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Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

Asper’s legacy of media control lives on in HonestReporting Canada

The billionaire-funded organization was founded to “control the narrative” on Israel

Middle EastMedia Canadian Business

Israel “Izzy” Asper and his son Leonard Asper in the early-2000s. Photo courtesy La Presse.

One of the benefits of teaching overseas, as I was forced to do for most of my 20-year career in higher education because I am a bit too critical of Canadian media for most journalism schools in this country, is that it helps to broaden your perspective. My first teaching appointment was in Singapore, which is basically a police state but provided an interesting multicultural experience, especially since I started there just before 9/11, when the whole world changed for the worse. About three quarters of my students were ethnic Chinese, with a minority of Indigenous Malay, most of whom were Muslims. One of my best students, a Muslim woman named Nurhaslina, berated me one day in class, complaining that “the media in Canada is controlled by Jews.” I told her I didn’t think that was true, but I began to look into it.

Sure enough, much of our news media had recently been taken over by the Asper family of Winnipeg whose patriarch Israel “Izzy” Asper was an outspoken secular Jew I had met once in my previous career as a newspaper reporter in Vancouver. Thus began a line of research that resulted in my 2007 book Asper Nation: Canada’s Most Dangerous Media Company (here’s a free copy). Asper was a tax lawyer and newspaper columnist who was once leader of the Liberal Party in Manitoba but could never gain office, perhaps due to his proposed “flat tax,” which would have applied to the rich at the same rate as the poor. Instead he used his Liberal Party connections to help build Global Television into a national network and a cash machine which made so much money from cheap Hollywood reruns that it became known as the “Love Boat Network.” Asper used the proceeds to buy the Southam newspaper chain from Conrad Black for $3.2 billion at the millennium and proceeded to remake its editorial content to his liking.

Asper often complained before his death in 2003 that Canadian media were biased against Israel, railing especially against coverage of the then-raging Middle East conflict by the CBC, which he also complained was unfair government-funded competition for Global. After a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 15 at a Jerusalem pizzeria in 2001, Asper ordered his newly-acquired newspapers to run an editorial arguing that Canada should back Israel’s response, no matter how harsh. “Howsoever the Israeli government chooses to respond to this barbaric atrocity should have the unequivocal support of the Canadian government without the usual hand-wringing criticism about ‘excessive force.’” Not only were Southam dailies across Canada ordered to carry the editorial, but the Columbia Journalism Review reported that it came with a “no-rebuttal order” from Canwest head office. “Papers in the Southam chain were told to carry neither columns nor letters to the editor taking issue with that editorial.” The uproar resounded across Canada, especially in Montréal, where Southam journalists went on byline strike and formed a resistance group they called the “Gazette Intifada.”

I recalled this after reading Davide Mastracci’s remarkable two-part exposé in The Maple of HonestReporting Canada, which Asper was a driving force behind. HRC was established in 2003 as an offshoot of the New York-based group HonestReporting and describes itself as “an independent grass-roots organization promoting fairness and accuracy in Canadian media coverage of Israel and the Middle East.” Mastracci’s report shows how it is instead backed by wealthy Canadian Jewish organizations in an attempt to “control the narrative” on Israel in our media. Several of its current and former staff members, he notes, worked for the Israeli government prior to joining HRC. Central to its professional operation is its “How to Monitor the Media” guide and letter writing by its 60,000 subscribers, who pounce on any perceived bias against Israel in the media. With hostilities having flared up again recently, Israel’s “digital army” has been busier than ever. “In December 2023, HRC boasted of having ‘mobilized Canadians to send 50,000 letters to news outlets’ in just the prior few weeks,” notes Mastracci.

The result has been a different kind of war being played out in our news media, as HRC challenges media reports only to often be challenged in turn by progressive organizations such as Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East and Independent Jewish Voices Canada. The role played by HRC and other pro-Israel groups seems to be a matter of hot dispute even among Canadian Jews. Not all Israelis or diaspora Jews, of course, are in favour of the hardline tactics taken against the Palestinians by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, especially during the recent invasion of Gaza. The more moderate Independent Jewish Voices Canada has staked out the opposite end of the political spectrum and has notably even managed to get blatantly pro-Israel propaganda removed.

One of the more disturbing aspects of Mastracci’s report is HRC’s involvement in a “Canadian Campus Media Program,” which offers students $1,000 to attend workshops, monitor campus media and respond to “problematic” coverage by submitting opinion pieces designed to “steer the conversation about Israel.” This smacks of an Asper initiative to funnel donations into higher education, which were actually so-called “public benefits” payments required in exchange for his broadcasting takeovers. Canwest donated $500,000 to UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2001 to fund a visiting professor program that operates to this day despite Canwest’s 2009 bankruptcy, as does one at Western University.

Media bias is actually more a matter of perception than reality, as research has shown. The well-documented “hostile media effect” was amply demonstrated by a 1982 Stanford study which ironically surveyed pro-Israeli and pro-Arab audiences for their reaction to news reports on the 1982 massacre of Palestinians in Lebanese refugee camps. Like fans at a sporting match convinced that the referee is against them, each side found the stories biased in favour of the other. The kind of media monitoring work done by HRC and others basically attempts to work the refs in favour of their side. Most journalists, as mentioned in a column last month, tend to be more liberal than average due to demographic factors such age, income, education and urbanism, thus they could be expected to sympathize with the plight of the Palestinians. Media owners, on the other hand, tend to be more conservative and notably have the final say, as Asper demonstrated two decades ago. The fact that ownership has the ultimate control was demonstrated recently by a Guardian report about CNN staff charging that network management is biased in favour of Israel.

Much of our US hedge fund-owned right-wing news media enthusiastically bash Palestinian sympathizers, and such publications now vastly out-number our few remaining liberal media outlets, which are constantly harassed by groups like HRC. Izzy Asper would be proud.

Marc Edge is a journalism researcher and author who lives in Ladysmith, BC. His books and articles can be found online at www.marcedge.com.

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