Bad Lede. Bad. Bad.

In the midst of Manti Te’o-Lance Armstrong mania Friday night, a retweet from National Post sports columnist Bruce Arthur cut through the clutter:

The link led to a journalism trainwreck written by Toronto Star columnist Rose DiManno:

Rosie DiManno lede

My first reaction, after doublechecking to make sure I read it right,

drew instant dismay:

Usually I move on but in the morning the lede was still in my head, like a bad hangover I didn’t enjoy getting. It was a bad lede, Bulwer-Lytton bad in its style but nothing to laugh at. It was especially bad for the delicate subject of a column about how a patient was sodomized on the operating table — a subject shocking enough without that intro. The column had other problems but they paled next to that lede. (I didn’t look at anything else Rosie DiManno wrote that day or her archives.) And it was the Toronto Star, a paper I took great pride in writing for as a hockey stringer but seemed to have no editors working that day. I couldn’t understand how it got published or, if it was the columnist pushing the button, how it stayed published.

I made another run at it:

More dismay via Twitter

but this time it also was picked up by Jim Romenesko, with the eye-catching headline “What the hell, Toronto Star?” and spread even more. Be sure to check out the comments.)

I didn’t reach out to the Star but after the considerable backlash from a lot of directions, including complaints to the paper, Public Editor Kathy English weighed in. She put it a lot more carefully but essentially it boils down to

“Rosie is a top columnist, we let Rosie be Rosie but if someone had noticed this before publication Friday we might have encouraged her to be slightly less Rosie.”

Those are my words. Here are some of hers:

“Taste” is always a subjective matter and questions of taste in columns and other content are often flagged to the managing editor by columnists themselves or other editors. That did not happen in this case. Had that occurred, I expect the managing editor would have urged DiManno to revise the opening to the column, which otherwise accurately reflects the direct testimony of the victim.

So what should the Star have done?

You don’t suspend a columnist for bad writing that gets published — that’s in the range of responses to plagiarism, bad reporting or bad behavior. If the columnist has the right to publish directly, I would change that — possibly with procedures in place to avoid being stonewalled by the editing process for something breaking.

This was an editorial breakdown. I would find out how it happened and look to the editor who approved it and/or the editor who set up a process that allowed it to happen. I would see if it’s part of a bad pattern and if more than the one column needs addressing. I would include copy editing, line editing and top editing in that look. If I caught the lede live — within hours of publication — I would have it updated and noted. At this point, I would add an editor’s note mentioning the concerns and linking to the public editor’s post. (The post link is there now as a related link but nothing is appended.)

Columnists need to have a voice and the best editors know how not to mess with that. They also know how to help the columnist use that voice and when to say enough is enough.