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Concentrate on media ownership: It's still an issue, Robert Hackett

Biotech Bravado, Donald Gutstein and Scott Uzelman

What They Believe, Apparently, Scott Uzelman and Donald Gutstein

Concentrate on media ownership: It's still an issue

Robert Hackett
March 2001

Canada's biggest-ever media merger, the sale of many of Conrad Black's newspaper and Internet properties to Izzy Asper's CanWest, is a done deal. The federal Liberal government was happy to see Black pack his bags, and Ottawa's more or less toothless broadcasting and competition watchdogs have more or less rubber-stamped it.

The NDP has even less reason than the federal Liberals to lament the departure of His Blackness as Canada's foremost press baron. His Unite the Right, Cut the (Millionaires') Taxes agenda has already influenced Canadian politics. The Canadian Alliance would not likely be where it is today without the ongoing free advertising it has received in the news pages of Hollinger dailies.

A study last summer by NewsWatch Canada and the Canadian Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (CPBF) supports what even Political Science 101 drop-outs can figure out: Vancouver's two main dailies (then-owned by Black's Hollinger Inc.) moved to the right under Black's stewardship. The survey of the main opinion-editorial pages found that in the Province, 14 of the 22 articles during the three-week monitoring period were from right-of-centre writers, and eight were middle-of-the-road or non-political. None at all presented a progressive perspective.

Even at the more "serious" Vancouver Sun, right-wing articles outnumbered their left-of-centre counterparts more than two-to-one. Perhaps more significantly, 85% of right-of-centre columns concerned political and public policy issues, while left-of-centre writers were given access mainly on "softer" topics, such as the environment, religion, literature and philosophy. To cap it off, no left-wing writer appeared more than twice, while some right-wing writers had a soap-box nine or more times. Progressive commentary in B.C.'s largest daily derives mainly from irregular freelance contributors, when it appears at all.

So it's not surprising that many on the Left, and not a few journalists, were relieved that Black, David Radler and other Hollinger honchos, with their own right-wing standards of political correctness, would no longer be peering over editors' shoulders.

But if the Left thinks that Canadian politics will now be a more level playing field, and that the issue of media power can now be safely returned to the back burner, I have some advice: Think again.

First, Black has far from vanished. With a 15 percent equity share, Hollinger is the second- largest bloc in the CanWest multi-media empire. Hollinger will continue to manage the dailies it is selling for 17 months (five years, in the case of the National Post), well into the Chretien government's new mandate.

Even if Black were to abandon the media, Canada's press would continue to be owned by members of the corporate elite and funded mainly by advertising. If anything, basic biases hostile to progressive, democratic values (biases favouring the ethos of private consumption over environmentalism or public goods, for instance, or the political sensibilities of affluent consumers over the less well-heeled) will be intensified in the increasingly commercialized, corporate-colonized Internet environment.

We should stop psychoanalyzing media moguls and instead think about the structural implications of multimedia convergence and monopoly. These media mega-mergers have an economic logic, well explained in the business pages: They are all about cross-promotional synergies, cost efficiencies, value-added "re-purposed" content, new revenue streams, integrated production and distribution, and multimedia promotional packages. We can anticipate more of the same.

The business pages offer much less insight into democratic journalism in the new corporate environment. Izzy Asper's assurances, that his new media empire will reflect a diversity of views, may be perfectly sincere. Nevertheless, mergers can hardly avoid reducing diversity in the agenda-setting media.

Consider. CanWest will likely end up owning both local dailies and two TV stations reaching Vancouver audiences, including the market-leading BCTV. If journalists have to file the same story in different formats for these stations, or if there are cost-cutting layoffs, how does that promote diversity? How can journalists be expected to cover "without fear or favour" the dealings of other parts of the same corporate empire? If there's a strike at BCTV, for example, can newspaper editors under the same corporate umbrella ensure fair coverage of the union side -- especially if they know that if they fall afoul of their new multimedia mega-employer, there are few other places to work?

Conversely, can journalists adequately cover local arts and culture when they are being told to promote an entertainment extravaganza co-sponsored by the parent corporation?

