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Fraser Institute continues its distorting ways, Donald Gutsetin

"Free" markets versus democratic media, Bob Hackett and David Robinson

Conrad Black's views on concentration changed as his empire grew , Maude Barlow and James Winter


Fraser Institute continues its distorting ways

by Donald Gutstein

Last August, NewsWatch Canada explained how the Fraser institute slanted its news-monitoring studies (Kathleen Cross, NewsWatch Monitor, Vol. 1. No. 1, Summer, 1997). It seems that little has changed with the news media's think-tank of choice.

The January, 1998 issue of 'On Balance,' the Fraser Institute's media-monitoring operation, claims that "Liberals dominate national TV news, Reform presence declines."

The study was a tally of "soundbites" - an MP speaking some words on camera would be one soundbite -- on national television news during the 60 days before the start of the spring federal election on June 2, 1997 (pre-election period), and during the 60 days after the House resumed sitting. (The phrase 'resume sitting' is actually incorrect. An election creates a new Parliament, which 'commences sitting.') On Balance's main finding was that Liberal MP soundbites accounted for 54 per cent of CBC's and 49 per cent of CTV's MP soundbites in the pre-election period. After the election, Liberal MP soundbites increased to 61 per cent of CBC and 60 per cent of CTV soundbites.

"The most obvious result" of the election, says On Balance, "was that the Reform Party replaced the Bloc Quebecois as Official Opposition. Yet on CBC, Reform MPs' soundbites have actually decreased." On Balance notes that Reform MP soundbites on CBC went down by 3.4 percentage points while the party increased its representation by ten seats.

By using percentage points rather than simple percentages, On Balance hides more than it reveals.

Reform soundbites actually decreased by 15 per cent. More interesting are the results of other parties, which were buried in the On Balance report. NDP soundbites on CBC went down by 31.9 per cent, and Bloc Quebecois soundbites decreased by 34.1 per cent. Only the Tories bucked the trend in opposition parties: its soundbites increased by 26.1 per cent.

Let's back way from these results for a moment. From a researcher's point of view, the study design is suspect. On Balance measured only the number of soundbites. But what about the length of the soundbite? What about its placement in the story? If Preston Manning gets 30 seconds and Alexa McDonough gets five seconds, they are recorded as one soundbite each. And what about the framing? How are the politicians portrayed? Is the camera angle favourable or harsh? How is the scene lit? What do the anchor or reporter say about the MP? Are comments positive or negative? These questions are just as important as the mere number of soundbites, yet they are excluded from the report.

And what's the big deal anyway? On Balance's results, as incomplete and misleading as they are, tell us something most people probably know. At the end of a government's mandate, voters want to know about the alternatives, so all parties are accessed. But once an election campaign is over and a new government elected, voters want to know about the government's plans. So it's not surprising that most parties' soundbites went down while the Liberals went up. The opposition doesn't become important again until the government introduces budgets and legislation and opposition parties can do their job and oppose.

On Balance did come up with one startling finding but this was not mentioned until the end of the report: The Bloc Quebecois was completely shut out on CTV in the two-month period following the start of the new session of Parliament -- not one soundbite for the Bloc. Even though all opposition leaders had a lot to say about the Liberal throne speech, Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe was the only one not quoted on CTV. This pattern continued over the two-month period. It is a shocking indictment of Canada's private network, yet the Fraser Institute preferred to focus on the alleged sins of the public network.

In summary, On Balance was selective in what it chose to emphasize. A headline that more accurately reflected the On Balance findings would have gone something like this: "NDP and Bloc presence plummets, Reform slips, as Liberals rise and Tories soar."


"Free" markets versus democratic media

by Bob Hackett & David Robinson

Parallel to the official APEC meetings in Vancouver in November 1997, a People's Summit of non-governmental and labour organizations met to discuss alternative visions. One of its highlights, on November 19, was a symposium entitled Open Markets, Open Media?

