Matt Gurney: Do I really need to demand a consistent standard from you all AGAIN?!
Didn't we just do this like two months ago? And now we have to do it again because Sabrina Maddeaux wants to be an MP? Really?! I want to throw stuff at people.
By: Matt Gurney
For the second time in two months, I find myself asking for a consistent standard. Begging, really. The last time I wrote about this, inflicting something akin to a primal-scream therapy session on my precious Line readers, the issues related to the protests over the fighting in the Middle East. This one is different. Really, it's a two-fer. Is it good or bad when media people jump into politics? And is criticism of a woman inherently misogynistic, or not?
This all stems from the announcement this week that Sabrina Maddeaux, up until very recently a National Post columnist, is seeking a nomination to run for the Conservatives in the next federal election, in a 905 riding close to where she grew up in Richmond Hill. (I also grew up there, and did not know this about her. Wonder if we ever crossed paths at Archie's or Steer Inn.)
Maddeaux's announcement has led to some genuine questions about journalism ethics, and a bunch of pretty unhinged social media criticism. Let's tackle them in that order.
Actually, first, a disclosure. I too am a National Post veteran, but Maddeaux and I seem to have just missed each other. I can only recall meeting Maddeaux once, and that was just a few months ago, years after I resigned from the Post. We have spoken a few other times, always pleasantly, and I've enjoyed her writing. I wish her every happiness, but we aren't close.
Not being close makes it less personally awkward for me to agree with some of her critics: there are, indeed, legitimate ethical concerns here. Recruiting and vetting a candidate takes months, minimum. During that period, Maddeaux would have been covering federal politics while lining up potential future employment in federal politics.
I don't think this is a catastrophic issue, especially since Maddeaux, as a columnist, was free to share her thoughts, and the choice to run for the CPC seems a logical extension of her stated views, not an out-of-character pivot. But if people have questions and concerns about Maddeaux's professionalism and credibility, or that of her editors and superiors, that's fair. The media can only function effectively if it maintains the public's confidence, and the public gets to decide for itself what it cares about.
But, gosh, like, ya'll realize this isn't the first time this has happened, right? Justin Trudeau has two former broadcast journalists in his cabinet right now; Seamus O'Regan and Marci Ien both spent many years at CTV before joining the Liberals.
O'Regan had a bit of a cooling off period — he left CTV in 2012, and signed up as a Liberal candidate in 2014. Ien, though, was appointed to run as Liberal candidate in a byelection triggered by Bill Morneau's resignation, and only then quit her CTV gig — at the time, she was co-hosting The Social, a day-time talk show.
How bothered was I by any of this? About as bothered as I am by Maddeaux's announcement. It's not ideal, and it raises uncomfortable questions, but I won't lose any sleep over it. The media is a tough grind, and I understand why people want out.
Alright, alright, you might be thinking, but it's different when it's an opinion columnist, like Maddeaux, jumping into politics after making a bunch of statements about politics. Okay! But! My friend and colleague Michael Den Tandt was a National Post/Postmedia up until 10 days or so before he was hired by the Trudeau Liberals to go work in the government's communications arm, with involvement on files that directly overlapped with the kinds of things he'd been writing about. That's also not the kind of job that is lined up that quickly.
Good? Bad? Personally, I thought it was awkward, but I also thought the Liberals would benefit from his ample talents and generally sensible noggin'. Mike is back among us media weirdos now, and you can read him in different places, including right here at The Line.
There's more! In just the last few days, Supriya Dwivedi, a regular in the media, announced — in an opinion article in the Toronto Star — that she was joining the Prime Minister's Office as a senior advisor. Another disclosure is needed here: Supriya is not only a friend, she is a much loved, very close friend, and we talk a lot. (I suspect we'll have to avoid some topics from here on out, mind you!) My dear friend wasn't leaving a full-time media career behind, the way that Maddeaux, Ien or Den Tandt did, but she has previously worked full-time in the news, and in more recent years, while doing research and communications work, has maintained a presence in the media, analyzing and commenting on Canadian politics.
Anyone have a standard they can apply consistently in each of these cases? If so, should we maybe write it down or something?
Here's my take: Each of these cases posed some problems, but none of them fatal, because I think the fear of influence peddling and favour currying actually has the flow reversed: media figures don't skew their on-air or in-print work to seek political opportunities, but political parties absolutely actively recruit like-minded people with large media profiles.
