Notes on a Scandal

Jan Wong’s explosive “pure laine” charge in her Dawson College pieces ignited a firestorm. But the Globe and Mail’s crime was to run for cover and let its star reporter take the fall. Here’s how it happened

By David Hayes, Toronto Life, May 2007

ON AN OTHERWISE uneventful Wednesday last September, Kimveer Gill, dressed in a modified goth uniform of black trench coat, studded black pants and combat boots, arrived at Dawson College, a CEGEP in Montreal’s Westmount neighbourhood, armed with a semi-automatic Beretta Cx4 Storm carbine, a Glock 9 mm handgun and a Norinco HP9-1 short-barrelled shotgun. After opening fire outside the school, he entered the building and continued shooting randomly, hitting 19 students and killing another. Finally, having been wounded in the arm by police, Gill shot himself in the head.

The day after the tragedy, Globe and Mail editors knew that the burning question on readers’ minds would be, why did this happen? To help answer it, they sent Jan Wong, one of their star writers and a native Montrealer, to Dawson College to research and write a 3,000-word “magazine-style” piece “with analysis” for the high-profile Saturday edition.

To turn around a feature of that length in little more than 24 hours is a challenge, but it’s what newspapers pay skilled reporters to do (even those who, like Wong, are at their best when given more time). With help from her younger sister, Gigi, a teacher at Dawson, Wong conducted her reporting and, by Friday evening, filed the finished piece.

Most of it was a well-reported reconstruction framed around a terrified Dawson College teacher whose son studied there. But about a quarter of the way in is a section comparing Gill to Marc Lepine (the half-Algerian Muslim who, in 1989, killed 14 women and wounded 13 others at the University of Montreal’s École Polytechnique) and to Valery Fabrikant (an engineering professor and Russian immigrant who killed four colleagues and wounded another at Concordia University in 1992). “What many outsiders don’t realize,” Wong wrote, “is how alienating the decades-long linguistic struggle has been in the once-cosmopolitan city. It hasn’t just taken a toll on long-time anglophones, it’s affected immigrants, too. To be sure, the shootings in all three cases were carried out by mentally disturbed individuals. But what is also true is that in all three cases, the perpetrator was not pure laine, the argot for a ‘pure’ francophone. Elsewhere, to talk of racial ‘purity’ is repugnant. Not in Quebec.”

The following morning, the story ran on the front page, under the headline “Get Under the Desk.” What happened next would soon have Wong, her editors and the Globe’s senior management ducking for cover themselves. Wong’s “pure laine” comment drew a firestorm of criticism, and the paper, in a misguided attempt at damage control, let one of its biggest-name writers take the fall. Wong’s treatment—the reason her byline disappeared for eight months—reveals not only the hazards of daily news reporting, especially in the era of celebrity columnists, but also exposes the culture of mistrust that exists at the country’s most venerable paper.

IN A CITY WITH FOUR DAILIES, editors need to court controversy to sell papers. But some controversies cross the line from attention-getting to embarrassing. Almost immediately after the Dawson article appeared, outraged letters began pouring into the Globe. The paper published more than a dozen of them—bearing such headlines as “Narrow-Minded Analysis” and “Absurd Viewpoint”—including ones from Prime Minister Stephen Harper (who described Wong’s article as “grossly irresponsible” and “prejudiced”) and Quebec Premier Jean Charest (“Ms. Wong’s article is a disgrace. It betrays an ignorance of Canadian values and a profound misunderstanding of Quebec”).

Editorials and opinion columns in Quebec—where it was dubbed “L’Affaire Wong”—were more vitriolic, as were callers to talk radio programs. Le Devoir defended Quebec’s record of openness toward immigrants while simultaneously publishing an editorial cartoon depicting Wong with exaggerated slanted eyes and buck teeth opening fortune cookies. On September 20, the House of Commons passed a motion demanding an apology “to the people of Quebec for the offensive remarks of Ms. Jan Wong…”

There were alternative views, but even these were seldom admiring of Wong. Noted journalist and author Denise Bombardier argued that “Quebecers take criticism from outside very badly,” adding that too much attention had been paid to a reporter “who says stupid things.” And an editorial in the Gazette critical of politicians attacking journalists concluded, “There are plenty of others perfectly capable of dealing with silly arguments by newspaper writers.”

