Inside Toronto police headquarters, acting inspector Mike Sale has just switched on the VCR. He’s about to play for me a 1995 W Five segment on Rosie DiManno of The Toronto Star and Christie Blatchford of The Toronto Sun, “the two hottest columnists on two of the country’s biggest papers.” I’d been searching for this tape for weeks. Neither of the hot columnists seemed eager to surrender a copy, and although several of their friends and colleagues had mentioned the piece, no one produced the goods. But here, at the centre of Toronto’s police world-a place devoted to keeping track of evidence-was the elusive tape.
Sale and many other Metro cops know Blatchford and DiManno only too well. Sale, a 26-year veteran officer and Ryerson journalism school dropout, often speaks to them in his job as a media relations contact. Other officers know them through their columns, which frequently deal with Toronto’s crime fighters. Crime stories are a key part of the reporting scene in big cities; however, Blatchford and DiManno seem particularly fascinated with their city’s crime fighters. Although they have been Toronto city columnists for nearly a decade-Blatchford since 1988 and DiManno since 1989-their perceptions of the force differ. Blatchford is more sympathetic, while DiManno is a harsh critic.
The tape is cued and ready to go. Sale turns down the lights and hits play on the VCR. The W Five report opens with an October 1994 press conference at police headquarters attended by DiManno and Blatchford. William McCormack, then police chief, stands in front of a room full of reporters and cheering onlookers. Sporting a conservative blue suit with a jaunty red handkerchief in his breast pocket, the white-haired chief appears confident and even a bit smug. He announces June 1, 1995, as his retirement date, effectively issuing a challenge to the police services board, a seven-member civilian council that oversees the force. It had expected McCormack to bow out six months earlier. The chief’s announcement threw into question just who would determine his tenure and when the transition to a new chief would take place.
The W Five camera then focuses on DiManno, who questions McCormack aggressively: “Wasn’t the transition orderly until right now-when you just derailed it?” He replies defensively, “The transition is orderly still.” The next person on the screen, Blatchford, lobs the chief a comparatively softer query: “Have you spoken to the solicitor general or have you delivered your letter?” (McCormack was pressing for a public inquiry of the police services board.) McCormack answers, “I have delivered my letter to the solicitor general, yes.” Then the voice of W Five reporter Christine Nielsen floats over to analyze Blatchford and DiManno and notes the differences between their columns the next day. “As usual, DiManno and Blatchford come down on opposite sides. Blatchford champions the chief and says his force has been emasculated in every which way by his enemies. But DiManno nails the chief, says he’s an egomaniac and the police services board should fire him.”
These disparate opinions, however, haven’t stopped Blatchford and DiManno from being good friends-a key reason why Nielsen chose to do the piece. Three years later, the columnists are still good friends and they still disagree, but what’s interesting is that each has become less strident over time. The “cop-suck” and the “cop-hater” seem to have tempered their views. They disagree, but not as often and not as heatedly. The columnists have mellowed since the days when, as Blatchford says, they couldn’t talk about some topics “without coming to blows practically.”
After watching the video a couple of times, I ask Sale what the cop on the street thinks of Blatchford and DiManno. Sitting in an office filled with congratulatory plaques and achievement awards, the youthful looking 45-year-old says, “Well, there was a time when everyone thought Rosie was anti-police and Christie was pro-police. I would say that more likely now the general impression would be that Rosie is anti-police and Christie is unpredictable.”
Out on the street, in random interviews with cops, I heard echoes of Sale’s assessment. One downtown traffic officer, for example, dished on DiManno. He said he reads the Star, “unlike most cops,” because he likes the Greater Toronto and sports sections, but he doesn’t like DiManno’s column, which runs three times a week. Others, such as police association president Craig Bromell, seem baffled by DiManno’s unwillingness to write positive stories: “If we took every one of her articles and we piled them up, good and bad, there’d be no good. No organization is that bad.” Detective John Muise, who regularly reads both the Star and the Sun, praises DiManno’s writing skills but wonders about her motivation: “Sometimes I detect a lot of venom in her column. It almost sometimes seems personal.”
Blatchford gets a warmer response. “Christie tells both ends of the tale,” says one 52 Division officer who went on to describe her as “more truthful” and “not as hard on the police.” Detective Muise says of Blatchford, who generally writes four columns a week, “She’s got an intuitive sense of what we put up with and what we have to deal with, and she has an enormous dose of common sense.” Veteran Sun crime reporter Rob Lamberti attests to the popularity of her stern-but-loving-parent approach: “A lot of coppers like her, they like her a lot, even when she takes shots at ’em because they find her style probably a little more fair-minded than other columnists.”
