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Journalists are notoriously thin-skinned, but Toronto Star media critic Antonia Zerbisias has never been afraid to stick it to them

Antonia ZerbisiasHip hop blares in the mostly empty gym on this November Friday night. Located at Carlaw Avenue and Lake Shore Boulevard in Toronto, The Training Room is a ten-minute drive from the Riverdale home of The Toronto Star‘s Antonia Zerbisias. Dressed in a black tank top and yoga pants, she arranges and adjusts three machines for the weight-training portion of tonight’s workout. At 55, the acerbic columnist and ardent blogger says she’s “always the oldest woman in this place.”

The young, well-built man in charge of the facilities, Mike, wants to use the same leg press machine. Zerbisias agrees to share. Since I’ve promised not to interfere with her “work, workouts or sex life,” I stay out of the way. I’m wearing workout gear, but my notepad gives me away. I tell Mike I’m writing a profile of the opinionated media critic.

The Toronto Star, eh?” he says. “You have some radicals in your editorial section.”

“What kind of radicals?” Zerbisias asks with a bemused smirk.

“You know, far-left.”

“That’s me.”

A lengthy, rapid-fire political debate begins, and I’m only able to capture a small piece of the dialogue in my notes.

“With the Star, I look at the fall of communist and socialist thought and think to myself, ‘You guys still exist?'”

“Being a liberal is not being a communist,” says Zerbisias.

Mike rails about “too much democracy” and “the declining moral fabric of modern society,” as seen on television.

Zerbisias fires back: “Those shows are on corporate stations that are all supporting conservative causes!”

When the young man returns to his administrative duties, I can’t help but laugh. “I should have brought my tape recorder,” I say.

“This is only a small part of the story,” she assures me.

I don’t argue. Telling journalists how to do their jobs is what Zerbisias gets paid to do. True to form, when I ask for additional contacts, she gives me the names and email addresses of twenty-two friends, family and co-workers. They include people who clearly aren’t fans, such as Matthew Fraser, her ideological opposite and former co-host of Inside Media, the now-defunct CBC show. “I don’t want this to be a puff piece,” she says. When I ask to tag along to any radio or TV appearances, she warns me that such events make up only one per cent of what she does. “If you want the clichéd opening of me walking into a room,” she advises, “you might not get it.” She’s very busy, and so many people want her time. “This is the story,” she says. “I hope you’re taking notes.”

As we leave the gym, the young man waves goodbye from behind the counter. “Tell some of your colleagues us conservatives aren’t all bad,” he says.

“Well,” she says on her way out the door, “then you have a serious communication problem.”

He isn’t the only one Zerbisias says that about. If journalism’s primary function is to keep a watchful eye on the powerful – politicians and the police, churches and corporations, city hall and the courts – then a media critic’s job is to observe the observers. These days the job has landed on the muscular shoulders of a woman who doesn’t care if she’s being observed, what’s being said about her or even how hard she gets hit. She may be a liberal-left ideologue, as some claim, but she provides a valuable voice. If there is a special rank for media critics in the underworld, Zerbisias would surely be crowned Hell’s Belle.

For years, many publishers and editors argued that readers didn’t care about what goes on inside newsrooms. Clichés ruled the day: journalism about journalism was “shop talk,” “inside baseball” and “navel gazing.” “Historically, news organizations have not felt it was necessary to let the public in on what they did in their newsrooms,” says Stephen J. A. Ward, associate professor of journalism ethics at the University of British Columbia’s School of Journalism. “Not necessarily because they had anything to hide – although there were plenty who did – but because it was assumed the public wasn’t interested in how they got the news, only that it was timely and interesting to read.”

But with declining newspaper readership and the public’s faltering faith in journalism, the media has come to understand that they are indeed newsworthy. “It is in the media’s interest to criticize themselves because it reaffirms their values and reconstructs their legitimacy within society,” says Carleton University associate professor of journalism Paul Attallah. In Canada, the concentration of media ownership makes things especially difficult. Torstar’s purchase of twenty per cent of Bell Globemedia in December 2005 illuminated Zerbisias’s warning that “the ass you kick today is the ass you kiss tomorrow.”

