Sympathy for the Old Devil
Hell must be freezing over; Ted Byfield is cooling off
Ted Byfield is in his element. At home in his office, his silvering hair slicked back Sinatra-style, he is surrounded by his heavy leather-bound editions of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and The Cambridge Medieval History. A sign on the wall trumpets beer as “so much more than a breakfast drink.” Virginia, his wife of 51 years, buzzes around the fax machine, followed closely by a hyper golden retriever named Texas.
The founder of the Christian conser-vative newsweekly formerly known as Alberta Report is surprisingly mellow. He isn’t the fire-and-brimstone, holier-than-thou tight-ass I was expecting, yet everything he says and does is infused with the sort of determined energy that only visionaries and missionaries possess. He argues like a lawyer. He pontificates like a preacher. He waves his arms and pounds his fists like a politician. Twenty years ago, when Peter Lougheed was premier and Alberta was screaming rape in the aftermath of the National Energy Program, Byfield’s beefy bass was the original voice of modern western discontent. He found an audience in the “conservative Christians, rural rednecks and urban libertarians” who would rather let those eastern bastards freeze in the dark than buy into Trudeaumania. AR was the first of its kind: a homegrown, unabashed bull pen that Albertans could identify with.
Now 71, Byfield is trying to convert his nemesis: Ontario. Last October, after months of wrangling with low circulation and threats of bankruptcy, Byfield and his son Link, who is AR‘s editor and publisher, desperately relaunched AR as the biweekly Report Magazine: National Edition. But the Report faces a dangerous dilemma: the new magazine could be too regional to be accepted nationally, and at the same time just national enough to alienate readers who value the Albertan perspective. But if Byfield is worried about the future, he isn’t letting on. He taps his fingertips on the desk, thump thump thump. He leans back, looking at me with mischievous eyes. “You know what they say, how you can make God laugh, eh? Tell him your plans.”
At his best, Byfield is a seasoned journalist with a Rabelaisian spirit and an appetite for debate, a staunch supporter of the family, the church and, of course, the West. At his worst, he is an antigay, antiabortion, antifeminist, antigovernment, small-c conservative with a narrow mind and a big mouth. “You need to understand something about Ted,” says Fay Orr, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein’s communications director and a former Alberta Reporter. “There are two of them: the public, magazine Ted that is unyielding, one-dimensional, pigheaded, rednecked and damn proud of it. Then there is the private Ted, who counts communists, feminists, atheists and homosexuals among some of his dearest colleagues and friends. The private Ted is far more balanced, understanding and open to ideas and discussion. The private Ted is brilliant, provocative, insightful and charismatic. I love the private Ted.”
The Ted I’m talking to is somewhere in the middle. He is disarmingly funny and charming, to the extent that I almost forget that we are political and moral opposites. Byfield was born in Toronto and gravitated toward Alberta; I grew up in Alberta and fled to Toronto. But while my own preconceptions prevent me from trusting him, I can’t simply write him off as some eccentric crackpot, as many of my new Eastern friends would have it. This man’s influence, for better or for worse, on Canadian media, politics and society is undeniable. It is easy to hate Ted Byfield, but it’s not that hard to like him, either. The relaxed indifference in his voice tells me that he doesn’t give a damn whether this young, impressionable journalism student, or anyone else for that matter, likes him or not.
Believe it or not, Byfield is technically an Easterner. It was in Toronto that he got his first taste of journalism – delivering papers for the Toronto Telegram, where his hard-drinking father, Vernon, worked off and on as a reporter. He caught his first glimpse of Christianity a few years later, as a student at Lakefield Preparatory School (now Lakefield College School) near Peterborough during World War II.
In 1949, the spontaneous, headstrong Byfield married another reporter, Virginia Nairn, between two editions of the Timmins Daily Press, where they both worked as reporters. “The composing room foreman was the best man, and the society editor was the bridesmaid,” Byfield laughs from his gut. “Gin’s father missed the last plane and he couldn’t get out to try and stop it. Just awful! She was 19 and I was 20.” Virginia, a tiny, no-nonsense mother of six, remembers her husband as a tall, scrawny young man who was more eager than handsome. “He was too thin! He was six feet tall and 135 pounds. I put all that weight on him,” she says. “He was inspired by The Front Page. He had a trench coat, naturally.”
After the optimistic couple attempted and then failed to launch a newspaper in Ansenville, a small town near Iroquois Falls in northern Ontario, they packed up their two sons, Mike and Link, and moved west to Manitoba, where Byfield had secured a job at the Winnipeg Free Press. With Virginia there to play the homemaker role of “support and supply,” her husband was free to take chances. John Dafoe, who worked the city hall beat with Byfield, has a vivid memory of his colleague sneaking into the men’s washroom beside the conference room to eavesdrop through the vents during in-camera council meetings. “He enjoyed stirring things up,” says Dafoe, who retired from his position as opinion page editor of the Free Press in 1995. “He would sit there cackling away as he typed, laughing to himself. He was always having fun; even at his most serious he seemed to be having a good time.”