Blatchford’s early columns in particular reflect her faith in the force. In the late ’80s and early ’90s she wrote several pieces defending cops at a time when there was high tension between the police and Toronto’s black community. For example, her column on June 2, 1990: “I believe black crime in Toronto is disproportionately high. But what no one is acknowledging (but what police and West Indians alike know full well) is that what this city really has, in large measure, is a Jamaican crime problem. No one disputes there are socio-economic causes for all this-for all crime. But the police officer surely cannot be expected to ask why someone reaches for a knife, only to stop him from using it.” At other times, Blatchford zealously championed the force. On February 19, 1993, for instance, she wrote about the officers who captured Paul Bernardo: “I am often accused of being a cop-lover, a cop suck. I don’t think the label ever felt so good as it did yesterday.”
In contrast, DiManno wrote the following about the police and the black community in November 17, 1989: “A case-clogged judicial system may not be an issue of color, surely not, but when a black invalid, a black teenager, and a black woman are brought down by police bullets over a period of 15 months, something smells rotten.” Four years later, her in-your-face antagonism hadn’t let up. On September 10, 1993, she wrote: “Reader advisory: This column may be detrimental to the morale of Toronto police officers. Paranoics, regardless of rank, should proceed with caution.” The column was about former chief McCormack’s choice of hearings officer-a designated police superintendent who presides over internal disciplinary hearings-and his constant clashes with the police services board.
At the heart of DiManno’s sharp-tongued and acerbic attacks is a determination to keep police accountability in the spotlight, and she is unapologetic about the frequent coverage she gives to police issues. “I suppose maybe I write about it too often, but it seems like every week something happens that relates to that again, whether it’s a police shooting, that officers take too much time to talk to the SIU [Special Investigations Unit, a civilian agency responsible for investigating police shootings] or whether it’s a police announcement that they’ve hired a mediator to try to resolve the issue. It’s just always, as far as I’m concerned, part of the news. So, I may bore people to death with this subject matter, but I think it’s important.”
Blatchford agrees with DiManno on police accountability. “I believe in the principle of independent investigation, and not just of police wrongdoings, but of doctors’ mistakes, and of journalists’ goofs and of homebuilders’ errors,” she wrote on June 8, 1990. However, the columnists differed over how accountability could be achieved. In particular, they had opposing perspectives on the efforts of Susan Eng, former chair of the police services board. Eng served as chair from May 1991 until May 1995 and was a prominent advocate for change. She openly clashed with McCormack and was unpopular with the rank and file. Blatchford couldn’t stand her. DiManno thought she was great.
Six weeks before Eng became chair, DiManno wrote: “She’s got them running scared, does Eng. All because she had the temerity to suggest in the past that the police department should function as something less than a monolithic, authoritarian institution. That it should be more responsive to all segments of society. That maybe the force should introduce more sophisticated management techniques in order to bring its whopping operating budget under control. And yes, she did give Chief Bill McCormack that much-tsked ‘C’ grade in a silly TorontoStar report card. (A passing grade for a passable performance. She also gave him an ‘A’ for effort.) What insubordination! Didn’t she realize that the board is there to rubberstamp, not to undermine?”
By contrast, Blatchford disliked Eng’s tone and approach from the outset. On May 16, 1991, she wrote, “This afternoon, Susan Eng will formally take over as head of the Metro board, another nail in the vast coffin that for police officers, Ontario is becoming.” Blatchford was sensitive to the effect Eng’s initiatives would have on police morale. Six months later, her disapproval only increased: “Since taking over the $90,963-a-year chair’s job last May,” Blatchford wrote on December 31, 1991, “Eng has done nothing but contribute to the malaise already hurting the Metro force. Her treatment of one officer-Sgt. Ben Eng, who made the controversial remarks about Asian crime to the Toronto Crime Inquiry-was not pretty to see, especially her press release calling his remarks a ‘wilful and direct contravention’ of board policy. What was distressing here was not that she disagreed with her sergeant, but that her first instinct was to crucify an employee in public.”
