Paul Wells, conservatism, satire, and Maclean’s footprint

Maclean's cover mash up of Conservative figures; Maclean's is right wing.

I like Maclean’s about as much as I like the National Post. They’re rightwing, partisan, and legacy. On my view they have courted hate and burned trust, undermining journalism along several dimensions.1

Also. I will admit it. I often don’t get sarcasm.2

A screenshot of the cover of Maclean's and a tweet by Maclean's magazine.

When I saw the “the resistance” cover by Maclean’s, I thought it was bad. I think their “resistance” cover fits a pattern of bad covers; they’ve even given covers to Mark Steyn and his fear mongering about Islam. The “resistance” cover plays to their base, and they can plausibly deny this to everyone else by claiming it’s satire.3

The broader problem is that Maclean’s has a track record of not understanding power. As an institution, they don’t get whiteness. They don’t get [toxic] masculinity. They don’t seem to understand the power and influence that the oil industry has in Canada. And they get roughly a million and half Canadian dollars annually from government funding.4

Yes, Maclean’s has some good editors and writers. But we have to understand the impact Maclean’s has as an organization with institutional narratives. We have to understand their aggregate effect.

I’m a fan of journalism, but not Maclean’s. I’m not even sure if it actually qualifies as journalism. Someone should check.

These are roughly my priors.

I was interested in how Paul Wells’ conversation would go with Jesse Brown regarding the “resistance” cover. It’s a good interview and I recommend a listen. It is probably too cavalier. Brown names this even as it’s happening.5

But there’s something else about Wells that grates on me.

I think it’s because he’s so cagey. I can’t tell when Wells is being sarcastic. Or ironic. I can’t tell when he’s being earnest. I know I’m sarcasm-challenged, but is it just me?

Is my skin on too tight?

He has an article about the climate crisis literally titled “Nobody should believe Canadian politicians who promise to fight climate change.” The article is trading in despair and flattening all political efforts to address global warming; it’s a master class in climate change obstruction – he’s literally turning readers against politicians who are trying to work on the climate crisis. It’s like he’s dead inside.6

On Twitter, when he’s on Twitter, he’s constantly making with the quips. It’s a snark salad. His pinned tweet from the era of the interview with Brown was, “I have no idea what is going on.”7

Maybe I shouldn’t believe anything Wells says about politics and climate change.

I did believe Wells when he told Brown that he signed off on the “resistance” cover. In fairness, here’s a list of things that Brown and Wells seem to agree on, and which I also agree with:

  1. Maclean’s has had covers over the years that have been disgusting (sexist, racist…),
  2. the cover from November 12th 2018 was mocked severely,
  3. Maclean’s is trying to engage Canadians on the level of popular entertainment,
  4. Maclean’s is failing,
  5. Maclean’s particular methodology of “story hustling” is not good,
  6. the term “the resistance” was co-opted, and Maclean’s showed poor judgment in using it,
  7. Wells had no idea the “resistance” cover would blow up,
  8. Maclean’s is right leaning partisan press.

Here are some things that Wells said that I doubt:

  1. Print subscriptions at Maclean’s are stable,
  2. For 15 years Maclean’s has been doing quite good work.

What Paul Wells didn’t tell us was if the cover was actually satirical. In fact, Brown asks him straight up if Maclean’s was trolling Canada, and Wells just refuses to answer the question. The closest Wells gets is when he claims that Maclean’s isn’t capable of being super earnest. But he’s not super clear. When describing which cover line he preferred, he contradicts himself. Wells chose not to use one “because it was too meaningless,” but he chose “the resistance” because it was the “most” meaningless.

It’s as if Wells’ words are meaningless. But for me the deeper problem is how he pokes fun at people who were perturbed by Maclean’s lack of understanding of power.

Wells goes on to suggest that heavily earnest writing can’t be nuanced. He claims that earnest news is uninteresting and “astonishingly predictable.”

Wells literally divides up the surge of critical covers, that mocked Maclean’s “resistance” cover, into two kinds claiming they were either super satirical, or super earnest: “The treatments that weren’t completely satirical, were incredibly, almost leadenly, earnest, you know. And one thing I just don’t think Maclean’s is built to be these days is leadenly earnest.”

It’s a fascinating rhetorical flourish, and one that positions his critics as nuance-lacking deadbeats.

Unless you’re The Onion, The Beaverton or Walking Eagle News, not-earnest is probably not the best brand for a media outlet. Or an editor.

On my view, it doesn’t matter if Maclean’s intended the cover as satire. What matters most is the impact, not the intention, of communication.

Most importantly, a news org has to understand, and demonstrate, a working knowledge of power. On this measure, Maclean’s has a terrible track record.

  1. Recurring caveat: they have some good editors and journalists. Andray Domise is great.
  2. I don’t understand dry. I have tried sarcasm over the years. I want to do it more. I aspire to be more jocular. I do. I consider my lack of nuanced understanding of sarcasm a deficit. I like The Onion. And I love Walking Eagle News.
  3. I was also reminded of the “Too Asian” article that Maclean’s published back in 2010.
  4. It’s remarkably similar to when Rex Murphy claimed that “Big Green” holds the power. Maybe the do “get” it. If so, they fail to demonstrate that understanding. They are defenders of the status quo.
  5. I’m a Canadaland supporter.
  6. “Nobody should believe Canadian politicians who promise to fight climate change: Most governments routinely blow their emissions reduction targets, punting solutions down the road. Why should anyone expect that to change?” By Paul Wells April 6, 2018
  7. Pinned tweet here.

1 thought on “Paul Wells, conservatism, satire, and Maclean’s footprint”

  1. Pingback: Journalism’s allergy to substantive regulation | Interrobang Magazine

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