These are not hypothetical concerns. There's already evidence from American multimedia mergers that organizational self-censorship and self-promotion are very real consequences.

And even with the most benevolent of moguls, concentration of the dominant media can be cashed in for political influence whenever the stakes are high enough. The abuse of power is a permanent temptation. Media baron Rupert Murdoch's ability to persuade British Labour leader Tony Blair to abandon his party's prior commitment to media reform is just one example of how such power has in fact been used.

Perhaps the greatest risk, though, is the sharp erosion of public interest-oriented journalism in general. At Global TV, Asper was more committed to reaping profits through Hollywood imports than to investing in quality journalism or Canadian content. More generally, when news media are part of multimedia conglomerates driven by shareholders looking for short-term profits rather than quality journalism, the result is further blurring of the lines between news, entertainment and promotion. Spectacle replaces civic debate. The space for voices advocating progressive political change shrivels, at the same time as public broadcasting, the main counterbalance to media corporatization and commercialism, is being whittled away.

A democratic media system requires public support both for alternative media, and for government policies to protect the right to communicate for citizens who can't afford their own billion-dollar media empire. Fortunately, there are signs of growing activism. Launched in 1996 as a common front against media concentration, the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom has been gaining new life; there are now chapters in Vancouver and Toronto. (Visit www.presscampaign.org There's still time to sign up before the media giants turn the Internet into a gargantuan shopping mall.

Robert Hackett is co-director of NewsWatch Canada, and co-author of The Missing News: Filters and Blind Spots in Canada's Press.

Biotech Bravado

Donald Gutstein and Scott Uzelman
March 2001

Issues surrounding government approval of genetically modified foods are rapidly rising to the top of the political agenda, yet Canadians do not know enough about this controversial subject to contribute to the debate. A poll commissioned by the Canadian government and published in January 2000 found that only five percent of Canadians said they were "very familiar" with biotechnology and only two percent said they were "very familiar" with the regulatory system for food.

A NewsWatch Canada study found that the commercial press is doing a poor job of informing Canadians about genetically modified (GM) foods. The study compared coverage of GM foods in three newspapers -- the National Post, The Globe and Mail, and the Toronto Star, in 1999.

Looking first at Conrad Black's pride and joy, the National Post, in 1999, this paper:

  • Provided hardly any coverage of biotechnology
  • Placed most of its biotech reporting in the Business section
  • Did not report once on the ethical implications of biotechnology (neither did the Globe and Mail)
  • Did not report once on protests or actions against biotech developments
  • Was unlikely to use advocacy groups such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club as sources.

Overall, biotechnology received little coverage in any of the papers: 49 stories each in The Globe and Mail and Toronto Star, and 41 in the National Post. Given that the Post published 80,000 articles that year and that biotechnology accounted for about one- fiftieth of one percent, it's little wonder people are unfamiliar with biotechnology.

In both the National Post and the Toronto Star, over 50 percent of GM stories were located in the Business section, suggesting that for these papers, the issues surrounding GM foods were of concern primarily to investors and the business community. Only 20 percent of the Post's stories were situated in the News section, compared to 60 percent of Globe stories.

In 1999, then, a year when important developments such as debates over regulation and mandatory labelling were occurring, the National Post provided its readers with nine news stories on the issue. In contrast, the Post used the phrase "brain drain" in 280 articles the same year, even though a brain drain was not occurring.

We next investigated sources, the people and organizations quoted, mentioned or referred to in biotechnology stories. Sources have a tremendous effect on news content because journalists cannot report what they donıt know ­ they must consult people who saw or participated in an event, or who are knowledgeable about an issue.

The most striking difference among the papers was their sourcing of advocacy groups such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, which are likely to be critical of biotech developments. They accounted for a quarter of all sources cited the Star and Globe, but in the Post critical voices were accessed just nine times in 1999. (See Table)

Instead of critical voices, the Post relied more heavily on academic and scientific sources that the other two papers. Given that scientists and academics, as the discoverers and promoters of genetic modifications are more likely to be supportive of such developments, our findings suggest that the National Post provided a biased and distorted view of GM foods, while the Globe and Mail provided more balanced coverage, and the Toronto Star was somewhere between biased and balanced.