Looking back, DiManno says, “I supported Susan in what she was trying to do….She took on the chief, which was a difficult thing to do. She was a female, she was a minority.” Blatchford, in hindsight, can acknowledge Eng’s good intentions but hasn’t changed her opinion: “I thought and still think she was a destructive influence. She had an aggressive, chippy attitude toward cops and I think she made things more difficult than they needed to be.”
Both DiManno and Blatchford scorn the labels and narrow assessments that have been pinned on them. TheStar’s city columnist states unequivocally that she doesn’t hate cops-“How stupid would it be for a grown-up, intelligent person to hate an entire profession?”-and she points out that positive cop stories do show up in her column from time to time. On January 1, 1997, for example, DiManno wrote about a police officer who saw two young children wandering around alone on the streets in the middle of the night and saved them. “Tell good stories when there are good stories to tell,” she says, “I have no problem with that. Why would I?” Still, DiManno’s general attitude toward the police is edged with wariness and contempt. “I think reporters should be in an adversarial relationship with everybody. We’re not there to be proponents, we’re not there to be advocates. Why should we play nicely-nicely with cops? I don’t want to be seen as an extension of the police department.”
As for her label, Blatchford says she writes what she sees, and until a few years ago what she saw in most cases was the good side of cops. Now, she admits that her views are somewhat different. “Bottom line is, I’ve become more sensitive in the last two or three years to police wrongdoings, but I also think we’ve learned more about it.” On November 19, 1996, Blatchford wrote a lengthy column after officers Bob Coon and Paul Cargill were acquitted on charges of fabricating evidence and attempting to obstruct justice. They had been accused, along with officers Robert Lynch and Dennis Mercer, of framing and planting drugs on a known crack cocaine addict. Mercer and Lynch had pleaded guilty to a single charge each of obstructing justice on September 19, 1996. After speaking to several cops about the case, she had a revelation about the way cops think. “The interviews…also suggest there may be a remarkable and widespread tolerance in the force,” she wrote, “both in the ranks and in middle management, for police wrongdoing.” A few lines later she added, “This is not then a case about four individuals, but rather about the beliefs and practices that permeate the Metro force. That means, it’s a case that should concern and disturb all of those who are ‘on the job,’ as it’s called, and all of us who look to them for service and protection.”
The shift in Blatchford’s attitude and writing hasn’t gone unnoticed. “My sense of things is that a lot of police officers who felt I was their ally feel less so now, of late, and I think that they are wrong to feel that way,” she says. “I think a lot of them feel almost betrayed. In my view, that shows that they never read me very carefully.” Blatchford says it was a mistake for cops to ever have considered her one of them because she never was, and she is philosophical about their feelings toward her. “Cops, I think, are you’re either with them or against them, and when you’re with them you don’t hear from them, and when you’re not with them, you hear from them more. So, I’ve probably heard more in the last two years than I had in the previous eight. But it’s still a pretty tolerable or tolerant kind of conversation. Actually, and I tell Rosie this, there are an awful lot of references to Rosie. Things like-because people know that we’re friends-‘Rosie’s starting to exert an influence on you, you’re spending too much time with that Rosie DiManno.'”
The friends agree that their views have become more convergent over the past couple of years. Blatchford says she thinks they’ve both mellowed. DiManno says they’ve both moved closer to the centre, she becoming a bit more sympathetic to cops and Blatchford becoming a bit less so. They can even name issues on which they concur. One is police cooperation with the Special Investigations Unit. Cops have generally been uncooperative with the SIU, preferring that police matters be handled internally. The columnists, however, both feel an independent unit is necessary to keep an eye on the police. Even though Blatchford and DiManno share strong opinions on this topic, their columns continue to highlight their differing perspectives.
Thursday, October 16, 1997. The reception area of the SIU’s 10th-floor office, a few blocks from Toronto’s police headquarters, is filled with waiting reporters. It’s 2:55 p.m. and in 10 minutes, SIU director André Marin will announce whether two cops involved in a civilian shooting will face criminal charges. Detectives Phil Gerrits and Martin Woodhouse are under investigation for the shooting death of Manish Odhavji, 22, an alleged member of the Cherokee Bandits gang. Both DiManno and Blatchford are on the scene.
They greet each other and begin to chat. Blatchford compliments DiManno on her outfit, a brown crushed velvet dress, brown suede shoes and a tan trench coat. Blatchford points at her own brown and beige patterned shirt and says it’s her first experiment with brown. She has paired it with blue jeans and black, cropped boots.