But that only describes the more civilized reaction. In the week following the article, Wong received a stream of racist hate mail (“Go back to barbarian China,” “You’re much uglier in real life than in your caricature”), threats against her family and proposed boycotts of her 86-year-old father’s Chinese restaurant in Montreal (one posting suggested it served “cat or rat”). She also received snail mail containing excrement and defaced copies of her books, one of them sawn in half. Near the end of September, she had a death threat serious enough to warrant a call to police.

And while Wong did her best to hold it together during the onslaught, the Globe, in response to what it called the “small uproar,” published an editorial asking, did the language laws debate contribute to marginalization and perhaps alienation of non-francophone Quebecers? And if so, did it contribute to the violence? Their answer: “No such evidence exists.”

Two days later, the Globe’s editor-in-chief, Edward Greenspon, in an attempt to distance himself from Wong’s comments, wrote a column that further alienated his writer. In it, he described Wong as “an extraordinarily talented feature writer” sent to Montreal to prepare a story on the human dimension of the Dawson College attack. “Jan did exactly as we asked—and then some,” he wrote, subtly suggesting that she had not been asked to provide analysis or commentary. He went on to argue that although “the reaction to the article has been disproportionate—including personal attacks on Jan and her family—in hindsight the paragraphs were clearly opinion and not reporting and should have been removed from that story…

“I can offer several explanations as to how the editorial quality control process sometimes breaks down on tight deadlines during gruelling weeks. But none are germane. The fact is they did, which is ultimately my responsibility. We regret that we allowed these words to get into a reported article.”

What wasn’t in the column, according to a leaked union document that runs through the sequence of events, was the fact that Greenspon had read the story himself before it went to press. The paper’s publisher, Philip Crawley, a tough-minded Brit with a notoriously ruthless streak, didn’t officially order an investigation into the matter until September 26. But Greenspon must have been keenly aware of his displeasure. After all, in the words of one long-time staffer, the editor is famously adept at “managing the career of Eddie Greenspon.” He effectively distanced himself from a potentially career-damaging incident by suggesting the fault lay with the writer and the subordinate editors working with her.

Wong’s story was accompanied by a head-and-shoulders picture of her, the traditional symbol for a column or opinion piece. But in fact, it wasn’t a column, nor was it a piece of straightforward news reporting. Instead, it was a good example of a relatively modern phenomenon: the hybrid news feature, which often combines elements of commentary, analysis and opinion with traditional reporting. Ever since Conrad Black launched the National Post in 1998, which was heavily influenced by the personality-driven journalism in the U.K., the boundaries have been blurred. “Increasingly we see stories with the writer’s picture on them, even on the front page, that are partly news and partly analysis,” says Don Gibb, a professor of journalism at Ryerson University. “When I see the picture, I assume I’m going to be getting some of that reporter’s opinion.”

That said, Wong and her editors should have predicted the fallout. Observations in English-language media about the relationship between francophone Quebec and the province’s immigrants have sparked outrage many times before, and the Globe is a national paper with an editor-in-chief born and raised in Montreal. “In the middle of a story with the potential to ignite one of the most conflicted, painful and complex social and political issues of our country,” says a former Globe editor and colleague of Greenspon’s, “Eddie stumbled like a dope and fell face-down. So now he’s saying, ‘I was tripped.’ And I think his own impulse to survive and let the sharks take somebody else cannot be underestimated.”

JAN WONG HAS A HISTORY of being provocative and aggressive, characteristics that have been responsible for some of her best—but also some of her most self-
serving and mean-spirited—journalism. In the taxonomy of the media today, she and her colleague Christie Blatchford are members of the species known as diva. They’re among the highest-paid writers at the Globe—Blatchford’s salary has been estimated at $250,000; Wong’s is said to be upwards of $150,000—and they demand space in the paper’s pages the way an industrial fire consumes oxygen. While far more true of Blatchford than Wong—who many say is supportive of her colleagues and co-operative with editors—both women are seen as having successfully branded themselves in the age of personality journalism, and both believe that makes them bulletproof.

