Desmond Cole, the Toronto Star and Another Existential Crisis for Professional Journalism

DISCLOSURE: I worked as a mainstream news reporter between 2003 and 2012.

I see this as a two-fold issue; firstly, actions and secondly, words. I’ll consider both briefly and then elaborate on my concerns.

Actions

There is no point in rehashing here the now well-known details of what lead to Desmond Cole’s departure from the Toronto Star. The Star has doubled down on its position that it has concerns Cole, a Black journalist who has now fully embraced activism in the name of Black liberation, violated its newsroom policy of journalists “becoming the story.”

A couple of notes on the incident itself.

In defending its policy, the Star notes “a public meeting of a democratic municipal government committee discussing an important matter of public interest was brought to a halt as a result of Cole’s actions would seem to (emphasis mine) go beyond advocacy to an entirely different level of the journalist/activist becoming the story.”

Wait.

“Would seem to”? What’s the ambiguity here? Either Cole was reminded about newsroom policy or he was not (he was). Either he was called into an editor’s office because of concerns about protocol or he was not (he was).

And, let’s not pretend — despite the Star’s reassurances about this being a “cordial chat” and that Cole was not “disciplined” or “threatened with any consequences” — this was a meeting of equals. ANY worker (especially precarious freelancer)/manager relationship is highly unbalanced in favour of management. Also, what this meeting wasn’t, was a chat to congratulate Desmond Cole about a courageous stand on a social justice issue plaguing Canada.

Additionally, the Star argues that Cole’s “actions went further than whatever latitude to act as advocates the newsroom granted in the past to some former Star columnists, such as Catherine Porter.”

With no further explanation about why Porter, a white columnist, was not treated similarly, we are expected to merely accept the Star’s declaration as truth. Q.E.D.

So, the Star’s inability or unwillingness to interpret and enforce a newsroom policy that doesn’t pick and choose what amounts to winners and losers is highly problematic, to say the least.

I also want to broaden the discussion here.

Elsewhere, I have extensively interrogated the self-regulated ethics of professional journalism. There, I noted the three biases that underpin the profession, identified by media scholar Ben Bagdikian in The Media Monopoly:

  • “[P]rofessional journalism regards anything done by official sources — for example, government officials and prominent public figures — as the basis for legitimate news.”
  • “[P]rofessional journalism tends to avoid contextualization of the news it covers.”
  • “[T]here is a clear pro-business bent to professional journalism, which serves the aims of its corporate masters and advertisers.”

The existence of the first two biases in the Cole case can be fairly obviously identified:

  1. The Toronto Police Services Board is, in the Star’s own words, “a public meeting of a democratic municipal government committee”. It doesn’t get any more official than that. The disruption of a board meeting such as this, by any journalist affiliated with a professional journalism company, serves as a contestation of the very foundation of legitimacy for the gathering of news by professional news companies. It is an existential crisis that it’s fair to imagine most newsroom policy handbooks have overlooked.
  2. Cole names this lack of contextualization in his resignation post:
    “The Star invests heavily in reporters whose excellent work inspires much of my commentary on anti-Black racism and white supremacy in Canada. Yet it seems the Star is reluctant to invest in columnists who relentlessly name these racial power imbalances, who call out the political and institutional forces responsible for white supremacy and Black suffering (emphasis mine).” In other words, context. Cole is identifying context in his work. His attendance at the police board meeting April 20 cannot be extracted from the larger context in which Cole raised his fist and halted the meeting. He didn’t just attend a random meeting. This meeting, as Cole noted, was merely one more thread in the tapestry of racial profiling via carding that Toronto and Ontario have been criticized for during the past three years. Community rage at the discriminatory nature of random carding is palpable in Toronto. This is part of the context.
  3. The third bias, the clear pro-business bent, is less obvious in the Cole incident. However, it can be argued — as it will be in the following section — that the self-described core of Cole’s journalism is the interrogation of racial power imbalances, white supremacy and Black suffering and that is a threat to the ruling bloc’s cultural hegemony of the late capitalist status quo.

Words

In the Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno tell us that opposition to what they term the Culture Industry is futile, in that an all-encompassing commodification of culture will also incorporate that opposition.

Cole tells us that his journalism is that of a “very political and unapologetically Black voice.” It is obvious that among the reasons that he has entered into the relations of production is to shine a bright light on the “political and institutional forces responsible for white supremacy and Black suffering.” Cole, like so many other writers, but most relevantly here, Black writers and writers of colour, cannot merely opt out of late capitalism. If they are to enter, or be forced, into the relations of production, it makes sense that, like all writers, they will write about what stokes their fire. And, this is truly a righteous torch to carry.

These writers are often literally selling the justification of their existence into a society that has proven time and time again to be hostile to that existence.

And, this doesn’t even address the fact that many of these workers have been locked out of other options due to systemic prejudice(s) — or, that many women and men have been doing this type of labour for free on blogs, on social media and elsewhere with little to no recognition or appreciation.

And, to be perfectly clear: this is not the same tired old trope of activists getting paid to protest. This describes the forcing open of a labour market within late capitalism; again, an economy in which an individual, alone, cannot, at present, merely refuse to participate and expect to survive.

Implications

Ultimately, writers seeking liberation of any type, cannot escape their subjection to the totality of the culture industry’s form. The logic of the culture industry results in the writers becoming branded as the anti-commodity; a process of negative commodification imbued with notions of danger and rebellion. They become fetishized. During this fetishizing process, their material struggles for liberation become abstracted through words — often refereed through ‘style guides’, behaviour policies and other blunt disciplinary tools — and detached from the labouring bodies searching for liberation (this detachment of language from bodies is taken up extensively by McNally). It is, for the culture industry, quite inconvenient when those labouring workers reassert their physicality.

In order to survive economically, the writers, especially those particularly vulnerable to erasure due to their socio-economic location (such as those facing racism), become subducted beneath the political/economic mantle by the crushing forces of cultural hegemony. “Anyone who resists can survive only by being incorporated,” Horkheimer and Adorno tell us (104).

That is, until they step too far over the ruling bloc’s invisible (and ever-shifting) line.

Cole appears to have done this April 20.

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One thought on “Desmond Cole, the Toronto Star and Another Existential Crisis for Professional Journalism

  1. He was not a reporter. If he was a reporter he would have been way over the line. He was a columnist. His job was to express opinions. How is doing that outside his column a conflict with doing that within his column.

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