The symposium asked if trade liberalization would necessarily promote media independence and diversity -- building blocks of democratic government -- within APEC's members, many of them authoritarian regimes.

Free market advocates say yes. They argue that a private sector advertising-based global media system undermines State censorship and ensures media responsiveness to audience tastes. Through their viewing and buying decisions, consumers are sovereign: they alone determine the nature of media products.

There is some limited validity to this argument. But when it is not counterbalanced by other important principles, the market itself can promote homogenization rather than diversity, and centralization of power and wealth rather than democracy.

James Curran, a leading British media scholar, offers many reasons for questioning the "consumer sovereignty" argument.

Even the much-touted Internet is unlikely to provide a reliable source of alternative information for most people. It too is becoming commercialized and influenced by a few big players. Recent actions by Microsoft, including a $1-billion investment in cable company Comcast, the purchase of WebTV, and partnerships with NBC suggest Microsoft plans to be the Internet's sole toll collector and content provider of the future.

If democracy's logic is one person, one vote, the market's logic is one dollar, one vote. Small wonder that the highly commercialized American news media have time and again failed to act as watchdogs on economic as well as political power. Since 1976, Project Censored has been identifying jaw-dropping stories largely missed by the US press. Its 1996 list includes Shell Oil's complicity in Nigeria's brutal internal repression, the public relations industry's secret war on activists, and the Justice Department's costly indifference to white-collar crime.

Partly because of a stronger tradition of public broadcasting, Canada's media are more diverse. Still, here too, the press has been more consistently and aggressively pro-"free market" than the public at large. Editorially, the press overwhelmingly endorsed Canada-US free trade in 1988, while the majority of Canadians voted against it. The press, more than opinion polls, has emphasized government debt over unemployment as the most important policy issue.

Democratic alternatives won't emerge through the market alone. A public policy framework is required to promote a more pluralistic media mix, and minimize the worst dangers of corporate concentration.

This is not pie in the sky. Many useful policies are already in place -- unfortunately, not in Canada, but in the liberal democracies of Western Europe.

In Britain, for instance, television broadcasters are limited to 15 per cent of the national audience. Sweden has a long-standing press subsidy scheme, providing public financing for a broad range of newspapers, which are not supported by private corporate advertisers. Germany's tough anti-trust legislation prevents any one individual or corporation from forming a media monopoly in any market. Since 1881, the readers of France's press have enjoyed a right of reply to inaccurate or misleading information -- in Canada, this "privilege" is left solely to the discretion of editors.

The danger is that just as the media are becoming more commercialized and concentrated in fewer hands, trade and investment deals like APEC will make similar policies in Canada more difficult to implement. In one recent case, the World Trade Organization, an unelected body meeting behind closed doors, struck down Canadian tax policies and postal subsidies intended to protect our domestic magazine industry. If Canadian titles succumb to American magazines with a huge continental market base, diversity will inevitably be lost.

Trade liberalization and the globalization of commercial media won't automatically encourage free expression and diversity. What is needed after the APEC leaders go home is the political will to address tensions between democratic and commercial values.

*** Bob Hackett is a communication professor at Simon Fraser University and co-director of NewsWatch Canada. David Robinson is research co-ordinator with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, BC. A version of this article was published in the Vancouver Sun, Nov. 18, 1997, under the title "A healthy press in the free market society."


Conrad Black's views on concentration changed as his empire grew

by Maude Barlow & James Winter

Media baron Conrad Black, who recently announced he will add a national, Toronto-based daily to the 60-plus dailies he now owns across the country, had very different views on concentration of ownership in the news media when he owned just one paper.

In our new book on Black and his wife Barbara Amiel Black, we describe how Black, then the owner of the Sherbrooke Record, lashed out at the media "colossus" owned by Paul Desmarais of Power Corporation.

