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Inside the Struggle to Address Racism in the Sun and Province

A recording of a tense newsroom meeting reveals staff angry at top editors reluctant to make real changes.

David Beers 19 Jun

David Beers founded The Tyee and is editor for initiatives. You can read more of his stories here. He worked as an editor at the Vancouver Sun as a member of staff and management from 1998 to 2001.

A recording of a tense meeting last fall in the Vancouver Sun and Province newsroom offers a chance to eavesdrop on the kind of difficult conversations about bigotry and representation happening inside many workplaces across North America.

It captures frustrated employees urging defensive managers to change their way of doing business, especially given the newspapers’ power to inflame or reduce racism.

On the evening of Friday, Sept. 7, the newspapers published an opinion piece by Calgary university instructor Mark Hecht saying Canada should “say goodbye to diversity, tolerance and inclusion.” The anti-immigrant column citing discredited sources quickly drew criticism on social media, including from many of the newspapers’ own journalists who denounced it as racist.

The editor in chief of both papers, Harold Munro, moved late that day to take down the piece. But it appeared in the Sun’s Saturday print edition and lingered on the Province website for two days.

Late Saturday afternoon, Munro published a 164-word apology on the paper’s website. It said Hecht’s column “contained views that do not meet the journalistic standards of the Vancouver Sun and do not represent the views of our editors and journalists.” Munro pledged to review “our local workflow and editorial processes to ensure greater oversight and accountability so that this does not happen again.”

He assured readers the Sun is “committed to promoting and celebrating diversity, tolerance and inclusion.”

Two days later, Munro and managing editor Valerie Casselton met with staff to discuss the column. A recording of the meeting recently obtained by The Tyee reveals a deep split between the managers and the journalists they lead over how the paper is viewed by those who face racism. A divide that is currently being revealed in media organizations from the CBC to Bon Appétit.

Staffers criticized Munro’s published apology as too brief and vague and called for a more detailed public explanation, including reassurances and next steps. That hasn’t happened.

Munro and Casselton didn’t identify who was responsible for greenlighting the Hecht piece. Casselton said “sometimes we drop the ball” and Munro said he expected readers would understand that one column did not reflect the “body of work” at the Sun and Province.

But several employee journalists sharply disagreed. The Hecht column, they said, was widely seen as confirmation of an anti-immigrant bias in the papers’ opinion section. That perception made reporting harder because sources refused to talk to them, and it also was hurting ad sales, they said.

One reporter observed the Hecht piece “echoed a lot of other columns that we’ve run that were just more deft in terms of pushing the same agenda.”

The 29-minute meeting about coverage of race and immigration in the papers of record in Vancouver, one of North America’s most multicultural cities, is particularly relevant at a moment when anti-Asian racism has risen with the pandemic and police violence against Black people has sparked protests in the U.S. and Canada.

In a tense and heartfelt conversation that day, journalists urged changes that went beyond the “workflow” adjustments pledged by their bosses.

Nine months later, The Tyee spoke with sources within the newsroom and sent questions to managers at the Sun and Province and its parent company, Postmedia, to find out what had resulted from employees’ pleadings captured in the recording.

Why, for example, did the Province again find itself facing accusations of racism after a front-page headline on Feb. 7 calling COVID-19 the “China Virus?”

And what did Postmedia learn from the turmoil in its largest newspapers? On June 1, with the U.S. and Canada engulfed in protests over the police murder of George Floyd, Postmedia’s National Post published a piece by columnist Rex Murphy headlined “Canada Is Not a Racist Country, Despite What Liberals May Say.”

As at the Sun and Province last September, journalists at the Post revolted. Managers called a town hall meeting after half the staff signed an email saying “For journalists of colour in the National Post newsroom, every time a piece like this is published, we feel more unwelcome at this paper and come closer to giving up on this industry.”

At the meeting, according to Vice, staffers “grilled newsroom managers on how the column came to be published, why there hasn’t been any public accountability, editorial independence, and the lack of diversity within the company.”

As at the Sun, Post editors blamed a glitch in oversight, one reportedly saying Murphy’s views were not properly vetted due to a communication “fuck-up.” (The Post eventually posted a note saying the Murphy column failed to meet its standards, pointing readers to a rebuttal by columnist Vanmala Subramaniam headlined “Before You Declare Canada Is Not a Racist Country, Do Your Homework.”)

