Steve Paikin: a play-by-play on the sport of politicking
Partisan politics are alluring, but not for Steve Paikin. On a growing list of issues, Canadians retreat to the safety of their echoey political tent, emerging only for brief combative exchanges. While everyone likes to watch gladiators spar, democracies need to make decisions.
When debate springs loose, Steve Paikin can be found centerfield heading the negotiating table. Most often, that table is at TVO, where he hosts The Agenda, a nightly current affairs program that brings competing Canadian voices together to tackle the divisive issue of the day. Guests have names like Steven Pinker, Salman Rushdie, Bill Blair and Irshad Manji, and run the political gamut from Gail Dines, a “slut walk” activist, to Shabir Ally, an imam concerned about sex-ed reforms.
“Paikin has made use of his experience rubbing shoulders with Canadian giants”
Not always on the outside of politics, Paikin is sometimes right in the middle. Since 2006, Paikin has served as the moderator for three federal and three Ontario leaders’ debates.
Even when he steps out of the ring, Paikin has made use of his experience rubbing shoulders with Canadian giants, having penned four books on politics. He’s also written one on sports, one of his passions.
Before landing in the host seat at The Agenda, Paikin was a Toronto city hall reporter on CHFI, a host on CBC Newsworld and co-creator of the foreign affairs television program Diplomatic Immunity.
Oh, did I mention he used to write for the newspaper, too?
Sitting down with Paikin, things begin to make sense.
His office is filled but organized. You’ll find sports-related chachkis scattered among hardcover books on the history of politics and the art of its maintenance. The collection on the bookshelf behind his desk shows an inquiry into Canadian values without a palette for political colours.
As we begin, Paikin makes it clear that politics is not just a topic at the armchair, but something he has lived from childhood. Sitting in the middle of the office, he explains: “I’ve been sort of interested and around politics for a lot of my life. I think my parents get a lot of credit or the blame for that.”
It’s true. Having been appointed to Governing Council at the University of Toronto by a Conservative government, his mother Marnie Paikin was no stranger to party politics. But she did not simply toe the party line. “I was at [The] University of Toronto in 1981; there was an Ontario election in 1981.” “My mother had accepted an appointment to Governing Council from the Conservative government, she gave money to Stewart Smith—who was the Ontario Liberal leader ... and she voted NDP.” As he finishes his story, Paikin smiles as if just noticing his mother's perfectly tricoloured complexion.
Needless to say, when it came to his mother’s politics, the eggs were not in any one basket. As for what this means, Paikin’s assessment is simple, “I grew up with politics that was very hard to pigeonhole.” Having been pulled in a few different directions, Steve’s politics were suspended somewhere in the middle.
“ 'I can't recall an issue that was boiling when I went to university that I was willing to die for!' ”
Perhaps it's in the Paikin family cooking; Steve explains that his son “Zach stuck his toe in the water, I guess, [as a federal candidate in a Hamilton riding] for the Liberal party in the leadup to this federal election.” Taking on a delicately euphemistic tone when referring to Zach’s somewhat rocky withdrawal from the race, Steve simply says that he “ultimately decided not to run,” shedding partisan ties in what Zach described as a “principled decision” in an online post in mid-March.
“I have always encouraged my children to be involved in politics,” he says—but his drive is certainly not borne of a wish to be followed in lockstep. Paikin’s early adulthood bore little resemblance to his son’s. Whereas Zach focused on politics, the electoral scene was relegated to Steve’s periphery.
Asked why, Paikin blames the zeitgeist, saying, “When I went to university it was a particularly apolitical time.” Not wanting to leave this seemingly-thin excuse blowing in the wind, he adds to his answer, “I can remember soldiers going onto a campus in Kent State, Ohio and killing four students during a Vietnam protest.” Driving it home, he makes his implication clear, stating, “I think that scared a lot of people off … I can't recall an issue that was boiling when I went to university that I was willing to die for.”
