There’s nothing like a little bad blood among journalists to get them scribbling. A little name-calling, a little catty profiling, a teensy bit of shameless colleague-trashing are sure to get journalists salivating. One writes something in varying degrees of nasty about another, and suddenly we’re following the spectacle with sadistic fascination.
The media spotlight shone brightly on itself in summer 2003 when Toronto Life published a profile of twentysomething columnist Leah McLaren. Written by fellow Globe and Mail scribbler Trevor Cole – the two met when Leah started working at the Globe as an arts writer, and Cole worked in the magazine division – the profile, simultaneously snarky and fascinating, gave readers a week in the life of the high-profile style writer during fashion week in Milan. “There was a brazen 27-year-old columnist who craved attention, then treated it – when it suited her – like an injustice,” Cole wrote, describing Leah in the lobby of their hotel in Milan, among models and fashion frenzies.
Going in, Cole placed Leah on a very high pedestal. With a little help from Leah herself, by article’s end she had fallen and landed hard. After poking fun of Milan’s fashion week and diminishing the kind of work Leah was doing, Cole managed to catch her at “the tipping point,” when being “the observed” started to weigh on her. She realizes, out loud, the depths the profile could sink to if left in the wrong hands. The tone of the piece spiralled downward from there, with Leah coming across as naïve, huffy and spoiled.
But what purpose did the profile accomplish? At first read, it felt delightfully catty. Cole showed Toronto Life readers the Leah many expected to see after a long love/hate relationship with her weekly column. Cole used her against herself, writing that she told him she had trouble censoring herself, and made no effort to help her once things turned sour.
Toronto Life devoted eight pages to Leah’s life – something she regularly invites readers into via her Saturday column – but Cole’s take was significantly different. He was a colleague with a bit of a crush and a bad attitude, so the situation had nowhere to go but down. Relations between two writers at the same paper should carry the weight of professionalism, but when mixing business with personal issues there’s always a risk. “He approached her because he’s clearly besotted with her,” the Globe’s Jan Wong says. “But the whole things is kind of creepy.” Leah made the same point in her rebuttal, which came in the first column post-profile.
That’s when the situation turned ugly. Leah decided to bite back, comparing Cole to a vampire and calling him a bloodsucker. She wrote of his insecurities about what he was wearing. She psychoanalyzed him as an “invalidator” projecting his insecurities onto her. She accused him of having a hidden agenda. She told her side of the story. She was innocent, while Cole was obnoxious, freeloading and dependent. Leah’s column cleverly employs the very tactics Cole used in order to show how hurtful they were. She wrote about the copious amount of time he talked about his possible crush on her, which made him look sad and desperate. She detailed how uncomfortable he made her feel as a result.
And then came the big whammy. Cole told Leah he had an unhappy childhood and resented his wife’s literary ambitions. Just as he wrote about her complaining about the Globe when she asked him not to, she remembered something just as hurtful and used it to prove a point. Not only are there two sides to every story, but writers do have agendas.
The cheap shots raised a ruckus with journalists across Toronto. Whether because of professional competition, exaggerated self-importance or laziness, more and more journalists are turning to – and on – one another for material. Even Wong, Canada’s queen of the razor-sharp profile, thought that, despite its brilliance, “It’s the epitome of incestuous journalism,” she says. “They work at the same place, which would normally rule it out because it would mean you had a conflict of interest. I try not to even write about people I know, never mind people I had a crush on. I would say that broke quite a few rules of journalism.”
Cole’s motivation became a guessing game. Maybe he did have a crush on her, as the article suggested, with its fawning descriptions of her “milkmaid figure” and “sun lamp smile.” Maybe he was unhappy with his life, as Leah claimed in her column. Maybe he was following her to Europe to give himself something he thought missing.
Or maybe it was just as another Globe columnist wrote. Denouncing personality profiles as unintelligent, Russell Smith said, “The Canadian press has run out of Canadian celebrities to dish – the big stars are in L.A. or Las Vegas, and so inaccessible to Toronto hacks, and the little stars are, well, little – so we cannibalize our own milieu for gossip; we make celebrities of ourselves, we write about other writers.”
Critics of Leah, industry voices and even Leah herself agreed that she should have known better. She should have understood the risk that goes with the territory. But whether it was naiveté, ego or curiosity, Leah just couldn’t resist being on the other side of the experience. She admits guilt only when it comes to her curiosity, but in other columns has written about her own infamy, taking a bitchy pride in reader hate mail. “These letters can easily be dismissed for what they are: the sad rantings of a person whose personal brand of madness has taken a turn for the worse.”
Leah has referred to herself as an “almost celebrity” and, according to Cole, she thrives on being the centre of attention. But a quick, unscientific survey of a few non-journalism friends revealed that more than half of them – many twentysomethings themselves – have no idea who she is. As one Toronto Life letter writer said, “If there is anything interesting about McLaren, she has never revealed it in her Globe column, which leads this subscriber to wonder why you would bother in the first place.”
Does anyone actually care about the lives of journalists or their professional banter? Smith says no. “We’re not glamorous, we’re not beautiful (with a few exceptions) and we spend most of our day sitting in front of a computer. Journalists do it simply because it’s easy.”
“It’s clear Trevor Cole had an agenda and that’s terrible…” Smith continues. “I think he set out with malice in his heart.”
But then, Leah isn’t innocent, either. She is a sassy young writer who craves attention, even if it is just from media types. “There’s nothing in this for me,” the self-proclaimed almost-celebrity said to Cole in a moment of panic. “I’m not selling anything.”
She couldn’t be further from the truth. She is selling her experiences every week, hoping people buy into it.