Black and Whyte and Read All Over
With close to 300,000 readers across the country, the loud, opinionated, irreverent National Post has outperformed all expectations. But is there enough substance underneath all that style to sustain its success?
By David Hayes, Toronto Life, December 1999
SHORTLY AFTER 11 A.M. on a Friday in July, 15 editors seat themselves around a table in the conference room of the National Post‘s Don Mills headquarters. The third-floor room is bright and informal. Beneath plate glass windows sits a bust of Elvis Presley on which someone has put sunglasses. Four cartons of Sleeman’s Ale, left over from a recent celebration, are stacked in the corner. On the wall hangs a six-foot colour poster of the classic 1930s newspaper movie The Front Page.
At the head of the table, hunched in his chair, sits Ken Whyte, the 39-year-old editor-in-chief who has been described as the son that Conrad Black, the Post‘s owner, should have had. The punishing hours Whyte has put in over the past couple of years have taken their toll. He’s grown chunkier, his face more fleshy; at this rate, he’s going to end up looking just like Black. In his navy blue Timberline jacket, an open-necked shirt, chinos and leather desert boots, you could mistake him for a tenderfoot ready to go on his first hike. Yet there’s no mistaking he’s the boss. Whenever anything is said, faces turn expectantly toward him. Often he just sits like a sphinx or murmurs noncommittally. There is a sense that his every word is being analyzed for clues. It’s an exercise in the zen of wielding power.
“There’s a study here that found moms who whine a lot have kids who whine a lot,” says Alison Uncles, the national editor, and the room fills with laughter. A tall, long-limbed 32-year-old whose bark of a laugh is one of the signature sounds of the newsroom, Uncles is an Ottawa native who came to the Post by way of the Ottawa Citizen and, before that, a two-year stint at The Daily Telegraph in London.
“It’s a scandal,” she says, rolling her eyes. “They asked some moms to put their hands in cold water for four minutes. Some were asked to really act out in a dramatic way. Then they asked the kids to put their hands in cold water. The ones whose mothers had been dramatic also made big faces and acted dramatically.”
Elbows on the table, chin in his palm, Whyte gazes into the middle distance. At moments like these, which are frequent, people wonder whether he’s paying attention or daydreaming. “Nice to see that kind of high-class research,” he says dryly, although he clearly likes the story. “What else?”
“Reform has been asked to give up one seat out west so Joe Clark can get a House of Commons seat.”
Whyte brightens. “That’ll get a good pissing match going. Call the whiny Reformers who oppose giving up the seat, and ask them what they think. We can have fun with this one.”
That could be the Post‘s motto. Readers who turn to the “basement”–a story on the lower half of the front page–are often rewarded with fun, offbeat tales and bizarre academic studies. (WOMEN WHO SHAVE HAVE LOWER SELF-ESTEEM: STUDY; SNORING MEN COST WIVES AN HOUR OF SLEEP, STUDY SAYS; PUPPY MAKES EMERGENCY CALL TO SAVE HER OWN LIFE.) When people refer to the Post as having the character of a British newspaper, they probably mean the near-juvenile preoccupation with sex, amply reflected in the basement. (GAYS’ MANHOOD SURPASSES THAT OF STRAIGHT MEN: STUDY; SCHOOL TAUGHT ME HOW TO HAVE SEX, SAYS 14-YEAR-OLD DAD-TO-BE IN U.K.; FISH FIND CROSS-DRESSING GOOD FOR THEIR SEX LIFE.) Not to suggest that the Post doesn’t treat serious news in a serious way, but it’s very much part of the paper’s personality–an extension of his own–that Whyte’s first impulse was not simply to cover the Reform-Clark story, but to stir things up.
SINCE ITS LAUNCH last October, the Post has been stirring up the Canadian newspaper business and inspiring strong public reaction. Left-leaning readers will tell you that Whyte runs it as a mouthpiece for Black and his wife, Barbara Amiel; that it’s flamboyantly smug and right-wing, like Black himself, who once said that Canada’s press was dominated by the “bland, uncontroversial victim-culture left.”
