27 Feb 2013

'Freedom to Read Week' right time
to assess corporate media censorship

I’ve been deeply involved in journalism for 40 years, and I’ve never experienced a time like this when mass media corporations are feeding us such distorted, one-sided news and opinion.

Corporate media is helping to facilitate a total change in the ideological fabric of the county into a nation of mean-spirited people who are starting to believe that extreme right-wing policies are the only solutions to our problems. Left behind are compassion, a sense of what’s in the public interest, and social justice.

The just-released Focus Canada survey by the Environics Institute documents in grim detail how the Harper agenda – which is supported by corporate media – is way out of line with the country the majority of Canadians want.

In addition to censorship and news manipulation, mainstream media lacks the social conscience required to challenge the lies and distortions of the Harper regime that are damaging so many people.

Canada desperately needs to see a radical change in who controls our daily news and information.

The occasion of Freedom to Read Week February 24th to March 2nd is a good time to assess the damage caused by mainstream media and call on community groups to take action to make Canadians more aware of the seriousness of the problem and help develop some alternative solutions.

How Big Media Censors Our News - 
Two powerful ideologies – ultra-conservatism on the political front and free-enterprise corporate ideology – have reached into the newsrooms and destroyed any semblance of balance.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, when I published a progressive weekly in Halifax, The 4th Estate, and was involved in launching the Canadian Association of Journalists, we complained about the quality of mainstream journalism. As bad as were the Irving (my second employer) and the Thomson chains (my first employer), the overall content then was much better balanced and more “human” compared to the way the giant corporations censor our news today.

While there appears to be no recent reports on the integrity of mainstream media, there is a report from 2007 where a cross section of journalists was surveyed. Some 60 per cent of the more than 600 media workers taking part said that the values and politics of their corporate owners had an effect on the newsroom’s editorial agenda. The percentage likely is a lot higher in 2013.

Mainstream news outlets – such as CTV, Global, The Globe and Mail, Sun Media, etc. – are extremely influential because they still are the source of news and opinion for the majority of Canadians. History has shown over again that when people are lied to or mislead often enough, they tend to believe and repeat what they hear.

Today’s privately-owned mass media outlets tend to follow unwritten but well-understood guidelines concerning what they should – and should not – cover. All senior editors know the routine so well that stories that fall outside the guidelines do not appear on a regular basis.

In this environment, only “trusted” journalists and editors get to move up the ladder to the top few rungs.

“The people that get promoted to positions of responsibility in a newsroom," stated author and columnist Linda McQuaig some time ago, "tend to be people who share the views of those who ultimately own the paper, or are willing to go along with those points of view." She has first-hand knowledge of how the newspaper power structure works from her years as a business reporter for The Globe and Mail. "If you don't [share such views], you don't tend to get promoted into those positions."

The other serious problem is self-censorship. Many journalists have been conditioned to suggest only stories that fit the accepted norm. To do otherwise might raise eyebrows among senior editors. They also avoid writing anything that might give anyone the idea that they have left-wing leanings. In terms of fairness, The Toronto Star, to some extent, is an exception among the country’s 95 paid-for dailies.

I have watched as Big Media has purged reporters, columnists and commentators who held progressive or even liberal-minded views. Now media is full of rabid right-wing columnists and TV and radio commentators who cater to the views of the powerful and wealthy. Balance is out the window.

To protect themselves from getting into trouble with senior management, or from being criticized by corporate leaders, some columnists and commentators have a new way of censoring themselves.

But I remember when outstanding columnists such as Michele Landsberg of The Toronto Star and George Bain of The Globe and Mail had the right to express their views in any way this wished and provided intelligent insight on important issues.

Now, columnists and TV panelists blather on about irrelevant topics, such as how a politician is perceived by the public, or how a particular strategy worked. They do not express their opinions on important topics, because their true views might conflict with those of the Harper regime and Corporate Canada.

One of the best examples of phony commentary is the CBC National’s much-touted, but irrelevant (except for an audience of a few thousand political insiders) shallow Thursday night At Issue segment. Serious looking people sit around and talk about – as Jerry Seinfeld might say – nothing!

Nick’s Pet Censorship Peeves -
Since this is Freedom to Read Week, I want to address six pet peeves of mine about how corporate-owned mainstream media censors the news and, in effect, lies to us.

First of all, one of the biggest lies mainstream media propagates is that the economy is in bad shape. The media message – repeated almost word-for-word as spoken by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty – is that ordinary people have to suck it up. They repeat the mantra that there is not enough money for programs such as health care, social assistance and even education.

