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Paul Wells: ‘My bias is all in your head’

Wells puts Wells on the hot seat to answer the questions you have about his politics


 

wells on wells

Well, Wells, I see you’ve finally started campaigning openly for your favourite leader. At last the masks have fallen. The gloves are off. The die is cast. You’re nothing but a partisan weenie now. I always knew it.

Thanks. Happy to help. Now tell me who I’m supporting?

Come on. Isn’t it obvious?

To you, it clearly is. But I’m going to need some help. You see, every time somebody accuses me of partisanship, they accuse me of being in a different party leader’s back pocket.

You’re kidding me.

I am not kidding you.

Come on. Everybody knows you’re a Liberal!

Many people agree that I’m a Liberal. Unfortunately, many Liberals I know are pretty sure I hate Liberals. Also there are New Democrats who think I’m out to get them. Greens who think I’m trying to stop Elizabeth May.

You’re a lying piece of —

Careful.

— Sorry. But come on! I saw that photo of you with Justin Trudeau! Doesn’t that prove that you’re BFFs?

I have photos of me with Stephen Harper if you’d like to see them. Not particularly flattering to either of us.

Now you’re just clouding the issue. Everybody knows you’re campaigning full-time to get the Dauphin elected. Everybody knows you’re lovey-dovey with the Shiny Pony. Everyone knows you and Justin are sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-

Who writes your material? Seriously.

Don’t get personal.

My turn to be sorry. I get cranky when people accuse me of campaigning for any party leader. Let me explain why.

First of all, it’s not because I think it would be inappropriate to declare my full-throated support for any political party. I have a fancy title as political editor of this magazine, but I was hired as an opinion columnist. I am paid for my opinions. I am paid for a point of view. And my editors have this odd hang-up: they like it when I get opinionated. If I wrote a piece tonight explaining why Justin Trudeau must be the prime minister of Canada, there’s a good chance it would be on the next cover of Maclean’s.

So accusing me of being in the tank for someone isn’t a problem. It’s just that, since I actually don’t have a strong opinion about who should be the next prime minister of Canada, it bugs me when I’m accused of taking a position I haven’t taken. When I decide to whack the tar out of someone, I’m usually not subtle about it. If I was on the warpath against any party leader, you wouldn’t have to tease it out by reading between the lines for subtle hints and allusions. I’d be writing pieces with headlines like “Harper’s got to go” or “Mulcair must be stopped.”

When I decided in 2010 that the board of the government-funded NGO Rights and Democracy was running the organization into the ground while besmirching the name of a former R&D president who was not alive and around to defend himself, I wrote dozens of articles and blog posts in a rant that lasted two years, until the Harper government finally shut R&D down. When I decided in 2002 that Paul Martin was not a legitimate or particularly interesting successor to Jean Chrétien, I made enemies for life in the Martin entourage because I went on the warpath, and stayed there, for years. There was no subtlety to it.

So when somebody decides a little snark tossed off at their favourite leader is proof of a deep-seated Media Conspiracy, I feel under-appreciated. You think this is a warpath? Brother or sister, you haven’t seen me on the warpath.

And finally, the implication is that a nudge here or there from a columnist can actually change the direction of the nation’s democratic choice. I get a lot of, “You have a lot of power, and you have to use it responsibly.” In fact, I don’t have any power. (As a bonus, I find that being responsible is usually a poor choice.) Stephen Harper has millions of dollars, a more or less guaranteed slot at the top of the nightly news whenever he wants it, and hundreds of supporters and fellow candidates coast-to-coast to amplify his message. And even he can’t seem to catch a break these days. Something I write on Twitter will be read, typically, by about 1,500 people and forgotten by 1,400 of them within five minutes. That ain’t power.

Wait, back up. You say you’re paid for your opinions? But you’re also in charge of political coverage. Doesn’t that impose an obligation on you to be impartial?

No, because (a) I’m not really in charge of our political coverage, I’m mostly in charge of coming up with good ideas for our political coverage. My colleagues write what they want. I agree with some of it. They agree with some of my stuff. Not more than that. (b) We’re not the Supreme Court here. We’re a publication whose first obligation is to be interesting, and if that means being annoying, or maddening, or provocative, we’ll take it.

But you also moderated a debate! Doesn’t that mean you’re not allowed to have any opinions on any of the leaders?

If it does, I guess that was my last debate.

Canada's Liberal leader Justin Trudeau (2nd L), Green Party leader Elizabeth May, New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Thomas Mulcair (2nd R) and Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper (R) await moderator Paul Wells (L), political editor of Maclean's ahead of the Maclean's National Leaders debate in Toronto, August 6, 2015. Canadians go to the polls in a national election on October 19, 2015.  Mark Blinch/Reuters

Canada’s Liberal leader Justin Trudeau (2nd L), Green Party leader Elizabeth May, New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Thomas Mulcair (2nd R) and Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper (R) await moderator Paul Wells (L), political editor of Maclean’s ahead of the Maclean’s National Leaders debate in Toronto, August 6, 2015. Canadians go to the polls in a national election on October 19, 2015. Mark Blinch/Reuters

Okay, smart-aleck, if you’re so sure you’re allowed to say what you think, then why won’t you just tell us who you want to win the election? Come clean.