Mention the paper to its most loyal and conservative readers–or to its proprietor–and they’ll tell you that liberals have dominated the media for years, that finally a Canadian paper reflects their views. Some will argue it’s only because the world has become so politically correct (a sin spawned by the left) that the Post‘s straight-shooting, tell-it-like-it-is attitude is vilifed rather than celebrated.
Certainly the Post is different from any other Canadian daily of the past half century. A boldly designed broadsheet that runs long stories addressing political and social issues, it has a tabloid’s scrappy irreverence, with its penchant for sexual arcana, woolly animal tales and what one editor describes as “a babe on the front page, every day.” Judged by its editorials and its opinion columns, the Post has rarely met a rightwing view it doesn’t support–advocating tax cuts and two-tiered health care, bashing feminism, government-run daycare programs Lloyd Axworthy’s “soft power” foreign policy, Quebec sovereignty and the disenfranchised. Right-wing bylines, on a continuum from David Frum to Amiel to, on one occasion, Margaret Thatcher, dominate. To misquote the journalist and critic H. L. Mencken, the Post afflicts liberals and comforts conservatives.
“Balance” is provided by the likes of broadcaster and feminist Judy Rebick, Edmonton Journal columnist Linda Goyette, Ottawa Citizen columnist Susan Riley and playwright Brad Fraser, all of whom appear sporadically. Everyone was surprised when Linda McQuaig, once described by Black as “weedy” and a “not very bright left-wing reporter” who writes “sophomoric, soporiferous left-wing books,” was given a twice-monthly column buried in the Financial Post. In other parts of the paper, fair, even sympathetic, articles have been published on left-wing activists, women’s shelters and the homeless. These kinds of stories tend to run deep in the life section, segregated from the main news pages, where a paper declares what it deems most important for its readers to think about.
One day, at a bistro not far from his Leaside home, I asked Ken Whyte whether the Post represented a dissenting view from that of the mainstream media. Sounding much like his corporate boss, he said, “I think most people would find us to have acceptable mainstream views. I think there used to be a kind of official Globe-Toronto Star-CBC consensus on what the issues were. All the people who were conservatives were out in the marginal papers, the Suns and stuff. That’s changed. Far from dissenting, I think the Post is right where Canada is now.”
The numbers seem to bear him out. The Post has outperformed expectations, rapidly developing a readership that challenges, even surpasses, the Globe’s in most Canadian markets. In Vancouver, for example, the Post has reached a circulation of 50,000 on Saturdays and 45,000 on weekdays, compared to the Globe’s six-day average of approximately 30,000. In Calgary and Ottawa, the two papers are running neck and neck; in Edmonton, the Post is slightly ahead. As of October, its national circulation was approaching 300,000, well above Black’s first-year projection, and close on the heels of the Globe’s approximately 315,000.
Despite industry skepticism, the National Post looked and read like a credible paper from day one. Black’s resources allowed it to hire top talent and to give away papers and offer cut-rate introductory subscriptions. It also has novelty appeal: it’s noisy, it attracts attention. But novelties are by definition short-lived, and the question is whether the Post has enough substance beneath its glossy surface to sustain readers. Are Canadians ready to embrace an unambiguously right-wing paper over the long run?
IN THE SPRING OF 1997, Conrad Black was the third-largest newspaper owner in the world. His Hollinger International Inc. controlled an empire that included London’s prestigious Daily Telegraph, Israel’s Jerusalem Post and Chicago’s Sun-Times. The company also owned many small dailies and weeklies in Canada and had recently acquired more than 50 per cent of Southam Inc., which meant Black had his hands on more than half of Canada’s 105 dailies.
Southam, however, did not have a newspaper in Toronto. Black is a press baron in the old-fashioned sense: he relishes the power and influence of owning high-profile newspapers almost as much as he enjoys the profits they produce. Over the years, he had expressed interest in buying the Globe from Thomson Newspapers; and in April 1997 he tried to purchase The Financial Post, in which he held a 20 per cent stake, from Sun Media Corp. Shortly after being rebuffed, he began talking publicly about launching a national daily.