The truth is that mainstream media doesn’t want to tell us that Flaherty, Harper and Big Business have chosen to pretty much starve us out of their prosperous economy. Corporate media, which supports the Harper agenda to the fullest, doesn’t tell us that the reason there’s not enough money for the rest of us is because Flaherty and Harper have chosen to give our money to the rich. As a result, Canadian corporations are sitting on more than $575-billion in 'stagnant capital' they won’t invest in the economy. In addition, compensation to chief executives in Canada's top 10 non-financial firms averaged $11.9 million in 2011.

Mainstream media misleads us to believe that, in most circumstances, the federal government is the most powerful force in the country. The truth is that corporate Canada now both dictates to and leads government in making most major decisions, such as deciding the nature of the federal budget, trade policy, and deficit reduction. The most powerful body in Canada many people never heard of is the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. Journalists only need to track how a handful of key decisions are made, and they could tell us the truth about who really controls our country. This would entirely change our understanding how Canada works.

My biggest pet peeve of all is the fact that Canadian corporate media refuses to acknowledge the existence of neo-liberalism, the disastrous, failed economic system practiced by the Harper regime. While media carry stories about different elements of neo-liberalism – such as the belief that austerity and unfettered markets are good for the country – the whole nut of neo-liberalism as a package is not acknowledged. I believe that the refusal to tell us the details of the economic system that dominates our country is pretty much criminal.

Another point is the way mass media censors the views of some politicians. Liberal and left perspectives are seldom given much credence. Socialist governments in Latin America are demonized. As a result, many Canadians know little about what political alternatives there are to the way Harper and Big Business run the country.

Big Media silences the voices of community leaders and organizations that speak for the majority of Canadians. Labour, environmentalists, feminists, anti-poverty advocates and many other groups are seldom viewed in a positive light. Big Media has even helped turn some Canadians against David Suzuki!

This exclusion of legitimate leaders from non-favored sectors gives the public the false impression that community leaders have no opinions or that they must not be doing their job.

Finally, so-called 'business journalism' is the biggest, dishonest form of all media. The business pages seldom present a balanced picture of non-business interests, such as damage to the environment, the need for a living wage, or the damage and human rights violations caused by Canadian mining companies.  

Business journalism is particularly damaging because it prevents business people from knowing the truth. For instance, when an executive reads that global warming is not caused by human activity, the person feels justified in repeating this big lie. This gives an ignoramus like Kevin O’Leary the license to go on the CBC’s Lang and O’Leary Exchange and say outrageously falsehoods.

How can we start to change the situation? -
Both individuals and organizations can take important action to shine light on the misdeeds of corporate media and, hopefully, in time, develop public interest media that will be balanced and human.

As a start, individuals can cancel their subscriptions to their papers and switch away from the big TV networks. Instead they can follow news on the CBC, which unfortunately is not much better these days than corporate news, the BBC and Al Jazeera.

In addition, people can access huge amounts of uncensored news and opinion on the Internet. Sources of interest include iPolitics, The Tyee, Huffington Post Canada, rabble.ca, StraitGoods News, The Vancouver Observer, The Dominion and others.

People can help build up Internet-based media by contributing financially to their favorite sites. They can provide in-kind gifts and volunteer to help news sites and alternative media.

Concerned community groups can take even stronger action. First of all, the issue of news censorship should be added to the working agenda of Freedom to Read Week, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, PEN Canada, Human Rights Watch, and other groups.

Lastly, several organizations need to come together to conduct research to determine what impact censorship and news manipulation is having on people’s access to diversified information and their ability to understand important issues.

Research can be carried out by Freedom to Read, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, Pen Canada, the Canadian Association of Journalists, the Periodical Writers Association of Canada, Human Rights Watch, and public interest groups such as the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, The Council of Canadians, Democracy Watch, Reclaim Our Democratic Canada, Public Interest Advocacy Centre, Oxfam and others.

Both individuals and organizations can become involved in projects to support existing independent media and create new media outlets that will provide a wide range of news and information. Canadian research could explore the viability of setting up community-controlled, non-profit models. The model used by The Walruscan be considered. Some groups might want to take advantage of a Labour Sponsored Investment Funds (LSIF)  program to help support their project.

