Journalism’s new ‘tough person gets sued

Mark Itzkoff, president and CEO of The Atlantic Media Co, writes about why the debate about Jonathan Kanter’s alleged sexual misconduct ‘isn’t really a conversation about journalism’ First there was a twist on “Last…

Journalism's new 'tough person gets sued

Mark Itzkoff, president and CEO of The Atlantic Media Co, writes about why the debate about Jonathan Kanter’s alleged sexual misconduct ‘isn’t really a conversation about journalism’

First there was a twist on “Last week in showbiz” and now things seem to be turning on the word “tough”. The debate about Jonathan Kanter, the former editor-in-chief of the Toronto Star, is the latest in a “tough person gets sued” trend that’s nearly as popular as “late-night talk”.

But last week’s pivot is slightly perplexing. A lot of people don’t think Kanter is a hero of journalism but he is one of the few ex-journalists I know who is openly gay and has been outspoken on issues like censorship and hate crimes. So I wonder why some people are railing against a journalist they don’t know, or against a journalist they see as an out-of-step move to get someone who most shouldn’t be in that position in the first place?

I thought back on last weekend, when The Atlantic posted a blog by Dean Starkman and Walter Isaacson on Kanter’s treatment of women. Starkman was Kanter’s former deputy in Toronto, while Isaacson was the Star’s editor at the time.

I also have to mention another column published by the Star by the irrepressible Jonathan Kay last week, in which he slammed the idea that Kanter could ever be an objective reporter. Kay argues that Kanter’s reputation for race-baiting people isn’t really the issue. Kay says: “Kanter could be – and is – terribly biased. But does that matter? Should we have a litmus test for journalists? Does it matter if the deep breathiness with which Kanter criticizes Toronto’s denizens suggests himself to be a chronic offender? Is Kanter a sleazeball? Or is he more a journalist – and journalist in all of his wisdom?

“Kanter has a work ethic and dedication that I find admirable. And having seen the state of media, I found him more refreshing than usual.”

So, are we back to “tough person gets sued”?

I love Jonathan Kanter – he’s an unabashed bleeding heart. And there’s no question that when faced with what should be an obvious problem of creating a cultural revolution at a newspaper, he did what every self-respecting person in that position would do – he took it upon himself. Not in some self-serving gesture of social justice (but I’ll get to that in a minute) but because it was his job to do, because it was the right thing to do.

But while those of us who believe in freedom of the press were outraged at the Star’s decision to strip Kanter of his job (one Toronto colleague likened the Star’s treatment of Kanter to Stalin’s purges), I found myself a bit drawn to Kansater. A lot of journalists seem to agree that that’s the way the world works now – with the exception of Kanter himself.

As Will Emmett, head of the journalism program at Syracuse University, wrote last week in a column for The Atlantic: “Journalism works in a fairly dramatic world of graft and phone hacking and sex harassment; but, apparently, it doesn’t, on average, work that way with every newsroom employee.”

What makes Kanter’s story particularly heartening, at least for me, is that there was a culture shift at Star, changing the way they handled sexual harassment allegations. First, the Star hired Katie Stratton as the editor-in-chief of the Star in 2013, having hired her earlier as the Star’s editor of digital. Stratton was known for her own bold steps, and her hiring led to the Star requiring sexual harassment training at all newsroom levels, so that no Star employee could be threatened with termination over a “witch hunt” (though some still remained on paid leave).

Stratton was the right person for the job. In an era where there are few female newsroom leaders and more men than women leading every other profession, it’s clear that men can make significant gains in leadership. Stratton made a ton of changes that still are going on today, breaking down barriers for women into the most senior roles at the Star, including the acquisition of an all-female U.S. president’s office,

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