Starting a paper from scratch is no small undertaking. There have been only two successful broadsheet start-ups in the English-speaking western world in the past half century. In 1986, The Independent, a centre-left broadsheet, was launched in the U.K.; it’s still struggling financially. And in 1982, USA Today, a national daily aimed at travelling businesspeople, was created by the Virginia-based Gannett Company. It lost $800 million (U.S.) before finally turning a profit 11 years later. Although Canadian revenues from circulation and advertising were at their highest levels in years, was there room to launch another paper in the already crowded Toronto market?
If there wasn’t a compelling product rationale, there was, from Black’s point of view, a powerful corporate one. For Southam, the lack of a Toronto flagship meant that the rest of the chain’s papers didn’t receive a lot of original news from the country’s largest city. More important, Southam as a corporation was largely invisible in Toronto. The chain’s advertising reach and its stock price were stunted because few Toronto decision-makers ever saw a Southam paper.
Trying to squeeze a new local daily into Toronto would have been folly, but Black saw another opportunity. “There are 25 million English-reading people being served only by the Globe,” he explained recently. “I thought of the Globe as a trans-Canada business paper with thorough if rather ponderous and not very enterprising parliamentary coverage, a few tokenistic gestures toward regional interests here and there, and some Toronto news for expat Torontonians temporarily living in other cities. As for Toronto, we would have to roll over The Financial Post first, but once we’d done that we’d be in a position to engage in direct combat with The Globe and Mail.”
Black instructed two senior Southam executives–president and CEO Don Babick, who was based in Vancouver, and vice-president of editorial Gordon Fisher, who operated out of Southam’s Toronto office–to draw up preliminary plans. By the summer, a small team had been assembled to work on prototypes. It included Kirk LaPointe, editor of The Hamilton Spectator (where the project was based to make use of the papers infrastructure), Michael Cooke, editor of the Vancouver Province, and Ken Whyte, then editor of Saturday Night. During one conversation with Black, Whyte asked the predictably skeptical nuts-and-bolts questions: Who would read it? How would it be different? How would it be circulated? A frustrated Black told him: “You’re looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Don’t dwell on the problems–look at what’s possible.”
Southam publishers across the country, nervous about competition for advertisers and readers, argued in favour of a business and sports paper with a bit of general news. But Black’s vision was grander. His thinking was that a smart, sophisticated daily could compete with, if not outgun, the Globe on national and international news and provide an equally strong arts, lifestyle and sports package.
Still, the paper was conceived at first as a compact “second read,” not a direct competitor to the Globe. The first prototype was modest: 32 pages, four sections, a small editorial staff. Much of its content was drawn from Southam papers and the Southam News wire service, as well as Black’s international holdings. Its emphasis was on national and foreign coverage; there was little Toronto news, and it had a leisurely, writerly quality.
Whyte drew inspiration from one of his favourite papers, The New York Observer. A kind of neighbourhood weekly for the Upper East Side, the Observer is printed on distinctive pink newsprint and mixes feature coverage of the courts and high society by a staff of young reporters with a team of cranky opinion columnists. (Black had told Whyte to draw up a wish list of hires, so he was already thinking of Mordecai Richler and David Frum as columnists, and veteran newspapermen Roy MacGregor and Allen Abel as roving writer-reporters.) He also borrowed from the Observer its retro pen-and-ink drawings of columnists.
Soon the prototype had grown to 40 pages nationally, with four additional local pages in the Toronto edition, and the size of the editorial staff had expanded with it. It was to be published five days a week, with a special weekend package included on Fridays.
LaPointe, today editor-in-chief and associate publisher of the Spectator (now owned by Torstar), remembers efforts to make the paper distinctive. “The Globe had institutional coverage on just about every page,” he says. “So how were we going to avoid that, have news with a lot of human interest? One thing we came up with was a politics page, treating politics as theatre. So there’d be something like a theatre review, and a longer, thoughtful story and then some news reports.”
