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Big Push, Big Error

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Thanks, in part, to John Honderich's freer-spending ways, the Star hit a series of investigative home runs. But it also embarrassed itself with one horrendous strike-out

It was the Saturday morning of the 2003 Canada Day weekend and Don Sellar, ombudsman for The Toronto Star, was in for a big shock. Sellar, who was on vacation at his brother-in-law’s Balsam Lake cottage, had decided to pick up a copy of the Star from a nearby newspaper box. That’s where he saw the headline: “The White Jays? In a city of so many multicultural faces, Toronto’s baseball team is the whitest in the league.


“When I saw it, I just about fell over,” says Sellar, remembering his reaction. It’s now early October and he’s sitting in his fifth-floor office near the newsroom, and explaining that it wasn’t just the jarring headline that dismayed him. It was the visual presentation: 25 Blue Jay mug shots, the majority of whom were white. “Many readers took the headline to mean the paper had uncovered evidence of racism in the Blue Jays front office…I for one drew that inference,” wrote Sellar in his July 5 ombudsman column.

In total, from 6 a.m. that Saturday to the following Wednesday, over 2,000 people wrote an angry e-mail or made an irate phone call to the Star. “The White Jays incident produced more negative [reaction] than anything I had seen in 10 years,” says Sellar, shaking his head in disbelief. This was the kind of mass protest for which he’d been prepared following the publication of many of the Star’s special investigative projects, such as Hitting Home (domestic abuse) and Race and Crime (the police and racial profiling). But the reader heat these multi-part stories generated was much less than what this one-shot article about a professional baseball team had created. As one steamed reader put it: “Frankly, I was disgusted to wake and find your baseless, inflammatory article about the racial make-up of the Jays.” Others responded by pointing out the lack of diversity in the Star’s own newsroom and the paper’s “well-known obsessive fantasies about race.” In a TSN interview, Paul Godfrey, president and CEO of the Blue Jays, had a more subdued reaction: “I scratched my head in amazement [at the story]. The Star is a good newspaper, a very well read newspaper. But I think they’ve slipped.”
As the Star’s ombudsman, it’s Sellar’s job to share the feedback he gets from readers with the newsroom and act as an independent critic of the paper. He tells me the White Jays article prompted hundreds of people to cancel their subscriptions and that the publisher had to send out a letter to try to win these readers back. Some did return but few will forget this editorial error.

So what happened? How did a reporter who set out to discover why the diverse face of the Blue Jays had changed so quickly find himself in the centre of such a huge contretemps?

The answer, as I discovered after talking to several of the key editorial players, is a complicated one. It involves owners who subscribe to strong liberal principles. A newspaper with a rich tradition of crusading journalism. A publisher devoted to upholding that tradition despite the high costs associated with it. A newsroom that is encouraged to outdo the competition in a vicious newspaper war. A city with an expanding, racially diverse population. A sports department caught up in the excitement of a possible scoop. And editors who love to stir things up with compelling front-page presentations on the big-selling Saturday paper.

It’s a mix that has often brought the Star great glory, including major industry awards for its hard-hitting investigative reports. But on this Canada Day weekend, the mix fueled an explosion as spectacular as any late-night fireworks display.

o o o

The first edition of the Star lives under a glass frame that rests on a covered pedestal in the publisher’s office at 1Yonge St. The tattered, yellowed issue of what was then called The Evening Star is dated November 3, 1892. There are no pictures and the print is dense except for an empty space on the back page that was reserved for a company that didn’t get its advertising in on time. Scrawled on the top of the front page in blue pencil are the words, “first edition,” as if before taking its honoured place in the publisher’s office a librarian, thinking it was nothing important, had filed it away in some dusty cabinet.

Calling itself the “paper for the people,” the Star began as a strike sheet for 21 printers locked out of The Toronto News. In 1899, a young journalist named Joseph E. Atkinson took over and laid the foundation for the Toronto Star of today. Passionate about social reform, Atkinson’s paper crusaded for the rights of working people and pushed for progress on issues like mother’s allowance and unemployment insurance. Atkinson also believed in developing strong municipal communities with politically active citizens and supported policies that strengthened and united Canada. These principles are still upheld today by the five families (Atkinson, Campbell, Hindmarsh, Honderich and Thall) who form the Star’s Voting Trust.