They laugh and talk with the familiarity shared between old friends. Blatchford hoots and exclaims, “What a great story!” as they reminisce about covering the royal tour in Ottawa. Of course, it was no typical story. DiManno, Blatchford and another Sun reporter discovered that an Ottawa hospital had brought in fake patients so Princess Diana wouldn’t see empty beds during her visit.
At 3 p.m., the reporters move to a conference room around the corner to wait for Marin. Five minutes later, he walks in and all eyes turn to the podium at the front of the room. Blatchford and DiManno sit side-by-side, pens poised over their notebooks. Marin announces that there are no reasonable grounds to believe the officers committed a criminal offence. The investigation turned up “ample evidence” to support the officers’ honest, albeit mistaken, belief that their lives were in danger.
The following day, Blatchford described the outcome by writing “the tie goes to the good guys.” DiManno’s focus rested on “seven highly trained surveillance experts [who] were unable to provide any useful evidence that could in any way contradict the two subject officers.” Both columnists included the same basic details: the SIU had cleared detectives Woodhouse and Gerrits of any criminal wrongdoing. A bullet fired from Woodhouse’s Glock was indeed the fatal shot fired on the unarmed Odhavji; however, the officers had reason to believe Odhavji was armed and by law they were permitted to use force for their own protection and the safety of others. Woodhouse and Gerrits had spoken freely to the SIU investigator, even though it was not required of them as subject officers. Hence, Blatchford’s reference to the good guys. However, Marin said the investigation had been hampered by the inability of several officers, some only metres away from the scene, to provide specific details on events surrounding the shooting. Hence, the thrust of DiManno’s column.
The style and language of Blatchford’s piece indicate a certain sympathy for all of the cops involved, including the seven witness officers, even as she scolds them for their lack of cooperation. “Were they trying to help Woodhouse and Gerrits? Were they afraid they might say something that would hurt them? Perhaps, but that does not remove the fact that witness officers have an obligation not only to go through the motions of talking, but also to talk, to be truthful.” Blatchford made certain to illustrate the emotional stress Gerrits and Woodhouse were forced to endure. The 10th paragraph of her 15-paragraph column stated, “Yesterday afternoon, at the Queen St. W. office of his lawyer, Gary Clewley, Martin Woodhouse and his wife Mary-Anne waited, and when the news came in a call from SIU investigative boss Jim Harding, Woodhouse began to cry.”
In DiManno’s column, she recognized that Woodhouse and Gerrits spoke to the SIU of their own accord and adequately detailed “the two officers’ version of events.” Far from laying on the praise, though, DiManno wrote simply, “This narrative is reasonable and credible. And there was no evidence to contradict it, although-factually-the officers were wrong in their belief that Odhavji was armed.” Her contempt for the seven witness officers came through loud and clear. “These trained surveillance cops, including two in a light plane overhead, told the SIU that, gosh, they didn’t see nuthin’. Not one of them admitted to having even seen Woodhouse at the scene, where either officer was standing when they shot, or Odhavji actually being hit.” By the end of her column, DiManno seemed suspicious of all of the officers involved, concluding, “Couldn’t have worked out better if it had actually been planned that way.”
What accounts for the columnists’ differing perceptions of the police? DiManno says she did not grow up with a bred-in-the-bone respect for agencies of authority such as the police department. She can’t attribute her lack of faith to any specific incident, saying only that “authority figures, people who insist you take them at their word or people who believe they don’t have to explain themselves because they have a higher authority” represent the kinds of attitudes she’s instinctively rebelled against all her life. The Star‘s city columnist grew up on Grace Street in downtown Toronto under the strict guidance of Italian immigrant parents. She rebelled against them to become a journalist, and as a journalist she has rebelled against editors to do things her own way.
Blatchford, on the other hand, has gradually modified her childhood attitudes toward agencies of authority. Time and experience, she explains, have made her more wary of institutions such as the Red Cross, hospitals (“I know what happens in fucking hospitals. My mother has been sick recently, I know”) and the police force. She says that the blind faith of her younger years has now been replaced with a questioning faith. “I grew up as a daughter in a lower-middle-class family. I lived in a small mining town in northwestern Quebec where my dad was almost like a big shot because he ran the hockey rink and he was friends with the police chief. You know, it just never occurred to me to not trust, or whatever, the police.” Blatchford says that she realizes now that DiManno sums it up best when she says to her, “You’re too predisposed to trust in institutions.”