LaPointe is sitting in his large office in the Spectator’s downtown Hamilton headquarters, a huge floor-to-ceiling window facing the newsroom. A youthful-looking man in his early 40s, nattily dressed, hair gently spiked and gelled, he explains that the big question, back in early 1998, was what Black’s mystery paper would look like. He gestures toward a rear corner of the newsroom. “There’s the space we were working in, where people were walking in to get their lunch out of the fridge. The media were writing reckless stories about how this was going to be like a tabloid USA Today, and any dolt could have walked through that room, peered over our shoulders and seen Daily Telegraph-style broadsheet pages.”
As the paper evolved, it had an Achilles heel: its business pages. Business readers were generally well served by the Globe‘s Report on Business section, with The Financial Post filling the small remaining niche. What could the new paper offer that readers weren’t already getting? The solution was a small but sophisticated “second read,” borrowing elements from the Los Angeles-based Investor’s Business Daily and The Wall Street Journal.
BY THE SUMMER OF 1997, Whyte had emerged as the leader of the development team. (“Conrad told me from day one that I was the leader,” says Whyte, “but not everyone knew.”) Born in Winnipeg and raised in suburban Edmonton, the second of four children whose father worked at International Harvester, he’d been an indifferent student whose main interest was sports. After dropping out of university, he shuffled from job to job until being hired as a sports reporter at a small weekly. In 1984, at 23, he became a staff writer at Alberta Report. Founded by Ted Byfield, a crusty, hard-drinking former newspaperman who was also a devout Christian and a western populist, the magazine represented the extreme end of social conservatism and functioned as a kind of publicity service for the Reform party. Its favourite social evils: big government, unions, liberalism (equated with socialism), the environmental movement, abortion, feminism and homosexuality. (One cover story bore the title GAYS: CAN THEY BE CURED? and for years feminists of any description were called “fembos.”)
Whyte, who absorbed Byfield’s love for his craft, his instinct for sniffing out news and his storytelling expertise, stayed on for seven years, rising to executive editor. The Post is more catholic in its interests and more moderate in its tone than Alberta Report, but Whyte’s enthusiasm for–to take one example–Donna Laframboise’s stories on men as victims of domestic abuse brings to mind Byfield’s similar crusades.
Whyte began writing for Saturday Night in the late 1980s and became its western editor in 1991, the year he left Alberta Report. Around the same time, he was writing a weekly column from a western perspective for the Globe. Then, in 1994, he was named editor of Saturday Night, and his impact was quickly felt. Provocative perhaps best describes his editorship of the magazine. “Ken knows a good story and loves making trouble,” says his friend Mark Stevenson, who worked for him at Saturday Night and until recently was the Post‘s news features editor. “His instinct is for a good scrap, a good fight.”
Everyone who knows Whyte mentions his aversion to sacred cows, which explains Saturday Night cover stories on the alleged manipulation of teenage child-labour crusader Craig Kielburger, the accusation that Farley Mowat fudged the facts in his best-selling books on the north and, in what may be the most bizarre editorial decision of Whyte’s career, the commissioning of two heterosexual (as far as we know) neo-conservative journalists, David Frum and Andrew Coyne, to debate whether gay rights should include marriage and adoption.
At the Post, it was Whyte’s idea to create a non-traditional newsroom that mixed established stars with younger talent whose energy would animate the paper. Forever jotting names in his journals, he proved a shrewd and persuasive talent scout.
Some of his choices were no-brainers. The Edmonton Journal’s Cam Cole was a star sportswriter in the west just waiting for a national platform. Whyte had not read Christie Blatchford in the Sun–he admits to a bit of tabloid chauvinism–but when he finally did, he courted the woman whose crime coverage has made her the most popular columnist in the new paper. From the Globe, he picked off the trilingual Isabel Vincent, who had been its Rio de Janeiro-based South American correspondent and had also written for him at Saturday Night.
Publishers and editors at Southam dailies across the country watched with dismay as the new paper poached some of their best talent, such as the Edmonton Journal’s John Geiger, Shawn Ohler and Charlie Gillis; The Vancouver Sun’s Marina Jimenez, Mark Hume, Margaret Munro and Stewart Bell; the Montreal Gazette’s Elena Cherney and Jonathon Gatehouse; and the Ottawa Citizen’s Roy MacGregor, Luiza Chwialkowska, Alison Uncles and Andrew McIntosh.