For the past 10 years it has been John Honderich’s job, as publisher, to interpret the Atkinson principles for his time. While I wait in his spacious corner office on a crisp mid-October morning, three months before the surprise announcement that he would be resigning “with regret” due to “a corporate desire for change,” Honderich is on the phone. He’s talking to managing editor Mary Deanne Shears, ordering more pages for tomorrow’s issue – the formation of the Conservative Party of Canada is a big story and he wants to devote more space to it.

“I think this is excellent for the country,” he says before hanging up. Positioning himself across from me in an off-white armchair, Honderich, whose smile outshines the vibrant blue and red stripes on his trademark bow tie, explains his vision for the Star: “Certainly one of my goals has been to make this paper as relevant, modern and progressive as it can be to fit the needs of this community. I have been very proud of [our] tradition of crusading journalism. That’s a tradition that I have not only tried to carry on, but build on.”

Over the years, each of Honderich’s predecessors had made their own mark on the paper. For instance, in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, under Harry Comfort Hindmarsh (Atkinson’s son-in-law), the Star’s front page roared with “razzle-dazzle” and sensationalistic “high-octane journalism.” According to Ross Harkness, author of the book, J.E. Atkinson of the Star, Hindmarsh liked his reporters to be “original, imaginative and just a little bit mad.” Hindmarsh founded the Star’s “famous flying squad” – an army of reporters equipped with staff cars, on call 24/7 and primed to descend on a breaking story anywhere in Ontario.

During Honderich’s first years at the paper’s helm, the Star had some high-octane economic problems. For one thing, the paper was losing money just as its parent company, Torstar, had committed to building a 61,000-square-metre printing plant in Vaughn – a state-of-the-art-facility with a whopping $421-million price tag. For another, there was continuing labour unhappiness following a 31-day strike over the decision to contract out delivery of the paper, a move that put almost 100 staffers out of work. Many thought Honderich’s performance during this period was underwhelming. In 1994, for instance, The Ryerson Review of Journalism published a scathing critique, blaming him for low employee morale and the paper’s perceived departure from the Atkinson principles. A year later, a Toronto Life article suggested that he got his position only because his name was Honderich, and gave the impression that other (read: more worthy) candidates for the job were pushed aside.

Then came Conrad Black’s National Post, which brought with it the real possibility that the new paper could eat into the Star’s significant market share in the Greater Toronto Area. The newspaper war that ensued, according to Bryan Cantley of the Canadian Newspaper Association, had “a profound impact” on The Toronto Sun, the Star and The Globe and Mail. “What it did was provide a bit of a wake-up call to all the newspapers, that they just couldn’t continue doing things the way they’d always done them.”

In response to the new competitive reality, the Star woke up by implementing a series of changes – a more powerful design, for instance. But in many ways the paper went back to its roots: an emphasis on local issues and crusading journalism that Honderich, when he steps down as publisher in May, can say boosted the influence of his paper, made it more profitable and helped fight back the challenge from the Post.
So what did the Star accomplish during Honderich’s tenure? It waged a crusade to get “a new deal for cities” – particularly for Toronto – that caught the attention of our new prime minister and premiers and mayors across the country. It helped make better public transit and more affordable housing issues in provincial and municipal elections. It increased its coverage of the so-called 905 areas and of the GTA’s different ethnic groups, gaining their loyalty. “I would say to reflect the city and to reflect diversity is not only the right thing to do, it is the right business thing to do,” explains Honderich. “If you want to succeed, you have to let all people have a sense of what their community is about.”

However, his greatest accomplishment may well be his emphasis on crusading journalism – in particular, special investigative projects that take time and money. Such multi-part Star series as Hitting Home, Medical Secrets and Race and Crime have helped bring about reform and have helped differentiate the Star from its rivals. They may have, however, also been a factor in Honderich’s ouster, since part of the “corporate desire for change,” as a January 26, 2004 Globe article suggested, involves significant cutbacks to the editorial budget. The story also quoted an unnamed Star reporter, who said Honderich’s resignation was “very unsettling. The Star without a Honderich in charge is going to be a very different place… John understood what the paper was about.”

