What to do when the boss has a dumb idea

Paul Wells on self-censorship within news organizations


A few days before the 1995 Quebec secession referendum, the Montreal Gazette’s publisher, a wonderful man named Michael Goldbloom, took it into his head to run a front-page editorial in French explaining to the province’s majority why we were pretty sure No was the way to vote this thing. Several staffers sat around marvelling at this vision: a front-page editorial in the language we didn’t usually publish stuff in, signed by the boss of all of us. We huddled around a computer terminal, poring over his gentle, insistent argument.

There was a mistake in Michael’s French.

I forget what it was. Subject-verb agreement, or something similarly trivial. We sat around trying to figure out who would tell the big boss he needed to give his French a quick edit. “I’m not going to do it,” said one wide-eyed reporter. A few others voiced similar sentiments. Fix the boss’s French! Finally I said we were being silly. He’d be angrier if we ran this thing with the mistake than if we helped him fix it beforehand, and I was the guy who told Goldbloom he needed to add an ‘e’ to his adjective or whatever. Of course he fixed it immediately, thanked me offhandedly and didn’t think twice about it. But that instinct — the unwillingness to stand up to one’s employer, even if it might objectively do everyone some good — well, we’ve all seen that before.

And so we come to Jonathan Kay’s excellent column about the folly of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. It’s possible to read it and still believe a human-rights museum in Winnipeg would be an excellent idea, but that’s not the likely conclusion. Your likely takeaway would be that this thing had White Elephant written on it from the start.

Anyway, there was about a second’s gap between the voice in my head saying, “Hey, Jon, good column” and the voice saying, “I notice you didn’t write this during the decade when people named Asper ran the paper.” 

During the Asper decade, the National Post was the go-to paper for fun! upbeat! cheery! stories about what a fine idea the Asper Foundation-backed museum, brainchild of the late Izzy Asper, would be. On Feb. 16, 2005, for instance, readers found news of a poll saying a whopping 70% of Canadians wanted the federal government to contribute to the museum. And what exquisite timing! The last-ever budget of a Liberal government tottering on the brink and eager to please would have been mere weeks away.

I hasten to add that a quick Infomart search suggests Jon Kay didn’t write any of those happy-happy pieces, or anything else on the museum project before this year. He either thought it was dumb back then too, or thought nothing of it; either way he kept his counsel. But it’s a bit late now to point out that $100 million is a shaky investment of taxpayer funds. And the thought didn’t appear to occur to anyone when the Post was running news stories declaring the boss’s museum a national priority.

I don’t want to be too cheaply smug and morally superior here, because if I did, I would be Norman Spector, and that thought is simply unbearable. Of course employees are reluctant to displease employers. Employers can fire your ass. Worse, they can keep you around and let you twist while your career goes nowhere. Spector, who’s been really good at criticizing former employers long after he left their employ, would know something about all this. But I digress.

Early in the Aspers’ stewardship of the Post, David Asper wrote a column asserting that the Post’s coverage of the so-called Shawinigate affair was mean and unfair to poor Jean Chrétien. Ken Whyte wrote an editorial saying, No it’s not. Not very long after that, Asper fired Whyte and replaced him with a perfect non-entity. I had the luxury of quitting that gong show and coming here. Too many of my friends didn’t. They had to draw the logical conclusion: the bosses really liked a free hand, and they would not be cool in dealing with uppity help.

This tension between employers’ ego and employees’ instinct for self-preservation exists everywhere. There are workplaces where it’s relatively undramatic. If a waiter thinks the chef-owner makes a lousy flan, he can simply recommend the profiteroles and shut up about the flan. At news organizations it’s more dramatic. Did a bunch of Maclean’s bloggers defend Rogers’ right to employ usage-based billing last year because Rogers owns Maclean’s? I really doubt it. I’m pretty sure Andrew Coyne says what he thinks. But we should not have been surprised that so many of our readers viewed these stances on this policy question as self-interested. I kept shut about the whole thing, telecomms billing not being one of my areas of interest, and was pleased not to have to choose between upsetting the bosses and looking like their lackey.

Anyway, examples abound. Find a few of your own! My point is that humans write these stories and humans’ motives are sometimes mixed. Do read Jonathan Kay’s very good column.


What to do when the boss has a dumb idea

  1. I’m pretty sure you’re drunk but I’m not sure just how drunk…

      • Do you want to be?
        I’ll buy, and I’ll listen more than I talk.

  2. Heh…it’s called ‘solidarity’, Paul.

  3. Kay’s column was an excellent column. 

    And it is interesting that a 100 million boondoggle has attracted very little print, yet a $1250 hotel room has attracted an entire forest of newsprint.

    $100,000,000 : nothing of interest
    $1,250 : a scandal of epic proportions

    • One word : e n t i t l e m e n t

       It’s the bane of “accountability”

      • And you think there’s no “entitlement” involved in a $100,000,000 slush fund?

        And secondly, you think it’s entitlement for the minister of defence to stay at the hotel where an international conference is being held, rather than a motel 6 down the road?

        Thirdly, the minister would have to live at that hotel for 220 years to waste the same amount of money (and that’s assuming that a 2 century stay would not entitle him to a discounted rate).

        The $5 of my tax money wasted on the museum bothers me much more than the 1/50 of a cent of my tax money spent on the minister’s hotel stay.

  4. Andrew Coyne whined about Brad Wall defending Potash Corp and Saskatchewan, yet never once suggested that the foreign ownership restrictions on telecom companies (like Rogers and its competitors) be removed.  

