MediaBully

Canwest was the largest media conglomerate in Canada. What they didn’t own is almost a shorter list than what they did. They described themselves as “Canada’s largest publishing of paid English-language daily newspapers with an estimated weekly readership of 4.8 million people.” The company’s papers included the National Post, 10 large market dailies and more than 25 community newspapers. They own the Global Television Network, the History, Food and Showcase cable channels, and through various shareholdings are involved with many more media outlets in every medium. If you read or watch the news, chances are you read or watch Canwest news.

In Vancouver, where this case is based, there is a dangerous level of media concentration. Canwest owned about 70 percent of the news outlets — from dailies to weeklies to television. Professor Marc Edge has called Vancouver the most concentrated media market of any city in a G8 country.

The company is owned by the Asper family of Winnipeg. Founder Israel (Izzy) died a few years ago, and the company is now in the hands of his son Leonard. Father and son were/are passionate Zionists and make sure that what they own echoes what they think. In an interview in the Jerusalem Post in August of 2003, Izzy Asper stated: “In all our newspapers…we have a very pro-Israel position…we are the strongest supporter of Israel in Canada”.

For more about these folks and their political views, you can look for Asper Nation, a book by Marc Edge, published by New Star Books. Excerpts from the book were published on thetyee.ca and are reproduced below with permission from the author.

Resources

Download the Near East Cultural Education Foundation report on media bias against Palestinians in Canada’s national newspapers.

Click here for the latest news about the Seriously Free Speech campaign.

The Asper Slam on News Media, Excerpts from Marc Edge’s book Asper Nation

Canwest bankruptcy watch

Dennis Skulsky resigns from Canwest “to spend more time with his family”, straight.com, March 12, 2010

Torstar among final bidders for CanWest papers, Globe and Mail, March 10, 2010

Aspers bid to reclaim newspaper chain, Globe and Mail, March 10, 2010

End of era as Leonard Asper leaves CanWest over conflict of interest, Globe and Mail, March 4, 2010

The CanWest papers, Globe and Mail, Feb 26, 2010

Rosebud. The rise and fall of CanWest, acreativerevolution.ca, Jan 10, 2009 (sfsc posted Jan 19)

Don’t expect ‘contrarian’ Liberals to tilt papers left, Globe and Mail, Jan 18, 2010

Group including Jerry Grafstein seeks 3 CanWest papers, Globe and Mail, Jan 18, 2010

CanWest newspaper chain leaves 300 creditors unpaid, Globe and Mail, Jan 15, 2010

CanWest lenders can’t wait on sale, Scotiabank tells Asper, Globe and Mail, Jan 10, 2010

CanWest newspapers for sale despite Asper’s objections, Globe and Mail, Jan 8, 2010

Scotiabank now Canada’s biggest publisher, Globe and Mail, Jan 8, 2010

Canwest puts papers up for sale, cbc.ca , Jan 8, 2010

CanWest suitor search draws 20, Globe and Mail, Dec 3, 2009

CanWest pensioners’ lives in limbo, Globe and Mail, Nov 30, 2009

Canwest newspaper outsourcing jobs, cbc.ca, Sept. 5, 2009 (posted Nov 30)

CanWest-Goldman battle erupts, Globe and Mail, Nov 2, 2009

No outside buyer, CanWest shuffles National Post, Globe and Mail, Oct 31, 2009

Bonuses for CanWest bosses?, rabble.ca, October 27, 2009

The short end of the Canwest stick, Macleans, October 20, 2009

Final CanWest episode needs a white knight, Globe and Mail, Oct 19, 2009

Canwest Wins More Time To Reshape Newspaper Unit, Rueters, Oct 16, 2009

Canwest Receives Notice Of Delisting From TSX Effective November 13, Globe and Mail, Oct 15, 2009

Scotiabank, creditors to control CanWest dailies, Globe and Mail, Oct 7, 2009

The Asper dream ends, the selloff begins, Globe and Mail, Oct 7, 2009

Canwest wins court shelter for Global TV, Post, cbc.ca, Oct 6, 2009

Canwest seeks bankruptcy protection for broadcasting assets and National Post, straight.com, Oct 6, 2009

CanWest assets likely to be sold after company files for creditor protection, Globe and Mail, Oct 6, 2009

Godfrey wins backers for buyout of CanWest papers, Globe and Mail, Oct 1, 2009

With Australia off its plate, CanWest on to bigger issues, Globe and Mail, Sept 25, 2009

Canwest shares take a beating, closing at six-and-a-half cents, straight.com, July 9, 2009

CanWest newspapers seeking worker concessions: union, Canadian Press, June 12, 2009

CanWest gets ready for new face near the top, Globe and Mail, June 6, 2009

Canwest Global subsidiary misses $10M in debt payments, cbc.ca, May 29, 2009

Inside the Canwest talks, theglobeandmail.com, May 8, 2009

The last days of a dynasty, Macleans, April 30, 2009

Canwest shares worthless, to be avoided – analysts, reuters.com

Winnipeg Free Press columnist says Aspers will lose control of Canwest, Georgia Straight, April 11, 2009

‘It’s sad… the company is done’, Winnipeg Free Press, April 11, 2009

‘No finish line’ for Canwest cuts: Skulsky, thetyee.ca, Apr 9, 2009

Canwest writes off $1B in assets, loses $1.4B in 2nd quarter, cbc.ca, Apr 9, 2009

Canwest Watch, macleans.ca, Apr 9, 2009

Adbusters given green light to sue TV broadcasters, thetyee.ca, April 7, 2009

CanWest’s math problem, globeandmail.com, April 7, 2009

Family ties, macleans.ca, Mar 21, 2009

Some broadcasters are more equal than others, macleans.ca, Mar 20, 2009

Canwest appears to be lumbering towards bankruptcy restructuring, say observers, Canadian Press, Mar 13, 2009

