Blog by John Miller

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Hurting our brand

I know of no Canadian journalist who has gotten more blowback on a story than Jan Wong.

Nor have many of us paid such a steep price: Prime Minister Harper condemned her publicly as "grossly irresponsible" and "prejudiced," the House of Commons unanimously passed a motion demanding that she apologize to the people of Quebec, she got racist letters and a death threat, her newspaper turned against her, she lost her job and she very nearly lost her mind.

Thankfully, she lived to write about it, and it's wonderful to see her emerge with her customary courage and determination intact.

Her self-published book Out of the Blue is an account of her plunge into deep depression after the backlash to a story she wrote for the Globe and Mail in 2006. She was sent by the paper to analyze what happened at Montreal's Dawson College when Kimveer Gill shot 20 students before committing suicide.

It included these sentences: “What many outsiders don’t realize 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.”

You can argue that her analysis was unwise and unsupported, but the Globe decided to publish it. The editor-in-chief at the time, Eddie Greenspon, read the story and approved it, and so it was a betrayal when he was the first to hang Wong out to dry when the backlash reached its peak. That episode was ably told in this story by David Hayes in Toronto Life.

What happened next is the subject of Wong's own book. She fell into helpless moodiness and crying fits and eventually was diagnosed as clinically depressed by her doctor. The Globe, instead of giving her time off, turned the other way and let its disability insurer, Manulife Financial, do its best to prove that Wong was faking it. It hired sleuths to film her shopping or making public appearances, then turned it over to a psychiatrist of their choosing who declared Wong perfectly healthy, without ever meeting her. She was ordered back to work or her benefits would be cut off. How, we might ask, could the Globe ever trust her journalism if it couldn't trust her? She was terminated in 2008.

We are reading about this now because Wong fought back. She got a settlement from the Globe and refused to sign the confidentiality agreement that employers always demand in such situations. She has even put the surveillance video used against her here on YouTube.

What she tells is what could happen to any loyal employee in today's business world that is increasingly dominated by bean counters, actuaries and accountants. The late Doug Creighton described the newspaper industry best in that vein when he called it "a Wizard of Oz world -- with no brains, no heart and no courage."

Wong manages to tell her own story as well as she often tells stories about others -- with meticulous research, journalistic resourcefulness and edge. Perhaps the Globe forgot who it was dealing with -- a superb investigative reporter who refuses to be intimidated.

(I can attest to that, having written an expert opinion in defence of her reporting in an invasion of privacy case brought by a family that said it was taken advantage of when it employed Wong as a maid, not realizing that she was working undercover to write a series on what it's like to work for minimum wage. The series, Maid for a Month, exposed deplorable conditions and made the argument for higher minimum wages. I had no trouble determining that her reporting  met the highest standards of investigative work. The impression I was given was that the Globe would fight the lawsuit tooth and nail, but it didn't, no doubt wanting to rid itself of any connection with the reporter after their parting of the ways).

The Globe may have come after her again. She had just finalized the manuscript of Out of the Blue with her publisher, Doubleday, when top executives there suddenly got cold feet. They insisted on deleting all mention of the paper. Wong refused, and made the financially risky decision to publish it herself -- on her own terms, naming names, with no holds barred.

She is betting $35,000 of her own money that enough Canadians will buy Out of the Blue to make it a best seller. Let's hope we do.

In it, she quotes Globe publisher Phillip Crawley as delivering the ultimate bean counter's response, telling her after her story drew flak that "you have hurt our brand in Quebec."

No, Mr. Crawley, I think you've got that wrong. Your own cowering in the face of controversy has hurt your brand ... with everyone who values journalism.