Whyte also hired a number of young magazine journalists, including Laframboise, whose dissident feminism would later stir up controversy among readers of the new paper; Jeannie Marshall, who would become the lead life-section feature writer; and Patrick Graham, whose interest in international affairs would make him one of the new paper’s first foreign correspondents. It all fit Whyte’s idea of a paper filled with “voices,” one with a vivid and colourful personality.
The first name used on a prototype was The Canadian. Times Canada was seriously considered. Thought was given to The Nation, but the left-wing U.S. political magazine had registered that name in Canada and refused to release it. The National, Canadian National, The Canadian Post and others were in the running. “It had to be a serious broadsheet name,” Whyte says. “Nothing too wingy or cute. It had to signal that we were an authoritative newspaper.” (Frank magazine had dubbed it The Daily Tubby after its hefty owner.)
By July, with the team relocated to Don Mills and the launch three months away, Whyte was getting desperate. Then, on July 20, Black acquired The Financial Post from Sun Media for $150 million and the exchange of four of Southam’s southwestern Ontario dailies. The Financial Post would give the new daily a strong business section, an equivalent to the Globe‘s ROB, and a national circulation base of 100,000 weekday readers (200,000 on Saturday). A few hours later, Whyte and Gordon Fisher settled on the name.
WHEN THE NATIONAL POST was launched on October 27, 1998 a month later than planned the operation was in disarray. Some reporters didn’t have desks or phones. The distribution system failed widely (at 8:30 that morning, I had to drive around to a dozen Post boxes to find a paper). Circulation lines were jammed (I called for days trying to sign on). As initial problems were corrected, new ones emerged. Many young reporters, unable to secure cash advances from Southam’s creaky bureaucracy before travelling, maxed out their credit cards before discovering it took months to be reimbursed.
Still, the culture of the paper was, and is, vibrant. Almost everyone at the Post enjoys working there, even those whose political leanings clash with those of the paper’s editorial and op-ed pages. Launching a new national daily was a great adventure, especially for the many young hires who had been given responsibilities–and salaries–that far exceeded what they would be getting at established papers. And everyone was operating at such a frenzied pace that there was no opportunity to dwell on problems. There was an all-for-one, one-for-all determination to get the paper out that to some extent sustains itself to this day, although the honeymoon is gradually fading. (Many staffers, thinking back on the sacrifices of the past year, are now negotiating raises and long-range career objectives. It’s unlikely the Post can accommodate them all.)
People who worked for Whyte at Saturday Night paint a picture of a control freak and a micromanager. As an administrator, in other words, he’s a great journalist. One former editor, asked about Whyte’s administrative abilities, just made a face.
“Ken is organizationally impaired,” the late Jim Cormier told me in early 1998 when he was working at the magazine. “Everything goes through him. Memos pile up on his desk. He’ll come in at the last minute and decide to change something, but that will mean tearing apart the entire issue. You just can’t do that at the 11th hour without creating a nightmare.”
Although a paper like the Post is too large and cumbersome to control in the same way, Whyte generally chairs three editorial meetings a day. Stories abound of unnecessary last-minute tinkering and of obsessive attention to detail, especially in the front news pages, editorial pages and Saturday Review section–the areas of greatest interest to Black and Amiel. Only a workaholic could manage all this, which may explain why it’s not unusual to receive an e-mail from Whyte composed at 4:30 a.m.
His blind spot may be the paper’s editorial board. A good board usually mixes age, experience, gender and–a more recent phenomenon–race. A veteran former foreign correspondent might sit alongside a female reporter in her 30s who might sit alongside an economist turned editorial writer in his 40s who might sit across from an up-and-coming reporter in her 20s. The Post has six editorial writers (not counting John O’Sullivan, a former lead editorial writer for London’s Daily Telegraph, whom Whyte borrowed from the hard-right U.S. magazine the National Review, to lead the board). All six are white–and white-collar–males no older than 34, and all might be described as right of centre with the exception of Jonathan Kay, a centrist who, in this context, is the token lefty. A Post reporter stared in amazement one day as three of them walked into the cafeteria dressed almost identically in the young fogey’s uniform: pale blue shirt, beige chinos, brown shoes. Small wonder the Post’s editorials have a uniformity of tone and an academic sensibility. “They all need to get laid,” is the way one senior editor puts it.
