The Quest for Holy Joe’s Grail
The crusade against free trade was the latest in a long tradition of dragon slaying at The Toronto Star
On page 20 last November 22, The Toronto Star admitted it had lost. The people of Canada had voted against it, had “spoken convincingly.” An editorial, a quietly disappointed concession speech, signaled the end of the paper’s three-year fight to undo the free trade initiative. It was an emotional fight, one in which the Star was called “a propaganda machine” or simply passed off as a collection of “liars” for its vigorous expression of editorial opinion that washed onto its news pages and colored its coverage day after day.
The Star wasn’t alone in its opposition to the deal, but it had very little company among major dailies in Canada. And it was the only one to be criticized so loudly and so angrily by so many different people. None was louder than Simon Reisman, Canada’s principal negotiator in the 1987 free trade talks in Washington. On his way into ,a bargaining session, Reisman ‘paused on the steps of the building he was about to enter and screamed down at a reporter who had asked him a simple question.
“I was the one being screamed at,” says Bob Hepburn, the Star’s Washington correspondent. He had just asked Reisman if rumors were true that the 1965 Auto Pact was on the table. “Rather than answering the question,” Hepburn says, “he blew up and charged me with being-what the heck was the phrase? -oh, a hack and that The Toronto Star was nothing but a rag, and so on and so on”
And so, on to McGill University last November where Reisman attacked the Star again. Both it and The Montreal Gazette, he told an audience of students, were simply lying about the nature of his free trade deal. But outside of Reisman’s swaggering assaults, neither the Gazette nor The Edmonton Journal-both opponents of the deal-were so widely accused of being unbalanced or unfair in their news coverage as the Star was. Mel Morris, managing editor of the Gazette, says his paper attracted relatively little criticism because it was not as relentless in its handling of the subject: “[The Star] gave rather prominent play to anything that cast a bad light on free trade.” For its part, the Gazette flew in the face of its own editorial board and, on November 19, ran a front-page editorial by its publisher, Dark Davey, supporting the free trade deal and urging its readers to vote Conservative.
But the Star, a fat high-profile paper with the largest circulation in the country, took no such backward step. And so it became the obvious target. Even The New York Times took a shot. A Times article, which appeared last November 17, defined the problem this way: “What has differentiated the Star’s coverage has been its habit, acknowledged by its editors, of giving far more prominence on its news pages to the case against the trade pact than to the case for it.”
In other words, the Star didn’t provide editorial balance, which has long been a tenet of responsible journalism. The “Statement of Principles’1. by the Canadian Daily Newspaper Publishers Association says a paper must be comprehensive, accurate and fair, and that “fairness requires a balanced presentation of the relevant facts in a news report, and of all substantial opinion in a matter of controversy. It precludes distortion of meaning by over- or under emphasis.”
On both of those counts, the Star’s lopsided coverage was obviously unfair. But it brought into question the whole notion of balance as a guarantee of fairness. Has balance become an outdated concept that should be replaced by a larger meaning of the word? Stuart Adam, director of the Centre for Mass Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, thinks balance is “not exactly the full standard,” and that there is a place for certain forms of advocacy “but not at the expense of understanding. “
The Star is not afraid to advocate, and it does so openly, proudly. Since the time of “Holy Joe” Atkinson-founding owner and editor of the Star and the man who set it on the road to becoming perhaps the most powerful newspaper in Canada -it has followed Atkinson’s own liberal, nationalist philosophy. Since then it has crusaded for principle, has voiced the concerns of those without voices, the ones conventionally referred to as “the common people.”
Ross Harkness, author of J.E. Atkinson of The Star, said in his book: “The newspaper stood for certain things and it stood for them in every column from the weather on page one to the Eaton’s advertisements on the back page. Star reporters always found the evidence to support a crusade.”
The Star itself admits this. It is, in fact, a great source of pride for the paper. According to the same New York Times article, Beland Honderich, the Star’s recently retired publisher, “considered it his duty to ensure loyalty to the credo established by Joseph Atkinson.” The article quoted Honderich as saying that “whether it’s overt or not, I think newspapers have a bias, and I think it’s better that people should know it,” acknowledging that the Star’s crusade against the free trade initiative had “affected its news coverage.”
A crusade is wonderful if one happens to support the side being fought for. But outside of such personal interest, the question exists whether unabashedly unbalanced news coverage is in the best interests of the Star’s readers.
At least one of them hardly thought so. Kean Bhatacharya, a Toronto chartered accountant who at the time was not affiliated with any institution other than himself, spent four months and hundreds of hours researching the Star’s portrayal of free trade. After assessing and classifying six months’ worth of coverage, he found that from October 6, 1987 to March 31, 1988, 51 percent of the Star’s news stories focused on opposition to the deal or on negative aspects of it. Only 20 percent featured a pro-free trade element, and 20 percent didn’t take sides. He filed a complaint with the Ontario Press Council in June 1988, and after several delays, it was heard last February 22. The council dismissed Bhatacharya’s complaint; it said his findings didn’t prove the Star’s coverage was unfair.
Ian Urquhart, managing editor of the Star, has always felt that no unfairness could be proven because none existed, that any supposed imbalance on the Star’s part was an unavoidable result of giving a more complete account of the issue than other papers. Referring to its coverage of parliamentary committee hearings on free trade, Urquhart says, “If the antis outnumber the pros at the committee, are we to be chastised for giving full coverage, coverage that results in more antis than pros? Is that bad journalism? I think not.”
This discussion over the merits of the Star’s depiction of free trade often depended on what “side one took in the free trade debate itself. It is no coincidence that Bhatacharya is pro-free trade. Like him, other supporters of the deal simply say the Star lied, that it virtually ignored the side of the debate they supported, giving nothing close to equal space and prominence to the truth.
John Crispo, a professor of political economics at the University of Toronto, an outspoken advocate of free trade, and a self-styled-and vocal-media critic, calls the Star “a propaganda agency masquerading as a newspaper. They are beneath contempt,” he says. “There are no words to describe them, and if you can find somebody in journalism school that will defend them, I’d be surprised. Well…I guess I wouldn’t be surprised; there are a lot of left-wingers at journalism schools.”
But the ones who defend the Star, who say it has given a fair and full presentation of the facts, are also the ones who spoke out against the free trade initiative. Abraham Rotstein, an economics professor at the University of Toronto, is one of the few academics in that department to oppose the deal. And he says of the Star: “They were absolutely responsible, and they did a first-class public service in exposing some of the hidden features of the agreement which were not covered by the rather glowing propaganda of the government.”
Peter Bleyer, the coordinator of the Pro-Canada Network (an umbrella group for more than 30 national anti-free trade associations), includes the vast majority of major daily newspapers among the most vocal and visible supporters of free trade: “When you’re facing media that have almost overwhelmingly ignored one side of the story for quite a long time and which have been overwhelmingly biased in the other direction, for some of us [the Star was] a breath of fresh air.”
In fact ventilating the issue was precisely what The Toronto Star was up to, according to John Honderich, the paper’s editor-in-chief and leading light in its crusade. “We see our role as one to provoke and to stimulate discussion and to try to foster some greater understanding of what’s going on,” Honderich says. “You don’t get that if all the players in society agree. In the end, the election results [indicated that] there were a lot of people who were very worried about this free trade deal, and we voiced some of those fears.”
David Whitton was an Associate Editor for the Spring 1989 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.