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A Newspaper Gets Branded, Red-Hot-Iron Style,
This review is from: Out of the Blue: A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption and, Yes, Happiness (Paperback)"Hurt the brand? HURT THE BRAND? I'll brand you, you **********"
OK, OK, I'm not suggesting Jan Wong was thinking anything of the sort when she sat down to write Out of the Blue a few years after her newspaper's publisher allegedly told her that what she had written had hurt the newspaper's corporate brand.
And I can believe her when she said on the radio that she just wanted to write a book about workplace depression. I can believe she wasn't out to exact revenge for being gagged, for being put through a nightmare, for being hung out to dry, for being wrongly accused of malingering and for the management cowardice and bungling that ultimately ended her 20-year career at a national newspaper.
But, boy, did she get even.
Someone once said you should never pick a fight with people who buy their ink by the barrel. In this case, the people who (still) buy their ink by the barrel picked a nasty, pointless, long and costly fight with a tenacious and gifted writer.
The result is this book, which has the sizzle of a red-hot branding iron being applied to the rear end of a slow-and-heavy old-media monster.
It doesn't much matter whether the book was written to get even. The achievement is that it strikes a blow on behalf of the many victims of workplace depression who, sick and powerless, were in no condition to fight, and accepted settlements with confidentiality clauses, which Wong rightly calls gag orders.
Well, here's one patient who didn't go quietly into the night.
A hard-driving, competitive, type-A personality, Wong was at the top of her game, a star reporter and columnist at a national newspaper. She loved journalism and loved her job.
One day she was assigned to write a reconstruction of a college campus shooting rampage in Montreal, her hometown. Wong, a Columbia University journalism graduate who has worked as a foreign correspondent, flew to Montreal the day after the bloodbath.
In 24 hours she produced a dramatic 3,000-word masterpiece. Her newspaper gave her piece the strongest endorsement possible by making it the top story on the front page of its top-selling weekend edition.
This was Montreal's third campus killing spree. Wong picked up on the fact that all three killers were the the sons of immigrants. Buried in her story was a paragraph on Quebec's well-documented history of not always welcoming immigrants with open arms.
Acknowledging that all three killers were severely disturbed individuals, Wong wondered whether this alienation might somehow have played a role. In an analysis piece written in the aftermath of such a crime, raising questions about the killer's motive is fair game. After all, how many Canadian cities have had three campus killing sprees?
After Wong's story appeared, the Quebec media went berserk. Federal politicians jumped on the bandwagon, presumably to curry favour with Quebec voters. Wong and her employer, the staid Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper, were condemned by the prime minister.
Under intense pressure, the Globe's top editor at the time -- who ,according to Wong, had read and approved the story -- suddenly did an about face and the reporter was hung out to dry. She reports that the newspaper's publisher was livid and accused her of hurting the national newspaper's corporate brand in Quebec.
Was the offending paragraph editorializing unsupported by fact? And therefore should it have been cut from the story before publication? And once the top editors had approved the story for publication, shouldn't they have stood behind their story and their reporter? Was it cowardly -- after the political firestorm had erupted --to say the reporter was in the wrong?
Different people may have different answers to those questions. But I think anyone would agree that the ludicrous fight that followed should have been avoided.
The newspaper remained silent -- and ordered the reporter to remain silent -- as she was profiled in a racist cartoon in a Quebec newspaper, as she was denounced by opportunistic politicians, as she was subjected to a torrent of hate mail from Quebec. Her Canadian-born 86-year-old ethnic Chinese father was subjected to racist and libellous attacks on the Internet. She received countless filthy emails and a death threat.
Intellectually and emotionally exhausted, and prevented by management fiat from defending herself and her family, she eventually slid into deep depression and went on sick leave.
It should have ended there. A sick leave -- supported by her family doctor and eventually even her own psychiatrist and her insurer's psychiatrist -- should have run its course, and the employee should have been allowed to recover, and either return to work, or move on.
Instead, what ensued was a tasteless, childish and costly vendetta against a sick employee. There were almost no oral conversations with her managers. Instead, she was forced to deal with human recourses bureaucrats, laughable ultimatums and innumerable couriered letters. Nowhere is any humanity on display.
This is also a how-not-to book for managers and human resources personnel everywhere. It would make a good Harvard Business School case study for the same reason.
That this was allowed to drag on for months, and then years, beggars belief. What were these managers thinking of?
We'll probably never know. After the editor's published apology, the newspaper's only comment has been no comment. Under the law an accused person can't be forced to testify in his own defence. But for most people, silence by an accused organization has only one translation: guilty guilty guilty guilty guilty.
So we get one side of the story, and Wong is a master storyteller. Key editors appear as vindictive dim lights.
Talk about hurting the corporate brand! Would you apply for a job there after reading this book?
But aside from the book's considerable entertainment value -- and who wouldn't enjoy some inside dirt on a powerful newspaper? -- Wong has performed a great public service by shedding light on a subject that has had little press -- workplace depression.
Out of the Blue journalism, not academic research -- there are no footnotes though the book has a decent-looking bibliography. But it's a good primer on depression in general, an illness that remains stigmatized and too seldom discussed.
I think a wide range of readers would enjoy this David-and-Goliath story in which one plucky little soul, tiny and ill, takes on huge corporate adversaries, and wins.
Out of the Blue is often funny and always readable. In fact, Wong has done the seemingly impossible -- written a page turner about depression.
By the way, there's another aspect to this story.
As in all such cases, Wong's employer tried hard to make her accept a confidentiality clause as part of her wrongful-dismissal settlement. (The Globe had eventually fired her for malingering, despite the medical opinions to the contrary.) But she stood her ground and eventually walked away with what she calls 'a big fat cheque' and the right to speak. (Her former tormenters at the newspaper are mostly gone now too.)
Wong says Doubleday, publisher of her previous four bestselling books, worked on the manuscript of this book for three years. The book had been vetted by Doubleday's and Wong's libel lawyer. Then at the last minute, Wong says, she was ordered to delete any reference to the Globe and Mail newspaper. She refused -- you can't write a memoir about workplace depression without the workplace.
Wong said Doubleday denied the Globe had lobbied to kill the book. But she says the Globe's lawyer had phoned Doubleday's libel lawyer (who also represented her) a month earlier to express displeasure with an article she had written for Chatelaine magazine which mentioned the upcoming book.
The Globe and Mail is arguably Canada's most influential source of book reviews. In an afterword to her book (which she self-published), Wong asks: 'Did Doubleday fear the newspaper would punish it by reviewing its other authors negatively? Was the book publisher concerned about current and future business deals?'
Doubleday would say absolutely not.
But in Canada, media ownership is far more concentrated than in the United States. Wong says a decision by any one of these entities not to publish could kill a book. But she says the Internet has changed this. With innovations such as PayPal and amazon.com, authors can connect directly with readers.
So anyone who values freedom of speech -- along with anyone who enjoys a good read -- should buy this book.Out of the Blue: A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption and, Yes, Happiness