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Dispatch from the Front Line: Fast times at RyeHigh, and the Search for Zita Astravas
We are strongly considering storming off before we finish writing this.
Happy Friday, Line readers. It didn’t get much attention this week — there’s a lot going on, we get it — but we might have had an all-time classic moment of pure Canadian political comedy gold. Not like ha-ha, good-joke funny. More like pathetic in a way that can’t help but crack you up. But first, it’s time for your weekly instalment of Drama In Media.
If you have ever dealt with the sickening sensation of knowing someone you love has messed up, you'll understand how we at The Line have been feeling all week.
We've been trying to track what the hell has been unfolding at one of our editor's alma maters, Ryerson University, which appears to be in a protracted moral panic, complete with allegations of discrimination levelled at Ryerson's independent student newspaper, the Eyeopener, high-level resignations, and red flag ledes like this: "Ryerson’s School of Journalism found itself in a Twitter storm in February over the questions surrounding how far freedom of speech can go for students in the program."
Settle in, folks. We have some feels, and this is going to be a long Dispatch.
To be honest, we didn't want to touch this for a few reasons. One is that this story involves students at journalism school. As if being students at journalism school in the year 2021 isn't enough of a punishment! We generally try to leave young adults alone to sort out their own internal dramas.
The other reason is that one of your Line co-founders is an Eyeopener alumni. And that editor loves that paper. The Eye is rather notorious for being a bit of a journalism fraternity. Working at the Eye was like going to war. Its editors develop close-knit bonds that continue as their careers evolve. The paper was a refuge for J-Skool's weirdos and shitkickers; although the paper was always typically left-leaning, it was, traditionally, never particularly hostile to more conservative students, either. Not only did it graduate Line co-founder Jen Gerson, it was also where the late National Post columnist Christie Blatchford cut her teeth. It wasn't about left or right. Eye people were just Eye people.
The flip side of that is that the Eyeopener has always been a bit cliquish, and therefore a little drama-prone. Volunteers who were accepted into the club generally went on to earn elected positions on the masthead; the less liked tended to fade into other extra-curriculars. The paper always had a bit of a social-club quality, strengthened by its method of paying volunteers — beer and food.
All of those disclaimers and backstory out of the way; in 2017, a devoutly Catholic first-year journalism student named Jonathan Bradley began to volunteer at the paper, and according to the complaint later filed to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, everything appeared to go well for him. He never quite made the cut to masthead, but he appears to have contributed frequently in a volunteer capacity.
That is, until he began to write opinion pieces for The Post Millennial, a provocative conservative digital outlet. The piece most cited as problematic was this, published March 20 of last year, and entitled: "Remove all equity, diversity, and inclusion offices at Canadian universities." While we have no doubt that this opinion would rankle left-leaning members of the student body, it's also a pretty bog-standard conservative take. The comments that Bradley reported on appear to have been more controversial than any of the arguments he offered. Nonetheless, according to the human rights complaint, the editors at the Eyeopener took issue with it, told Bradley that he wouldn't be permitted to report on the topic for the Eyeopener, and advised him to steer clear of the paper's pub night.
We mean, that's a bit shitty, sure. But well within the ordinary realms of campus newspaper shitty.
Anyway, the relationship between Bradley and others within the student body turned visibly hostile after this.
That spring, Bradley appears to have had a private conversation with a former classmate in which he discussed his Biblically informed views on homosexuality and transgenderism, noting that his religious beliefs dictated that these were sins. The student accused Bradley of bigotry, homophobia and transphobia on Twitter, and tagged the Eyeopener in her tweets. Bradley threatened to sue her for defamation, and the student apologized and deleted the tweets.
But the editor at the Eye quickly found out that Bradley had made other comments of a similar nature in public.
Then, he was effectively shitcanned from the paper.
According to the filing, his canning read as follows:
"Recently, The Eyeopener’s Twitter was tagged in a thread involving screenshots of a conversation in which you defended the notion that homosexuality as well as being transgender is considered a sin. I see that you have tweeted this sentiment in the past and also defended it in the present day. You are entitled to your opinion and are free to express it online; The Eyeopener cannot and would not control that. However, we are responsible for ensuring that our Eye community — including sources, contributors, readers and editors — feel safe and comfortable in working with The Eyeopener and coming into our space. I fear that since you’ve made your opinion public, members of our community, especially queer, trans and non-binary folks, would no longer feel safe if you are associated with the publication.”