Around the time he won a National Newspaper Award for spot-news reporting in 1957, Byfield was also involved in founding Saint John’s Cathedral Boys’ School in Selkirk, Manitoba – named after the Anglican church in Winnipeg – which incorporated the Bible, outdoor adventure and in-depth history into the curriculum. The quintessential ideas man, Byfield would often enlist the help of the students to put the Saint John’s Edmonton Report, originally a school project, to bed every month. “There were two Teds,” says Dafoe. “There was this ruthless, almost immoral Ted who pursued stories, and then there was this other, very strict Ted who devoted his time to the school.” Byfield’s dedication paid off. Today, there are two more schools: one in rural Ontario and one nestled in the wheat fields southwest of Edmonton. “We were conscious of the fact that people used to acquire their values from four sources: their parents, the church, the school and the media, but that two of those sources were gradually losing much of their influence,” says Byfield matter-of-factly. “One was the family and the other was the church. So we felt that the church should concentrate on the schools and find a place for itself in the media. This suggested starting the school and starting the magazine.” Byfield’s two passions – Christianity and journalism – guided him through the rest of his career. He nonchalantly brushes invisible dust off his knees, as if his life’s work were as simple as that.
Only 10 blocks from the trash and flash of The Big Mall, the Ted Byfield school of journalism sits inconspicuously at one end of a strip mall buried deep in industrial west Edmonton. Inside, the decor is reminiscent of a small-town insurance agency: fluorescent lighting, faux wood panelling, courtesy calendars. The place looks like it hasn’t changed a bit since the Saint John’s Edmonton Report moved into the city in 1973, six years before it evolved into AR. A path worn into the rust-coloured tight-weave carpeting leads down the hallway from the front desk to the newsroom, which is quiet on a Monday afternoon. The only interior decoration is a work-in-progress: walls papered with years of cover pages – some yellowed, some crisp – with headlines such as “Prayer Beats Prozac,” “Genetic Terminations,” “The Pedophile Party” and the infamous “Can Gays Be Cured?” silently screaming out at the 15 or so desks, three or four of which are occupied. They call it a newsroom, but this is actually a classroom.
Orr insists that working at AR was like “going through the war with your buddies.” For a green reporter, a regional newsmagazine that prided itself on challenging the status quo was an exciting place to cut your teeth. “I was more interested in learning the craft of writing for a newsmagazine,” says Tom Fennell, now at Maclean’s. “The average life span of an AR employee is three years or so, so it’s not that difficult to do your job and ignore the political drumbeats.” Byfield was a strict teacher who demanded high standards of accuracy and creativity from his pupils. If your copy wasn’t up to those standards, he’d let you know – sometimes by punching a hole in the wall beside your desk. But his appreciation of quality work was just as enthusiastic, and the writers who could handle the pressure blossomed beneath it. Over the years, the magazine’s payroll included atheists, lesbians and socialists among the Campus Crusaders for Christ. Byfield would invite them all out for drinks after work. His search for raw, malleable talent developed into a habit of rescuing strays, and the stories of transforming cab drivers, dropouts and barflies into competent reporters have graduated into legend. Like many editors, Byfield looked not for credentials or degrees, but instead for “an infatuation with the language. You look for a person who likes to tell a funny joke, even a dirty joke, because they have a kind of joy that comes out of telling a story. And to be able to joyously tell a story is one of the essentials of a reporter, who is essentially a storyteller.”
Storytellers who learned from Byfield remain loyal despite political differences. Freelance writer and Prairie Report playwright Frank Moher admits that “journalistically, in terms of the execution of the craft, he’s been a wonderful influence. Dozens of writers have trained at his magazine, many of them people like me who would probably never have gone to j-school and thus probably would never have ended up writing for the press. One was given a lot of creative leeway at AR; I’m amazed to this day by some of the things I got away with – human interest items written entirely in made-up, crazed first-person voices, essentially theatrical monologues in a newsmagazine – with the result that the mag was, whatever your politics, a good read, and many of its graduates have developed into some of the best stylists in the business.”
AR alumni now occupy newsrooms and editors’ chairs across the country, taking with them their teacher’s skills. Ken Whyte and Mark Stevenson dominate the National Post; Barry Estabrook went on to be a managing editor of Equinox; D’Arcy Jenish and Brian Bergman sit high among several other Maclean’s staffers. “Ted is mostly discussed in terms of his politics, not in terms of his news instincts,” says Post editor in chief Ken Whyte, who once called AR the best place he’d ever worked. “But there are only one or two other Canadian editors – and I’ve met them all now – who can spot a good story as quickly as Ted. He has a great sense of what will engage and baffle and outrage readers, and that’s a bit of a lost art in Canadian print journalism.”