"Further consolidation" toward monopolistic situations "is reprehensible," and "monopolies are undesirable," Black wrote in a submission to the Special Senate Committee on Mass Media chaired by Keith Davey in 1969. "Diversity of opinion and aggressive newsgathering tend to disappear with the disappearance of competition, and public opinion could thereby become more of a hostage to private interests than a master to public policy."

As an independent newspaper owner surrounded by and dependent on Power Corp. to print his newspaper, Black felt well placed to comment on the topic of media concentration. "We accordingly have a useful vantage point from which to assess the effects of the high concentration of ownership which now characterizes the printed media in Quebec," Black wrote. He went on to argue that where chains exist, there should be local editorial initiative and control. "In the best of circumstances, [newspaper] chains are public companies, generally confined to one medium, spread over a wide geographic area, and strongly committed to the concept of local editorial motivation and control." Even under the best of circumstances, Black said, chains tend to restrict the diversity of opinion by sharing correspondents and centralizing administration. "Even in such instances as these, there is a tendency to combine feature services, such as parliamentary correspondents, and to centralize administration, necessarily reducing the diversity and particularism of press opinion."

Black centred out Power Corp. for criticism over the extent of its control and the fact that it could offer package deals to advertisers that he could not compete with. Black said, "apart from four daily newspapers, each the largest in its area, and one radio station which operates in our circulation area," Power Corp. also "controls a large number of weekend and weekly newspapers with a combined circulation that approaches one million, all in the province of Quebec...There has also been a heavy concentration of newspaper production [sic] and editorial facilities; and package deals have been offered to advertisers that could not be matched by independent publishers."

(Black's national Toronto-based daily has been touted as providing for him a much-needed Toronto link for national advertisers).

Black criticized the Power Corp. "colossus" specifically, but also the general development of such monopolistic chains. "The situation that has been created is uncompetitive and in some areas monopolistic. Our relationship with this media colossus, on whose good will our very survival to some extent depends, has not been very satisfactory, and we consider the existence of such a group to be a bad augury for the future of an independent press in Quebec." Black argued that the development of such huge chains is not inevitable. Although businesses might naturally tend toward such concentration, it is something to be resisted. "The present degree of concentration in the ownership of the Canadian media was not inevitable and reflects only the natural but not irresistible tendency of business to concentrate," he wrote.

In response to Black's submission to the Davey Committee, Power Corp. cancelled its printing contract. Black claimed at the time that he was forced to print the Sherbrooke Record in Vermont.

At the Hollinger annual meeting in May 1996 Black denied that corporate concentration of newspaper ownership is limiting expression in Canada. "Go to a hotel and turn on your TV set and you get sixty channels courtesy of Ted Rogers. What are [the critics] talking about?" Black now wondered. "I don't think there's been much criticism [of Hollinger's corporate concentration]. There's the predictable people from schools of journalism that they dredge out on these occasions and a few union leaders."

We refute Black's claims by pointing out the high cost and redundancy of information on cable and the Internet. The Internet holds tremendous potential as an alternative resource, we argue. But as it now stands, there are serious limitations. Only about 7.5 percent of Canadian homes currently have access; many of the news and information sites are even briefer rehashes of the news from the mainstream providers; and searching out alternative information requires more time than most people have.

*** From The Big Black Book: The Essential Views of Conrad and Barbara Amiel Black, by Maude Barlow and James Winter. Published by Stoddart Publishing Co. Ltd., 34 Lesmill Rd., Toronto Ont. M3B 2T6. Telephone 416-445-3333. Toll Free (Ont. & Que.)1-800-387-0141 (Other prov.) 1-800-387-0172 (U.S.) 1-800-805-1083. Canadian Fax 416-445-5967. Email: Customer.Service@ccmailgw.genpub.com It retails for $18.95 CDN. Web Site: http://www.genpub.com/stoddart/index.html

Maude Barlow is the voluntary chairperson of the 100,000-member Council of Canadians, and the author of four best-selling books. James Winter, Ph.D., is one of Canada's most knowledgeable media critics, a professor of communications at the University of Windsor, and the author of four books.

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