Inside the tense meeting of Sept. 7

Munro, in the first minutes of the September town hall, declared Hecht’s piece “in no way conforms with the values of the Vancouver Sun or Postmedia. We are not prepared to say goodbye to tolerance, diversity and inclusiveness, because the opposite of those are the very things we write about all the time,” he said, his speech at one point halted by emotion.

He apologized for not informing staffers on the weekend that they should direct any criticism or questions to him rather than making them public. “People were coming after you and coming after your newsroom,” he says, “I should have sent a note out to everyone in this newsroom just saying that I’m dealing with it.”

Munro said technical problems prevented the Hecht piece from being removed from the websites more quickly and he was frustrated it could still be found with a Google search.

And he tried to deal with concerns that Postmedia’s direction had played a role in the decision to publish the piece. Less than a month before, the media watchdog website Canadaland had published a piece it called “the inside story of Postmedia’s right turn,” a top-down process ordered, it said, by CEO Andrew MacLeod.

“I know there was some stuff out there from our opponents, our detractors, that this must have been a Postmedia thing that was foisted upon us, and that it aligns with some move to the right — in this case it would be a move to the alt-right — by Postmedia and the Vancouver Sun,” he said. “And I can assure you that this is not the case.”

Hecht had submitted his piece directly to the Sun where it was “inappropriately handled at our end,” said Munro, who has been with the Sun for 34 years. Top brass at Postmedia, including MacLeod, were “as devastated and unhappy about this as the rest of us are” and want “to make sure that we get in front of it with our response and our apology and that we take steps that it doesn’t happen again.”

Managing editor Casselton asked, rhetorically, “How did it happen?”

“Every single person in this newsroom is doing so much more than we used to do because the pace is really frantic… and sometimes we drop the ball,” she said. Managers “maybe have not taken the time we need… and ask people if they are supported enough, are there enough eyes on copy, are we doing the job according to the standards that we know the job has to be done to.”

“We are going to be making changes,” said Casselton, who has been at the Sun for 36 years. “And hopefully it won’t happen as frequently. Is it never going to happen again? We make mistakes all the time, damn it. But do we learn from them? There are lessons to be learned.”

A staffer asked if the same responses would be shared with the public.

“Is there a point at which the paper or the organization will give a larger explanation in the way you’ve just done for us and say, you know, here is what we stand for, this is what we do and this is what happened?”

Munro said no. “We do that every day in what we choose to report and what we choose to run on our opinion pages,” he responded. “I hope people don’t judge us by one thing that gets through. I hope they judge us by the body of our work.”

Munro said he wouldn’t be saying any more publicly. “I am worried about fanning the flames and drawing more attention to this piece.”

“But it isn’t going away quickly,” said a staffer. “Maybe we need to say, like, we are doing so much more with so much less and we are doing our best…. I don’t think what we’ve done in the past is enough to stand for what we believe in, because we are being tarnished right now.”

Another staffer noted the column wasn’t a one-off event. “I’ve raised concerns about op-eds we’ve printed before. And I’ve been told, ‘But it brings in clicks.’ That’s not the kind of click I want for our newsroom.”

Casselton responded, “Nobody wants to bring in clicks with racism.”

“Are we going to call it racist?” asked a staffer. “We have an apology out there. But this was a racist op-ed. It was clearly unsubtle about its racism. And for us to apologize without saying what it is, I think lets us all off the hook here.”

After a few seconds of silence and no answer, the staffer continued, apparently referring to a Canadaland interview with Hecht.

“As far as looking at our larger body of work goes — the op-ed writer, he did. He looked at our body of work and he cited specific columns and specific columnists as an inspiration. He said, ‘I thought that the Vancouver Sun would be more receptive to this op-ed after reading their editorials.’ And we were.”

“I just want to know how we are planning to address that,” the staffer said to applause.

“We just talked about that,” Munro replied. “We just talked about how we are going to look at our workflows and our processes and make sure that more attention is brought to the kind of commentary that gets into the paper.”

A staffer noted that well-known people are publicly saying they are cancelling Sun subscriptions and “no one came to our defense” on social media.

