Seeking Attention and Finding It: Why the Globe and Mail Editorial Policies Have Come Back to Bite Them

"Not a serial plagiarist," Margaret Wente. What, exactly, does that facial expression say to you? Photo from the Globe and Mail.

The Globe and Mail has been taking a public whipping this week.

Rightly so.

The paper, which once prided itself on a higher-brow editorial superiority, has been recently pilloried for its lack of journalistic common sense and seeming disregard for integrity and accountability.  Journalists, bloggers, and social media types from across Canada have been gleeful in their denouncement of (alleged) serial plagiarist, Margaret Wente, house-selling pop-journalist, Leah McLaren, and members of the current editorial board.

And readers are wondering how things could have gone so bad so fast.

Here’s the thing, though.  The roots of the Globe’s editorial problems go back much farther than the recent outings of Wente, McLaren, and the current newsroom bosses.  Really, I don’t think you’d be remiss in saying that some of the current problems stem from before the hiring of these individuals, particularly the columnists in the deepest of hot water.

Let me ask you this: Do you think that the public backlash against the Globe would have been anywhere as dramatic had Jeffery Simpson been caught with some curiously absent quotation marks? Would Marcus Gee have had critics howling with such volume had he tried to sell his home via a newspaper column?

I suppose the short answer is that neither Simpson nor Gee would have placed themselves in that position.

The longer answer is that, by hiring writers that they knew would cause controversy, the Globe eventually brought the wrong kind of controversy upon themselves.  It was the early decision to move in this direction that caused for the current backlash.

Things were working out nicely when public anger and outrage were directed at the provocation of Wente, a professional contrarian whose raison d’être is to raise the ire of readers.  The comment sections hummed, return web visits soared as readers vented spleens, hearts, and brains at the wildly misanthropic antics of this cranky old boomer.

Leah McLaren's new home will have a pea-free mattress. Photo by Edward Sykes, The Telegraph.

Similarly, things couldn’t have been better when bitterness was aimed at the self-absorbed babble of McLaren.  People lined up to loathe what they saw as an oblivious sense of entitlement — a princess-pillow nepotism.

Unfortunately, anger and bitterness have this terrible tendency to spill over and around their intended targets.  And the practice of dealing in negativity is fraught with danger.

The Globe and Mail had no idea that Wente was going to (“allegedly”) start copping paragraphs, or that McLaren was going to shed the last of her journalistic integrity by shilling her property in print.  But I’m pretty certain they knew that they stood to gain/maintain readers by lowering the bar and going for the cheap and instant outrage that these two columnists represent.

And when things went wrong?  Well, the anger was already present.  The pump was primed, as they say.  The vitriol flowed.

The Globe was soon drowning in the pool of negativity that they, themselves, had produced.

I suppose the final question to be asked in all of this is: what impact will this have on the good ship Globe and Mail?  What will be the ramifications?  Will they be financial?  Will they lose readers?

My guess is no.  And my guess is that their guess is no.

The Globe editors have responded to each of these situations with a written equivalent of “my bad.”  Wente, apparently “disciplined,” hasn’t missed a day of work, while McLaren, who was hired while her mother, Cecily Ross, was an editor, sold her house later that week.  The official response from Public Editor, Sylvia Stead?  Oops.

Globe owners and editors know that people are going to continue to gnash their teeth at Wente.  They know that others will continue to roll their eyes at McLaren.  Things will continue pretty much as they did before.  Like the NHL, the Globe knows that the fans — or in this case, the haters — will keep on coming back.  And with print-sale revenues what they are, and budgets slashed, they’ll continue to roll out the journalism side-show.  After all, they’ve got to pay for the other content somehow. Besides, are any of the other papers any better?  Any worse?

The other readers, the ones who tended to ignore Wente and McLaren — and I place myself in this category — will also most likely continue with their subscriptions and web traffic.  As far as I can see, the other options for mainstream print journalism aren’t any more palatable.

But while the finances won’t be affected, the Globe reputation, and the reputations — whatever they may be — of the columnists and editors will surely take a hit.

Already, CBC has unceremoniously hoofed Wente from the Q Media Panel.  Meanwhile, every major media source in the country is lining up to take a poke at the paper that long held a pseudo-sanctimonious place at the top of the Canadian media mountain.

In the eyes of many, the Globe has become just another struggling newspaper.

Hanging on my its (negative) wits.

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