Dispatch from the Front Line: Bwack Bwack National Post

Postmedia withdraws from the Alberta Legislature Press Gallery after conceding an embarrassing bunfight with The Rebel.

Postmedia announced on Thursday evening that it would be withdrawing its reporters from the Alberta Legislative Press Gallery to protest that body's decision not to welcome far-right media outlet The Rebel to their fold. By restricting The Rebel's membership, the gallery also, in effect, restricts the outlet's access to the legislature itself — it's a material impingement on The Rebel's ability to report. 

On the basic substance of the principle at play, we at The Line agree with Postmedia: Journalism is not a regulated profession. It should not be a regulated profession. All of us enjoy the right to speak our minds, and to hold our politicians to account. We hold this right not by virtue who employs us, or who welcomes us into a particular club, or how good we are. We maintain this right because we are all citizens. And if you believe in the most expansive values of openness and transparency, then you have to be willing to grant certain rights of access even to those whom you believe to be odious, or acting in bad faith. 

Some press galleries treat media accreditation as a reward for upholding legacy journalistic standards. This allows them to maintain a clubby superiority, elevated from the mere hoi polloi of tweeters, bloggers and independent outlets. If you've spent a decade building your own journalistic reputation, you may not want to share your lunch table with activists, conspiracy theorists, and hate mongers — lest such figures pollute your own work and good intentions. 

This instinct is understandable, but we must recognize it for what it is. In an era of fragmenting audiences and fraying trust in institutions, leaning on accreditation and membership in a gallery to bolster credibility is a status flex. It's a sign of insecurity from people who crave an imprimatur of legitimacy — as if such a mark would make them seem more credible rather than less so. 

Journalists who fight for a more exclusive press club should pay attention to those who have lost this argument before them. In Alberta in 2016, the former NDP government recanted and apologized when it tried to bar The Rebel. In 2019, the Leaders' Debates Commission similarly lost their bid to prevent right-wing outlets from attending the official leaders' debate. 

In these battles, journalists publicly argued on the side of governments and government bodies to restrict access to their fellow citizens. Their personal disgust for these far-right outlets overwhelmed the foundational principle. 

But those opposed to opening the club failed. And they turned themselves into fundraising fodder in the process. So here's a free tip going forward: if you're going to play this game, don't stake out legal and intellectual territory that you cannot defend. 

While The Line supports a policy of maximum openness in principle, we can think of at least two practical limitations to this ideal in practice. The first is that press galleries often distribute finite resources. If you oversee five desks and five phones, you must create a set of standards that will guide who gets to sit where. Those standards are always going to appear arbitrary and unfair to the reporter left filing on the floor. There is no way to avoid this problem except to collect and distribute as many resources as possible, and then shrug off the complainers. In an era of shrinking media budgets and dwindling press galleries, this strikes us as less of a problem now than it once was. 

The second practical limitation is misbehaviour. It is legitimate to restrict access to "journalists" who use that access to disrupt proceedings or harass other members of the press gallery. Just as a disruptive observer would be ejected from an open court, it's reasonable to expect a degree of decorum and professionalism from everyone in the room.

And when it comes to the case of The Rebel versus Postmedia, that is where we fall upon the stones.

Tyler Dawson is a reporter for the National Post based in Edmonton. Last month, in his capacity as the president of the Alberta Legislature Press Gallery, he told reporters at The Rebel that the association had voted to reject their application for membership. 

The rejection inspired The Rebel's Commander, Ezra Levant, to publish an extraordinary 30-minute segment devoted to assailing Dawson and the National Post. Levant insinuated that the Post made the decision in order to clamp down on its competition, and that the call was influenced by the bailout money Postmedia took from the Liberal government. Levant threatened to sue based on an infringement of the Competition Act, and he launched a campaign to convince Post subscribers to step away from the brand. 

To wit: 

"Maybe do this: call the National Post to cancel your subscription. And take just one month’s subscription fee — $26 dollars — and donate it to our legal fund."

Anyone who understands either the press gallery or the National Post — and we at The Line can claim some familiarity with both — will be able to explain why Ezra’s claims are bullshit. Press gallery boards are composed of journalists who volunteer to manage gallery resources in their off time. Members do not serve in these roles as arms of their corporate outlets. The notion that Dawson was acting as an agent of the Post to enact an anti-competitive measure is ridiculous. Media outlets largely do not care what their employees do as gallery board members, and, in fact, may not even know that their staff belong to these associations. 

Further, The Rebel wasn't rejected by Tyler Dawson, it was rejected via a vote of the press association. Levant's beef isn't with the Post — it's with the Alberta Legislature Press Gallery Association. 

But what fun is that, right? 

Since Levant's video, Dawson has been subject to hyperbolic personal attacks by Levant and the predictable online harassment. Levant's campaign to cancel the Post has no doubt drummed up a few new Rebel supporters — as it was clearly intended to do. 