Wong was born and raised a third-generation Canadian in Montreal. She learned French and Chinese and did well in school. In 1972, when she was 19 and filled with lefty rebelliousness, she moved to China to explore her roots, and renounced capitalism. One of two westerners enrolled at Beijing University during the heyday of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, she wrote in her book Jan Wong’s China: Reports From a Not-So-Foreign Correspondent, “I made widgets in factories, transplanted rice in paddy fields, read Marx and Lenin, snitched on class enemies and did my best to be a good little Maoist.” While in China, she met and fell in love with her future husband—a computer programmer and American draft-dodger named Norman Shulman—and fell out of love with Mao.

In the late ’70s, determined to become a do-gooder journalist, Wong got herself hired by Fox Butterfield, The New York Times’ correspondent in Beijing, as a news assistant. A year later, she returned to North America to get her master’s in journalism at Columbia and later worked for The Montreal Gazette, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal and, finally, The Globe and Mail, where she joined the Report on Business section along with a newly hired fellow Montrealer, Ed Greenspon.

Beginning in 1988, Wong spent six years in the Beijing bureau. Today she is regarded as one of the best China correspondents the Globe has ever had. In particular, her award-winning coverage of the Tiananmen Square massacre was among the finest work produced by any western reporter. By the time she returned to Toronto in 1994 with Norman and their two children, Ben, then three, and one-year-old Sam, she was a prominent and respected Globe figure.

Her transition to bona fide star came two years later, when her editor, Cathrin Bradbury, asked her to interview Margaret Atwood. Wong produced a standard celebrity profile, the kind that appears in thousands of newspapers every week. But Bradbury asked her to rewrite it, and to include her own impressions. (“We want the readers to feel as if they’re right there sitting with you.”) So, as Wong later explained, “I added attitude and atmospherics,” including the part where a fussy Atwood decides to move to a quieter table even though she and Wong are the only customers.

The result, which readers loved, became the template for Lunch With Jan Wong. Her modus operandi was straightforward: prepare extensively and, as she told student journalists at U of T’s Varsity newspaper, “try to come across as sympathetic, nice and non-threatening… When they relax, that’s when their guard is down. It’s a trick, but it’s legit.”

She asked Helen Gurley Brown whether she’d had a “boob job” and a Canadian Playboy playmate what would happen if a photo shoot and her period coincided. She compared fashion tycoon Peter Nygård’s tanned complexion to a baseball mitt (he threatened to sue, as did others) and quoted Sondra Gotlieb, author and wife of former U.S. ambassador Allan, as excusing herself to go “wee-wee.” Later, Gotlieb wrote that Wong “excels in the dehumanization of the other”; and Pamela Wallin, another subject who was “Wonged,” compared her to the cannibalistic Hannibal Lecter.

Today Lunch With is remembered by many as being unrelentingly nasty. “Go back and read them,” says one fellow reporter. “They’re mean and narrow and humourless and judgmental. They’re vile little pieces.” But they helped sell papers. During this time, the Globe was in the midst of a fierce newspaper war with the Post and Wong was approached more than once by the competition. The Globe, in turn, offered her a raise and her own office, which she seldom used, preferring to work at home.

Columns run their course, though, and Lunch With ended in 2002. Wong needed to carve out a new niche. She opted to return to feature-style reporting, and though her day-to-day output wasn’t high compared to a beat reporter, she produced splashy pieces that got people talking and attracted readers. Last April, the Globe published a five-part series called Maid for a Month, for which Wong moved with her sons, by then 15 and 12, into a basement apartment in Scarborough while working as a cleaner earning minimum wage. The series was considered a success, a further burnishing of Brand Wong.

Within the Globe, however, the high-profile columnist has long had a reputation for being demanding and pushing the system, and lately that put her in conflict with evolving corporate policies. With the Globe seen as having triumphed over the Post in the newspaper war, there has been a push for fiscal restraint, and like all media organizations, the paper was adamant about controlling the copyright of everything that appeared in its pages, partly to turn profits on electronic databases. This, of course, may be a problem for reporters who parlay articles into book deals.

