Dispatch from The Front Lines: JT's cool, but not like, you know, Andrew Scheer cool
COVID-19 1, Humanity 0; Rudy is melting; welcoming BuzzFeed to the early 20th century, and the week that was here at The Line.
Happy Sunday, beloved Line readers. Sorry to be late with this dispatch. Your Line editors are swamped this weekend, and weren't able to give this their full attention. In fact, in our group chat, when trying to figure out who was actually gonna put this dispatch together, the resulting conversation ended up looking something like this:
But we felt bad about doing literally nothing, so we sucked it up and fired this together for you. We are confident that it's better than nothing, marginally. And arguably better late than never.
If there's any saving grace in The Line running out of human beings this weekend, it's that the week in the news was relatively quiet. And what news there was isn't exactly new — we are still grinding our way through the headlines from earlier weeks and months. Donald Trump refuses to concede even as his legal options narrow and his lawyer literally seems to be dissolving into some kind of liquified organic residue. If things hold to their current course, by the end of this week, Trump's appeals will be exhausted and Rudy Giuliani will have been reduced to a ghastly but fading odour and a damp spot on some hotel lobby carpet.
There is good news on the vaccine front, offset by bad news on the actual course of the pandemic. It hardly need be said that the United States is a disaster; Europe isn't looking so hot, either. We Canadians too are struggling, and The Line is sorry to note that those jurisdictions that did well in the first (or were missed by it) are now feeling the wrath of COVID-19. Manitoba, Saskatchewan, the far north — even the Atlantic Bubble is wobbling. The situation in Quebec remains stubbornly serious and Ontario is putting much of the Greater Toronto Area back into lockdown (though schools remain open for now — as we've said before, this is essential).
Though much of the concern for the next few months is on the hospital system — and the signs there aren't great, to be honest — we are also pushing the limits of human tolerance. We don't say that to be dramatic. Your Line editors are fairly calm, rational folk, but we too are feeling the strain of the ceaseless grind of bad news and the prospect of a Christmas season without all the usual comforts of family and ritual. If you are struggling, know that you're not alone. We will get through this together. We know that sounds trite, believe us. But we don't mean it entirely as words of comfort, but also simply a statement of fact: we'll get through this. We have no choice.
If you do need a bit of a laugh — something to break the tension — you might enjoy the conspiracy floating around some of the weirder corners of the interwebs suggesting that COVID-19 was either arranged by some shadowy conspiracy, or seized upon by it, in order to turn the world into a eco-commie-woke-post-gender utopia, and that Justin Trudeau — yes, our Justin Trudeau — is in on it. Or perhaps even one of the leaders.
Look, we’re going to have to state the blindingly obvious here. The problem with almost all conspiracy theories involving government agendas is that they have the natural order of things completely reversed. Conspiracy theories posit that our governments are truly led by a few people, who mean to do us harm, and are very, very effective. In reality, governments are an amorphous blob of many people, who generally mean well, and are extremely, extremely incompetent. In fact, the only thing that generally saves us from any particular government’s bright-idea-de-jour is that they’re so frickin’ terrible at government that they’re never able to inflict half their bright ideas on us.
So, that being said, let’s consider further the extremely unlikely scenario in which, notwithstanding all the above, a global conspiracy to reshape the world order — the Great Reset — does indeed exist, and is hard at work, and is going to be led by … the guy who doesn’t remember how many times he’s worn blackface, has racked up repeated ethics violations because he doesn’t know what the rules of his own government are, elbowed a perfectly nice young lady in the boob while grandstanding like a buffoon, got called out for having a snack attack in the House, allegedly groped another lady while on his journey to becoming Canada’s Top Feminist, oh, and somehow found a way to lose the popular vote to Andrew fucking Scheer, a man who somehow had his coolest, most relatable moment when he dressed up as a Starfleet engineer.
Yup. Checks out. That’s exactly the sort of guy the shadowy global syndicate reshaping life as we know it would turn to to lead their effort.