John Fraser learned this the hard way. In the January 2002 issue of Masthead, the former National Postmedia columnist wrote: “A hundred and fifty plus columns later, I ended the media commentary mandate myself and changed my column to one of arts commentary. I’d run out of cover. Media friends thought I had betrayed them; my then-proprietor’s spouse (Barbara Amiel) attacked me in her own column in Maclean’s, the ownership of my outlet had changed dramatically; and the general trend toward ‘media convergence’ had, in my view, made the very notion of media criticism not just foolhardy but downright suicidal.”

Even for those who can live with losing friends and alienating colleagues, writing about the media can be like taking a beanball from Roger Clemens – a lot of pain and not much gain. “Aside from the police, the most difficult subjects are journalists,” says David Hayes, a former media columnist at Toronto Life. “They’re particularly aware of what it means to have something about them published in a magazine or a newspaper because they do it all the time.”

But it’s not just their knowledge of the game that causes difficuly. Journalists, after all, are notoriously thin-skinned. “Reporters like to dish the dirt on every institution in the country, but they don’t like the dirt dished on them,” says The Globe and Mail‘s Michael Posner, who then tells a juicy anecdote – off the record. Zerbisias is even less tactful: “Sometimes I want to say to these people – especially the ones on TV – ‘Get the fuck over yourselves.’ They take themselves so freaking seriously. Not all of them, but a lot of them.”

Media critics are to newsrooms what Penn and Teller are to the world of magic. Like the Las Vegas comedy and magic duo who have built a career revealing how tricks are done, media critics lift the curtain for readers and viewers, taking them behind the scenes and guiding them through the good, bad and ugly ways journalism gets practised in this country. To put it another way, they’re rats who’ve broken the journalisticomertà.

Despite Rosie DiManno’s assertions, The Rat is not a new species. The Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) reports that American journalists like Upton Sinclair, George Seldes and Walter Lippmann were raking muck in their profession as far back as 1911. “Since its founding,” writes Jack Shafer, editor of the online magazineSlate, “the press-critic racket has been dominated by liberals and leftists whose critiques have usually owed more to their political mind-sets than to the media they consume.”

Zerbisias would have fit right in. And though she works for Canada’s largest newspaper, it’s fair to say she would agree with A.J. Liebling, considered by many to be the patron saint of American press criticism, who famously quipped: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”

While that hasn’t changed, the growing resentment toward powerful institutions that sparked the rights movements of the 1960s also spread to journalism. According to the CJR, the Supreme Court’s 1964 ruling in the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan case, which put the onus on public figures to prove malice in libel cases, sparked a revolution in the American press, leading to more vigorous reporting on big institutions and more politicized commentary.

In a 2001 CJR article, Tom Goldstein notes that a host of localized journalism reviews appeared around the same time, reporting on the fourth estate itself. The movement inspired alternative papers like The Village Voice, which hired Alexander Cockburn to scrutinize mainstream journalism. In the establishment press, Timeand Newsweek experimented with media sections (which have long since vanished), reporters at The New York Times offered regular commentary (though almost never on the Times itself), and in 1974, the late David Shaw created a media beat at the Los Angeles Times. Institutions like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and Accuracy in Media (AIM) offered ideologically-bent criticism from the left and right, respectively, while magazines like Quill and Nieman Reports presented material specifically intended for journalists. Over the last couple of decades, American media critics began popping up left (The Nation‘s Eric Alterman, online magazine Salon), right (The Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz, Slate) and centre (Ken Auletta at The New Yorker, Dan Kennedy of the Boston Phoenix), paralleling the proliferation of Ivory Tower critics like Noam Chomsky, Mark Crispin Miller and Ben Bagdikian.

Canada’s history of media criticism is patchy. In 1970, the late Richard MacDonald founded Content. Canada’s first media criticism magazine fired bullets at spin-happy politicians and reported on the comings and goings of journalists for over twenty years. George Bain began covering the media for Maclean’s in 1985, attacking the press for its lack of courage and in-depth reporting, liberal bias and its unwillingness to be criticized. When Bain left just over a decade later, so did his “Media Watch” column. (Former Jerusalem Postpublisher Norman Spector now writes the Daily Press Review for the Maclean’s website.) In the late 1980s and early 1990s, CBC’s Media File (later revived as Now the Details with Mary Lou Finlay as host) ran investigative radio documentaries that examined the way stories were covered. The show had decent ratings, but it was sent to the guillotine when it came time to chop production costs. Rick Salutin wrote a media column in the Globe for eight years before moving to general op-ed. He wasn’t replaced. Ditto for Fraser at the Post. Gregory Boyd Bell, who wrote about media for Eye Weekly and The Hamilton Spectator, has moved into editorial management at the Globe.