Broadcasters seek changes for ‘broken’ industry, Globe and Mail, Mar 4, 2009 (Canwest seeks 45%-75% reduction in local programming requirements)

Government should come up with plan for media cuts, shutdowns, Hill Times, Mar 2, 2009

Stopping the press, Globe and Mail, Feb 28, 2009

Aspers losing grip on Canwest empire, Winnipeg Free Press, Feb 23, 2009 – Be sure to check the comments

Canwest’s albatross on the balance sheet, The Globe and Mail, Feb 23, 2009

Canwest Global shares tumble to historical low on the TSX, Canadian Press, Feb 20, 2009

Canwest seeks financial saviour amid credit crisis, The Globe and Mail, Feb 20, 2009

Canwest creaks under debtload, may seek protection, Reuters, Feb 12, 2009

BC Civil Liberties Association opposes Canwest’s attempt to loosen license restrictions, BCCLA, Jan 29, 2009

Canwest internal memo details severe cost cutting measures, Bill Tieleman’s Blog, Jan 23, 2009

Why let Canwest off the hook?, -30- Blog of Canadian Media Guild President, Jan 22, 2009

Canwest has $33M quarterly loss, debt worry, Yahoo Finance, Jan 14, 2009

Canwest Credit Rating Taken Down A Couple Of Notches, Eh?, Editor and Publisher Blog, Jan 8, 2009

Charges send Canwest to $1.02B loss in Q4, cbc.ca

‘All the news we hope to print’: fake NYTimes, National Post (only spoofs of ‘liberal elite’ newspapers are newsworthy)

Canwest cuts 560 jobs, five per cent of workforce, Canadian Press

Canwest drops suit against pro-Palestine activist, thetyee.ca

National Post discontinues print edition in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, CBC As It Happens

Journalist alleges she was told that she’ll never write for CanWest, the Georgia Straight

CanWest Global Communications Corp. now a penny stock, the Georgia Straight

Why Did I Buy CanWest Stock?, thetyee.ca

Canwest stock slips below $1, the Globe and Mail

Canwest recruits scabs to plug Gazette, McGill Daily

The Death of Canwest, Ottawa Watch blog

Media Blackout: CanWest Global Attacks Drug Ad Laws, Youtube video about Canwest’s “freedom of speech” constitutional challenge to Canada’s drug advertising laws

Gazette staff ready to strike if needed, cbc.ca

Hawaiian dancer won’t stop CanWest’s removal from benchmark index, Georgia Straight

Great Expectations: The David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights, http://www.thecourt.ca, September 15th, 2008 (warning: this article is not satire)

All in the family?, Marc Edge letter in the Globe and Mail, August 9, 2008

The sale of the National Post would reverberate in political circles, Globe and Mail, August 7, 2008

The news is not good for daily newspapers, Georgia Straight, August 7, 2008

CanWest’s stock price takes a beating, Georgia Straight, July 8, 2008


The Asper Slam on News Media

Excerpted and published with permission from Asper Nation: Canada’s Most Dangerous Media Company, by Marc Edge, published by New Star Books. You can read more excerpts from this book on the thetyee.ca or read the informative review from BC Bookworld by ex-Province staffer Shane McCune.

By Marc Edge

‘Lazy, dishonest, biased, Marxists’ and more accusations from Izzy and son Leonard.

In a June 2001 speech in Jerusalem, Asper described Canada’s UN record of voting to condemn Israel’s actions against the Palestinians as “shameful.” The speech was given on accepting an honorary doctorate after he contributed $5 million to help establish a business school at the Hebrew University. It was excerpted in the National Post and other CanWest newspapers. In it, Asper blamed most of the Western world for allowing the Holocaust that killed millions of Jews. “Britain welching on its word, duplicitously shut down Jewish immigration, and countries like Canada refused to accept fleeing European Jews as immigrants, all combining to trap Europe’s Jewish community and leave it intact for Hitler’s inferno.”

In September of 2002, the Asper Foundation co-hosted a four-city speaking tour in Canada by former hard-line Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. After 200 window-smashing protesters disrupted Netanyahu’s speech at Montreal’s Concordia University, forcing its cancellation, Asper accused them of Nazi tactics. “The minority of a rabble, a rioting group of essentially thugs [and] lawbreakers employed the techniques introduced 70 years ago by Adolf Hitler and his Brown Shirts,” he said after five arrests were made. The incident was made into a CanWest Global film the following spring, Confrontation at Concordia, by Middle East correspondent Martin Himel. It compared the window smashing at Concordia to the 1938 Kristallnacht that saw Jewish shop windows smashed across Germany and presaged the Holocaust. Numerous groups, including those representing Muslims and Palestinians, complained to the CRTC and the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council that the film defamed them. Globe and Mail television critic John Doyle described it as “absurdly pointed” and an “outrageously aggressive” point-of-view documentary. The film did not mention the Asper Foundation’s role in sponsoring Netanyahu’s tour.

‘Lazy, biased journalism’

A month after the Concordia incident, Asper made his strongest criticism yet of the news media and those who did not support Israel. In a Montreal speech, he attacked journalists in Canada and around the world for their coverage of the Middle East conflict. The speech was excerpted in the National Post and other Southam newspapers. “Both Israel and the honour of the news media are under grievous assault,” he told a dinner hosted by the fundraising group Israel Bonds. “Dishonest reporting is destroying the trust in and credibility of the media and the journalists, and the same dishonest reporting is biased against Israel, thus destroying the world’s favourable disposition toward it.”

The first and worst lie is what this war is all about. Dishonest reporting tells you that it’s about territory, and Jerusalem, and Palestinian statehood, and alleged refugees. Honest reporting would tell you that it is a war to destroy Israel and kill or expel or subjugate all the Jews. That is proved by the words and deeds of all the key Arab Palestinian leaders. But the media has bought and reported dishonestly and relentlessly the big lie. That big lie is that this war could be ended by Israeli land concessions.

