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The Melmac Years

My peculiar resin d’être

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Who talks of my nation?

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What recent populist victories tell us about Canada

The Trial Coverage on Trial

Between the fawners and the tricoteuses, journalism is found guilty

Suanne Kelman

My experience with journalists authorizes me to record that a very large number of them are ignorant, lazy, opinionated, intellectually dishonest, and inadequately supervised.—Conrad Black, quoted in the Carleton Journalism Review, Winter 1979–80

He was the best friend that thousands of British, American and Canadian journalists ever had. And for this they have now turned on him. A biting of the hand that fed them, like some petulant and spoiled child laughing as a parent slips on the ice and is obviously hurt.—Michael Coren, Toronto Sun, November 4, 2006.

The fellating of Black, in some quarters, has been astonishing. One courtroom correspondent, blogging instantly as the verdicts were read out, led off his news flash with the not-guilty bits. In my business, we call this burying the lead.—Rosie DiManno, Toronto Star, July 14, 2007

Once upon a time, not so long ago, Canadian reporters covered court proceedings with a measure of caution, even decorum. This was not a reflection of their deep respect for the justice system—their editors were frightened of vindictive judges. To avoid a contempt of court charge, it was wise to adopt the Dragnet approach: just the facts. During a trial, you covered only what had been said in court. Until there was an actual conviction, you could not say or imply that someone was guilty—nor even quote the police if they did so. (All right, that one got broken some of the time, as poor Steven Truscott and Guy Paul Morin could no doubt attest.)

Moreover, you had to avoid scandalizing the court—a catch-all offence that could well extend to assessing the judge’s sexual attractiveness or trashing the prosecution’s performance or insulting the jury’s social status, intelligence and taste in clothes. Yet all of those were regular features in the Canadian coverage of the trial under discussion here: the trial of Conrad Black.

The laws that dictated this approach are still on the books, but today many reporters ignore them. From 1994 to 1995, the O.J. Simpson circus accustomed Canadian readers to an orgy of speculation and comment during a legal case. Some Canadian reporters mimicked that approach during Paul Bernardo’s trial—although I’m told U.S. journalists at the court derided their Canadian colleagues’ reluctance to harass the victims’ families.

I don’t want to romanticize the past excessively, but the many brazen improprieties in the coverage of this trial strike me as a new development. In the old days, I can’t see a broadsheet assigning the ex-husband of a defendant’s wife to cover the trial. Yet the National Post did exactly that with George Jonas, the second husband of Barbara Amiel, a.k.a. Lady Black. (Jonas has remained close to Amiel through her subsequent marriages; his coverage was consistently pro-Black.)

Ken Whyte, the editor of Maclean’s, would have felt compelled to spend more space addressing the issue of his past employment by Black at the National Post. He might even have disclosed the $100,000 bonus that Conrad Black paid him well after their business relationship had ended—before that information showed up in Whyte’s testimony for Black’s defence at the trial. Maclean’s not only covered the trial in excruciating detail both in the magazine and on Mark Steyn’s fiercely partisan blog, but also gave Lord Black two pages as the trial started to present his own case, and allowed Lady Black to continue writing her usual column.

To be fair, Lady Black has never actually addressed the issue of her husband’s guilt or innocence head-on in the column, although she has come dangerously close. On January 1, 2007, the column denounced snitches. It did not mention David Radler, Black’s former partner and current nemesis, but I think a reader might draw an inference or two from her attacks on the sanctification of whistle blowers. Other columns have dealt with her own suffering during the trial, an ordeal that has reduced her to compulsively watching the hotel’s video on fire safety and washing her own underwear.

But the conflict-of-interest taint extends well beyond Black’s immediate family and favourite past employees. The trouble with former newspaper owners is that they tend to know a lot of journalists. Some reporters, including Mark Steyn and Christie Blatchford, have been careful to reveal their ties to the defendants. On March 11, the Toronto Sun’s Peter Worthington laid some of his cards on the table, mentioning his past working relationship with Amiel and his sympathy for Black. He expressed the pious hope that they would remain friends. But in general, the reader was left to guess at the labyrinth of favours, slights, resentments and prejudices that animated so much of the writing.

