Lost in Translation

By Max Fawcett | June 20, 2005

I can hardly believe that I’m writing this, but I miss Conrad Black. Not Lord Black of Crossharbour, who is a bloated, garish, and financially reckless man with a wife who makes those same qualities look good in comparison. I miss pre-nobility Black, the man who ran a newspaper empire with cunning, talent, and a clear vision of what he wanted his newspapers – half of all newspapers in Canada when he founded the National Post in 1998 – to say both to and about Canada. I didn’t agree with his intellectual vision then and I don’t today, but at least he had a coherent vision. The same cannot be said of his successors at the National Post, the national flagship newspaper that turned out to be his Waterloo.

More specifically, I miss Conrad Black because I know that even on his worst day he wouldn’t hire Rachel Marsden to write for his national newspaper. Rachel Marsden, for those of you who either can’t remember or don’t want to, made a name for herself by falsely accusing Liam Donnelly, the swim coach at Simon Fraser University, of sexual harassment. Donnelly was fired, then re-hired and paid $35,000 in compensatory damages by the university after it became clear that Marsden was lying. Marsden followed that up in 1999 by making similar allegations about another SFU faculty member, criminology professor Neil Boyd, and she was recently convicted of violating a restraining order placed on her by 52 year old Vancouver radio personality Michael Morgan.

Her most recent bit of negative publicity occurred over a public dispute over whether she quit or was fired by Conservative MP Gurmant Grewal. Yes, that Gurmant Grewal. While Marsden contends that she was both Gurmant and Nina Grewal’s campaign manager – they ran in the 2004 election in adjacent ridings in Surrey, British Columbia – Grewal insists that she was merely a volunteer who occasionally wrote speeches for him and his wife.

Marsden has, I suppose to her credit, parlayed this reputation into a career as a commentator on political issues in both Canada and the United States. She accomplished this, however, by appearing on shows like “The O’Reilly Factor” on FOX News in the United States and “The Michael Coren Show” here in Canada, raging about the Canadian left’s various misdeeds. She appeared in the 2004 “Babes of the GOP” calendar as Miss December, and until recently her personal website featured a lingerie-clad Marsden – well, not exactly, since she appears to have cut and pasted her head on top of a picture of Julia Roberts’s body (a convincing demonstration of this can be found at www.theambler.com) – along with other provocative pictures that surely titillate the grey-haired church going Republicans and Reformers that comprise the vast majority of her audience. That she has landed a twice-weekly column in the National Post – Wednesdays and Saturdays for those of you who haven’t yet discovered it – represents a major step forward in her career. It also represents a major step backwards for Canadian journalism.

Let me make it clear that I have no problem with national columnists who represent the conservative end of the political spectrum. The National Post already has in its employ two very talented conservative commentators, Andrew Coyne and Colby Cosh, who present their opinions with style, grace, and a healthy dose of the facts. Marsden, on the other hand, seems to eschew fact-based reportage in favour of what I call crash journalism. Her work is like a head-on collision; while readers may be alternately repulsed or outraged, the sheer spectacle of it compels them to keep reading. The publishers at the National Post must believe that controversy will sell newspapers, a lesson that they likely learned from the success of lifestyle columnist Rebecca Eckler and her loyal following of the amused and bemused. Where Eckler is outrageously shallow, Marsden is just plain outrageous.

Take, for example, a column titled “Oh, Kanadar”:

“Just ask former US Rep. Gary Condit (D-CA) — falsely implicated by his opponents and by the media in the murder of Capitol Hill intern, Chandra Levy, and now busy settling multi-million dollar defamation suits against media members while running an ice cream stand — what it’s like to get the “cutoff wave” from the electorate after they’ve cut your career short as a result of leaping to premature conclusions. It’s just like when you drive like a jerk and cut some poor guy off, nearly killing him, and then figure that it’s all good because you gave him that cute little wave in the rear view as you sped away. It’s like, “Whoops! My bad, dude. But oh well. See ya!”

