Toronto Star Crosses Taste With Tempest in a Wine Glass

Even as they beg for money, Canadian newspapers can’t even get the puff pieces right anymore.

By Shannon Rupp 26 Sep 2017 |

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor. Find her previous Tyee pieces here.

After reading the Toronto’s Star’s wine-and-film pairings column last week, it struck me that what’s left of the paper’s audience must be full of satire lovers.

Wine columnist Carolyn Evans Hammond earned her 15 minutes of fame and an interview in the Columbia Journalism Review after she attempted to promote the Toronto International Film Festival by making callous connections between hit movies and vino.

It’s comic in that you-can’t-quite-tell-if-it’s-satire way.

I might have ignored this story as just another tempest in a wineglass if it hadn’t been for the timing. Heritage Minister Melanie Joly is currently mulling over the newspaper industry’s request for $350 million in public subsidies to pay for content. Critics of the idea point out that with executives earning millions in salaries and bonuses, the papers can afford to fund their own newsgathering. Joly is making an announcement Sept. 28.

Given this moment in newspaper history, you would think that Canadian newspapers might be doing their best to present themselves as the sort of vital, interesting publications that were once so popular, wouldn’t you?

But no. The Star’s little kerfuffle highlights why readers have abandoned newspapers, which can’t even get the advertiser-driven sections right anymore.

Hammond sparked outrage for her thoughts on how to drink to 12 Years A Slave. She suggests readers “...offset the searing cinematic discomfort with this smooth, dry, understated rose...”

The column included another clunker, in which Hammond suggests readers view Still Alice, a film about a woman struggling with Alzheimer’s, with a wine she describes as “intense but elegant — much like Julianne Moore’s portrayal.”

It was almost as if she were trying to come up with a new motto for newspapering: “Let’s drink to the suffering of others!” Somehow, it doesn’t have quite the same ring as “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” but I guess times change.

Several of us also speculated on how these insights could have slipped by the desk given that wine columnists are generally met with a little extra scrutiny, for obvious reasons. But perhaps all the copy editors are gone now?

Then Hammond defended her work to the Columbia Journalism Review, justifying her thoughts on 12 Years a Slave by offering the sort of quip that made me wonder if this all might be a prank.

“What was I going to do otherwise? Omit that film, I think that’s less scrupulous. It’s a very important film to watch,” Hammond told CJR. “I could have said a shot of whiskey, but I’m a wine writer.”

Did she really just allude to Jack Daniels and the recent revelations that America’s most famous whiskey was originally distilled by a slave? She’s kind of a comic genius, in that shock-jock style.

Really, if Hammond isn’t doing a routine mocking the bougie, I fear she’s missed her calling. Although a family newspaper might not be quite the right venue for it. The Star removed the offending sections, adding a note that they “...did not meet the Star’s standards on taste.”

This sort of hybrid of journalism mixed with advertising is nothing new, of course, and according to the late Nora Ephron it was once very popular. The Star incident reminded me of her March 1976 Esquire column, in which she labelled how-to-consume articles, “the new porn.”

Ephron was chewing over a similar media kerfuffle sparked by the New York Times running a front-page Craig Claiborne restaurant review of a $4,000 meal-for-two in Paris, funded by a credit card company.

It provoked a flurry of letters-to-the-editor expressing what Ephron called “knee-jerk liberalism” but we’re more likely to call “virtue signalling.” The tart-tongued Ephron didn’t suffer hypocrites gladly and she couldn’t resist pointing out the irony of Times’ readers — who were happy to enjoy articles on the search for the perfect ice cream cone — calling the paper some combination of Nero and Marie Antoinette for featuring a $4,000 meal.

At the time, all sorts of new consumer magazines and old newspapers were trading on what Ephron called the “let them eat cheesecake” approach to lifestyle articles, so beloved of advertisers.

But for Ephron, a former news reporter, the real shocker in that story was the way a credit card company had engineered a publicity stunt that earned them front page coverage in the NYT for a mere 4,000 bucks.

Today, I think the real shocker is that this sort of lifestyle porn was once so well written it attracted readers instead of repulsing them or triggering Twitter rants.

But the whole Star brouhaha is instructive to Canadians who are being asked to pony up public money to fund this sort of thing. What always amazes me about newspapers 50 years ago is just how much better they were at every aspect of newspapering, especially the soft journalism.

I looked up Craig Claiborne’s review and it earned its front-page play. (And I say that as someone who finds most of the foodie babble a bore.) The reporting is excellent, the writing is interesting, and the subject is new. And shocking! Who knew there were Parisian restaurants charging roughly half the average American salary for a dinner in 1975?

I’d call that journalism, even with the corporate publicity thrown in: more than 40 years later it’s still a good read, and a revealing one. It’s everything that the Star’s wine column (and similar advertorial bumpf in other Canadian dailies) is not.

So the next time you see some newspaper lobbyist arguing for public funding because they can’t earn enough to pay for journalism and the million dollar bonuses their executives require, I think we might want to start asking a few questions about how they run their business.

Starting with: why can’t they do interesting puff pieces of the sort that used to support the cost of hard news reporting and attract readers?

To be fair, I have to admit the Star’s piece has its virtues. It sparked an important debate in journalism circles and it inspired me to reread Ephron’s columns (which is always a good idea). Then I looked up Claiborne’s beautifully written review and his obit, both of which I posted on my own Facebook page where their quality was marvelled over. That led someone to dig out his cookbooks and another person to propose we have a Claiborne cooking party where, no doubt, there will be wine.

Since one of the goals of newspapers is to engage their readers and make them think about the world, while consuming, I guess I could argue that Star column did its job. Sort of. But here’s the thing: if they want me to start subscribing directly, or even support public funding, they’re going to have to do more than prompt readers do all the work of finding the good writing on their own.  [Tyee]

Read more: Food, Media, Film

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