A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter explains why he recently resigned from the Toronto Star

Photo: Paul Watson

Paul Watson may be the most famous journalist you’ve never heard of. Few people in the US may know of him, but in Canada, he’s a celebrated public figure–and one of only two Canadian journalists to ever win a Pulitzer Prize (he won his in 1994 for war photography). The best-selling author has been making a different kind of headline this summer after a very public resignation from his job at the Toronto Star, over a story that seemed anything but contentious.

It began with two ships that vanished in the Arctic in an 1845 expedition, led by British explorer Sir John Franklin. The Canadian government had been in search of the ships’ remnants since 2008, eventually partnering with private entities, and Watson had been reporting on the quest. The recovery team finally discovered the wreck of the HMS Erebus last September; Prime Minister Stephen Harper hailed it as a breakthrough that went “a long way to solving one of Canada’s greatest historical mysteries.” Canadian officials predicted it might help the country establish “control of the Arctic.”

The problem? Several people on the mission claimed–both publicly and in interviews with Watson–that the nonprofit Royal Canadian Geographical Society had cast an inaccurate narrative of the search, possibly in collusion with the government. Watson began to dig into the allegations, which the nonprofit later rebuffed, until his editors allegedly told him to stop. He resigned on July 7. The Star rejects accusations of suppression.

CJR spoke with Watson about his resignation, his next move, and the relationship between public officials and the media. This conversation has been edited for clarity.

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Can you briefly discuss your resignation from the Star last month?

I was working on a story, which focuses on a man named John Geiger, who’s the CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and a former head of The Globe and Mail newspaper’s editorial board. I was informed by editors up to the point of my resignation, that he was, in the words of one editor, “a former colleague of a few of us here.” So I had a suspicion that I needed to be careful to make sure that no information that I had was leaking to him beforehand. I think that’s a normal, good journalistic caution. 

When I contacted him on May 19 for the first time by email, within three hours I had a confrontation with my immediate supervisor. That escalated to suggestions that a lawyer might have to get involved.

I found that all highly unusual, so I pushed back. It led to an order to stop reporting on anything to do with Geiger until we were able to have a meeting with editors and representatives of my union in Vancouver. I insisted that the issue of that story be No. 1 on the agenda. The management team wanted to talk about other things. I forced the issue. I got the chief editor of the Toronto Star, Michael Cooke, to say, “We are not interested in engaging in that sort of story.” And I quit.

What if the paper really wasn’t interested in that particular story? 

That’s a fair question. But they never allowed me to finish the reporting, and they never allowed me to write the story. I’ve been in this business for a long time, and I’ve had confrontations with editors before. It’s always resolved by allowing me to finish the work. I’ve never in my career had an editor tell me to stop reporting when I haven’t even finished.

The paper rejects allegations of suppression, pointing to recent stories that were critical of public figures and politicians, like Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Why would this case be any different? 

As people will read in this story, the person I’m writing about and the organization he leads are connected to some very powerful corporations. I think enterprising reporters would want to know [if] they exercise influence in other publications in this country.

It’s a particularly Canadian problem. It’s a very small–I would say incestuous–community, the journalism community in this country. People are starting to understand that what they thought was a free press may not be so free and fair. 

You also worked for the Los Angeles Times for 10 years. I’m curious if you’ve noticed anything similar in the States. 

I lived through an experience, which to me was quite telling: The Staples Center had an advertorial feature in the LA Times, and the issue blew up. It was such an embarrassment to the newspaper that, as I recall, they assigned a top reporter, and an editor to oversee him, and they were told, “You will have as much space as you need inside the newspaper to report on what went wrong.”

That to me was a stunning example of how different the United States is. I thought there was a lot more openness in the mainstream American media. When trouble comes up, they address it as they would any other issue, and people are allowed to make their own decisions. Not so in Canada.

How has your reporting on the discovery of the Franklin shipwrecks advanced since you left the Star?

I’m not an investigative reporter, but I have done some deep reporting that requires pulling threads. I knew this was going to happen. Give me enough time and let me pull some more threads, and I’m going to find some interesting things. I have done that.

I’m waiting for editors who have seen it to decide whether they want to publish it. I hope that other reporters in this country start to [look for more threads to pull], because I think there’s a lot to be told here.

Let’s talk about the bigger picture. These allegations aside, powerful figures’ influence on the media is a concern in any newsroom. As journalists, how can we exert our editorial independence?

It’s complicated, but I would urge ordinary people, including journalists who are concerned about this sort of thing, to do your due diligence. Don’t simply assume that the people you work for, or that the media outlets that you’re reading, or competing against, are simply being fair and honest.

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Jack Murtha is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @JackMurtha