The hypocrisy inherent in this passage – remember that she became infamous for ruining the reputation of Liam Donnelly and ultimately the President of Simon Fraser University as well – either doesn’t occur to or bother her.

Plagiarism is a funny thing, really. The past few years have seen a number of Canadian journalists, most notably the National Post’s Elizabeth Nickson, caught copying the work of others and passing it off as their own. Their intellectual dishonesty has been punished, and the state of Canadian journalism is all the better for getting rid of these phonies. Marsden has figured out a way to circumvent the plagiarism police: copy the style instead of the substance.

At some point Marsden seems to have looked at the success that American conservative pundit Ann Coulter was enjoying – massive book sales, columns in major newspapers and seemingly daily television appearances on FOX News – and decided to follow her lead. She’s done her best to replicate Coulter’s combination of physical attractiveness and aggressively conservative opinions.

The media “elites” are, according to Coulter, the source of much of the United States’s political, social, and cultural woes. Never mind that FOX News and CNN, networks that frequently host Coulter and her ideas, are unabashedly conservative in their coverage of events and the personalities that cover them. In Slander, Coulter observes that “the media elites covering national politics would be indistinguishable from the Democratic Party except the Democratic Party isn’t liberal enough.” In her June 16, 2005 article titled “The World According to Linda McQuaig” Marsden refers to the Toronto Star as “Canada’s Pravda”.

Both Coulter and Marsden share a common enemy, although Coulter describes them as “liberals” and Marsden as “lefties”. For both women, the enemy is spineless, weak, duplicitous, hypocritical, snobbish, and ultimately out of touch with “the common man”. Coulter goes so far as to compare liberals to the Ku Klux Klan, asserting that “with their infernal racial set-asides, racial quotas, and race norming, liberals share many of the Klan’s premises. The Klan sees the world in terms of race and ethnicity. So do liberals!” Marsden prefers to attack the left from a socio-economic perspective; in her June 16, 2005 column on healthcare she opines that “the most important thing is making sure rich people don’t cut in line—except to kill a fetus.”

While they regularly accuse “liberals” or “lefties” of being neo-fascist social engineers in their dogged pursuit of same-sex marriage and abortion rights, their attitudes towards conservative “purity” reveal fascist tendencies of their own. Coulter believes that “there is no surer proof of a Republican mediocrity than the media’s respect, “while Marsden observes that “Toronto has a special breed of lefty that Vancouver lacks in significant numbers: rich intellectual snoots who think they can buy their way into Club Conservative. Yes, I’m talking about you, all you Rosedale and Forest Hill elitist snobs with 20 letters after your name, who bastardize the “conservative” label.”

Both Coulter and Marsden dislike Muslims. Coulter, on her website, observed on April 16, 2004 that “when we were fighting communism, OK, they had mass murderers and gulags, but they were white men and they were sane. Now we’re up against absolutely insane savages.” Marsden is no less extreme in her June 1, 2005 column, as she argues that “some artist uses a crucifix as a swizzle stick in a vat full of urine, and Christians just roll their eyes. But suggest flushing the Koran — or even dog-earing a copy of Fodor’s Guide to the Islamic World — and the folks who cheered in the Arab Street on 9/11 take it as a green light to riot and blow up more innocent women and children.” I’m unfamiliar as to the location of “Arab Street” but I’m sure that Marsden would be more than willing to tell me. Right?

Ultimately, with both women it boils down to style over substance. Bryan Keefer of Salon.Com describes Coulter’s style as being defined by “some of the most consistently emotional, subrational jargon in national politics.” Two weeks after 9/11 Coulter observed that “we know who the homicidal maniacs are. They are the ones cheering and dancing right now. We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” The right-leaning National Review fired her shortly thereafter. She also lost a regular gig on MSNBC because she told a disabled Vietnam veteran that “people like you caused us to lose that war.”