Still, Whyte’s leadership and gift for inspiration are unquestioned. Alison Uncles says, “Ken gives you this job like a gift and says, `I know you can do it.’ So how can you disappoint the guy?” Katrina Onstad, a 29-year-old journalist who had written for Saturday Night and was about to launch a magazine-writing career in New York, says that before Whyte’s overture she had no interest in working in daily news. “I was seduced by Ken. It’s that faith he has in you.” In a comparison that would probably make Whyte flinch, she adds, “When he turns on the charm, he’s like Clinton.”
IF WHYTE IS THE PAPER’S hands-on visionary, deputy editor Martin Newland is its hands-on operations officer. Born in Nigeria to an Anglo-Argentine father working for Shell Oil, he was educated in England at Downside, the Eton of Catholic schools, then at London University. He considered the priesthood before he landed a reporting job for a Catholic newspaper, moving on to The Daily Telegraph and rising rapidly through the ranks as an editor, ending up as home editor (a title roughly corresponding to national editor in North America). Around the Post, it’s expected he’ll return to London with his wife and three children to assume an even more senior post. Two of his colleagues in London have bet a hundred quid that he will eventually become editor of the Telegraph.
“He has very good news judgment,” says Susan Ryan, the managing editor of the Telegraph and Newland’s boss for much of his time there. “He has an eye for detail plus the broader vision. He can see how a story can be developed and extended, how it will look on the page. He’s also unusual in that he’s very good at everything from serious political stories to science stories to human interest stories.”
Newland “injects bulldog British grit,” says one Post reporter, “while retaining the flavour of a national Canadian broadsheet.” He’s a solidly built 38-year-old, almost a caricature of Testosterone Man, though unable to feed his addiction to weight-lifting because of his schedule. His intensity finds expression in fingernails bitten to the quick. He can be witheringly brusque, but has a playful sense of fun; raucous laughter erupts regularly from his desk, and his computer’s screen saver features Elizabeth I with his race replacing hers. Every Friday at four p.m., everyone in the newsroom congregates for a drink beside Whyte’s office (usually celebrating at least one birthday). Newland never misses the event, and during the Wimbledon finals he mixed everyone Pimm’s.
With his background in the hypercompetitive British newspaper world, Newland embodies the scoop-driven culture of the Post. It’s a culture that has spawned Andrew McIntosh’s dogged reporting on Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s financial interest in a Quebec golf club and James Cudmore’s enterprising reports on the Canadian military, both of which established the agenda that the rest of the media followed. Other recent scoops include insider trading allegations against Corel Corp. CEO Michael Cowpland–which the Post began pursuing in August–and stories on how the Liberal government’s research and polls failed to support its position on tax cuts and the brain drain. “We make trouble,” says Newland happily.
The use of reporter-columnists is a Post innovation. Some produce traditional think pieces, but others–such as MacGregor, Laframboise and Blatchford, whose coverage of high-profile criminal trials is the best work of her career–were hired as writer-reporters. Their columns, playing off major news stories, sometimes run on the front page. “To have a complete package [for a big story on the front page], we’re always looking for a `voice,'” says Newland, “one of our own spouting off, providing a reaction to the news. We don’t really care what position they’re taking, so long as they’re there.”
The difference between the Post and the Globe is best illustrated by their 20-something columnists. The Globe‘s Leah McLaren produces a weekly column that reads like she rarely leaves her bedroom. Philosophical think pieces by 23-year-olds have their limits, and too often hers have a precious, navel-gazing quality. At the Post, 26-year-old Rebecca Eckler is more of an old-fashioned, leather-on-the-pavement reporter. If she occasionally slides into superficiality, at least she’s out on the street, interviewing people, poking her nose into odd places.