Maybe I'm wrong. Okay. Just tell me the rule, then, and I'll go with it.
And then, oh Lord, there's the rest of it.
Maddeaux's announcement was met with some, uh, interesting responses. Liberal MP Pam Damoff went right after Maddeaux over a column she'd written on gun control; Fisheries Minister Diane Lebouthillier took umbrage with Maddeaux's comments on bilingualism. This is fine; Maddeaux has stepped into the political arena and political attacks on her are fair game. But what was stupid was how Conservatives and their numerous social media proxies rushed to play the misogyny card.
Check out this, by long-time CPC staffer and now comms professional Laura Kurkimaki. Kurkimaki tweeted "[S]everal Liberal ministers attacked a young woman today on social media who had just announced she’s running for a
@CPC_HQ nomination... Interesting, the same people who say add women change politics, feminist government, sunny ways etc. Embarrassing. Desperate."
I hope Kurkimaki doesn't feel picked on here; I chose her comment as a representative example of the eye-rolling array of responses for two reasons: it's one of the less gross examples of the rush to portray Maddeaux as a victim of sexism; I'd rather not link to the dumber ones. Further, I actually mostly agree with Kurkimaki's broader point: the Liberals do seem really rattled by Maddeaux's announcement, and that's interesting.
But back on topic: is Maddeuax a fair target for reasonable criticism, or does she get some kind of protected status because she's a woman?
I vote the former! And I suspect that her Liberal critics, from cabinet ministers right on down to the #IStandWithTrudeau crowd on X, would agree. The problem, of course, is that those very same people, again from the cabinet right on down to Trudeau's social media proxies, are probably mostly — all? — guilty of reacting with exaggerated outrage and cries of misogyny when certain other women are attacked. Chrystia Freeland, Mélanie Joly, Maryam Monsef ... I can tell you from personal experience that if you make even reasonable and narrow criticisms of the policies and political performance of those three women, or other prominent Liberals who tick at least once DEI box, you will be swiftly informed that you are, in fact, simply a prejudiced white man.
Of course there is sexism in our politics. And other forms of prejudice. And social media is absolutely flooded with rank misogyny and every other disgusting societal cancer you can imagine. Freeland, Joly and Monsef have all been, and will continue to be, targeted with absolutely appalling stuff. Just as Maddeaux has been, and will continue to be. All of it is disgusting.
But for all that, some of what people have to say about these women and their professional performance will be fair, or at least reasonable, and it is incumbent on all to not fake being idiots who cannot tell these two things apart. It’s dumb when it’s Conservatives pretending that Maddeaux is being attacked because she’s a woman, it’s dumb when the Liberals do the same to protect Freeland et al, and, in what I think was the uber-example of this kind of brainrot, it was really dumb when Trudeau responded to credible reports of Chinese electoral interference in Canada, which his government had basically ignored, by lecturing everyone about anti-Asian racism.
It’s all the same goddamned impulse: don’t engage with the criticism, lie about the critic and their motives, and brag about your moral superiority. It’s stupid. It’s awful. It’s bush league. And it’s ubiquitous. I probably haven't been perfect at avoiding this, but gosh, I'm gonna try, because this stuff is societal poison.
And all the incentives from here on out point toward escalation: ever-greater offence claimed on ever-flimsier pretexts by people who are more than smart enough to exactly what they're doing. But they don't care, because they see political advantage in it. Or at least an opportunity for some good social media engagement.
It will tear us apart. We won't need bots and AIs to bring us down, though they'll do their part. The real damage will be what we're doing to ourselves. Because without agreed-upon rules, everything just becomes a power grab where might makes right and every change in government will simply herald a long spell of revenge on the recently defeated and their supporters.
I'm not honestly sure we can avoid that, at this point. It seems baked in. But we can all do our part by trying to find that increasingly elusive, magical thing: a consistent standard, which can then be fairly and reasonably enforced.
It's not too much to ask for, or, at least, it shouldn't be. But here we are. And is there any among you reading this who’d put a fiver down on it not getting worse?
The Line is entirely reader funded — no federal subsidy for us! If you value our work and worry about what will happen when the conventional media finishes collapsing, please make a donation today.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: firstname.lastname@example.org