In the world of media, there was an interesting announcement this week: BuzzFeed is acquiring HuffPost, in an all-stock deal designed to make both companies more efficient (BuzzFeed, in particular, reportedly covets HuffPost’s older audience, whereas HuffPost’s owner Verizon simply wanted to unload the money losing venture, and will give it up for a minority stake in the new combined entity). We at The Line have no strong views on this beyond wishing our colleagues at both institutions well. But we would note this: it wasn't that long ago that there was a lot of buzz (no pun intended, we swear) about these new online news companies, and how they would be the giant-killers that brought down the traditional media. They were young, they were hip, they weren't weighed down by the old thinking and bad habits and legacy debts of the newspaper companies, the radio stations and TV news shops. They were the future.
It didn't work out that way. Indeed, what ended up happening is that the new digital companies went through a sped-up version of the economic reckoning that has already swept the legacy companies: massive losses, huge layoffs, contraction, curtailed ambitions, failed pivots to other models, and now, consolidation and likely further cuts. Your Line editors are very much of the old legacy media orgs in terms of our professional pedigree, and might have once snorted a bit at how the swaggering digital players have fallen down to the level the older shops now dwell in. Hey, kids — not so easy, is it?
But we honestly don't feel that way anymore, because we're mostly just sad. The only thing worse than having your dying old thing replaced by a cocky, self-assured new thing is seeing that new thing fail, too. We really did hope there would be a new model, something sustainable. We haven't given up on that hope (if we had, we wouldn't be here). But "like newspapers, but without paper and fewer old white men" didn't prove quite the economic slamdunk that was once assumed.
Indeed, if there's any good news to be found in the news of BuzzFeed and HuffPost merging, it’s that the financial reporting has suggested that BuzzFeed's video projects and commercial joint ventures — it takes a commission of sales driven by traffic through its website to merchants — will soon make the company sustainable. An increasingly lean news department may well be kept alive by commercial success in other parts of the business. If so, that would mean BuzzFeed spent 14 years recreating precisely the model for funding journalism already used by the major broadcast networks across the 20th century, on radio and TV: the daytime soaps and prime time dramas make all the money; the news division burns cash but buys prestige and access for well-connected owners.
So yes, congrats, BuzzFeed, on reportedly being on the verge of becoming the 2020 version of what CBS, for example, figured out in ... checks notes ... 1927.
Let's just hope BuzzFeed's owners remain committed to news. If you're making all that money on viral content, videos and sales commissions, it may not be long before some executive decides they'd rather shovel those profits into bonuses than journalism.
If so, well, like we said. It would all be very familiar to us old-school veterans.
While we are on the topic of a new model, by the way, The Line read with interest Matt Gurney's recent column at his own personal Substack, Code 47. Gurney wrote on a similar theme to Jen Gerson's column here at The Line this week, particularly on how Substack will become an increasing target in the culture wars as different factions fight for control of what's left of the legacy media orgs.
Substack is going to infuriate many who've invested their careers accumulating power in the traditional media ecosystem only to see a rival emerge that will allow prominent voices to go solo. Media is as beset as any other industry by busybodies and thought-policers. Indeed, some of the very public eruptions of discontent in newsrooms of late, though obviously fuelled by the industry's economic woes and COVID-19-related stresses (fiscal and emotional), really have been battles of control — who will be the authority in the traditional legacy outlets? Will they remain top-down hierarchies with clear chains of command, or will mobilized and activist newsrooms (with little left to lose in a dying industry) begin asserting more and more editorial control?
I honestly don't know. But I do know that any journalist with a sufficiently large profile can simply decide that they're not interested in waiting around to find out who’ll be on top after these internal battles, and leave to go plant their flag here at Substack. ... Substack is likely to draw more and more scrutiny and criticism from people who realize that the growth of an independent alternative option is going to begin rapidly undermining the power of traditional outlets to set the terms of debates, to "gatekeep," as we often say. How silly will the intra-newsroom squabbles of tomorrow seem if they're fighting over scraps because all the big readership draws took their ball and moved over to Substack? (To be clear, I'm not saying that that would stop the infighting. If anything, I expect it would amp it up, dramatically, as fights often become ever-more hostile as the stakes diminish.)
