By Frank Moher
Monday’s New York Times contained an article with the hed Trial of Black Raises Conflict Issue, about the game of Twister that Maclean’s has gotten itself into trying to cover the proceedings. It noted that Lady Black is the magazine’s star columnist, and both main trial correspondent Mark Steyn and publisher and editor-in-chief Kenneth Whyte are former employees of Black’s (not to mention editor Mark Stevenson, managing editors Dianne de Fenoyl and Dianna Symonds, and, for all I know, members of the janitorial staff). And Whyte, of course, just finished up a stint as a witness for the defence, filling in the glamour quotient as best he could, given that Donald Trump wasn’t called to testify after all.
In the interest of full disclosure I should mention that I, too, have been an employee of Black’s, when I worked as an editor for Saturday Night for two stints in the late ’90s. I also freelanced for both SN and The National Post during Black and Whyte’s tenures there. (I still do so for the latter.) The difference between me and those others is this: they got paid way more, and I live on a small island off the coast of BC and so don’t have to worry about running into any of these people at a cocktail party.
Whyte told the Times, “Mr. Steyn has informed me that he plans to prove his journalistic integrity by treating me twice as harshly as other witnesses.” I’m sure we can enjoy a good chortle right along with the two of them. But the best that Steyn has been able to come up with in the way of criticism of Whyte has been to assay that “in Thursday’s testimony Ken was a bit too rueful and self-deprecating and that, in response to Ms Ruder’s dimestore dominatrix style of cross-examination, something a bit more combative might be more called for.” In other words, Whyte was just too nice a guy, and why did that mean Ms. Ruder have to pick on him? And this was after the Times had raised the issue of their chumhood.
Of course, the skein of mutually supportive relationships identified in the Times is just standard practice for the clusterfuck known as the Toronto media. Or, as Kelly McBride, a “journalism ethics specialist” at the Poynter Institute, helpfully explained it away: “A lot of journalists marry other journalists, are children of other journalists, and it looks very suspicious to outsiders.” Don’t it just. McBride goes on to suggest that, in order to judge the impartiality of a journalist who’s writing about friends and associates you should look at what’s on the page. But that’s only one measure of impartiality. The other is what isn’t on the page.
For example, how is it that neither Steyn nor anyone else, as far as I can see, has asked what Ken Whyte was doing taking $100,000 from Conrad Black in 2003? This was almost two years after Black had completely divested himself of his ownership of the Post, but before Whyte had been fired as editor by its new owners, CanWest Global. In his testimony, Whyte first described this as a “performance bonus” (paid out 18 months late?), then later acknowledged that it was also paid because Black wanted to maintain their relationship. (Hmm, I wonder if that would work with my wife: “Wanna maintain our relationship, honey? It’s gonna cost ya.”) Whatever; let’s give Black the benefit of the doubt and say that he just felt bad about selling the Post and leaving Whyte to twist in the wind. $100,000 worth of bad. But what was Whyte, as editor of the Post, doing accepting any money, much less a hundred grand, from a highly newsworthy and controversial public figure whom his paper would almost certainly be covering? Is that the way he runs Maclean’s?
I don’t say that either Whyte or Black had anything but the purest, most filial of intentions in making the deal. I just say that it was a highly dumb move on Whyte’s part. Steyn writes, vis-a-vis the New York Times story, that “all this media navel-gazing about ‘conflicts of interest’ ignores the obvious: as I’ve said before, I have no financial interest in defending Conrad and nor does Ken. He signed our paycheques, but that was long ago now.” Well, that $100,000 wasn’t no paycheque. And exactly when does the statute of limitations on financial interests run out?