Still, not everybody in the business is as enamoured as Honderich of long-term journalistic projects. Globe columnist Christie Blatchford, for example, feels that they take “value away from what reporters do on a daily basis and instead concentrate on what many people could do given three to six months. It diminishes the daily contributions that people make to the paper and that’s what the fundamental job of the paper is.”

Media critic Robert Fulford points to another problem: they may not yield publishable results. “Investigative journalism is very hard to do,” he says. “Sometimes you get lucky and you get something you can follow up. But a tremendous amount of the time, investigative journalism involves following up leads that go nowhere and an awful lot of money is consumed, so newspapers are not anxious to put out money when stories don’t come back, [therefore] it becomes a field that we are not good at.” Fulford also gives a telling example from when Pierre Trudeau was prime minister: “Mordecai Richler used to say that all you need to know about Canadian journalism is that [it’s been] years since Trudeau’s swimming pool was installed and [we’ve] not yet discovered who paid for that pool.”

The Star, though, is happy with the acclaim – and sales spikes – these special projects have brought. With their loud, provocative headlines and controversial subject matter, they draw readers. So it was hardly a surprise that the Star chose to brandish the special investigative project as one of its big weapons in the newspaper war.

One major project, the Hitting Home series, began three years before the Post first hit the streets. This series went on to win not just a National Newspaper Award, but also a Michener Award and a B’nai Brith Media Human Rights Award.

In July 1995, the Star began tracking the journey of 133 men, all of whom had been charged with spousal abuse, through the justice system. In March 1996, after eight months of computer-assisted research, the Star ran an eight-part series that revealed in the vast majority of domestic-abuse cases, the Ontario justice system had failed to protect women from violence in their own homes. The series, written and researched by reporters Jane Armstrong, Rita Daly and Caroline Mallan, pointed out many serious problems with the ways the justice system dealt with cases of domestic violence. For example, the Star found that many abusers go unpunished because the victim bears the burden of prosecution. Since many victims are reluctant to call their partner a batterer, or sometimes even blame themselves for the assault, they often refuse to testify. As a result, the abuser goes free, likely to offend again, which is precisely what happened with 35 of the men in the study.

The series drew so much attention that it prompted the police, the courts and politicians to take action. The federal government, for example, looked for possible solutions in the United States and came back with a variety of measures with which to battle spousal abuse. They included: tougher evidence-gathering procedures; counseling or anger-management programs for first offenders; and a special court to deal exclusively with domestic violence. However, says Daly, the biggest accomplishment of the series was the public awareness it raised. “[Hitting Home] drew attention to an issue that everyone was aware of but one that was accepted as a private family issue… suddenly people cared about the fact that [domestic abuse] was just as horrific as some of the other crimes that are occurring in the city.”

Medical Secrets was another notable Star special investigation, and it earned the paper a nomination from the Canadian Association of Journalists, plus additional Michener and National Newspaper Award nominations. The focus of this series: exposing how, on many occasions, The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario failed to discipline doctors who had harmed patients. In fact, the Star learned, 99 per cent of the 13,000 complaints investigated by the College in a six-year period had either been dismissed or handled behind closed doors. The most shocking example: the case of Dr. Kenneth Bradley, a surgeon at Milton District Hospital, who by 1994 had earned the moniker “Butcher Bradley” because of his role in the deaths of two people and the impairment of four others. The College, however, did not revoke his license and Bradley continued to operate on patients in Ontario, and later Virginia, until 2000.

Written and researched by reporters Robert Cribb, Laurie Monsebraaten and Rita Daly (and assisted by eight Ryerson University journalism students), Medical Secrets first ran in May 2001, but would become an on-going project. Its main goal: to push the College to make public any details about Ontario doctors who had been disciplined for professional misconduct, sexual abuse or medical incompetence. Though the College had the information, the records it had couldn’t easily be accessed.

To force the College to be more open and forthcoming, Cribb, Monsebraaten and the Ryerson students spent four months building a searchable database that listed all of the disciplinary cases from 1994 to 2000. They then put the results up on the Star’s Web site. “This put an immense amount of pressure on the College to [make a database], because if the Toronto Star can do it, why can’t the regulatory body responsible for it do it?” says Cribb.

