Antonia Zerbisias, Kathy English, and #TorStarFAIL: Great Expectations

by matttbastard

One thing about keeping your expectations low: more often than not, they’ll be met.  This was certainly the case this past Saturday, as our old friend Kathy English, public editor for the venerable Toronto Star, offered a tepid, passive-aggressive non-apology to Star columnist Antonia Zerbisias. Zerb, as you may recall, had been sandbagged in a column written by English (in concert with Star publisher and scourge to uppity female opinion scribes, John Cruickshank) after Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) head Bernie Farber decided to concern-troll the Star editorial board — and succeeded.

After a vocal outcry, both online and in numerous letters to the editor (two of which were quietly published this past Wednesday, a far-lower circulation day than the prominent Saturday edition where the original column appeared), English revisited the matter this weekend — by whinging about snark and incivility:

It is the opinion of some blogger in Abu Dhabi [aka former Star employee, Jen Gerson, who responds to English's incivil swipe here], upon reading my column of last week, that I am a “disconnected crony.”

Other bloggers labelled me “priggish,” overly “earnest” and expressed the view that my column is evidence that “old media are still painfully unaware of how blogs operate.”

An online commenter said I should have known that a comment posted by Star columnist Antonia Zerbisias on her blog, which I consider inappropriate for publication by this news organization, was simply the “snark – irony, sarcasm,” of the blogosphere.

I learned much about “snark” and nasty blogosphere invective this week from some bloggers who disagree with my take on what Zerbisias wrote. Mean-spirited personal attack, inaccurate facts, innuendo and even speculation about the identity of my spouse was lobbed my way, much of it anonymously.

Most of what I read simply reinforced my view that blogs produced by professional journalists working under the brand banner of a “mainstream” news organization such as the Star must aspire to far higher standards than what’s emerging elsewhere in the blogosphere.

A good start would be, oh, I dunno, aspiring to make sure you have the whole story before drawing a conclusion:

Here’s the fuller context that explains why she wrote this: Zerbisias had seen Farber marching in the Pride parade wearing a T-shirt that said, “Nobody knows I’m gay.” She didn’t include that information in her blog so readers didn’t know that context. Nor did she tell me that when I showed her my column before publication.

In complaining to the Star, neither did Farber think to tell me that he, along with dozens of others who marched with the Kulanu group, had worn a T-shirt that made its own ironic quip. That’s context I sure wish I had known.

This makes it clear to me that Zerbisias’s comment was intended as sarcastic irony, stock in trade for this columnist and blogger. But I think her attempt at irony failed here; the quip – as published without that context – was ambiguous and could be misunderstood.

And yet the only person who seemed to misunderstand the quip was you and Cruickshank (shit, I bet even ol’ Bernie is a Seinfeld fan). Just because your reading comprehension is substandard is no reason to assume that others share your deficiency, Kathy.

Anyway, moving on:

To be fair to Zerbisias, it should be made clear, though, that she did not “make things up,” as Farber interpreted it. “I don’t `make things up’ – ever,” she said, adding that there “is a lot of space between publishing falsehoods and spouting irony.”

The principle of my column last week remains. Toronto Star journalists simply can’t engage in this hurly-burly tone of the blogosphere if it confuses readers or doesn’t meet the Star‘s journalistic standards. As publisher John Cruickshank told several readers this week: “It creates confusion about how committed we are to the truth and gets imbued with too much seriousness because we are the Star.

Shorter: “Bloggers are MEAN, the DOG ate my homework, and, goddammit, I’m STILL RIGHT!!1one”

Sigh.

Cover your ears, kids–that sonic boom you heard was from the F-16-like point swooping over English’s head.

Dawg, who, late last week, modestly proposed that English’s original column was in fact a Machiavellian plot to make Farber and Cruickshank look like dunces, reassesses his previous bestowal of the benefit of the doubt to English:

Blogs are indeed different from common-or-garden reportage: “hurly-burly” sums it up quite nicely. But editors and publishers are loath to relinquish control, which means that in-house bloggers are forced to look over their shoulders while we in the blogosphere proper are not.

The chilling effect here is palpable: recall that we aren’t even talking about a post, but a comment thread. Ethics and professionalism, both of which Zerb wears on her sleeve, by the way, are not what this is about at all. Rather, it’s precisely what an observer quoted by English says: “old media are still painfully unaware of how blogs operate.”Different languages: different ways of engaging in print; different styles.

But the same ethical and professional standards, pace English, at least for those of us who take the craft seriously. On that point, when she dug around a little more, assisted by hordes of outraged commentators, bloggers and Star correspondents, she discovered that Zerb hadn’t transgressed any ethical or professional codes whatsoever, and had to be content with complaining about her alleged ambiguity. That’s fair comment, I suppose, but a far cry from her original assertions. So why is she even raising the question of standards, leaving the impression, despite her earlier disclaimer, that Zerb had violated them?

Worse, readers are condescended to: none of that hurly-burly stuff for us if it “confuses” us. I submit that no one in this wildly overblown affair was remotely confused. That’s a dodge, plain and simple.

Dave further articulates the bottom line that English has apparently allowed her easily-bruised ego to obscure:

I could fire back with two words, which English would dismiss as evidence supporting her current view. So, I’ll say this: We are your readers, Ms. English.

The “new media” and the bloggers English decided to castigate are the same people that used to sit around the kitchen table bitching about things read in newspapers and whose only recourse was to submit a letter to the very organ and editor with whom they took issue.