Asper named many international media outlets, including CNN, the BBC and the New York Times, in providing examples of alleged bias. He promised he would not mention Canadian media outlets by name because they were competitors to CanWest, with one exception. “That exception is the CBC,” he said, “because all Canadians own it and the governments we elect are responsible to us and it for its quality, and integrity.” He singled out the CBC’s Middle East correspondent, Neil Macdonald, for incorrectly portraying Palestinian suicide bombers. “The CBC, along with . . . other left-wing media, will still not label the Palestinian murderers as terrorists. By any world recognized definition of terrorism, they are terrorists, but the CBC, particularly in the person of Neil Macdonald, simply refers to them as ‘militants.'” Reasons for the biased media coverage, according to Asper, ranged from negligence to malice. “Firstly, too many of the journalists are lazy, or sloppy, or stupid. They are ignorant of the history of the subject on which they are writing. Others are, plain and simple, biased, or anti-Semitic, or are taken captive by a simplistic ideology.” Asper announced he had a remedy for the problem, however. “The solution starts on the campus, and in the journalism schools, then it goes to the boardrooms of the media owners, and finally, and most importantly, with the public.”

He urged his audience to take action to influence not only media coverage, but also the education of journalists. “You, the public, must take action against the media wrongdoers,” he said, suggesting the cancellation of subscriptions and the withholding of advertising from media guilty of “dishonest” reporting. He urged the formation of “honest reporting response groups” to call offending media to account. He advocated political activism to influence government policy in favor of Israel, which he called “the only beacon of democracy in a swamp of hate, violence and terrorism.” One way of helping to change media coverage of the Middle East, he told his audience, was for them to join the boards of universities. Once in a position of influence, he added, they should “demand that the administrators of higher education retake control of the teaching process.”

We must demand that the journalism schools do a better job of teaching integrity more forcibly. Then, we must demand that our media owners invest more money in educating their journalists, and media operators. . . . And we should withhold our financial support from those institutions that fail this obligation of educational integrity.

Asper even issued a warning to the journalists he employed. “If any CanWest media outlets happen to fall within this indictment, then they, too, should take notice that I will always do all in my power to stamp out dishonest reporting, and biased reporting on any subject.” Honest reporting, he said, included fulfilling certain responsibilities. “The responsibility to report everything that the public needs to know about a given matter and not just selectively, so that the public may be fully informed; to report everything honestly and not slant the news, biased toward their own point of view. That is, news is news, and should appear as such, and opinion is opinion, and must be clearly designated as such.” Dishonest reporting, on the other hand, came in several forms, according to Asper, including the use of misleading terminology. “The term ‘terror’ has been well defined by major recognized laws,” he said. “But many biased media describe the Palestinian perpetrators of clear acts of terror against Israel, merely as ‘militants,’ ‘resistance fighters,’ ‘gunmen,’ ‘extremists.'” A blatant example of this type of dishonest reporting, he added, was a report on National Public Radio in the U.S. According to Asper, it described “a group of Arab murderers who crept into an Israeli home, at night, and murdered a mother and her children, as ‘commandos!'” Similar terms, such as “cycle of violence,” “moderate Arab states,” “peace process,” “occupied territories,” and “illegal settlements,” he said, had become tools. They were used by “journalistic propagandists in their desire to create undeserved sympathy for the Palestinians and opprobrium for Israel.”

His father’s son

Although he was Izzy Asper’s youngest child, Leonard showed at an early age the affinity for business that would make him the logical successor to his father as CanWest CEO. According to his sister Gail, Leonard was reading the Wall Street Journal and carrying around the Canadian securities handbook in pre-adolescence. His brazen nature was demonstrated by the story she told about how, when Leonard was three, he picked flowers from a neighbor’s front yard and tried to sell them back to the owner. The inclination toward larceny, reported Ric Dolphin of the Calgary Herald, ran in the family. “She and David used to do the same thing with crabapples.” One of Leonard’s earliest lessons in business, he told another Herald reporter, came after he hurried home with $6 in revenue from a lemonade stand he set up at age four. “Dad said, ‘What did the gas cost for your Mom to go to the store to buy lemonade? What did the lemonade cost? What did you pay for the Dixie cups? How much was the wagon and how about that little tray you used for a cash register?'” The realities of entrepreneurship thus sank in at an early age. “By the time he’d finished,” Leonard recalled, “I’d lost $600 and was a puddle of tears.”

Named CanWest CEO in 1999 at age 35, Leonard’s youthful looks and pleasant disposition often led business associates to find him out of place in the cutthroat corporate world. “Leonard lacks the imposing presence, the growl and glare, of his . . . father; in its place is an apparent willingness to please,” noted Report on Business magazine in 2000. “A dimpled grin and a boyish enthusiasm gives the young CEO a somewhat merry air that, were he anyone else, might make it difficult for him to gain serious attention in a boardroom.” Those who made the mistake of under-estimating him, however, were missing some important traits Leonard inherited from his father, noted Maclean’s. “People talk so much about Izzy Asper’s smarts that they miss or ignore similar qualities in Leonard, whose polite, soft-spoken manner and enormous devotion to his family belie his toughness.”

Of all the Asper offspring, Leonard took after his father most of all in the public arena, proving to be almost as prodigious and pugnacious. “He has his father’s quick tongue and love of a good fight,” noted Gordon Pitts in Kings of Convergence. According to business writer David Olive, Leonard also had “his litigious father’s intolerance for dissenters, both in and outside the camp.” His verbal fractiousness was evidenced by the insults he often dispensed toward critics of CanWest. He seemed to love the public pulpit as much as his father did, and he used it often to dispense his opinions. In appearing before the Lincoln Committee hearings on broadcasting policy in 2002, for example, he ridiculed critics of media concentration. “Canadian media are more fragmented and less concentrated than ever before,” he testified. “I submit that people who believe otherwise are not looking at the facts and they also probably believe Elvis is still alive.” In 2003, while announcing changes at the National Post, he derided the Post’s competition as an “axis of snivel.”