With the paper’s staff kept as lean as possible, management has also started paying closer attention to productivity—a practice referred to by reporters as “byline counting”—and exerting more control over employees taking book leaves for months at a time. Going into last fall and the Dawson controversy, Wong, who had negotiated a leave to write a book about Beijing timed with the upcoming Olympics, had also announced her intention to write a second book, this one based on her Maid for a Month series. Laughing, one former senior manager told me, “She has a history of that, and if anyone challenged her, she’s always just told them to fuck themselves. She’s done two or three books before, and for her, it’s probably just business as usual.”

Wong has never been afraid of being outspoken. Still, she couldn’t have endeared herself to her bosses when a 2004 profile in the Ryerson Review of Journalism paraphrased her calling the Globe “a meeting-oriented institution” where “editors have nothing better to do than hear themselves talk.” A year later, in a story on changes at the Globe to compete with the Post, she told the Review, “Instead of growing old gracefully, they’re trying to dress it up in stuff that’s not appropriate, like a lot of crime, a lot of sex… We don’t have to be dowdy, but we don’t have to dress like a slut either.”

There’s one more complication at play in the Wong story. At the Globe, as in many unionized newsrooms, editors and reporters often work out casual arrangements like offering days off in lieu of overtime pay. But Wong regularly filed for everything the collective agreement allowed. Last summer, she filed for what has been described as “a huge amount of overtime” for Maid for a Month. The talks became heated, and although a compromise was reached, it only intensified her reputation as a difficult employee.

So the pushy reporter seen by some colleagues as the paper’s spoiled brat was touching nerves both inside and outside the Globe. After the Dawson College story, she suddenly found herself without allies in high places.

HOW DID THE “PURE LAINE” comment make its way into the paper? No one involved—not Jan Wong, not Globe management, not the union representatives from the Southern Ontario Newsmedia Guild—would agree to be interviewed for this story, but the leaked union document explains. On September 15, the Friday she filed her piece, Wong contacted the Globe’s then–national editor Noreen Rasbach to propose that her analysis would cover why this was the third Montreal school shooting in 17 years. She also said her story would address “immigrants, alienation, and pure laine.” Rasbach’s apparent response was, “Fabulous.”

At 7:50 that evening, Wong filed the finished story. According to the union document, during the customary editing process—which often happens at the 11th hour at daily newspapers—the piece was read by at least three editors, including Rasbach and Greenspon.

At around 9 p.m., Rasbach apparently asked Wong if she could provide more detail about pure laine. She probably wanted some form of corroboration—an academic, for example, or social scientist who might confirm that immigrants feel alienated because of xenophobia in the province, and that that might have been a contributing factor in the shootings. But Wong didn’t have time to gather more material, and the editors either didn’t feel the need to make changes, or simply forgot about it.

As the criticism and personal attacks mounted throughout September and into October, Wong, despite her thick-skinned reputation, became increasingly unhinged from the stress, sleeping poorly and subject to bouts of anxiety. While she was receiving constant requests to speak to the media, Globe management suggested the best strategy was to “keep our heads down” and let the controversy blow over—even as the paper was running critical letters and commentaries about her.

On September 22, knowing that the CBC and the Post, among others, were preparing stories, Wong told Greenspon she wanted to talk, restricting her comments to the backlash. Greenspon and deputy editor Sylvia Stead took Wong through a series of role-playing exercises to determine whether she could handle the pressure of an on-air interview. They decided she could, and green-lighted an appearance on CBC radio. But three days later, following interviews with both CBC and the National Post, Stead shut her down. “You understand this is a management directive,” she wrote in an e-mail, “that you must not talk about this anymore without prior agreement.” (A later communication read, “You went far beyond your request to speak only about the personal attacks on you and your family and used your position as a Globe and Mail reporter to question the Prime Minister and the Premier of Quebec [about their right to criticize her].”)

Could there be a better example of a newspaper’s soul colliding with its corporate brain? Throughout the media, senior editorial managers routinely complain about politicians and businesspeople refusing to talk to their reporters. Yet the Globe’s management saw nothing hypocritical about issuing Wong a gag order.