It’s for these reasons that I’ve come to the decision that you can no longer contribute to The Eyeopener. It is no longer enough to ask that you do not pitch equity-based stories or communities stories. There will be queer, trans and non-binary voices in every kind of story and I must protect these folks’ interests and ensure they feel safe. And again, I need to make sure people feel safe using the Eye as a platform, being in the office and attending community events."
We at The Line are struggling with this one. We love the Eye. And we don’t have the paper’s response yet. But that letter is simply not defensible. Being on the side of the angels doesn’t make you one by default.
If Bradley were going around calling his colleagues at the Eye sinners, or creating a hostile work environment through his words and actions in the office, that would be one thing. But that's not what this letter says. The letter implies that the Eyeopener staff would be made literally unsafe by mere dint of sharing newsprint with someone who had expressed pretty standard Catholic viewpoints on Twitter.
In looking into this story, we at The Line have heard other allegations against Bradley; namely that he was a bully who had threatened to sue other students. We asked his lawyer about this directly. She said, to her knowledge, the only time Bradley had threatened another student with a lawsuit was in response to the defamation above.
We can't help but notice that this case is weirdly analogous to another that went badly for the outlet in question — that of Amar Khan vs. the CBC. We have a hard time imagining that matters would have escalated to this point if Bradley were generally well liked; but as in the case of Khan, being disliked doesn't make someone wrong.
As campus dramas tend to do, this whole episode escalated to satiric proportions. Bradley's continued presence at the school appears to have opened a Pandora's box of longstanding campus grievances that found their way into an open letter reportedly signed by 150-plus students. It alleged that Ryerson had created a hostile environment, particularly for racialized and LGBTQ students. The main piece of evidence cited for this claim was that the school hired Toronto Star public editor Kathy English, a white woman, to teach a course on equity and ethics. English's sins: she "influenced" Desmond Cole to leave the paper, and was accused of inviting Maxime Bernier to an "all white" editorial board meeting. She also "challenged" students' experiences, and made them feel as if their positions were "unjustified." More safety language was peppered throughout.
This prompted the resignations of Janice Neil and Lisa Taylor, the school's chair and associate chair, whom we are quite sure were not getting paid enough to deal with any of this.
We don't want to be disparaging about the letter, because there were some good points made within it, and also a lot of reasonable asks.
But we also wish that somebody would have the courage to tell these kids the baldfaced truth.
The world isn’t “safe.”
Journalism is not a "safe" profession. You will never be protected from the “dangers” inherent in being met by someone who disagrees with you. Outside the confines of the classroom, your experiences are going to be challenged and met with skepticism. You are going to have to scrap, scrap long and hard to be heard and taken seriously, regardless of your identity. If you land a job in a newsroom, you are going to have to learn to manage assholes. You're going to have to interview and work with people with deeply held religious viewpoints — Jews, Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants — faiths that hold views about gender and sexuality that do not align with your own. Reconciling nuance and intellectual diversity with your own values is one of the great challenges, and rewards, of this profession. And any school that does not prepare you for this is failing you, and it is failing you profoundly.
Now, on a lighter note (but not actually): We told you a week ago about the sexual misconduct scandal(s) at the very top of the Canadian Armed Forces. Army General Jonathan Vance recently retired after serving as the chief of the defence staff, the highest post in the military. Shortly after, Global News reported that he had faced two allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct during his career. Then, Vance’s successor, was also required to step aside while being investigated for allegations of a sexual nature.
This is embarrassing for the military, but as we noted last week, there’s danger here to the government — Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was told about the allegations against Vance, and passed that up the chain of command … meaning the PM knew, and did nothing.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. You mean Justin Trudeau might have not lived up to his own self-branding and may have even — this is hard to even type — fallen short of the standard he sets for others?!
OK, OK. We had to sit down a minute there and catch our breath. It’s all just so much to take in. The government clearly knows it’s in trouble. Sajjan gave some testy testimony in which he said that it would have been inappropriate for him take an active role in any investigation. This is an awfully god-damned novel interpretation on ministerial responsibility that we’re excited to see become even dumber as this unfolds. The PM, for his part, has adjusted his ass covering; where once he said that he was not aware of the allegations against Gen. Vance, he now admits he was told in 2018, but says he did not know the details.