Munro disagreed. “I saw lots of our readers denouncing, as we did, the piece that appeared in our paper. I did not see a lot of our readers denouncing us and our publication.”

A staffer pushed back. “I have a lot of people on my social media denouncing us. Saying they don’t want to read our stuff anymore.”

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Public outcry that the Sun and Province have run racist material has caused editor-in-chief Harold Munro (left) to make two public apologies in the past nine months. Editorial page editor Gordon Clark’s name remains on the masthead but sources say he has been on leave since September.

Another staffer noted that the perception that the Sun and Postmedia are moving more to the right is a concern to advertisers. “A lot of clients calling in saying they don’t want to leave their advertising dollars with us anymore.”

Casselton confirmed “discussions right up to the very top in Postmedia” on that issue. “You’re talking about concerns that advertising has had for some time,” she said. Her response, Casselton said, is to tell advertisers they’re mistaken and “point out different op-eds and editorials we’ve had.” But it’s an “ongoing conversation for sure,” she added.

A reporter then challenged the idea that the Sun’s body of work sends a good signal.

“The Mark Hecht column was unsubtle, it was obvious, but it echoed a lot of other columns that we’ve run that were just a little bit more deft in terms of pushing the same agenda. And we’ve raised concerns about those in the past, and obviously we’ve bitten our tongues in the past. But this one was just so far over the line we had to say something.”

“I feel like, if we are going to say ‘This was a one-off, everything bad happened here, but nothing else is a problem,’ then I don’t know that we are actually going to be able to prevent this from happening again,” the reporter said.

Another staffer followed up. “I’ve had my job made harder by racism in our papers and in our chain. After the Christchurch shootings [the terrorist killing of 51 in a New Zealand mosque] I had two Muslims decline interviews because of how our newspaper represents Muslims, how our sister publications in the Sun chain represents Muslims.” (Postmedia owns the Sun chain of right-wing tabloid newspapers.)

“I had a Sikh PR rep call me in tears after a Doug Todd column about Sikhs saying she had a much better story to tell about Sikhs, saying that the Sikh community is devastated about how our paper reports on Sikh people regularly,” the staffer said. “I’ve found work’s got a lot harder because we don’t represent other people’s views in our paper enough. We need to run more op-eds by non-white people.”

After several seconds of silence, Casselton responded. “I think we need to invite more people to submit op-eds. Think that’s a good point?”

“Totally,” responded the staffer, to approving murmurs.

Casselton told staffers, “In your networks… you need to invite them to send them in.”

That won’t be enough, said an employee. “We need to be more inviting though. When you look at our body of work you can understand why certain people would not feel comfortable submitting to us. And so if we’re hoping to have a broader array of voices then we need to make it explicit that we are looking for a broader array of voices instead of just waiting for them to come to us.”

“Is there an opportunity here to do some sort of series on diversity? And the reality of what people are feeling among Muslims, among Sikhs in the culture today, in the media landscape today?” another staffer asked.

“I think probably,” responds Casselton. “Harold and I were talking about that this weekend about what we can do beyond the immediate damage control…. This is the start of that conversation.”

Sources inside the Sun say they have heard nothing more about such a series.

Munro reminded staff the paper ran a series tracking the arrival and settlement of a refugee family. Headlines for those 2016 reports included “Avalanche of Refugees about to Hit BC" and “Refugees Benefit from Community Support.”

“We identified through that series I think a lot of interesting challenges that I wouldn’t have immediately recognized,” Munro said, “starting with finding housing for a large family. Which we all know how difficult it is for anyone to find housing. So we don’t shy away from these.”

To the assembled staff, Munro again emphasized his view that the Hecht piece was an outlier. “One of the challenges that we have, that frankly a publication like The Tyee or the National Observer don’t have, is that we try and get opinion from across a political spectrum and demographic spectrum,” he said. “If we were them and we could only see the world through one lens, it’s a lot easier, whether you want to go to just one set of facts or one set of opinion or the other set of opinions.”