In his father’s mold

Like his father, Leonard Asper reserved his strongest attacks for the CBC. He echoed his father’s argument that the CBC should not be competing with private networks by airing popular programming such as news and sports. “Because private broadcasters can now afford to, and are showing a willingness to, invest in news and information programming, the CBC should produce only that kind of programming that is not commercial,” he said in 2003. “That’s why we say they shouldn’t carry Hockey Night in Canada using your money, my money, taxpayers’ money to outbid private broadcasters for something that private broadcasters would do just as well.” Hockey Night in Canada was one of the few programmes that actually earned a profit for the CBC. Asper argued, however, that the public broadcaster should instead spend taxpayer dollars on unpopular programming. “Where it’s uneconomic to invest is [in] what they call indigenous drama: kinds of things that don’t unfortunately get the ratings but are deemed to contribute to Canadian culture or help Canadian artists,” he said. “That’s what the CBC should do though, is try new programs, try the drama, the variety programming and the arts programming that doesn’t make it on an unsubsidized broadcaster.”

Leonard Asper also saved his harshest criticism of the CBC for its coverage of the Middle East, in particular correspondent Neil Macdonald. In a speech in September of 2003, Asper reprised his father’s attack on the world media, accusing them of bias against Israel. He went one step farther, however, and attributed the bias to racism. “Racism is very difficult to prove, particularly when the accused do not openly state the reason for their attacks or their bias,” he told an audience at the Gray Academy of Jewish Education in Winnipeg. “No reporter screams: ‘I hate Jews.'” The racism of news media was instead an “institutionalized” bias against Israel, according to Asper. “Knowingly or not, the media who cover Israel do not recognize it as either a homeland or a fortress for the protection of Jews both within Israel and for Jews living everywhere.” He saw the reporting as resistance to making Israel a Jewish homeland. “Therefore to them Zionism is racism,” noted Asper, “and some reporters condemn all Jews for the existence of what they deem to be a racist state.” Terrorism in support of displaced Palestinians, he pointed out, had resulted in wild conspiracy theories.

The reversion to the “blame the Jews” solution for terrorism everywhere is prevalent among the intelligentsia, including journalists. The Jews and therefore Israel are to blame for 9/11; they are to blame for the attacks on the United States and UN installations; they are to blame for the war in Iraq, and even economic decline.

Attacking the media

Asper’s speech, which was excerpted in the National Post and other CanWest newspapers, echoed his father’s attack on lazy, stupid, ignorant journalists for dishonest reporting. Part of the problem, he said, was that unlike its early underdog years, Israel had come to be seen as the aggressor in the conflict. “Many news journalists are either doctrinaire socialists or hold political views left of center,” he said. “They are generally supportive of anyone who they deem to be oppressed, victimized or otherwise aggrieved by a stronger party.” The problem was made worse, he added, by the fact that Israel was “unprepared for propaganda wars.” It was thus losing the battle for hearts and minds in the television age. “Journalists, some of whom are even Jewish, complain openly that they generally receive only an official government statement from Israel, often post-deadline, while from the Arabs they are granted interviews with whomever they want — Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Aqsa or Islamic Jihad.”
“They get instant access to wild funerals, replete with bug-eyed youths chanting “death to Israel and America” and they are given packaged home videos from Arabs. These home video shots are either fabricated or edited to paint Israelis in the worst possible light. Professional ethics have fallen by the wayside in the interests of good raw video and deadlines.”

Some reporters covering the Middle East, he added, were “fooled by the openness of Israeli society” and the debate in that country over treatment of the Palestinians. Disagreement between politicians from the Labour and Likud parties, he said, as well as by journalists from Israeli newspapers, led many journalists to an incorrect conclusion. “The raging debate,” he said, “confirms in many journalists’ minds that Israel does bear at least some blame for the deaths that occur on both sides of the conflict.” The biggest problem, he added, was that many journalists covering the Middle East simply lacked the background to do so competently. “Many reporters sent to the Middle East are unqualified for complex war coverage,” he said. “They know nothing about the history but worse, they do not bother to make their own inquiries.” Most journalists, he said, did not know that “the terrorist and weapons-infested Jenin refugee camp is run by the United Nations and has been for more than 50 years.” Sympathy for Palestinian refugees seemed to Asper undeserved and mostly due to the ignorance of journalists. “Most do not have any clue that the so-called Arab refugees became refugees because they were urged to leave by Arab leaders when they were attacking Israel in 1948.” Asper singled out only one media outlet and one journalist by name in charging “hints of anti-Semitism” in the Canadian media.
“When Hezbollah, the well-known terrorist group, was finally banned in Canada, Neil Macdonald of the CBC pompously, but dangerously, suggested Hezbollah was a ‘national liberation movement victimized by unfair smears cast around by supporters of the Jewish state.’ No reference to Israel, just ‘the Jewish state.'”

Pointing out that while some journalists were “neither Marxists nor anti-Semites,” Asper lamented that “they have little help.” Fortunately, he told his audience, CanWest had been working toward a solution. “There is some hope, as we have found in observing the results of various programs to educate journalists,” Asper continued. “With fair-minded journalists, who actually do care more about the truth than their own ideologies, there has been a positive response once the hard facts are known. But for some, their work must be done for them.” In addition to training programs, proper media hiring practices were important to ensure the correct coverage of news, he added. “Media proprietors and managers must ensure that the people they hire do not bring their ideology into their newsrooms, and that journalists do proper research before filing stories.” He echoed his father’s call to action by urging his audience to hold the media’s feet to the fire and point out anti-Israel bias where they detected it. “The media must be held accountable, just as they purport to hold others accountable. Respond to bias when you see it. Demand informed, objective and accurate reporting.”