By 2002, The Rat had become an endangered species. The sparse population of the media critic wilderness included Robert Fulford at Toronto Life, John Doyle and his TV news reviews in the Globe, Chris Cobb and Tony Atherton at the Ottawa Citizen, and Bruce Wark at The Coast in Halifax. But then something miraculous happened: Antonia Zerbisias stopped smoking marijuana.

In 1928, Petros Zerbisias climbed aboard a ship destined for Halifax. He met his wife Loula in Montreal, where they owned a restaurant called the Deli-Q and started a family. Life in the Zerbisias home was loud and lively. “In our house you had to fight to be heard,” says Zerbisias’s brother George. “And Antonia wanted to be heard so she fought pretty hard.”

In 1963, Miss Tanaka instructed her accelerated Grade 7 class at Merton Elementary School in Montreal to follow and report on a current event. Most of the class followed developments south of the border after the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, but Zerbisias was fascinated by developments in a far-off country called Vietnam. At first captivated by the image of Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, who reminded her of Miss Tanaka, she was soon outraged as photos of Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire and news of political assassinations made their way across the Pacific. A spark was lit.

A couple of years later, at Wagar High School, Zerbisias organized a walkout in protest of a policy that forced students to stay in school during exam time even though there were no classes in session. She was suspended twice, once for smoking within sight of the school and not wearing the regulation sash with her uniform, and another time for “rude, obstreperous and bold” behaviour.

In the fall of 1968, Petros died suddenly of a heart attack. Depressed and caught up in the fervent political atmosphere of the time, Zerbisias lost focus on her studies. She dropped out of Concordia University (then called Sir George Williams University) midway through her second year, but after three months at Ogilvy’s department store she went back to school, where she earned a B.A. in applied social sciences, though she suggests her true major was “sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and protest marches.”

Her journalism career began at Montreal’s Sunday Express, where she worked for just under a year, followed by a gig as a researcher for the Larry Solway Show in Toronto. In September 1975, she returned to Montreal, where her sister Denny was handling the divorce case for Mark Blandford, executive producer for the CBC’s newly created documentary unit. Blandford granted Zerbisias a half-hour job interview that turned into a four-hour conversation. Though Zerbisias was unqualified for the position she applied for, Blandford created one. Her first ninety-day contract read: “Analyst: Analyzes Incoming and Outgoing Mail.” “The CBC was so bureaucratic back then,” she says. Zerbisias eventually became a current affairs reporter for The City at Six, and in 1978, left her husband, moving in with and marrying Blandford.

Antonia ZerbisiasZerbisias returned to Concordia for an M.B.A in 1980. The lucrative job offers from banks came pouring in, but they failed to seduce her. During her M.B.A. studies, Zerbisias began writing freelance for the American entertainment trade journal Variety. One of her first assignments was the Montreal World Film Festival, run by Serge Losique. When Zerbisias trashed the event’s distribution and deal-making aspects, Losique sent a letter to head offices in New York threatening to sue. Zerbisias was not intimidated and refused to back down. Losique never followed through, and Zerbisias’s toughness left a lasting impression on her editor, Sid Adilman.