“But our audience of a million-plus unique visitors every month comes from across the political spectrum, across the demographic spectrum, a lot of different views, and they are looking to us — and I’ve heard from a lot of people, even people in the immigrant community, privately over the weekend — they’re looking for newspapers, opinion pages, that ‘aren’t just speaking to things that are really comfortable, and telling me what I already know and already hear. I want pieces that challenge my views on things.’”

“But it has to be constructive,” said Munro. “It can’t be what that was. I’m not saying this to defend what ran. I’ve already apologized.”

“One of the issues that’s been in our pages a lot is the [TMX] pipeline,” he continued. “So we’ll run a piece by someone on the economic benefits of the pipeline and why we need the pipeline, and then a week later we’ll run a piece by someone like Ben Parfitt about the environmental risks and the damage that will be caused by the pipeline. They’re both valid views.”

Parfitt is a former Sun reporter who now is a freelance investigative journalist and a policy analyst for the progressive Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. While he has had a number of pieces published in the Sun’s opinion section in recent years, none specifically critique the risks and damage posed by the TMX pipeline.

Tyee editor-in-chief Robyn Smith rejected Munro’s claim the publication “sees the world through one lens.”

“We strive to ensure our reported pieces reflect all relevant facts,” she said. “Opinions do reflect our values around equity and justice and an inclusive society, but we still include different and sometimes contradictory perspectives.”

“What we don’t do,” Smith said, “is provide a platform for racism or pieces that attack groups within the community.”

Continuing with this theme, Munro tried to define “certain lines we don’t cross.”

“One of those is climate denial,” he said. In fact, the Sun had two months previously published an op-ed dismissing the seriousness of climate change.

“The other, of course, is anti-any ethnic group or racial group. That’s not what we do.”

“Like racism?” said a staffer.

“Absolutely,” responded Munro.

“Well I’m saying it was a racist piece,” said the staffer, sounding exasperated. “And I do just want to hear from my boss that it was a racist piece.”

“That’s what I said,” argued Munro. “It is by definition if you’re not in favour of diversity inclusion, right? You are racist, if you are not in favour of that.” Munro has yet to publicly pronounce the Hecht piece or anything else published in the Sun, racist.

A staffer asked exactly how the Hecht piece was approved and published.

“In this case, there was not enough thought given, there were not enough eyes on the piece,” Munro said. “There was not enough of a conversation before the piece got through. I mean how do we ever…”

A staffer interrupted. “But important people saw that piece, so why was it not flagged before?”

“Well you know what,” Munro responded, “there’s lots of mistakes we make that in hindsight we say, yes, how did that happen?… When we make mistakes, we apologize for them or we make corrections, and we move on. This was obviously a bigger storm over the weekend.”

What’s happened since?

The Sun and Province editorial page editor Gordon Clark, who reportedly signed off on the piece causing the storm, sat aloof from the staff during the townhall, as The Tyee previously reported. He did not apologize to his colleagues.

Clark had previously written that Muslim women who wear the niqab are “being jerks” and a worsening quality of life in the Lower Mainland was due to too many immigrants.

Since September, he has been on leave at home, sources say, though he remains named as editorial page editor of the Sun and Province on the company website.

People who submit opinion pieces to the Sun told The Tyee that weekend and features editor Hardip Johal had handled their pieces while Clark is still named as editor and calls go to his voicemail.

Clark and other journalists in the Sun and Province newsrooms belong to Unifor Local 2000. The union, like the newsroom managers, did not respond to a request to clarify Clark’s status with the papers and whether he is editing content.

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After running a 164-word apology for running the anti-diversity Hecht piece, Sun and Province editor-in-chief Harold Munro, staffers pleaded he publish a more detailed account of how it happened and what the company was doing to improve relations with people of colour and immigrants. Munro said no. ‘I am worried about fanning the flames and drawing more attention to this piece.’ Photo: Jonathan Hayward, Canadian Press.

Two days after the meeting, Munro circulated a memo to staff declaring “senior editors will recommit to reviewing submissions to the Op Ed pages” and the editorial board would be expanded, become more diverse and do more to invite submissions and track what’s published for balance and “wide inclusion.”

But no managers at the Sun and Province this week responded to The Tyee's attempt to confirm such changes were put into effect. Tasks are spread even thinner these days among Sun and Province employees working largely from home due to the pandemic. Recently, Postmedia and the union negotiated a five-per-cent cut in pay and reduced hours. The deal reportedly stopped Postmedia from laying off eight employees at the papers.

