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Toronto Star botches apology to columnist

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The Toronto Star's Public Editor, Kathy English, still doesn't get it. English, who has come under intense fire this week from right and left in the blogosphere and in letters to the Star, last week rushed to judgment with a poorly researched column in which she attacked Star journalist Antonia Zerbisias. Zerbisias had made an ironic comment on her blog about Canadian Jewish Congress CEO Bernie Farber. Farber had marched in Pride as part of a pro-Israel contingent, wearing a t-shirt that said “Nobody Knows I'm Gay.” Zerbisias wrote, "imagine my surprise when I saw Bernie Farber identifying himself as queer by joining a pro-Israel gay rights group in the parade." English called Zerbisias' remark “distasteful” and a breach of the Star's standards of fairness and civility.

Reaction in the blogosphere and on Twitter was swift and nearly unanimous in condemnation and ridicule of English. This weekend, English responded to her critics with a tortuous non-apology.

English now admits that her original column did not live up to basic journalistic standards of fact-checking. But she does not admit that she failed to subject the statement of her informant, Bernie Farber, to critical scrutiny. Farber was not a disinterested party but a protagonist in a very public political dispute that Zerbisias' column dealt with directly. This should have given English pause in taking Farber's version of events at face value. In making his complaint, Farber made no mention of the t-shirt he had worn. A few minutes of research would have revealed this omission to English. She acknowledges her failure to do her homework, although she implicitly lays a lot of responsibility at the feet of Zerbisias, in addition to Farber. The fact is, it was English's column. She didn't do her job, and the responsibility is hers. Period.

English just does not get the new media and doesn't seem to care. She complains that the new media don't have quality control, in the same column where she admits rushing to judgment in print without checking her facts. For the most part, the culture, purpose, and value of blogs are different, and should be evaluated on their own merits. One great thing about the new media is that people like Kathy English can be held to account. She doesn't value that; she resents it.

Her mea culpa is buried in passive aggression, snark, and anger directed at the blogosphere. She refers to Jen Gerson, a former colleague of hers, as “some blogger in Abu Dhabi”, while berating bloggers for their immature tone. She spends a long time talking about the lack of journalistic standards in blogs, which only distracts from the issue at hand: her own failure to uphold journalistic standards—a failure that was exposed by bloggers. She writes that “The Star has clear 'rules of engagement' for its bloggers, though I learned this week that not all Star bloggers, including Zerbisias, have been apprised of these guidelines,” suggesting that Zerbisias has somehow run afoul of these guidelines, without saying how. And by dwelling so much on the red herring of blogs' quality, one of her hobby horses, she is subtly tarring Zerbisias by association.

English places a lot of weight on the significance of the t-shirt, saying, "That's context I sure wish I had known". Yet it's not clear why, since it hasn't altered her view that "Zerbisias's blog comment...fell short of the Star's standards of fairness".  In one sense, English is right that the t-shirt doesn't change things, because it doesn't bear on the mistake that led her down this path in the first place. Had she taken time to understand the context in which the comment was made, she would have understood the point: Zerbisias was commenting on Farber's cynical use of queer rights as pro-Israel propaganda. Only the most obtuse or disingenuous reader could deny the irony in this comment, or misunderstand why Zerbisias made it. 

Finally, English did not acknowledge or take responsibility for saying, in her original column, that the ironic suggestion Farber was gay was almost too "distasteful" to reprint. As I said before, if it's okay to be gay, what could possibly be so distasteful about it? This is homophobia, pure and simple, and neither English nor the Star have made amends for that.

English's performance in her last two columns has been an embarrassment to the Star and to the profession of journalism. Her invocation of hoary “principles” and “idealism” is selective and self-serving. A newspaper's public editor should exemplify the highest standards of journalistic integrity and self-reflection, and should be able to keep their ego out of the way. Kathy English does not seem up to the job.

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