Shortly after the series ran, Tony Clement, who was Ontario’s health minister at the time, responded by calling for “transparency and accountability” in the system. By November 2001, the College had put up its own Web site, listing doctors who had been disciplined by the College.

Though Medical Secrets caused a big stir, reaction to it paled in comparison to the controversy that followed publication of the Star’s Race and Crime series, which was published in 2002. In this investigative project, reporters Jim Rankin, Scott Simmie, John Duncanson, Michelle Shephard and Jennifer Quinn analyzed a massive arrest database from the Toronto police force and uncovered statistical evidence that backed up what many people from Toronto’s ethnic communities already believed – that racial bias does exist in the police force and it’s a big problem.

The Star acquired the database through a Freedom of Information request – a battle that took two-and-a-half years. The Star team then analyzed the data and verified it by having an outside expert check it over. Before publication of the series, the Star repeatedly asked police Chief Julian Fantino to comment on its findings. The chief’s office, however, put off the interview until the day before the series would be published. When the Star finally did get to talk with Fantino, the session came to abrupt end after just 20 minutes, at which point the chief threw the reporters out of his office. Honderich then called Fantino back, offering him another chance to expand on his first, brief comments on the series’ findings, and he declined to comment. The chief later claimed the Star misrepresented what he said, so the Star ran a copy of the transcript of the interview. The transcript painted a clear picture of a very agitated and defensive man. After publication of the series, the Toronto Police Association sued the Star for $2.7 billion, claiming the series labelled all police officers as racist. The suit was eventually thrown out of court. According to the judge, it was “plain and obvious” that the lawsuit had no hope of succeeding at trial. (The police association is appealing the decision and the case will be heard later this summer.)

The police, though, weren’t the only critics of the series. Edward Harvey, a professor at the University of Toronto, and Alan D. Gold, a criminal lawyer, reviewed the data on behalf of the Toronto Police Services Board and concluded that the Star’s findings were “sensational quackery” based on “unfounded data and questionable methodology.” However, Honderich stood firmly behind his paper’s work, telling the Globe, “we remain confident that it is statistically sound.”

In the wake of publication, there were more honours for the Star (both a Michener and National Newspaper Award). As well, the paper could measure its success in, as reporter Rankin says, putting the issue of racial profiling “back on the front burner,” by how it influenced bureaucratic and political figures. After the series ran, for example, the Ontario Human Rights Commission launched an inquiry into racial profiling and the police. Last winter, the Commission released its report, and one of the recommendations was that video cameras be placed in all police cars as one way of making sure that the cops treat everyone alike. In response, Premier Dalton McGuinty rushed to be seen as being on the politically correct side of the issue, saying that, “We’ve got a responsibility to acknowledge that some [racial profiling] is taking place and we’ve got to do something about it.”

o o o

With all this as background – the success of investigative projects, the controversy raised by the racial profiling series, a publisher determined to make his mark and attract people from differing ethnic communities to read the paper, and the Star’s pervasive Atkinson culture (which urges reporters to stir up discussion and debate) – it’s easy to see why the Star would be attracted to a story about race and the Jays.

It’s early October when I meet the writer of the White Jays article, Geoff Baker, at the Second Cup on Richmond and Spadina, on the western edge of downtown Toronto. He’s got dark spiky hair and is wearing a black polo shirt. In his hand is a tiny blue digital recorder (“not because I don’t trust you”), but when it runs out of storage space part way through our two-hour chat he seems unconcerned.

He tells me that the Star’s sports department started noticing how the make-up of the Jays was changing in December 2002 and that he was assigned to start crunching the numbers in January. It wasn’t until spring training in late March – after doing historical comparisons of the opening-day rosters and tracing the ethnic background of every player on the team – that the sports department decided to go for the story. “What the numbers showed me was really astounding,” says Baker. “They basically leapt off the page. I could not believe the pattern that I was seeing as far as the number of white players being brought into the organization.”
To explain this trend Baker looked at several theories. One suggested that the reason the Jays hadn’t been signing as many Latin American players as before was because they struck out too frequently. Baker discounted this theory in a statistics-laden sidebar. Another theory had it that, because of financial constraints on the team, the Jays were taking the cheaper route of hiring more college baseball players (who come from predominately white backgrounds) rather than spending time and money scouting players as teenagers and developing their talent. Baker knocked down that theory, too.

