A bad idea, badly executed
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 7 August 2004)

In wartime, even if the war involves only newspapers, it's treason to give useful advice to the enemy. But we should all break a rule occasionally and, after much reflection, I've decided to offer the managers of The Globe and Mail my solution to one of their urgent problems. They should award a substantial increase in salary to their editor-in-chief, Edward Greenspon, provided that he stops writing his Saturday column.

Greenspon's "Letter from the Editor," which appears in a prominent position on Page Two, may be the most spectacular example in current Canadian journalism of a bad idea badly executed. In the planning, it must have sounded like a useful little feature, a way to describe the paper's goals, praise Globe journalists, tell us how news coverage takes shape and make the editor himself more "human" by providing personal information, such as notes on his holidays.

But in Greenspon's hands the column falls on its face, every Saturday. While it tries to make the workings of The Globe interesting and impressive, it invariably achieves the opposite. The more enthusiasm Greenspon tries to generate ("Next thing you knew, we had an idea for another ambitious piece."), the less appealing the whole process sounds.

Editorial problems may excite him ("What to use as the main photo? And would we ... change photos between editions of the paper as better shots moved out of Boston?") but they're no fun to read about. They're dreary, even for people in the business.

In fact, Greenspon makes editing sound so deadly that it's as if he were trying to discourage the young from entering journalism. "Some days, the decisions are excruciatingly difficult," he says, and then he'll talk about something as mundane as choosing between a murder or a political convention for the most prominent front-page position.

The column also depicts Greenspon as a less attractive executive than he may be in reality. Speaking for the paper, he makes a painfully timid impression. In one column, he defined The Globe's political position as "generally tilting to the moderate centre-right."

That would be a clever line in the work of a columnist with a sense of irony, such as Rick Salutin, but I think Greenspon meant it seriously. The word for that phrase is mealy-mouthed. "Centre-right" already indicates political moderation, but Greenspon feels he must place the word "moderate" in front of it. He also says The Globe is just "tilting" that way. And in front of that he tacks on "generally," meaning no one is to take even his triple-layered avoidance of extreme views as always true.

The awkwardness of that description illustrates the column's central failing, its language. Greenspon has a good reputation as a reporter, but as a writer on newspapering, he's quickly established himself as a master of the thundering cliche. No declaration of principle is too shopworn, no formula too bland. He seems to believe he shouldn't use a word until it's been so extensively road-tested that it's lost all its traction.

Where do smart reporters spend some time during an election? "On the hustings." What kind of political debate does The Globe try to stimulate? "Rousing." What's it like to write anonymous editorials in the name of The Globe? "Sobering." What do the media deserve? "Scrutiny." In what mood did the normally Tory Globe turn against John Diefenbaker's government back in 1963? "More in sorrow than anger."

Self-importance, the sin that tempts all journalists, severely afflicts Greenspon. When he writes that, "We have been very concerned as a paper over the human catastrophe in Darfur," he leaves the impression that what matters about Darfur is The Globe's attitude to it.

He writes: "When I took over as editor in 2002, I was determined that the paper would be beholden to no party in its pronouncements." Nothing to argue with there, but the overly portentous tone weakens his statement. That retrospective mood would be more appropriate in the memoirs of someone who has held the job for 25 years rather than 25 months. And the archaic words "beholden" and "pronouncements" suggest a writer who is straining for a bogus grandeur.

Perhaps Greenspon will eventually decide for himself that Letter from the Editor should be allowed to die a just and quiet death, but my guess is that gentle management intervention will be necessary. Certainly it's not the kind of thing Greenspon's friends will ever suggest. In fact, my guess is that his friends long ago stopped reading his column.

Out of kindness.

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