So though we agree that The Rebel should get access to the Alberta legislature in principle, the outlet's personal attacks are both misleading and unwarranted. Which makes the National Post's capitulation so nauseating. 

By withdrawing from the press gallery, the Post is presumably forcing Dawson to resign his role as president as well. Of course, Postmedia is not obliged to maintain its membership in the gallery if it does not choose to — but forcing its own reporters out is bizarre and counterproductive.

The question of The Rebel's membership is a matter for the press gallery to decide. Postmedia should have nothing to do with it one way or another. By withdrawing from the association in protest, Postmedia, ironically, appears to legitimize the gist of Levant's bullshit complaint — that Dawson was acting as an agent of his company in his role as press gallery president, and that withdrawing from that role is somehow the remedy. 

It's hard to imagine the Post making a dumber call, and Levant was sure happy to crow about it on Thursday: 

The Line started three weeks ago by noting that cancel culture should more rightly be called out as institutional failure. It's a phenomenon of corporate entities and cultural organizations clamming up, or abandoning their own people for the sake of expediency — to deflect from the inconvenience or shame of an unfair online attack. 

How, exactly, does the case of Tyler Dawson fail to fit that bill? 

Our values loosely align with the Post's. We share its fundamental belief in concepts like free speech, civil liberties, and contempt for cultural pieties. But the Post's defence of those values is unevenly applied. These virtues are upheld for the likes of Rex Murphy and Conrad Black, but abandoned for a Dustin Parkes, or a Tyler Dawson. The Post's willingness to stand up for a value is in direct relation to how much that value is worth to the paper in clicks and subscriptions. 

(No one should be terribly surprised, then, that half the Post's newsroom and most of its junior staff signed an open letter of revolt a few weeks ago — amid a continent-wide media meltdown on race — signalling their sudden opposition to the conservative ethos of the conservative paper they agreed to work for. Loyalty is reciprocal. If you don't have your staff's back, they won't have yours. And vice versa.)

Any self-respecting news outlet would have told Ezra Levant to fuck right off — and revelled in the opportunity to watch him lose in court. Yet a ridiculous lawsuit threat and a campaign to siphon subscribers to a fringe YouTube channel is all it took to force the Post to piss all over itself. 

That's The Weakness, kids. And if you'd rather see your money support an outlet that is neither awful nor weak, we can think of better options

-The Line Editor


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And speaking of those words, here’s what we got up to this week:


Roundup:

Generational bun fight! Earlier in the week, Barry Rueger called out all you young-ins out there for not respecting your elders. “The picture of the cute, befuddled, but loveable old senior, working the garden of the (fully paid for) family home with no worries beyond the next bingo session at the community hall is nonsense,” he wrote. “We have responsibilities to our families; we struggle to pay our bills, just like everybody else.” 

Noted youth Max Fawcett was having none of that, and replied in his own piece, “I’m sure there are special cases out there of Boomers who haven’t benefited to the same extent as their peers, or have fallen on hard times. But those are the exceptions, not the rule. And the rule is pretty clear: Baby Boomers, and especially Baby Boomer men, walked a path that was far easier than the one current generations have to travel.”

Samuel Forster did his best to slightly drain the Canadian Strategic Smugness Reserve with his piece taking on the soothing platitudes Canadian like to tell each other about our immigration system being so much kinder and gentler than that of the big, bad American wolf. “A typical year for the RCMP does not involve ... intercepting hundreds of thousands of economic migrants, drug smugglers, gun runners, and sexually trafficked children in the vast wilderness. The imperative for Canadians to ‘stand on guard for thee’ is minimized by the heavy lifting of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. America is, in this sense, our shield against the geopolitical chaos of the world. Our kinder, gentler mythos is permitted by the fact that America’s approach on its own southern frontier stops many of the hard cases from ever reaching us in the first place.”

Line columnist Jen Gerson offered a delightfully tepid defence of Rob Silver and Katie Telford, after revelations that Silver’s new corporate home was on the receiving end of some big federal contracts. “The real mystery here is why the prime minister's chief of staff has proven more adept at managing the intricacies of the Conflict of Interest Act than her boss. Helping our prime minister stay on the right side of the fuzzy line is, after all, surely part of her job. Ever since the WE scandal broke, Ottawa watchers have wondered about Trudeau and Telford. Is it that neither of them ever learns, or does Trudeau simply ignore her? Given that Telford was canny enough to get herself an ethics screen, maybe we have that answer.” 

And in a must-read reported piece from Vancouver, Katie Lewis describes how the arrival of a homeless encampment in a local park has ruined her community while local progressive politicians desperately look the other way, praying some other level of government fixes the problem so they don’t have to make any controversial decisions. “There has been no help from any level of government, other than endless meetings. My neighbourhood is just the latest scene of a maddening game of tent city whack-a-mole that’s been going on in East Vancouver, and our politicians have proven unable or unwilling to do anything about it,” wrote Lewis.

(P.S. Yes. We struggled with how to spell the chicken noise in the headline. -TLE)