By Henry McRandall
If you’ve ever wondered why the corporate mass media in the U.S. and Canada has become so deplorable, diabolical and dumbed-down in recent years, you need look no further than the sordid tale of the rise of Michael Cooke, the executive editor of Canada’s largest and allegedly most “progressive” daily newspaper, the Toronto Star, and also former executive editor of the Vancouver Province, the Chicago Sun-Times and the New York Daily News.
Unable to make his journalistic mark in his native U.K., Cooke arrived on the shores of North America in the mid-Seventies — initially as a copy editor at the Toronto Star — and immediately began boasting that he was here to “teach the colonials how to do journalism.”
While he was no great shakes even as a lowly copy editor, Cooke had brought with him the only real skills he would ever need: a knack for unabashed self-promotion and the innate ability to select the right asses to kiss and the right backs to stab.
Mere months into his initial employment at the Star, Cooke intuited that his limited journalistic skills would never carry him as far as his insatiable ambition would like to go. His solution? Quickly identify and begin to eliminate legitimate competitors for the lofty positions he craved even in his journalistic infancy, and worm his way into the affections of the powerful. His strategy: afflict his most competent competitors and cozy up to those who had already risen past their own levels of journalistic competence.
I worked with Cooke, first at the Toronto Star and, much later, at The (Montreal) Gazette, and was among the first victims of his treachery. Although I cannot prove it, I remain convinced to this day that Cooke was instrumental in my being included in an economic layoff at the Star in 1977. It would only be years later, however, that this British cretin would finally be successful at engineering my illegal blacklisting as a journalist and publishing consultant across North America. And although I can only definitively identify one other top-level journalist whose career was destroyed by Cooke’s recipe of slander and sabotage, it is somewhat easier to identify some of the alleged heavyweight editors who were duped by him.
Among the first of these was Mel Morris, who was City Editor (the editor in charge of all local news coverage) at the Toronto Star in the mid-Seventies, and who fancied himself something of a mentor to the much younger Cooke.
In 1979, a lockout at Montreal’s traditionally dominant English-language daily, The Montreal Star, put the much smaller Gazette in the position to inherit an English-language daily newspaper monopoly in Canada’s second-largest city. To pull it off, however, the Gazette had to dramatically improve. In an effort to do so, The Gazette’s corporate owners lured an assortment of editors and reporters from the larger Toronto dailies to bolster the Gazette’s shabby product.
Mel Morris was appointed managing editor of The Gazette and brought his prized protege, Cooke, along for the ride. Cooke’s first assignment there was to oversee the Gazette’s largely fictional coverage of the campaign for Quebec’s first-ever referendum on separation from Canada in 1980. Although most of the Gazette’s readers were anglophones (native English-speakers) and could be relied on to heavily oppose Quebec separation, a significant portion of the newspaper’s readers were francophones (native French-speakers)and the Gazette’s coverage of the campaign was aimed primarily at them. Cooke conjured up a diet of alarmist features, including a tale about a Brink’s armoured truck, full of stocks and bonds, fleeing Quebec just days before the vote.
When the separatist option was defeated, Morris quickly rewarded Cooke for his shoddy but effective job performance with a promotion to City Editor. Morris, like just about everyone else in the Gazette’s editorial and administrative hierarchy, was a unilingual anglophone who was easily duped by Cooke’s fraudulent claims of being bilingual. (Imagine that: a city editor at the only English-language daily in the second-largest French-speaking city in the world who could barely speak or read any French.)
In early 1981, after a failed effort to generate the financing to launch a weekly sports tabloid to compete with Sports Illustrated and unaware that Cooke was now city editor at the Gazette, I sought to return to my hometown of Montreal and, while Cooke was away on vacation, was offered a job as a copy editor on the Gazette’s city desk by Mel Morris. Immediately upon his return and his discovery that I had been hired, Cooke, my nominal supervisor, summoned me to his office to warn me that my days at the Gazette were already numbered. After all, my presence at The Gazette provided a viable replacement for Cooke should the newspaper choose to sack him. And Cooke was certainly in line for replacement. Almost every week during my brief tenure there, the Gazette was missing follow-ups on major local stories the newspaper had been covering and the primary reason for the newspaper’s dismal coverage of its local market was Cooke’s inability to read French or understand what was being covered by the local French-language media.
