Dispatch from the Front Line: Writing this dispatch was like serving on the Arizona

On a very Trudeau kind of scandal, a very NYT kind of screwup, a very weird Globe essay, and a passive-aggressive demand for money.

Happy Friday, Line readers. And welcome to a whole heap of newbies. We’ve seen a real uptick in people finding us these last few weeks and we are glad you’re here. Many of you are just getting to know us, but we hope as you spend some time with us, you’ll decide to become a paid subscriber and help us grow into a viable, stand-alone journalism outlet.

That’s the polite way of saying": pay up freeloaders, and smash that blue button below.

But let it never be said we didn’t start with the polite version. That’s how we roll at The Line.

It’s almost a welcome relief to have a more routine Ottawa scandal to write about, something not involving viruses and mass death. The scandal involves the senior-most leadership of the Canadian Armed Forces, and now, the Minister of National Defence — and perhaps even the prime minister. We won’t inflict a long, drawn-out recap of all the events, as they’ve been well reported elsewhere — Mercedes Stephenson of Global News is a national treasure on the defence beat, folks, and the Globe is weighing in, too — but here’s the crux of it.

In January, Army general Jonathan Vance retired after a generally successful spell as Chief of the Defence Staff — the most senior post in the military’s uniformed chain of command, subordinate only to the civilian leadership of our democracy (and the Queen, we guess). Vance was replaced by Admiral Arthur McDonald, with the former Royal Canadian Navy commander taking command in January. Since that time, not even two months ago, it has emerged that both men, the outgoing and the incoming commander, are accused of sexual misconduct.

Almost nothing is known about the allegations against Admiral McDonald, who has stepped aside from his duties while military police conduct an investigation. The allegations around now-retired Gen. Vance are troubling; it is alleged that he had engaged in an affair with a subordinate officer in the ranks earlier in his career, an affair that may have continued even during his tenure as the Forces’ top soldier, and that he had used sexually suggestive language in correspondence with another, much lower-ranking female service member.

The only comment we’ll offer here is that is is imperative that sexual harassment and abuse be purged from the armed forces. Not just because it’s the moral thing to do, but because it will lead to a more effective fighting force. Internal abuse erodes morale and unit cohesion. It’s a threat to security and should be crushed. The military is a stubborn institution, and that makes sense, to a degree, considering its unique place in society and mission. But that’s not an excuse for inaction. There are no excuses.

But now, onto the part that might take a troubling but fairly typical #MeToo-era story really blow up: our Feminist Prime Minister might have known … and if he did, he did nothing.

Up until this week, the response of the government had been predictable: they were troubled, they were surprised and they would investigate. But this week, Gary Walbourne, the former ombudsman for the armed forces — a role specifically intended to give military personnel a place to flag issues they may not be able to address within their chain of command — told a parliamentary committee that he had raised allegations of misconduct by Vance with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan three years ago, and that Sajjan refused to accept evidence Walbourne offered to substantiate the claims, insisting it be filed directly to the cabinet. That put an awfully big hole in the government’s claim to have had no idea. It also seemed to leave Sajjan way out there on an awfully long limb.

Someone close to Sajjan might have had the same realization, because, wouldn’t you know it, emails soon turned up that strongly suggest that Sajjan did indeed flag the allegations re: Vance to the prime minister’s office. Oh. Oh, dear.

Normally, we’d suspect this fizzles. There’s a lot happening out there. And the feds have even had a lot of good news this week, with our vaccine procurement efforts proceeding well. But there’s two reasons to at least consider the possibility that this is going to blow up in the PM’s face, in a way that military scandals rarely do. First, this just smacks of a now-familiar genre in Canadian political flops. It’s another instalment in a long-running series: Justin Trudeau Not Living Up To What Justin Trudeau Said Justin Trudeau Would Do. Again, this is our Feminist Prime Minister ignoring allegations of a powerful man behaving inappropriately with younger, less powerful women. Is this OK by the PM, or not?

Second: this is a vetting problem, coming just weeks after the former governor-general’s catastrophic re-entry. It’s important to note that Gen. Vance was promoted to the top job by Stephen Harper, but Trudeau could have removed him at any time, and if the Adm. McDonald allegations have substance, that one is entirely on Trudeau.

