Understated and Understood
A columnist explains why she'd rather reason than rant
My first unfavourable review hurt more than I let on. It was 1989. I had been The Toronto Star’s national affairs columnist for four years and I was beginning to feel comfortable in the job.
“No one expects her to persuade or entertain,” wrote Charlotte Gray in Saturday Night. “Were a strong opinion or a bitchy comment ever to sneak into Goar’s column, it would set off the press building’s sprinkler system.” In public, I smiled or shrugged. In private, I asked myself a thousand times where I had gone wrong and what I should do about it. In the end, I didn’t do anything. To have changed my style would have been to change me. I don’t shout. I don’t dazzle. I don’t skewer. And I don’t think you have to do any of those things to write a lively, independent-minded column.
The truth is, I don’t want to be a pundit. I want to give people the facts and background they need to make their own judgments about national politics. I want to tell both sides of a story as fairly as I can, so people will understand that governing means making tough choices. I want to make Ottawa seem like a
human place, where dedicated and not-so-dedicated public officials find their way in a world of variegated greys.
Occasionally (in spite of what Saturday Night says), I do lost my temper. When Finance Minister Don Mazankowski announced last December that he was cutting unemployment insurance benefits, I wrote with considerable passion that any ~ government that would C5 punish the jobless during a devastating recession was both heartless and dangerously out of touch with its electorate.
I did this not to convert or impress anybody, but to force the ministers sitting around Brian Mulroney’s cabinet table, earning $135,600 a year, to see their policies as Canadians see them. Whether I succeeded, I don’t know. I at least provoked Mazankowski into writing two irate letters to the Star.
I seldom use my column as a soapbox this way because I think my first obligation is to my readers. They are smart enough to figure out for themselves that chopping unemployment benefits when one out of every eight workers is jobless is profoundly insensitive.
What they look to me for, I hope, is some explanation of why the government made the choices it did, what options it had and how its behaviour fits into an overall pattern. If I see flaws in the government’s approach, I’ll point them out. If I believe the government is trying to manipulate or confuse electors, I’ll do everything I can to strip away the artifice.
What I will not do, except in the rarest of circumstances, is attack an individual, make blanket assumptions about any group or impugn a person’s motives on the basis of guesswork or hearsay.
If this makes me less than entertaining, so be it. But I have yet to be convinced that a columnist has to be bitchy to be entertaining. I don’t like reading diatribes. And I’m sure there are readers out there, like me, who prefer subtlety to a sledgehammer.
A columnist who is always angry, dismissive or negative becomes predictable. People know what she is going to say before they open the paper. They stop paying attention and they stop thinking about important public issues.
By being understated and a bit unpredictable, I believe I can draw people into what I write. They may not be seething or cheering by the time they get to the end of one of my columns. But they have been involved. They have been treated like intelligent participants.
I don’t claim to be objective. I don’t think any journalist can be. My perspective is affected by the fact that I am a woman, I am white, I was born in the 1950s and I grew uF in a middle-class community in southern Ontario. I worry a lot that my background, plus the fact that I have spent 19 years in Ottawa, cuts me off from potential readers. I try, but probably not hard enough, to step outside the cloistered world I inhabit.
My closest friends aren’t journalists. I spend part of every weekend in a place like Tim Horton’s, drinking coffee and talking to non-politicians. I ask members of Parliamen1 what their constituents are telling them. I phone allover the country
Readers help, too. My column is syndicated in more than a dozen newspapers
and a surprising number of people take the time to write and offer their views of my work, government’s performance or events in their own lives. Ultimately, though, I am the product of my upbringing, my education, my genes. I can struggle to be fair and open-minded as hard as I like, but I can’t stop being me.
My latest unsolicited performance evaluation came in Marjorie Nichols’ book, Mark My Words. Nichols, who died of cancer just over a year ago, was my counterpart at The Ottawa Citizen. “She’s not a columnist, she’s an essayist,” Nichols wrote. “The last serious political columnist they had was Richard Gwyn, before he went off to Europe.”
Apparently I still haven’t made the grade. But now I know what to do about it: fight to change the grading system.