Not only was I fluently bilingual and a native Quebecer who had worked as a journalist in several cities in the province of Quebec, I also had experience as City Editor at another English-language Quebec daily. Determined to nip the threat that I posed in the bud, Cooke quickly set about eliminating that threat through a protracted campaign of slander directed at me and sabotage directed at my work. Despite a significant volume of physical evidence proving Cooke’s self-serving misconduct, the unilingual Ontario newspaper mafia now running the Gazette — publisher Clark Davey, executive editor Mark Harrison and managing editor Mel Morris — bought Cooke’s subterfuge hook, line and sinker. In the coming weeks, Cooke and his unholy trinity of benefactors feverishly set about the task of destroying both my career and my journalistic credibility.
A few years later, Conrad Black — once a mega-millionaire worldwide publishing magnate and now a convicted U.S. felon — bought the Gazette’s parent company, the Southam Inc. chain of dominant Canadian metropolitan dailies, and Cooke had found a powerful new ass to kiss and cozy up to. A short time later, Black appointed Cooke executive editor of British Columbia’s daily Vancouver Province and Cooke began to gain experience in the sorry task of dumbing-down Canadian journalism, compromising journalistic ethics and integrity, and putting the newsrooms of Canada’s once-respected newspaper industry completely at the exclusive service of the Top One Percent.
After several less-than-illustrious years as editorial head honcho of the Province, Black chose Cooke to be part of a small task force assigned the job of planning and designing a new, supposedly “national” daily, the Toronto-based National Post. The abject failure of this task force is evident in the fact that after almost a decade and a half of publication, the National Post has never lost less than $20 million a year.
Despite this failure, however, Black rewarded Cooke by appointing him executive editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, which Black had just purchased. From there, Cooke finagled and finessed his journalistic resume into a brief tenure as executive editor at the New York Daily News before returning to Canada to become executive editor of the Toronto Star.
Every newspaper that has employed Cooke as executive editor has suffered significant declines in circulation, readership and advertising revenue under his “leadership.” But because of his skill at ass-kissing, Cooke has always landed on his feet.
And wherever Cooke goes, journalistic folly follows. Ironically, although the Toronto Star represents itself as the most progressive and left-leaning daily in Canada, it now finds itself saddled with both an executive editor, Cooke, and a publisher, John Cruikshank, who are dyed-in-the-wool hardcore right-wingers.
Career-long bosom buddies, Cooke and Cruikshank have both risen through the ranks by protecting each other’s backs. Every time either of them managed to wrangle a more powerful job, he would bring the other one into the fold to protect his back. And the ethical consequences have been mind-boggling.
Their most recent ploy came during the campaign for the May 2, 2011 Canadian federal election.
Although the traditionally Liberal Toronto Star endorsed the social-democratic NDP in that election, the endorsement was actually a ploy designed to ensure the election of an extreme-right-wing majority Conservative government. The GTA (Greater Toronto Area), with more than 15 percent of Canada’s entire population and almost as large a portion of the total seats in Canada’s House of Commons, had long been an impenetrable Liberal fortress. But by endorsing the NDP just days before the election, Cooke and Cruikshank managed to split the anti-Conservative vote in the traditional Liberal strongholds, deliver Stephen Harper’s Conservatives almost every federal seat in the GTA and ensure the Conservatives of the majority they could not possibly have won without winning the GTA.
Is it any wonder that Canadians and Americans — especially young Canadians and Americans — are massively abandoning traditional mainstream newspapers when clowns like Cooke are put in charge of their newsrooms?
The world’s worst editor? Michael Cooke
By Henry McRandall