“Fair enough,” I hear myself say, running through a long list of modern ‘Kent States’ in my head—politically-oriented violence carried out during my (and Zach’s) undergraduate years. “Right.”
LOSING THE JERSEY
Paikin admits he wasn’t “emotionally politically engaged” in his university years. His passions were thrown in a different direction. He traded campaign colours for team colours, of which he said, “I don't think I read the ... front section of a newspaper ... I read all the sports sections, I just lived breathed and ate sports all the time.” From this starting line, his career kicked off before he even saw the agenda.
“'[the newspaper was] one of the most influential and important experiences I had going to U of T, for sure'”
“I went to Hart House on clubs night—this was in August of 1978—and walked in there and saw … something for U of T radio, and a lightbulb went on….” That lightbulb stayed lit, because Paikin was a regular on the air, a varsity sports commentator alongside Michael Landsberg, now host of TSN’s Off The Record.
Far from his destination in current affairs, tinges of Paikin’s later-renowned objectivity made a telltale appearance. As I go over his history with Landsberg, Paikin jumps in, “I did play-by-play, he did colour.” Today, while his subject may be different, Paikin still leaves the colouring to other voices.
Connecting the dots, Paikin calls to mind the second stop in his early career: the newspaper, where he edited the sports section two years in a row. Misty-eyed at hearing the name, I push for more. Paikin opens the floodgates, saying, “[it was] one of the most influential and important experiences I had going to U of T, for sure, great collegiality burning the midnight oil at the wee small hours of the morning putting the paper to bed.” Joining the final dots, he adds, “Given what I do today it was kind of essential training.” Sitting back in my chair, I get the picture.
“'Our governments are getting dangerously close to being non-representative and/or illegitimate.'”
Drifting onward in his career, Paikin paraphrases a few decisive words he received from the editors of The Hamilton Spectator, “‘You know how to cover sports … so we’re going to let you specialize in everything except sports.’” Not being one to jib from challenge, Paikin accepted. Making sure I noticed the watershed implication, he adds, “That’s what really turned me on to news and current affairs.”
He adjusts his hockey-themed pullover, and I glance at the bookshelf behind him.
In the years since he worked at The Spectator, Paikin shed his apolitical skin, but the non-partisan sinew remained, of which he said, “I think some people define their politics by [a] partisan label and that’s fine … [but] there are other people, I guess like me, who don’t…” With a slight air of exceptionalism, he adds, “We have an open mind about things.”
Proudly free of party affiliations himself and having not felt “the need to sign on anybody’s dotted line,” his prescription to Canadians is different. “I don’t care what party you get involved in, just get informed on the issues and volunteer. There is no campaign that will turn down free contributions from students.”
In his first book, published in 2001 and titled The Life: The Seductive Call of Politics, Paikin draws from his discussions with Ontario leaders to tackle a single question: what compels politicians to public service? His answer isn’t easily distilled, but he sees one ingredient as indispensable: a sense of duty to represent the people.
As Paikin continues, it strikes me that his call for young people to become involved may be in the same vein, saying, “19% of people gave the Ontario Liberal government 100% of the power.” A man with his finger on the pulse of Canadian politics, he cuts to the heart of the issue, “Our governments are getting dangerously close to being non-representative and/or illegitimate.” He pauses, and then adds, “That concerns me.”
ON THE BENCH
“A much higher percentage of men seem to plan their entrée into politics,” Paikin writes in his first book, “Not so for women.” These words were uncontroversial when first read in 2001, taken as a mere observation.
“'There are a lot of explanations that women give that men don't give...'”
Paikin did not get the same reception when he noted a similar difference between the sexes in a blog post for The Agenda last March. “No man will ever say, ‘Sorry, can't do your show tonight, I'm taking care of my kids.’” He continues, “Women use that excuse on us all the time.” Two weeks after the post, NOW Magazine was on the offensive, writing “Paikin’s blog reveals his sexist stripes.”