    When arguing that BHP should be permitted to loot the provinces of Saskatchewan’s finances, Andrew Coyne never once mentioned that Rogers was protected from foreign takeover.

    Coyne has worked essentially his entire career for companies protected from foreign takeover (newspapers, telecom/media companies), earning higher salaries as a result of that protection, and yet he constantly whines about dairy and poultry supply management, which is really not any different.

    His principle seems to be that foreign companies should be allowed to take over any Canadian company or industry except the ones the he works for.

    Where would Ontario be if the banks, telecom companies, media companies, the CBC were not protected from foreign takeover.

    Potash just had the wrong address and Andrew didn’t work for them.

    • Columnists in Canada earn a higher salary because they have to negotiate the sale of their labour against a tight oligopoly of protected media barons? Warning: don’t do economics after drinking paint thinner. (You’ll notice, if you thought about the issue for a second or had any first-hand experience of it, that editorial labour at newspapers isn’t protected by Cancon rules; Coyne’s new employer makes heavy use of op-ed content repurposed from U.S. papers for a handful of centimes.
      And while the self-interest of rational media workers favours getting rid of cultural protection, there’s a good reason to consider an established, objective statutory regime less objectionable than a case like PCS in which the rule was made up as the government went along.)

  5. Tolstoy ~ And yet in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself.

    Canadian culture – Canadians seem to think they are great and it is everyone else who is problem. Canadians like to boss others around but do little themselves. And identity politics is quite strong – can’t be critical of numpties who decided to build a National Museum in Winnipeg. Who goes to Winnipeg for culture? 

    Also, proper criticism has mostly been removed from Canadian msm. Journos can be mildly snarky, it seems, but it has been long time since msm org caused real harm to pols, bureaucracy or private businesses. I regularly read UK and US msm and criticism appears there that wouldn’t be published in Canada. There are constant scandals in UK and US that Canada doesn’t have and it is not because Canadians are morally superior beings who never do anything wrong. 

    It is normal human nature to not constantly criticize your boss – most people don’t willingly make their life harder than need be – but other journos should pick up slack. It is all well and good to criticize Kay for not writing column while Asper controlled paper but we also have journos at TorStar, Globe/Mail, Maclean’s and dozens of local papers. 

  6. Except for money issues the problems outlined by Kay could be solved by giving the museum a particularly Canadian slant, focusing on the plights overseas that have brought immigrants to Canada throughout history, some of our own darker days (from Duplessis’ anti-Jehovah”s Witness measures, to the “none is too many”-ism after WWII and Jason Kenney banning the veil)  and highlighting the absolutely stellar work done by our human rights commissions – hell, you could fill the ACC with corrections to Ezra’s “Shaekdown”.

  7. I realize it is was tangential to the rest of the piece, but I particularly enjoyed the elegant drive-by on Spector.  Once I stopped laughing, I wondered if Hitchins was perhaps dead wrong. Perhaps his spirit is floating about elevating nasty bits of prose to art.  It was a nice Christmas thought I thought.

    • Elegant? It’s just a continuation of his twitter fights – we’ve seen it before, here.

      Let’s keep in mind Wells affectionately still refers to Conrad Black as “Boss”.

      • That would be a really excellent point if he had been my boss at any point since 2001. 

        • huh?  You complain about Spector lacking loyalty to his former employers. I presumed you were referring to Mulroney, for example. Which was before 2001.

          • Oh, so it’s just another case where you missed the point.

          • Gratuitous comments have no point.

  8. Human beings strive to enable each other to save face.  We cover up for other people and then cover up that we are covering up.  On the whole it is a pretty useful strategy.  Exceptions being airplane cock pits, NASA (“Should we tell them about the O-rings?”) and operating theaters – here politeness is deadly.  Most other places, politeness isn’t life threatening, just very expensive.  More expensive than the alternative?  Given that the alternative is barbarism or enlightenment^, I’m going to have to go with politeness.*

    *In theory, that is, as I am often quite rude.  
    ^Barbarism is might makes right. I am not so mighty.  Enlightenment?  Well we’ve been waiting a bloody long time for that, eh? 

  9. A.J. Liebling, anyone ?

  10. The most obvious example is Steven Harper’s PMO — (actually I doubt anyone in government at or above the deputy minister level, and certainly no member of the caucus, dares confront the dear leader).

  11. I enjoyed Jonathan’s column yesterday and Paul’s response today — some great columns to take us into the holidays. But in fairness, Izzy Asper was not a newspaper man, in the sense that Conrad Black was/is, wouldn’t you say? Run a column contradicting Black and he would, I imagine, make it a point of honour to refute, in his own words. Not just fire you. 

    • Or perhaps prescribe the judicious use of a horsewhip.

    • Black — sorry, the boss — had a long history of writing letters to the editor when he didn’t like what someone wrote, to get his viewpoint on the record without restricting the writer. 

  12. I guess you’ve highlighted Aaron Wherry’s courage, every day, truth to power, pretty much alone in that endeavour.

  13. Sorry, but this just seems like a vehicle for Mr. Wells to puff himself up with drive by smears of other journalists.  You want to take other journalists to task for their practices?  Fine.  There are lots of examples.  But provide some reasons and specifics.  The jab at Spector is just cheap.  Inside baseball stuff.  Comes across like gossip about friends/colleagues at the bar.  

  14. Coyne is not in favour of the CBC running on public money yet he himself gets paid by the CBC for appearing on At Issue. Selective thinking, the lot of them!

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