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Toronto Star's invitation to Maxime Bernier ignites dissent from journalists of colour

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Image: Absolutvision/Unsplash

Why should the outrage over Maxime Bernier being granted an audience with the Toronto Star editorial board remind us of the outrage over Justin Trudeau dressing up in brownface? Because both situations are about white privilege.

The point we should be debating is hinted at in Shree Paradkar's remarkable column in the Star questioning her paper's judgment. It was headlined "Giving Bernier a platform legitimizes his dangerous ideas."

Bernier, leader of the People's Party of Canada, is running a full slate of candidates in the federal election on a platform that opposes mass immigration, denies climate change and would do away with official multiculturalism. The Star's editorial board invited him in to explore his views, the same courtesy it extended to Justin Trudeau, Andrew Scheer, Jagmeet Singh and Elizabeth May.

Paradkar, the paper's race and gender columnist, described how the invitation caused consternation among the newspaper's journalists of colour. "It stopped us in our tracks," she wrote. Faced with deadlines and given only a day's notice of the meeting, "we had to take on the emotionally exhausting task of organizing and speaking up to explain to our management why this impacted us so viscerally."

Giving Bernier a platform, she argued, legitimizes his extreme and hateful views and emboldens his followers to discriminate and strike out at people who don't happen to be white.

To its credit, the Star aired its internal debate for readers to decide. Most newspapers probably wouldn't. It printed columns by Bob Hepburn and editorial page editor Andrew Phillips, pointing out that Bernier is not some fringe candidate but a legitimate national figure who has been invited with the other leaders to televised election debates.

Inviting Bernier "isn't really complicated," Phillips wrote. "We need to understand what he's up to, even if, indeed especially if, the point is to oppose him."

Boycotting him would cause the Star's readers to "conclude that our political leanings were clouding our news judgment, that we were putting ideology ahead of informing our readers."

The grilling of Bernier, Phillips wrote, "wasn't a chummy 'chat,' as has been suggested." Indeed, the resulting news story ran to 36 paragraphs, and the paper devoted nearly half of that space (17 paragraphs) to facts that challenge Bernier's views on immigration, climate change and the ideology of his party's candidates.

I agree with Phillips. It's important for voters to know exactly where Bernier and his party stand. The Star served its readers by inviting him in and questioning him on his views.

But that's the argument on a journalistic level. What if it's deeper than that?

Although Paradkar didn't come right out and say it, this alludes to a bigger issue. Just as the media's focus on the political implications of Justin Trudeau's insensitive brownface dress-up sidetracked us from having a serious debate about the role of racism in our society, the reaction of the journalists of colour to Bernier's invitation suggests a deeper problem in the Star's newsroom.

It's a problem of communication across racial lines.

Paradkar alludes to this by saying that "there are not that many of us in the newsroom." It certainly takes courage for a few in the minority to speak up against the "people with power," who, at the Star, are all white. And while Paradkar had license as a columnist to express her views, she said "my colleagues who spoke up are not in the same position." Many are in entry-level positions and, according to Paradkar, had to wonder if they were risking their reputations, or their objectivity, in speaking up for what they believed in.

In any healthy workplace, employees should not have to screw up their courage or risk their jobs to speak up for what they believe in. The Star does not seem to be a healthy workplace in that respect, and it should do something about it.

Here are some questions it could ask:

Are we doing enough to make our newsroom match the demographics of our readers? Most newspaper newsrooms in Canada do not. They're not even keeping track. It should be embarrassing that the last accounting of the diversity of Canadian news gatherers was one I did at Ryerson University 15 years ago. It showed that reporters, editors and columnists who were people of colour were six times underrepresented compared to the populations they serve, and I urged the newspaper industry to do an annual census to track progress. It did nothing then and it's still doing nothing.

Do we care enough about covering our community that we make diversity everyone's business? The Star has embarked on several half-baked attempts to increase diversity coverage but none have been effective, mainly because they did not get buy-in from the key players in any newsroom -- the middle-level editors who make the assignments.

Do we allow space for a dialogue about race in the newsroom? A few journalists of colour, especially if they are entry-level, can be intimidated into keeping their mouths shut about stories they think should be covered. The pressure is on "fitting in" or proving they were not just hired for their skin colour. This can rob the paper of fresh ideas and the kind of stories that attract readers from the fastest growing part of the population.

Above all, don't underestimate the challenge. Changing the Star's newsroom's culture will be very hard work.

I got a taste of that 30 years ago when I was a senior manager there. In the mid-1980s it was an intimidating place for both women and people of colour. The blatant sexist and racist language and behavior were among the factors that persuaded me to leave for Ryerson University to head its journalism school, where I thought I could make more of a difference.

Sad to say, I had only limited success in changing the Star's corrosive newsroom culture before I left. Two brief examples: When women in the newsroom began to object to the sexist bikini shots at the boat show that the Star used to feature, I banned them and ordered photographers to shoot something else. The reaction? I was openly called "pussy-whipped."

When I learned that every one of the paper's Black reporters and photographers had been assigned to serve together at the remote Scarborough bureau, I ordered the city editor to diversify the bureau and bring some of those writers to the main newsroom where they'd have a better chance at influencing the paper's news coverage. I was met with rolling eyes and grumbling, as if I was implying someone was a racist. But the paper was better for it because one of those reporters became the Star's longtime City Hall columnist.

What I'm saying is that the recent newsroom debate about Maxime Bernier is a distraction. The real debate should be about diversity -- or the lack of it -- in the newsroom.

From media executive to media critic, John Miller has seen journalism from all sides (and he often doesn't like what he sees). He draws on his 40 years in news, including five years as deputy managing editor of the Toronto Star, and 10 years as chairman of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University. His 1998 book Yesterday's News documented how newspapers were forfeiting their role as our primary information source. This column originally appeared on John's blog.

Image: Absolutvision/Unsplash

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