This post is about the surprising front page apology on the front of the Telegraph-Journal, New Brunswick’s provincial newspaper. The paper was apologizing for this story, on July 8, which accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper for pocketing a communion wafer at Romeo Leblanc’s funeral. Harper denied the accusations and called the story, which was picked up nationally, “a low moment in journalism.” Tuesday, the paper admitted the story was “inaccurate and should never have been published.” It apologized to the Prime Minister, its readers, and also to its reporters, Adam Huras and Rob Linke, for adding the inaccurate statements to the story without their knowledge. This afternoon, news leaked out that T-J editor Shawna Richer was fired and publisher Jamie Irving (grandson of J.K. Irving) was “no longer with the paper.” Read, given the choice to quit or be fired. If you want more information and analysis, here’s the story off the CBC website, the Globe and Mail website, Craig Silverman, author and columnist for the Columbia Journalism Review, the St. John’s, NL, Telegram, and Stephen Taylor, a conservative blogger from Ottawa who showed up in the Google search. Robert Fife talked about the incident on the CTV National News Tuesday night, citing sources that said someone from the Liberal Party fed the line to young Irving personally. But, considering he’s still reporting that Jamie Irving is merely suspended from the paper and there is no confirmation of that online, I’m going to take that with a grain of salt (for now).
Tongues will be wagging about this story for at least the rest of the week, and doubtlessly big changes are coming to the T-J. But, since this blog exists so I can give my two bits, here are my thoughts tonight.
In retrospect, it was probably always going to end like this. Under Jamie Irving, the T-J turned into an “activist” newspaper. That meant that the paper grabbed hold of a few key issues (like the City of Saint John’s tax rate) and run story after story chipping away at those issues and the figures it held responsible for them (mostly, the mayors of Saint John, successive city councils, and former City Manager Terry Totten). And at first, they were successful. Saint John’s new ward system for electing councillors was probably due in part to the paper’s coverage. And the paper was cited by those close to the ex-city manager as a reason for his resignation.
And it was the T-J that broke Belleisle Elementary’s “O Canada” flap on its front page in January. I still don’t think the story deserved the front page. The change was made in September 2007, and in the intervening year and a half only one parent had complained to the district. But no matter; the story got national exposure, hundreds of parents finally discovered their patriotism, and Principal Erik Millett was hounded from his job by accusations and threats.
When I the headline “It’s a Scandal” on June 8 and read the story, I had two thoughts. 1: As a voter and a nominal Catholic, I in no way felt the thing was a scandal. 2: After the way Belleisle played out, the T-J wanted more national exposure. It’s cynical, sure, but with that headline, the Prime Minister’s involvement, and the summer news lull in full swing, every media outlet in Canada had picked up the story by the end of the day. It seemed like the paper was intent on turning minor things into national controversies. Sooner or later, it would have backfired.
The apology itself also brought my mind back to Matt McCann. Full disclosure: McCann is a classmate of mine and is editor-in-chief of the Aquinian, the St. Thomas newspaper I write a column for and, this fall, will be sitting on the Board of Governors of. He was fired, in part, for bringing the reputation of the paper into disrepute after he wrote a front page story (hey, is there a theme here?) on some UNB professors protesting that institution’s bestowing of an honourary degree on Premier Shawn Graham. More on the firing from Phillip Lee’s blog. Actually, McCann’s firing probably did more to bring disrepute to the paper (his story was picked up by the CBC, the Toronto Star, and the Columbia Journalism Review), but that’s beside the point.
The point is, deliberately faking part of a story is about the most disreputable thing you could do as a journalist. It’s the journalistic equivalent of a lawyer lying to a judge or a doctor knowingly giving a patient a dangerous combination of meds: a career-ending move. And for an editor to place those bogus “facts” in the story without checking it with the writers goes above and beyond reckless irresponsibility. If Richer and Irving had not left the paper Tuesday, no journalist in the country would want to work for them. If you were a reporter, would you write for an editor that hung out to try if you got the minutest of details wrong but inserted lies into your stories without asking? I’d sooner clean out the deep fryers at McDonald’s for the rest of my life than work under Richer or Irving, after Tuesday’s revelations. I’m not surprised if Stephen Taylor’s posting, saying that one of the reporters was considering suing the paper, is true. After all, Richer and Irving only published lies under his byline, lies that will survive forever online and in microfilm archives, and sullied his name and reputation.
Adding to the “Let’s Dump on the T-J Day” fun came news from St. Thomas University that practically the Political Science department was going to stop taking the paper’s calls for a year because of its treatment of young McCann (it’s near the bottom of the page). It’s unknown what, if any, affect Tuesday’s news will have on this item.
Tomorrow, the Telegraph-Journal begins the unenviable tasks of finding a new editor, a new publisher, and of rebuilding its reputation. I hope for their sake the rumour Robert Fife reported Tuesday, that the line was fed to the paper by a Liberal insider, isn’t true, because it would call into question every bit of the paper’s coverage of both Federal and Provincial politics since Jamie Irving took the helm. That would make the task of rebuilding reputations even more monumental.