Again, Canadians don’t pay much attention to the military. But they do pay attention to scandals, particularly ones that seem to fit a pattern. Sajjan doesn’t seem interested in being a fall guy. This one bears watching, folks.

For those following the latest internecine struggles emerging from the New York Times, an intriguing update was posted this week from the paper's former pandemic reporter, Donald McNeil. 

You may recall that McNeil was effectively pushed out amid a scandal involving allegations that he went on some kind of racist rant while chaperoning prep-school kids attending a Times-sponsored field trip in Peru in 2019. The affair was investigated, McNeil was disciplined at the time, and the whole thing seemed to have blown over — until January of this year, when the Daily Beast reported details of the incident, which included allegations that McNeil used the N-word during a conversation with the students. 

McNeil promptly issued a Maoist apology, to no avail. After 40 years of the paper, he was pushed out. 

Well, McNeil has now explained the matter in full. And we do mean, in full. This week, he posted a 20,000-word explanation of what happened in Peru, and then what happened at the Times. It includes details of his long running internal grievances, his voting habits, and a reflective section on whether or not he's an asshole and/or a racist. For the record, he does not believe he's a racist, although he does concede to having been an asshole to editors who have inserted errors into his copy — to which we say, fair play.

He said he had the whole screed vetted by two lawyers. He ought to have made better friends with those editors because the first thing they would have said to him is: "Damn, McNeil, this is way, way too long. Totally self indulgent. Cut to 3,000 words, stat." Much red ink begs to be shed.

Your diligent Line editors read most of McNeil's rebuttal. (Well, we skimmed through some parts.) So we feel qualified to sum up the pertinent bits. 

  • McNeil admits to using the "N-Word" in a very specific context: one of the students had asked him if another student should have been suspended for using the slur in a social media video. He repeated it while trying to explain that he didn't think the young person should have been suspended, but rather someone ought to have explained why using the word was wrong. Irony alert here.

  • McNeil denied saying anything like "racism is over" or that "white privilege" didn't exist. He recalls talking about "systemic racism," but asked which system was being discussed; ie, the L.A. Police department is a very different system than the New York Times.

  • He also describes extensive discussions of issues like cultural appropriation that, quite frankly, well-educated and wealthy high schoolers from top preparatory schools ought to have been able to handle. 

It does seem bizarre that the Times would punish a reporter for using a word in private conversation that it was still using in print. According McNeil's account, the journalist held a range of discussions about controversial topics with what sounds like a group of bright and idealistic but naïve teenagers who did not seem to have been exposed to a diversity of viewpoints on a range of basic political and social subjects. We also detect some post-hoc reframing, here; that is, students remembering some of these comments and imputing a much darker and more sinister interpretation in line with the broader cultural conversations happening around race in light of Black Lives Matter and the death of George Floyd. But as everyone involved in this scandal is recounting conversations that happened years ago, so it's hard to judge any of it with perfect certainty. 

And as McNeil also rightly pointed out; these were teenagers. How the Times itself responded to this re-dredging of an old controversy was, frankly, bonkers. Firstly, according to emails McNeil published on Medium, the Times forbade the writer from responding to the Beast story by providing context for his comments. Instead, they wanted him to offer an anodyne apology that, to McNeil's ears, sounded like an admission of wrongdoing. 

By McNeil's own account, he didn't take the controversy seriously enough as it engulfed the Times' Zoom and Slack feeds in an internal mass hysteria. McNeil, who seems like he was drawn from central casting for "cantankerous old guard journalist," was too busy doing his actual job covering a pandemic to worry about a two-year-old scandalette that had already been investigated and dealt with. So, according to McNeil, the Times made it impossible for him to give his side of the story, wheedled a struggle-session apology out of him, and then when the newsroom became convinced that a moral monster worked among them, he was drawn into editor Dean Baquet's office.

That is when his boss said to him: 

“…Donald, you’ve lost the newsroom. People are hurt. People are saying they won’t work with you because you didn’t apologize.”

“I did write an apology,” I said. “I sent it to you Friday night. I sent another paragraph on Saturday morning. Didn’t you get it?”