No thanks. First, I legit don’t have a strong opinion on the question of who should be prime minister of Canada this year. They are all imperfect. They all have their charms. But secondly, I’ve learned over the years that most of the time, my opinion about what should happen is the least interesting part of a story. The story is the most interesting part of the story.

What?

Well, take the long-form census. When Harper abolished the mandatory long-form census, I thought that was a really bad decision. But when I wrote my book about Harper, I decided that what would be way more interesting than re-litigating that debate would be to explain, at generous length, why Harper thought it was a good decision. That path took me to arguments in Canadian conservatism going back 30 years, to Margaret Thatcher’s government in the U.K., to an anti-census movement in the United States going back to Franklin Roosevelt’s day, and to rich themes in U.S. popular culture. Learning to shut up and take a back seat like that is a relatively late-breaking improvement in my journalism.

You sure talk a lot.

Well, you asked.

Yeah, and let me ask this while I’m at it: If you claim you’re not campaigning against my favourite leader, why does everything you write sound like you’re doing precisely that?

Because you’re reading it.

Bulldog ad_c

Wait — you’re saying I’m biased?

I’m saying it takes two to tango. Social scientists have known for decades about “hostile media effect,” which is the perception, among people with strong opinions on a subject, that an article they’re reading is a rank betrayal of the truth as they see it. As Lauren Feldman at Rutgers University has written, “This is a robust phenomenon, which has been empirically demonstrated in numerous experimental and observational studies across a variety of issue contexts.” Fans of a sports team read game reports as biased against their team. Israeli and Palestinian subjects read the same news article as a betrayal of their side.

I’ve literally never received an angry email from a reader who claims I’m too hard on the candidate they don’t like. I’m always too hard on their guy. Hostile media effect.

So if there’s nothing to accusations of bias, then why are you writing a long dialogue with a fake naive stranger to discuss all these issues?

Wait a minute. You’re fake?

Absolutely. I’m just a literary device. You’re basically imitating Allan Fotheringham and Dave Eggers by writing this way.

Busted. Anyway, to answer your question, I’m writing about these accusations of bias because every time election campaigns roll around, I get deluged with accusations of bias.

Because you’re biased!

Mutually contradictory accusations of bias.

Well, I can’t help it if those other guys are full of baloney.

Fair enough. The thing that fascinates me is, I get the impression that the explosion of multiple news sources, and their interconnection through social media, has led people to more quickly dismiss a source of news or analysis if it doesn’t match their world view. As though the 21st-century media explosion was a narrowing force, not a broadening force. It used to be (or so it seems to me) that the content and the expression were more important than whether a given writer agreed with you to three decimal places. Now that people can read anything, I guess they don’t feel like putting up with contradiction. I grew up reading, and admiring, George F. Will, Rick Salutin, June Callwood, Mordecai Richler, Andrew Coyne. I’m pretty sure there’d be a slugging match if they ever wound up in the same room together. That wasn’t a problem. Now that people can read anything, a lot of them seem to want to hang out with their own tribe and heckle the rest.

That’s too bad.

I’m glad we agree.


 

Paul Wells: ‘My bias is all in your head’

  1. Paul,

    I don’t think you are biased against any specific candidate. I think you are biased against anyone who you feel isn’t up to snuff. You’ve written about all of them, and when you call BS when you see it…you tick off those who are reading your stuff. Frankly, I think you feel superior to all of them…as do many other Canadians’ who have been watching.

    I’ve seen real biased journalism (well..opnions anyway).

    If your readers want to see real bias, tell them to read just about anything by Michael harris, or pretty much anyone in the TORSTAR. There are quite a few folks out there (I won’t call them your peers) who come right out and call for the ouster of Harper, or write about strategic voting to get rid of harper.

    I can see now that some journalists are starting to ask harder questions of Mulcair and Trudeau….but they haven’t really piled on yet; and frankly, many of them simply won’t.

    That means you (and a small few like you) will have to do it. Lord knows no one from the CBC or other “media” of their ilk will ever do it.

  2. Great article Mr. Wells on Mr. Wells, well put together. I never really thought you were ever bias, I just didn’t always agree with some your blogs, but as time went on from reading your blogs, I realized some of what you said I did agree with, but I was more impressed with how you handled yourself at the debate, I thought you were thoughtful, non partisan, astute, and very well informed of the issues that face this country, but I also understand you are a very good writer, not always fair as far as I am concerned, but definitely not bias. It’s a different world for reporters and journalist to work in these days with all the comment boards available for scrutiny. So I thought I would throw you a couple of bouquets today Mr. Wells, which doesn’t mean I won’t have my say, if I don’t agree, but I still respect you.