But what Baker never did was give a clear answer as to what was the actual cause of the change in the Jays’ racial make-up, even though the front-page presentation’s bold “why” promised one. So wanting to know why the story was sold on the front page as the whiff of something sinister at work, I tried to contact the man responsible for that now infamous page-one presentation. I put in several calls to Saturday editor Steve Tustin, left messages and sent a few e-mails, but never heard back. I also attempted to interview managing editor Mary Deanne Shears, but her assistant informed me that she was too busy to do interviews. Star sports editor Graham Parley, however, was happy to talk.

The White Jays headline, he explains over the phone, was a “misstep” for the Star because it distracted from the point of the article itself – the same goal that all of the paper’s special projects want to accomplish – which is to generate intelligent debate about a newsworthy issue. Instead of generating debate, though, some readers felt that the trumped-up headline on the White Jays article undermined the credibility of the racial profiling series, while others felt that the White Jays article hurt the Star’s reputation as a paper that was good at discussing the thorny issue of race.

The general feeling from Honderich, Sellar, Parley and others at the Star is that article itself made no accusation of racism towards Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi. Honderich puts it this way: “I very much regret the play of that story and how we presented it on page one. I think it created an impression that wasn’t born out of the story itself.” Parley agrees. “I’ve challenged people to send me the part of the story where we were calling Ricciardi a racist or a part that even implies we are calling Ricciardi a racist and it always came back to what was presented on the front page,” he says.

The complaint that the whiteness of the Jays was a “non-story” was a common one among Torontonians. So was the argument, “If we are going to talk about the White Jays, why not talk about the Black Raptors or the White Leafs?” Baker addresses these complaints simply. He feels that if any other publicly visible institution like the police or a school board went from being the most diverse of its kind to the least in a very short time, no one would call that a non-story. He also notes that basketball and hockey teams can’t be compared to baseball teams because in both basketball and hockey there isn’t a reserve of diverse players to draw on, whereas in baseball the talent pool is very mixed.

Despite the negative backlash and the tension he faced covering the team after the White Jays articles ran, Baker doesn’t regret writing what he did. “Believe me, I wish I didn’t have to write this story [but] I couldn’t live with myself knowing that I shoved this to the back burner. I vowed when I got into sports writing that I wasn’t going to ignore stuff like this just because it would keep the team happy,” he says passionately. Although in hindsight he feels that the headline could have been toned down, he doesn’t blame his colleagues who wrote and approved the headline. Baker feels that the story was poorly received because Toronto is still, on the whole, a conservative city that gets easily rattled by frank discussions about race. Donovan Vincent, assistant city editor at the Star, was working in the newsroom the evening after the White Jays article came out. It was Saturday night, and the switchboard was still swamped with calls from furious Star readers. Vincent, a member of Toronto’s black community, was surprised by the reaction. He felt that Baker’s article was balanced and that the issue was newsworthy. After reading scores of emails, mostly from the 905 and cities on the outskirts of the GTA, Vincent concluded that many white people found the article offensive because it seemed to imply that white athletes weren’t as good as non-white athletes.

Robert Fulford has a different perspective. He says that on this occasion, Star editors “lost their sense of proportion,” and that “the headline made it into an evil.”

“This kind of liberal thinking,” he continues, “always looks for proportions: there should be so many women in this job, there should be so many Ukrainians, so many blacks, so many natives…. And when it’s not there, they know something’s wrong, and who is wrong? Well it’s the people in charge who are wrong. You don’t need to go through all of the stages of thought in your mind because it becomes an impulse after a while. It’s not a logical thing, you just jump for it. And that’s what the Star did.”

o o o

Towards the end of our phone conversation, Parley tells me that despite all the negative reaction over the White Jays, he still plans to revisit the topic and look at how the team’s roster has changed for the upcoming season. Only this time, no doubt, the headline will be a little less provocative.

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