I Got The Toronto Sun’s Editor-in-chief To Finally Answer Questions About Her Paper’s Viral Screw-ups

After months of reporting on Adrienne Batra for the Ryerson Review of Journalism, I learned a lot about what she thinks of criticism and accountability

The first words Adrienne Batra uttered to me about a virally controversial Toronto Sun story were consistent with the stance she had taken publicly for months: “These are things that I don’t really talk about.”

On January 17, three months after Sun columnist Sue-Ann Levy published a series of controversial columns regarding asylum-seekers staying in an east-end Toronto hotel, Batra explained why she wouldn’t comment. “I don’t answer to the mob on Twitter,” she told me. “Simple.”

But on that day, seated in a Starbucks at Queens Quay and Richardson Street, the Sun’s editor-in-chief knew this was the story everyone wanted her to account for. So, in spite of her reluctance to answer my question, she went on, cautiously.

It took about 13 weeks, 15 follow-up emails, and numerous missed calls to nail down the day I would spend with Batra for a feature profile I was writing for the Ryerson Review of Journalism (RRJ). When we finally met, Batra asked, “Why did you pick me?” Surprised she didn’t already know why, I informed her of her allure: she is a brown, Prairies-born woman, immovably conservative, and head of a newspaper infamous for its whiteness.

But after seven months of studying the editor-in-chief of the Sun, my biggest takeaway is not her fierce leadership style, telling military background, or claim to being the first woman of colour to lead a major metropolitan newspaper in North America. My biggest takeaway is that Batra is stubborn, and her written-in-stone attitude borderlines a total dismissal of criticism. The Sun, which historically has been and continues to be accused of publishing bigoted content, has a chief who says what she means and means what she says.

These months would make up my RRJ profile of Batra, titled “Driven.” It would also make up the first public comment by the Sun chief on the state of the paper, their viral fuck-ups, and where her responsibility lies in all of it.

Shadowing Batra, and finally, asking about the goats

I met Batra at 7 a.m. at the Corus Quay building on the Toronto waterfront. She greeted me with a hug and proceeded to guide me through the tall glass doors and walls of the complex that houses several of Corus Entertainment’s broadcast outlets. I wasn’t surprised to learn she’s just as personable as she comes across on TV.

After a trip to the makeup room, where Batra talked with me about weddings, brown girl hair, and her favourite makeup looks, she completed a couple radio and TV panels with Global News before 9 a.m. I watched her manner next to her opponents in the debate — civilized but aggressive. It isn’t any wonder she does these appearances on a weekly basis for CP24, CBC, and more — she’s great television (something journalist Ishmael Daro takes issue with).

Batra’s January 17 appearance on Global News’ The Morning Show.

After the panels, Batra and I made our way to a nearby Starbucks. When it dawned on me that the shadowing session could be cut earlier than the time I was promised, I figured this was likely my one chance to ask her the four-page list of questions I had. (I was right — I had been invited to stay until 3 p.m. but was asked to leave by 11 a.m.). So, after chatting about family, school, and growing up in Saskatchewan, I asked Batra for her side of the story of when one of her columnists spread misinformation about refugees in Toronto.

On September 29, Levy published a column about hundreds of asylum-seekers staying in the Radisson Hotel Toronto East. In the column, she quoted a number of TripAdvisor reviews which described the conditions of the hotel as “dangerous,” a “madhouse,” and an “absolute zoo” due to the refugees’ presence. A screengrab of another, published with the column, likened the hotel to a “9/11 training camp.” On October 2, Levy published a second column, “‘Irregular’ migrants continue to flock to Toronto,” where she continued to cite TripAdvisor reviews, with one in particular standing out: it claimed that asylum-seekers were slaughtering goats in the hotel’s public bathrooms.

BuzzFeed News confirmed with the hotel that was not true, and the Sun has since deleted it from the column online and inserted a correction.

But the story had already gone viral, and what does a correction do after so many readers have already walked away from a column believing in its falsities?

Regardless, on January 17, it all boiled down to one thing for me: Where was Batra when this all happened?

Turns out, she can’t remember.

In the Starbucks, she looked around, pondering her answer — as if no one had asked her this in person before. That was because they hadn’t; Batra had never responded to the public cries for comment.

“Who was the handling editor?” I asked.

“I’m not telling you,” she said, followed by a vehement laugh. I was frustrated by her response — I didn’t think an editor-in-chief, someone who should always push for accountability, transparency, and the ethical practice of journalism, would decline to share information about a reporting process. In any case, the buck stopped there. I couldn’t pry it out of Batra. I could only ask her for her perspective on what unfolded.

