SOMETIMES you like a columnist because you like his or her style; sometimes you like a columnist because of the ideas he or she espouses. And sometimes you scrupulously avoid reading a columnist because you think he or she is a bore or an idiot, and as a result, you are not reading this column today.
If you care about journalism at all, however, you will at least uphold a columnist’s right to remain on the page.
This topic is in the news lately because of the maelstrom swirling around Heather Mallick.
Mallick is a former Globe and Mail columnist who lately has been writing for CBC’s website. Often extreme in her views and frequently nasty about how she expresses them, Mallick is a liberal who loves to deride Americans and their misplaced values. I’ve never been a fan, despite the fact that I agree with many of her political opinions, because Mallick’s writing usually strikes me as gratuitously acid-tongued and self-aggrandizing. This week, however, I was forced to sympathize with her after witnessing the backlash to a column she wrote for the website of CBC News.
In the Sept. 5 column, she casually dismissed all Republican men as “sexual inadequates,” and dumped a vat of venom over Sarah Palin. I agree that electing Palin vice president is ridiculous. But among other things, Mallick denounced the Alaska governor as having “a toned-down version of the porn actress look,” along with “tacky” taste in clothing -- neither of which criticisms are remotely worthy of a self-described feminist.
The columnist, who is a stepmother, laid claim to “an attachment to children that verges on the irrational” before crucifying Palin and her husband for allowing their daughter’s boyfriend, whom she describes as “Levi ‘I’m a f---in redneck’ Johnson” anywhere near their daughter.
How ludicrous. If you’re a parent of teenagers, you soon learn you can no more control who they see or whether they get (or make somebody) pregnant than you can whip a busted economy into a boom souffle in the space of an hour. By the time your children are 16 or so, you have to hope the values you’ve tried to instill have taken hold, and continue to offer them support. They’ll do the rest, for better or for worse.
To condemn Sarah Palin as “white trash” and “studiously terrible at parenting” because of the antics of her teenaged daughter is absolutely unfair. Criticize her ideas, her attitude, her credentials and her grammar, by all means, but her daughter’s choice of boyfriend should be off-limits. Anyway, nice boys have been impregnating nice girls out of wedlock since Adam met Eve and they couldn’t find a preacher.
Nevertheless, Mallick was hired for her opinions, and opine she did.
This particular column was denounced as “appalling” by National Post right wing columnist Jonathan Kay under the headline “Another week, another disgrace at the CBC.” It was then picked up on by the generous, temperate folks at Fox News, where commentator Greta van Susteren apparently called Mallick a “pig.”
After cbc.ca issued a defence of Mallick as one of the country’s best and most controversial columnists, and CBC News publisher John Cruickshank called the column “terrific within a certain tradition of political writing,” readers were invited to make their complaints to CBC ombudsman Vince Carlin. Some 300 people accepted the invitation. Many of these over-excited brainiacs made incorrect racist assumptions about Mallick’s ethnicity and condemned her for it.
On considering the article, the ombudsman decided Mallick’s piece might have passed muster if it were labeled as satire, but some of her comments were tasteless and “puerile.”
Next, Cruickshank apologized and pulled the article from the CBC site. “Mallick’s column is a classic piece of political invective,” he had suddenly realized. “It is viciously personal, grossly hyperbolic and intensely partisan. And because it is all those things, this column should not have appeared on the CBCNews.ca site.”
This was wrong. The time to edit Mallick’s work was before it hit the web. That, in fact, is the editor’s job -- a point Cruickshank addressed elsewhere in his letter. While it would not have been appropriate for the editor to alter Mallick’s opinions, he or she should have raised any issues concerning the column and, perhaps, suggested the writer tone down the personal jabs. Mallick then would have either chosen to do so, or, if she felt insulting Sarah Palin’s family dynamic was essential to her point, pulled her work.
Journalists across Canada, whether or not they like Mallick, should have united to defend her right as a columnist to express her opinion, and indicted the CBC’s post-column public rebuke.
Instead, Margaret Wente, a former colleague at the Globe who failed to mention that Mallick once worked there, wrote a column suggesting that the CBC running Mallick’s opinions was proof of its “earnest, mushy-liberal mindset.” In a remarkable demonstration of kicking a peer when she was down, the Chicago-born Wente thundered that Mallick was a “semi-obscure columnist,” “a sour, narrow-minded writer,” and “casually racist” in her anti-American stance. (Since when is “American” a race?)
Wente went on to claim that the CBC website “is a backwater that has served as a sort of semi-retirement home for aging lefties (think Judy Rebick) who could no longer find an outlet in the mainstream media and, one suspects, supplied copy cheap. They had little oversight and even less influence -- until now.”
If Mallick is so “obscure,” one wonders, why take such issue with what she writes? But Wente’s point was that Canadian taxpayers shouldn’t be funding this sort of thing. Right wing ranters would be a far better bargain, one assumes.
Meantime, the Globe’s Russell Smith had his own suspicions about the CBC’s move and Cruickshank’s subsequent promise to bless the website with a “diversity of voices and opinions.”
“One wonders if the CBC is desperately trying to make itself more palatable to the majority Conservative government that may be coming our way in October -- a government that is already suspicious and hostile to the broadcaster, and that holds its life in its hands,” Smith wrote astutely.
After the CBC apologized, Jonathan Kay wrote a gloating column in the Post. If the CBC and Mallick part company over this debacle, I suppose he and Margaret Wente will be dancing on Mallick’s grave. They’d better hope the tides don’t turn against bilious conservative columnists. If so, they should anticipate joyful syncopation from the feet of fellow journalists when their own careers bite the dust.