(For the record, I have never worked for or even met Conrad Black. I have twice shaken hands with his wife. Any other conflicts of interest, however slight, will be noted below.)

Not everything about the Black trial coverage was dispiriting. A great deal of it was accurate and thorough, and reasonably faithful to the traditions of reporting on Canadian trials. Canadian Press provided admirable if lengthy summaries every day. ((In the interest of full disclosure, let me admit that at Ryerson I taught CP’s Romina Maurino. I also dealt frequently with the Toronto Star’s Robyn Doolittle, usually to fend off her pleas for funding for her extra-curricular projects. )) The major newspapers tended to divide their coverage into two categories: factual reporting and clearly labelled commentary. The factual reporting was conscientious and generally fair. It was also rather dull, especially during the long wait for the verdict. That may explain why The Globe and Mail, commendably neutral until that point, went temporarily berserk over the hot scoop that Conrad Black was not wearing socks.

One exception was Peter Worthington’s reporting for the Toronto Sun, which was largely a cheerleading section for the defendants. Worthington’s readers must have been shocked by the verdict. He predicted a full acquittal on June 29, making no secret of his position: “I felt strongly that the wrong person was on trial.” For Worthington, Radler was the only villain in the piece.

Unfortunately, I suspect that most people skipped the sober summaries in the other papers and turned to the less daunting columns, opinion pieces and gossip. Who could blame them? Thanks to the rise of blogging, no human being could actually have read every word written about the trial.

That is a damning piece of bad news about the coverage. There was far, far too much of it. For that, you can blame not the journalists but their editors and publishers. Reporters do not determine the size of the hole they will fill. The people who own and run media outlets were riveted by this trial, whose outcome is so certain to affect their futures. Maclean’s, in its special pre-trial edition of March 12, 2007, called it “the white-collar trial of the century”—surely premature, given that the century has 93 years left to land a bigger fish. But many of the stories trumpeted the joy of having a home-grown martyr or villain, with a corresponding resentment that the U.S. press refused to acknowledge Black’s full importance as either saint or sinner.

But the saturation reporting did not work. Most non-journalists lost all interest fairly early. The coverage provides the most flagrant example of Canada’s press shoving a story down the public’s unhungry throat since the days when so many employees of the CBC and The Globe and Mail mutated into Meech Lake Moonies.

That is another unpalatable lesson here: the public makes its own decisions about what is important. But boredom was only one factor in the public’s creeping indifference. More than any other issue except coverage of Israel, this one generated public resentment of media bias.

For that is what most readers will remember: the shamelessly partisan salvos of the commentators. Aside from the above-mentioned Worthington and Jonas, Black’s cheering section was led by the Globe’s Christie Blatchford (although she struggled with her loyalties at times) and above all Maclean’s Mark Steyn, in both the magazine and his logorrheic blog.

Like Worthington, Steyn took as his central premise the conviction that Black was innocent and the trial a cruel farce. In his column of July 9, he wrote wonderingly: “How did it come to this? How did a Canadian accountant, a Canadian lawyer and a British peer wind up having the rest of their lives determined by Bashful, Sleepy, Bubbly and the other members of a generally attentive and sober but extremely foreign jury?”

The writings of the Blacks themselves were often equally uninhibited. The most frequently quoted pensée of Lady Black’s ran in Maclean’s on May 14:

I suppose it’s the process of being singled out that is often more frightening than the thing itself. A Holocaust survivor once explained to me that when Jews were being rounded up it was awful, but you were not in it alone. Your friends and family were in a similar situation—there was a sort of order. One was, so to speak, less traumatized belonging to a persecuted group than being the single elephant man, though being a member of a persecuted group could be far deadlier.

In her husband’s self-defence, in the same magazine’s issue of March 19, 2007, he characterized his detractors as “braying, hideous tricoteuses,” casting himself as a hapless aristo losing his head while the citoyens of the French Revolution did their ominous knitting.

And who leads this latter-day Terror? The Toronto Star’s Rosie DiManno would probably qualify as Mme. Defarge. On July 7, before the verdict even came down, Di Manno dismissed Black as “an impostor and blackguard,” adding that he is “merely a sleight of hand illusionist … merely a rank bully and self-idolator, sailing rashly close to the edge.” The Star’s Jennifer Wells and David Olive also plied their needles during the trial, and others added the occasional stitch. The Globe’s Margaret Wente merits an honourable mention for a column on July 17: “In Chicago, they have a saying that pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered. Lord Black was a hog.”

