Dispatch from the Front Line: On the Perils of Going Along to Get along

Good Lord, they're talking about the New York Times again.

Greetings, Line readers. As we start our long weekend, the province of Quebec and the nation of Cuba have both lost internet access.

To all unit leaders: Operation Anglo is a go. At last, the time for the final victory of the English language in North America is at hand. 

We kid. (Or, if there is a plan, we're not in on it.)

Your intrepid Line editors had a nice long chat on Friday, trying to sort out what to write about in this dispatch. We're a bit pandemiced out, if you know what we mean. ("Are the vaccines here? No? Bunch of people still dying? Yeah? Oh, OK. End of dispatch. Please subscribe today!") But there actually is something worth talking about — continuing newsroom eruptions in the North American media. And gosh, is there ever an embarrassment of, uh, riches to chat about this week.

After a four-decades-plus career at the paper, New York Times science reporter Donald McNeil (who one of your Line editors keeps calling "Dean" for a reason we don't understand) is out, and how. The particular substance of Dean's downfall — dammit, McNeil's downfall — is not worth recapping in any particular detail, because it's pretty frickin' bog standard by now. McNeil is an older white dude, and apparently a bit of a crusty bastard. He went on a Times-sponsored educational cruise — which seems weird to us, but whatever — to South America with a bunch of students, and apparently had a chat with a 12-year-old about an anti-black racial slur, which, come to think of it, also seems weird. (And yes, it was that slur.) When asking in what context the slur had been used, McDean-or-whatever used said slur. He was not referring to anyone with the slur, but was asking in what context someone else had used it. Management was informed, concluded it had been used with no ill intent, the issue became public, and, like we said. Need we go on?

You can basically fill in the blanks. It's a shitshow. Deonald McNeil is gone, the editors are scrambling to figure out what their policy is (the paper itself and other prominent Times journalists have used the slur in their reporting or social posts), an entirely banal Bret Stephens column on the matter was reportedly spiked and leaked to the New York Post (not by Stephens, the Post says), which reprinted it. Private conversations among Times staffers are hitting the internet. The newsroom is at war with itself. 

We defer to Gwen Stefani: this shit is bananas.


We at The Line have decided to offer a meta take: what all these disputes have in common, and what the next ones will involve, too.

The first issue, of course, is a steady weaponization of HR processes and unions. Vehicles intended to fix problems like unfair pay structures, workplace misconduct and lack of due process are being re-deployed as tools of ideological conformity — fuelled by healthy doses of personal dislike and professional resentment.

Make no mistake: there are bad people in journalism, as there are in any profession. Abusers should be rooted out, and there should always be clear processes in place to handle toxic personalities fairly, decisively and effectively. ("Fairly" isn't a buzzword here — the accused must have rights, too.)

But there has also been a steady lowering of the bar as to what evils warrant an HR intervention. Every newsroom should be a safe place from abuse, harassment and violence — but not from ideas that are offensive. We recognize the entirely legitimate concerns of employees who are from marginalized groups about historic injustices, microaggressions and systemic power imbalances. But being in the world sometimes involves working with people who are simply insensitive assholes. Drawing the line between the merely difficult and the truly dysfunctional isn’t always easy.

Further, many of the complaints now being bandied about are strategic. They are being used to pummel terrified HR staffs and weak, ineffectual managers into compliance with ideological agendas. A staff at war with itself and ever-fearful of the axe is easier to silence and control. Owners have long understood this; it’s a grim irony that our peers have now decided to take up the hood and the blade.

These workplace revolts always boil down to an internal struggle for control. The very concept of where power rests is being challenged by those who think the traditional way of running newsrooms is as obsolete as a classifieds page. Uprisings are about who decides institutional values, and who gets to enforce those values. An entire class of leaders needs to wake up to the fact that they’re three campaigns deep into a battle for their own legitimacy. And they’re losing.

That brings us to the third issue: management. We’ve said this before, but managers need to show some spine. The most consistent theme in all these newsroom eruptions is management either lacking the confidence to assert its authority, or hesitating to do so just long enough to make things worse. Too many leaders have been selected for their affability rather than their toughness. We at The Line suspect this is no accident. Powerful editors, necessary for effective management of staff, are inconvenient for owners intent on slashing said newsrooms. The kind of people who'd be most effective at crushing the odd staff rebellion also annoy the suits. So instead, we get nice people — truly nice people — who know the right folks and subscribe to the right politics, and shy away from embarrassment, conflict, and loss of status. They’re marks.

The fourth (last one, don't worry, there aren't like 40 of these) issue is that newsroom employees themselves need to stop enabling these dramas. McNeil sounds like a jerk who did a dumb thing, and maybe he should have been canned for it. But this was not worth a full newsroom revolt. None of these eruptions has helped journalism. No reader has benefitted. Not a single person is better off because the New York Times is holding its quarterly solipsistic emoji-fuelled Slack contest to crown its Most Hated Colleague.