Whether by fortune or design, the columnists have each ended up at a paper that largely mirrors their own views toward the police. Sun managing editor Mike Strobel readily acknowledges that the Sun is a pro-cop paper and says, “We are for the good guys.” In his opinion, that doesn’t mean the Sun is in the pocket of the cops. Strobel, managing editor for the past seven years, says his paper will criticize and has criticized cops from the chief on down, adding that just because you have a friend it doesn’t mean you won’t criticize him. The Sun, which boasts a weekday readership of 975,000, has successfully built its reputation as a gritty little tabloid sold on the streets where the beat cop is a hero.
In comparison, the Star, with its weekday readership of 1.7 million, sees itself as a watchdog, monitoring the police on behalf of the public. City editor Fred Kuntz avoids pinning any label on his paper, carefully describing the Star as a supporter of safe communities and good policing. But what does that mean? Kuntz attempts to clarify: “If you really believe in good policing, if you really care about policing as an issue, then I think you’re more interested in issues of discipline. To take a completely blinkered, sort of boosterish attitude toward the police I don’t think helps the police.” In that roundabout way, Kuntz, who has been city editor since October 1996 and with the Star since 1981, essentially explains the paper’s public advocacy role.
The struggle to be distinct has led these papers to stake out their turf on opposite sides of the fence. In so doing, each has survived in Toronto’s competitive newspaper market, and each has earned its share of fans and critics, as have their two respected city columnists. For their particular efforts, though, Blatchford and DiManno have provoked some strong-and at times unsettling-reactions.
On one occasion-the Sun columnist no longer recalls the details of time, place or event-Blatchford walked into a room full of cops a few steps behind Susan Eng. Blatchford was there to cover a story, Eng was there as chair of the police board. The room fell silent as Eng entered, but a few seconds later when Blatchford crossed the threshold, all of the cops leapt to their feet and gave her a standing ovation. What was the columnist’s reaction? “Shock.”
For DiManno, one police officer’s reaction to her columns prompted a different kind of shock. About five years ago, her brother told her he had been verbally threatened by police. “The only time I’ve ever complained to the police chief is when a member of my family was pulled over and the officer said to my brother, ‘We know who you are and we know who your sister is and if we can’t get her, we’ll get you.'” DiManno said her brother, who was 26 or 27 at the time, didn’t seem surprised or particularly concerned. “I was far more infuriated by it than he was.” When asked, DiManno denies feeling personally frightened by the police, but adds, “Fortunately, I don’t drive.”
DiManno and Blatchford are not the only columnists who provoke strong responses from the police. Chicago Tribune writer Eric Zorn says that, like DiManno, he has been called anti-cop. Zorn takes such criticism in stride because he considers it to be one of his responsibilities. “We serve, I think, a vital function in society of keeping an eye on things, of trying to keep things from getting out of control.” Peggy Curran, a city columnist with The Gazette in Montreal, shares Zorn’s view, but concedes that the nature of the news business and the quest for breaking stories may give journalists a skewed picture of the police: “For every screwup, there will be hundreds of times when the police get it right, are kind and thoughtful, solve the crime,” Curran says. “You just have to keep that in mind when making generalizations about incompetence or whatever.”
After 25 years as a columnist with The Detroit News and over 50 years in the industry, Peter Waldmeir makes no apologies for the way he writes: “Anything you write in a column is your version of the truth, and I do my version as best I can.” DiManno has a similar take: “I don’t mean to sound smug, but I don’t think about the public at all when I write. I just have a sense of what I believe to be fair or necessary.”
That’s not to say balance and fairness are any less of a concern for columnists. They are easier targets of criticism, though, because they are paid to put their opinions on the page. Those opinions are shaped by experience and personal perspective, both of which are constantly changing-as Toronto’s cop-suck and cop-hater of the early ’90s have both learned firsthand.
Blatchford and DiManno will no doubt continue to write heavily charged stories of policing in Toronto, but with an increasing awareness of their unique roles as city columnists. As Blatchford says, “I’m not sure if the public at large has suffered that loss of faith in the police force that it has in other institutions. But I think maybe because we’re on the front lines a little more, maybe we see it quicker. I’m not sure. We see it first. It’s not that we’re smarter, but we see it first.”