The fall and rise of Evan Solomon
The fall of Evan Solomon was brief.
On June 9, the CBC fired the pundit and host of Power & Politics and The House within an hour of the Toronto Star’s investigative report that he’d purportedly used his position to broker art deals with Jim Balsillie, co-founder of Research In Motion and Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England without disclosing he was being paid fees to make the connections.
Within two and a half hours, Solomon had released a statement via his lawyer stating that he “did not view the art business as a conflict with my political journalism at the CBC and never intentionally used my position at the CBC to promote the business.”
“I have the utmost respect for the CBC and what it stands for,” he wrote.
And just like that, the cognoscenti of all things parliament – a shoo-in for Peter Mansbridge when the aging anchor retired – went dark; a brief supernova of scandal and sorry statements sucked into the vacuum of silence.
Well, there was a little wave at a Star reporter from his kitchen window and thumbs up, but other than that nothing, nada, zilch.
For a week or so the media obligatorily picked away at the edges, analyzing and re-analyzing, poring over emails between Solomon and Toronto art dealer and partner Bruce Bailey, using clandestine code names for Carney “The Guv” and Balsillie “Anka” (for his resemblance to the Canadian singer crooner).
But Solomon stayed quiet.
The CBC issued a statement that it had already been considering letting Solomon go prior to the report, that despite the fact “Evan had disclosed in April that a production company he owned with his wife had a business partnership with an art dealer” they had determined via their own review “that Evan’s activities were inconsistent with our conflict of interest and ethics policies, as well as our journalistic standards and practices.”
And still, Solomon stayed quiet; until the public got bored, until every ethics professor had stopped responding to emails from journalists looking to examine and re-examine the issue, until the conversation shifted, until he became just another in a long line of TV personalities – Leslie Roberts, Amanda Lang and, at the extreme end, Jian Ghomeshi – who’d made the news this year for shrugging at standards and eschew ethics.
In contrast, maybe what Solomon did wasn’t so bad after all, just a little lapse of judgment, a deviation into the parallel reality where ethics are certainly a nice-to-have in journalism but not a necessary foundational bookend of the craft, the public seemed to decide.
It ran this way, this life cycle of a scandal, in just a few weeks because within two months (nearly to the day) Solomon penned his first column for Maclean’s, a magazine which, by the way, had run a lengthy feature on his betrayal of ethics.
“The basic consensus we came to here at Maclean’s was that he had made a mistake had admitted to that mistake and understood that mistake,” Mark Stevenson, editor-in-chief of Maclean’s told Yahoo Canada. “We had to balance that and get reassurance – I thought, well, why not give him a second chance and make him a part of our coverage for the election.”
The next day, August 6, satellite radio company, SiriusXM Canada aired Everything is Political: Campaign 2015, Solomon’s new radio show.
“He acknowledged, not just to me but publicly that he regretted what had transpired and we took him at his word for that,” explains John Lewis, senior vive president of programming and operations at SiriusXM Canada. “The programming committee and I didn’t feel it was something that impacted his on-air journalistic capabilities so we’re prepared to accept that he had done something he was uncomfortable with and had apologized and was deserving of an opportunity to move on.”
Again, Solomon’s fall was brief.
“Should Evan be kicked out of journalism for life because he was moonlighting as an art-dealer? I don’t think so, and it seems that a lot of people feel that such a consequence is overly punitive and unfair,” Jesse Brown, media critic and host of Canadaland told Yahoo Canada. But Brown inviting a source to meet to discuss a story and then quietly brokering an art sale with him is a “pretty serious little scandal for a journalist.”
Brown says he’s offered Solomon a chance to come on Canadaland to chat about the breach of ethics but so far hasn’t had much luck.
“Evan needs to account for it head-on and talk about what happened and why he feels people should trust him again,” he says. “I’ve told him so and invited him on the show – he hasn’t said no, but I guess we’ll see.”
Strategically speaking, Solomon’s silence has played a big part in his expedited reputational rehabilitation.
“I think sometimes the best advice is to say nothing at all – to go dark and be silent,” says Darryl Konynenbelt, media lead at high stakes communications firm Navigator Ltd. “I think that was a wise thing to do.”
