Saturday, July 03, 2010

Marci McDonald has some explaining to do

[Originally posted at Bene Diction Blogs On, May 21, 2010]

Over the past few days, various bloggers have weighed the errors that are in Marci McDonald's book, and whether they affect the validity of her argument.

Well, it can't help her efforts when she quotes someone and what was actually written is the opposite of what she says it was in her book.

Enter Terry O'Neill, conservative journalist. [And full disclosurewise, my former boss at the Report newsmagazines and someone I continue to greatly respect.]

Terry has always been interested in pro-life causes and volunteers his skills to a certain extent. Back on May 21, 2009, he wrote an op-ed piece for the National Post about the pro-life group Signal Hill in B.C.. The group had been commended by Preston Manning for adotping a new communications strategy of emphasizing "service education and compassion", "aiming, not for Canadian minds, but for their hearts."

He wrote, emphasis mine:

"....Pro-lifers in B.C., on the other hand, decided to adopt a different approach. Building on the success of their compassionate Foucus on Life television campaign, they made some creative changes last June. They adopted a new name, Signal Hill, and featured a woman-and-family-friendly look to their Web site and printed material. It all goes along with a new educational and service oriented approach to help women make informed choices when they are in a crisis pregnancy...."

I'll pause for a moment and note that we can logically infer that it was the biggest pro-life group in B.C., the one that can afford TV ads, that "changed its name to Signal Hill." O'Neill may have assumed that he didn't need to write the exact words "The Pro-Life Society of B.C. changed its name to Signal Hill" assuming that you can figure out what he means. "Oh, the main pro-life group in B.C. changed its name as part of doing this and this and..."

Terry, I hazard a guess, was trusting his readers' ability--as they weren't reading this in the Weekly World News ("Bat Boy endorses Signal Hill!" :) )-- to apply logic to what he was writing.

Enter Marci McDonald. In a chapter devoted to Preston Manning and his new role as a mentor advising the Christian right on strategy, she critiques my old editor on pages 119 and 120.

She's talking about Terry's op-ed, and quoting it directly, which--mark this--shows that she read it and had it at hand while writing her book.

I quote McDonald's book on page 119. Emphasis mine:

"....He [O'Neill] went on to recount how Manning had endorsed Signal Hill's new "third way" approach at a vancouver fundraiser, urging the audience to employ the tactical skills exemplified in his two favourite rhetorical themes: The wily measures employed by British abolitionist William Wilberforce and the repspectful cunning counselled in the parable of serpents and doves. Not that O'Neill himself needed such a nudge toward scripturally spired doublespeak. In his piece he neglected to mention that he was on the board of Signal Hill, or that it was simply a rebranding of a long-established anti-abortion group, The Pro-Life Society of British Columbia. "

I would suggest, as I noted above, that Terry explained that the Pro-Life Society of B.C. had changed its name without explicitly writing "Pro-Lifers in B.C., who are organized in the group the Pro-Life Society..."

But what of Terry "not mentioning" that he was on the board of Signal Hill? It certainly would be a lapse of journalistic ethics not to mention your own ties to the group, wouldn't it?

That's certainly what McDonald implies.

But what if that wasn't the case?

Unfortunately, Terry's op-ed of May 21, 2009, "A wise new strategy for pro-lifers" (Page A 18) is no longer available online. But you can still go down to your local library and pull it off their Canadian Newspapers computer database, using Pro-Quest software. As I did last night.

And do you know what I saw after I printed off the op-ed?

Well, Terry O'Neill, being an experienced journalist, realized that few people may read the biographical blurb at the bottom of his piece, and did this in the ninth paragraph of his piece--which is right after the paragraph I quote above.

I'll add emphasis:

"The Signal Hill moniker was chosen as a way of telling Canadians that the group intended to take the high road in the abortion debate and that it aimed to separate truth from falsehood. (Full disclosure: I sit on the board of Signal Hill.) Response in the Canadian pro-life community...."

Ooops. Guess he wrote of his ties to Signal Hill in a way that a careful reader wouldn't miss it.

Yes, I realize that writers do make mistakes. I do too. But this, I would say, is a serious one, as McDonald scores rhetorical points at Terry O'Neill's expense based on something that isn't so. (And I would like to think that even if I didn't know Terry, I would think this unfair.)

Well, you might say, McDonald is hurried, working hard, trying to meet a deadline. Mistakes happen.

But then I think of a blog entry that came out a couple days after Terry O'Neill's op-ed piece, at the blog Religious Right Alert.

The author is perhaps not a friend of pro-lifers and offered a critique of Terry's point of view.

The blogger, who posted "Preston Manning Fronts For Signal Hill Fronts For Pro Life BC" at Religious Right Alert began by writing this:

In Thursday’s National Post, Terry O’Neill published a fluff piece promoting a new pro-life group in B.C., Signal Hill. (He gets around to mentioning that he is actually on the board of Signal Hill, and therefore presumably playing the role more of interested promoter than critical columnist, only midway down the page, and his bio, characteristically, doesn’t mention the connection either.)

Yes, I do have my own bias. But I think that it would be very fair for a reader of her book to ask Marci McDonald, planning a major book on her subject, to read and cite her source materials at least as carefully as a blogger does.

Terry, in a letter to the National Post, gives his response to all this, but I thought it would be a useful exercise to get all the documentation in one place. And I bet that he may not know that a blogger was able to read his op-ed correctly at the time.

I'll also bet that Marci McDonald may regret her choice of words. "Serpents and doves", indeed.