In 1985, CBC’s Venture hired Zerbisias as a business reporter, but she was fired after eleven months of clashes with the executive producer. She didn’t return to journalism full-time until 1989, when Adilman, by then the Star‘s entertainment editor, called to tell her there was a job opening for a TV writer. Initially she said she wasn’t interested, but she changed her mind when she realized her marriage was deteriorating. She worked several beats over the next few years, including stints as a TV critic and Montreal correspondent and columnist. As a Star media reporter, Zerbisias wrote a biting critique of a Maclean’s profile on fiddler Ashley MacIsaac. The piece was quintessential Zerbisias: a snarky, breezy read, with humour masking the underlying rage. “Frankly, I couldn’t care less if Ashley MacIsaac won a gold medal for water sports,” she wrote. “He could step-dance his way through the leather bars of Church St., play with more than his violin, hitch up his tartan and moon all the nobs at the Hummingbird Centre inaugural tonight and it would not make a single note of his ‘Sleepy Maggie’ any less sweet.” The piece, along with two others including a critique of aSaturday Night profile on Craig Kielburger impressed judges for the National Newspaper Awards. They handed Zerbisias the 1996 NNA for critical writing, saying Zerbisias “is not one to mince with words as she focuses on the subject matter at hand. She proceeds to give us her insights, analysis and critique not only with rhetorical, stylistic and intellectual rigor, but with gusto and passion, a rare commodity in today’s bland politically correct journalism.” Not everyone was impressed. During her acceptance speech, Zerbisias jokingly thanked John Honderich and managing editor Lou Clancy “for not firing me.” Later in the night, Clancy approached Zerbisias. “We just haven’t fired you yet.”

Zerbisias returned to CBC in 2000 to host Inside Media. Co-host Matthew Fraser says the prospect of working for the public broadcaster made her competitive. “Antonia was very jealous of airtime,” he says. “She saw it as her big career chance to become a CBC personality, and she wasn’t going to let me bugger it up for her. Whenever I was on a roll and doing a lot of talking, she would pinch my thigh or kick me on the shin under the table to tell me to shut up and let her talk.”

Critics say Zerbisias’s relationship with CBC is too cozy. “She likes the CBC much more than she ought to,” says Adilman. “She’s not able to pull herself back.”

I first encountered Zerbisias in the Fall of 2004 at Cabeer Night, the annual booze-and-schmooze for Ryerson journalism students and pros at the Imperial Pub in downtown Toronto. After much conversation and even more beer, Zerbisias, dressed in a black long sleeve shirt and leather pants, recounted the story of becoming the Star‘s media critic.

In the summer of 2002, while still working as a TV critic, she decided to quit smoking cigarettes. But this posed a problem: every time she smoked a joint, her cigarette cravings became impossible to ignore. So she quit smoking pot. This solution created a bigger problem: the combination of sobriety and hours of sitcoms was unbearable. She had to get out. So she approached entertainment editor John Ferri to work out a proposal for a media column that would focus on journalism.

In August 2002, Zerbisias went out for dinner with her successor, Vinay Menon, in Toronto’s Greektown to discuss how the TV beat would change his life. “After a half-litre of white wine, Antonia sat upright and promptly reframed the discussion,” Menon says. “It wasn’t that my life would change, it was that I would cease to have one.” The TV critic beat had consumed five years of her life, and Zerbisias was exhausted. Although the media file is no less consuming (midway through our first interview, Zerbisias suddenly stopped and said, “I’m sitting here without the TV on. That’s bad. That’s not like me at all”), it comes with a whole new set of hurdles.

It is now March 2003. America has just launched a new war against another small, far-off country, and Zerbisias is once again outraged. On March 20, she writes the following in her weekly media column: “Remember how, when you were a kid, the toy you saw on TV never turned out to be as good as you had expected? It was then that you first learned a painful lesson about truth in advertising. Thanks to a consumer advocacy movement in the 1970s, one supported by ‘action hotlines’ and investigative reporters, most advertisers have since cleaned up their acts. But not all. Now there’s one marketing team that appears to have no qualms about lying, no hesitation about making false claims, no ethics at all when it comes to moving product: George W. Bush’s White House. So where are the media watchdogs now?”

Her critics pounce on this decidedly left-wing point of view. “Her biggest weakness is her ‘good and evil’ vision of the world,” says Fraser. “She sees no greys, no nuances. She sees good guys (left-wing people like herself, her pals at the CBC) and bad guys (neo-conservatives and people who like George Bush).” Robert Fulford described Zerbisias’s work as “pure ideology, simple-minded and altogether appropriate to the Star‘s editorial environment” in his Toronto Life media column. “There’s a point of view and then there’s a robot,” he says, “If she writes about George Bush, is she going to surprise anyone?”