Dean didn’t answer.

“I saw it,” Carolyn said.

“But Donald,” Dean said, “you’ve lost the newsroom. A lot of your colleagues are hurt. A lot of them won’t work with you. Thank you for writing the apology. But we’d like you to consider adding to it that you’re leaving.”

Anyone who has worked in a newsroom should be pausing and taking a breath right here. "Lost the newsroom"? What the fuck does that even mean? Newsrooms aren't democracies and journalism jobs are not political appointments. When we at The Line talk about weak management, this is a prime example of it. Somebody has lost that newsroom, and it ain’t the now-former science and health reporter. 

Survive in this industry for a little while, and you'll quickly come to identify two types of editors; first, there are the editors who will have your back until the Day of Judgement. (This doesn’t mean they excuse bad behaviour or errors, of course; the best editors know when to save us from ourselves.) The second type of editor is the weasel. Weasels only have one back: their own.

The weasel who turns his back on an unloved colleague today will turn his back on you when the wind blows south again. Surviving in an industry as vicious as journalism requires one to develop an infallible intuition for the type. It also requires a knack for detecting changes in the smell of the air. After four decades in journalism, for all his gifts, McNeil seemed to lack that particular talent, and we're all worse off for it. 

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Speaking of the smell in the air, the Globe and Mail disappeared an essay entitled Lessons in Living from Anne Frank this week.

On principle, your Line editors are opposed to disappearing pieces that are published on newspaper websites.

Please let that principle be noted.

Now, on to the piece, which Jon Kay above helpfully screencapped and … *cringe.*

Honestly, it’s mostly just cringe. The piece is very obviously not badly intentioned. The author was simply trying to apply some of the literary lessons gleaned from Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl to her own comparatively milder struggles with lockdown. It’s not that such a thing is wrong to write, per se, it’s just a very difficult thing to write well. And this one read a lot like a journal entry by a senior high school student who wasn’t fully emotionally connecting with the horror of her own comparison.

One of your Line editors said that publishing this was the newspaper equivalent of this SNL skitch.

“Uh huh … Sort of tone deaf.”

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  • David McConkey got our week started when he flipped the line in defence of atheism, responding to a Jen Gerson column we ran several months ago. “In Canada and other countries,” he wrote,” in the last half century, we have seen huge progress on a variety of social issues. Many of these issues where we have seen so much progress — equality for women and LGBT persons, for instance — have been achieved despite the resistance of organized religion. Religiosity is also linked in the West to sexism and homophobia. Surely this should also be taken into account when tallying social capital?”

  • Ken Boessenkool, a man whose reputation as a champion of a strong Alberta needs no defending, pours some awfully cold mountain-lake water on Jason Kenney’s hopes for a provincial referendum on equalization. “An equalization referendum is wrong strategically because unlike nearly all of the Firewall and other Fair Deal proposals, even if it passes, it doesn’t actually give Alberta any more leverage to negotiate transfers than it has right now,” he said. “Unlike the Fair Deal proposals, even a successful referendum is unlikely to force any real concessions or policy changes from Ottawa. In short, a policy intended to placate Alberta’s restive separatists will only weaken the province in the long run.”

  • Oh, and we were busy too — last week, we ran an explainer about the feeble state of the media, laying out why (and why not) media is rapidly going bust. In that piece, we invited questions from readers, and this week, we published those questions along with our responses. Check that out here — we had fun with this, and hope to do more things like this in the future.

  • Michelle Rempel Garner, the Conservative MP, took the government to task for its badly bungled rollout of quarantine hotels … which she says are putting women at risk. “Women and members of the LGBTQ community are at greater risk than straight men for sexual violence,” Rempel Garner wrote. “How this well-known fact was not considered when the federal government decided to isolate people in federal quarantine hotels is baffling.”

That’s it for us this week, Line readers. Welcome again to our new followers; if you haven’t yet, please help us grow The Line by subscribing today. If you don’t, we’ll be very upset, and might do something reckless, like writing an essay for the Globe comparing your refusal to the Defenstrations of Prague or something.

And if we’ve learned anything this week, it’s that the Globe might run it.

The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: lineeditor@protonmail.com