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Columnist-Candidate, June 1968 « Douglas Fisher



Columnist-Candidate, June 1968
In early May 1968 Fisher became the NDP candidate in York Centre. An editorial in the Telegram welcomed “journalist-politician Doug Fisher back to the political wars” saying, “The journalist-politician is by no means a rarity in Canada. The Telegram a few years ago had three members of its staff, plus Mr. Fisher, running in one election.” The editorial criticized “the attitude of the CBC in forcing announcer Bruce Rogers to resign because he is seeking an NDP nomination…the normal course would be to grant an employee leave of absence to campaign.”[278] Former Toronto mayor, Phil Givens, had to give up his radio talk show on CHUM to run for the Liberals. He complained:

    If I was writing for a newspaper the (Telegram columnist) Douglas Fisher is – he’s writing on political matters everyday – that would be okay” Mr. Givens said, “But because I work for a radio station, I have to go off the air.[279]

With less than a week to go in the campaign the Toronto Star filed a report, “York Centre has Big Panda Fisher worried,” on the Fisher campaign.

    While Fisher’s colleagues on newspapers, radio and TV confidently mutter, “Fisher will win, his strategy team has an estimate the win will be by 800 votes.”
    “You know, the recognition isn’t very high,” he says. A strange comment since his face is a familiar one on TV tubes and his column runs in the Telegram. “But out in that area,” his pointing finger points north, “the Star outsells the Tely five to one.”
    If elected, Fisher will probably end his column, he says, after the NDP makes a decision in caucus. He admits candidly that he wants to concentrate on his House of Commons job as a full-time career…I also have ambitions,” he says frankly. One is a determination to be in the leadership race to replace T.C. Douglas, who is expected to retire next year.”[280]

While Fisher campaigned, he continued to write his column with Crowe. How did that column report the federal campaign? What disclosure was used to tell the reader that one of the tandem was a candidate? How did it compare to other political columns in the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail and his own paper, the Telegram? Columns written between June 17 and July 2 were reviewed to gauge the coverage.

Before looking at Fisher-Crowe I will review the Globe and Star columnists.

The lead columnist for the Globe and Mail was George Bain. He wrote 11 columns that ran on the editorial or opinion pages of the paper. In the days leading up to the election Bain assessed the campaign in Saskatchewan predicting the Liberals could pick up 3 or 4 seats there. He filed a piece on Liberal ads that the Conservatives had complained about and the next day Trudeau announced the ads would be pulled. Over the next two days he wrote columns based on an interview with NDP leader Tommy Douglas. His column on June 22 endorsed Trudeau. “Unless every sign is misleading, the Liberals, led by Pierre Trudeau, will form the government after Tuesday. That, for quite a while, has seemed from here a desirable result.” The June 24 report was one of Bain’s “Letter from Lilac” columns, a tongue-in-cheek piece about the campaign. Then, on election day, Bain again predicted a Trudeau win as a “virtual certainty.”
The day after the election Bain’s column, “Like Wow” reviewed the big Trudeau victory but observed that Atlantic Canada was “immune” to Trudeau. The next day he assessed the impact of the results on Stanfield and the Conservatives. June 28 found Bain warning the new MPs that being a back-bencher is not a ticket to fame. “If, when you look for an apartment, you say, ‘I am a member of Parliament,’ the best you can expect is a look of glacial disinterest.” The final Bain column in the period reviewed was a look at what the Trudeau cabinet might look like.

Anthony Westell wrote three page seven pieces. The first on June 18 looked at the Douglas campaign and the other one before the election was a companion to Bain’s Trudeau piece on June 22. Westell discussed Stanfield’s effectiveness as a candidate and his need for a bit of the Trudeau charisma. The day after the election Westell’s analysis piece looked at the immediate job ahead for Trudeau. Reporter John Burns landed on page seven with a piece on the big Trudeau rally at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto. If one includes those four as columns the Globe ran a total of 14.[281]

In the Toronto Star Peter Newman, the “Ottawa Editor,” was the lead columnist over this two-week period. However Newman only filed five pieces, four before the election and one in the week after. The Star played Newman twice on page one giving his reporting greater prominence. The first time was on June 18, the day after Stanfield’s major rally in Toronto. Newman was there and painted a bleak picture of a badly organized rally and noted, “Every time he speaks, it becomes more obvious that Robert Stanfield suffers from a grave political liability: The grief of non-communication.” Two days later Newman was on page seven with his take on the Trudeau rally in Toronto that he called “some kind of public rite, new and strange to the Canadian electoral process.” Newman couldn’t resist comparing the two rallies. “Stanfield came and departed in the dark. Trudeau arrived in the sunlight at City Hall.” His longest piece ran in the Saturday Star, again on page 7. Like Bain, Newman assumed a Trudeau win and concluded:

    As this campaign comes to an end, deep psychological and historical tides are running in this country. We may be on the verge of a wholly new alignment of the political forces that will shape the destiny of the second century.

The day after the election Newman was again on page one declaring Trudeau had won “a mandate to settle the national unity crisis in Canada.” His final piece ran the following Saturday and outlined the “sophisticated scientific business techniques” that the Trudeau government would rely on. Newman wrote Trudeau’s advisors “will help decide whether Pierre Trudeau’s dramatic intention of launching a new era of participatory politics in Canada remains a hopeful slogan or becomes a vibrant reality.”