Some in the media were outraged that Asper had spoken out on such contentious issues. Christopher Dornan, then director of Carleton University’s journalism school, thought it was entirely appropriate for Asper to give his opinion on an issue of concern to journalists, however. After all, he was the CEO of Canada’s largest private-sector news media company. “No, the problem is not that he spoke out,” wrote Dornan in the Globe and Mail. “It is what he said.” The CanWest leader’s criticism of Canadian journalists, according to Dornan, was not only ill-advised and ill-founded, but worse. “Here’s what’s wrong with Mr. Asper’s position: It’s dumb as all get out.” While Asper had prefaced his remarks by stressing they were his personal views and not CanWest editorial policy, Dornan found his disclaimer “either disingenuous or naive.” The resulting influence on CanWest journalists was unavoidable, he noted. “When the person in charge of a national media corporation offers his deep-down opinion on what he hopes for in news coverage, the people who work for him cannot help but take notice.” The extreme nature of Asper’s comments betrayed his own ideology, noted Dornan.
“Journalists are all too often constitutionally Jew-hating Marxists who are intellectually dishonest and therefore morally bankrupt? Pardon? Mr. Asper takes a complicated matter that merits serious attention and reduces it to baiting and name-calling. He should know better, but apparently, he doesn’t. This guy hasn’t the foggiest idea how journalism works, but for the moment, much of Canadian journalism works for him.”

Izzy Asper died of a heart attack a week later, leaving Leonard as “Canada’s most important media magnate,” according to the Globe and Mail. Gordon Pitts had already deemed him the country’s most important media executive because “unlike his rivals at BCE and Bell Globemedia, Leonard actually owns the shop.” The CanWest founder’s funeral in Winnipeg drew a crowd of 1,600 mourners, including Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, and Stephen Harper. Leonard Asper, his voice breaking with emotion, eulogized his father. “Thank you for what you gave to the world and to your family,” he said. “We have your checklist. We know what’s left to be done. We will not let you down.”

Review by Shane McCune

Published in BC Bookworld, Spring 2008

Legendary U.S. reporter and newspaper critic A.J. Liebling once called the press “the weak slat under the bed of democracy.” In 21st-century Canada, it’s more like the quicksand under the house.

If you disagree with that view, just try finding any mention of Marc Edge’s Asper Nation: Canada’s Most Dangerous Media Company (New Star $21) in any of the news outlets controlled by CanWest Global Communications.

Like Conrad Black before them, CanWest chiefs Leonard and David Asper are fond of saying they can’t control what Canadians think. But they do like to control what we think about — or what we don’t think about.

“It’s not just what you see in the paper,” as former Montreal Gazette publisher Michael Goldbloom has put it, “but what you don’t see.” By some estimates CanWest Global dispenses up to 70 per cent of the news consumed on the West Coast on any given day.

The Winnipeg-based Aspers own both of metro Vancouver’s dailies, most of its “community” papers and the province’s top-rated TV channel, along with dailies in Victoria and Nanaimo, several more small papers on Vancouver Island and Victoria’s “CH” television.

From Victoria to Montreal it owns 11 major dailies (including five of the top 10 in circulation) and boasts that its TV broadcasts reach 94 per cent of the nation.

Lack of coverage for Asper Nation within the Asper Nation is to be expected—and it likely does not emanate from a diktat from head office. As Edge makes clear, the worst part of the censorship within CanWest is that most of it is now self-inflicted.

“I began to censor myself,” said Stephen Kimber, a fellow journalism professor and long-time columnist for the Halifax Daily News. He told the Washington Post. “I would remember, ‘No, I’m not supposed to write about that.’”

Kimber quit after writing a column he knew would be spiked. It criticized the Asper’s brief, clumsy 2001 experiment with “national” editorials written in Winnipeg and reprinted in all chain papers except the Province (presumably because identical editorials in both Vancouver dailies would make the cookie-cutter nature of the enterprise too blatant). Once the Aspers’ head office had taken a stand, no paper was allowed to run an editorial opposing it.

This seemed to contradict CanWest’s position as set out in its brief to the government’s Heritage Committee on Dec. 10, 2001: “Each (of our newspapers) is relentlessly local in its coverage and fiercely independent in its editorial policy.”

A month later CanWest founder Israel “Izzy” Asper was singing a different tune:
“As publisher-in-chief, we are responsible for every single word which appears in the papers we own, and therefore on national and international key issues, we should have one, not 14 official editorial positions.”

At the time of the furor CanWest was still using the Southam family name for the chain; its stylized torch logo appeared on each editorial. Edge notes: “The Southam “brand,” which had been bought by CanWest from Conrad Black, stood for quality journalism. Just as importantly, it stood for local independence for publishers. Southam head office had historically taken pains to allow its newspapers to reflect the temper of their communities, even if that meant disagreeing with ownership.”

As one who worked for the chain under three owners, I’d say that’s an overly rosy depiction of that stodgy operation. [Full disclosure clause: I have known Edge for 30 years; we both worked for Southam papers in Calgary and Vancouver.] Then again, each owner that followed made the one before look better.

In retrospect the Southams’ paternalism seemed generous compared with Black’s condescension. Now the hacks gather at bars and say, “At least Black spent money on newsrooms instead of starving them like this bunch.” (In fact, Black did spend on the National Post, but other newsrooms were squeezed to help pay for it.)

The HQ editorials provoked outrage, especially at the Montreal Gazette, where reporters retaliated by withholding their bylines. That may sound like a harmless gesture, but it infuriated the Aspers, who retaliated by threatening suspensions. The staff escalated the battle through leaks to other media and a website called, provocatively enough, the “Gazette Intifada.”