Marsden, while not quite in Coulter’s league yet, also deploys emotionally charged, subrational jargon in her columns. Take this extended passage from her June 4, 2005 column, which captures the essence of Rachel Marsden as a polemicist: “Here’s a quick test to see if you’re a faux-con: Do you think I’m yelling at you right now? Do you find this column rude and obnoxious, to the point where you’re going to go to your champagne party tonight and tell all your friends how shocked and appalled you are? If so, then you’re either a faux-con or a liberal, because both believe in diluting and euphemizing straight talk into politically correct drivel. They need a zillion more words than the average person to get the same point across. Apparently it’s supposed to be a hallmark of intelligence and sophistication, but in reality, it just means that you’re a pretentious windbag pansy. This isn’t yelling. It’s called “talking like a normal person.” Put down the thesaurus and give it a whirl sometime.”

Charming, isn’t she?

But where Ann Coulter has succeeded – success being defined both by the hundreds of thousands of books that she has sold and the remarkable number of both loyal fans and vociferous critics – Rachel Marsden will fail. This is due in part to the fact that, like most imitators, Marsden doesn’t do justice to the genuine article. Marsden’s GOP skin rag appearance aside, Coulter is a bona-fide sex symbol to Republicans young and old. James Wolcott, a frequent contributor to Vanity Fair, describes Coulter as “the Paris Hilton of post-modern politics, an elongated zero, a white hot sex symbol symbolizing nothing.” The attacks that form the bulk of Coulter’s writing are more withering than anything Marsden has produced to date; the New York Daily News describes Coulter as a “human Uzi” and it fits her like the mini-skirts she is so fond of wearing.

The biggest difference between the two conservative fembots is their ability to manipulate the media, in that Marsden has little and Coulter is a professional. In her first mainstream national television interview with CTV icon Mike Duffy, Marsden haplessly plugged the National Post as a “cutting edge paper” before observing that the situation with Conservative MP Gurmant Grewal and Liberal operative Tim Murphy amounted to “people playing politics with a football in Ottawa.” Duffy was understandably confused by the football analogy. She proceeded to assert that either party could have “put down the phone at any time” when the conversations in question didn’t involve a telephone.

Coulter, in contrast, has appeared on a wide range of shows from CNN’s “Larry King Live” to “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson” in addition to her regular appearances on FOX News. She has sold hundreds of thousands of copies of her books Treason and Slander, and has been profiled by Time Magazine and less generously by Vanity Fair.

More philosophically, Marsden will fail where Coulter has succeeded because she lives in Canada. The United States is ten times larger than Canada and thus Coulter’s audience is, ipso facto, ten times as large as Marsden’s. But it isn’t entirely a numbers game. The United States is both decidedly more politically polarized and trapped in the midst of an increasingly rancorous debate over both the War against Terrorism and the War In Iraq. Ann Coulter, in spite of her factually deficient invective, can find an audience in that climate. Canadians, in contrast, are more moderate in their political affiliations and their dispositions. We’ve never been particularly fond of polemicists, and Canada’s pantheon of journalists and opinion leaders is filled with moderates like Barbara Frum, Peter C. Newman, Allen Fotheringham, Hugh Winsor, and Matthew Halton. Barbara’s son David, a Coulter-esque polemicist in his own right, had to move to the United States to find success. Marsden is thus a square peg in a round hole, a second-rate polemicist in a country that wouldn’t listen to a first-rate one.

So for those who worry that Rachel Marsden will become the next Ann Coulter, don’t. I suspect that Marsden’s tenure at the National Post will be a short one. She won’t sell any more newspapers for the Aspers, if only because Marsden posts her columns on her personal website on the same day that they are printed in the Post. She lacks both the skill of her role model and the receptive audience she would need to succeed if she had the skill in the first place. Canadians have never been particularly interested in shouting ideologues like Marsden, and that may prove to be her greatest miscalculation. It’s a miscalculation that Conrad Black, or any newspaper publisher who understood the business and the fact that a newspaper’s reputation is its most important asset, would never make.

Toronto, June 19, 2,314 w.


  • Max Fawcett

    Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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