As I finish recounting the controversy, Paikin injects a sense of proportion. “There was a lot of foofarah around that column.” Continuing, he stands behind his words, saying, “There are a lot of explanations that women give that men don't give in declining,” but is clear that he is not blaming women. “We’ve had to figure out how to deal with that.”
In fact, he sees the criticism as a catalyst to a more progressive commitment to representing a mix of Canadians, “A lot of other different groups... helped us in that regard,” but Paikin admits, “it’s hard.” Nonetheless, the team at TVO worked towards a solution. “Today,” Paikin says, “we have the best ratio of males to females on any program of this kind in North America.”
Remembering Paikin’s earlier conviction on the importance of drawing young people into political life, I ask the obvious. In response, he said, “Fraser, let’s be honest for a second: every current affairs show in North America is looking to find the next brilliant 30 year-old who can opine about what's going on in Ukraine, okay? ... These people don't grow on trees.” I suppose Paikin, too, is waiting for young people to get engaged.
“Right, yeah.” I say, but not affirmative.
ON THE GOAL
“We have a crisis of [youth] political participation,” Paikin reiterates, in a tone that tells me the topic is familiar. But before I can dismiss him as an old fogie rambling about “kids these days,” he adds a fresh nuance, acknowledging “a peripheral engagement in politics” among young people. “They may join an NGO or they may join a volunteer group,” he allows, “but they’re not getting actively involved in politics as they once did.” Presumably, that was sometime between his “apolitical” undergrad years and mine.
“'... if after four times asking you, I don't get an answer, you’re not going to [give] an answer, but then everybody can see that.'”
“It’s not a lack of involvement, it’s a lack of engagement.” As one of the loudest voices in Canadian political media, Paikin doesn’t shy from his own implication. “It could be that the lack of engagement comes because too much of media focuses on the irrelevant,” he adds.
Paikin concedes that “it’s sort of titillating and entertaining,” but rejects that “the food fight” satisfies the public appetite. Contrary to the wisdom that the public is only drawn by scandal, Paikin says “[that] combination seems to turn off a lot of people.”
Sitting behind his desk at TVO’s office for The Agenda, the host stands by his convictions. I ask, and he hasn’t heard of Atwood's so-called “Hairgate” article. Having interviewed titans like Brian Mulroney, Bill Davis, and Kim Campbell he remembers his hard-hitting strategy “...if I don't get an answer the first time, [I] ask it again, or again, or again... if after four times asking you, I don't get an answer, you’re not going to [give] an answer, but then everybody can see that.”.
Looking up from my now-small clipboard, I scan his sports-themed office. There are no little league trophies.
CLOSING THE CENTER CIRCLE
Paikin’s career started at home, sending him through the world of sports and ultimately into politics. Sitting in the office, I wonder if he would imagine his career coming full circle. “Would you ever cover sports on the show?” I ask. His answer is measured, as someone who loves sports but is married to politics,“If the director from on high came down and said ‘you must do more sports,’ I would do more sports and happily so.”
|“'Who would put that guy on the air? He's awful!'”||
He doesn’t leave it there, “Bryant Gumbel,” former co-host of NBC’s NFL pre-game show Grandstand, “eventually stopped [sportscasting] and went into news.” Paikin makes the parallel obvious. “They asked him why and he said ‘cause you can only say Yankees, three, Dodgers, two so many times before it ceases to have existential meaning for you.’” He pauses momentarily, then continues, “I kind of get that.”
Today, in addition to hosting The Agenda, Paikin teaches occasional classes at Ryerson. The experience has led him to take a closer look back at his own career. “Some of the first stories I did for CBC I look [at] and I say … ‘Who would put that guy on the air? He's awful!’” But according to Paikin, this is par for the course, “I really believe that probably every … show host has 1000 bad shows in them before you get to be any good.”
Having dedicated more than two decades to politics, his dedication comes from something more fundamental. Sitting in the host’s office at one of the biggest political shows in the country, Paikin raises one eyebrow in his trademark look, “A big part of me feels I gotta keep at this until I really figure out how to do it right,” he pauses, “all the time.”