Mediacheck

Torstar CEO Criticizes Tyee Story on 'Big Media'

Star's media critic left media beat on her own: Prichard.

By Robert Prichard 20 Sep 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Robert Prichard is the president and CEO of Torstar Corporation.

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Torstar CEO Robert Prichard.

Robert Prichard, CEO of Torstar, which publishes the Toronto Star and owns stakes in other major media including CTVglobemedia, Black Press and Metro newspapers, e-mailed Tyee writer Marc Edge about Monday's Tyee cover story, "Big Media's Big Showdown." Prichard's e-mail exchange with Edge follows.

Robert Prichard to Marc Edge:

I read your entry on Tyee on Big Media today, which included the following section:

"In particular, don't expect to read much commentary critical of convergence in the nation's press, almost all of which has now bellied up to the television trough. Torstar's foray into convergence recently saw the last media critic at a major Canadian daily simply disappear. For the past few years, Antonia Zerbisias was the only journalist in the mainstream press willing and able to hold Big Media's feet to the fire, and her raucous online blog allowed readers to vent their rage as well. 'Media concentration has landed plop plop plop like a steaming pile of bad news on my very own front stoop,' Zerbisias quipped in her Star column when the CTV deal went down. 'Which makes me worry that things might get very slippery for a media critic, if you get my drift.' She now writes lifestyle features. Oh, to have her in that hearing room."

I believe any reasonable reader of this section would conclude you are alleging that Ms. Zerbisias's leaving her column as a media critic at the Toronto Star was caused by Torstar's decision to invest in CTV and the corporate interest thereby implicated. This is dead wrong on the facts. Worse, I know of absolutely nothing that would give you a factual foundation for your suggestion, which does an injustice to both Ms. Zerbisias and Torstar. To suggest Ms. Zerbisias would stay silent in such circumstances is to demean a talented, experienced and courageous journalist while simultaneously suggesting the Toronto Star and Torstar have a flagrant disregard for the proper independence of the newsroom from corporate control. Ms. Zerbisias initiated the transfer to her new responsibilities, not the Toronto Star, as she sought new areas to write about and she has, I understand, been clear and open in this respect. The Toronto Star accommodated her just as the Star did when she first wished to become our media critic. It is also worth noting that while Ms. Zerbisias remained our media critic, she wrote critically of Torstar and CTV on occasion without any negative implications for her or the Star.

As a result, I ask that you not make these false allegations about Ms. Zerbisias or the Toronto Star/Torstar. If you have been advised of facts to the contrary of my statements above, please let me know so we can correct them.

J. Robert S. Prichard,
President and Chief Executive Officer, Torstar Corporation

Marc Edge replies to Rob Prichard:

I made no causal link in my article, nor did I intend to, between the events in question. Instead, I merely chronicled their sequence. I am sure you are aware, however, that this development has recently been the subject of considerable conspiracy theorizing in the blogosphere, with many convinced there is indeed a link.

In addition to the blog entry by Brian Brennan (a colleague of mine from 30 years ago at the Calgary Herald, BTW) and the prediction by Ms. Zerbisias herself that "things might get very slippery for a media critic, if you get my drift," I relied on one other unattributed source in authoring this passage. I am happy to share that with you. You can find it at the following link:

http://mediafade.blogspot.com/2007/06/zerbisias-wont-be-replaced-at-star.html

From researching my forthcoming book, I certainly share your sentiments about the job Ms. Zerbisias did as your media critic. In fact, I don't think it is going too far to say she achieves a somewhat heroic status in my telling of the CanWest story. From frequenting her blog, I also have little doubt that she asked out of that overheated kitchen on her own. The point is that your newspaper was until recently the last major Canadian daily with a full-time media critic. Now even you have none. I don't think you can blame people for putting two and two together on that one.

In order to provide you with a forum to present your side of this issue, I wonder if you would allow your e-mail message to me to be posted in the Comments section under my article. I would then reply, much as I have above. Alternatively, I have been authorized by Tyee Editor David Beers, to whom I have copied this message, to offer you a separate space on their website for a reply.

Given the ongoing proceedings in Ottawa, I think it would be important for Canadians to be assured that the Star is still as independent in its pursuit of truth and justice as it has always been. And also perhaps that you intend to appoint a replacement media critic.

Robert Prichard responds to Marc Edge:

We are united in our admiration for Antonia Zerbisias and her work. I therefore urge you to accept her word that there was absolutely no connection between Torstar's investment in CTV and her decision to seek a new assignment in the newsroom. The Toronto Star accommodated her wishes in making the move, not the other way round. And she began seeking the new assignment two years before Torstar made its investment in CTV. If you wish to read her own words on the issue, see http://backofthebook.ca/media/2007/07/canadian-media-de-zerbified.html, where Ms. Zerbisias directly answers Mr. Brennan's speculation to which you refer.

You say you neither made nor intended a causal connection between our investment and Antonia's changed assignment. With respect, I don't think that is good enough for a professor of mass communications or a journalistic site edited by a journalist as respected as David Beers. Merely "chronicling a sequence" and leaving the reader with the natural suggestion of cause and effect when you intend none is disingenuous if you genuinely intend no suggestion of a causal connection. Truth is the object here, particularly when the subject is as important as this one, and a call to Ms. Zerbisias or a reading of her words would have revealed it. The fact that other conspiracy theorists in the blogosphere have suggested there is a causal connection is hardly justification for an authoritative figure like yourself posting to an important journalism site doing the same and citing these postings as evidence of the truth. It is just repeating misinformed speculation. That's not good journalism as I understand it, nor, I expect, the way you teach it.

As you say, these are important times for discussion of editorial freedom and the implications of corporate ownership of media. Torstar has a long record of commitment to the editorial independence of the Toronto Star, a record that predates my service by decades and will extend far beyond it. Nothing has changed in this respect by virtue of our investment in CTV.

Sincerely,
Rob Prichard

[Editor's note: Former Star media critic Antonia Zerbisias also e-mailed Edge and assured that she left her media critic beat of her own free will.]  [Tyee]

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