Digging in his heels, David Asper famously borrowed a lyric from R.E.M. in a December 2001 speech: “I can say to our critics, and especially to the bleeding hearts of the journalist community, that it’s the end of the world as they know it, and I feel fine.”

In Asper Nation, Edge recounts a less-publicized part of that speech that spoke eloquently of the younger Aspers’ mindset: “If those people in Montreal are so committed, why don’t they just quit and have the courage of their convictions? Maybe they should go out and, for the first time in their lives, take a risk, put their money where their mouth is, and start their own newspaper.”

A sneering rich kid who inherited his newspapers challenging wage-earners to start their own . . . well, that’s one way to inspire your employees, I guess. But he could hardly challenge them to quit CanWest and work elsewhere, because there’s not much elsewhere left.

According to Marc Edge, that was the whole point of the Aspers’ buying spree: Eliminating competition. Controlling editorial pages is all well and good, but it’s the ad revenues that count. Leonard Asper, Edge writes, was passionate about “convergence” — using the newspapers and TV network to promote each other and the web to promote both.

Convergence was a buzzword in media circles for a few years, but it has yet to live up to the hype. Maybe that’s because the Aspers, who made their millions in broadcasting, didn’t know much about the newspaper business they spent $3.2 billion to acquire. Here’s Leonard in a 2001 speech: “In the future, journalists will wake up, write a story for the web, write a column, take their cameras, cover an event and do a report for TV and file a video clip for the web.”
Really? And what will they do after lunch?

Edge makes it clear the brothers inherited their belligerence from their father, a tax lawyer, politician, entrepreneur and jazz dabbler who died in 2003. As Edge tells it, Asper père sued pretty much every partner he ever had and was still pursuing a libel action against a critic at the time of his death.
Though once leader of the Manitoba Liberal party, he was a fiscal conservative whose views on most things — except his buddy Jean Chrétien — dovetailed neatly with those of Conrad Black.

A couple of early chapters in Asper Nation are devoted to Black. Much of this is necessary to set the Asper empire in context, but Edge dwells on him perhaps a little too much. Do we really need to know about his lordship’s connection with the shadowy Bilderberg Group?

Some of the most dispiriting passages in the book are those showing how funding from CanWest and other big media has compromised journalism schools.

In 2000, when CanWest bought Southam, Donna Logan, the founding director of UBC’s Sing Tao School of Journalism, said of convergence: “The danger would be that you have one very powerful editor who is making all of the decisions and you have fewer people making the decisions, fewer people making the choices of the stories that get covered.”

By the next year, the Sing Tao newspaper had withdrawn its funding of the school and Logan had a much cheerier attitude about convergence. Testifying at CRTC hearings into CanWest’s licence renewal she said: “Converged journalism offers an opportunity to … [free] up reporters to do stories that are not being done and are vital to democratic discourse.”

Two months later CanWest donated $500,000 to the school. (And here Edge can’t resist a cheap shot at Logan’s successor, who criticized his last book, Pacific Press.)

More depressing still is the litany of feckless government efforts to rein in media concentration, from the Davey Commission of 1970 to the CRTC’s September 2007 hearings on convergence.

How effective were the latter? In December the regulator approved CanWest’s takeover — with U.S. money — of Alliance Atlantis Communications, which holds Canadian rights to 13 cable channels including BBC Canada, History Television and Showcase.

Yet Edge concludes that the best hope for undoing the “Asper disaster” would be CRTC regulations limiting media owners to a 50-per-cent audience/readership share in any market.

I’m not so sanguine about the regulator’s grasp of the problem. In 2001 it allowed CanWest and BCE Enterprises (owner of CTV and the Globe and Mail) to merge their print and broadcast news operations, using one reporter to cover stories for both . . . provided each medium kept a separate editor. Which is a little like saying a town can get by with only one wholesale bakery so long as there are two retail bread shops. No matter how each of them slices it, it’s still the same bread.

CanWest quietly abandoned the centralized editorials in 2003, but they have been accelerating centralized news handling. More news articles and entertainment reviews are boilerplate generated in one newsroom and printed chain-wide. Entire pages of western papers are being laid out at the Hamilton Spectator.
Meanwhile layoffs and buyouts proceed apace; some newspapers have half the editorial staff they had 15 or 20 years ago. Not surprisingly, readership is headed that way, too. As Edge readily concedes, events keep overtaking his research, and not for the better.

Still, Asper Nation is the best guide available to the machinations and missteps that brought Canadian media to its banana-republic condition. It contains little in the way of original research — no new studies and few if any fresh interviews — but is a thorough and concise compendium of relevant information and quotation, as the voluminous notes attest. (Note to New Star: that welter of information deserves a better index.)

Edge’s prose has a tabloid momentum to it. He’s at his best cutting to the chase but a little wobbly when he wanders into metaphor (“ . . . the proverbial straw that would catapult the CanWest controversy onto the national stage.”)

Like many of us baby-boomers who have left the newspaper business in disgust, Edge has little to say about online news beyond noting that CanWest wants to monopolize that, too.

It’s true that so far there’s little to recommend the “citizen journalists” touted by net geeks as the replacement for dead-tree technology and hierarchical news organizations. If you find an actual news story among the ill-informed bloviating online, chances are it originally came from one of those dinosaurs of “old media.” Newsgathering takes skill and money, and so far no one has found a way to make news websites pay.

But there are worthwhile online news sources such as the Tyee (thetyee.ca) and e-book technology is improving all the time. If you can download a digital book for a fee every month, why not a digital newspaper for a fee every day? With no need for expensive presses, independent news groups might rise again.

CanWest Background (from their website)

Canwest Global Communications Corp. is Canada’s leading international media company.

Canadian Operations:

Canwest is one the largest single employers of journalists in Canada with approximately 7,000 staff and freelance contributors to our newspapers, television operations and online destinations. CanWest journalists reach more Canadians on a daily basis than any other media organization.

