Star Man discovers Temple of Doom

Six years into their second marriage, it seems Paul Watson and the Toronto Star woke up one day, jumped out of bed and screamed in unison: Who the hell are you?

Otherwise, how can you explain what happened last week. The reporter resigned, calling it a blow to truth, journalism and the Canadian way. The Star responded by fluffing its editorial feathers and citing its plucking of two sitting ducks – Rob Ford and Jian Ghomeshi.

It looks like the Star believed it had hired Indiana Jones. And Watson found his Temple of Doom at One Yonge Street.

But let’s start at the most recent wedding day, in June 2009, when the Star published a gushing “welcome home” to the Toronto-born Watson, who won three National Newspaper Awards and shared another with colleagues during his first go-round with the paper from 1985 to 1998.

Those were the years when Watson was a globetrotting war correspondent for the Star, slogging through shitholes from Somalia to the Balkans to Afghanistan.

But Watson was “coming back to launch a unique venture – the world’s first multimedia Arctic-aboriginal beat,” announced editor Michael Cooke.

At the time, it seemed to me, the Star was getting what it wanted, another celebrity journalist on its roster – while promising to eat its vegetables.

Watson, in return, got what he’s said was a six-figure salary, a break from the battlefield and an opportunity to do high-minded stories from the high Arctic.

He also embarked on brief stints playing the superhero Star Man – in Syria and Afghanistan – which allowed the newspaper to do what it does best: Self-promotion.

There was The Star in Syria series in 2013 – the Star’s Paul Watson on the Syrian frontline.

But the reporter’s greatest gift to his employer began in 2010, when he featured a 16-year-old Afghan schoolgirl struggling to get an education in Kandahar.

Before you could say “Canada’s largest daily,” the Star was raising money for the girl to pay for online courses, and kept the campaign going until January 2012, when Watson and Cooke brought her to Ontario to enrol in school.

Since then, the Star has milked every self-congratulatory ounce out of its good deed, with dozens of stories tracing her every move in Canada, rarely failing to mention the newspaper’s role as her savior.

Meanwhile, last August, the intrepid Watson sailed into Arctic waters on the CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier, searching for the remains of the Franklin expedition: the British navy vessels HMS Erebus and HMS Terror and their 129 crewmen lost at sea in the 1840s.

One Yonge seemed to get on board for a while, trumpeting: The Star with the Franklin search.

Triumphantly, on Sept. 9, the splashy headline: How the Franklin wreck was finally found. Under Watson’s byline was a 2,000-word story, with video, maps and photos, the whole multimedia Arctic schmeer.

But Watson wasn’t done. The Franklin followups kept coming, through the fall and winter and into the spring.

As an editor, I would have been rolling my eyes every time I heard the words “Watson” and “Franklin” in the same sentence. This is the Toronto Star, not Canadian Geographic, for Christ’s sake.

Last week, over three days, Watson wrote about 2,500 words on his blog (Arctic Star Creativity) to explain his beef with the Star.

He said he met with Cooke and another Star editor on July 7 and quit over their “refusal to publish a story of significant public interest” – something about “federal civil servants and others” being pissed off about what they “consider distorted and inaccurate accounts” of the discovery of HMS Erebus.

He added a muddled reference to villains with “access to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office, as well as editors at the Star.”

Publisher John Cruickshank, in a memo to staff the next day, denied “this extremely odd idea.” He went on to say: “Suppressing stories of significant public interest is something the Star has never done and will never do.

“Our track record in recent years, such as our ground-breaking coverage of former Toronto mayor Rob Ford and former CBC personality Jian Ghomeshi, is proof of that.”

Proof of what? That Canada’s largest daily can take down a crack-smoking mayor and a radio star with a trail of accusers all over town?

Obviously, I do not have a great deal of respect for the Star’s approach to newspapering and the execution of its journalism. (I spent a couple of months in the gulag of the Star’s copy desk in 1998 before turning down a job there.)

But, as an editor, I would have told Paul Watson: “Unless you have pictures of Stephen Harper and Michael Cooke in dive gear, plundering the wreck of HMS Erebus, please go away.”

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