High-toned astrophysicists, whale watchers and classical violinists are thick on the ground at ideaCity, the clustering of overachievers at the St. Lawrence Centre in Toronto, so anyone who practices sleaze as a career comes to the conference anxious for self-justification. A founder of Vice, a Montreal magazine for the young and the horny, spent 20 minutes on Wednesday claiming that serving up sexy pictures, raunchy cartoons and racist comedy is really, when you come down to it, pretty damn noble.
Yesterday it was the turn of Michael Bate, slanderer-in-chief of Frank, a "satirical" magazine. Bate was certainly aware that many in the audience have known for years about Frank's spectacular record of incompetence. The editors not only can't spell names, they also miss what they most yearn to hit, the truly scandalous. If the CEO of Amalgamated Exploiters Inc. gets fired for rape, embezzlement, cocaine addiction and kissing girls at the Christmas party, Frank will triumphantly report the kissing and miss the rest.
But Frank's favourite targets are not CEOs; they're helpless and otherwise anonymous office workers who somehow annoy angry, aggressive colleagues. The colleagues then send vengeful faxes to Frank, which prints them in the hope they will interest someone outside the offices concerned. Frank's own soul is mean, and it both attracts and magnifies the meanness of others.
What is most remarkable about Michael Bate is that this record fills his breast with pride. He thinks he has done something fine for Canada. Making a rare public appearance at ideaCity, he smiled happily when the compŠre, Moses Znaimer, introduced him as the editor of a "scurrilous rag." Wearing a shabby dark blue suit, as if he were premier of a bankrupt province, Bate turned out to be a rather pleasant-looking, grey-haired man; you might imagine he's one of those wandering scholars, eternal assistant professors who never get tenure and never know why.
Talkers at ideaCity are told to come without prepared speeches, and most of them (even politicians like John Turner and Kim Campbell) comply. Bate read from a thick sheaf of papers. He gave the impression that what he had to say was too important to be improvised.
Establishing that he's as serious as any astrophysicist in the building, he opened with quotations from S›ren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, who hated all journalists, and A.J. Liebling, the great American journalist, who famously said that "freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one," a standard quote that Bate read out as if had discovered it the day before.
Soon, it became clear that we were in for a lecture on journalism from the editor of Frank. He took a lofty view of The Globe and Mail, for instance, expressing shock that the publisher there (according to Bate) vets all stories about the Globe. Bate expressed grave reservations about Conrad Black and the National Post, and went on to declare himself an enemy of "convergence" because, as he explained, it places too much power in too few hands. This was his most vigorous stab at originality.
A good reporter is always an outsider, Bate told us. This notion, cherished by a few outsiders, has, of course, no basis in fact. Bate cited as outsiders two non-reporters, the late I.F. Stone, a commentator who wrote critiques by studying government documents, and Hunter S. Thompson, a fantasist. These are the names most often mentioned in this context, mainly because there are no other notable examples.
Bate claimed good journalists have never been close to power, demonstrating that his views are uncontaminated by knowledge; the history of journalism pretty clearly demonstrates that the most admired journalists (from H.L. Mencken and Walter Lippmann in the United States to George Brown and John W. Dafoe in Canada) were on intimate terms with the powerful, and in some cases were themselves powerful. One journalist Bate quoted admiringly, Edward R. Murrow, maintained a platoon of political allies in England as well as America.
Bate's talk upheld Frank standards of thought and research. He told us, for instance, that it was wrong for Dalton Camp, Rex Murphy and Michael Valpy to run for public office. "Are they journalists or not?"
That's a typical Frank screw-up, a hopeless mixture of apples, oranges and pomegranates. Camp was a power in Tory politics before he wrote for the papers, and Murphy was running for office long before most people knew he could write. Only Valpy, a Globe reporter who stood for the NDP in the last federal election, provides a valid example -- and his single political run hardly underpins a generalization about anything.
Bate also expressed indignation about Adrienne Clarkson, a journalist, becoming Governor-General. And Allan Fotheringham -- why, Bate said, "Allan Fotheringham belongs to clubs!" Didn't say which ones.
Bate got his only good laugh when he read at length from Mike Duffy's examination for discovery in the libel action Duffy brought against Frank, claiming that Frank's nasty comments on him ("fat-faced liar," etc.) cost him the Order of Canada. Apparently, Bate considered this fresh material, since it has previously appeared only in The Globe and Mail.