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Political Columnists « Douglas Fisher

Fisher

 

Political Columnists
Before turning to the journalism phase of Fisher’s career it is important to set in context the role columnists played in the mid-sixties. The point has already been made that for most daily newspapers the Ottawa based political column was still a new addition to opinion pages. There were only a handful of regular columnists and few syndicated columnists available to readers across Canada. Peter Newman was the most widely read columnist in the country. By the end of the 1960s “his columns appeared in 30 newspapers, reaching two million readers.”[246]

In the 1960s American journalism professor Ben Bagdikian wrote a series of articles for the Columbia Journalism Review about political columnists. In the first article he said newspapers felt a need to present “the other side” and the columnist did that “as the news became more complex, as educational levels increased, so did the use of the political column. With it grew its role of counter-balancing a paper’s editorials.”[247] Another journalism professor, Eugene Webb, wrote, “it is the columnist’s role to express opinions and to his elite position is attributed power and prestige.” Webb quoted the American columnist Russell Baker that columnists are “…the lordly Brahmans, the high priests to whom great men look anxiously for omens of approbation or disfavor”[248]

Some of this happened in Canada as well. Paul Rutherford, professor at the University of Toronto wrote:

    After the mid-1950s, the big city dailies shed their penchant for social trivia, cut back on the coverage of world affairs, beefed up their surveillance of the local and national communities, and expanded their editorial and opinion offerings.[249]

David Taras, professor at the University of Calgary said in Canada:

    Critical journalism began to emerge in the 1960s. The premise behind critical journalism is that journalists, as professionals and as delegates of the audience, have an obligation to comment on as well as report the news.[250]

It is difficult to assess the importance of Canadian political columnists then or now. More than 20 years ago Lloyd Tataryn, in his book, The Pundits, wrote:

    Every columnist interviewed while collecting material for this book agreed that, on the whole, whereas the vast majority of the (New York) Times’ columns deal with issues, Canadian columnists overwhelmingly focus on political personalities.[251]

It is useful then to turn to an editor of the New York Times, Lester Markel, writing in 1962.

    In too many newspapers the editor has surrendered to the columnist. People seem to require opinions for prestige reasons and, more often than not, these opinions are borrowed. So they are likely to turn to their favorite columnists who are, even if inaccurate, always positive. The columnists supply light in limited degree; but they do not take the place of the old-fashioned hard-hitting editorial page.[252]

One of Markel’s examples of the time was Walter Lippmann and his “cerebral group” of readers. Lippmann was widely used in Canadian newspapers and Markel noted that syndicated columns “cannot be written in community language or from a community viewpoint.”[253]

246.Desourdie, Todd, A Study of the Cyclical Nature of Prime Minister-Press Gallery Relations, 1963-88, MA Thesis, University of Toronto, 1997, pg. 17.
247.Bagdikian, Ben, “How newspapers use columnists”, Columbia Journalism Review, Fall 1964, pg. 20.
248.Webb, Eugene, “One way to tell a columnist”, Columbia Journalism Review, Fall 1962, pg. 23.
249.Rutherford, Paul, The Making of the Canadian Media, (Toronto, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1978.pg. 88.
250.Taras, David, The Newsmakers, (Toronto, Nelson Publishing, 1990) pg. 54.
251.Tataryn, Lloyd, The Pundits, (Toronto, Deneau, 1990) pg. 150.
252.Markel Lester, “The Real Sins of the Press,” Harper’s Magazine, December 1962, pg. 87.
253.ibid.

©George Hoff


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