P.S. - I’ve been around journalism a long time. My first journalism gig was as a high school contributor to the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, at that time one of the worst dailies in the country. Because my second job was for the Irving Family and my third for Lord Thomson, I like to say that I worked for perhaps the three worst media companies in Canada. Now sort of retired, I volunteer helping journalists in developing countries, and exercise my right to write articles on whatever damn well interests me – something that was not often possible during my time with mainstream media organizations. NF
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  1. The mainstream media has gone beyond censorship into a very dark place. This week a blogger in Nova Scotia named Timothy Gillespie published an article at his website South Coast Today about a corrupt politician in New Orleans with ties to the Trout Point Lodge resort property in Nova Scotia. The owners of this Lodge have taken libel actions against US media and another blogger named Doug Handshoe. They have also named Mr. Gillespie in court filings as a 'co-conspirator', and have threatened repeatedly to take libel actions against him. My jaw dropped when I read that court filings showed reporters with the Chronicle Herald and Toronto Star had given the owners of Trout Point private emails they received from blogger Handshoe. These emails were used as evidence against Handshoe in a damages hearing after he refused to respond to a libel action claim filed in Nova Scotia, he calling this libel tourism. With no defense put up and a default award granted, the Judge proceeded to give the Lodge owners $425,000, the highest damages in Nova Scotia history. Ethics in journalism is not just dead, it is being spat on. Giving money to online news agents like Gillespie and Handshoe is the best way of supporting free speech and a free press.

  2. Nick!
    I enjoy reading your articles as you were gone for a while (don't ever take a break again ;) I'm 31 years old with a Sociology background and I cannot tell you how refreshing it is to read your articles and see/read/learn about a different point of view. Keep them coming and I will keep sharing your articles!
    Anonymous in Edmonton

  3. Nick, it's people like you who give me hope that there are still people who care, see beyond the hype & are willing to take the time to write things as they really are. I have been deeply afraid that the current Government would do exactly what they are doing. I lived in Alberta for many great years, and witnessed, from afar, mind you, the formation of the Alliance & Reform parties, and Stephen Harper in particular. He was scary then and is more so now. Nick, keep up the good work, and I too have missed your writing, good to see you back.

  4. Who Killed Canada
    Media Ownership and the Radical Right in Canada

    Part 1, 2 & 3. Note: each video about 10 minutes long

    No time for video? Read review instead:

    Mr. Hurtig begins by discussing the Canadian media and how we now have the greatest concentration of media in the western world. In fact, he states this would simply not be allowed in any other western democracy.

    And since these same media outlets control newspaper, television and radio news; we are essentially only being given one voice. There are few or no alternative views. As stated in the video, a healthy democracy should foster a healthy and independent news media.


  5. Canada’s indentured press

    Why are Harper’s enablers, some of them sitting on the editorial board of my beloved Globe and Mail, so untroubled by the fact that the PM has his boot on the neck of Canadian democracy?

    Is this what happens when the Report on Business rules the editorial roost?

    Has editorial board policy scaled the newsroom walls on Front Street as the Publisher’s Office once did in the days of Roy Megarry and Norman Webster? Is the Globe’s zeal for a Biznocracy in Canada so keen that it now believes, along with the government, that the end justifies the means?

    With the anniversary of Watergate upon us, it is time for a little soul searching at the Grey Lady. My advice? Send a few marquee columnists into official government service and hire Maher, McGregor, Ditchburn and Naumetz. No doilies behind those heads.


  6. How Rich Elite & Corporate Propaganda Hijacks Democracy

    Do you ever wonder why so many of the Fraser Institute’s right-wing commentaries get into Canadian daily newspapers? Perhaps you’ve been disturbed by the spate of articles about the inevitability of Canada forming closer ties with the United States. Maybe you’re troubled by the constant media attacks on medicare?

    Former SFU communications professor and occasional Straight contributor Donald Gutstein explains how Canadians are being duped by a sophisticated, broad-ranging, and reactionary public-relations assault financed by some of North America’s largest corporations.

    Wealthy Americans such as brewing magnate Joseph Coors and newspaper publisher Richard Mellon Scaife funded several think tanks in the 1970s to spread a libertarian message of deregulation and lower taxes, which countered the consumer revolution led by Ralph Nader.




  7. The Problem With the Media May Not be Lack of Balance

    But what of others, like Angelo Persichilli? I used to enjoy his columns, with the exception of the Quebec bashing, until he started acting weird. Becoming the Liberals' Jack Anderson (2) he turned into a tabloid writer, listening in on private conversations, in an effort to discredit them at every turn. He went from a respected columnist to a peeping tom.

    So should we have been surprised he was given the top job on Harper's communications team? They needed someone without integrity, who would do anything to dig up dirt on Harper's political opponents, and he proved with his latest columns, that he was up for the job. Or I should say down.



  8. Corporate-owned media manipulation threatens Canadian democracy

    How is it possible that the real nitty-gritty behind the most important issue facing millions of people is pretty much taboo in the popular media? What has happened to our right to have access to fair and balanced journalism?

    Denying the public access to vital information has a strong negative impact on the democratic process in Canada, just as it does in any country in the world.

    Unfortunately, nearly all of Canada’s mainstream political and economic journalists are forbidden from focusing on the fundamental flaws in our system.


