Jan Wong is an award winning newspaper reporter and author, who was, at one time, the Beijing bureau chief for the Globe and Mail and one of the most prominent feature writers Canada has ever produced.
Her occasional series in the paper, "Lunch With Jan..." was remarkable for its tough and revelatory tone. The anxious joke in Toronto journalistic circles was when you got invited for lunch with Jan, you were on the menu.
Jan is a Montrealer who understands cultural marginality very well. As an Anglophone in Quebec, as a Chinese-Canadian and a woman, she is, as Mordecai Richler described the Jews of Montreal, thrice alienated.
Jan is also a friend of relatively recent acquaintance, so when her recent book detailing her estrangement from the Globe and Mail and her subsequent mental breakdown, I was shocked to read about her departure from the highly regarded Globe.
According to Jan, it was after she wrote about a horrible school shooting in Montreal in 2006, that the trouble began.
At Dawson College, twenty students were shot and one was killed by Kimveer Gill. He shot and killed himself as he was cornered by police.
This was the third mass shooting in Montreal in the past twenty years. Jan noted that all three of the killers were foreign-born: Gill in India, Valerie Fabrikant was Russian (he killed four of his academic colleagues at Concordia University in 1992) and Marc Lépine (né Gamil Gharbi in Algeria) who murdered 14 women at the Ecole Polytéchnique in 1989.
Jan's conclusion: the language conflict in Québec has taken a toll not only on anglophones but on immigrants as well.
The paragraph in her article that created a firestorm was this:
To be sure, the shootings in all three cases were carried out by mentally disturbed individuals. But what is also true is that in all three cases, the perpetrator was not pure laine, the argot for a "pure" francophone. Elsewhere, to talk of racial "purity" is repugnant. Not in Québec.
According to Jan, this key paragraph was approved by both her editor and the editor-in-chief of Globe, Edward Greenspon. It was seen as the essential aspect to her story.
The reaction from both Quebeckers and Anglo-Canadians, was swift and harsh. Jan was denounced as a racist and the hate mail poured in. The Globe moved to distance itself from the article and from Jan. After the article was denounced by the Premier of Quebec and the Prime Minister of Canada, the Globe ran a column by Greenspon which stated:
I can offer several explanations as to how the editorial quality control process sometimes breaks down on tight deadlines during grueling weeks. But none are germane. The fact is they did, which is ultimately my responsibility. We regret that we allowed these words to get into a reported article.
Jan went through a complete nervous breakdown. The Human Resources department at the newspaper cut off her benefits and sick leave after six weeks. (Her union contract stipulates that workers are eligible for six months sick leave). Jan was ordered back to work but felt it was too soon as she was unable to write and had a medical certificate so stating. When she failed to show up in the newsroom as required, she was fired in 2006.
The details of her recovery are well told in the book. It's not an entirely happy ending as Jan is no longer working for a newspaper, but she has now found a place as a professor of journalism at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Her book is also being well reviewed and she has given a number of interviews. The Globe has not yet reviewed the book.
Because the Globe's reputation in Québec was under attack, Jan Wong -
and not her editors - took the fall. Ed Greenspon left the Globe in
2009 and is now head of business development at the rival newspaper, the
Toronto Star. No reason has ever been given for his departure.
Which leads me to ask whether the Globe did the right thing in trying to protect itself and its journalism?
The challenge for every media organization is to burnish its reputation by doing great journalism and by treating its employees fairly. When a journalist strays into opinion, media organizations get very defensive and woe betide the journalist whose vanity leads to a belief in his or her invincibility.
The Globe has been a great employer when it comes to handling reporters in war zones and other stressful situations. Jan Wong clearly underwent a clinical depression caused by job-related post-traumatic stress disorder. If she has been in Iraq or Syria or Sierra Leone, the Globe would have had no hesitation about giving her or any war correspondent the necessary support and care.
When reputations are on the line, the "it's either her or us" mentality takes over. I've seen this more than once, so what happened to Jan Wong is not surprising. The damage to the Globe's reputation as an employer is now ongoing. It shows no sign of abating, although my guess is Globe management will try to tough it out. That would be a mistake. This is the talk of newsrooms and journalism schools everywhere in Canada.
It's not too late for the Globe to acknowledge the nature of workplace depression wherever it occurs. A good starting point would be to ask Ed Greenspon to review Jan's book.