Canwest Publishing Inc. is one of Canada’s largest newspaper publishers reaching 4.8 million engaged readers on a weekly basis. Publications includes:

• The National Post
• 10 major market dailies
• The Gazette (Montreal)
• Ottawa Citizen
• The Windsor Star
• Leader-Post (Regina)
• The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon)
• Edmonton Journal
• Calgary Herald
• The Province (Vancouver)
• The Vancouver Sun
• Times Colonist (Victoria)

In addition to the daily newspapers, the company also publishes over 25 community papers, three commuter papers, and local search directories and operates three flyer distribution companies.

Complimenting the print publications are several online properties under the canada.com network, which averages over 4.5 million unique visitors per month. The canada.com network also features the entertainment site Dose.ca and in-depth vertical sites such as the popular driving.ca and working.com.

FP DataGroup provides businesses with electronic access to a comprehensive source of corporate and industry data and information going back over 20 years.

Canwest’s two English conventional networks, Global and E!, reach almost 100% of consumers across Canada.

The Gemini Award winning Global National with Kevin Newman is Canada’s most-watched weekday national news.

The addition of Alliance Atlantis’ specialty channels brings the total number of specialty channels Canwest owns, in whole or in part, to 26. The combined specialty channels represent a 30.1% share of commercial specialty channel viewership. In the 25 to 54 age demographic, the Company owns 4 of the top 10 analog specialty channels and 9 of the top 10 digital specialty channels.

Australian Operations:

Indirectly, through a wholly owned subsidiary, Canwest is the majority and controlling shareholder of Ten Network Holdings Ltd., parent company the Ten Television Network and Eye.

Ten Television Network is a free-to-air television network with stations in five mainland capital cities aimed at viewers aged 18-49.

Eye is Australia’s leading Out-of-Home media supplier with contracts and inventory in Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and North America.

Turkey:

In September, 2005, Canwest and its Turkish partner, Turkcom Iletisim Hizmetleri A.S. (Turkcom) began the acquisition of several media properties during an auction conducted by The Turkish Savings and Deposit Insurance Fund. In February, 2006, Canwest and its Turkish partners completed the acquisition bringing a total of four FM radio operations; Super FM, Metro FM, Joy FM and Joy Turk FM, into the Canwest asset group.

The United Kingdom:

In September 2005, Canwest Global Communications Corp. became the first foreign media company to be awarded a broadcast license in the UK. Today the company owns and operates three radio stations in Great Britain under the Original 106fm brand in Aberdeen, Bristol and Solent.

The United States:

In February 2006 Canwest Global Communications Corp. acquired 100% interest in the U.S. political magazine The New Republic. The magazine was started in 1914 and has had many literary luminaries such as George Orwell, Virginia Wolfe, Philip Roth and Camille Paglia, as contributors.

–also has holdings in Indonesia and Singapore

Operating income for fiscal 2007 was $487 million with consolidated revenues of just over $2.86 billion.

Board of Directors

DEREK H. BURNEY, O.C.
Chairman
Senior Strategic Advisor, Ogilvy Renault LLP
Ottawa, Ontario

Mr. Burney joined Ogilvy Renault L P as Senior Strategic Advisor on May 1, 2006. As Senior Strategic Advisor to the firm, Mr. Burney assists clients in dealing with cross-border and domestic issues as well as trade and investment policy matters. Since August 30, 2006, Mr. Burney has served as Chair of the Board of Directors of the Company. Mr. Burney also serves as a Director of TransCanada Pipelines Limited. Mr. Burney has previously served as Chairman of the Board of NB Power Holding Corporation, Chairman of Confederation College Foundation and Lead Director of Shell Canada Limited. M r. Burney is a Senior Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Trade Policy and Law and Adjunct Professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Relations at Carleton University. From October 1999 until August 2004, he was Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of CAE Inc. Prior to joining CAE, Mr. Burney was Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Bell Canada International Inc. (1993 through 1999). From 1989 until 1993, Mr. Burney served as Canada’s Ambassador to the United States. Mr. Burney is an Officer of the Order of Canada.

LEONARD J. ASPER
President and Chief Executive Officer
Toronto, Ontario

Mr. Asper, a lawyer, joined Canwest in 1991 as Associate General Counsel for the Company’s Global Television station in Ontario. Thereafter, he held various positions in corporate development and was Chief Operating Officer. Mr. Asper took over as President and Chief Executive Officer of the Company in 1999. He is a Director and Deputy Chair of Ten Network Holdings Limited (Australia) and serves as a director of numerous companies within the Canwest group of companies. He is also a Director of the University of Winnipeg Foundation, Business Council of Manitoba, and Canadian Council of Chief Executives, and founder of The Joshua Foundation, a private charitable trust.

DAVID A. ASPER
Executive Vice-President
Chairman, National Post
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Mr. Asper, a lawyer, joined the Company in 1992 and is currently an Executive Vice-President of Canwest and Chairman of the National Post Company. He is a member of Canwest’s Executive Management Committee and oversees the corporate office functions as well as the Canwest corporate affairs group. He is a member of the Board of Governors of St. John’s Ravenscourt School, an Honourary Director of The Canadian Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Institute and a Director of The Asper Charitable Trust. Mr. Asper is also Chairman and founder of the Daremax Foundation through which Mr. Asper supports numerous charitable causes.

GAIL S. ASPER, O.M.
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Ms. Asper, a lawyer, has been with the Company since 1989; serving as General Counsel until 1998 and as Corporate Secretary since 1990. While her primary responsibilities relate directly to the Company’s Board, she is also President of The Canwest Global Foundation. Ms. Asper is President of The Asper Foundation and The Gail Asper Family Foundation Inc., which are private charitable foundations, and serves as a director on the Boards of a number of major public companies, including Great-West Life Assurance Company, Great-West Life Co. Inc., London Life Insurance Group Inc. and Canada Life Assurance Company. She has served and serves in leadership positions on numerous not-for-profit Boards and is currently Vice-Chair of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights Advisory Committee and Chair of the Museum’s capital campaign. Ms. Asper is a Member of the Order of Manitoba.