We get it — it's awkward to be the guy not carrying the banner to the weekly outrage party. But going along to get along is bringing journalists to a place that most of them don't actually want to live. Destroying a colleague is easy. Building a career is hard. Can the cafeteria drama. Stop piling on peers on private message channels. Don’t sign open letters unless you actually agree with everything that is written in them. Do your job. This is the minimum of moral courage that anyone can ask of you — and is below the minimum of what society expects from those claim to be courageous upholders of what is true, accurate and fair.

It is not easy to work in a dying industry. Newsroom morale is low. Journalists are underpaid and overworked. Add the stress of a pandemic, and what's happening isn't surprising. But it's also not good. The Fourth Estate is simply too important in this moment to indulge its worst instincts. Enough's enough.


Bee-lining back toward Canada: another bizarre case of the disappearing op-ed took place this week. Canadian Lawyer published an opinion article objecting to new practice directions issued in British Columbia courts. According to the order, lawyers and parties appearing before the court will be asked to provide their correct gender pronouns to be used during the proceeding; if they do not provide this information during their introduction, they will be prompted by the court clerk.

Lawyer Shahdin Farsai objected to this direction in a lengthy op-ed published in the trade magazine last week. Outrage ensued, and the magazine promptly pulled the piece. It can be read in full here.

We at The Line admit, candidly, that we are not lawyers. And, thus, we struggled to understand the merits of both Farsai’s piece and the primary objections to it. In order to better understand, we spoke to several lawyers we trust. A few of their critiques of the op-ed were as follows:

  • Firstly, that it demonstrated a shallow understanding of the way the practice direction would be applied. The prompting is a matter of civility, and of creating space for people who wish to have their pronouns stated for the record. No one is likely to face any kind of reprimand or fine for declining to provide their pronouns — or, at least, that outcome seemed extremely unlikely to the lawyers we spoke to.

  • Farsai misrepresented one of the cases she cited in her op-ed.

  • Asking for pronouns was unlikely to make the court appeared biased.

  • Lastly, that the issue of trans rights ought to be beyond debate.

As stated above, we at The Line do not frolic in these hills, but this practice direction does not strike us as a hill worth dying on. We support creating space for trans people to offer their pronouns, but we have some concerns about demanding such a disclosure of everybody. Meanwhile, whether or not misgendering someone is, or ought to be, considered an act of discrimination worthy of condemnation via human rights law is a question that we will inevitably be hashing out, by the sounds of it. It seems doubtful that these questions will be treated as matters of mere etiquette for much longer.

The last objection that we heard was the thorniest. It was buttressed by the observation that we no longer consider it acceptable to present “both sides” of an issue like slavery or racism. Thus any dispute deemed a matter of “human rights” ought to be similarly off the table. Regardless of any flaws in Farsai’s piece, the notion that a practice direction ought to be beyond the realm of debate is, to our minds, both untenable and ahistorical.

We once did hold debates about topics that are now deemed bigoted; slavery, the legal status of women, human rights, gay marriage. The reason we no longer debate these issues is because the right side eventually won. The consensus we all enjoy today came about precisely because we debated them. (Though debate was certainly not the only mechanism of persuasion employed.) Without open discussion, the only consensus that one can build is based on fear and intimidation. And fear-based consensus is like glass. It’s solid until it shatters. Debate isn’t a threat to the rights of marginalized people; debate is integral to them.

And you can’t discuss matters openly when op-eds can be disappeared in the night. We at The Line aren’t lawyers, but we are journalists. And in that role, we’ve learned that no one bats a thousand. Eventually every opinion section is going to publish a piece that doesn’t hang right in hindsight. Publish a million words, and eventually you’ll find a string of six that you regret. Words are art, and math is cruel.

We don’t correct those errors by deleting them without explanation. We own our errors publicly; we welcome the opportunity to be proven wrong.

However, we know not everyone agrees with us on that point. To that end, we’ve solicited a rebuttal to Farsai’s piece and hope to run it next week.


Roundup:

  • No doubt the prog-o-sphere welcomed news that the Proud Boys, our very own Dudebro Taliban, would be declared a terrorist organization by parliament. But according to Dr. Leah West, an assistant professor of international affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, simply bestowing the official black hat of infamy may have actually hurt matters more than it helped.

  • The Line favourite Max Fawcett addresses #GameStonk; sure many innocent retail investors will be left holding the big for the Reddit-drive short squeeze. But, he noted, many of those investors don’t care about being ripped off — as long as it gave them the opportunity to hit Wall Street harder.

  • Andrew Potter begins to sound a wary note about the future prospects of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “But history also teaches us that the extreme trust-the-leader character of Canadian politics is a double-edged sword. Prime ministers are always the most important element in their party’s success, until they aren’t. They are its most valuable assets, until one day they wake up and suddenly they are its biggest liability. No Canadian prime minister governs forever; very few leave on terms of their own choosing,” he writes.

  • Lastly, Jen Gerson, beloved redneck convert, decodes the fracas in Alberta over plans to open up more coal mining. Don’t Albertans love pulling dead carbon out of the ground? Well, yeah, she concedes, but it’s more complicated than it seems.

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