Media Bites: Are These Politicians Actually Journalists, or Vice Versa?

05/23/2013 08:25 EDT | Updated 07/23/2013 05:12 EDT

Of the myriad dark unpleasantries surrounding Senator Mike Duffy at the moment, it's a bit odd that one of the most critical underlying questions about the man seems to have largely escaped discussion.

Namely: what's a CTV talking-head even doing in politics in the first place?

The Canadian press, ostensibly, is a neutral instrument of public service that covers politics but does not covet it. On the contrary, if anything, we expect our reporters, editors, producers, and pundits to be turned off by the whole mess, since a mild distaste (or at least distrust) for their subject matter is what helps motivate coverage that's adversarial, skeptical, and suspicious towards the behaviour of folks known for, shall we say, a somewhat relaxed attitude towards truth and accountability.

In modern Canada, alas, that critical detachment between press and politics -- the notion that these two worlds are incurably hostile parties locked in existential opposition -- seems to be steadily eroding, as notables on both sides make peace in a cozy truce. Because political  journalism and politics itself are professions broadly "about" the same things, the trades are increasingly assumed to be a great deal more interchangeable than they probably are. The result is a line separating present-day commentator from future commentee that's getting pretty darn blurry.

According to the Senate's online membership directory, there are currently over half a dozen senators listing their prior occupation as "journalist," "columnist," "reporter," or some such, a list that includes  not only the embattled Mr. Duffy and his equally embattled CTV colleague Pamela Wallin, but also former Montreal Gazette editor Joan Fraser, ex-CBC VP Marie Charette-Poulin, and two-time National Post columnist Linda Frum (of those Frums, yes).

The House journalist caucus, meanwhile, is well over a dozen strong, and includes luminaries such as veteran CBC reporter Peter Kent, ex-National Postie John Williamson, and the recently-elected Alberta commentatress Joan Crockatt née, Calgary Hearald.

Political sinecures for journalists are no less abundant. The lieutenant governor of Ontario is a former broadcaster, so is the lt-gov of Prince Edward Island (he once worked with a certain M. Duffy, curiously enough). The last two governor generals of Canada were former CBC hosts, while Prime Minister Harper has routinely hired newspaper columnists to serve as spokesmen.

In my own dreary province, the former anchorwoman of the 6 o'clock news currently works as a full-time PR shill for the Premier, while the guy who used to tell us how to avoid scams at the supermarket enjoyed a brief stint as her press secretary. I imagine your province is no less ripe with examples of its own.

Now obviously some cross-pollination between the realms of media and government is natural, and easily justified. Both professions do require a host of similar talents -- language skills, poise, and whatnot -- and lazy men in small capitals will always have a bias towards hiring the nearby and familiar, which in Ottawa frequently means poaching from the press. It's also hardly unforgivable for a media guy who's spent decades dishing dirt on dopey politicos to make a mid-life career swap simply to prove that yes, I could do better.

But all that being said, conflicts of interests are still ultimately as much about appearance as action, and few appearances are more symbolically disheartening than the seemingly boundless supply of career curiosity members of our country's supposedly most objective profession routinely on display for its most shamelessly dishonest.

A Canadian journalism scene that's abandoned any taboo and withheld any judgement from contemporaries who use a career of fact-based reportage and analysis as a springboard to the world of ideological hackery and partisan spin is, by definition, one that's ceased to value the former. And the fruits reaped are well-known -- hyper partisan pundits, ideologically motivated reporting, philosophically segregated editorial pages, and dogmatically divided audiences. In an era where journalists see no problem sitting in Parliament, don't be surprised if the press comes to resemble Question Period.

It's a tragedy because, as usual, it's the public interest that suffers the most from the vanity of the elite. Our desire to hear the unvarnished truth from those we trust (and pay) to provide it should never be subordinate to a reporter's quest for a favourable letter of reference. Yet at a time when so many journalists are clearly pondering political futures, there's now little excuse for not harbouring conspiratorial suspicions as we read and watch them.

Has reporter so-and-so stopped pursuing the prime minister quite so vigorously because he's pining for a patronage plum? Is columnist X hesitant to speak ill of the opposition leader lest he not sign her nomination forms someday?

In an era of declining political participation, declining political literacy, declining political interest, and declining political... well, everything among the broader public, there's a related concern to be raised about a society in which more and more obligations of citizenship are getting delegated to a narrower and narrower clique of geeks who still care. That, in a sense, seems to have been at least one root of the Duffy downfall; his interest in politics was taken as qualification for actually practicing it, though it should now hopefully be abundantly clear that skill in the one realm does not correlate with talents in the other.

From the perspective of any political wannabes in the press, that might be the most chilling lesson of all.