“Fix-it mode” was her answer to how the story was handled after the issues arose. An “immediate” sort of reaction to rectify the situation. “I can tell you it was a stressful time, and we worked very diligently to correct the situation in as timely a manner as we possibly could,” said Batra. “There will always be people out there who are going to be critical of the Sun just purely from our editorial perspective, and there was no question that that was…a very stressful time. But look, we’re all professionals at the end of the day, and we will take our lumps when we are in the wrong, and you just move on and you try to do better. That’s all.”

She assured me there were discussions with Levy and her own boss, James Wallace (who in January left his job as vice president of editorial for the Sun chain to become a deputy chief of staff for Ontario Premier Doug Ford).

“Mistakes happen. And it won’t be the last time,” she said.

I had more questions. On October 2 — hours before Levy’s second column was published online — Faith Goldy attempted to hold a press conference outside of the hotel as part of her campaign for mayor of Toronto. In a self-recorded video, Goldy spoke of the Radisson being “one of the many migrant camps that has now popped up in Toronto.” She also described things she said she’d heard of taking place at the Radisson, such as “Sharia gender segregation” during swim times and sexual harassment of hotel staff. Late that evening, a maintenance worker would find a gasoline canister lit with a rag stuffed in the nozzle, according to Steven Zhou for Vice News. “We were holding the children — even other people’s children — because they were in hurry and they were crying. Most of them they were almost sleeping,” one refugee told the CBC.

The Canadian Press reported that an official from COSTI Immigration Services believed the arson was targeted against the refugees. Police, however, found no indication that that was the case.

In the absence of such a link, it’s still worth considering what Zhou reported for Vice: that published alongside Levy’s reporting was a photo of hijabi women asylum-seekers staying at the hotel, with children. “Refugee claimants staying at the hotel, many of whom came to Canada to escape political persecution, see the publication of these women’s faces as a serious breach of their privacy and security,” Zhou wrote. One newcomer told him, “I think I speak for everybody when I say that the media has to stop this. I think it amounts to harassment. We’re here, we want to live our lives peacefully, we want to work, and we want to live like everyone else.”

But ask Batra, and “utter bullshit” is what she’ll call the idea that the Sun’s reporting had any influence on the arson taking place. “I don’t even know how someone could make that conclusion,” she told me. “As I said, there’s always going to be those who are going to be critical of us because of our editorial position. It doesn’t matter what the story is or what the notion is. There will be that sentiment out there.”

Batra was passive about reading the critiques of the Sun that were prolifically emerging at the time. Most came from “straight left” publications, she said, and they’re the ones pushing this narrative.

Mostly, Batra is fed up, and feels that there’s no winning. “I’m going to deal with it and manage it inside my newsroom. Not on social media. Not in these publications.” She went on: “You know what? I could have had the most thoughtful, salient response to any one of those people that had asked me. And I was still going to be demonized.”

I pointed out that there’s a difference between social media mobs and journalists requesting comment from her — but she summed it up, insisting that she doesn’t “answer to Jesse Brown” types.

Fact-checking Batra

After our shadowing session, I couldn’t get a hold of Batra again. Replies to my texts were sparse. But I knew the time to fact-check every quote, concept, and implication of the piece was around the corner. My fact-checker and supervisor seemed confident that we’d get her — but they hadn’t been sent to Batra’s cellphone’s voicemail, tens of times, as I had.

Numerous emails, phone calls, and a public tweet didn’t produce a response from Batra, who had initially hesitated to participate in the piece due to a fear that we would misrepresent her. We were attempting to fact-check every word, and just wanted her to answer a slew of simple yes-or-no questions.

For newspapers, thorough fact-checking is uncommon — you might do a follow-up call, click some links, and check proper nouns — possibly explaining why Batra may not have been inclined to participate. I didn’t get the impression she knew much about fact-checking for magazine features, which have a much more intense process. For the RRJ, we have one dedicated fact-checker for each piece, a supervisor who goes through all the checking once it’s done, followed by another round of fact-checking by a Toronto Life fact-checker, a final round of fact-checking, and then copy editing.

The highlight of that process was when we finally had Alanna Rizza, my fact-checker, call Batra from her own number. To my surprise, Batra picked up — Alanna’s number is private.

“Hello?” Batra said.