Oh, and if you want to help us here at The Line avoid the fate of BuzzFeed, HuffPost and the culture war battles Gurney is alluding to, well, you know what to do. November has been a great month for us here at The Line, but we aren’t over the finish line quite yet. Please subscribe today, and make a point of sharing our articles far and wide. One day we’ll be able to stop begging for your additional support. Today is not that day. Send us money!
Max Fawcett noted that Alberta premier Jason Kenney is running out of people to blame for Keystone XL’s grim prospects. If “Kenney wants to salvage the $1.5 billion in taxpayer money that he’s already invested in Keystone XL,” Fawcett said, “he’ll need to do more than send former Conservative Party of Canada backbenchers to Washington in order to remind Americans that they need Alberta’s oil. Instead, he’ll have to talk about what Alberta is actually doing to reduce the carbon intensity of those barrels. He will need to pair that talk with meaningful action. He’ll need to put an end to the ludicrous public inquiry into the critics of Alberta’s oil and gas industry, one that is both late and over budget. He should drop his appeal of the federal carbon tax, given the Biden administration’s obvious interest in that sort of climate-friendly policy. And he ought to tie a rock to the feet of the Canadian Energy Centre and throw it into the Bow River.”
Jonathan Kay wrote about how the good chance that a vaccine will soon be available to the North American population will, in a strange way, actually make our ongoing COVID-19 culture war spats worse over the coming months: “I fear that, in the short term, at least, the prospect of a vaccine will simply exacerbate our pre-existing culture-war rut in regard to pandemic policy. The ‘Screw COVID’ crowd now has yet another excuse to keep on screwing, while policy nerds like me … have one more reason to justify taking the long view and sitting tight. For the next few months, at least, our society’s confused emotional state is going to resemble that of castaways who suddenly catch sight of land. On one hand, you now have a lot more to lose by getting careless and slipping overboard. On the other hand, hey, it’s party time.”
Seamus Heffernan took on an important issue that Canadians have all-too-easy a time ignoring: our shameful treatment of prisoners in our correctional institutions. We are literally feeding them gruel. “Replacing scratch and on-demand cooking at institutions, the cook-chill system prepares food in large vats, mixing ingredients which are then boiled together,” he explained. “The resulting liquid is poured into plastic bags and placed in tubs of hot water, whose temperature is gradually lowered before the bags are transferred to a freezer and stored for up to two weeks.
“The result is food that has a near-puree texture, where the proteins and vegetables cannot be easily distinguished. Inundated with inmate complaints several years back, Dr. Ivan Zinger, Canada’s Corrections investigator and ombudsman, asked members of his team to get photographs of the offending food. The results led him to send an email with wording he regrets to this day: ‘Yuck.’”
But the real shameful news in Heffernan’s piece was how little our politicians care. A Liberal MP put on an event for his colleagues to try and raise awareness. None bothered to show up.
And as mentioned above, Jen Gerson wrote on the culture-war freight train that is likely barrelling toward Substack as we speak: “I'm sure that the next step will be to tar Substack as a hotbed of racist or problematic people and content. I expect the anointed are, even now, delving through Substack's back catalogue of fringe contributors for examples of racist looniness. … Never fall into the mistake of assuming any of this is about principle or journalism. It's about power. Independent writers increasingly at odds with existing journalistic institutions are taking back their audiences, and their autonomy. And cultural gatekeepers struggling to maintain their principles and their relevance in the current intellectual hothouse are using whatever tricks they have at hand to maintain their traditional role and authority. This is all very predictable.”
That’s it for this week, folks. Be safe, and please support your local friendly neighbourhood Line editor with a subscription today.
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