RONALD J. DANIELS
Provost and Professor of Law, University of Pennsylvania Ardmore, Pennsylvania

Mr. Daniels is the Provost and a Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to his appointment to this position in 2005, he was Dean of the Faculty of Law, University of Toronto; a position he held since 1995. He is Chair of the Board’s Human Resources Committee. Mr. Daniels is active in public policy reformation and has contributed to several public task forces. He was chair of the Ontario Task Force on Securities Regulation and was a member of the Toronto Stock Exchange Commission on Corporate Governance.

DAVID J. DRYBROUGH, FCA
Business Consultant and Corporate Director East St. Paul, Manitoba

Mr. Drybrough is a Chartered Accountant. Following his retirement in 1997 from the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers LP (then known as Coopers & Lybrand), Mr. Drybrough served as Vice President; Finance of Winnipeg based Gendis Inc. until January 2004. He is Chair of the Board’s Audit Committee and from March 2005 until August 30, 2006, he served as Chair of the Board of Directors of the Company. Mr. Drybrough serves as a Director and Chair of the Audit Committee of Fort Chicago Energy Partners LP and as a Trustee and Chair of the Audit Committee of Temple Real Estate Investment Trust.

PAUL V. GODFREY, C.M.
President and Chief Executive Officer of The Toronto Blue Jays Baseball Club
Toronto, Ontario

Mr. Godfrey is President and Chief Executive Officer of The Toronto Blue Jays Baseball Club, a position he has held since September 1, 2000. From November 1992 until June 2000, Mr. Godfrey was President and Chief Executive Officer of The Toronto Sun. He serves as a Director of a number of major Canadian companies such as Astral Media Inc., The Hospital for Sick Children Foundation and the Grand Prix of Toronto Board of Trustees and is actively involved in many charitable organizations. Mr. Godfrey has received many honours including the City of Toronto’s highest award, the Civic Award of Merit, and is a Member of the Order of Canada.

DAVID W. KERR, CA
Managing Partner of Edper Financial Group
Toronto, Ontario

Mr. Kerr, a Chartered Accountant, retired from Falconbridge Ltd. (formerly Noranda Inc.) in August 2006 prior to which he served as Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer. Mr. Kerr is a Director of Brookfield Asset Management Inc., Sun Life Financial Inc., Research in Motion Limited, the Sustainable Development Technology Canada Foundation, the Toronto Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation and the Special Olympics Canada Foundation. He is a member of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, former Vice-Chair of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and former Chair of the International Council on Mining and Metals.

FRANK W. KING, O.C., P.ENG.
President of Metropolitan Investment Corporation
Calgary, Alberta

Mr. King is a Professional Engineer. Following his career in the petrochemical and petroleum industry, M r. King became the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the XV Olympic Winter Games which were held in Calgary in 1988. Mr. King has been in the investment management business since 1981 and is currently President and Chief Executive Officer of Metropolitan Investment Corporation. He was Co-Chair of Canada 125 which was a national celebration of Canada’s 125th birthday. Mr. King is currently Chairman of Networc Health Inc., a Director of Westaim Corporation and a Trustee of RioCan Real Estate Investment Trust. Mr. King is active in numerous civic and philanthropic endeavors in the community and is the recipient of numerous honours including the Olympic Order in Gold. Mr. King is an Officer of the Order of Canada. Mr. King served as Interim Chair of the Board’s Governance and Nominating Committee from August 2006 to July 2007.

DAVID A. LESLIE, FCA
Corporate Director
Toronto, Ontario

Mr. Leslie, a Chartered Accountant, is a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario. He has had a lengthy and distinguished career with Ernst & Young LP, having held a number of senior positions including Chairman and Chief Executive Officer; the position from which he retired in June 2004. He is a former member of the Americas Executive Board of Ernst & Young and of the Global Executive Board. Mr. Leslie has also been a Senior Tax Advisor to the federal Department of Finance, Tax Policy and Legislation Branch. He has been active in many community organizations and has held leadership positions in a number of organizations including the Mississauga Board of Trade, United Way of Peel Region, the Mississauga Hospital Foundation and the Dean’s Advisory Council, Faculty of Arts and Science, University of Toronto. In addition, Mr. Leslie serves as Chair of Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. Mr. Leslie has been honored as Mississauga Businessman of the Year and is a recipient of the University of Toronto Arbor Award. He is a Director of Sobey’s Inc., Enbridge Inc., Enbridge Gas Distribution Inc., Empire Company Limited and IMRIS Inc. and a Trustee of the Crombie Real Estate Investment Trust.

LISA M. PANKRATZ, FCA, CFA
President, Mackenzie Cundill Investment Management Ltd.
Vancouver, British Columbia

Ms. Pankratz, a Chartered Accountant and Chartered Financial Analyst charter-holder, is President of Mackenzie Cundill Investment Management Ltd. Prior to her appointment to this position in September 2006, she was President, Chief Compliance Officer and a Director of Cundill Investment Research Ltd. and Chief Compliance Officer of The Cundill Group from August 2002 to September 2006. Prior to this, she was a corporate consultant and advisor from August 2000 until July 2002. Ms. Pankratz is an advisor to the investment committees of Pacific Blue Cross and BC Life and Casualty Company and formerly has served as a Director of The Insurance Corporation of British Columbia and as a member of the Accounting Policy and Advisory Committee advising the Ministry of Finance for the Province of British Columbia.

2 responses to “MediaBully

  1. Hippiewitchdoctor

    Adbusters V. Canwest – Kevin Newman speaks out!

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