Scandals at the Telegraph-Journal

Wafergate, plagiarism and unexpected firings: 2009 was full of scandal at the Irvings’ flagship daily. Why Neil Reynolds has been called to the rescue—again. This week we feature Chelsea Murray‘s story from the summer issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

It’s easy to lose your way in Saint John. Many summer mornings the skyline is shrouded in a heavy cloak of fog blown in from the Bay of Fundy. There are entire weeks when the cloud barely lifts, and the city becomes a ghostly whitewash. Some say flowers die in August from a lack of sunlight. But when the mist finally does blow off to reveal the city underneath, you realize what the fog was keeping secret.

This isn’t so with New Brunswick’s Saint John-based provincial daily, the Telegraph-Journal—its secrets tend to stay hidden. Consider a typically foggy morning late last July, one of those damp days that leave your clothes wet just from standing outside.

I’m a summer intern, and some colleagues and I have been called to a private meeting with Telegraph-Journal senior editor David Stonehouse. We shuffle from our desks, across the worn carpet to the editorial room on the north side of the Crown Street building. Behind a window overlooking the newsroom’s small sea of desks, I sit with the rest of the business section—three other reporters plus one on speakerphone—clustered around a flimsy round meeting table.

An awkward silence lingers as our session begins. We look at our shoes, the phone, the wall—anything but Stonehouse, who, speaking deliberately slowly, almost in a monotone, tells us what we’ve already figured out: the editor Shawna Richer has been fired and publisher Jamie Irving suspended for their roles in publishing a story printed on July 8, 2009. It accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper of pocketing a communion wafer at former Governor General Roméo LeBlanc’s state funeral on July 3—an accusation Harper hotly denied.

It’s three and a half weeks into my internship, nearly three weeks since the paper printed the wafer story, and I’ve been thrown into the aftermath of possibly the biggest Canadian journalism scandal of the year.

Stonehouse continues, saying the paper’s owners, the Irving family, take accuracy and journalistic integrity seriously. No one arches an eyebrow—strange, since the editorial integrity of Irving-owned newspapers has often been suspect. Media critics and three Senate reports on the state of Canadian media have criticized the Irvings’ iron grip in New Brunswick. And the most recent report, from 2006, made the Irving empire one of its main targets. It states: “[T]he media-industrial links within the Irving empire introduced an unhealthy bias into the news received by New Brunswickers.”

A few minutes later, Stonehouse concludes by suggesting we not get distracted, but keep our heads down and work—there’s still a paper with pages to fill.

“Does anyone have any questions?”

The room falls silent again. No one dares to ask for the juicy details because we know we won’t get answers.

Outside the window, fog still lingers.

Stonehouse dismisses us and we walk back to our desks, where lies that morning’s newspaper and its embarrassing below-the-fold, front-page apology to readers, titled “Telegraph-Journal Apologizes to Prime Minister.”

It read in part:

“There was no credible support for these statements of fact at the time this article was published, nor is the Telegraph-Journal aware of any credible support for these statements now. Our reporters Rob Linke and Adam Huras, who wrote the story reporting on the funeral, did not include these statements in the version of the story that they wrote. In the editing process, these statements were added without the knowledge of the reporters and without any credible support for them.

“The Telegraph-Journal sincerely apologizes to the Prime Minister for the harm that this inaccurate story has caused. We also apologize to reporters Rob Linke and Adam Huras and to our readers for our failure to meet our own standards of responsible journalism and accuracy in reporting.”

But instead of setting the record straight, the apology raised more questions: What induced such an editorial meltdown? What part did Jamie Irving and Shawna Richer play in it all? Now that Richer had been fired and Jamie suspended, who would be daft or brave enough to take charge of a paper that’s had six editors over the past 14 years? It’s the kind of situation that, over a year earlier, former Telegraph-Journal editor Mark Tunney (who led the paper from 2005 to 2006) described in “Cheap Power,” his master’s thesis for the University of Western Ontario’s journalism school:

“If this is a Kafkaesque nightmare, it is also a peculiarly New Brunswick one—informed by its own self-perpetuating, industrial logic; its own infuriating dynamic of blandness and boldness; the yin of paranoia and the yang of conspiracy theories. The Telegraph-Journal can seem absurdly modern and stubbornly anachronistic at the same time, like those old newsroom pneumatic tubes or the Irvings themselves.”

Read the rest.