Licia Corbella, Journalism Thanks You

Reaction to Calgary editorial writer's anti-harm reduction rant proves news still works in this country.

By Shannon Rupp 24 Jul 2013 |

Shannon Rupp is a contributing editor of The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

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A most invigorating fact-free piece of journalism. Mic photo via Shutterstock.

The kerfuffle over a Calgary columnist claiming Glee actor Cory Monteith's death was somehow caused by Vancouver's safe injection site is a reassuring sign that journalism still works in this country.

For someone who spends much of her time cursing the decline of journalism in mass media, and corporate newspapers in particular, it was almost heartwarming to see the scribes doing their job exactly the way they're supposed to.

And that includes Licia Corbella, the Calgary's Herald's much-mocked columnist. I know the people calling her dumb-as-three-rocks do not want to hear this, but Corbella did us all a great service. She created a news hook on which far better reporters and columnists could hang informative, thoughtful copy about drug addiction.

She is the perfect example of the argument that 17th century poet and philosopher John Milton made in Areopagitica: that we should encourage free speech because in the marketplace of ideas, good ideas will drive the bad ones out.

And that is exactly what happened. Shortly after Corbella's column hit the interwebs Friday morning, and the Twitterverse went crazy, journos all over began setting the record straight.

Reporters fire back

Over at the Globe and Mail, Wendy Stueck interviewed Patricia Daly, chief medical health officer with Vancouver Coastal Health, who called the Calgary columnist's views naïve and ridiculous. Daly discussed the site's success, which has been well documented in medical journals.

In the Tyee, Bill Tieleman's fine column supplied us with the facts that ought to have been in Corbella's screed. For example: despite the size differences, Vancouver has fewer deaths from overdoses than the Fraser Valley or cities like Baltimore, courtesy of Insite.

At CKNW Simi Sara did an entertaining interview that also enlightened her audience about acceptable standards in journalism. The Herald's columnist wrote that it was easier for Monteith to get drugs in Vancouver because of Insite, and Sara asked what Corbella's editor should have asked: How do you know? And we got to hear Corbella respond with all the wherewithal of an ignorant, defensive teenager.

This one is pretty funny, as Sara keeps pushing Corbella to provide evidence and the latter falls back on gossip, hearsay, and her skills at eavesdropping in a Japanese restaurant some years ago. It's well worth a listen just for the Colbert-like comedy of it all.

I particularly enjoyed the bit where Sara points out that Corbella based her column on strangers she had overheard chatting and asks if she considers that good journalism.

"Yeah, I do actually," Corbella says. "And you know what, just so you know, about 15 minutes ago I got a letter..."

Then she reads a long-winded email, supposedly from a reader, which fits her own beliefs perfectly. It's quite the eye-opener, although perhaps not for the reasons Corbella might have hoped.

Closing the echo chamber

Many other writers weighed in and all in all, I learned a lot about Insite, harm-reduction generally, and all sorts of other stuff -- which is unusual at the height of silly season. Summer generally brings us stories of superhero movies and people frying eggs on sidewalks.

I even learned something about Calgary. Like it or not -- and many commenters at the Herald appear not to like it -- she is the voice of Calgary. Or at least a large swathe of that community. She is the editor of the Herald's editorial pages as well as a columnist, which means she oversees and approves the views of others, too.

Although Corbella hails from Vancouver and studied at Langara College's two-year journalism program, her Linkedin profile tells us she has lived in Calgary since at least 1993 when she joined the Calgary Sun, a tabloid that rarely lets the facts stand in the way of a good rant. She also writes for Cardus, a Christian think tank "dedicated to the renewal of North American Social Architecture." (Lord only knows what that means.)

While I think of Calgary as a smart, progressive city with the country's most dazzlingly capable mayor, Naheed Nenshi, Corbella's fanciful views reminded me of an older Calgary. The one that was home to Bible Bill Aberhart, the radio preacher who founded the Social Credit Party in the 1930s and eventually became Alberta's premier. I thought that era of fundamentalist religion mixing with politics had passed, but Corbella's column tells me that, tweeting mayor notwithstanding, the old Calgary is still alive and well. Still pushing ideology over information. And still surprisingly influential.

So the Twitterati can rage against copy as badly written as Corbella's, but I think that misses the point of news media. Newspapers ought to be open to a wide range of views, not an echo chamber. Now, I know that as readers we all think that columnists should deliver what is "oft thought, but ne'er so well said" -- by which we mean our own views, better written. But in a democracy we need to hear what the nitwits are thinking too. And what better columnist to be the voice of moralizing nitwits everywhere than Corbella?

She did a bang-up job, despite what the readers demanding her firing think. Her bosses at the Herald are probably thrilled with the traffic she pulled too.

Milton's delight

Still, she's been whinging about the online attacks, so let me be among the first to thank Corbella. Before her brouhaha I had no view on the harm-reduction site. But now I do, courtesy of all the coverage and particularly a think piece by a National Post writer: "You can't get clean if you're dead."

Chris Selley takes Corbella's factual error -- that Insite was responsible for Monteith's access to drugs -- and asks if that would be such a bad thing. What if we did have a harm-reduction clinic distributing pure, pharmaceutical grade heroin? That would reduce one of the greatest risks for street drug users and ensure that their poison couldn't be cut with actual poison.

"It's safe to say, a lot of people, celebrities and otherwise, would be saved," he writes, and cites some supporting research.

It's a fair point and I'd never considered it before. Corbella's column stinks of moralizing masquerading as morality, but if the goal really is harm reduction for people suffering from a disease, then maybe we should be distributing clean drugs along with clean needles. It's both the moral and the compassionate way to deal with the problem. And it's cost-effective.

So for me, that's the outcome of Corbella's fact-free column: I'm about to add my voice to the lobby for decriminalizing street drugs.

That wasn't her intent, of course. And I can't help but think that would have delighted Milton and every other writer who has ever argued for freedom of speech.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Media

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