  3. Wells doing the Charlie Rose thing.

    Sheesh, you actually think your work on Rights and Democracy is a high point of your career? And due to your relentless work it was eventually shut down? seems to me David Matas, a board member was calling for that eventuality for quite some time beforehand.

    Some observations – if it was so seminal, why not one word of mention in your book about Harper (2nd one)? And when Macleans reformatted its webpage, all of the critical commentary in your two years of posts didn’t make the cut (were deleted) unlike other posts of the same era?

    Btw, I don’t think you are biased. Just wrong on occasion. And too stubborn to admit it.

  4. It might be revealing though Paul, that you felt the need to publish this weird unnecessary article.
    We’ll think what we think. True!
    But I was surprised that on your trip to the Harper campaign I didn’t think you picked up what a lot of other reporters (Fife, Ditchburn, Hall, even Ivison) were reporting. Namely that the campaign was in total disarray with infighting, anger, recriminations, demotions etc.
    I know Wells wasn’t at this meeting but Fife in the middle of one of Harper’s big announcements with crowds, wallpaper, cheering, pulled back the camera to show about 15 rows of people and a smallish room half empty.
    Also did you notice Paul, what we can see on TV, is that the background folks look dispirited, somber, wishing, they almost plead,could I just be somewhere else anywhere else?

  5. The tone Mr. Wells has given the imaginary questioner is pretty revealing. And what can you say about a guy who puts himself on the all-knowing side of an imaginary conversation and gives himself good reviews to boot?

    But I think an explanation as to how Mr. Wells missed the signs of a coming meltdown in Harper’s campaign, despite all the laughs they shared, would have been more to the point. Or maybe there’s 1,000 words to come about how some of us might think that’s interesting, but it’s not really interesting…and so on.

  6. Paul has given up waiting for the chess game to begin, and is auditioning for the Sgt Schultz role instead.

  7. I once accused Paul Wells of writing a lazy and sloppy bit of something… he apparently heard me say that he was biased. It was a confusing response but this odd bit of self-examination helps to clarify. Apparently he is surrounded by apprehended bias and must be ever vigilant against the slings and arrows of ungrateful readers.

    It must be exhausting. Just reading about it makes me tired and I confess that I gave up even before getting to the end.

  8. I have no doubt of Mr. Wells’ lack of partisan attachment. I believe his only bias is that
    common to the media mavens that are the legacy of the Black/Asper/Pelardeau wave
    in the past couple of decades. I’m sure he could tolerate/support anyone who showed
    the proper degree of enthusiasm for social moderation and fiscal conservatism. So.
    Worth reading mainly for the excellent wordsmithing. Nice hair though.

  9. Funny. Most of the time I find that Wells goes light on criticizing Harper.

  10. Interesting to see a reporter feel he has to do this.

    It’s clever to inoculate yourself against past — and future — criticism and charges that you are supporting one candidate by saying: “it’s all in your head”.

    So no matter what the reader infers as selective bias, it’s all in our head.

  11. What I found most interesting in this article is the statement that Macleans’ ” first obligation is to be interesting”. Not truthful or accurate or informative but “interesting”. It would appear this has become the mantra for all forms journalism biased and unbiased.

  12. I must assure you that I am not paranoid. However, having read your piece about Harper and security; and knowing how desperate he and his party are to get reelected; and knowing that it is most likely that his party will be headed for defeat, I have a dreadful prediction.

    Hitler was in a similar situation; and won election after burning down the Reichstag. I would not be very surprised if a small “terrorist” act would be arranged before the election. That would doubtless cause a flight of voters to Harper and ensure his reelection.

    As I wrote, I am not paranoid, and I do not think that this scenario is fanciful. Desparate But I wonder if anything can be done to mitigate the

  13. I pushed the wrong button and my comment was posted before I finished.

    I would like to add that desperate times require desperate acts, and there are many fundamentalists around who would do much to ensure success. I wonder what can be done to mitigate the dda age if and when such an event takes place.

  14. this is fake!? too funny. good article.

  15. We all know you’re biased. This is why journalism is dead, and you’ll be scrounging for a job at Fox News soon. It’s not that you ask Conservative’s tough questions, it’s that you ask nothing of anyone else. Stephen Harper is required to answer for his actions, his party’s actions, his staff’s actions every second of every day. Meanwhile Jughead and Mulcair-bear trod into ‘press conferences’ announce 40 bazzillion in new spending, with no agreement from the provinces…and the press dutifully nods their head and they march out. Same thing in the US with Barry…heaven help you ask a real question. Major Garret will be greased out by Barry’s hit squad goons in no time…

  16. Funny that ridiculous Hudak support column or your long term admiration for Jim Flaherty never came up.
    That is the tell.

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