Zerbisias doesn’t apologize for the political bent of her media criticism. She would often tell Fraser that the Atkinson Principles (the Star‘s liberal editorial policy written by late publisher Joseph E. Atkinson) were “tattooed on my ass.” In an interview with the Online Journalism Review she said, “Critiquing the U.S. media is like shooting fish in a barrel. Whenever I need a day off, I set my sights south of the 49th parallel and knock off a column quickly.” Meanwhile, she dismisses any suggestion she’s too sympathetic to CBC. “What I’m a big defender of is not so much the CBC – because God knows the CBC is flawed – it’s public broadcasting,” she says. “It infuriates me to no end when the Andrew Coynes of the world get a platform to say you don’t need public broadcasting.” And she responds to Fulford by attacking his increasing kneejerk conservatism. “I have always been admiring of his prose,” she says, “but in recent years I have found that he has become what he used to rail against when he was younger.”

Antonia ZerbisiasThis ideological ping-pong match is one of the great dangers Canadian media criticism faces. What readers need is wellresearched, thoughtful media criticism that deconstructs the world of journalism for readers, not the same tired arguments about liberal bias or vast conservative conspiracies. Zerbisias’s best work – thoughtful, provocative and uncompromising – proves she can do the job as well as anyone, but her inability to avoid a fight with the right often provides ammunition for those who say she’s nothing more than a predictable liberal apologist. “There’s no one who knows the facts on the ground better than her,” says Boyd Bell, Toronto editor of the Globe. “I wish that her work reflected more of the breadth of her actual knowledge.”

Over the years, Zerbisias has created an army of enemies outside the small realm of media workers. When her brother George moved to Toronto, he quickly pulled his name from the phonebook, fed up with callers demanding to speak to his “crazy bitch wife.” Zerbisias is a favourite target of conservative bloggers, who’ve called her everything from “fat Tony” to an “anti-Israel Hizb’Allah-supporting harpy.” During her coverage of the war in Iraq, Zerbisias received hundreds of emails of both support and contempt. She responded to all of them.

Of all the qualities that make Zerbisias a good media critic – intelligence, courage, feistiness – there is none more important than her masochistic spirit. “Nobody would hire me now,” she says. “They would all just be so happy to see me suffer and die. They don’t see it is as me doing a job. They don’t see it as a necessary evil. They take it personally.” Her language here is painted with a coat of hyperbolic paranoia. After all, Boyd Bell regularly criticized the Star and the Globe in his media columnist days, and he has since found employment with both companies. But there’s no denying the fact that when it comes to journalism, the predator can’t stand being made the prey. You may disagree with Zerbisias’s politics, but it’s hard to argue with the depth and breadth of her sourcing and reporting. The next time she comes after you, remember: it’s not personal. She’s just doing her job.

Outside, on this chilly November evening, the temperature is steadily dropping, but it’s all right. After a quick walk from the cab, Zerbisias will be cozy inside the Arcadian Court on Bay Street, where she’s about to play media host at the TD Bank Financial Group table for the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression 2005 International Press Freedom Awards dinner. Her formal attire includes a dark, flowing designer knit dress with black boots, “earrings left over from the ’80s which are back in style” and rectangular, red-rimmed reading glasses.

As we enter the bar area filled with journalists downing predinner drinks, Zerbisias greets CTV News president Robert Hurst with a kiss on each cheek. When I tell Hurst my reason for accompanying the media critic this evening, he puts a thumb and pinky finger to his ear and mouth and says, “Call me.”

At the bar, Zerbisias orders a light beer. “I’m avoiding Burman tonight,” she says, referring to CBC news honcho Tony Burman. She recently handed him a battering on her blog and he rapidly swung back, labelling the post “stupid and uninformed.”

Soon enough, it becomes clear that every journalist in the room has felt the impact of Hell’s Belle. Well, almost every journalist. As the mob moves to the dining area, an elegantly dressed Anna Maria Tremonti approaches.

“The champion of the CBC!” Tremonti exclaims. “How are you, darling?”

“I’m okay, thank you,” Zerbisias says mid-embrace. “How are you, darling?”

“I’m well.”

She’s feeling even better after dinner. As The New Yorker‘s Seymour Hersh takes the podium, his red tie slightly out of place, glasses balancing precariously on the tip of his nose, Zerbisias leans on the back of her chair, ready to soak in the eminent investigative reporter’s words.

Hersh lays into the George W. Bush administration, and she nods in agreement. Shifting gears, he then begins a short, brutal assault on American media. “The press failed the U.S. in preventing the war in Iraq,” he says.

Zerbisias smiles.

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