Table: Whose voice is heard? Sources in the National Post, The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star, biotechnology stories, 1999

 National PostThe Globe and MailToronto Star

We also looked at editorial offerings on GM foods. As biased as it was, the National Post's news reporting was a model of balance and sanity compared to its editorial and opinion offerings, which were so distorted and misleading as to take your breath away.

The Post provided 29 opinion pieces -- editorials, columns and guest pieces. This is a large number, given that the Post published only 41 news and business stories during the year. In contrast, the Globe had nine opinion pieces and the Star six. The Post told its readers little about what was actually occurring in the world of biotechnology, but a great deal about the Post's view of what was occurring, the hallmarks of propaganda. The Post rarely quoted a Greenpeace spokesperson in its news or business sections, but took every opportunity to attack Greenpeace on its editorial pages.

Of the Post's 29 opinion pieces, two were negative, three were neutral, and 24 were positive. One negative piece was written by a coalition of scientists presenting arguments against biotechnology, but this was rebutted immediately in an adjacent article by another coalition of scientists praising biotech foods. The second negative piece was not actually an article but a news release from the Sierra Youth Coalition outlining its strategies for a campaign against biotech. It was negated by its headline, "Sierra's Halloween food scare."

Four of the 24 pro-GM pieces were written by neocon Business editor Terence Corcoran, three for his ³Junk Science Week.² This series of articles dealt with scientific controversies Corcoran claimed were the result of shoddy methods and Œpolitically drivenı research.

Douglas Powell, a professor in the department of Agriculture in the University of Guelph, and a tiresome defender of anything genetically modified, contributed another four articles in favour of biotech. Other authors included scientists from other universities, biotech executives and so-called scholars from free-market think tanks such as the far- right Hudson Institute.

The list of pejorative terms provided by the Post for opponents of biotechnology is a long one. They were variously "biotech-bashers," "bullies," "Future Fascisti" (27 Dec 99 A16), "infantile" (14 July 99 C7), "anti-science" (5 May 99 C7), "alarmist" (4 May 99 C7), living in an "apocalyptic and imaginary world" (6 Oct 99 A19), "and scare mongers" (16 Sept 99 C7), among others.

The Post portrayed opposition to genetically engineered foods as a political issue, the product of sectarian and economic interests. Governments, especially European ones, the Post claimed without evidence, were using the issue to mask a clever strategy to erect barriers to international trade. And grassroots movements were nothing more than backward and irrational fear mongers, the product of Luddism and outdated ideologies.

Whew! And that was just 1999. Meanwhile, in 2000 the Post ramped up its propaganda campaign against biotech critics.

Donald Gutstein is co-director of NewsWatch Canada and author of e.con: How the Internet Undermines Democracy. Scott Uzelman is a graduate student in the School of Communication, SFU.

What They Believe, Apparently

Scott Uzelman and Donald Gutstein
March 2001

And on the subject of editorial opinion, NewsWatch also undertook a study of editorials and opinion pieces in the National Post, The Globe and Mail and Toronto Star, for the period October 1998 to June 1999.

A Fall 1998 CBC-Maclean's poll ranked the top ten concerns of Canadians. NewsWatch researchers then tabulated occurrences of these concerns in the op-ed pages of the three papers. The results illustrate a large discrepancy between what Canadians and editorialists think is important. (See Table)

Table. Top Ten Concerns of Canadians and Three Newspapers, 1998-1999.