But it is Byfield’s politics that dominate the conversation when his role in the Canadian print media is discussed. His occasional appearance in the Post makes liberals in Toronto cancel their subscriptions, while his columns in the Edmonton and Calgary Sun newspapers generate tons of reader response every week. “I think I stand for everything he objects to,” says Calgary Herald columnist Catherine Ford. “Anybody who thinks Alberta Report is fair and accurate needs to have a lobotomy.” As Moher says in his Saturday Nightreview of The Book of Ted: Epistles from an Unrepentant Redneck, “there’s no hidden agenda; Byfield’s all agenda.” His casual, armchair-philosopher style pulls you in, makes you think, maybe even makes you laugh, and then WHAM! He hits you with “If adultery or homosexuality is wrong in the sight of God, then all the task forces in Christendom aren’t going to make it right. If God is timeless and changeless, then human conduct considered wrong in the eighth century is just as wrong in the twentieth.” The 1998 collection of Byfield’s popular back page “Westview” columns includes a foreword by David Frum, who calls the essays “vintage Byfield: by turns funny, scorching, prophetic…Here is Byfield, giving voice to the anger of the West at its economic exploitation. Here is Byfield again, warning of the moral decay of our society at a time when it took almost reckless courage to criticize feminism and defend religion. Here is Byfield once more, warning of the radical instability of the Canadian federation and of the imminent separation of Quebec. Here is Byfield, the patriot, the historian, the teacher, the lover of literature. And here finally is Byfield, analyzing the potential for a Western-based conservative party, and then calling just such a party into being.”
After a brief and nasty love affair with Mulroney’s Tories in the late 1980s, AR became the unofficial house organ of Preston Manning’s Reform Party. Byfield saw Reform as coming closest to his ideal of a real morality in politics, yet he never became a member. “Politics is not religion. Religion is based upon creeds, statements that are held to be true. Politics is like a game, almost,” says Byfield, who professes that he lacks the tact and patience of a politician. “I could never have done what Manning did.” In a sense, however, ARwas the media equivalent of Reform: both were underdogs born out of Western frustration, both were waving social conservative flags, and both had charismatic leaders with a clear sense of who they were, what they wanted and where they were going. And now, both depend on the dubious support of Central Canada for survival. Since the early 1990s, the magazine has been subsidized by sales of the 12-volume Alberta History Series, to be completed by Alberta’s centennial in 2005, as well as direct donations from the 35,000 subscribers. “You’re left with a choice,” says Link, who shares his father’s nose, forehead and hairstyle, but parts his hair on the opposite side. He reminds me of a junior high school vice-principal. “You either publish to make a profit or you make a profit so you can publish. Dad and I have always had this attitude that while we respect the necessity of a bottom line, that’s not why we’re here.”
But the bottom might just fall out of the Byfields’ strategy. Like the Reform Party, the Byfields’ talent is often tarnished by their intolerance. Judy Rebick, host of CBC Newsworld’s Straight from the Hip and former president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, remembers AR as no more than a right-wing, redneck rag with a hate-on for the NAC. “At the time, it was considered to be very marginal,” she says, comparing the Byfields to the American religious right. “It turned out later to be basically in the vanguard of elite conservative thought.”
Despite their gaping difference of opinion, Rebick shared a laugh with Byfield the first night they met. “He came up to me and said, ?Hello Judy, I’m Ted Byfield. I’m your enemy.'” It was funny because it was true; to Rebick, Byfield represented the collapse of social welfare and the dissemination of hatred and prejudice. So she was surprised to discover that the two of them had a common complaint: political correction. “They have their issues and we have ours,” Rebick concedes, “but we both suffer from the same problem – the way in which only a certain spectrum of debate and point of view is legitimate, and anything outside of that spectrum is ignored by mainstream media.” This marginalization is the hook on which AR hopes to hang its ideological hat when it comes home to Ontario, by providing a social conservative voice in the newsweekly community. “What we try to do,” says Link, now sitting in the president’s chair, “is preserve a discussion, an awareness, a sort of mutual knowledge between those who are religious and those who are not, those who are pro-life and those who are born-again Christian, those who are regional in their outlook and those who are national in their outlook. There are legitimate points to be made by all concerned in these areas and they should be made. They have to be made.”
Byfield’s special brand of prescriptive journalism – defending his positions with a mixture of divine right philosophy and common sense – also earned him a reputation for prejudice and bigotry. “They say, for instance, that a bigot is a person who thinks he’s right and other people are wrong. Well, that makes us bigots,” he says, defiant. “Presumably, they, in thinking we are wrong to think this way, are bigots themselves, so none of this makes much sense.” Underneath the rhetoric, however, Byfield admits that he has made errors in both judgement and fact, errors for which he answers not only to readers and national advertisers, but to a greater power as well. He sighs and looks through the French doors of his office at the late-afternoon sunshine outside. He reminds me of someone’s grandpa, and indeed, a photo of assorted grandchildren sits proudly on the bookshelf among the encyclopedias and the C.S. Lewis. We can hear Virginia on the phone at her desk across the room. “I’ve done a lot of things that, uh, I’ve been unfair to people,” says Byfield, who makes open confession of his sins every Sunday. “This isn’t sort of parrot talk. There isn’t a week, no, scarcely a day goes by that I don’t go and do something I wish I hadn’t done, or failed to do something I should have done. And often that’s in a professional way.” Suddenly, and then only for a moment, Byfield looks his age.
by Carey Toane
Carey Toane was the Copy Editor for the Spring 2000 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.