The relationship between the columnist and her bosses continued to deteriorate. In an e-mail to Greenspon dated September 25, Wong wrote, “I was willing to be quiet last week in the hope that the story would die down. But your column has reignited [it]… If the story continues to be big in Quebec,” she concluded, “I will have to defend myself because the Globe has not done so.” To which Greenspon replied, “My impression is, this has blown over. I would be careful not to fuel it further.”

The final straw was an article in the Post by Andrew Coyne on October 7. While scarcely flattering (he referred to the “peculiar idiocy” of Wong’s analysis), Coyne criticized the intolerance shown toward her and reminded readers that others—among them the Post’s Barbara Kay, journalist William Johnson and the late Mordecai Richler—had been vilified for even suggesting that “the province’s overwhelmingly white, French-speaking majority might have a problem with minorities.”

The Globe assumed that Wong instigated Coyne’s column, another breach of the gag order. When I contacted Coyne, he replied by e-mail: “For the record, I had no contact whatsoever with Jan Wong, before, during or after writing the column in question. I don’t think I’ve said more than about 10 words to her in my life.”

Although Wong is currently honouring the management directive not to speak to the media, or perhaps feels the situation with her employer is so fragile that it’s better to remain silent, I met with a family member of hers at a Second Cup in the north end of the city. She told me about Wong’s condition the past few months.

“After the Andrew Coyne column, for which she was blamed even though she had nothing to do with it, she felt frightened and vulnerable,” says the woman. “Then she began to get much worse. She was afraid to be at home alone, afraid to go out on her own unless escorted by a family member. Her 13-year-old son was afraid to be alone in the house. She’s a great cook and loves food but was unable to eat and became very thin. She couldn’t sleep. At this point, her doctor diagnosed her as developing depression and she went on medication for it.”

Early in October, within days of sending a medical note confirming she was too ill to return to work, Wong received a Manulife Financial “Early Intervention Services” form from the Globe’s human resources department. The form, requiring her to provide almost unlimited access to her health records, seemed excessive so early in her leave, but in the workplace of the new millennium, this is part of an HR strategy of “absence management.” Whether it’s a way to provide employees with ongoing support and help coordinate health care or an aggressive instrument designed to bully employees back to work is debatable. She eventually signed an amended release.

Then, on December 5, HR couriered a letter to Wong’s home. It ordered her back to work the next day or “…effectively immediately, your sick leave salary and benefit continuance will cease.” A week later, the paper elected to exert its ownership of the copyright over Wong’s research materials from the Maid for a Month series, demanding that she turn them over to the paper—apparently an unprecedented move.

A grievance procedure is under way. The union is asking for reinstatement of Wong’s sick leave, the removal of a disciplinary letter from her personnel file, compensation for her losses since being cut off sick leave, an arrangement for her to proceed with her previously approved book leave and reassurances that she can return to work without fear of reprisals.

HOW COULD THINGS GO SO WRONG for a journalist of Wong’s stature, a long-time Globe employee and one of its stars? One veteran staffer speculated, “Let’s say they reach a point where Jan is more trouble than she’s worth. They do a cost-benefit analysis and say, hey, she’s too expensive and too much of a pain in the ass so let’s practice aggressive personnel management. Make it painful enough that the person accepts an offer, takes a package and leaves.”

After my repeated calls to Philip Crawley, Greenspon and the senior editorial managers dealing with Wong, Sylvia Stead finally asked me for a list of questions that the paper would respond to. A week later, I received a reply that read like it had been drafted by a lawyer: “The Globe and Mail denies the allegations as reported by David Hayes. There are personnel issues involved and it would be highly inappropriate to discuss them in any way.” Which suggests that they wanted to know the contents and direction of the piece, but never had any intention of answering questions. When this magazine went to press, rumour had it that Wong had agreed to return to work in April, though the union grievance was ongoing and there remained some ambiguities as to whether her time away would be officially considered sick leave or book leave (the paper’s management seemingly unconvinced their writer was legitimately ill).

Hardly a proud moment for Greenspon and the Globe. Years ago, just after Crawley had taken over as publisher, Chris Cobb, in his 2004 book, Ego and Ink: The Inside Story of Canada’s National Newspaper War, wrote that Wong had long believed “there were reasonable comparisons to be made between the ruling elite in Communist China and Globe management.” Given the events of the last eight months, she would probably say not much has changed.