It gave the scandal time to chew on itself, to burn out.
“What comes back is the story that he is now again in the spotlight with a new show, suddenly he becomes a touch-point again for those political audiences,” he says. “Obviously there’s a brand and people like him and see the mainstream appeal, that’s the new story, the new narrative.”
In a sense, it’s become a selling point. It’s one of the reasons Bob Ramsay slated Solomon in for an upcoming Ramsay Breakfast, part of a speaker series that has included voices like Malcolm Gladwell and Brent Hawkes.
“It wasn’t despite the recent controversy it was because of it,” Ramsay told Yahoo Canada. “He’s also back in business likely because his was a venial sin and not a mortal one.”
Ramsay’s line of thinking seems to fit with the rest of the choir: he did it, he admitted it and it’s not so bad.
But make no mistake, says Konynenbelt, it’s a shadow that will likely follow Solomon no matter where he ends up.
“I think this is something that will probably always be next to him,” says the media-training advisor and crisis management expert. “People make mistakes and they make choices but it’s how you recover from those choices and how you act and learn from them is what changes the conversation.”
Solomon is a charming guy who knows how to make deals and how to be likeable. His time on Power & Politics proved he was a well-connected journalist and a captivating commentator. And there’s no doubt he has paid a significant price for his mistakes, says Lisa Taylor, a lawyer and assistant professor of journalism at Ryerson University.
“There was a loss of face publicly, a loss of a job where he was someone appeared to be a golden boy at the CBC and probably had brilliant opportunities ahead of him there so he sure as hell didn’t leave this unscathed,” she says.
But is it enough to earn back the public’s trust?
“If other organizations want him and they want him knowing full well that he did commit a significant ethical breach, and their audiences know that, then I don’t see a problem moving forward,” says Taylor. “It’s nice to live in a world where many of our missteps allow for new chances, even if they are slightly different chances.”
But it’ll be a crawl going forward says Allan Bonner, a crisis management and media relations expert who has been following Solomon’s return closely.
“It’s slim pickings out there – a Maclean’s column and Sirius and maybe some TV gigs on CityTV – you see him start cobbling something together and maybe that works and maybe he teaches,” says Bonner. “It’s a slow road back… but it’s going to be hard to match what he had.”
Bonner says he wouldn’t be surprised if the CBC offers Steve Paikin the spot vacated by Peter Mansbridge’s retirement.
“That might free up Steve Paikin’s position at TVO and as a public broadcaster that might be perfect for Evan,” he muses. “Or it is entirely possible Global decides to go to a full week thing, a political show or maybe Gord Martineau retires (from CityTV) – I’d keep my eye on all this stuff.”
But a second chance, says Taylor, should come with the caveat of full transparency going forward for Solomon.
“If I were a committed, serious listener of XM or a committed reader of Maclean’s I would be expecting a pretty full and frank explanation of what happened,” she says. “Some very public acknowledgment from him saying yes, I was wrong and here’s why I did it and more importantly, these are the ethical standards I’ll go forward with – moving along and talking about the election seems to have a left a missing piece.”
Letting it hang does a disservice to journalism and the public’s perception of journalists, says Taylor.
“One of the overwhelming things I saw post-Soloman was ‘what journalist wouldn’t do that?’ ” she says. “I think there’s an awful lot of people in the public who think journalists trade on their name all the time to get perks and to get freebees.”
It’s something that Jennifer McGuire, general manager and editor in chief of CBC, alluded to in a memo sent to staff after Solomon’s firing.
“People have questioned the integrity of our news. And that of CTV, Global, NBC, and ABC. Despite this, it is worth nothing that the vast majority of working journalists are as honourable and honest as we want them to be,” wrote McGuire. “But the sad reality is that any ethical lapse reflects badly on the entire profession. A journalist wrote this week that television news ‘is shooting itself in the foot.’ It’s time for every single professional journalist and media organization to stop providing ammunition.”
At a time when blogging is ubiquitous, when anyone can start a podcast and reach the public without ever committing to any sort of code of ethics, the brevity of Solomon’s fall and rapid rehabilitation runs the risk of sending the wrong message to both the public and newsmakers, says Taylor.
“The ethics of it all are more important than ever,” she adds.