  9. Tom Kent almost saved Canada’s democracy in 1981

    The Royal Commission on Newspapers, which began its work in 1981 under Kent's chairmanship, was created in response to the moves by powerful corporate special interests to dominate and control the flow of news essential to our democracy through the concentration of media ownership.

    "Where we are is, in the Commission's opinion, entirely unacceptable for a democratic society," the final report of the Royal Commission stated in July 1981. "Too much power is in too few hands; and it is power without accountability. Whether the power is in practice well used or ill used or not used at all is beside the point. The point is that how it is used is subject to the indifference or to the whim of a few individuals, whether hidden or not in a faceless corporation."


  10. Gang of Seven

    Canadian news coverage and commentary is more conservative than it was five years ago, and just as concentrated, as the Harper government ignored every recommendation the committee made.

    Canadian news reporting and commentary is controlled today by a handful of wealthy families and corporations. Let’s call them the Gang of Seven.


    That leaves Canada’s commercial news media in the hands of a Gang of Seven: the billion-dollar corporations that control what Canadians read, watch and hear about the world’s daily happenings. Many of the chief executives are members of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, promoting its agenda of business-friendly policies.

  11. reposted from Thomas Dowswell: I can assure you when I was in news at some stations I HAD to push PC; play all but PC spots at half volume, use negative intonation on all but PC news, was told to read FALSE polls on air, more tricks let me tell you.

    So forget the media as they must push PC or lose advertising $$, but we can win with the Internet and Facebook and one on one and get the truth out. The media will / can not help.

    We must be kind to Harper or lose our jobs, advertisers are huge fans of tax cuts, cheap labor, ect., and if a station pushes anything other then Harper, advertising dollars go south. I was forced to read false polls, use negative intonation, play all but PC spots at half volume.

    The answer for voters is the Internet , we can and must use it to get the message out. Can’t blame the media when they get threats of revenue loss.

    I know for sure some radio news and on air staff get a scolding if they help anyone but PC as the station would loss CORPORATE advertising dollars. Been there done that , did not want to do it.

    Spin Doctors WANT division, have plants insuring division, even get folks to join the other party's to help elect a poor leader, or one easy to vilify. Some how we have to find a way to work around the "hard headed" attitude that is put there "on purpose."

    This is how Harper rose to power. Remember in the French debate in one of the last elections, the translators' voices were different for each candidate. The voice chosen for Harper was velvet-voiced Urgen Wurtz (sp?). I knew then, how sneaky this guy was. The other voices were kind of average sounding in my opinion. I always remembered that, for what its worth.

    Another tactic I have heard is placing progressive-toned articles and commentators next to the comics in newspapers. It's a subtle psychological move that most people (well, practically every reader) will never catch unless it is brought to their attention, and repeatedly.

  12. You no longer have reporters, you have repeaters.


    The new game began in Canada on Aug. 27, 1980. “Black Wednesday”, as it became known, was the day newspaper corporations across the country colluded to swap properties and kill competition. The Ottawa Journal and the Winnipeg Tribune folded, and Vancouver Province's owner, Southam, bought the Vancouver Sun. The two had been in bed together since 1950s via a press-and-profit-sharing agreement at Pacific Press that killed the third paper and defended against upstarts.

    Suddenly competition for readers was no longer necessary; these publicly traded corporations now focused on advertiser-pleasing copy as the technique for pulling more ads.

    At least Postmedia has an understandable reason for changing standards: they're legally obligated to maximize profits. But the fact that the commercial-free public broadcaster also ignores the public good suggests that there is a new definition of journalism.

  13. I am in Ukraine where press freedom is an ongoing subject of debate. Here is a comment offered by one reader of the Kyiv Post.
    What may be the catch, though, is the means of display. While "a majority may not read through a full written article (lets face it, 50% of people get the head-lines and the first paragraph, and that's it), the illustrations are something almost everyone can look at and grasp what message is being conveyed quickly--

    and as Boss Tweed said about Thomas Nast's cartoons: "I don't care what the papers write about me. My constituents can't read. But, damn it, they can see the pictures." (and while a majority of Ukrainians can read, pictures are more eye-catching).

  14. This from a journalist who wishes to remain anonymous . . . .

    I do find it interesting that you are so effusive in your praise for the alternative media such as Vancouver Observer, the Tyee, Huffington Post and probably others that don't pay their writers. As bad as you make corporate media out to be, at least they pay living wages.

    I am among the fortunate few who have a great degree of freedom at my newspaper. And while I share a concern that it's usually people who toe the corporate line who get promoted, I am equally concerned at the ever-rising (and perhaps understandable) level of self-censorship among our colleagues.

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