MEDIA WATCH

The Saturday Night wars

GEORGE BAIN November 27 1989
MEDIA WATCH

The Saturday Night wars

GEORGE BAIN November 27 1989

The Saturday Night wars

MEDIA WATCH

GEORGE BAIN

The December issue of Saturday Night magazine, out on Nov. 27 in Toronto and Dec. 4 nationwide, will carry a story, “The Globe wars,” on the recent turmoil in The Globe and Mail newsroom arising from the sudden departures of the editor-in-chief, managing editor, deputy managing editor and provincial-affairs columnist—a list that is not necessarily comprehensive. But there is also a story in the story itself. “The Globe wars” was going to be a cover piece but now shelters demurely inside, is half or less the length the writer thought the story needed for the telling—and thought he had been allowed—carries the byline of someone who does not exist, and has had the internal result of shortening Saturday Night's list of contributing editors by one. The byline— known in the trade as a “house byline,” a euphemism for a made-up name—is Fraser Michaels. No prizes are offered, at least here, for the first person who makes the connection from that to Fraser (John), editor of Saturday Night, and Michael (with no “s”) Harris, formerly of The Globe and Mail and now publisher of The Sunday Express in St. John’s, Nfld., who was, or thought he was, the writer.

Both of them have been left fuming—in a gentlemanly way, neither saying nasty things about the other except that the other’s judgment was wrong and that he was not amenable to reason. A series of battles, verbal and on paper, began with Harris’s first draft, which was 16,000 words long. Harris, in particular, is fuming. He said, “They really destroyed the piece I sent them.” He was so mad that he also said, in effect, “I’ll send you back your money; give me my story back,” abandoning four months of work that he says included 90 interviews, and with little hope of placing the article elsewhere.

There is a difference between editor and writer—not the only one—about what was said next. Harris says that Fraser told him flatly that the story could not be withdrawn and cited legal opinion to the effect that Harris’s

What was going to be a cover story is now half as long, carries a house byline and has reduced the list of contributing editors by one

having cashed the cheque completed the contract. He had delivered the manuscript, the magazine had paid, and that was that. Fraser’s reply, starting from the question “Is that correct?” is “Not strictly. There were some heated arguments that', well, unless he wants to talk about it, that’s fine. But, basically, I presented an argument on professionalism, not a legal argument. I mentioned the terms of the contract, that’s true, but it was mostly in the context of trying to get him to be professional

and not go off like a____” Fraser stopped short

of saying what he believed Harris ought not to go off like, and then resumed: “He was terrifically upset and he said some foolish things that I’ve forgiven him for. I’ll tell you off the record, but. ...”

No thanks.

By either version, the upshot was the same. Fraser kept the piece and Harris, after also consulting a lawyer, kept the money—a $5,000 fee, plus expenses, both of which he offered back. But Harris insisted on not having his name on something that was not his, but which he would be responsible for in the eyes of readers. He demanded his byline be removed from the drastically cut and amended piece. Hence the house byline. Hence also the disap-

pearance of Harris’s name from the list of contributing editors, which he also demanded. (“Contributing editor” is one of those strange titles that do not really define anything except that the writer and the publication are in a continuing relationship as distinct from carrying on a tenuous series of one-night—or oneissue—stands.)

If “The Globe wars” makes an interesting case study of the idiosyncrasies of the newspaper trade, the Harris-Fraser Wars do no less for magazines. The trouble began with the first draft. Harris says that when he took on the assignment, he asked how long the piece might be and was told by Fraser, “Don’t worry about that. Get the story.” Fraser acknowledges that there may have been some imprecision about length, but, he added, “I just assumed that as he was a contributing editor of the magazine, he understood what the normal length of a magazine article was.” Harris calls that unfair in light of the original emphasis on first getting the story, and getting it whole.

Harris produced a second draft, which he thinks may even have been slightly longer, having had to incorporate several suggestions from the editors with the return of his first draft. Fraser agrees—but it remained, in his mind, impossible to handle. He also remained unhappy with the structure. He wanted the story to skip what he calls “the middle-level characters” and concentrate first “on the Globe as an institution; second, the principal characters; and third, what [publisher A. Roy] Megarry was up to.” A key element in the piece was, and remains, a five-page memorandum containing strong suggestions from the Globe’s publisher to his then-editor, Norman Webster, outlining changes he wanted to see in the paper, from which bits have been quoted before, including here, but which Harris was able to land intact.

Harris feels one message Fraser was sending him is that he, Fraser, also a former Globe and Mail correspondent and editor, would have been kinder to Megarry. Harris added: “Now, I don’t put a dastardly interpretation on that, although some people I have talked to do. They say.... No, this is my view, my opinion. The Globe and Mail piece I wrote reflects one truth, and that is that the person who is calling all the shots, no matter what he is telling people or [editor-in-chief] Bill Thorsell is telling people, is Roy Megarry.”

Harris suggested that the integrity of his piece might be preserved by breaking it into two 8,000-word parts to run in succeeding issues. Fraser said that a two-parter wouldn’t work in a monthly magazine. He suggested Harris tum “The Globe wars” into a book, under a deal Saturday Night has with the book publishers Harper & Collins that allows the magazine five books a year under its own imprint. “The Globe wars” in its shortened form might then run as an extract from a work in progress. Harris, who already has a book under way, said no to that. In the end, the piece, as it will appear, was assembled, at about 8,000 words length, in-house.

Anybody interested in a book on The Saturday Night Wars?