Critics of the Post say it often “spins” the news, and the judicial contretemps that erupted last winter between Justice John McClung of the Alberta Court of Appeal and Supreme Court Justice Claire L’Heureux-Dube provides a case in point. The Supreme Court reversed McClung’s ruling on a sexual assault case and L’Heureux-Dube, the court’s resident feminist, rebuked him in a written decision. (McClung had written that the accused’s repeated advances on a 17-year-old woman were “less criminal than hormonal,” and he told a Post reporter that the woman, dressed in shorts and T-shirt, “was not lost on her way home from the nunnery.”)
It was a perfect Post story: it involved sex, feminism and a redneck judge. A Post editorial was critical of L’Heureux-Dube, and the paper published prominent, harshly critical commentaries by three of its battery of conservative writers: author George Jonas, criminal lawyer Eddie Greenspan and Barbara Amiel (whose article was entitled FEMINISTS, FASCISTS, AND OTHER RADICALS). Feminist author and Toronto Star columnist Michele Landsberg called the Post‘s treatment of the story “the biggest, most prolonged and most misleading example of `spin’ this country has seen…. It took the National Post to make a woman’s right to sexual autonomy seem an infringement on men’s freedoms.” But in this case, the paper’s reporting (unlike its commentary) was fairly balanced, and both legalists were the subjects of even-handed profiles.
The same can’t be said for a front-page headline last May: FLAWED CLAIMS OF CHILD ABUSE RAMPANT: STUDY. The story’s first paragraph states that 30 per cent of abuse claims were “either entirely fabricated or simply unprovable.” So 70 per cent of the claims weren’t false. And even allowing 30 per cent to qualify as “rampant,” many of those claims may not have been fabricated but merely unprovable.
Last winter, a headline read: CANADIANS WANT MORE PRIVATE HEALTH CARE: POLL. The story’s most dramatic revelation was that 80 per cent of those surveyed described Canada’s health care system as the best in the world; just over 60 per cent of respondents also believed they should be able to pay for “upgraded treatment.” The Post spun the story to suggest overwhelming public support for a two-tiered health care system. The headline might just as easily have referred to Canadians’ pride in their existing health care system. The credibility of the poll itself, sponsored by a multinational pharmaceutical company, was suspect.
Some reporters admit that from time to time they’re asked to take on one of the Post‘s pet obsessions, like productivity, the brain drain or tax cuts. “Oh yeah, we all get them,” says one veteran, regarding it as a small drawback to an otherwise exciting work environment. “You try to do them quickly and then move on.”
Newland and other Post defenders might be disingenuous when they describe the paper as “contrarian,” rather than as one that pushes a right-wing agenda. But most papers are, to some degree, ideologically driven. The Toronto Star has for years been unambiguously left of centre. Far from hiding the fact, publisher John Honderich enthusiastically touts the Star as a crusading, socially progressive metropolitan daily.
Rick Salutin, the Globe’s left-wing social critic, wrote last July that the Post was guilty of “sheer meanness,” as though the unseen hand of Conrad Black sprinkles hostility into every corner of the newsroom. Newspapers are far more anarchic than that, and a great many of the 230 journalists at the Post are too stubbornly iconoclastic to participate in such a conspiracy. Among the commentators associated with the right, Mark Steyn may be conservative, but his column sounds like the uncle with politically incorrect views who makes family members chuckle in spite of themselves. Andrew Coyne is a pink neo-conservative whose take on things is often unexpected. Terence Corcoran, editor of the Financial Post, produces right-wingy sermons that are predictable given his pulpit.
Not to say there isn’t meanness in Post columnists. David From is a smug, self-righteous know-it-all who writes about “union bosses” as if he were living in the 1930s. His attacks on socialism have a note of hysteria, as when he refers to “the drooling irrelevance of the federal NDP,” or writes, “Here’s hoping … that when the NDP tries to spook [level-headed people] with the jungle rituals of the past, they laugh the old voodoo men out of town.” In a column on the provincial NDP parties, he concludes: “What could be more appropriate than the final interment of a party that has championed the socialist ideology that has inflicted untold suffering over the past century and a half”–as though Roy Romanow, Gary Doer and Glen Clark were carrying out Stalin’s pogroms.