At the Sept. 10 town hall, staffers urged Munro and Casselton to go public with their view that reduced staffing had played a role in allowing the Hecht op-ed to be published in the hope that Postmedia headquarters would replenish the newsroom’s dangerously thin ranks.

Munro and Casselton said no because Postmedia policy prevents them from speaking on behalf of the corporation.

Staffers expressed frustration.

“Is Postmedia saying you can’t go out there and talk?” asked one.

Staffers said they were fielding suggestions on Twitter that they should resign in protest. Readers “are looking for tangible answers" about what went wrong and clear signals those running the papers were making serious changes, one said. “Because they want to still read us, you know, but…” The person’s voice trailed off.

As the meeting wound down, one staffer noted the newspapers needed to reach out. “We are in a world where people are interested in engaging with media. And I don’t think we’ve done enough.”

After a period of silence and no reply from Munro, Casselton replied. “I think those are good comments and fair comments and we will take those away. And we will have conversations with our bosses.”

An emailed request for an interview with Harold Munro, with a number of questions, went unanswered. A similar request to Postmedia headquarters drew this response from Phyllise Gelfand, vice-president for communications:

“With respect to the questions you have submitted to various members of our organization, we will not comment on what was or was not said at confidential, internal meetings,” she wrote. “Like most news organizations in North America, Postmedia has seen staff reductions in the past several years. That does not lower our expectations about rigorous journalistic practices. If we do make mistakes, we acknowledge those mistakes.” 

Sources at the Sun and Province this week expressed disappointment that little resulted from the opportunity to transform how issues of race and discrimination are represented in the paper’s pages, particularly the opinion section.

The day after the town hall, a number of staffers sent emails to management expressing deep dissatisfaction, as previously reported in The Tyee. “The retracted article was merely the latest in a series of ignorant, bigoted & racist op-eds that have been published on our site that I found in 30 minutes of browsing,” one said. Munro took meetings with some of his frustrated employees.

In November, management hired Alden Habacon, a “diversity and inclusion strategist,” to lead a half-day training session on recognizing “bias complicity.” One newsroom employee who attended felt it fell far short of what is needed because it “didn’t really address the nuts and bolts about how we operate in the newsroom. The language we use, how we quote people, our headline writing process, story conception process. It was not done through a lens of journalism.”

In December, Munro raised hopes by sending out a memo that proposed rethinking Sun coverage around “obsessions.”

But again, many were disappointed. Rather than ask staff what they felt most deeply about, the memo told them they must rate, highest to lowest, a list of seven obsessions presented by Munro. They were: Learning, Affordability, Local Power Brokers, Reconciliation, Climate Change, Longevity, How We Get Around. The white staffer eventually assigned to focus on reconciliation is expected to do so while holding down his main job as a web editor, sources say.

On Feb. 5, a newsroom employee cried when the Province front page headline said “2nd China Virus Case in B.C.,” prompting a storm of criticism.

“After that,” said another staffer, “it became a lot harder reporting on the COVID crisis. Phoning people, I had people refuse to speak to me. They’d call me out on the phone. ‘Look what your paper has done to our community!’ It was devastating just to have sources completely shut down.”

The virus had not yet been officially named at that point. But members of the newsroom were attuned to rising racism against people of Chinese descent, a source said, and most media at the time simply referred to the coronavirus.

Munro, appearing on the CBC, explained the headline was merely intended to point to where the virus was said to have originated. “I have certainly spoken with and heard from many people who felt the words 'China virus' in a headline could encourage racism against the community, and so for that, I do apologize," Munro said. “It was certainly not our intention to do that or to give the virus a new name.”

The damage accumulates, said a Sun reporter, and working there means dreading more similar headlines and columns.

“Emotionally it’s difficult,” said the reporter. “You know the criticism is not directed at you personally, but you collectively as a member of Postmedia and the Sun and Province. Staff are dealing with hurt and the harm that was done.”

David Beers founded The Tyee and is editor for initiatives. He worked as an editor at the Vancouver Sun as a member of staff and management from 1998 to 2001.  [Tyee]

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