It was a one-sided arrangement that left communicative readers at the mercy of “edited for brevity” or without a voice at all. What English doesn’t like is that we like this process a whole lot better. Further, because of the “new media” we are able to communicate directly with the principle subjects of stories and columns – and do. I’m sure that sends chills down the spines of newspaper editors because their worst nightmare has come true: continuous and unrelenting scrutiny, and continuous and unrelenting criticism – some of it accompanied by the language spoken around the kitchen table.

Here’s the thing, Kathy: you fucked up.

You fucked up big.

You guys got played by an experienced player with an agenda who used your forum as Public Editor as a platform to launch a heated proxy missive against a respected Star columnist.  Contrary to your defensive posturing, this is not really about the online rabble, new media vs. old, or the ‘ethics’ of snark; this is about your responsibility as a journalist to gather all the facts before accusing one of your colleagues of making shit up — a charge that, if substantiated, is, I would wager, a fireable offense at any newspaper and thus very serious.

By not gathering the relevant information beforehand (namely, Farber’s highly public–and self-promoted–appearance at Toronto Pride 2009 wearing a t-shirt glibly pronouncing his apparently facetious life on the down-low), you subjugated that responsibility and gravely damaged Zerbisias’ reputation. Saying that neither Farber nor Zerbisias were immediately forthcoming with said information is a cheap cop-out; a five-minute Google search (much like the one likely conducted by SOME BLOGGER IN TORONTO) would have helped unearth the buried info that you now acknowledge exonerates Zerbisias (though you still claim that your original charges are somehow still valid. Logic is apparently an unprofessional blogger conceit).

One can imagine the chill mentioned by Dawg is quite palpable right now in the Star newsroom, as reporters and columnists must be asking themselves: Can the public editor, editor-in-chief and publisher be trusted to protect their staff against spurious charges lodged by special interests trying to muzzle the press?

Many of them, I would wager, feel their trust has been betrayed.

By allowing a lobbyist to dictate the editorial response to an off-hand, ironic remark, your ability to sift between legitimate and manufactured grievance is now in question, Kathy. And by not addressing your dereliction of duty in an open, transparent manner, you aren’t exactly making us brim over with confidence that you do in fact recognize the gravity of your failure.  Quite the opposite, in fact.

So, until that moment of epiphany occurs, be advised, Kathy, that your readers — the hurly-burly, rambunctious, unprofessional online rabble that you scorn — will be watching. This isn’t personal; the dissemination of accurate information is imperative for any democracy to properly function. It is in the public interest to have a press corps free of self-censorship, unencumbered by the fear that the ideology of special interests will dictate their output to the detriment of a vibrant, free press.

As Corvin Russell notes, you owed Antonia Zerbisias an apology for defaming her professional reputation as a journalist and for not protecting her from a bad-faith political attack. But, like Dave said, you also owe us, the Star readership, an apology: for not providing us with all the relevant information; for allowing a lobby group to influence your editorial mandate; and for doing a piss-poor job of representing our interest. Y’know, what they pay you the big bucks for.

It is going to take time to restore confidence in your ability, for both your staff and readers; this time, the expectations are monumentally greater.

Recommend this post at Progressive Bloggers

9 thoughts on “Antonia Zerbisias, Kathy English, and #TorStarFAIL: Great Expectations

  1. Excellent post and round-up, mattt!

    English did indeed fuck up big time. And either she STILL doesn’t understand, in which case she’s an idiot, or she’s willfully misunderstanding, in which case she’s a whiny brat. Not characteristics consistent with a ‘public editor’.

    Like

  2. Very nice! And I’ll bet you a stick of gum you, like all of us, didn’t get paid for the work you put into that piece.

    Well done!

    Like

  3. Go, Matttt! (Please accept this fourth “t” as a personal token of my undying esteem.)
    Agreed – the whole red herring about this being a new media/old media issue is absolute shite!
    “Gold standard of journalism” pfft!

    Like

  4. Agreed – the whole red herring about this being a new media/old media issue is absolute shite!

    Well, to be fair, in my first post on this, I did give ‘em the benefit of the doubt re: not ‘getting’ the way the internet works. But English’s refusal to take responsibility for her actions (using a ginned-up meta-debate about conduct and discourse as a smokescreen to cover her ass) made it clear that this isn’t merely the usual Old/New Media communication breakdown.

    Kathy English is both wrong on the internet and in the dead trees; David Simon and Jay Rosen would set aside their differences to agree on that, I’m sure.

    Like

  5. I am often amazed by the lassitude of the Old Guard media. They seem incapable of checking the most basic things, or is this just a form of arrogance?

    I found some stuff out on a local story, just by checking every online account I found by *all* the newspapers in the area (including the tiny weeklies). One of the writers I quoted from a relatively-large newspaper emailed me to ask where I had found the other information. I was astounded.

    Dude, do you know how to GOOGLE or do you think that’s below you?

    Mainstream media is down for the count.

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  6. And what, exactly, did you expect from the Star? The cheerleader for the War in Afghanistan (we’re saving the women!) Metro amalgamation, public works privatisation, and in the ‘reporting’ of one Oakland Ross from Jerusalem, Zionist Central?
    One thing I know from friends in the Star, morale there has been in the toilet ever since Publisher Pritchard’s days.
    Another thing, if the Toronto Sun can publish tens of my lefty letters, and NOW dozens more, how come in my 40 years in Toronto not one of my anti-establishment letters ever got published in Pravda, er, the Star?
    Never mind; print media’s fucked anyway, and thank god for the Internet!

    Like

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