The Sunday Magazine

The lessons we can learn from 'old school' journalism great Clark Davey: Michael's essay

"In the old growth forest of traditional Canadian journalism, the giants are falling one by one."
Clark Davey was a reporter, editor and publisher whose gruff exterior concealed a dedication to the principles of journalism. (Canadian Press)

It was a week choked with what we choose to call news: an incinerating political scandal in Ottawa that threatened the prime minister; tantalizing disclosures of money, lust and lying in Washington; the Hermit King and Individual One travelling to Hanoi to accomplish nothing.

It was the kind of week that would have driven Clark Davey to his knees in prayerful thanks to the finicky gods of journalism.

Cruelly, he missed out; he died Monday in Ottawa at the grand age of 90.

In the old growth forest of traditional Canadian journalism, the giants are falling one by one.

In December, Michael Maclear, the CBC correspondent who earned the enmity of Lyndon Johnson by reporting from North Vietnam at the height of the war. Then last month, the legendary CBC foreign correspondent Joe Schlesinger.

Clark W. Davey was a newspaperman, a title and category he gleefully inhabited for more than six decades.

He was Old School.

He came from a time when newspapers had money and resources, but newsrooms were the privileged fiefdom of white males in white shirts and ties.

He was, for 15 years, the managing editor of The Globe and Mail and for six of those years, my boss. He was one of those rare employers whom you approached with equal amounts of fear and respect.

I had worked on small town newspapers and it had been my dream to work for The Globe and Mail.

After weeks of trying, I finally got an appointment with Davey.

A bulky, owlish man he wasn't one for small talk. The first words out of his mouth were: "We don't hire anyone without a university degree."

I thanked him for his time and rose to leave. He motioned me to sit down. He asked me a few questions, then said: "You've got two weeks to show me what you've got." 

For Davey accuracy was the cardinal virtue of good journalism.

Davey could be intimidating. He had a death-ray stare through round tortoise-shell glasses that could curdle milk. 

When he fixed his gaze on me, I grabbed the phone and muttered something like "Of course, Mr. Mayor."

The Globe in the Sixties was a writer's newspaper.

Reporters were given time to work on stories. Context was crucial, but for Davey accuracy was the cardinal virtue of good journalism.

He could be cutting in his criticism when one of his reporters fudged a quote or got a middle initial wrong.

Incidentally, for years reporters thought his middle initial stood for Waldo. It was William. Waldo was his dog.

His greatest loyalty was to The Globe. He could never forgive any hint, however faint, of disloyalty to his newspaper. He nursed a particular pool of loathing for any Globe reporter who decamped to the Toronto Star for more money.

His newsroom was peopled by cranks, curmudgeons and crackpots; some of the most vivid characters on the planet.

For a cluster of reporters in our early 20s, it was the centre of our lives. Every day was different. The unexpected was expected.

One night some very large men in windbreakers walked into the newsroom to have a chat with the managing editor.

It turned out that a police reporter and a Report on Business editor were making a handsome living by smuggling drugs into the country in the bottoms of African statues.

The Mounties were there to make the arrests.

Davey apparently persuaded them to wait a few minutes until the first edition of the paper had been put to bed.

He could be brusque. But he had a sparkling sense of humour and a genuine concern for his people.

If someone was having problems with alcohol or money or great marital difficulties, he spared no effort on their behalf.

Once when I was in hospital hemorrhaging after a botched tonsillectomy, he told the paper's medical writer to call the head of the hospital and say The Globe was deeply interested in how I was doing.

Politically he was High Tory. Yet he never showed a particular fondness for any politician, except perhaps John Diefenbaker.

Davey often wondered why newspapers seemed to hire only left-wing reporters.

In a lecture in 1982, he said: "We employ journalists consistently somewhat to the left of centre. Half our readership supports what I would call conservative positions. Who in the media speaks for them? Precious few reporters or columnists, editors or editorial writers."

Davey's influence stretched beyond the confines of The Globe and Mail.

After he left the paper, he became publisher of newspapers in Montreal, Vancouver and Ottawa.

He was a driving force behind the establishment of the Michener Awards, which promote excellence in public service journalism.

To him, journalism was more than an occupation; it was a calling. He taught us that our only job was to discover on behalf of readers what Carl Bernstein has called "the best obtainable version of the truth."

Clark Davey taught me that journalism matters. And in the doing, he gave me a world.

Click 'listen' above to hear Michael's essay.


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