Why would anyone go to lunch with Jan Wong?
In the days since the Globe and Mail columnist wrote about an encounter we had over lunch, it’s a question I have been asked often. Many more people, I sense, want to ask the question, but can’t or won’t.
The question is a fair one. Why would you trust someone like Jan Wong – someone who bragged to NOW magazine, earlier this year, about setting up a breast cancer survivor – to be in any way fair, or balanced, or responsible? Why trust someone who publicly boasts – again, in NOW – about the sleazy tricks she employs in her journalism?
The short answer is I didn’t.
A few months ago, I published a book about politics and the media. Parts of the book were critical of prominent media personalities, including some of Wong’s friends at the Globe and Mail. (Some of those I critiqued, like Ms. Wong’s fellow Globe columnist, Allan Fotheringham, have reacted with fury and indignation to what I wrote.)
Like all authors, I signed a contract with my publisher in which I agreed to participate in an effort to publicize the book in the media. The publisher, in turn, sets up the resulting media interviews, and expects the author to show up. In between working for a living, and being a parent to four small children, I tried to do that.
Until I was advised that my publisher wanted me to meet with the Globe’s Jan Wong.
Like everyone else in Canada who has ever picked up a newspaper, I knew (or thought I did) about Jan Wong. I had read the sorts of things she wrote about people, and knew that – as a National Post writer put it last year – she is crude, insulting, and has “all the charm of a train wreck.”
Years ago, when working on Parliament Hill, I formed the habit of researching reporters before I would agree to sit down with them. I did not have to research Jan Wong for very long before I knew that my publishers publicity department had made a mistake. Here is a sampling of what I found:
On her past: In 1972, while enrolled in special studies at Peking University – though the daughter of a wealthy Montreal businessman, she travelled to China to lend her support to the Maoist regime – Ms. Wong turned in a young Chinese student who had had the temerity to asked what life was like in the West. The student disappeared. Ms. Wong later confessed that she was merely “naive” for doing what she did.
On her approach to writing: In March 2001, Ms. Wong – having renounced the repressive Chinese regime of which she had previously been a part – encountered another group of students, this time at The Varsity at the University of Toronto. There, she advised the aspiring journalists to try and come across as sympathetic, nice and non-threatening. She went on: “When they relax, that’s when their guard is down. It’s a trick, but its legit. Don’t worry about consequences.”
On the criticism that she is cruel: In the Summer 2001 edition of the McGill News – which university she attended, before moving to China to volunteer for a dictatorship – Ms. Wong declared: “If people say I’m jealous or I’m catty, I don’t care. Thats my line, my motto: I don’t care.”
Knowing these things and a few more – she is, for example, extraordinarily pompous, claiming in March 2000 speech that she “speaks for the powerless” – I told my publisher, in August of this year, that I did not think any good could come from a lunch with Jan Wong. My publisher’s publicists told me I was wrong. They bet me, in fact, that I could handle her.
And then, disaster struck. In early September, a few days I was to meet with Ms. Wong, my family and I were visiting a friends cottage at Stony Lake. The rules at the cottage were clear: all children present that weekend were to wear life preservers when outside. All doors were to be latched, to ensure none of the smaller ones could make their way to the water. But someone, somehow, had left a side door unlocked. Our 20-month-old, Sam, slipped out.
He was not gone for long, but when my wife pulled Sam from Stony Lake, he was not breathing, and his little face was blue. A friend, who is a doctor, ran to the dock and performed CPR. After a half-minute or so, Sam started to cough, then cry, and then come back to the world of the living.
We still do not know how long he was in the water, or how the cottage’s side door became unlatched. Following two days at the hospital, it became apparent that Sam – somehow, inexplicably – was just fine. His parents, suffused with guilt and fear, weren’t.
From Sam’s bedside at the hospital in Peterborough, I cancelled all interviews that had been set up to promote my book – including Jan Wong. Two days later, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, the official launch of the book was cancelled, as well.
Many weeks later, when my publisher finally persuaded me to go to a re-scheduled lunch with Ms. Wong, her first questions were about Sam. How is he? Is he alright? She was charming, and seemed to be genuinely interested. We talked about children a lot. She, like us, has two boys named Ben and Sam. I spoke to her, proudly, about how we had struggled to have children for many years – how we adopted our daughter, and how we finally became biological parents, too.
When her column about me eventually appeared, filled to the brim with insults – I am a legend in my own mind, I am a nobody masquerading as a somebody, and so on – I was not surprised. That, as I had told my disbelieving publisher, is what Jan Wong does. She is shitty for a living.
The shock (the shock that even I had not been expecting) came at the end of her column. There, in black and white, Jan Wong wrote about my book, and how I “could bring Sam to the [book] launch. Everybody could give his little boy a squeeze – and buy the book.” I read it again. She sounded amused by what had happened to him. And she was saying, without having the guts to say it clearly, that I would use my son’s near-death to sell books.
In all my years in politics, and journalism, and in battling organized racism, I have been criticized many times. In politics, particularly, that is the nature of the game. But in all of those years, no one – not even bigots like David Irving, or Ernst Zundel, who openly profess their loathing for me on their web sites – has ever said anything like that. No one. When I showed Jan Wongs column to my wife, she wept.
I am writing this for my wife, who continues to be hurt by the fact that Jan Wong – the spokesperson for the powerless – felt that it was okay to subject her to ridicule. I am writing this for my son Sam, who is (for now) unaware that Jan Wong – who suggested to the McGill News that she is an ordinary mother – felt it was okay to make light of the fact that he nearly died.
The best way to sum up how we feel is to quote the letter my books editor sent to the Globe and Mail. Its also the best way to end. Here it is:
To the editor:
Yes, Warren Kinsella is used to being fair game, and to giving as good as he gets. But there are lines most reporters don’t cross, and Jan Wong crossed one when she implied that Mr. Kinsella might use the near drowning of his young son as a means to sell books. Mr. Kinsella’s mistake was to treat Ms. Wong as though she was a human being for a moment. No one should make that mistake.
Random House Canada
Take that to lunch, Jan Wong.