The nomination of two profile journalists as candidates in the Toronto Centre by-election has revived the debate about whether journalists should enter politics.
It's not that it can't be done successfully. Some have—René Lévesque was a prominent journalist before making his mark as Quebec Premier. So was Ralph Klein in Alberta. Disagree with their politics if you will, but you can't dismiss their political achievements. Some have failed: Garth Turner, Michael Ignatieff, and Mike Duffy are ready examples that political success is hardly automatic.
No, the question is not can, but should journalists enter politics. Given Canada's "long and rich tradition" of this, it's noteworthy when even Toronto Star columnists are raising "ethical issues" that four journalists are running for nominations in the same by-election.
This past Sunday, two of the most prominent journalists—Linda McQuaig and Chrystia Freeland—won the NDP and Liberal nominations.
Make no mistake—they have every right to their opinions. But note that although each of them has held prominent reporting and editorial positions over the years, it is their books ranting against income inequality that define them as much as their journalistic accomplishments. As their advocacy journalism morphed into campaign polemics with nary a hesitation, even the Star is forced to acknowledge that the line between journalism and politics is no longer what we aspire it to be.
Our ideals of a journalist as the holder of a public trust—curating information to ensure that all relevant facts are passed on and all sides of a story considered, leaving the consumer to form his or her own informed opinion—have been relegated to the dustbin of nostalgia. Even the official-sounding reports on journalistic ethics, drafted as recently as 2010 for the Canadian Association of Journalists, seem naïve and outdated. That report notes that while journalists need not "take some vow of political chastity when they take up the profession," they should "proceed with caution when considering political involvement." Plenty of room in these guidelines to follow the letter, while ignoring the spirit of the words.
I repeat—I have no problem with McQuaig or Freeland. They both seem sincere and dedicated to improving the world and using the opportunities that present themselves. And given that in the media world—from the Star to SUN News—objectivity has been reduced to a pretense, morphing advocacy journalism into political persuasion is simply a logical next step.
Although political platforms have always served as bully pulpits for leaders, this was historically seen to be a sideshow to the essence of the political process. Politics, at its best, was understood to be the way we mediated differing opinions towards a consensus public policy. It involved sorting through the different voices and listening to each other's arguments. Of course, it was never quite that neat but mediation and reason were at its core.
Public life increasingly has been reduced to coalescing with our types to listen to self-affirming messaging and structuring the wedge issues of debate so that more people end up on our team than with the other guys. Media are reduced to advocacy and politics to brand marketing. All of which makes "ethical" concerns about whether journalists should get involved in politics yesterday's concern. Sadly, today they both have been diminished to the point where there is hardly a line left to cross.
Many media outlets are struggling for viability. Many worry about increased citizen disengagement with politics. Maybe when those responsible for the institutions in both spheres rediscover and live by the norms that have defined their businesses, the public will once again grant them the moral authority that is essential to their continued success.