Perhaps it is my own bias, but I found the anti-Black forces less vitriolic than his defenders. Nonetheless, they clearly had too good a time. DiManno took a number of swings at Amiel, some of them probably grounds for a human rights grievance. “There’s a term for morbid sexual fascination with the elderly,” she wrote. “It’s called gerontophilia. In Canada, it’s also called Barbara Amielia.” After the conviction, on July 14, a Toronto Star column by David Olive ran under the headline: “A harsh fate, but one well deserved.” It included the following paragraph:

That first debacle revealed the suspect business acumen of Black and his “associates.” (Black has always described his fellow executives that way, as if they were engaged in law, medicine or some other calling more distinguished than grubby commerce.)

The anti-Black forces focused on what they found wrong—paying yourself not to compete with yourself, spending grotesque amounts of money, arrogant boasting—and equated immorality with illegality. His enemies in the press seemed to suggest that the guilty verdict was simply a long-delayed punishment for Black’s past conduct, all the way back to the exams he stole at Upper Canada College. Maybe that is why some of them reverted to their schoolyard days in their post-verdict taunting. In a piece suggesting that Black flee the States, DiManno wrote: “Run, Conrad, Run … Shake that bulging booty and take it on the lam …”

The pro-Black forces felt compelled to defend not only the legality of the conduct of the accused, but also its inherent rightness, which involved some tricky ethical contortions. (I particularly enjoyed reading the repeated denigration of the $80 million at issue as a mere trifle.) The business practices of the accused may or may not have been legal, but to argue that they were admirable is to try to make, if you will forgive me, black white.

As Blatchford wrote: “There are those who loathe or are deeply envious of Lord Black and wish, so badly they can taste it, that he ends up being marched off to jail in handcuffs. And there are those who like or admire him and just as keenly want him to be acquitted and then watch as he takes his revenge upon those on the other side.” There is not much room there for someone who just wants to cover the story.

I think for most people who tried to follow the trial, the single most disconcerting element was the energy devoted by some of the press to covering themselves and one another. Steyn was easily the worst offender. His identification with the accused at times hovered perilously close to the pathological. On July 11, he noted on his blog: “I can’t speak for the defendants, but for yours truly these last two weeks have been the most dispiriting, a glimpse into the pit of hell into which three relatively ordinary fellows plus one outsized British peer have been lowered by fate and the U.S. justice system.”

But Steyn was not alone. Worthington sniped that he hadn’t once seen DiManno in court; DiManno responded in print that they had chatted about the Blue Jays just two days earlier, with a condescending nod to his advanced age as an implicit explanation of his amnesia. The blogs let you know which journalists took lunch with the Blacks, and speculate on which ones were getting late-night calls from the prosecution.

That’s not really a surprise. Journalism seems increasingly to suffer from an affliction first observable in Hollywood—the desire to become the centre of the story. Just as film producers have elbowed themselves into the publicity process (and very boring most of them are), reporters and editors and publishers suffer from the delusion that they are as interesting as the stories they cover. Does the public really need to know what Steyn said to Lady Black when she asked if the jury hated her and her husband? Did the Globe’s Paul Waldie really need to share this sentence from an email to him from Lord Black: “If you ran in this weather, I will put you in for an [Order of Canada] Medal; Companion if you had your rucksack on your back.” I think not.

And now we brace for yet another round, as the appeals begin. After reading hundreds of thousands of words on the subject, I find that I—like many other Canadians—still have no idea if the conduct of the accused and at least temporarily convicted was actually illegal. There is not a scintilla of doubt in my mind, however, that it was excessive and an affront to common decency. But so was too much of the coverage of the trial. If Conrad Black has become the unacceptable face of capitalism, a great deal of the writing that recorded his downfall represents the increasingly unacceptable—read self-indulgent, self-involved and ethically suspect—face of journalism.

Suanne Kelman is professor emerita of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University. She is the author of All in the Family: A Cultural History of Family Life (Viking, 1998).