One of the stranger moments in the trial arrived yesterday, when Maclean’s editor Ken Whyte took the stand as a witness for the defence. Today, as expected, Maclean’s blogger, and Whyte’s employee, Mark Steyn commented on Whyte’s performance as a witness. In short, Whyte paid Steyn to write about Whyte. The sheer craziness of all this amounts to what the rubes call “conflict of interest.” Even as I write this, I can see in my mind’s eye the postmodern media cognoscenti rolling their eyes and staring at their watches, all the while muttering under their breath, “Well, I suppose.”
The underlying idea is that anyone too stupid to realize that Whyte/Steyn/Black are predisposed to a certain world view—and that that world view is exactly what you’re paying for when you buy whatever it is they’re selling—probably deserves whatever they get. The same calculus was in play earlier in the week, when David Frum dismissed criticism that he should have more often revealed that he was at one time a consultant on Hollinger’s payroll, before he started trumpeting Black’s innocence all over his blog at the National Review. Frum responds:
“Disclosures can easily become silly and pedantic. Do I really have to mention that I used to write speeches for George W. Bush every time I write about him?
On the other hand, such disclosures can also easily miss the point. I have known Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel since I was a teenager. My wife was a copy girl at the Toronto Sun when Barbara Amiel was editor there. I have spent hundreds of hours over the years talking to Conrad and Barbara. I have seen them in prosperity and in travail, at their best and (since it happens to all of us) at their worst. I have heard every malicious story ever told about them—and I know also the record of their many, many unpublicized acts of kindness, charity and forgiveness. When I share with my readers my conviction that the criminally accused Conrad Black is an honourable man, I do so on the basis of three decades of my best attempt to understand one of the most consistently interesting human beings I have ever met. A documentary maker once asked me to sum up my verdict on Conrad Black. I said that I could only echo Samuel Johnson’s assessment of Edmund Burke: ‘You could not stand five minutes with that man beneath a shed while it rained without being convinced that he was one of the most remarkable men you had ever yet seen.’ How do I put that opinion between the parentheses of a ‘Full Disclosure’ clause?”
What Frum fails to address in this defence is, uh, the point. That Frum wouldn’t mind standing beside Conrad Black in a shed in the rain the reader is likely to figure out all on their lonesome. That he wants to do it despite allegations that Black bilked money from the same corporation that paid Frum tens of thousands of dollars is of interest, because it helps the reader decide what might motivate Frum to stand beside Lord Black in the first place. Let’s say that Black had, as Maclean’s suggested recently, stolen my favourite puppy from the front lawn of my house and slaughtered it, and I spent my days writing variations on the following theme: “I think Conrad Black’s views and ambitions mock most of what’s great about the country he chose to repudiate.” If you thought I wrote this venom for no reason other than my general misgivings and then discovered what he’d done to my dog, it might or might not change your interpretation of my critique. Point is, you’d be making an informed decision either way. At any rate, I won’t bore you with any more on this, except to quote another journalist who pimped for informed consent, Edward R. Murrow, and wish you good night and good luck.