Think about that for a minute. The prime minister of Canada, the self-styled feminist prime minister of Canada, was told that the country’s top soldier, a man in a position of incredible power and authority, was accused of sexual misconduct, and … that’s it? Like he didn’t ask any questions? Give the old general a buzz and ask what’s up? A government that tried to sink an admiral in a case so flimsy it collapsed once readily available facts came to light couldn’t be bothered to find out if all that smoke around the general may have been from a fire?
This is, remarkably, not even the funny part. Everything above is embarrassing and awful and pathetic, but it actually gets worse. On Monday, the House Standing Committee on National Defence was discussing possible witnesses to invite as investigations continue into the above matter. The Conservatives asked about the status of an invitation to Zita Astravas, who had been Minister Sajjan’s chief of staff during this time. The committee chair, Liberal MP Karen McCrimmon, explained that the government had some difficulty locating Astravas. Once they did find her, there were fewer than 24 hours before the meeting. She was thus unable to attend on such short notice.
Here’s the thing: as the Conservatives on the committee immediately noted, Astravas isn’t hard to find. Like, she’s right here, on Twitter, where she is active. Oh, and she’s also the serving chief of staff to public safety minister Bill Blair. It says so, right on her fucking Twitter bio.
Alas, the Liberal members of the committee were unable to locate … a fellow Liberal … who is currently serving as chief of staff to a Liberal cabinet minister … and says so on social media, in an open profile.
Genuine ineptitude? Strategic incompetence? Take your pick. It’s astonishingly funny, but also so, so sad. If you’re a woman facing sexual harassment in the armed forces, if nothing else, it must be clarifying when the Liberals work so hard to make it clear just how conditional their feminism really is. Alas, ladies in uniform, it’s just a wee bit too awkward to act now. But rest assured the Liberals will get all fired up about this again the moment they’re out of power.
Oh, and one more thing: Continuing with our pledge to make sure Biden doesn’t get away with too much by mere virtue of his not being the Other Guy, we noted this in an ABC News report this week:
The president sometimes responds to one or two short questions — if that — while White House staff members yell, "Thank you!" and "Let's go!" as they usher the journalists out.
"I'm sorry, can't hear him," Biden said on Thursday as his aides screamed over a reporter and pushed the press out of the room. The president did not answer the question.
Sigh. Look, is this as bad as some of the other stuff from before? No. Is it good? Also no. Biden was an automatic upgrade over 45, but better than this ought to be achievable, right? Right?
We had a quiet week at The Line these last few days, but that didn’t stop Max Fawcett from flipping the line to Ken Boessenkool’s recent column. Max disagrees with Ken over whether Alberta should have its own pension (with Ken in favour, Max opposed). “If anything, what Albertans need is a reverse firewall,” Max said, “one that protects them from a provincial government that seems determined to damage their future far more than Canada ever could.” The two gentlemen took to Twitter to continue the battle, which led Jen Gerson to intervene and invite them to — or threaten them with, we weren’t clear on that — a dinner party. Once things are normal, of course. Because nothing says normal like inviting two people over to fight while you serve them a hot meal.
Speaking of weirdos, Matt Gurney showed up to offer a defence, of sorts, for Substack, the publishing platform you’re reading right now. Gurney isn’t a Substack disciple, per se, and has doubts that the company will be viable in the long run. But in contrast to a professor who took to Twitter to assail the company, Gurney sees a role for it: it gives journalists who are increasingly unable to find stable work in the legacy media a chance to stay in journalism instead of bailing for a cushy PR job. “A laid-off journalist,” he wrote, “or one who concludes that journalism cannot provide the job security they need to start a family, for instance, or even actually retire some day, doesn’t have a ton of options beyond “bail on journalism” or “stick it out and hope to be spared.” Substack gives them one more — an option, I stress, not a guarantee.
Completing the odd-ball hat trick, Jen Gerson called bullshit on Harry and Meghan. That’s right. She went there.
“[With] my previous pro-Harry and Meghan positions now indelibly registered to the forever archive of Internet hot takes,” Gerson said, “I've not been able to completely purge my sympathies for the pair. … But … there is simply too much nonsense that is currently being slurped up by a credulous American audience ravenous for celebrity tea.”
Well, that’s it for this week. Remember: we can only keep doing this if we have money, so if you haven’t subscribed yet, please join up today.
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