Douglas Bell
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Narcissus in Chief

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Why are the heads of so many publications so self-absorbed?

At a time when every newspaper editor in the country is “revisioning” his or her paper (i.e. making it palatable to a coming generation of Xbox-ed Netheads), you’d think that the redpen set wouldn’t have the time to pontificate the way they used to from the safety of their editorial board cubicles. And yet, the most powerful piece of evidence confirming the public’s well-publicized instinct that journalists are an egotistical, sanctimonious, self-satisfied, know-it-all breed – giving even lawyers a run for their money as the most generally despised of the professions – continues to be the columnizing editors and broadcast bingo callers who share their thinking regarding “the process” of producing fish wrap or whatever thought du jour occurred whilst regurgitating that morning’s offering from Timmy Hos. It’s an exercise in self-congratulation rivaling an induction ceremony at the House of Lords or, worse, the Canadian Senate.

The transcendent example of this practice is the muchmaligned “Letter from the Editor” column by The Globe and Mail‘s editor-in-chief Edward Greenspon. Edward – who used to be Ed and is known among his courtiers with a certain contemptuous intimacy as Eddie – is the sort who responds to scathing criticism of his twice-monthly wank by updating his photograph. Edward used to sport an I-just-flew-in-from-Kabul threeday growth (more Ed than Edward), indicating that he was something more than just another managerial hack willing to shovel the shit for somewhat less money than his predecessor.

But that didn’t “work,” and so arrived a new Edward, beardless with just a hint of the forthcoming wise old jowl (somewhere between Eddie and Edward). Surely this would keep Robert Fulford (keeper of the jowl) from saying mean things such as: “Self-importance, the sin that tempts all journalists, severely afflicts Greenspon.” (When you take it in the teeth on that score from a guy Margaret Atwood compared to Mr. Weatherbee, you, sir, stand upon the Mount Olympus of self-regard – an onanistic Zeus.) Sad to say, however, the new Edward writes an awful lot like the old Ed.

In the midst of the federal election campaign, Edward proclaimed that a “powerful sense of torpor has seized our public life.” Canadians, no doubt awed by his magical command of English, which allowed him to render torpor powerful, went on to read the great man’s espousal of the Globe as an avatar of democracy and defender of the faith. He even suggested the Globe sacrifices its own self-interest (heaven forfend) in the pursuit of the common good, sermonizing that the political parties “gouged” the media to the tune of $8,500 per week per reporter, to put their representatives on campaign buses and planes. Oh, woe is the Globe, owned by among the richest men in the world and turning a healthy profit year in and year out. Imagine having to pay for an airplane ticket to write stories that sell newspapers. Edward, thy name is hypocrisy – spare us your pain.

Of course, Eddie isn’t alone. Newsworld‘s Evan Solomon inserts so many reaction shots into his CBC “interviews” you’re left wondering who’s interviewing whom. Some years ago, Ken Finkleman claimed he was so annoyed at Solomon for hijacking his airtime that he found the edit suite and recut the the tape himself. I know, I know: pot, kettle, black. Still, Finkleman’s instinct was a worthy one.

Ken Alexander’s Walrusian musings from the editor’s/publisher’s/ proprietor’s suite, while often more engaging and erudite than his critics suggest, are soaked in just the sort of High- Church self-regard you’d expect from something emanating from an office that speaks for the Holy Trinity. In a column reflecting on the implications of last summer’s CBC lockout, His Ken-ness wrote: “This past summer and fall, locked-out workers held round-the-clock vigils circling Lego-land headquarters on Front Street in Toronto and other CBC ports of call across the country, and when the opportunity arose, I joined them…the grand and enormous atrium at the CBC…is one of Canada’s most generous public squares. I have taken my son there, and told him ‘part of being Canadian means owning this place.'” Spoken like a guy with enough money to own, publish and edit his own national magazine. And while he’s quite happy to be among the people, like any good bishop leading his flock, he’s certainly not of them.

But for sheer chutzpah, nobody beats the musings of the Globe‘s former editor, the irrepressible Bill (“Call me William”) Thorsell. From his sinecure at the Royal Ontario Museum, William continues to bathe us in his wisdom and light. And of late, he’s hit high notes his fellow divas could only dream of. For instance, in remarking on Peter C. Newman’s (is there anything that gives away auto-absorption more than the middle initial?) disemboweling of Thorsell’s former self-love interest, Brian Mulroney, William graced the op-ed page of his former employer with his personal recollections of eight, count ’em, eight former prime ministers. Among these were the impressions of Lester Pearson he garnered as a teenager: “Pearson arrived at the western Canada Pavilion at Expo 67 with the Queen, so he had an excuse to be distracted. But he was barely there, preoccupied, immersed in his own reality, as was his wont. A brief encounter to be sure, but it was disappointing.” Writing as an adult in his late middle age, Thorsell remembers that a prime minister failed to notice him – a teenage usher – in the midst of his official duty to squire the head of state – and finds that oversight “disappointing.”

Beside that, Narcissus himself would appear a self-loathing nebbish, but such it seems are the wages of self-absorption among the über-cognoscenti.

Douglas Bell is the Toronto author of Run Over who starred in CBC’s The Newsroom and worked on a CPR tie gang.

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