By guest blogger Brian Brennan
So did Tony Burman jump or was he pushed? Don’t look for an answer in the Toronto Star. Up to a week ago, you could have turned to the paper’s dependable media critic, Antonia Zerbisias, for an informed and well-sourced piece on the reasons behind the imminent departure of the CBC TV news honcho. But, alas, the acerbic Zerby is no longer writing her delicious dirt-dishing column for the Star‘s Arts and Entertainment section. So, you might ask the same question about her: Did she just fade to black, or did someone take away her clicker? Without so much as a by-your-leave, Zerby has metamorphosed into a “living” columnist for the paper, pledging publicly to buy fewer shoes to reduce her “carbon footprint,” and asking why nobody is doing something to stop the proliferation of murders involving men who kill women.
I don’t receive the print edition of the Star, so I don’t know if there was any announcement in the paper about Zerby leaving her media-criticism job. Certainly, there was nothing on the Star‘s website about it. She wrote her last media-related column about diversity in TV ownership and then, poof, she was gone. No farewell to the world of media criticism. No subsequent word of explanation in her first column for the Life section, about the changes she would make if she was “Queen of the Planet.” Even Frank magazine, usually the first to pass along the best tidbits from the nation’s newsrooms, has been oddly silent about Zerby’s career switch. She did, apparently, tell her Facebook friends (I’m not one of them) that she has been lobbying for the new job since 2003, but I find this hard to believe. The passion and breadth of knowledge that she brought to the job of media critic made it a perfect fit for her.
Being the media critic for the Star meant that Zerby had the freedom to comment on how the news was being covered by broadcast and print journalists, including the journalists at her own paper. This meant she was watched nervously by both Star editorial management and the ink-stained wretches who toil for the paper. Rick Salutin, who used to do the same job at the Globe and Mail, told me once that he wrote every column as if it was his last. The Globe management tolerated his shots for eight years and then suggested he move to the op-ed pages. They discontinued the media watch column after he left.
Zerbisias wrote the media column for five years. Before that she had been the Star‘s television critic for five years. In each job, she courted controversy and made some enemies. The Ryerson Review of Journalism magazine dubbed her “Hell’s Belle” in a feature profile in its Spring 2006 issue. The article cleverly compared her to the Las Vegas magicians Penn and Teller, saying that both annoyed the people in their respective lines of work because they dared to reveal trade secrets.
She worked hard and produced great copy. As well as writing her daily column for what she called the “dead-tree” market, she authored a delightful blog for the Star, azerbic, that folded at the end of last year. Again, no explanation given. Zerby had temporarily stopped blogging, for health reasons, for a couple of months starting at the end of August 2006, and then stopped posting entirely at the end of December. Did Star management have a hand in the demise of her blog? We likely will never know.
She obviously still cares about some of the issues she covered in her media column. In a posting this week to the listserv of the Canadian Association of Journalists, Zerby signs herself “No Longer the Media Columnist” and urges fellow journalists to call on the CRTC to establish rules curbing media concentration in Canada. Too bad she couldn’t have written another piece on this topic for the Toronto Star.
All of which now leaves media criticism a non-starter as far as Canada’s mainstream media are concerned. The media take great pride in keeping a watchful eye on the rich and powerful in this country, but no longer shine the spotlight on themselves. John Doyle may occasionally write about TV journalism in his column for the Globe, but you never see him biting the hand that feeds him. Nor do you see the freelance media columnist for The National Post, political lobbyist Warren Kinsella, being critical of those who sign his paycheques. He plays it safe by directing his sights at such out-of-reach targets as the British tabloids.
As witnessed by the postings here and elsewhere, there still seems to be room in the online world for media criticism. Tyee.ca’s MediaCheck column is often worth reading, and eFrank.ca‘s Remedial Media column can sometimes be highly entertaining. Tyee.ca, however, has the limitation of being primarily West Coast-oriented and eFrank.ca now seems to be mostly unaware of what’s happening in newsrooms outside of Toronto. And both suffer from the disadvantage of being on the outside with their noses up against the glass. Zerby is a well-connected insider who knows the workings of the trade better than anyone. That’s part of the reason why her column often evoked angry letters to the editor from newspaper publishers and television company presidents. They could ignore what appears in Frank, because 60 percent of it is unreliable anyhow, but they couldn’t ignore Antonia Zerbisias.
When Zerby’s blog folded, I had the faint hope for a while that it might be on hiatus again, and that she would soon be back at her computer trying to keep control over the uninformed postings from her readers about the Middle East and feminism. Now I have the faint hope that she will soon be back writing a media column that continues to afflict the powerful and the comfortable. But I’m not holding my breath.
Brian Brennan is a Calgary author and journalist. His latest title is How the West was Written: The Life and Times of James H. Gray.