Thursday, November 18, 2010



It was a wonderful reunion. Seven journalists, who graduated from Ryerson an incredible 52 years ago, gathered in the pleasant North Toronto home of Terry O'Connor to talk a lot and maybe fib a bit, skip over ancient feuds, sing our irreverent version of a school song, and to wonder why we don't see each other.
In those 52 years, Ryerson has evolved from an institute known to critics as Rye High to a respected university that wouldn't understand our anger at U of T in the song written by Don Hawkes and belted out by our Road Apples chorus in a closet we commandered from the authorities in a vanished barracks building.
We were a tiny class, but we went on to make an impact. And here are my classmates, all retired. Pictured from the left is Hawkes, Sun editor, with Barrie Zwicker, iconoclastic critic and Alby Sokol, jock writer, at the right rear. O'Connor, Ryerson information officer, is in front with our ladies, Shirley Gilbert, a major exec at HP, the computer giant, and Miriam Zylberberg, the anchor behind her doctor Bernie.
In the middle of our buzz, Sokol, known to generations of Telegram and Star readers, unveiled an ancient grievance.
"You know," he confided, "you gotta watch Downing. Years ago I picked up his column and read what I had told him the previous day at lunch. I had had to go out and do one of those Man On The Street surveys for the Star, and I hated them. This guy was coming down the street and I got out my notebook and as he came up, before I could say anything, he put a coin in my palm and kept on going. And the Star photog says to me, Alby, you got to dress better."
And all of us hooted. I said defensively to the panhandler for quotes that I thought then that it was the funniest thing I had heard in months, and I didn't really think it was off the record. And Alby said something like he didn't think he had to say off-the-record to a friend.
Boy, did that take me back. I was writing five columns a week, and occasionally six, and there were weeks when I wrote the daily editorial too. If anyone said anything interesting within 100 yards of me, they appeared in print. My neighbour out back, the chiropractor, said one weekend that he wanted to tell me something over the fence but it was off-the-record. I do believe I muttered something like I didn't know he ever said anything interesting enough to print, which is my normal line in such situations, but I hope I refrained.
(I loved writing columns. But I did think occasionally of Lewis Grizzard, who at his peak appeared in more than 400 newspapers. He wrote: "Being a columnist is like being married to a nymphomaniac. It's great for the first two weeks."
The engineering students at U of T used to steal a Sun every morning and then float it around the all-day classes. One day a chap across the aisle yelled at my son John Henry that "your father didn't have anything interesting to say today." John Henry demanded to know why he would say something rude like that. "Because he wrote about you," came the reply.
The family gently suggested that perhaps some of their life should be off limits, which I ignored because I found that columns about my family were considered far more interesting by many than anything I felt about politics. And my cottage retreat was right up there too.
These days I read and listen to a lot of media malarkey about off-the-record utterances. The rule that most journalists like me follow is that the person has to stipulate that it's off-the-record BEFORE he or she says anything, and the writer has to agree to that before the sensitive material is revealed.
All that really means is that you can't quote them specifically, or give revealing clues as to their identity, but there's no way you can forget what was said. So it will help shape the story, which probably is what the source wanted in the first place.
In real courts, and in what passes for courts in the movies and on TV, we have become accustomed to lawyers blurting out loaded questions with dubious details which the judges rule out of order and tell the juries to disregard. As if juries can scrub words from their memories.
The best way to stay out of the media is not to say anything. As for all those who claim they were misquoted, most are lucky they were quoted in the first place.
Maybe Alby was mad that I wrote it was a coin. After all, Star guys would expect bills.

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