The Star used a series of pieces by political scientist Peter Reigenstreiff and an opinion piece by the CBC’s Larry Zolf but its only political columnist was Newman.[282]

At the Toronto Telegram Douglas Fisher and Harry Crowe had 12 columns and all played on page 7. During the campaign Fisher and Crowe decided to use some of their columns to give individual candidates a platform for their ideas. During this period four columns were given over to this, two candidates were Conservatives and two were New Democrats. After the election, in a column on July 2, they said they “realized toward the end of the campaign that the format was confusing many people…Therefore, the way in which the guest columns was presented was inadequate.”

Compared to Bain and Newman, Fisher and Crowe were far more critical of Trudeau and the Liberals. The column on June 17 made three points. First it used direct quotes from Liberals Mitchell Sharp, Eric Kierans and Paul Hellyer and Trudeau on the issue of Quebec’s status in confederation. They went back to the leaders’ debate and translated one of Trudeau’s comments in French reporting that, in French, Trudeau was not against special status but against “too much special status.” The column also supported an economic figure used by Tommy Douglas during the debate that had been challenged. Finally they criticized the Liberal position on labour. On June 19 Fisher and Crowe picked the same topic as George Bain; the full-page Liberal ads alleging Robert Stanfield “supported two nations and special status for Quebec.” The piece repeated some of the points they had made only two days earlier including the Trudeau statement in French in the debate. “The explanation is that the Liberal Party has two policies – one in Quebec and another in the rest of Canada.”

On June 24 an attack on Trudeau is front and centre in a column headlined, “Trudolatory- politics of the claque.” An interview with Conservative strategist and candidate, Dalton Camp, was the vehicle to bash the Trudeau campaign. “What would he (Camp) think of the teeny-bopper in politics? Or of that disquieting arrival, the press bopper.” The column used a series of quotes from their interview with Camp but they saved room for their own take. “It is suddenly as though we didn’t need a Parliament or a government, or a set of policies. Leadership, crowdmanship and faith will suffice.” The column, the last before the election, didn’t predict a Trudeau win instead it simply assumed it. Fisher’s chief opposition as a candidate was the Liberal Party. Bain and Newman endorsed Trudeau but Fisher zeroed in on the Liberals and Trudeau time and again.

The day after the election the column began with the Trudeau win, “he had about 15 more seats in him than we had expected,” and declared Trudeau’s “hands are less tied than any other PM in our history.” Unlike Bain and Newman, his first post election column included references about the impact of the results on both the Conservatives and the New Democrats. June 27 found the pair appraising “the list of elected and re-elected members.” Throughout his career as a columnist Fisher always made space to reflect on the make-up of the backbench MPs. On June 28 the column focused on labor issues and potential strikes facing the new government. Finally, on July 2, in a column called “Where we went wrong in the election,” Fisher and Crowe considered their coverage of the campaign. “We made mistakes in judgment. We spent too much copy on Mr. Trudeau’s constitutional view, too little on the pattern of the campaign.” This self-criticism of too much time spent on policy led to “our failure to locate, define, and measure the Trudeau sweep.”

Fisher and Crowe spent considerably more time on policy than either Bain or Newman. If the four issue columns by candidates are added than the focus on policy is markedly higher than any of the other political columns including their Telegram colleague Lubor Zink. With Zink’s columns added to the Fisher – Crowe tally the Telegram ran 24 columns showing a far greater commitment to the political column than either of the other papers reviewed.

What is striking is that in the days leading up to the election there was no disclosure, either by the editors of the Telegram or by Fisher, of the fact that Fisher was running for office. Tom Kent says the Telegram was at fault in this. “If they failed to tell the readers then I think they were deficient in the proper job of the media.” He maintains disclosure, even in the media environment of 1968, was required. “I would have expected it at any time. I would have thought that any less than that wasn’t playing fair. The reader is entitled to it.”[283]

After the election Fisher mentioned his role in the July 2 column. “The one of us who was a candidate kept getting letters and phone calls.” July 3 saw Fisher and Crowe continue their critical self-examination in a column called “We flubbed as pundits and politicians.” Fisher, who placed a distant second in the election behind the Liberal, James Walker, reviewed his campaign. He did it, as he had as a MP, the participant making his observations with the insider’s take on what happened. For the first time he had to report his political defeat. He took his reader through the campaign explaining the strategy.

    We had no choice but to base our campaign on thorough canvassing, three complete ones in fact, carried out by some 350 canvassers…each visit of the canvassers centered around a specific piece of literature…while the relationship in numbers between “positive” votes for us against “hostile” votes for the other candidates was fairly good, two other categories were large and baffling. These were the “possibles” and the “uncommitted.” The third canvass was showing that over half the electorate fell into these categories.[284]

Fisher had hoped to parlay a win in York Centre into a run for the leadership of the NDP. Instead he headed back to Ottawa still the participant-observer writing the column and now developing a sports policy for Canada.

278.Toronto Telegram, May 8, 1968, pg. 6.
279.Globe and Mail, May 24, 1968, pg. 8. Note: The CRTC ruled Givens could not continue his program while a candidate.
280.Toronto Star, June 21, 1968, pg. 9.
281.Globe and Mail, June 17 – July 2, 1968
282.Toronto Star, June 17 – July 2, 1968.
283.Kent interview, April 1, 2009.
284.Fisher and Crowe, Toronto Telegram, June 17-July 3, 1968, pg. 7.

©George Hoff