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Leah McLaren and the media


It’s hard to know where to start.

Leah McLaren is a well known Canadian who writes a weekly column for the Globe and Mail (likely the country’s most influential and prestigious newspaper.) She was hired young and beautiful, roughly 20 years ago, supported not just by her ability, but also her impeccable connections within the Toronto media and downtown culture. Her columns have always been highly personal, dealing first with being single in the city, and then morphing into whatever stage of life she had entered.

It’s been easy enough to dislike, or at the very least, resent her.

Attractive, affluent and sophisticated, she was the kind of WASP archetype that hovered above the rest, and each week as she unearthed some small epiphany buried within her culture of privilege, the column managed to read like an invitation to a party you would never be asked to attend. As such, she’s always been a lightning rod for reader discontent, and this week it flared up again.

The column which sparked it was a weird one.

In short, when she was about 25 she was at a house party where everybody was little bit older than her. They had children and spouses, these people, and Leah, single and childless, probably felt unusually peripheral. Out of sorts, she found herself drifting through a sort of Lost in Translation remove,

ending up alone in a bedroom where a baby was strapped into a car seat. At this point, an invincible curiosity about breast feeding overtook her, and in spite of the fact that she was not lactating and had no idea whose child it was, she reached into her bra to remove her breast for the infant, at which point the startled father walked in and politely took his child away.

There’s a lot to unpack here.

The first thing I see is blind privilege– the unexamined belief that the world is full of things for the author to act upon. But I also get her curiosity. I understand having a weird thought and nearly acting on it. I mean, Christ, everybody has to understand that, don’t they? But still, the story really caught fire. It was taken as evidence that breast feeding is still seen as something shameful and perverse. That men had to attack a successful public woman just for being a woman. That the patriarchy must be broken. That women had to support other women. It went like this, and so from the real story, which was just a dimly remembered non-event, all sorts of other stories caught fire and burned through social media.

Funny that.

Regardless, the Globe and Mail immediately retracted the story and Leah McLaren was suspended for a week. What this shows us, as if we needed to see it again, is that newspapers care more about their readers than their writers, which is another way of valuing the advertiser over the consumer. As far as I’m concerned, the newspaper, which is responsible for vetting, editing, shaping and publishing the story, should have had McLaren’s back, they should have supported a weird, potentially very interesting story, but they did not. And so, writers need not bother themselves to look out to the oceans of comments for enemies, but can just take a quick glance at their own offices, instead. Your column, as I was once told by an editor, is the thing we put between the ads.

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