This is a tale of two columnists, and how they were treated very differently by Canada’s largest newspaper.
All they have in common is that neither is still writing there.
That loss, I say, is the reader’s.
Catherine Porter is white and a longtime staff writer who wrote a column on social justice issues -- climate change, international development, women's rights, poverty and community activism. She described herself as an “activist,” a role her editors endorsed and encouraged. They even stood by her when she and her daughter clashed at a rally with climate change denier Ezra Levant and she wrote about it -- an account that Levant’s videotape later showed she got very wrong.
Porter resigned earlier this year to join the New York Times.
Desmond Cole is black and a twice-a-month freelance columnist who wrote mostly about the Toronto black community’s problem with carding, the police practice of stopping, questioning and documenting people accused of no crimes. No one in mainstream journalism knew about him until he appeared on the cover of Toronto Life with a powerful story of how carding is stigmatizing the black community. His activism on that issue is presumably why the Star hired him.
Desmond Cole left the paper this week because his editor told him that activism and journalism don’t mix.
As he put it in his blog: “If I must choose between a newspaper column and the actions I must take to liberate myself and my community, I choose activism.”
So one activist was given the green light, the other was warned to stop. What’s going on?
In contrast to the very public Porter controversy, the Star has so far said nothing about Cole and why his treatment is so different (see update below). But we can guess – the paper is uncomfortable with his anti-establishment views and has been for a while. So much so that it has disavowed everything it said less than two years ago when it excused activist columnist Porter’s far more serious public indiscretion.
At issue here is a Star editorial policy that says “It is not proper for journalists to be both actors and critics. It is a journalistic obligation to ensure that our reputations as fair-minded fact-finders are not compromised by any open display of political or partisan views on public issues nor tainted by personal involvement or personal axe-grinding on issues the Star covers.”
There are two problems with it. First, it does not distinguish between reporters, who are supposed to gather the facts as objectively as they can, and columnists, who are supposed to take sides. And secondly, Cole says no one told him that such a policy exists.
He learned about it when his boss, editorial page editor Andrew Phillips, called him in after Cole disrupted a meeting of the Toronto Police Services Board on April 20. The Star reported how Cole raised his fist and occupied the speaker’s rostrum in a protest against continued use of carding material by the police.
Here’s how Cole tells it on his blog: “Phillips said this action had violated the Star’s rules on journalism and activism. He didn’t discipline me or cite any consequence for my actions—Phillips said he just wanted me to know what the Star’s rules are.” The message was clear: Stop this.
It wasn’t the first time the paper expressed its unease. The space devoted to his column was cut in half eight months after he started writing it in 2015. Shortly after that, Cole was called in by John Honderich, the chairman of the board and acting publisher at the time, and told that he was writing about racial issues too much, and he should diversify his topics.
Cole was the only columnist at the paper writing about race and carding – an issue the paper’s reporters have spent years investigating.
Crusading for social reform is supposed to be bedrock Star editorial policy, part of the Atkinson Principles that Honderich is supposed to uphold. The paper proudly highlights that goal on its web page.
Part of the problem is the Star’s editorial policy, and who knows about it. Kathy English, the paper’s public editor, admitted in a column about Porter’s spat with Levant that “the policy is murky about whether Star columnists – who have wide latitude to express their own opinions — can act in public in line with those opinions, so long as they are fully transparent.”
But then she wrote: “Porter is right in her understanding that she has explicit permission – and encouragement – to take a public stand and act in line with her views on social justice issues.”
Furthermore, the paper allowed Porter to write her own defence. “People have suggested there is a conflict between being a journalist and engaging in social activism,” she said in her column a few days later. “Well, that’s what I do. I am a columnist who is also a social justice activist. I don’t always get involved in the causes I write about, but when I do, I am transparent about it — to my subjects and my readers. My bosses at the Star not only condone this, they encourage it.”
Fast forward to right now. One thing is clear – the Star’s editors neither condone nor encourage Desmond Cole’s activism, and he feels he has no choice but to choose what’s most important.
On his blog, he observes: “The Star invests heavily in reporters whose excellent work inspires much of my commentary on anti-Black racism and white supremacy in Canada. Yet it seems the Star is reluctant to invest in columnists who relentlessly name these racial power imbalances, who call out the political and institutional forces responsible for white supremacy and Black suffering.”
Instead of fixing a “murky” and outdated policy, instead of supporting its crusading columnist, the Star chose to play it safe and snuff out a voice.
As a role model for journalistic integrity and crusading for social reform, we are left with … Desmond Cole.
Who you’ll have to read somewhere else.
UPDATE: The Star essentially confirmed Cole's account on Saturday, May 6. A column by English stressed that Cole was not fired (I didn't say that) and that she regretted his decision to leave. She stood by the paper's policy against activism, and claimed that Cole's disruption of the police board meeting took his activism "to a new level" that was much more serious than what Porter had done (even though Cole did not, like Porter, write about it).
Then, in a curious admission, she said that she "sees merit" in discussing whether the policy is outdated and whether columnists should be exempt from it. "But no news organization that cares about its integrity should make or amend policy on the fly simply to accommodate any one voice or any one cause." In other words, she is saying that what Cole did isn't important enough to accelerate that discussion.