“Hi, Adrienne. My name is Alanna Rizza, and I’m calling to fact-check the story Sarah Krichel is writing about you for the Ryerson Review of Journalism.”

The phone went silent but for some brief rustling on the line.

Alanna proceeded: “Sarah told you I would be calling to ask you some quick questions for the story for fact-checking. I promise I won’t take up much of your time. I’m sorry for calling on a Friday afternoon, but it’s important we make sure we get everything right.” The silence continued, and Alanna said “Hello?” another few times before finally hanging up the phone.

Every time Alanna called Batra after that, the line rang till the voicemail message played once again: “Hello, you’ve reached Adrienne Batra, editor-in-chief of the Toronto Sun…”

The irony of Batra’s unwillingness to help fact-check her own story was not lost on anybody in the RRJ newsroom.

How do we hold the Sun to a journalistic standard that might not be within its mandate?

The issue with the Sun remains that I’m not even sure the publication attempts to hold itself to a basic journalistic standard — and I’m not sure they care that they don’t, either.

When I asked Levy for her comment for the profile, she simply referred me back to the October 28 sorry-not-sorry column she published about the whole thing. (Columnist Joe Warmington stood behind her as well with another piece, suggesting that “facts don’t seem to matter” because media outlets were pushing the narrative that the arson was an attack on asylum-seekers.) And within our first couple email exchanges, Levy accused me of lying about the angle of my piece and informed me she was going to show my questions to her lawyer (for what reason, I don’t know). In the fact-checking process months later, Levy confirmed the “discussions” that Batra had said took place after the Radisson stories, but that was all.

The only tangible remorse the Sun showed after the incident was the correction on the October 2 column and the fact that they published the National NewsMedia Council’s (NNC) decision on the complaints they received about it. But the Sun did that on March 2 — three months after the NNC’s decision and five months after the column was published. (NNC members have to publish decisions on upheld complaints.)

Batra stands by her columnists. She knows Levy fights back on Twitter, and told me she agreed with Levy’s claim that the NNC is just “lib-left media.” She also stands by her fellow Sun personalities like Lorrie Goldstein and Tarek Fatah — both of whom told me about their tremendous respect for Batra’s unique knowledge, experience, and approach to leadership.

When I asked Batra why she thinks her newsroom is so white, and whether it’s an issue at all, she said, “You want to be representative of the community which you’re covering. And Toronto is a diverse city, so we strive for that. But it’s not just about the colour of your skin, Sarah. It’s about diversity of your opinion, too.” She said she strives to have a semblance of balance on the opinion side.

At one point in the interview, Batra told me she’s lost on why critics still accuse the Sun of anti-Islam and anti-immigrant rhetoric, when “I employ two Muslim columnists,” Tarek Fatah and Farzana Hassan.

I’m not sure that’s what fixes the problem that Sun critics are referring to. But it appeared to me that diversity stats do matter to Batra when they can be deployed to dismiss criticisms.

How do we reconcile the Toronto Sun with our own understanding of what ethical journalism should be? How do we reconcile its actions with the responsibilities normally expected of a publisher? How do we reconcile its apparent indifference to accountability with an era in which media are more closely scrutinized than ever? Should the standards be different for tabloids?

Batra told me that Fatah’s opinions on Islam, while unpopular in most papers like The Globe and Mail or the Toronto Star, will always have a place at the Sun. That’s precisely why I don’t think that the Sun is going anywhere anytime soon. I thought the answer to reconciling the discrepancies between general journalistic standards and the Sun’s journalistic standards would be in viewing it as an advocacy organization — but when asked, Batra said: “No. It’s not the type of journalism we do.” So then, what?

While I researched my piece, Zhou told me in an interview that the rise of far-right rhetoric in the media is connected to the rest of society. “It ultimately has to do with how willing people are as citizens to have a serious conversation around how their society is organized. It’s misleading to think of this as mainly a media problem. Every major media issue is a societal issue.”

Until we are ready to have that conversation, I think Batra will stay put.

Recently, I finally heard from her, for the first time in months. She had gotten her hands on a copy of the magazine and left me a voicemail.

She asked for an original copy of the illustration of her inside a Toronto Sun military tank.

Top screen capture from Batra’s “Fireside Chat” with Ontario Premier Doug Ford at the 2018 Ontario PC convention, responding to his question about media bias, telling him, “I think every media outlet in this country has a bias, and if they tell you otherwise, that’s fake news.”

Latest Stories
Announcing Our 2024 Podcast Slate
Introducing CanadaLabs
What Twitter Was