Dispatch from the Front Line: The Toronto Star gets its moment of public dysfunction

Yonge Street newsroom revolutionaries may have overplayed their hand when seeking to humble the paper's star columnist

It's been strange these last few months, as internal revolts have swept the North American media landscape, to see The Toronto Star's newsroom stay out of it. In Canada, we've watched explosions of discontent at the CBC, at Global News and at the National Post. It had to come to The Star eventually … now it has.

Each eruption has reflected the unique pathologies of the institutions it involved, but they’ve all revolved around issues of diversity and allegations of racism within the organizations. The anger was not without justification — though emotional burnout mid-pandemic and the stress of isolation no doubt played a major but mostly unremarked-upon role. The psychological drain of pouring your heart and soul into 10-12 hour days in a dying industry probably isn’t helping anyone's mood, either.

The eruption at The Star is broadly similar to what we’ve seen elsewhere. Last week, it was announced that columnist Shree Paradkar would take on a new role in the newsroom. A memo from editor-in-chief Irene Gentle said that Paradkar would be the paper's first "internal ombud" — neatly avoiding the man/person issue — and described the position as follows: "While the first and main communication on all professional matters is between staff and their manager, we want to encourage as much conversation and understanding as possible. This role will provide a safe place for BIPOC journalists and all journalists to express editorial-related discrimination and bias concerns if they don’t feel comfortable bringing it to their manager directly."

Gentle later added that Paradkar’s appointment "is part of developing structures to ensure Black, Indigenous and journalists of colour have a way to be safely and clearly heard by colleagues, decision makers and leaders. The aim is stronger, more relevant and insightful journalism that makes a difference, as well as making our newsroom a better place to work."

Enter Rosie DiManno.

DiManno is a long-serving Star columnist, and, to put it mildly, a bit of a loose cannon. Her response to Gentle's announcement was in character and sent Reply-All:

"This is a fucking abomination and I will not submit to yet another level or (sic) interference in an insanely over-micromanaged newsroom."

DiManno's email, of course, immediately leaked on Twitter. On Tuesday, a letter signed by 62 Star newsroom employees, sent to senior management, also leaked on Twitter. The signatories complained bitterly about DiManno's alleged bullying, and accused her of being “hateful” and racist for attacking Paradkar’s promotion. 

(Canadaland has posted images of the leaked letter online here.)

We at The Line have some experience in that newsroom, and can confirm that The Star is a legendarily toxic workplace. (A particularly brutal example of this dysfunction was revealed to the public after the suicide of reporter Raveena Aulakh in 2016; the details of what led to this tragedy were disgraceful.) 

If this week’s letter demanded improvements to the Star's overall workplace, we'd have championed that cause as long overdue.

[Related: “Bwack Bwack National Post]

[Related: “In defence of naivete]

But that doesn’t seem to be what’s happening, here. Instead, the newsroom signatories are misrepresenting a high-profile columnist’s complaint, pairing it with unspecified allegations of misbehaviour, and then shaming DiManno internally (at a minimum) for being the Star’s foul-mouthed human exemplar of all society’s failings.

Every paper employs columnists that embarrass the newsroom for espousing views that seem retrograde to the usually younger, more progressive reporters. DiManno is clearly that person at The Star, and perhaps she is indeed abusive and abrasive to colleagues. If so, and if that’s been allowed to continue, that’s management’s fault.

But jumping from DiManno’s hasty email, which specifically narrows in on a complaint of internal management issues, and concluding that what DiManno was really saying was a hateful, racist attack, is a hell of a leap. But perhaps a convenient one: it makes us wonder if the newsroom isn’t just seizing on her comment so that they get to have their turn at the tee.

Remember, half the newsroom of the National Post signed an open letter opposing a column by Rex Murphy. Star types can't let themselves be outdone. We are having a cultural moment, and there’s a whiff of FOMO in the air down at the bottom of Yonge Street.

If this is the newsroom’s way of asserting control over their paper, though, going after DiManno is smart, or at least ambitious. No one will dare challenge the narrowing limits of what is permissible to express in a newspaper if the paper’s star columnist can be publicly humbled, and couching the attack in the language of racial justice makes it very hard for management to defend DiManno. If it works, the staff will have won itself a veto, and anyone with any out-of-step opinions will get that message loud and clear. A new boss will be in town.

This could backfire — the signatories may have overreached. Sixty two people at The Star have demanded things management probably simply cannot deliver. The newsroom laid down explicit conditions. By our reckoning, unless DiManno chooses to play ball, there’s not much management can do to meet them. You can force DiManno to take anti-racism training, sure, but to apologize? To “demonstrate an awareness?” What does that even look like? So when this inevitably fails to deliver what has been demanded, what then for the 62? Will they send another letter? Go on a byline strike? Quit? What?

One of the reasons The Line exists is because we fear cultural and economic pressures are overwhelming the ability of institutions to meet their mandates. Incidents like this are precisely what we worry about. Institutions won't endure if their internal grievances are fought out on maximalist terms, in public, where even good-faith compromise among coworkers is seen on the outside as surrender on matters of supreme principle. By making their letter to management all about racism, the signatories have left themselves damn little opportunity to then accept anything less than total victory. This isn’t haggling over a wage increase, improving working conditions or even reining in an abrasive colleague — this is about combating racism and hate.

The Star letter signatories seem to have known the danger publicity would bring — the top of their letter is marked: "THIS IS AN INTERNAL NOTE. PLEASE DO NOT SHARE PUBLICLY."

Lol. For a bunch of seasoned journalists, these people seem unfamiliar with the way the world around them works. Well, they've drawn a line of their own. Now they get to show everyone how willing they are to stick to it.

Also on The Line: As the Conservative Party of Canada selects its new leader, Erin O’Toole, Ken Boessenkool expresses his doubt that the Liberals will call a snap election in the fall. To do so, he notes, risks forcing Canadians out into public at precisely the moment a second wave of COVID might lead to public-health officials urging them to stay indoors and hunker down.

Speaking of COVID, ICU doctor Matt Strauss suggests that we’re not weighing the risk of COVID-19 in schools appropriately. Statistically speaking, going to school is safer for your kid than the car you will use to get him there.

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