Frum’s equal in hyperbole is Diane Francis, a prolific commentator whose gossipy business columns emphasize controversy over thoughtfulness. (She once “guesstimated” in print that a welfare family of four in Ontario would receive $45,000, nearly double the actual figure.) In prose written with a cudgel, she attacks unions, aid to refugees, the bloated public sector and multiculturalism (“We should scrap multiculturalism out of hand and ban hyphenated Canadians”).
Considering that the U.S.-born Francis and her draft-dodger husband arrived in Canada in the mid-1960s without landed immigrant status and only applied as immigrants after settling here, she has a curiously jaundiced view of immigration. Her column on August 24 began: “The two boatloads of illegal aliens from China should all be sent back immediately. That’s what 90 per cent of Canadians want.” By any measure, 90 per cent of Canadians agreeing on anything is a remarkable consensus; alas, Francis fails to mention her source. She refers to “a small group of concerned Canadians who call themselves the Canada First Immigration Committee,” remarking on the way reporters harshly questioned its director, Paul Fromm. Was she unaware that Fromm is a hate-monger who, in the late 1960s, co-founded the Edmund Burke Society, which evolved into the white supremacist Western Guard, and that he once described the Holocaust as an “allegation”?
In the conclusion to her column, Francis reveals the harsh face of a xenophobe: “Put another way, Canada is our home. No one can force us to invite someone to supper if we don’t like them, can’t afford to feed them, can’t communicate with them or they don’t know how to behave.”
AT SIX P.M. ON A THURSDAY in October, Ken Whyte sits in his office with his feet on his desk. Settling in for a conversation, he turns positively languid, sinking deeper into his chair. I ask him why, last March, he killed a negative review of a book called What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us by Danielle Crittenden, a conservative anti-feminist who also happens to be David Frum’s wife. The Post had already published a long excerpt from the book and a glowing piece written by the conservative American columnist George F. Will, which made Whyte’s decision look suspect. He repeats what he said at the time–that he spiked the bad review because he had just given Crittenden a columnist’s job. (Most newspapers and magazines publish reviews of books written by staffers.) When it happened, Donna Laframboise said, “You go to parties and accept the razzing about working for an unabashedly rightwing paper because you could say there had been no political interference. We feared this was the beginning of something terrible.”
Whyte skilfully resolved the matter when, a few weeks later, he gave the nod to a 2,100-word essay by Laframboise for the op-ed page, celebrating the sexual revolution and singling out Crittenden’s book for criticism. He has since honoured his promise not to review staffers’ books, though he now admits Crittenden’s “was an unfortunate one to start with.”
Just then, Martin Newland enters Whyte’s office and places a proof on the corner of the desk. Tomorrow’s lead story–UNDER PRESSURE, CHRETIEN SELLS SHARES–is another in a series of Post stories on the conflict-of-interest allegations.
“What would you like for the picture?” asks Whyte.
“I’d like it to be Chretien, because it speaks so much to the main story.” Newland explains the byzantine twists and turns of the story, and of Chretien’s response. “It’s the most tortuous, bloody useless explanation I’ve ever heard in my life.”
“It’s still a story …”
“It shows that all those shares were active. He wouldn’t have sold it if we hadn’t been running these things and they didn’t have a parliamentary session staring them in the face.”
“That’s great,” says Whyte, grinning. I ask Whyte about a recent Richard Gwyn column in the Star. Gwyn had argued that with the federal NDP marginalized and both the Tories and Reform obsessing about each other rather than focusing on the governing Liberals, “[Conrad] Black’s opinions represent a coherent ideological alternative to the governing liberalism–or centrism–of the Liberals.” Black, he went on, “speaks daily to Canadians through his newspapers in most major cities, from Ottawa to Vancouver, and through the National Post …”
“I think it’s tree that there’s a huge vacuum in partisan political terms right now,” says Whyte. “The Reform party has not found its way into the mainstream, the Tories are vacuous, and the New Democrats haven’t found any kind of foothold. The Liberals just seem to do what they want. So there was a real opportunity for us to come in and take a leading role in the national conversation.”
Whatever else can be said of the Post–that it’s blustery, insistent, original, derivative, insufferable, amusing, juvenile, sentimental and brutish, sometimes all on the same page–there’s no denying it has done just that.