their job.”