The past month has seen the departures of two Canadian journalists long considered provocative, both over the contentious subject of identity politics. The burnt and pitted landscape that remains has me wondering about the future of what's considered the mainstream media in Canada.
The first was columnist Desmond Cole, who stopped writing for the Toronto Star after being told that his interruption of a Toronto Police Services Board meeting last April crossed the publication's line between activism and journalism. The second was Jonathan Kay, who resigned his position as editor-in-chief of The Walrus last weekend amid an industrywide fracas over the concept of cultural appropriation.
Disclosure: I know both men. About two years ago, Mr. Kay turned me down for a job, then offered me another, which I declined; I said hi to him at an event last spring. Mr. Cole was at that same event because this industry is a fishbowl – I first worked with him about six years ago, and we chat at such events about being racialized columnists among the Great Whites.
The lead-up to Mr. Kay's departure is convoluted, but here goes: Last week, Write magazine published a special issue of Indigenous writing, fronted by an editorial denying the existence of cultural appropriation in literature, which editor Hal Niedzvicki posited as a denial of free speech.
The contributors pushed back on social media, since cultural appropriation is particularly fraught for Indigenous peoples: After all, they've historically had their languages and religions outlawed and now are too often incarcerated in a prison system that has them make moccasins it sells for profit. Eventually, Mr. Niedzvicki resigned.
Enter Mr. Kay, who first wrote a column privileging free speech over all else, then tweeted dismay at "identity-fundamentalists run riot." Next, former Rogers Publishing president Ken Whyte began collecting seed money on Twitter for an "#appropriationprize," which encouraged a slew of senior Canadian journalists (all white) to pledge their personal funds. Mr. Kay didn't put up any money, but reiterated his opinion Saturday on CBC. Then he quit.
This being a small industry, I'd seen both departures coming – Mr. Kay told The Globe that his decision to leave The Walrus was long simmering. In Mr. Cole's blog post about quitting, he shared a story that I already knew: that over lunch last year, TorStar chairman John Honderich advised him that writing about race too often was limiting him as a columnist.
Mr. Honderich has since countered that his advice concerned carding specifically – in any case, Mr. Cole's column frequency was soon reduced by half. For a freelancer, that's a substantial loss of financial stability: Industrywide, semi-regular promises that diversity is important are always followed with "but Canadian publications just aren't in a position to hire right now."
I've been wondering what these almost predestined codas say about the effect of identity politics on Canadian journalism, about the desire, or reluctance, to consider the race, gender and so on of the people making and selling the news.
In Mr. Cole's case, I think that the Star did consider that, as a young black journalist, he came with a built-in, eager audience, but not that his message might make them uncomfortable.
My takeaway from #appropriationprize also concerns those with hiring power: Just because non-white journalists are paranoid doesn't mean that the establishment won't mock us when given half a chance. Mr. Kay's resignation is now being blamed on a "mob" while he, the champion of free speech, has gone on a Twitter-blocking spree, choosing to silence a number of high-profile Indigenous thinkers.
As niche digital media encroaches, legacy media (such as The Globe) have been arguing that the reading public should use its dollars to maintain a strong centre. The sell is that we need to pool money to fund meaningful reporting and to maintain a public space to hear and absorb other views. In other words, the mainstream media.
I believe the first bit, strongly. But right now, the second is a myth. The "mainstream" itself is a niche: a place where the definition of what is normal and worthy of respect gets cemented, where lines are drawn around who is (and isn't) overly motivated by politics and what is (and isn't) a bullying mob.
I've long argued that diversity is a good business plan (although it's not my main motivation). But, as the long-fossilized foundation of Canadian journalism comes up for debate, dollars seem to be taking a back seat to identity politics – just not on the side that's usually accused of it.
To survive, the niche called mainstream must grow, make room for a truly broad exchange of ideas and stop insulting the people whose money it needs. In the process, it might even become mainstream.