Canadians National Post Globe & Mail Toronto Star
1. Unemployment 1. Crime/Violence 1. Economy 1. Crime/Violence
2. Government Spending/Deficit 2. Taxes 2. Crime/Violence 2. Education
3. Economy 3. Education 3. Taxes 3. Taxes
4. Health Care 4. Economy 4. Education 4. Welfare/Poverty
5. National Unity 5. Health Care 5. Health Care 5. Economy
6. Taxes 6. Welfare/Poverty 6. Welfare/Poverty 6. Health Care
7. Welfare/Poverty 7. Environment 7. Government Spending/Deficit 7. Environment
8. Education 8. Unemployment 8. Unemployment 8. Unemployment
9. Crime/Violence 9. Government Spending/Deficit 9. Environment 9. Government Spending/Deficit
10. Environment 10 National Unity 10. National Unity 10. National Unity

Canadians ranked unemployment as their most pressing concern, but it received scant attention in the papers, ranking eighth in all three. For the media, crime and violence was of the greatest urgency (number one in the National Post and Toronto Star, no. 2 in the Globe). Meanwhile, crime and violence was the top priority of only a tiny percentage of poll respondents.

Such a comparison yields only the broadest overview of editorial priorities but we can safely conclude that editorialists inhabit a different world than most Canadians. To narrow down the papers' editorial views, we selected three issues, unemployment, health care and taxes, for more detailed analysis. Only one -- health care -- is reported here. (The other discussions will be posted on our Web site, newswatch.cprost.sfu.ca)

As well as frequency of mention, we were interested in the papers' ideological positions. We used policy prescriptions (what needs to be done to fix the problem) offered in publications (print and on-line) of the right-wing Fraser Institute and the left-wing Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, to provide benchmarks for analysis.

Health Care

Right-wing positions on health care call for privatization of part or all of the public system, which is inefficient and unproductive. The public system is a drain on taxpayer dollars. Left-wing positions say that the problems have been exaggerated and the ones that do exist stem from cuts in federal transfer payments. The public system should be expanded to include prescription drugs and homecare. Privatization would result in a two-tiered system that favours the wealthy and is more costly.

Our main finding is that right-wing opinion dominated the Post (seven of ten articles) and the Globe (14 of 23), while left-wing opinion was featured more prominently in the Star (13 of 23). Editorial priorities are reflected in the volume of articles the papers published on this issue: the Post published less than half as many as the Globe and the Star.

An editorial in the May 11, 1999 edition said this:

"[t]he option of private funding for health services, an end to global funding for hospitals, the creation of internal markets to allow hospitals to compete for patients, the creation of medical savings accounts or tax credits to allow Canadians to save for health expenses. All these ideas deserve a well-mannered and thorough debate." (A19)

Privatizing health care was characteristic of most National Post discussion. It also is essentially a summary of Fraser Institute policies on health care.

Only two left-wing items provided any balance to calls for privatization. One, written by Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow, called for the Liberal government to restore health transfers to the provinces and to resist the call for tax cuts (4 Feb 99 A18). However, this article was directly rebutted in an editorial four days later that labeled her an "Šardent supporter of the status quoŠ" who apparently "Šconfuses equity with simple envy." (8 Feb 99 A19).

In the Globe too, the publicly funded health care system was routinely portrayed as embroiled in continual crisis and just as often privatization was prescribed as the cure. And again, social spending on health care was often portrayed as a threat to the much talked about tax cut. See "The ravenous beast of health care" (17 June 99 A20) or "The elephant is hungry" (18 Nov 98 A26), for example. These items were just two of several written by Globe columnist Jeffery Simpson who, although not as strident in his attacks as the Post, made it clear that publicly funded health care was unworkable and a threat to taxpayers.

The Toronto Star provided a vastly different perspective. Often, Star op/eds called for the restoration of funding cuts to preserve not only the system but its universality (6 Jan 99 A17). Privatization was often criticized for the inequities it would introduce (8 Dec 98 A16). Pieces titled "The human face of government cutbacks" and "The cruel cost of health-care cutbacks" were indicative of the Star's views. (29 Mar 99 A15 and 18 Mar 99 A21).

As Canada's national papers, The Globe and Mail and the National Post are agenda setters. They do not tell Canadianıs what to think, but often, what to think about. With the range of opinions on their op/ed pages restricted to right-wing voices, at least in the area of health care, they undermine basic principles of democratic society.

Donald Gutstein is co-director of NewsWatch Canada and author of e.con: How the Internet Undermines Democracy. Scott Uzelman is a graduate student in the School of Communication, SFU.

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